West Delta is greasy slick. Even the persistent and usually bone-jarring southwesterly swells are only tiny undulations on the surface of the sea. The heat of summer has vanished with the passing of the norther – temporarily, anyway. The air is dry and clean – not cool, but quite pleasant. It’s wonderfully exhilarating, racing across the surface of the Gulf – a fine time to do battle with the dragon.
I cross the color change about a mile north of the Inside Pipes. It is well defined today: river water on one side, clear green water on the other. And with the tide falling, it is moving out fast. It’s worth a look. I drop off the step and idle along it for a quarter of a mile, but there is nothing on it – no grass, no trash, and no sign of a beast. They lie in wait at the pipes.
I can see them from fully fifty yards: big brown ones – and babies. There must be eight to ten of them slowly circling the caisson. I must not let them see the boat, so I swing well away from their lair and kill the outboard. The 12-weight is unsheathed, and the trolling motor takes me in. Their formation is tightly massed. I choose a big one, make my thrust, the fly lands three feet ahead of it – and is immediately taken by a baby. They follow as I draw it in, then see the boat and attack.
The current had carried the boat quite a distance from the pipe by the time I had released the fish and re-rigged – the fly and leader, naturally, had been destroyed in the fray. The attacking hoard had retreated just after I had boated the baby, so they had plenty of time to re-group beside the pipe while I was returning to action, looking for all their worth like they were not about to let me escape without first giving me a sound thrashing.
Again I pick a big one, again I cast to it – leading it a bit to prevent the fly’s impact from spooking it, and again a baby quickly moves to parry the thrust. This time, though, I am quicker, but the sudden disappearance of the fly creates confusion in their ranks; they mill about, and then – as I should have expected – one of the milling mothers sees the boat, and here they come again! As they move towards me, I pick another big one, make a slightly rattled cast at it – way off target, and am immediately hooked up with another baby. I cannot believe this is happening!
And this time after re-rigging and returning to my battle line beside the pipe, the beasts appeared to have retired. So I moved the short distance to the other one, and there, circling it, was another troop. And there again I succeeded in plucking a baby from the midst of the big brown beasts – which immediately formed ranks and charged. And I must avow once more that this ain’t fiction, buddy!
I may have been somewhat neglectful of gentle care as I unhooked and released that fish. I recall it was done rather rapidly, and I had hustled it to the boat “off the reel”. So when I spotted a mid-sized beast slowly withdrawing, I was able to make a quick cast at him with the mangled fly – just for the hell of it, almost dropped it on the top of his head, made one strip, and was hooked up!
I couldn’t quite stretch him to 37 inches – the minimum legal length, but he was awfully close. And while I was fumbling with the tape measure, releasing him, and finally replacing the fly and leader, the color-change moved across that pipe.
The other one is still in clear water; three lie in ambush there beside it. I stalk the largest, lay the fly across his nose, and am immediately locked in combat – and as I should have suspected, the beast knows exactly where that pipe is!
By that time the current had become a bit too much for the trolling motor, so I had been maintaining my position with the outboard. The cast, therefore, was made from the helm, and that allowed me to quickly give chase. And as I showered down on the throttle – having been well-engrossed in the matter at hand and not paying particular attention to the angle of the outboard – I almost rammed the pipe! It’s rather tough, you know, trying to steer a boat, work the throttle, and hang onto a 12-weight fly rod with a dragon attached to the other end of it at the same time. Anyway, I missed it – barely! – and soon I was on the same side of it as the fish was. And a short time later I gaffed it aboard.
And after basking in the glory of the moment – and the fact that the beast was 39 inches long and my first legal-sized fly-caught lemonfish, the color change moved past that pipe, too.
