Where Have All the Big Reds Gone?
Fishing Shallower and Later on the Lower Laguna Madre
by Capt. Scott Sparrow
Published in Tide Magazine
When I was a child, the five-mile trip down the Arroyo Colorado to the Lower Laguna Madre seemed to take forever as the old 25-hp Sea King struggled against the weight of my dad’s plywood boat. As we’d chug past the entrance to one of the back lagoons, which revealed itself as only a sliver of silver on the horizon, Dad would often say, with the assurance of one who believes in things unseen, “There are big reds back there.” At least that’s what he’d heard from friends who knew people who had somehow fished there at a time when the only boats that could go that shallow were tiny one-man “scooters” built in someone’s garage. When my dad was near the end of his life, I surprised him one day by turning my skiff into the narrow passage between the black mangroves, and taking him on his first tour of that storied place.
Thinking of Dad, I returned to that lagoon in my Stilt just this past week with my dog Rosie. It was an hour before sundown, and the glare on the water was nearly blinding. But the screams of gulls following sweeping and crashing groups of redfish could be heard in all directions. Rosie and I walked slowly into the melee, and I was torn between catching a redfish and leaving them alone, but the exposed back of an approaching red in seven inches of water pushed me over the edge. After landing the 28-inch red that somehow found my fly in the windblown, murky water, I walked back to the boat, thankful, and just watched them continue feeding.
I was recently talking to a sight casting guide friend, who said, “The fishing is not what it used to be. There are so many boats out there, and the fish are hard to find.” I had to agree that the fishing on the LLM had certainly changed in response to increasing pressure. Not long ago, it was common to find herds of redfish in the morning, and to see oversized reds among countless smaller fish cruising and feeding in the clearest water of the east side “sand.” But the large schools are scarce, and sight casting on the sand is rarely as good as it used to be. However, in the face of my friend’s pessimism, I privately thought to myself that the fishing was still excellent, even better in some places, but that the locus of activity has shifted away from the popular areas. Indeed, from my experience after fishing the LLM since the 50s, and flyfishing the LLM since the late 70s, the largest redfish in the Lower Laguna Madre feed increasingly in very shallow and hard-to-access locales during active feeding periods, and then withdraw into deeper water, where sight casting is impossible, until favorable conditions recur. This may have always been true, but today we can actually observe this phenomenon with the help of modern shallow-water skiffs.
One might reasonably ask, Why do the biggest fish feed in water that’s barely deep enough to host them? There are several reasons, not the least of which is that the fish can feed without dealing with crisscrossing boats. But the larger reds have other reasons to spend time in five to seven inches water. For one, as they mature, reds and trout alike tend to move away from a predominant diet of smaller prey such as shrimp and gravitate toward feeding on fin fish. In the shallowest backwaters, hoards of finger mullet will often gather, making these venues especially attractive to the larger reds. Since these places are so shallow, top-end predators can feed, essentially, in two dimensions, driving baitfish that have no place to go but up, and then down again, into waiting mouths.
Everyone wants to know where to go, and I usually tell people if they ask. Any aerial map will tell you where the shallowest areas can be found, but such places often have submerged shallow bars that can destroy lower units and leave all but the shallowest skiffs high and dry. If I were to draw a map, “X” would not only mark the spots where the big fish can be found, but it would also signify a dangerous place to take most boats. Fortunately, if you can gain access to these areas on the Lower Laguna, your prop won’t do much damage to the grass. For, except for widgeon grass––which grows rapidly in these areas during the summer months in response to fresh water runoff––and glasswort that grows in the non-navigable areas, the waters in these back lagoons are usually devoid of sea grasses because the areas are periodically dry during extreme low tides. The problem isn’t so much what your motor will do to the bottom, but the impact it will have on the fish. The big reds feeding in the back lagoons are exceeding sensitive to boat noise, and will often completely leave the area once disturbed. So if you want to target these “refuges,” then you need to pole in, or get off the boat and wade the last couple hundred yards. Your effort will be amply rewarded by fish that overlook your presence. Of course, anyone without a shallow water skiff can, if dedicated, wade into these areas. But the fish aren’t always there, making it practically necessary to know more than just “where.” It’s even more important to know “when” and “why.”
