Chapter 6 – Capt. Bill and the First Bull Redfish

(Note: At this point I must re-emphasize the fact that there is no fiction within these lines. It’s the way it all happened, including my feelings about certain matters – no embellishments.  Furthermore, since this was completed in early 1997, time had not eroded the recollection of those facts and feelings.)

            Capt. Bill was a grizzled old salt who could take last place in a “Mr. Congeniality” contest without even trying, but he knew his fishing and became a very close friend. He lived with his wife Sandy on a houseboat that was berthed in Dave’s marina, and they earned their dollars by his guiding and her providing accommodations for their overnight guests. They both loved to fish, and one of their favorite spots – for their clients as well as for their own enjoyment – was the lower Chandeleur Islands where they wade-fished for specks and reds.

            I had run into Capt. Bill several times at the marina prior to our first trip out there together, and we had discovered early on that we had a lot in common – stuff like roots on the Texas coast and a special fondness for being in the water amongst ’em. He also had a fly rod – a very nice 9-weight, though the accompanying reel left something to be desired, especially for saltwater use. He had fished with it in freshwater a few times and wanted to try it in saltwater, but he had no idea how to go about it. Sound familiar? Anyway, one steamy summer afternoon I rigged up the reel more suitably for him and gave him some flies, should an opportunity to use them ever arise.

            Our first trip to the islands was a life-saver for me. Bob – an editor of one of the magazines that I was writing regularly for – and Ed Vice, who was a friend of Bob’s but a first-time acquaintance for me – had come down to the Delta so that Bob could do an article about the fly fishing in my life. A persistent and rather stiff easterly had the bays behind my house churned to the color of café-au-lait, and I had no clue as to where I could go back there and catch something on a fly – a pre-requisite required for associated pictures and to show them that I really could do it. Bill’s phone call, inviting us to the islands the next morning, presented a fine bail-out option. Then too, even if we didn’t catch any fish, at least the guests would get to see the Chandeleurs – a wonderful place, as I had discovered years earlier with other friends, which neither of them had visited before.

            The ride out there was pretty bumpy, and the surf proved to be unfishable, but the flats that were then on the back-side of Grand Gosier were reasonably clear and calm enough. We eventually found some fish in a trough running across those flats, and I took three nice reds and a good speck on a Deceiver from it. Bob got the necessary pictures – Ed even took a few and wrote a little piece about the place, and throughout the entire time I fished, Capt. Bill watched me like a hawk.

            We made several more trips to the islands together that year. Most had only so-so results, but just being out there was worth the trip. Then, on the Monday after Thanksgiving, we made a fine one.

            It was a gorgeous day – one to carry you through all the nastiness of winter: bright blue sky, emerald surf, crisp dry air, and almost flat calm – and the water cold enough to demand waders. We started at the south point of Little Gosier – where I immediately discovered that my waders, which had been well used for duck hunting but had seen little action for the past five years, had dry-rotted, and the right leg was rapidly separating from the boot! So I ended up wading half wet and half dry – and toting one boot-full of water with me for the remainder of the day. However, my inconvenience was quickly forgotten when Capt. Bill almost immediately hooked a bull red in the 25-pound class on a spoon. After the ensuing picture-taking session he tagged and released it, again whipped the spoon seaward, and hooked a bigger one!

            I guess I missed most of that school as I concentrated on the camera instead of the fly rod. I did get a shot at one of the copper-plated beasts, plainly visible in the clear water just in front of me, with a big Deceiver. However, apparently the fly didn’t sink quickly enough to reach the point where the fish might become interested in it. Still, the experience was quite memorable, though in truth I was sorely disappointed I hadn’t hooked that fish.

            The rest of the morning and early afternoon was slow, but later that evening and with the tide beginning to fall, I found a big school of reds – again in a trough through the flats behind the south point of Grand Gosier – and caught eight. During the festivities Capt. Bill had plenty of time to return to the boat, swap out his casting outfit for his fly rod, and re-join me. And after giving him a few hasty and hopefully-helpful hints, I moved off a bit and watched him catch two nice reds – his first saltwater fish on a fly. And need I say that he got a real boot out of that. We passed many cold winter evenings reliving that afternoon – and speculating on those to come.

