Now with greatly bolstered confidence – and, all right, with an ego only slightly smaller than a size 8 Stetson hat, and still possessed with the life-long philosophy “If it’s there, fly fish for it”, I plunged deep into other wildernesses. There, in the gloom, and a little more than a year after the capture of the great brown beast, I stumbled almost blindly into a no-brainer setting for fly fishing for king mackerel. As I mentioned earlier, a little luck never hurts.
Like many of my other discoveries, this one began conventionally. Brent had a no-show for his charter trip that Sunday after Thanksgiving, and Barb and I had one of her nephews and his wife down from Missouri. Besides desiring to escape the midwestern cold and feast on great piles of fresh seafood (And to hell with the turkey!), they wanted to fish. Our first day in the marsh below Tidewater was not very rewarding, so when Brent phoned me the following morning and invited us along on his own trip, we jumped at it. Our destination was the jetties at SouthwestPass; our targets were redfish and king mackerel.
Besides the reds – which included a couple of brawny bulls, we caught five kings in the 20 to 25-pound class and pulled the hooks on a handful of others while trolling “wigglers” up and down the east jetty. Several other boats were also enjoying the festivities, and it soon became obvious that with all the bent rods amongst our competition – and with all the kings we saw skyrocketing near us – there was a bunch of ’em around.
That’s often the case at the SouthwestPass jetties during autumn, because that is the time when the striped mullet congregate in large spawning schools. Occasionally one of those schools gets hemmed up against the jetties – especially the east one, which is in the deepest water, and when the kings find them, it really hits the fan!
Autumn is also the time when the biggest kings appear along our coast – also, I’ve been told, for spawning purposes. I had taken my largest – somewhere around 45 pounds – a couple of years earlier on an October trolling-trip with the same editor who had accompanied me on my first trip to the Chandeleurs with Capt. Bill. It really should have been his fish, but at the time of the strike he was in the cabin not feeling too well – sloppy fives combined with the exhaust fumes from big twin diesels tend to do that to some folks. Anyway, someone had to catch it.
That’s something I have never been too enthusiastic about. I had caught a few kings over the years, “day one” being with Granddaddy out of Port Aransas, Texas. The first was a charter-trip present for my 21st birthday; the second was a do-it-ourselves trip in Granddaddy’s 16-foot “ski-boat” that we fished for specks from in the bays. Those fish were small, but they were fun to catch on the rather light tackle we used, On the other hand, neither of us found them fit to eat!
During the days of my tarpon-fishing boat – and subsequently with Dave, Debbie, Brandon, and Brent, kings were only a nuisance, taking good time away from our pursuit of the great silver beasts. And they were terribly over-gunned with the 50-pound stand-up trolling gear we deployed. But those the young folks from Missouri and I caught with Brent that autumn morning were on much lighter gear, and while they still tasted the same, they had been a lot of fun.
A couple of days after the kids had left for home, I was sitting at the tying vise, possessed with a pretty bad attitude because of a long-lived screaming norther. Weather like that is not too conducive to fly-fishing inspiration, so I have no idea what caused it, but the thought arose that those kings could possibly be caught on fly.
Now that was a rather radical cogitation, considering I had only attempted to fly fish for kings once – a half-hearted and totally unsuccessfully chunking trip. I also knew of only two such fish that had been caught on fly in our waters, both very small and taken with an “undirected effort”. But there had been so many of them off Southwest Pass that day that I felt it should be reasonably easy to get a fly in front of one by simply blind-casting along the rocks. So I phoned Bubby – who had caught some chummed-up Florida kings on fly, and when the norther finally blew itself out we sallied forth. And I recall that as we raced down West Delta – the “short cut” from Tiger Pass to the jetties – I mentioned to him that this could be one of the biggest wastes of time I had ever conceived.
A friend is anchored on the point of the east jetty and hooked up conventionally as we drop off the step and slowly make our way up the rocks. The Gulf is slick and with only the slightest swell. Clear green water swirls up in the wheel-wash through the surface murk – everything looks good.
Except that there is not a sign of bait or feeding fish.
