Chapter 4 – Trials and Errors

 

            Jimmy was another oil-field acquaintance who later became a fishing buddy. He was a boss, too, and as such he was required to think of ways to “cut costs”. One of the best that he came up with was to decrease the amount of expense money his crew received for meals by feeding them fresh fish a couple of times a week, and never mind how much gas the 225 on the back of his 21-footer burned to catch them. We called those trips “meat runs”, and when one became necessary, the fly rod was usually left at home.

            It wasn’t that Jimmy especially minded me bringing it along. And he knew I could catch fish with it, me proving that point one hot summer evening with a nice speck while he and his second-in-command, Jack, were in the process of conventionally catching 33. It was just tough to fly fish when there were three of us aboard, even more so when the wind was blowing.

            That’s a pretty persistent problem for fly fishermen down in the Delta – as it probably is everywhere else along the edge of the ocean. On days when it was really howling, Jimmy and I would occasionally drive over to the marina and soak up a few cold ones with Dave. While we were there we would often hear about all of the glorious catches being recently made which we couldn’t participate in because Dave and Jimmy had to work, and I didn’t have a suitable boat. One evening we learned that Dave had joined his son Brandon – who had recently acquired his captain’s license – on a morning trip to deliver some surf fishermen to Breton Island. After doing so they made a little detour to the buoys of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and wore themselves out on lemonfish!

            Now Jimmy is a pretty shrewd businessman, so it didn’t take me but once to convince him that a decent-sized lemonfish – should he allow me a shot at one with my fly rod – would provide many more fish dinners than a mere limit of redfish. So on the next evening’s meat run, the wimpy 10-weight went along with us.

            There were two flies in my “offshore box” that I had bought some time earlier for purposes I cannot remember – perhaps they were “just in case” flies. They were Deceivers of sorts, tied all out of proportion, mostly dark green with a hint of yellow on bottom, and in size 2/0. Since they were the largest flies I owned, and since lemonfish do get pretty big, I adhered to my “big fish want big lures” philosophy and tied one to my 40-pound shock tippet. That, in turn, was tied to my 16-pound class tippet which itself was tied to the leader’s butt section, all with Double Surgeon’s knots which had preformed acceptably well for over two decades of inshore redfish applications.

            Around mid-afternoon we reached the buoys where Dave and Brandon had enjoyed the festivities the previous day, and there beneath one lay a lemonfish – the first I had ever seen while I was holding a fly rod. So with a rapidly-developing case of buck fever I ascended the casting platform, shook out some line, set the drag, and heaved the monstrous fly in the general direction of the fish, which was then about 30 feet distant.

            It was not a very good cast. Nevertheless, the fish swam over to the fly, ate it, and I hammered him as hard as I thought my tackle could stand. Then the beast turned, swam casually back to the buoy, and slipped the hook. Then a humongous squall chased us back to the marina, and we later had spaghetti for supper.

            A week or so later Jimmy, Jack and I embarked on another meat run and on the way out stopped for another look beneath the buoys. One of them held a school of three fish, one being large enough to again incite a good case of buck fever in me. But on my cast to it – again with the big Deceiver – the middle-sized fish made a deft interception, plucking the fly from the jaws of the beast, and we were off to the races.

            Here, I feel it’s relevant to the overall picture to make an observation which, somewhat obviously, is based on experiences gained long after these early days. Lemonfish – typical of most apex saltwater predators – aren’t too bright, especially if they haven’t been recently pestered by unsuccessful anglers. They seem to fear nothing – not even a boat, provided it doesn’t appear to be about to ram them. Fact is, they are quite curious and will likely as not swim over to it to check it out. They often follow a hooked companion throughout the conflict, apparently trying to steal whatever bait or lure is in its mouth. Those free-swimming fish will also attempt to eat anything else that might appear nearby in the meantime and occasionally more than once. For instance, within a period of 10 minutes I once hooked (and lost) twice a fish following a hooked companion. Come to think of it, I also watched one get hooked and lost three times – THREE TIMES! – in not much more than 15 minutes! Man, we needed to remove that one from the gene pool badly! Anyway, aside from the apparent lack of normal survival practices one might expect a fish to display from time to time, they know exactly where that particular buoy’s cable is!

