The Lower Laguna Madre––The Best There is in Salwater Flyfishing

Starry Nebulae
a short story by Scott Sparrow

     A single dream ran endlessly through the night. The shallow, clear water of the Laguna Madre was darkened to a tannic brown by the shadows of thick low clouds that tumbled aimlessly overhead.  Craig Matthews waded through the water, draped in fly line and looking for the distinctive black tails of giant speckled trout. He was losing hope of finding them.
     "Hey Craig! Are you up?" The silhouette of a man peering through the louvered window startled Craig into semi-wakefulness. Recognizing the familiar voice of his best friend Steve Rafferty, Craig yelled, "Yeh. Hold on a minute." He swung his feet onto the worn linoleum, and limped to the door, favoring a bad knee.
     "Well, at least Mr. Coffee knows when to wake up," Steve said sarcastically as he sauntered through the back door toward the full pot that was already a half-hour old. He poured himself a cup and plopped down at the table. Wincing from a sip too quickly taken, he exclaimed, "Come on, man, we're wasting precious time!"
     As Steve dug into his cereal, Craig dressed in the makeshift bedroom on the back porch of the cottage. Remnants of feathers and fur littered the floor from a hasty fly tying session the night before. His Sage six-weight lay strung and ready on the unused side of the double bed, with the vintage Gunnison glinting paintless in places. In the corner of the room, a framed photo of his son Billy stood in the middle of a battered end table, kept company by several flies that testified mutely to some of Craig’s more memorable catches.
     Craig realized that his lack of enthusiasm was showing, so he picked up the pace in spite of how he felt. It was hard for him to participate in a kill-tournament, but his friendship with Steve mattered more than the survival of a few fish. Steve, a well-respected fly fishing guide on the lower Laguna Madre, had let things slide after his wife died. A win in the prestigious Laguna Madre Invitational Tournament would provide a much-needed boost to his sagging business. Craig was a guide, too, but his regular job as a social worker took care of his basic needs. It was fortunate, because in the last few months, his interest in fly fishing had been waning.
     As Craig emerged from the bedroom, Steve was already heading for the door, coffee in hand. "I'll drive the boat. You can take some breakfast with you. I've got the lunches and drinks." Craig grabbed some toast and his gear, and followed Steve down to the dock where Craig's skiff was moored.
     The two fly fishers headed east down the Arroyo, shining the q-beam along the shoreline in search of deer and javelina. The drone of the outboard limited their conversation to occasional shouts; and except for the search light's erratic probing, there was nothing much to see.
     Craig sat alone on the ice chest in front of the center console, and let his thoughts and feelings range freely in the privacy created by the steady sound and the predawn darkness. He recalled making this journey countless times as a child.
    As his father would drive their old plywood boat toward the mouth of the Arroyo, Craig would sit with his legs over the bow, gripping the rope like a bronco rider, and relishing the moist summer air flowing over him.  The pervasive smell of fish both living and dead, the spent anvilheads towering over the Gulf, the cool pockets of air left over from the night, the occasional coyote roaming the tidal flats, the mullet-eating herons lined up along the shore -- each familiar sensation greeted him as part of a rich, expansive experience of arriving at the place most precious to him in all of the world.
     Craig could still feel the faint magic of his boyhood excitement stirring. But his grief over recent events quickly overshadowed it.
     Looking back, the divorce still seemed necessary.  Jessica finally admitted that it had been the best thing for her, too. But she never failed to add, "I could never have hurt Billy like that."
     He had hoped that by moving back to Texas, he could establish a lifestyle that would appeal to a 13-year-old boy who had only known city life, and that the memory of his father’s departure would quickly fade.  But Craig's hopes had collapsed under the reality of the situation.  During Billy's first visit -- which, at first, seemed to be going pretty well -- Billy finally broke down and told his father how sad and angry he was, and how he felt he really didn’t know his father at all.  Upon his return to North Carolina, Billy began making vague excuses about why he couldn't come  visit for a while; and then gradually, he stopped responding to Craig's calls and letters. Feeling helpless, Craig called less often, and the depression that he'd managed to keep at bay for most of his life came rushing in to claim its victim.
     "Where to?"  Steve yelled. As he approached the mouth of the Arroyo and the shallow, clear flats of the lower Laguna, he pulled back on the throttle. Steve waited patiently for Craig's call, because he knew that Craig understood big speckled trout like no one else alive.
