Chapter 1 – In the Beginning

 

            I began fly fishing somewhere around age 10 – that’s 1954, in case it matters. It was a pragmatic move on my part – comparable to one or two other such occasions in my fishing life. Its basis was an artesian spring-fed creek that ran through a ranch way back in the wilds of the Texas Hill Country and belonging to Mother’s dad.

            It was an absolutely beautiful little stream with clear, cool water – fast over shallow sheets of layered limestone, slow through long, boulder-strewn runs, and almost still in deep, sycamore-shaded pools. Largemouth bass and warmouths – goggle-eyes to the locals – and other types inhabited the creek, and I have a picture of me fishing for them at age 7 with a long and heavy cane pole. I was probably using grasshoppers for bait, which at the time were as much fun to catch as the fish.

            I guess I was smitten with the big-fish syndrome even at that tender age. I could plainly see the fish, so I could choose a bass or goggle-eye as my target, flip the hopper at it with the big pole – or try to, and then give a little prayer that a small bluegill or pumpkinseed wouldn’t make a deft interception. Usually one did.

            Being a fairly rapid learner, it didn’t take but about three years for me to realize that there just had to be a better way. There was. At first it came in the form of a tubular steel casting rod, its reel loaded with black line of forgotten physiology – much lighter and more easily-wielded than the cane pole. With it – and still with freshly-caught grasshoppers – I caught numerous bass by dapping my baits into promising water while hiding behind some streamside boulder or brush. But eventually I discovered another. It lay in the rafters of one of the ranch’s outbuildings, and even then it was already old: a bamboo fly rod – slightly warped, an automatic reel – slightly rusted, and a silk line – slightly rotten. It was also much lighter than the cane pole, though it was like a club by today’s standards and without any designation of its “weight”. Back then southern folks apparently weren’t too concerned about that; as long as it would flip a fly a few feet, everything was right with it. It turned out that my discovery would flip the ragged trout streamers I found in a cabinet’s drawer just far enough, and that summer I caught a bass with it – my first on a fly. Granddaddy, apparently with me at the time of the auspicious occasion, later told me about it, but I can’t remember it.

            I fished with that outfit – and one identical to it that Daddy’s father had at his home in Baton Rouge – for the next four years. I can still recall a few of those days, both on the creek and around the backyard pond in the city – and I do remember catching some decent bass. Mostly, though, I remember the places, especially the creek, and how fly fishing there just seemed to be the right thing to do.

            For my fourteenth birthday I received an 8 1/2-foot Shakespeare “Wonderod” for a GBF line – that’s the equivalent of a weight-forward 8-weight, in case you are unversed in such terminology. An old automatic reel appeared from somewhere – it was probably one of those that belonged to my grandfathers. Later that summer at the recently-sold ranch I would use that outfit to drift a yellow popper through the sycamore-shaded water of a special pool and caught the last bass I would ever catch from my beloved creek.

            And one night shortly thereafter on a trip to Rockport, Texas with my maternal grandparents I christened it in saltwater. That evening beneath the lights that were strung along the pier that ran from our motel out into Aransas Bay, I caught three ladyfish on a popper – my first saltwater fish on fly – while the others of the pier’s night fishermen gawked in wonder. You could almost hear their thoughts: Who ever heard of such a thing, fly fishing in saltwater…

            Apparently the reel’s manufacturers hadn’t, because the thing died of corrosion a short time later!

            The family trips to Rockport were a regular thing throughout my early lifetime, occurring at least once a year for my first 22-odd years. Usually Mom, Dad, my two sisters, and I would meet Mom’s folks and frequently a flock of aunts, uncles, and cousins for a week or so of visiting and fishing. Those were good times, and most often we caught a lot of fish – spotted seatrout, or as we called them, “specks”.

