Chapter 8 – Enter theTripletail

 

            West Delta did not give up another tarpon until well into May. It’s tough, knowing they are out there but the weather won’t let you go chase them. By the time we got a break, Dave and I were loaded, cocked, and aimed!

            I guess that came from not taking the marginal days anymore. It’s not that we were getting too old to handle them, it’s just that they hurt more than they once did, especially running out there against those damnable southwesterly swells. Once you reached your numbers and started fishing it wasn’t too bad, but then the whitecaps would screw up your eyeballs, and you’d spend a good part of the day chasing waves instead of tarpon. You rocked and rolled to a different beat, and you didn’t get any chances at all with the fly rod. So you waited those days out, gritted your teeth, and hoped the damned wind would lay.

            Three weeks had passed since Dave caught the last fish. The norther that blew in that evening had whistled for two days before it turned easterly and then to the south – and didn’t let up a bit. Then the squalls came, and then another front. And so it went, cycle after cycle. Finally a persistent strong southerly set in – good for nothing but soaking up cold ones and cussing the weather.

            One of the most severely deranged of the tarpon idiots – Mike, if I remember right – managed to beat his way out into Block 58 a day or two before a weak front blew through and caught one, blind-trolling in fives with whitecaps – young, snow-topped mountains. The front was not much, and the day after its passing was fairly calm. The next morning Dave and I made a run.

            It’s really amazing how quiet the Gulf can become so quickly after such a prolonged blow. That morning the swells had dropped to mere twos, and a light northwesterly breeze barely ruffled their tops. We set the spread on the GPS numbers of the April merriment and began to troll around eight.

            And it wasn’t long before we came upon a lily-rip, pulled across it to gain the clearer water, and almost immediately thereafter a tarpon popped up just ahead of the boat!

            Over the years I became convinced they do that sometimes just to see if we are there. I have no doubt they become conditioned to recognize certain boats by the motors’ noises – wonder if they can recognize the guys on board. Anyway, we trolled along the rip for an hour or so without a strike, even though every so often a tarpon would roll nearby to check on us. And we all know that for every fish we see, there are bunches of them down below. So we persisted.

            Finally, I guess enough of them had determined what we were – or weren’t – so they didn’t need to check on us anymore, and they quit rolling. We blind-trolled for a while longer, then decided to investigate the rip to see if the lemonfish had showed up yet – the potential for that possibility again demanding the presence of the 12-weight. It turned out that they hadn’t, but the tripletail had, and the lilies were loaded with them!

            Up until that day I had caught exactly one of those extraordinarily-weird creatures – on a baited jig. I had met a few others – even cast a fly to a couple, one of which was almost the size of a horse-blanket. But all had appeared to be very reluctant to strike a straight-up artificial. They would follow it, stand on their heads and sniff at it, or lay on their sides and scrutinize it, but then they would turn away and swim back to their floating structure – every time! Actually, the big one did that very thing on five straight casts! That incident – combined with the similar results of another one that I had once experienced with Jimmy along another lily-rip, had almost convinced me that they wouldn’t strike a fly.

            The incident with the big one had also occurred in May, though several years earlier and in the days of the wimpy 10-weight. Dave and I had been trolling blindly about in Block 58, hunting early-season poons, when we came upon a sizeable chunk of Louisiana marsh floating along in open water, and beneath it was the fish. After the aforementioned five refusals it still allowed me enough time to change flies to a big popper and get two more casts at it before I spooked it with a cast between its eyes. Curiosity, then refusals, were the typical responses of all the others I had met and cast to without bait, and that’s the way it began on that lovely May morning along the lily-rip.

            Dave’s boat at the time was a 25-foot Wahoo – a center console inboard and without a bridge or tower. Spotting was done by easing up to a particularly thick cluster of lilies, shifting the motor into neutral, ascending the forward platform, and peering into the water around them – into which, by that time, the boat had often drifted. The fish we saw either immediately spooked from the boat or did not have enough time to make up their minds to strike the fly during the very short retrieves that resulted from the very short casts.