     Craig remained silent at first. He gazed northward, and could almost make out the dark outline of Green Island against the blue-gray sky.  But his thoughts ranged far beyond that familiar landmark, and eventually came to rest at a lagoon so remote that most fishermen knew it only by name.
     "The best place to find big trout in mid-August, assuming we have a high tide, is Glady's Hole," Craig said with conviction. "Of course," he added, "it's a bit of a run."
     "A bit of a run!" Steve protested.  "It's 35 miles from here! We'll spend half the day making the round trip!" He shook his head.
     "Well," Craig said calmly, "I don't much care to join the spin and bait circus at the Trout Bar. The fish will be there, most likely, but you know what will happen. You'll be stalking a big trout, and then someone will plow across the flat, and just smile and wave."
     "Yeh, you're right," Steve admitted. "We wouldn't stand much of a chance there." After pausing to consider Craig's go-for-broke proposal, Steve said, "Okay, Let's do it. But we should have left an hour ago."
     Steve brought the skiff back on plane, and headed due north in the calm bay water. They made good time,  and were aided by a slight tail wind. But the return trip would be another story. By afternoon, a fierce southeast wind would face them on the way home. The prospect of a long return trip against the wind accounted for why so few fishermen ventured very far to the north in the lower Laguna during the summer, when the winds regularly reached 30 mph by afternoon.
     As they skimmed over miles and miles of featureless flats, the horizon greeted them as a thin line dividing two skies precisely replicated in the unbroken surface. The boat itself seemed as motionless as a compass needle when the captain's hand is steady, and the bow spray supplied the only credible evidence of movement.   In this world of near-perfect symmetry,  the harmony that both men desperately sought seemed, at least for a while, within reach.
     Steve thought fondly of his wife Laura, who had died in a car accident three years before. Laura would have relished the sights of the birds, so as was his habit, Steve silently shared with her what he saw -- the reddish egrets hunting canopy-style on the flats, a peregrine falcon perched atop a channel marker with the remains of a coot in her talons, and a flock of roseate spoonbills flying in loose formation. Steve had ceased thinking of their conversations as odd or deluded: He simply had become Laura's eyes and ears in a world that she’d left too soon.
      Craig thought again of Billy, and how his son had enjoyed the long, monotonous ride up to Glady's Hole. With a rare feeling of hopefulness, Craig looked forward to the day when they'd make that journey again.  His thoughts turned, as well, to his aging father, who had taken Craig to "the north country" in search of big trout on Craig's 10th birthday, and innumerable times thereafter. Craig had always loved these trips, but he could not fathom why his father was so obsessed with big speckled trout -- fish that were difficult to find, and harder to catch. Almost everyone else preferred redfish. But somewhere along the way Craig began to see the world as his father did. And then the only things that really mattered to him were few in number and often beyond his reach -- like difficult fish and God.
     Seven years in a nursing home had almost quenched the fire that had made his father legendary among local fishermen. Senility was setting in, and most of what he said was pretty meaningless. But sometimes his old intensity burned through the fog that was slowly engulfing his mind. When it did, he'd turn to Craig with a youthful urgency and ask him the same question every time: "Have you seen the starry nebulae?"  Craig knew that the speckled trout's Latin name meant "starry nebulae," but he wasn’t sure if that's what his father was referring to. He tried different answers, but the one that finally satisfied his father was, "Yes, Dad. it's where it's always been."
     When the northern shore of the lower Laguna came into view, Steve turned west and crossed the bay at its narrowest point.  Passing through an opening in the shoreline of the King Ranch, the shallow-running skiff entered the lagoon referred to by some fishermen as the Northwest Pocket -- or by others, more intriguingly, as Glady's Hole. The depth of the water decreased to about a foot, and the fish that were feeding in the lagoon fled visibly from the boat's intrusion, leaving wakes as they went. As the skiff headed for a small inlet joining the lagoon to a back lake, the men spotted a few retreating trout mixed in with redfish and sheepshead.
    "What’s the plan?" Steve shouted. He pulled back on the throttle as the boat neared the southwest shoreline of the lagoon.
    "The bigger trout should be cruising the shallows, chasing baitfish onto the bank." Craig replied. "Why don't we anchor off that point, and I'll fish the inlet while you wade the shoreline?"