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            The first occurred in late February. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing – the result of waking up to find the small-craft-warning flags down and the weather channel on the VHF promising the one good day between the latest norther’s blow-down and the building southerlies that foretell the impending arrival of the next frigid blast. That day the forecast was for the high temperature to reach only into the 60’s – no chance for sea-fog there, and the wind was to be light and variable. We left at nine; first stop – again – the south point of Little Gosier.

            We reached the island to find the water as clear as it gets and dead low from the effects of the latest norther – and no fish. We soon moved around to the north point – still nothing, so around noon we headed back to Grand Gosier.

            By then the tide had begun to rise, though it was still pretty low, and as we made our way down the back-side of the island, I asked Bill to put me out and let me wade the flats to the south point where he intended to anchor the boat. That done, I began the quarter-mile trek to re-join him.

            There isn’t much water around the Mississippi River Delta in which you can wade-fish. Most bay-bottoms and marshy areas consist of unconsolidated silt and decayed vegetation – goop, the real Louisiana gumbo which cannot support any weight at all. But the substrate along the Chandeleurs is mostly hard-packed sand, and the islands’ back-side flats – besides being quite wadable – often teem with life.

            Flats have intrigued me since my early days of wading the central Texas turtlegrass flats in search of those first redfish. As I mentioned earlier, I never caught many of them while doing so, but there was always something else to catch my attention. As an afterthought, perhaps those distractions were the reason I saw so few fish.

            Rays would erupt in puffs of sand from almost underfoot, then glide gracefully away – “flying in the water”. Crabs would scurry busily about, and sheepshead seemed to tremble as they sniffed their way along the edges of the open pockets in the grass. Pelicans dove into schools of rippling mullet and – every once in a while – a red would tilt up and wave its tail at me. And back then there would seldom be anyone else fishing within a bothersome distance from me. It was a really personal experience – time I spent inside myself as much as by myself.

            The flats of my youth are too far away to revisit now, both in mind and miles. Those behind the Chandeleurs took their place in my fishing life, and for a while they were a very adequate surrogate. Today, though, they are as barren as the Little Gosier surf. (To Be Continued)

Part 2

            I guess I had made my way a hundred yards or so across them when I noticed Capt. Bill emerge atop the dunes. He had long since secured the boat, walked across the point, and disappeared beneath the dunes on the island’s surf-side. Now, still at a considerable distance, I could not hear him, and I could not tell if he was beckoning me to join him, so I continued slowly onwards.  Finally I was able to determine that he was waving at me, and so I began the long and arduous quick-time wade over to him to find out just what the hell he wanted.

            Once I reached him it was quite obvious. There, swimming easily in the first trough while tethered to a piece of driftwood by a long, cord stringer, was a bull redfish of some 25 pounds. And during winter at the islands, when there is one…

            The fatigue from the long trek across the flats is suddenly gone – I am now wired. As I make my way across the trough, the first bar, and into the second trough, Capt. Bill returns to the boat to measure, tag, and release his fish. Today I am working a size 2/0 Clouser Minnow in chartreuse over white on a 9-weight. My class tippet is 16-pound, the shocker is 40 – all in I.G.F.A. configuration, just in case.

            The sky is cloudless and the deepest blue. The Gulf is clear green and almost flat calm; only the smallest of ground swells lap easily against the bar behind me – the only sound to be heard save for the occasional squawk of a distant gull. And the now strongly rising tide begins to pull the sand from beneath my boots – it has become a fine time to do battle with the red beast. But there is no indication of any presence other than mine – no bait, no slicks, no birds. Just me, thigh-deep at the edge of a winter sea.

            I cast, quartering up-current and at a slight angle to the bar, allow the fly to sink for five or six seconds, and slow-strip it back. I feel and hear nothing – neither do I notice Capt. Bill’s return. All my senses are in a tunnel that leads directly to the fly.