            However, they weren’t much in the “sport department” – at least, the ones we normally caught weren’t, but everyone enjoyed eating them. An 18-incher was a really good one, but even fish like that are somewhat underpowered. To be sure, catching them was fun – in a festive sort of way, but once we found them there really wasn’t much of a challenge to it. It was almost like reaping a crop.

            Initially we fished only in the mornings; the rest of the day would be spent swimming or browsing through the knic-knak shops in the older part of town. Occasionally I would hang out at the marinas where I would stare in awe at the pictures of the big red drum that adorned the walls and listen with envy to the tales of the locals who caught them – and ponder why we never did…

            Reds had become an obsession by the time I reached age 20. By then, I knew the main reason why we never caught any of them: we were fishing in water that was way too deep – three to four feet or so. So that summer on a trip which was extended a week for just Granddaddy and me, I decided to abandon the harvest fields and explore the then unknown world of the shallows.

            Actually I had made several afternoon wade-fishing forays along a brad, sandy – and grassless – flat near the motel for the past couple of years, though with negligible results. The time spent there was more for fishing’s sake than for catching – and a much better way to spend a few hot afternoon hours than daydreaming in some marina, staring at pictures and listening to tales. Who knows, an accident could happen out there at any time, but now, this was serious stuff.

            It took two mornings of wading lush turtlegrass flats in a new and distant bay, and a whole lot of loving toleration by my grandfather, for me to catch my first redfish. I saw a few of them on the first day, finally stuck one on a surface lure, and then lost it to a pulled hook. That made me even more hyped to try for them again – something Granddaddy wasn’t too keen on because of the long run there and the fact that he hadn’t done too well with the daily harvest. There were some pretty bad words between us later that day – mostly from me, and some very uncharacteristically tense moments. But grandfathers who both fish and forgive are one of God’s greatest gifts to impudent 20-year-olds. The next morning we returned to the distant bay, I saw exactly one fish, and I caught it – on the surface lure.

            The following summer Granddaddy allowed me to solo in his boat after the regular morning trips, and I’m a little ashamed to confess that I began to enjoy those afternoon excursions almost as much as our times fishing together. I’d set the anchor at the edge of a long turtlegrass flat south of town a little ways, get out, and wade. Most often I’d catch only one or two, using spoons, but I soon became quite addicted to fishing the flats for reds, and the inevitable was bound to happen. The next year I brought along my fly rod – for the first time in eight years and with a new, single-action reel – and caught one very obliging red. That was 1966.

            The following year I married Barbara, and a year later we moved to Buras where I spent many years enjoying the outstanding fishing that there was around the Delta. And back in 1971 I began to seriously fly fish for some of the species found there. But I have never had any problems with slinging a spinnerbait, popping a jig, or soaking a mullet’s head when that seemed necessary. Thereabouts we were occasionally plagued with some pretty trashy-looking water – and a little too much wind – so if one enjoyed the catching part of fishing, he had best be flexible. Flies just wouldn’t cut it day in and day out, and there were often times when the number of crew-members aboard the boat prohibited the practice. Then too, there were the tarpon – once another obsession and the unlikely instigator of the quest that cut many of the trails leading into the wilderness of Louisiana’s saltwater fly-fishing opportunities. (To Be Continued)

Chapter 1 – Continued

            Around the Delta we usually trolled for tarpon – and cast to them when they were staying up and not running like race-horses – with very heavy and remarkably ugly jigs. Most of those I’ve caught, two of which were pretty big, were taken like that, and I eventually became quite attached to them, even though I was often “unattached” after a jump or two. Still, back then I fished for them every chance I got. Most of those trips – after I spent a ridiculous amount of dollars on a tarpon-fishing boat, fished for them for four years before I finally caught one, had my entire crew mutiny because we seldom even hooked one, and then sold the boat – were with Dave Ballay. Usually they were spur-of-the-moment and most often inspired by someone who was already fishing and had radioed the marina on his VHF to announce he had just tagged and released his second tarpon of the morning. Dave, the owner of the marina at the time and a tarpon junkie of the first order, would then begin to feel a compulsion to join in on the festivities, would soon thereafter ring my phone, and would have the boat loaded and ready by the time I arrived. And on a certain August morning many years ago, that is exactly how it all began.