    "You're giving me the prime water," Steve protested.
    "Maybe," Craig answered, "but no one ever knows for sure where the big trout will be."
    Steve nodded. "We'd better get moving then. The wind's really coming up."
    Sawgrass-covered dunes and live oak motts lined the shorelines of Glady's Hole. The sun had been up for over an hour, but the low thin clouds softened the sunlight, increasing the chances that the largest trout would continue feeding in the shallowest water well into mid-morning. Knowing that big trout would often come from 10 feet away to inspect surface disturbances, both fly fishers tied on small poppers with weedguards.  Without further discussion, they slipped into the cool water, and waded off in different directions.
    Steve walked toward the shoreline, feeling a mixture of relief and apprehension. Craig had called it right: The big fish were here, and the conditions were near perfect in spite of the rising wind. But Steve had little confidence in his ability catch a big trout on demand.  Skill was a large part of it, and he had plenty, but catching a trophy trout normally required a considerable investment of time on the water: The big ones just didn't come when you whistled.
    Over the course of the next hour, Steve passed up three small tailing reds, and enjoyed watching a 20-inch trout snaking its way through the shoal grass in search of prey.  On another day, he would have enjoyed the prospect of presenting to these fish, but today they were mere distractions: He had to catch a big trout in the next couple of hours, or the tournament would be over.
    After wading up the bank for about 200 yards, he finally saw what he was looking for -- the dark back of a big trout. She was moving up the shoreline toward him, breaking the surface as she darted to the right and the left, chasing baitfish. Steve waded quietly onto the bank, and dropped to one knee in the wet sand. Stripping out line until he had enough line beyond the rod tip, he draped the line in big coils in his stripping finger. Placing the leader between his teeth,  and holding the fly in his left hand, he waited for the trout to come closer. His heart was racing, and he took deep breaths through clinched teeth to calm himself.
    Finally the trout's back surfaced again about 40 feet away. He made some false casts off to the side, and then repositioned his cast, dropping the popper about a foot from the fish's head. Steve let the fly sit for a second, and then stripped firmly. The trout lunged after the sound, and flared its gills as she inhaled the fly. Resisting the impulse to lift his rod, Steve strip struck, but missed her. Fortunately, the trout followed the fleeing popper and struck again, this time taking it deeply. Steve stood up in place and fought her gently, knowing that the trout's tender mouth could not take much pressure before tearing. Five minutes later, he slid the beautiful 25-inch fish onto the spongegrass-covered bank. Overjoyed at his good fortune, he put the fish on his stringer, and hurried back toward the boat to show Craig his catch.
    Steve was surprised to see that Craig had only waded about 50 yards from the boat.  As Steve rounded the shoreline, Craig turned and signaled him to hold off. Then Steve spotted a huge back and tail breaking the surface about 70 feet behind and upwind of Craig.
    "There's a big one behind you!" he yelled.
    Craig glanced in its direction, and nodded, but he appeared to take no interest in the big fish. He wiggled his rod in front of him, turned his head slowly back and forth, shrugged, and then took a couple of high steps in slow motion. At first Steve was puzzled, but then it suddenly dawned on him: Craig was imitating a heron!
     Craig had talked about this strategy before, but it was always over drinks, and Steve had dismissed it as just so much hocus pocus. But here clearly, Craig wasn't hunting the trout -- he was hunting with the trout.  The wind had increased, so rather than opting for an upwind cast, Craig was obviously waiting for the trout to move downwind of him so could make a clean, backhanded presentation. With a fish like that, both fly fishers knew that the first cast had to be perfect.
     Steve watched the big fish turn slowly to the right and move alongside Craig. Craig noted the fish's position every once in a while, but quickly looked away each time, and repeated his heron-like movements. Slowly the trout moved from a crosswind position to slightly downwind. At that point, Craig unfurled his line with a studied casualness, and laid the line on the water off to the left, away from the fish. Instead of lifting his rod, he kept the tip tilted downward,  straight at the fly. From where Steve sat, Craig looked like a heron poised for a strike: His elbow was at eye level, and he held the fly line and the reel high against his face. Then, in one fluid movement, he hauled downward with his left hand,  and shot the line backhanded toward the trout. The popper landed lightly about 18 inches from the fish's head, on Craig's side. The huge fish reacted before Craig could make the first strip. She whirled and accelerated toward him, seizing the fly on the run. Turning instantly, she took off in the other direction leaving a muddy wake punctuated by powerful thrusts of her tail.  Anticipating the sudden shift of direction, Craig bowed to her, and the tippet held. He slowly lifted his rod and let her run.