            For 10 minutes I am not alive – purely mechanical: a robot. Cast, pause, strip, and again – and again. They’ve got to be here. Cast, pause, strip… And as the fly once more reaches the point where I must pick it up for the next cast, there is a sudden flash in the water ahead of me, and a glistening copper-tinted beast streaks past me in a cloud of sand, spooked by my presence as it followed the fly. Well shit! But when there’s one…

            And a few casts later a strip meets solid resistance, and the placid Gulf explodes before me.

            From what I can see, it’s a good fish, though not an especially big one. Still, it’s bigger than any other red I have ever hooked on a fly! It does its thing as I expected: a couple of runs well into the backing, lots of jarring head-shakes, and a bit of surface-flurrying. All goes well on my end, and with most of the fly line back onto the reel, I am becoming confident it will soon be mine. Then the hook pulls. Well shit again!

            Capt. Bill has been close at hand, watching the entire affair with great interest since the red was the first big fish he had ever seen hooked on a fly. He says nothing, shaking his head sympathetically. I feel I have fallen from a very high place as I check the fly’s hook and discover nothing that could have led to the premature release, then strip off some shooting line and make a very half-hearted cast across the rim of the ocean. And this time the Gods smile.

            The fish weighed just over 22 1/2 pounds – the first bull known to have been caught on a fly in Louisiana waters. It was well photographed, and for many years I told its story time and again over cold ones and in classes and letters – a story that was almost as much about the day and the sea and a good friend, and the fortune of being able to grab the moment when it arises. A grand fish at the time, it became the state record on a fly, and according to Bill it was taken – on the 9-weight and 16-pound class tippet – in under 12 minutes. Bob’s lesson was proving to be invaluable.

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            “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth: V, v, 24-28)

            Like hell it is! It is dear time with dear people. And death is just a part of it – and makes those times and people even dearer.

            To me, their lives were walking windows that revealed all the good things they were made of and passed along to me. I feel I was very, very fortunate to have been a part of them, and I have no doubt that without their influences I would have never survived all of life’s trash – or so fully enjoyed its treasures.

            The passing of the old ones who I spent so much time with – Mom’s father especially – was extremely difficult for me to get over. Part of me – he and me at Rockport and the ranch together – no longer existed and never could again. But that’s the way it goes – so I tried to tell myself for many months after he left us.

            It wasn’t “the way it goes” when one not so old leaves – like Daddy did. He had been sick for a while, but I sure didn’t know he was that sick. Mom did – and kept all the anxiety from the knowledge of his impending death from us. Bless her brave heart for that.

            We all knew Ed was sick and the inevitable would come sooner or later, but Capt. Bill wasn’t sick at all…

            He passed away suddenly and very unexpectedly on 8 December, 1995 – shortly after our last trip together to the Chandeleurs. That was another wonderful day. The islands were again clad in the stark beauty of their winter dress – dusky breaks between the emerald sea and the azure sky, surrounded by air so clean that it almost hurt to breathe it, shielded from all sound save for the surf lapping easily against the beach, and again, there was not another soul around.

            We found them again – both specks and reds – in a trough on the back-side of the south point of Grand Gosier, stood almost shoulder to shoulder, and laughed and cussed as we caught them like sailors on shore leave. It was a great day – a day that could not have been better spent than in the company of a close friend, fishing at a barrier island.

            I didn’t say much on the trip back to Venice that evening, and I don’t know why – that’s uncharacteristic behavior on my part. He noticed and asked if I was all right. I don’t believe I could be any better, I said. He smiled. “Yeah”, he said. “Me too.”

           Three weeks later he was dead.

            On the morning of December 13, four boatloads of us escorted Capt. Bill Herrington on his last trip to his beloved Chandeleur Islands. On the back-side of the south point of Grand Gosier – his place, our place – four of us waded ashore clad better for church than for sloshing across some flats to gain a barrier island, secured a wreath to a refuge sign, laid a small floral arrangement at the edge of the grass, and spread his ashes around it.

            Fitting, we thought.

            Thanks, he would have said.

            Thank you, Capt. Bill, we said…

            I guess if one explores a wilderness, he should expect some casualties…

(For Sandy)

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