            I began my attempt to catch one with a Del Brown permit fly – a crab pattern. Tripletail love fresh crab-meat – that data being gleaned from my previous experiences with them – and are somewhat of the same temperament as permit – finicky as hell! It seemed a logical choice – anyway, that’s why I bought them.

            I should have saved my money!

            Next I tried a small Clouser Minnow. My fly-fishing buddy from Alabama swears tripletail love ’em in chartreuse and while. Well, his tripletail maybe, but not mine. Finally I speculated a flashy chartreuse thing I had created to match a soft-plastic grub that is especially effective hereabouts. The ‘tails were not impressed.

            I was getting a little – well, uh, pissed by then, having so many opportunities but not being able to figure them out, and Dave was getting more than a little pissed that we were wasting good tarpon-fishing time not catching tripletail, when he saw one about 40 feet away. I cast to it, it struck without any hesitation at all – and then it slipped the hook! But I ended up catching three, all of which I cast to at a distance. And they were the first, so I was told, that were known to have been caught on a fly off the Louisiana coast. After that I caught them all the time – well, often enough, anyway. It’s remarkable, you know, how proficient one can become in catching finicky fish by simply making a little longer cast at them.  (To be continued)

Part 2                                                                                                                              

            About a month later I received my new boat – a “memo-boat” that the folks from OMC felt I could give good exposure. You know, cheap advertising from pictures of it included in my magazine articles – things like that. Anyway, a lot of thought had gone into the type I felt was best suited for its main purpose – offshore fly fishing. I finally decided on an inshore “bay-boat”: a center-console craft with low sides, a shallow draft semi-vee hull, flush forward casting deck – with no rails, and fast! It proved to be an excellent offshore fly-fishing boat, too, because when sea conditions were such that a high-sided, deep-vee hull with grab rails all over the place was demanded, I wasn’t going to be out there trying to fly fish anyway! So I picked my days, managed – for a pleasant change – to dodge the squalls, and fly fished from it a lot. And most often that was done quite a few miles from the bank.

            My first offshore trip with it was in the company of wife Barbara and daughter Christi. They had gone out with me once before right after I bought my tarpon-fishing boat, but I had barely set the trolling spread before both of them became slightly rattled with the rather sloppy chop. And when wife and six-year-old daughter simultaneously demand to be taken home at once, it’s best to do so – tarpon-fishing or not! And if you don’t know why, they you have never taken your wife and six-year-old daughter tarpon fishing offshore before!

            And the same goes when wife and now 24-year-old daughter demand to be taken offshore in the new boat!

            I knew in my heart that the “offshore” part of the trip would be quickly aborted. I was absolutely certain of it once we cleared the mouth of Tante Phine Pass and headed out head-on into those ever-present short-interval two-foot swells. Bay-boats are just not designed for swells, you know, and we pounded quite a bit. But though each bump was met with a pair if shrieks, that was all, and we shortly crossed a good color change and almost immediately discovered some big rafts of sargasso grass. Beneath the first one – determined at a distance of some 40 feet – were three tripletail.

            I had brought my 9-weight outfit along with the 12-weight, since I had been certain we’d end up spending the day in the marsh chasing redfish. So I rigged it up, tied on a “Flashy Chartreuse Thing”, made a cast, and caught one. Then Christi caught one on a casting rod, and then a baby lemonfish appeared out of nowhere, ate the “Thing”, and spooked the third ‘tail with the ensuing ruckus. So I dropped the trolling motor and began to search among the sargasso patches for whatever else might be there.

            It wasn’t long before we came across a school of lemonfish. I made a cast, and the fly was immediately eaten by a baby. Typically, the entire school followed the runt to the boat where they gave the hull a thorough inspection, then disappeared just as I released my fish. Wouldn’t that chap your butt?

            The next school appeared suddenly and unannounced, showed no interest in the fly as I jigged it in front of their noses at a distance of approximately six feet, and soon swam off. Barbara discovered the next bunch.

            She was on the stern casting platform, pitching a popping rig at the edges of the grass-patches – a very good way of calling out fish, usually tripletail, that are well inside the perimeter of the grass. The ones she “called out”, though, were not tripletail, and one of the big brown beasts thought her popping cork looked more appetizing than the jig and destroyed it in one bite. And of course, I must do all the re-rigging!