We begin our first drift a quarter-mile up the jetty and a hundred yards out from it. Bubby is working a 10-weight; I have taken up my lance, and both of us are working size 4/0 Clouser Minnows, heavily dressed in green over chartreuse over white and over five inches long – and with plenty of flash material – in an attempt to “match the wiggler”. With him on the stern platform and me on the bow and operating the trolling motor as well as blind-casting a 12-weight outfit – which ain’t easy, buddy! – we work our way slowly back down the rocks. Nothing.
I radio my friend in the other boat on the VHF. He is steadily catching them – tag and release. So I fire up the outboard, make a swing back to our original starting point, move to within some 30 yards of the rocks, and begin another drift – and Bubby is almost immediately hooked up. But as the fish tears away, the hook pulls. Gotta be a king…
Cast, count a bit to let the fly sink, and then strip like hell – again and again. There is no strike; at one instant the line is being rapidly retrieved, at the next instant it is whistling back through the guides, and I mean whistling!
We lost most of those we hooked that morning to slipped hooks. It’s a bit difficult, you know, to set the hook with your rod-tip in the water, your reel literally howling, and your last conscious thought being of retrieving your fly. Still, we caught five, the largest my 36-pounder. Capt. Bill – only days from his so untimely death – saw it while we were weighing it at the marina He just shook his head – obviously in amazement. I believe I did too. I know we toasted it well that night – the last time we would ever raise glasses together to a fish.
Two days later I carried a friend from north Louisiana to the east jetty, and in some sloppy twos where just maintaining one’s balance while casting from the bow platform was a chore in itself, he caught three to almost 30 – his first kings and his largest fish on fly. And since then Bubby and other friends and I have taken kings on fly along Southwest Pass’s east jetty, in summer as well as during the prime time of autumn. Nothing like a no-brainer…
So another trail was cut into the wilderness, but only because no one else had thought of blazing it. The autumn kings at SouthwestPass have provided conventional anglers unparalleled fun and games for decades. They have been waiting there for fly fishermen throughout that time, and all it took to discover them was trolling trip, a thought, and the philosophy “If it’s there, fly fish for it”. It was almost too easy…
A lot easier, anyway, than the trail leading across the bluewater rip.
Dolphin have been popular fly-fishing targets off the Louisiana coast for some time now. I doubt I had much to do with that – perhaps in some abstract way like preaching at folks during seminars about carrying a fly rod with them no matter where they were going to fish. Anyway, I hadn’t taken a very big one until after another guy did, one of the main reasons being that like the lemonfish, the babies always beat the beasts in the race to the fly. When I finally caught a bull, it wasn’t quite as large as the other guy’s fish, so I didn’t enter it into the record book, but I did have the fortune of capturing it in front of a TV camera.
Actually I was also with Capt. Mike, who was the host of the TV show, on the day of my first fly-caught dolphin – those “chickens” of so many years ago. He had set up the show for one of the private networks in New Orleans, and on that particular day he wanted to chunk for king mackerel – the exercise I mentioned previously where we didn’t do a bit of good. That was with the kings. After we gave up on them we ran around looking, found a weak bluewater color change with a little sargasso scattered around it, and there swam the big dolphin – by itself. The camera rolled, I cast, the fish struck, and then it performed very nicely, jumping eight times. Late in the contest a small shark appeared – apparently not quite big enough to commit itself to take a chunk out of the dolphin but still not sure about it. The shark played a major supporting role, and it turned out there was a lot of audio from that point on that had to be cut, then dubbed in later, by Capt. Mike. After the show aired I received a lot of favorable comments about it – maybe that’s because I wasn’t the one doing the talking, and the fish – a 25-pounder – was quite an acrobat. That makes for good spectator sport.
Tuna don’t, in my opinion, anyway. That’s why I was never asked to do a TV show on fly fishing for them – and why I never had much enthusiasm about fishing for them in any manner. I’ve caught a few of them, and they are more than enough on 50-pound stand-up trolling gear – yellowfins, anyway. Fly fishing for them was not something I especially wanted to do – not if there was something else to occupy my time. Like cutting the grass…
Some friends from up the country, though, decided they’d like to give it a try. I hope that wasn’t because of something I said at the offshore fly-fishing seminar I presented to them a year or so beforehand. That, incidentally, did not include a word about tuna. Anyway, I guess they read some favorable fishing reports, got inspired, and one of them dropped by the house one day. For two hours he picked my brain – and took notes! – on what I thought would be the best way to fly fish for the arch-beasts, what to expect from them, rigging, and so forth. And it came to pass that they chartered Brandon for a chunking trip to the Midnight Lump – the snout of a salt dome on the floor of the Gulf some 16 miles off SouthwestPass and a hotspot for yellowfin tuna.
