East Side Magic
by Scott Sparrow
An article that appeared in the winter 2012 issue of Tide Magazine.
My client Dave Cole had never flyfished for redfish on the Lower Laguna Madre, and had come down from north Texas to see what it was all about. After catching his first two reds from tailing pods in a west-side lagoon, I suggested that we go elsewhere. He must have been a bit worried that we were committing the fundamental error of leaving fish to find them. But I could see that the action was falling off, and another place called to me.
A calm morning is a rare thing on the Lower Laguna Madre of deep south Texas, but during the summer and fall––between the fierce winds of March and April, and the disruptive cold fronts of late Autumn––mornings often dawn breathless on the shallow estuary. At daybreak on a calm morning, sight casting can be superb just about any place you go. Most of my guide friends head to the west side of the lagoon, into the seagrass meadows of such storied places as Paytons, Cullens, and Rattlesnake––bays named, respectively, for a local angling family, a wealthy Houstonian, and our indigenous pit vipers. In these fertile places, the reds will tail in earnest in a foot of water or less as they root head-down through the shoal grass for shrimp and baby blue crabs.
It's hard to improve on the heart-stopping sight of waving tails spread across a west-side lagoon on the Laguna Madre. But experience has taught me that there can be something even better if I'm willing to go in search of it on the east side. I know that beyond the sheer chaos of mullet and sheepshead that congregate on the east side sand, above-average redfish in small pods can be found feeding even further east in otherwise empty water.
Planing into nine inches of vegetation-free, gin-clear water can show you everything that's there, but such intelligence comes at a high price. Every redfish within 300 yards will summarily spook ahead of the encroaching boat, and can therafter be observed as silvery V's moving slowly toward deeper water. Gamefish tend to be wholly intolerant of noisy intruders in this most-sensitive area of the LLM, where any semblance of cover is at least a mile away.
Taking up a position on the poling platform of my NewWater Stilt, I went through my well-practiced orientation speech so Dave could muster the requisite patience without losing enthusiasm for what was to come. "These fish will be larger than average, and spread out," I said. "It may seem impossible to approach them, but they are feeding, and they're not looking up. So we should be able to get close enough for you to reach them." I then added, "Try not to cast before you are pretty sure you can place the fly within three or four feet of their heads."
I urged him to practice his cast while I moved us slowly beyond the empty zone that we'd created by our arrival. After about 15 minutes of poling eastward toward the distant dunes of Padre Island, we entered the edge of unmolested water and, since the winds were still imperceptible, we began to spot tailing fish ahead of us on the mirror-like surface. They were easy to see; for while the redfish barely tail on the sand as they move forward at a slight downward angle, there was nothing else to compete with the occasional nervous water and surface breaks of the feeding fish. Above the bright sheen, we could see the occasional dark tips of tails, and then track their movements beneath the water without much difficulty. As I expected, they were spread out, such that each small pod was 75-100 yards from the next one. I knew that the distance between the tailing fish was advantageous to us, however, because every fish within 50 yards would surely flee the moment Dave hooked up on the first redfish.
Autumn is perhaps the best time for this action. In summer, the game fish will leave the sand by midmorning in response to the warming conditions, but the cool water of October and November will keep the reds feeding on the sand all day, especially if the sky is overcast. Normally, one wants a cloudless sky for fishing the sand, but on calm days when the fish are feeding in seven to 10 inches of water, they can't help but show themselves. Under such ideal conditions, clouds keep the sunlight and temperatures low enough to satisfy the prowling fish.
On that November day, we had a mixture of clouds and sun, but the cool water and available food sources offset any warming effect of the subtropical sun. I sensed immediately that the action would be good as long as the wind remained below 10 mph.
Spotting two tailing reds moving toward us, I poled the Stilt within position to intercept them. As we drew closer, I imagined that I could hear Dave breathing roughly. It's not an easy thing to succeed in such clear and shallow conditions where every false cast can alert the fish to our presence, and every imperfect presentation may be the last one before the fish explodes and flees in indignation. Failure comes easily when every sound and every movement seems to offend the stillness. I found myself holding my breath and freezing in place as Dave began false casting to the reds, which had already sensed our presence, and turned slowly away. They could still be caught, I realized, so I coached him on the placement of successive casts. Alas, the increasingly annoyed fish swam beyond the range of his best cast. Dave apologized profusely, blaming himself for the miss. I reassured him, knowing that success was imminent under these conditions.
The second opportunity was a single large red approaching head-on from out of the pewter-like sheen to the east. Dave tracked the redfish's snake-like signature through the skinny water until it was about 40 feet from the boat, and closing. He made a couple of quick false casts to get enough line aerialized, and then dropped the size 6 Clouser three feet to the side of the approaching fish. The red swirled and rushed to the fly, and went head down on it before Dave could even strip. "Get ready, get ready," I said in a hushed voice just before the big fish sensed his predicament and sped past the boat at a blistering pace. The line ripped audibly through the water, and the drag screamed. Dave stood silent and intent on the deck of Stilt, holding his rod high and knowing full well that if the fish was going to break off, it was going to happen right away. I said, "Let him go, let him go. Just stay tight. He's stop eventually."
The quality and challenge of this sightcasting venue is only exceeded by its beauty. In between fish, Dave and I remarked at the dream-like quality of the scene ahead of us, in which the sky was perfectly reflected by the unbroken surface. An unnamed client of mine, who was so moved by the pristine beauty of the sand on a calm morning, said that he didn't need to catch fish at all to make it worthwhile. He went on to imagine holding hands in groups and singing Kumbaya, and at that point I interrupted his fantasy, thinking he'd gone a bit too far.
As Dave and I quietly enjoyed the beauty of the scene, and scanned ahead for more tails, I told him of fishing the area with my friend Pete Prata the week before, in which Pete and I would approach each pod with the intent of a double hook-up. Pete, who was spin fishing at the time, gladly accepted the exquisite burden of making the first cast. With my encouragement, he would approach from the south and cast his gold spoon near the pod. I would, in turn, approach the fish from the west. Once Pete cast his spoon into the fish, usually hooking up, the reds did what they always did––head west for deeper water. By anticipating their departure route, I was able to cast my fly head-on to the broken pod, often hooking a second red within moments of Pete's hook-up.
The great thing about this action is that the area is hardly fished. During weekends, in particular, game fish will migrate onto the sand, in part, to escape the crisscrossing boats. But sheer avoidance of boat noise does not account for the main reason the reds can be found in such conditions. Indeed, a careful observation of the sandy bottom reveals almost continuous tiny perforations and trails made by worms and crabs that live mostly beneath the sand. Besides these pinhole-size openings, larger "divots" give testimony to the efforts of bottom-feeding sheepshead, black drum, and redfish to rout these food sources from their hiding places.
The boats capable of entering this area at lower tides comprise a distinct minority, and the anglers who know enough to park their deeper-draft boats and wade onto the sand on a calm morning are few and far between. But while the outward appearance of barrenness turns most people away from the sand on a dead calm morning, the redfish know better. And those of us who are willing to make the counterintuitive call to go east instead of west on a calm morning on the Lower Laguna Madre may be rewarded by unparalleled sight casting opportunities.