Offshore

9-17-1997. 39 pounds. In less than three hours that morning, Brent and I caught seven on a weak but trash-loaded rip not three miles off the mouth of Tiger Pass. Humbly – I say “Humbly!” – we were good!

In the strictest sense of the word, “offshore” pertains to water beyond the seashore. Most fishing folks define it a little more vaguely – but a lot more inspiringly – as the water that begins beyond the seashore “a ways”. However you think of it, “offshore” waters typically hold fish that are much larger than those that are found “inshore”. Some of those are DEFINITELY NOT appropriate fly-fishing targets, some are marginally so (Provided mainly that it’s you who are fly fishing for them and not me!), and some are simply made to order for the exercise. I was quite fortunate to have experienced a considerable amount of time trying to to beat various beasties with a fly rod – won a few battles, lost a few too. But when it was all said and done, I can think of only one word to describe it all.

“Wow!”

Fly Guy F

5-17-2013

Louisiana’s Bay-boat Cobia

            Here’s an opportunity for a very popular Gulf-coast fish that many bay-boat owners don’t know exists.

 

            In 1994 I discovered that a 20-foot bay-boat was all I needed to catch a cobia that would win the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association’s prestigious “Fish of the Year Award”. Since that day friends and I have used almost identical craft to catch a very satisfying number of these prized nearshore fish, two of which exceeded the award-winner in size. Incidentally, those three fish were caught on flies!

            And while the potential for catching the big brown beasts on flies is worth serious consideration by folks aspiring to such an end, the overall opportunity is one that is hard to beat!

            The time for it is right now – late summer into early autumn when the weather and the sea is basically stabile and settled. The place is the mid-reaches of Louisiana’s West Delta area – that portion of the Gulf lying west and southwest of the Mississippi River Delta. The reasons for it are twofold.

            The first is an almost daily-occurring set of opposing currents that frequently make up into a well-defined rip (a.k.a. current line, current break, color change, etc.). It runs primarily south to north and tends to move in and out with the tide. At this time of the year with the high tide normally occurring in that area during early morning, it can be found as close as three miles from the mouths of Tiger and RedPasses – the primary access routes to West Delta.

            The rip frequently collects all sorts of prey-attracting flotsam – various grasses, logs, wooden chemical pallets, salt sacks, 5-gallon buckets, cardboard soft-drink boxes, ice chest lids, plastic hard hats, coconuts, and sliced chunks of watermelon rind, for instance, but during the times it is un-littered it can still hold cobia if crabs are present. It took a while for me to realize that, quickly leaving the rip when it was “clean but crabby”. Never again!

            The current along the rip is usually stronger south of TigerPass, so the likelihood of encountering flotsam along it is typically best in that area. However, at times even the clear side of the rip can be dishearteningly grungy in that area (Though that certainly does not mean you won’t encounter fish along it there!). If you feel you must conduct your search in clearer water, then head back to the north and attempt to cut the rip somewhere around Chevron’s vast Block 30 field (Roughly seven miles at about 265 degrees from the mouth of Red Pass). Here, the outside of the rip is usually much clearer.

            Once you have located a stretch of it that looks promising, begin to idle – idle! – along it on the side that offers the best sub-surface visibility. In the morning I prefer its east side, my heading being fair sea if at all possible to reduce hull-slap. Also, if you choose that side of the rip, maintain the boat’s position perhaps 15 to 20 feet from it, as cobia are frequently found patrolling its dirty side. Be alert for fish doing just that! Brother-in-law from Missouri got a 45-pounder in that pattern. I fondly recall him going on a rather classic “point” as the fish materialized in the grungy water just ahead of him. He locked up so tight that I had to holler at him to cast at it!