They returned from that trip lacking a whole lot of tackle – and one rod – that they had on the trip’s onset. And not a tuna had been boated.
Brandon bitched for two days. The guys did have some really bad luck – inopportune tangles and stuff that simply go along with fly fishing in general, but there had been a lot of tuna around that day. One of them should have been caught. He would stare at me when he said that…
At the time, rumor was that one had been taken on fly off the Louisiana coast, though it had not been documented, and I am uncertain if even the species – yellowfin or blackfin – had been declared. So, my feeling being that the guy who allegedly caught it was putting his jeans on the same way I was – and having had enough of receiving what was obviously a very pointed dare from Brandon, Brent, and Dave, a couple of days later we made a chunking trip to the Lump.
In case you don’t know, chunking is a form of chumming except that it’s done with pieces of fish-flesh – a few of those being tossed overboard every few seconds – instead of a continuous trail of mostly oil and scent dispersed from some form of container. The fly – which should properly match the chunks – is cast the same distance and at the same time as the chunks are dispensed and allowed to drift and sink with them in the current. Yeah, it’s fly fishing, but barely.
Anyway, I lost four – and had become pretty well whipped by them – before I caught one – about 23 pounds. Then I cased the rod and drank a couple of quick cold ones. And I have not been fly fishing for yellowfin tuna since.
Yet I had caught one, and it was properly documented and entered into the record books. But a 23-pound yellowfin is a rather small one – and there are people who don’t mind getting beaten up by them. A few of those macho-types read my stuff and phoned me from time to time to learn more about it all, and a couple of them have since taken some impressive yellowfins on fly. I’m glad for them – and I’m glad it was them and not me!
That was the last of the wildernesses that I at least helped to pioneer. Brandon and I have beaten down the grass on a trail to another one that a few other folks explored – chunking for gray snappers around the petroleum platforms. That’s a real boot – and a little more actual “fly fishing” than chunking for tuna! But by then most of my days offshore were being spent on well-established trails.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t catching some good fish along them. A 36-pound bull red that Bubby netted for me along Southwest Pass‘s east jetty surpassed the Chandeleur bull in the record book and remained at the top of that list for many years. And the final trip I made offshore alone in my last OMC “memo-boat” resulted in my largest cobia. That was on another early-autumn morning – much like the one years before that resulted in the capture of the great brown beast – and an exercise that I will probably never practice again.
But I’ll remember that last fish to my dying day. I was again mounted on my warhorse, lance in hand, searching for dragons on the rolling green plains of West Delta. The sea was gut slick, the sky was cloudless – the air almost crisp from a recent norther. And the rip that I cut on that drop-dead gorgeous morning was hand-made – the stuff that dreams are made of. Everything was in my favor for the final battle.
The fish approached and passed too quickly for me to get a cast to it, so I made a quick circle back to a point on the rip behind me where I hoped to intercept the beast – and I did. The cast was on the mark, the fish ate, and perhaps 20 minutes thereafter I netted it aboard. It weighed just over 45 pounds, and I hope you noticed that it fell to a drill that had been keenly refined by duels with numerous others of its type since the capture of the great one. “Positive conditioning”, if I may. Man, that was sure a long time coming!
Many of the trails I blazed – or helped to blaze – into the one-time wilderness of saltwater fly fishing along the Louisiana coast have become well-trodden. Most of the fish I entered into the record book no longer hold the top spot in their respective categories. But with either my name beside them or someone else’s, they are there – thanks to Ed Vice – to show what can be done on fly in Louisiana waters. And I am grateful for the part I was able to play in doing just that.
And yes, I’m pretty proud of it, too.
And that’s the way it was, once upon a time in the Delta…