So on that picture-perfect early-autumn morning – alone on West Delta and after so many screw-ups, frustrations, and near-aggravations, it all came together. The solution was remarkably simple: choose the fish, cast at it before it sees the boat – or while it is retiring from its hull-inspection, placing the fly as close to its nose as possible. The fly’s impact – like that of the hand-cast shrimp of so many years before – that close to the fish apparently doesn’t bother them. Then strip it away quickly. Then, with the properly-tied knots in my leader system – and with Bob’s lesson – the battle’s outcome was never much in doubt – well, after I missed ramming the pipe, anyway! It had actually been fun; even the jousts with the babies were reflected upon as I sat there on the edge of the stern platform, savoring the moment – hell, they pull too. Five cobia – on fly – in one day.
But the day is not yet over.
Run and look. The Outside Pipe is in clear water but seems to be unattended. That leaves the South Pipe – and the five-mile run to reach it. I have never seen a lemonfish around it, but the day is too good to quit early – there may not be another like it until next May. So I invest the time to run and look some more, swing wide around it to the down-current side, and approach it at idle. It, too, is in clear water – the color-change is well to the north. And this day it, too, is being patrolled by a squad of dragons. One of them appears to be their king.
I again engage at about 50 feet. The great beast attacks the fly at once – and grabs it by the tail! My slightly over-eager attempt at the hook-set then snatches it from him, and he surges away in retreat, spooked by the tug on his lip and the sudden disappearance of the fly. Another, possibly a prince – a big one, anyway – sorties on a scouting run to see just what happened to his leader, attacks the fly without hesitation, and this time the battle is joined.
We stand toe to toe and thrust and parry on the green plains of West Delta for half an hour before he tires, I lead him across the gaff, and lift. For an instant I feel his weight, then he tears free – and gains a second wind. Ten minutes more and he is again in position for the killing thrust. Again I lead him across the gaff, and again I sharply lift it – and this time it finds the mark.
So there I was, offshore alone, with a gaff attached to a fish I could not lift with one hand and a thousand-dollar 12-weight outfit in the other. Now what? Believe me, you cannot know the fear within me as I lay that rod on the deck in order to lift the fish aboard with both hands, especially after already having had the gaff pull free. But it didn’t that time.
So the day – and the field – was mine. The beast has been toasted many times, his story told in many tales, He was over four feet long, weighed 41 1/2 pounds, and he gained the posthumous honor of being listed at the top of the state’s fly-fishing records.
An attitude adjustment of sorts occurred that morning, and I’m not especially sure that I liked it. I knew, now, that I could beat the dragon – at least those up to “prince-size”. All the uncertainties were gone; afterwards, when I made a foray out onto West Delta – a wilderness no more – I would do so not so much for the challenge but for the fun of it.
And it was indeed that. So much so that Dave, Brandon, Brent and I have since left the tarpon unmolested on fine days for trolling and casting ugly jigs at them to fly fish for the big brown beasts. That should say something. But for an awfully long time I did miss fighting my way through the wilderness when I had no idea of what I was doing in the days when apparently no one else did, either – fly fishing for them, anyway. There is little enough that is “new” left in this world to be discovered, and fly fishing for cobia – even here in Louisiana – could no longer be considered such.
I would not presume to be “the” pioneer of it all hereabouts, but as I may have mentioned before, there sure weren’t any other folks around who were admitting to it back then. Even as recently as the days of the bay-boat, I’d get some awfully strange looks from those who noticed the 12-weight laying against the console as I departed the marina. So the capture of that grand fish got a good bit of attention.
The state’s fishing records are maintained and updated by the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association – Ed Vice’s legacy. Several years ago the members decided that an award would be given for what they considered to be the most significant fishing accomplishment – in either freshwater or saltwater – in the state each year: the “Fish of the Year Award”. It is prestigious recognition for Louisiana anglers as well as others from around the country who have earned it, and it has been presented for some noteworthy deeds – a 230-pound tarpon and a 61-pound redfish, for instance.
For that year, 1994, it was awarded to my lemonfish – the first time it was ever presented for a fly-caught fish – the culmination of a great adventure. Who would have ever thought it…
For sure, when it all began so long ago, not me.