Catching Fish on the Bad Days
by Scott Sparrow
previously published in Tide Magazine
by Capt. Scott Sparrow
Laguna Madre fly fishing guide Eric Glass once said to a mutual friend, “Anyone can catch fish on a good day. The real test is whether you can catch fish on a bad day.” A guide doesn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing the days that he can fish: His clients plan their trips in advance, and except for rescheduling when they can anticipate a deteriorating weather condition, they have to make the best of the conditions that they find. I once grimaced at the idea of having to go out on poor days, but I’ve since learned that redfish can be found and caught almost every day on the Lower Laguna, and they are almost always willing to take a fly.
How does one succeed on just about any day of the year, no matter what the conditions? I have discovered that there are several keys that will help you get started in making every flyfishing trip on the Lower Laguna Madre a success. Some of these principles no doubt apply to other shallow water venues, as well.
The birds can help you find fish almost year round. Last year, I scheduled an old client and his buddy from Austin during the first weekend in December, but as the time approached, the forecast suddenly called for 25-30 mph southeast winds on both days––a common occurrence on the lower Texas coast. I called him to give him a heads-up, fully expecting him to reschedule, but he opted to come down, anyway.
“I’ve already taken the time off, and I need to be on the water,” he said flatly. I was okay with that, as long as he knew what he would be facing.
On windy, cloudy days, the most reliable strategy for finding visible redfish is to find laughing gulls hovering over pods of reds. This strategy may seem obvious, but in high wind and muddy water, it’s easy to give up on “birding” after a half-hearted search, and then to head back in. December is generally regarded as too late in the year to find birding action, but that’s a misconception: Birding can be “on” from late February through mid-December. We headed north from the mouth of the Arroyo Colorado and began ducking into areas known for birding action. The wind was already over 20 mph and rising, and it was overcast. Eventually, we entered Payton’s Bay from the southern end, and found nothing for several miles. I knew that birding action can be quite localized, and so I kept going, hoping for the best. Sure enough, as we approached the northernmost section of Payton’s we spotted several groups of gulls hovering over pods of redfish.
My clients got out of the boat, and waded downwind, casting Kingfisher spoon flies into one pod after another. After the guys landed several reds, the pods broke up and the birds dispersed. As you might imagine, the anglers felt quite fortunate to have done so well on such an otherwise “terrible” morning.
There are several things a Lower Laguna angler should know about birding action.
- ¥ Birding moves from place from place. Although there are several places where birding is often “on” during the spring and fall, there are other places that people rarely look, such as east of the Intracoastal Waterway. Pods of reds mixed with trout (and yes, hardheads) are often working under birds up to a mile east of the Intracoastal, but it’s easy to overlook them. The last time I fished the birds on the east side of the Intracoastal was on a day when my clients from Corpus Christi contemplated canceling due to strong winds. And yet, they landed over 20 fish under birds before we headed elsewhere.
- ¥ Birding increases with the speed of the wind. Those blustery days when most people stay at home are the best days for birding action, because gulls can stay aloft with virtually no effort during a windy day. Riding the wind, gulls can easily search for the sure signs of podding gamefish––shrimp skipping across the surface––even when the fish are otherwise invisible.
- ¥ You need to approach the birds on foot, if possible. Gulls will often disperse as you approach them in a drifting skiff, and if the birds are working over fish in deeper water that is off-color due to high wind, you won’t be able to see anything––except, perhaps skipping shrimp––once the birds leave. However, if you wade slowly toward them, there’s a good chance they will stay on point, at least until you can cast.
- ¥ Most people never see the summer birding action. Mid-summer birding action is usually overlooked because it typically occurs later in the day. Last August, after having been driven off the water by a morning thunderstorm, I took three clients back out in the late afternoon to see if we could avoid a fishless day. We went into a west-side lagoon, and immediately shut down. As far as we could see, groups of reds were sweeping around in less than a foot of water, escorted by screaming gulls. It was a visual spectacle and an angling opportunity to die for. This late action is by no means unusual, perhaps because there’s less pressure from boats.