            Although the action along the rip is almost always a result of sight-fishing, one incident arises that warrants a few speculative casts. This is at the points where the rip makes a sharp jink in its heading – an “elbow”, if you prefer. Here, even in an otherwise un-littered state, the rip can collect a sizeable amount of trash. This can be extensive enough to hide even a large cobia, so several blind casts should be made – best to the clear side – when one is encountered. And be ready for more than one fish, too!

            The second reason this area offers so much cobia-potential is a result of the wealth of petroleum deposits beneath it. Production facilities, individual wells, and full-blown drilling/production platforms are scattered throughout the area from just offshore to well beyond the reasonable reach of your bay-boat. And if you look really close, you will notice a few “structures” that in the distance look just like pipes rising from the surface of the Gulf.

            At times cobia can be found around each of those types of structures. Indeed, multi-legged platforms have been proclaimed long and loudly as premier cobia-structure. And they are – and their sub-structures commonly assist the fish in re-gaining their freedom! Much “safer” water is found around the pipes.

            These are single oil and gas wells that are supported and protected by caissons – large-diameter pipes that encompass the wells’ casings from just below the Christmas trees to below the seabed. The reservoirs that these wells tap are not large enough to warrant production platforms of their own, but they can be profitable if they produce to some other company’s facilities for a fee. Compared to that full-blown platform over there, they can appear awfully insignificant, but they are fine cobia-structure! Fact is, one of the “pipes” gave up the cobia that earned the “Fish of the Year Award” I mentioned earlier!

            Like rip-running, pipe-prospecting requires teamwork. I’ve always preferred initially approaching one from the down-current side while a companion on the bow-platform scans the water around the pipe for visible fish. If none are evident, I idle the boat around to the up-current side and hold it there while a conventional-fishing companion makes a few casts, covering the entire water-column with a very rapid retrieve enhanced by long upward sweeps of the rod. And if you have been told that cobia tend to be a bit sluggish, just wait until one belts you about mid-way through one of those sweeps!

            Still, pipe-attending cobia aren’t always as hungry as their rip-inhabiting counterparts, but there are two ways that you can whet their appetites. The first – AFTER you have done your initial prospecting – is to cut two or three high-rpm do-nuts around the pipe and as close to it as you deem safe. Then back away a bit and wait three to four minutes to see if any fish will come to the surface to see what all the commotion was about. They WILL do that! And when they do and you catch one of them, it’s quite self-satisfying!

            The second way is to send them some freshly-cut pogy-pieces – a dozen or so tosses of a half-dozen pieces per toss within five minutes will usually tell the tale. They should be dispensed from the up-current side of the pipe with the boat held some 30 feet from it. That should allow the chunks to sink deeply enough by the time they reach the pipe to gain the interest of most of the attendant cobia. If the current is strong enough to blow them away, then try to locate a pipe further north or east.

            While pogy-pieces do catch fish, most of the ones my crews and I have taken around the various pipes struck one-ounce jig-heads dressed with 6-inch curly-tail grubs in either clear chartreuse with glitter or clear pink. On the rip a 3/8-ounce jig-head dressed with a “Queen Cocahoe” is preferred. Tackle is a matter of preference, but 20-pound mono finished with about three feet of 40-pound fluorocarbon is recommended.

            If you choose to try ’em on fly, use nothing lighter than a 10-weight outfit around the pipes and be ready to chase a hooked fish to safe water quickly! You don’t need a top-end reel, though it should have a fair drag and capacity for line and around 150 yards of 30-pound Dacron backing. Slow-sinking size 3/0 Deceiver-type flies in green and white or green and chartreuse (The best, but difficult to find.) are enough.

            But no matter what you fish with, if you fish from a bay-boat, remember what Louisiana’s West Delta offers during late summer. I’ll guarantee it will be different, and you are quite likely to come away with the source of some mighty good grilling-material. Get yourself some of it!

 

Notes

            > Some of the best sight-fishing along the rip occurs well into the hottest part of the day. Bring plenty of water and sun-screen!