Before the proliferation of bay boats, the answer to “when” may have been simpler than it is today. Indeed, it’s probably true that tide mostly governed the coming and going of large redfish into the back lagoons before the modern era. In support of this idea, I have found that on weekdays or on relatively quiet weekends, the reds will populate these areas on the incoming tide, and tend to leave as the tide begins to go slack. It’s almost as simple as that. However, since the advancement of shallow water boat design, the extent of truly inaccessible places has shrunken to a narrow band of habitable water surrounding an increasingly pressured bay system. This means that as the tides fall, and the shallowest backwaters lose their luster, the fish tend to go to the other extreme—into deeper water where they can sit out the noise and disruption of boat traffic. Between the two extremes, anglers often scratch their heads and wonder if, by chance, something has gone terribly wrong.
One of the most exciting things I’ve discovered pertaining to the question of “when” and “why” in the last few years, is that the redfish are feeding later in the day, once the boats have vacated the flats. This phenomenon is so robust that I’ve often taken to fishing after 6 pm, at least with friends and family, in the summer months in order to capitalize on the changing rhythms. I discovered this phenomenon, somewhat by accident a couple of years ago when I had to flee a thunderstorm with some clients early in the day. I felt so badly that the day had been abruptly ended that I offered to take them back out once the weather had cleared. I headed to one of the back lagoons after 5:00 pm, and poled into 100 acres of eight inches of water. At first we saw nothing, but then birds appeared over sweeping fish, and before the sun had set we had poled into hundreds of redfish sweeping around the inlet feeding noisily. We had double hookups, and it was an angler’s dream.
My assumptions about when to fish changed from that moment onward. As to “why,” I realized that the fish were simply adjusting to boat and angling pressure. After all, most guides and recreational anglers will hit the bay at daybreak and fish hard until early afternoon. By 3:00, the LLM is virtually devoid of boats, even on a Saturday, except for night fishing anglers who tend to anchor in the deeper troughs, and fish quietly with cut bait. Any fish with a brain in its head would soon gravitate toward the latter part of the day, given the obstacle course that we have erected.
Since then, I have found redfish pouring onto the east side sand, as well as into the westside back lagoons, just before dark. This fish are not simply “left over” from the day, but exhibit an aggressiveness that bespeaks of pent-up hunger. While I do not know if this phenomenon is new, or simply new to me, it makes sense that the game fish have adapted to the disruption of boat traffic and angling pressure by holding off until the environment is less cluttered. It gives me a lot of hope to believe this; for otherwise, I might agree with some of my friends who simply lament that it’s not the way it used to be.
While feeding redfish may be shifting to the evening hours, big reds can still reliably be found on the incoming tide, in particular, during the daytime hours on the shallowest frontier of the Lower Laguna Madre. This past fall, for instance, I was guiding two young brothers––Shawn and Scott––who had just taken up flyfishing. We went into a back lagoon at daybreak that, until a few years ago, had probably never seen a boat. I was poling along the edge of a vast, shallower area stretching out to the west of us that I believed was devoid of game fish. The wind was so low that we could hear whatever was happening around us. Suddenly, I heard a recognizable explosive sound somewhere out in the shallowest expanse. “Did you hear that?” Both guys nodded. “That’s the sound of a feeding red, and it’s out there in virtually no water.” Moments later, we heard the sound again, but this time it was off to the right of the first one. Clearly, there was more than one fish in the critically shallow area. Shawn grabbed his rod, and announced, “I’m going hunting.” While he waded on a firm clay bottom toward a nearby “island” of glasswort from which the sound had originated, I turned the skiff west with Scott on the bow, hoping that I’d be able to get out of there later on without having to walk my boat back to deeper water. After poling for about 100 yards, we spotted the backs of two large redfish near an opening between two glasswort islands. Scott slipped into the cool water as quietly as possible, while I staked the boat and grabbed my camera. We hadn’t gone very far before Shawn’s cries behind us announced a hook-up. And then, a few minutes later, Scott followed with hooking and landing a 29-inch redfish. Needless to say, it was a memorable morning for two novice flyfishers.
It may be tempting to believe that the glory days of redfish action on the Lower Laguna Madre have passed, because the fish don’t seem to be where they used to be. But a closer examination reveals that many of the larger reds in the estuary can be found feeding aggressively in the shallowest venues beyond the reach of most watercraft. Surely, it makes sense that game fish are spending more time in these shallow venues in response to boat traffic and angling pressure. It also makes sense that they are turning away from daytime feeding, and exploiting the unpressured conditions of the evening and night. While we may regret the changes in the historic patterns, we might take heart that the fish are finding ways to survive, if not thrive, in spite of us. And if we’re willing to acknowledge why they’re in these places, and limit the impact of our presence by poling or wading in and out of them whenever possible, it’s likely that the big reds will take refuge in these special places for decades to come.