“They’re here!” I shouted over the wind. “But if we stop, we’ll be here a while.” I was already anticipating pushing the Stilt half a mile to eight-inch water where we could manage to get up on plane, but I was willing to do it if my clients consented.
“Let’s do it!” they shouted back. As I pulled back on the throttle, the Yamaha’s skeg bounced against the rock-hard sand and the boat skidded to a halt. We weren’t even floating!
As the guys stepped out of the Stilt, the water was so shallow that it didn’t even cover the tops of their booties. I advised them to go barefooted in order to avoid making the sucking sounds that booties make when the tops are exposed to the air. They spread out and began stalking fish downwind, sometimes tiptoeing to avoid alerting the reds that could be spotted ahead of us blowing up on tiny crabs and sand worms, and showing their backs as they actively fed. Once I had pushed the Stilt into slightly deeper water, I stood on the bow and poled downwind, parallelling the wading anglers. Redfish streamed past me into the bootie-deep water from the west, appearing as burnt-orange shadows as they eerily passed by in the low light.
Such action is more common than one might think. Indeed, we returned to the same spot the next day, and did at least as well under the same blustery conditions. And then, a few days later a friend from Austin came down and wanted to know where he should fishs under similar condition. Knowing that he could not take his boat as shallow as we had done, I told him to anchor just east of the Saucer on the sand, and walk east toward Padre Island until he found the sheepshead and mullet gathered, and then to wade even further. He was athletic enough to make the round trip, and sure enough, beyond the melee of mullet and sheepshead, he found exposed reds spread out and feeding alone in six to seven inches of water, and he spent several hours catching them on his fly rod.
Fish as Late as You Can. Most of us will rush to our favorite spots at daybreak, but few people realize that redfish often pour into shallow areas just before dark. After guiding in the morning and early afternoon, I often take my wife Julie and our dog Rosie out on the east side of the Lower Laguna, and flyfish along the shallowest edge of the lagoon just before dark. The surface molecules of the heated water re-bond in spite of the wind, and the surface regains its mirror-like sheen, enabling a sight casting angler to easily spot reds cruising and feeding upwind in 6-8 inches of water on windy evenings. These fish are incredibly aggressive, and will rush to intercept a tiny Clouser from over five feet away in low light.
Find places where the reds tail in the wind. It is commonly believed that redfish stop tailing as soon as the wind rises, unless they are in pods aggressively feeding on shrimp. And yet, there are places where redfish regularly tail in high wind. On one morning several years ago, I faced the daunting task of helping a novice flyfisher from Dallas catch her first redfish on a fly on a cloudy, windy day. I went to one of the places where redfish often tail in strong wind--to an area just north of the Mansfield Cut. We waded carefully into the area, and began spotting reds tailing while feeding upwind in less than 8 inches of water. She couldn’t cast more than 25 feet, but the wind afforded us some cover, and she ended up landing seven reds before the morning was over.
Part of the problem is finding redfish tailing in the wind, and the other problem is spotting them. Certainly, experience on the water will increase your ability to perceive tailing fish in less than glassy conditions, but people often don’t realize that sunglasses will prevent them from spotting tailing fish on windy, cloudy days. On one occasion while fishing in the same spot north of Mansfield on a breezy, overcast day, I stood beside a client who could not see the redfish tailing all around him. Finally, I noticed that he was wearing his sunglasses, so I urged him to remove them. It was as if someone had flipped a switch; and he could suddenly see the tails in the low light. Since then, I advise my clients to refrain from donning their sunglasses until the light hurts their eyes, especially on cloudy days when I know that the reds might be tailing.