            The one I had just hooked tore away and downward in a sweeping run around the cable. Jimmy, apparently unable to decipher my screams to follow it with the boat and quickly, idled along idly, smiling at what he thought was my enjoyment of the contest. Yet even with the total absence of any semblance of a coordinated effort, somehow neither line nor backing contacted the cable, and as the fish headed yonder, we inched our way into safe water.

            I guess it was out there some 50 to 60 yards when it stopped, turned, and began to swim slowly back towards the boat – which it eventually noticed and, true to form, swam over to check it out. And there it sat, fly in lip, some six feet off the starboard beam while Jimmy and I argued about whether or not it was legal-sized and therefore subject to become supper.

            It’s not easy to make an eyeball determination if a fish that is holding a couple of feet below the water’s surface some six feet distant is 37 inches long or only a little less, especially if the guy making such a determination hasn’t caught many fish that long. We did have a net aboard that was quite suitable for normal meat-run service, but it was entirely inadequate for the task at hand. And I wasn’t about to condone sticking a possibly undersized fish with a gaff, no matter how badly I wanted to catch it – and no matter how badly Jimmy wanted to cut grocery-costs. Anyway, while we were trying to decide what to do next, the fish apparently lost interest in it all, slipped the hook, and swam off!

            Part 2

            To be sure, the loss of my first two fly-hooked lemonfish was pretty discouraging, but the events – combined with the experience with the trim-tab inspector – left a lot to think about, not the least of which was buoy cables. A much safer fly-fishing setting would be in the open waters of the tarpon grounds. So on the next trip out there with Dave, the fly rod went along.

            That day we fished with Mike – a friend of Dave’s and a tarpon-fishing fool – on his boat. That’s a notoriously-effective combination that was almost guaranteed to produce a very satisfying amount of poon-bouncing, but on that particular day we trolled nine lines for four hours, never had a strike, and I don’t believe we even saw a fish roll! But we did come across a strong current line that was packed with a variety of vegetation and bits and pieces of floating trash, and beneath a particularly thick accumulation of it swam two lemonfish.

            Neither of them looked like they would make the legal grade, but I still wanted one on a fly badly! And I did catch one of them – again on the big Deceiver – a 12-pounder or thereabouts which we did have to release. Finally!

            I didn’t get another shot at a lemonfish that year, but I thought a lot about fishing for them – usually, I confess, while sipping some high-class barley-squeezings with Jimmy as we stared out one of his shop’s windows watching the willows bow to a screaming gale. There wasn’t anyone around to compare fly-fishing notes with back then; the only guy I knew of who was really making an effort to fly fish for northern Gulf beasts lived in Alabama. Jimmy – and sometimes Dave – would politely give ear to my speculations about it all, but without any real knowledge on the topic, they couldn’t offer any input – positive input, anyway!

            I got pretty worked up that winter – thinking about catching big fish on fly tackle can do that to you, and it builds up during the season because you can’t get out there to blow it off! Add to that the fact that the lemon I had caught with Mike and Dave was big compared to most of the redfish I had been catching on fly in the local marshes. As far as lemons go, though, it was a baby, and the thoughts continued to arise that I was not suitably armed for a confrontation with one of only decent proportions. Then too, I might get another chance at a tuna – and with an appropriate outfit, why not make a cast into a tarpon melee? If I hooked one I could always break it off.

            The new reel, admittedly, was somewhat of an overkill, and by the time I had cranked all the 450 yards of 30-pound backing , 25 yards of 40-pound mono “shock absorber”, and fly line onto it, I was whipped! And I feel it’s important to mention that I received it – an anti-reverse top-of-the-line model – in right-hand retrieve. I do it with my left, but after spending an hour on the phone while receiving instructions on how to convert it from one of the reel-company’s engineers half-way across the country, I did.

            Almost…

            The new rod – my first 12-weight – was of a type I’d been using in lighter models quite happily for years. My first trip with it was across the bluewater rip – at the time some 40 miles offshore – in search of bull dolphin.

            It wasn’t long before one in the 30-pound class appeared off the transom as we drifted along the edge of a big patch of sargasso grass. I moved aft and began to strip some line off the reel for a cast – and the reel froze up! Solid! In the salon I took it apart – fortunately for that, the sea was flat that morning, could find nothing that was obviously wrong with it, put it back together, and haven’t had a lick of trouble with it since! Then I returned to the transom – where the 30-pounder was still on patrol, stripped out some line, and cast at it.