            The fish in that school apparently had a longer attention span than those in the first one, since by the time Barb was back in operation, they were still milling about, studying the hull and the outboard’s lower unit. She made a short lob into them, popped the cork once, and was immediately hooked up with a good one.

            Barb had caught some fair fish with me over the years, though her chances didn’t come too often because of her extreme distaste for water beyond the surf, the roots of which being apparently set in a particular tarpon-fishing trip years before. She hadn’t been offshore with me since that fateful day, but in the marsh she’d taken a few double-digit reds and a jackfish that was in the 17 to 18-pound class. I have no idea where that beast came from, but she did a very nice job of taming it with her light casting rod. The lemon she had just hooked seemed much larger than that jack, and need I say she was hyped to catch it!

            In due course she worked it to the boat, and I slipped the net beneath it and lifted. The fish then plunged through the unbeknownst semi-rotten meshes and back into West Delta where it took off on a thumb-burning run – and with most of Barb’s rod now bent through the net’s rim. Then the line broke. After the flurry of cussing – all of it directed at me – it got awfully quiet aboard the “Sneaky Pete”.

            I have never seen as many lemonfish in one day – hell, in one year! – as I did on that one. Everything was ideal for spotting them – bright sunlight, very clear water, nary a wrinkle on the little swells, and there was plenty of “structure” to attract them – and us. They were everywhere! The problem with it all, though, was seeing them before they saw us – sort of like the initial problem with the tripletail. And on the few occasions that I was able to get a cast into a bunch that didn’t know we were around, the fly was invariably bitten by a baby. After the loss of the net-destroyer we didn’t hook another decent fish.

            Still, it had been a nice trip – or better said, “a pleasant family outing”. The girls had actually enjoyed it – except the part about “You knocked my damn fish off the line!” The boat fished very well, it didn’t pound at all running in with the swells, and the 150 that pushed it so nicely didn’t burn too much fuel. But all that aside, the day’s primary objective had not been reached. There had been several opportunities, and I still had no idea of what I could have done to have changed their outcomes. Apparently with lemonfish, “Make a little longer cast, son” was not the solution as it had been with the ‘tails. The baby beasts in a school seemed much more aggressive than the big brown ones, and a baby could destroy a fly – and the entire terminal end of the leader – quite easily. By the time replacing it all had been accomplished, the curiosity of the fish in the remainder of the schools had apparently been satisfied, and they had usually disappeared.

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            Now I must wax philosophical, as I feel that is necessary to bring full understanding of why I persisted in my exploration of this particular wilderness.

            Frustration is the “watch flag”. It is hoisted to the mental yardarm when there is a chance that initial enthusiasm could shortly be destroyed by the winds of defeat. The storm is not yet impending, but it is there – somewhere beyond the horizon – its course not yet fully determined. Aggravation is the “warning flag” – the storm’s arrival is imminent.

            I had not yet become aggravated by it all, but I surely was frustrated. I had taken lots of pride in being able to figure out other fly-fishing challenges, both in freshwater and in saltwater – doing it “my way”, so to speak. But in this case I was beginning to feel quite uncomfortable, since I had no basis for what I was doing, and every bit of it might be wrong. When I’d speculate about it over a few cold ones with buddies, responses would be awfully vague and non-committal – if there were any responses at all. It was sort of like being a guy who had grown corn and cattle all his life – and knew only other corn and cattle growers – and suddenly decided to become a financial advisor.

            Knowledge results from experience, and when those experiences are positive, they generate confidence and then enthusiasm. However, enthusiasm wanes with the lack of positive experiences. With lemonfish, “my way” was obviously not quite right, and I did not know what was. That’s frustrating, and too much of that can lead to aggravation. Sure, it’s only fishing, but in that, couldn’t I as a fisherman – like Cal Ripken, or Larry Byrd, or Joe Montana – have goals? Like catching a big cobia on a fly? Was I simply standing in the swamp, beating my head against the proverbial cypress tree because it will feel so good when I quit? Should I blow it all off and go back to doing something I was very good at, like pitching poppers at redfish in the marsh?

            No, not yet. Frustrated – yes, aggravated – almost.

            But not quite.

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