            West Delta is flat and clear green; tarpon are thick just northwest of the big platform in Block 58, and it isn’t long before we have a strike on a trolling rod. Joe, crew member number three, takes the live rod, and Dave and I begin clearing the other six. And as I have one of the ugly jigs fairly ripping across the surface in its hasty retrieve, another tarpon blasts it!

            Now in case you’ve never been there/done that, concurrent poon-bouncing can lead to all kinds of cockpit chaos, especially when dealing with respectably-sized fish – which these two definitely were! But we managed to avoid the initial tangle which a double hook-up usually creates, and the fish were fairly cooperative, bouncing around in different directions. All was going well as we worked them towards the boat when suddenly a large cobia appeared at the transom, looking for all its worth like it was checking out the port trim-tab!

            That presented a bit of a problem. Cobia-hide is pretty abrasive, and there was a chance – increasing by the moment – that our lines would come in contact with it. And the fish refused to move, holding steadfastly just off the port quarter, even with much shouting at it and Dave frantically waving his arms about and even throwing a fairly large sinker at it! And with two of us solidly attached to tarpon, there was no way that Dave was going to try to catch it!

            In the end we were lucky and managed to tag, revive, and release both of the tarpon – with the cobia watching the entire and rather rowdy boatside procedures apparently with some interest. Then, as we moved to fetch a rod with a fresh jig in an attempt to catch the curious beast – the two jigs in use having been wrecked by the tarpon – it swam away!

            Cobia – “lemonfish” in local patois – have been doing things like that to me for years! Nevertheless, up until that day I had never put any real effort into fishing for them. They’d just show up while I was doing something else – most often seriously undergunned – so I also hadn’t caught many of them. Hooked and lost quite a few, though. That’s mainly because they like to hang out around offshore platforms, and prior to the day of the trim-tab inspector, that’s where I had met all of mine – and because of it, I had never given a thought to fly fishing for them. It’s tough enough trying to keep them out of all those barnacle-covered, line-shredding legs with a hell-for-stout boat rod. A fly rod? No way!

            I received that conditioning very early in my oil-field career while I was working as a roustabout on an offshore drilling rig. The onboard electrician there kept things running and had quite a bit of spare time because of it. He also liked to fish, so part of his “gear” was a stout little boat rod.

            At the time we were working a couple of miles off the Chandeleur Islands. I don’t recall how deep the water was (That particular rig was limited to about 50 feet or so.), but it was a lovely clear-green. One evening after supper I was leaning on the handrails, watching all the different types of fish swimming beside one of the rig’s legs, when I noticed several big, brown shark-like creatures circling the leg. The electrician – uncharacteristically busy at the time – happened to pass by, and when I pointed the fish out to him, he said they were lemonfish and offered me the use of his rod.

            The lure attached to it was a “Sea Hawk” – a gaudily-painted, finger-sized chunk of lead that is flattened somewhat at the top of the end where the eye is attached and completed with two formidable treble hooks. The proper way to work it is to drop it into the water – in my case some 50 feet below me – and vertically jig it; the lure’s flattened nose causes it to dart wildly from side to side. Three fish struck it; all three managed to avoid those hooks!

            For my next week of rig-work I brought along my own outfit and a small box of lures. One evening, figuring if I could get closer to them I’d have a better chance of setting the hook, I descended the stairs from the rig’s main deck to the boat-dock. There I made one cast with a Mirrolure, had a cobia at least four feet long eat it right below my feet, and that was the last I saw of my Mirrolure! Later that week and again with the electrician’s rod, I managed to miss three more of them on the Sea Hawk before I finally caught a very small one on a fried breaded pork chop – bone in – that was left over from supper. Thirteen years would pass before I caught my next one.

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