            Dolphin, in case you don’t know, like boats almost as much as lemonfish do. And I guess the 6-pounder that rushed out to grab the fly before the bull could reach it had been inspecting the props. Whatever, I wasn’t quick enough to snatch the fly away from it and hooked up. And a very short time later as I was leading it to the gaff, the rod broke!

            Years later I learned that was most likely the result of a self-inflicted head injury, but at the time I was pretty hot about it. There I was, 40 miles offshore at the onset of a full day – under what promised to be continuing perfect fly-fishing conditions – and now without a rod. But what was almost as bad was that the trip occurred in June – the beginning of the lemonfish season on the tarpon grounds, and 12-weight rods ain’t cheap, buddy! I felt pretty sure that with a properly-worded letter to the president of that particular rod-manufacturing company, I would get a replacement, but how many days of prime time would that process burn up?

            And I had very quickly lost all confidence in that particular rod. I mean, you just don’t break 12-weight sticks on 6-pound fish! What was to prevent the same thing from happening next time?

            My salvation was a couple of promotional pieces that I had written about another company’s 5-weight stick that I had bought from them a few years back. I had also fished with a couple of their guys who had recently come down to New Orleans for a trade show. So in desperation I rang their phone a few days later and moaned, begged, and pleaded for a “loaner” 12-weight rod. Pride, you know, can completely disappear when one is really desperate. Anyway, the guy I talked to was sympathetic, and shortly thereafter I received the rod.

            The tarpon-idiots were doing pretty well by that time. One day just after the new rod arrived I drove down to the marina to partake in a few cold ones with Dave and learn who’d been catching what. And as tongues began to loosen, someone mentioned they’d come across a “lily-rip” out in West Delta and had seen a few lemonfish along it.

            I’m not sure if that form of offshore structure is strictly a local phenomenon, but over the years I have encountered them several times around the Delta. The lilies – actually water hyacinths – are either blown offshore by the wind or pulled from freshwater areas by the tide, and eventually they are collected along current lines. Generally they aren’t as productive as sargasso-laden rips, but there is often assorted trashy odds and ends within them, and those become the primary attraction. In this particular case, it was also mentioned that there were huge numbers of tiny crabs amongst the lilies. On my way home I stopped by Jimmy’s shop, and plans were made for a run on the following afternoon.

            It stormed all day. And lily-rips are easily broken up when the tide changes – or when a blow passes through. We sweated it out until the sky began to clear around three and then took off – and shortly discovered that the Gulf had already become gut slick!

            By then I had refined my leader system, tying my Bimini Twists, Albright Knots, and tippet lengths in the same style and configuration that the guys with the I.G.F.A. recommended. I had made up some in 20-pound class with a 50-pound mono shocker, and to that I had tied my trusty monster Deceiver. Thusly armed and confident, we gained the lily-rip.

            It had apparently broken up a bit, but the little crabs were still thick along it, and within mere minutes Jimmy announced the presence of a sizeable lemonfish. If I may…

            I am on the bow’s casting platform, line shaken out, drag set, and fly in hand – and looking forward. The fish appears off the port beam – and very close at hand, detects the presence of the boat, and quickly swims over to it to sniff around the outboard’s lower unit – where I can’t get a cast to it. This one’s curiosity, though, is somewhat short-lived, and after only a few moments it seems satisfied with whatever it has determined and begins to swim slowly back toward the rip – I have my shot. The cast is on target, the fish strikes without any hesitation, I slam home the hook, the fish bolts away – and the shock tippet comes untied from the fly!

            All right, so I couldn’t tie a decent Clinch knot with 50-pound mono – which I soon and erroneously concluded was way too light. Lemonfish actually are a bit abrasive around their front ends; for that reason a very stiff grade of 80-pound mono arbitrarily became the material of choice, and the best way of attaching that to the hook was by snelling. Of course, that would tend to disfigure flies like Deceivers, so it came to pass that I bought – and later began to tie – a whole slew of long-snouted tarpon-style flies. And after a few lessons from Brandon on proper snelling procedures, I put it all together. Now I felt I was ready, loaded for bear – or in this case, big brown beasts…

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