    He fought the trout carefully, keeping the line gently taut as the huge fish thrashed her head from side to side, revealing her toothy golden mouth.  After several powerful, darting runs, she began to tire.  Cradling his rod, Craig finally reached down and lifted the giant fish out of the water with both hands.
    Steve walked up yelling congratulatory praise. "God. I can't believe it! She must be at least 30 inches long!" He was already pulling out his spare stringer to help Craig clinch the deal. "I've never seen anyone work a fish like that before." Steve continued.
    "It's usually not necessary, but she was upwind, and I wasn't sure I could make the cast." Craig replied.
     Steve went on. "She'll win the Big Trout Trophy, hand's down, and you're the man to beat for the entire Bay Division," Steve asserted. "Let's get the fish to the boat," and he handed Craig the stringer.
    But Craig ignored Steve's offer. He'd already lowered the fish back into the water, and was kneeling beside her.  "I don't think I can keep her."
    "What!?" Steve was speechless.
    Craig continued moving the trout back and forth. Without looking up, he replied, "I just can't do it. So, while I'm reviving this fish, why don't you wade on over there to that inlet, and catch one of those reds that have been tailing. I don't want to have to pole your ass around for the rest of the day."
    "I have never seen anybody give up a sure win like this." Steve shook his head.
    Craig said nothing, and went back to reviving the trout.

After taking a few steps, Steve remembered that he'd put his camera in his wading pouch, so he took it out to take a picture of Craig and his fish. Steve was on the wrong side of the sun for a good shot, but he thought, At least he'll have something to show for it later. Through the viewfinder, Steve saw his best friend on his knees before something that glistened and undulated in the morning sunlight. Craig's face glistened, too, and he seemed at once united and at peace with the life that he held in his hands.
    Thinking better of it, Steve lowered his camera and walked away.
    Steve managed to catch a 27-inch red tailing along the bank, and after a considerable amount of hooting and hollering, he returned to boat with his two fish. He and Craig headed south immediately, stopping at the Port Mansfield Cut long enough for Steve to dredge the bottom with a sink tip for a three-pound flounder -- the third fish he needed for his total. Armed with three fine fish, Steve made it to the weigh-in just in time to record the second heaviest catch of the day.
     It was dark when Steve dropped Craig off at the cottage.
    "Hey man, thanks. I’ll never forget it." He slapped Craig on the back as he slid out of the car.
     "You did great," Craig said as he closed the door,  "and you have a good chance to win tomorrow.  I'll be ready at 5:30," Craig promised.

   "Like always!" Steve laughed as he drove off.
     On his way up the sidewalk, Craig saw Belinda Torres, his neighbor, standing at the fence with something in her arms.
    "Craig, I have some mail for you," she said bearing a bundle wrapped in thick rubber bands.  "The mailman said to me, 'Belinda, you tell Mr. Matthews to get a bigger mailbox, or to start taking in his mail every day.'" She smiled sympathetically.
    "Sorry, Belinda," Craig said, feeling embarrassed. "I'll do better." Craig took four days of mail in his arms, and noticed that a postcard was strapped conspicuously to the outside of the bundle. Belinda avoided his gaze and turned away.
    "Belinda?" Craig called after her. "Thanks." Belinda turned and smiled, and then hurried on.
     He took his pile of mail to the back porch and and sat on the bed. He pulled the card out, and studied the picture longer than he needed to. It was of a smiling man holding up a bass that was bigger than he was.  The words, "Come to North Carolina Where Big Fish Rule," appeared in a balloon above the man's head.  Then Craig slowly turned the card over and read his son's brief note.
    Craig took the card and put it next to Billy's photo on his crude altar, and for the second time that day, he dropped to his knees and let something precious come to life again.
    After a while, Craig realized it was only 7:30, and that it was only an hour later in Virginia.  He dried his face on his sleeve, dug the phone out from under some dirty clothes, and dialed a familiar number.