Cast small flies as close to the fish as you can. I often hear people say that the redfish won’t take their flies. I tend to disagree, since I am usually five feet higher than my clients on the poling platform, and I get to see what happens after the fly hits the water. I can honestly say that I have rarely observed a redfish reject a well-presented fly. I am not alone in this assessment. In fact, when I conducted a survey of several top Texas flyfishing guides, including Chuck Skates, Chuck Naiser, and Skipper Ray, I asked them what they found was the most difficult thing to convince their clients of. Generally, they agreed that their clients erroneously 1) believed redfish have seen the fly when they haven’t, and 2) underestimated a redfish’s willingness to take a fly. Of course, the second misconception follows from the first, but regardless, it results in people blaming the fish for problems that the angler alone can resolve with a more accurate cast. My friend Skipper Ray was once guiding some clients who, after several hours of flyfishing asked him if they should change their flies. Skipper, who is known for his refreshing honesty, replied “Fellas, the fish haven’t even seen your flies yet.”
On a poor weather day, the noise of the wind and the reduced clarity of the water combine to make it even less likely for redfish to perceive the fly unless it’s “in their face.” And then, if it’s casted close enough, the fish will often spook from the abrupt sight of the fly, leaving anglers to accuse them of presumed fickleness.
One day when I was flyfishing for fun with two friends, we found a good concentration of redfish on the sand in about 10 inches of water. It was so windy that the wind-driven chop had churned up the sand, reducing the visibility. We spread out and began sight casting to single feeding fish. One of my friends, who waded off on his own, began landing one red after another. In contrast, the other angler and I found the reds especially spooky, and caught only a couple of fish. Later, when we got back together, we discovered that the successful flyfisher had been using a tiny bonefish fly––one small enough not to spook the redfish in the turbid water when casted directly at their heads. It should have been a no-brainer to me, but I, too, had fallen prey to the misconception that the fish were “off their feed,” when it was simply a matter of making a less obtrusive, and yet visible presentation.
Blind cast topwaters and spoon flies when all else fails. Few of us can cast a fly rod 75 feet every time, but it’s not hard to develop a long cast if you’re willing to practice: It’s about timing and stroke, not strength. If you develop a long cast, nothing can stop you on a fishery as fertile as the Lower Laguna Madre. Take for example, a client of mine who has only one leg. He cannot stand without assistance on a tipsy skiff, and he cannot wade without destroying his $80,000 artificial leg. Knowing this, he practiced casting every day in his back yard before coming to south Texas. I took him to an area on the bay that often has a high concentration of fish in two feet of water, and set him up with a folding chair on the bow of the skiff. He remained seated all morning and managed to land eight redfish by casting a popper 75 feet again and again before his arm gave out.
Blindcasting is not my preferred approach, but sometimes it’s all you’ve got. One morning, while fishing for giant trout with flyfishing legend Bud Roland, the clouds rolled in and ruined our visibility. Rather than give up, Bud suggested that we drift downwind, blindcasting spoon flies off of both ends of the skiff. Seventeen reds and one trout later, we headed in on an otherwise disappointing day.
So, it’s best to practice your casting off the eater, and get casting instruction if you need it. A good golfer would consider you a masochist if you didn’t practice between games, and flyfishing is at least as punishing. As Norman MacLean once said “All good things come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.” Grace may be beyond our control, but the “art” depends on you and me.
Above all, if you want to catch fish on so-called bad days, you need to get over the idea that it’s impossible to do so. To the contrary, the highest-catching days that I’ve had on the water have consistently been days when the lagoon was so windy by afternoon that it was virtually devoid of anglers. On one day that I considered canceling because of horrendous wind, two brothers from Maryland caught over 50 redfish between them, and I’ve seen many “bad” days end in surprising successes. Fishing on windy, cloudy days may not be something you want to do if your free time is limited, but if you have an open day, and the conditions are less than the best, you might want to rise to the challenge. Flyfishing is like the rest of our lives: We learn a lot more on bad days than on good ones.