            > Drop a way-point off the mouth of whatever pass you choose to access West Delta. It can get pretty hazy out there, inhibiting line-of-sight navigation.

            > Carry a cell-phone and a VHF radio. And let someone at the marina know you’ll be out in West Delta.

            > For safety’s sake, carry along 150 feet of anchor rope. That will give you a scope of three in much of the area you will be fishing, should you have motor trouble.      

            > If a squall gets between you and Tiger or RedPass and is heading your way, remember the escape route via SouthwestPass.

            > Everything you need for a multi-day trip to the Delta can be found at the marinas in Venice, including maps of West Delta and the passes leading to it. Buy a map!

            VeniceMarina – 985-534-9357

            Cypress Cove – 985-534-9289

(Center Console Angler 8-2007)

6-18-12

Hazards in the Ocean

 

            I must confess that back during my high school and early college days, I played a fairly decent game of golf. I, as well as everyone else who has worked himself down to a single-digit handicap, did so – at least in part – by learning how to avoid the many types of hazards which snap up slightly errant shots on a golf course – or how to get out of them in the most efficient manner.

             In the ocean there are often hazards surrounding a particular fish just like there are sand traps, water, and other little tactical hindrances around greens or at strategic points along fairways. Knowing how to avoid them, and how to best extricate your fly from them after a minor miscalculation in deflection or elevation, will assuredly increase your chances of catching that fish, whatever type it is.

            Oceanic hazards frequently occur in the form of various grasses which can be found either randomly or along a rip. In the latter case the grass can be either loosely consolidated or firmly packed and not unlike the rough alongside a fairway. When a fish is spotted in the open water on the “clear” side of the grass-line – the fairway, so to speak – the shot to it is fairly simple: cast the fly to a point a short distance ahead of it, start stripping, and the fish will strike it. Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work. On the other hand, when the grass is loosely consolidated as it often is in both open water and on the “dirty” side of a rip, dealing with fish within it is a different matter.

            Initially, you should use weedless flies. How many weedless saltwater flies larger than size 2/0 have you seen recently in your regular monthly mail-order catalogs? None? Neither have I. Con a buddy or create them yourself – a half dozen or so in the style and color combination you prefer on size 3/0 or 4/0 hooks and between four and five inches long. If you fish in the ocean, eventually you will need them.

            And if you use a little patience with them you will find that their productivity will increase tremendously!

            I have not caught more fish in the northern Gulf of Mexico because of rushed presentations than for all the other reasons combined, be those naturally occurring, mechanical, self-inflicted, or assisted. Most were made at fish in scattered grass which has a Satanic way of fouling leader knots and the fly’s hook and eyes. Even weedless flies are subject to collecting strands – especially of freshwater grasses which have found their way offshore – which can effectively turn off an originally aggressive fish.

            During the retrieve it is often impossible to detect a wisp or two of these grasses on a fly; your best clue is the fish’s response. A hot fish like a cobia or bull dolphin that suddenly turns cold can be coerced into striking a slightly grassed-up fly by pulling it rapidly from the fish. This is best done by a combination of quickly raising the rod while making a long line-strip. The rapid acceleration of the fly seems to shift the fish’s attention away from the strands of grass on it and onto the fact that food is escaping. However, at the point where that acceleration – or the hook-up – occurs, your rod and your line-hand will probably be way out of position for an effective strip-strike. Therefore it is imperative that once the “rapid acceleration” part of the retrieve is completed – or the fish has eaten the fly, you drop the rod back to its low position pointed toward the fly and clear the slack line you just created ASAP! Above all, do not try to set the hook unless both of those tasks have been accomplished. If the fish does not strike, snatch the fly from the water, quickly remove the grass, and offer it to the fish again. Occasionally a fish will become bewildered at the sudden disappearance of its prey and stick around long enough to permit that practice.

            A common hazard which collects many errant flies is a line or patch of Sargasso grass, close alongside of which a fish is actively patrolling. The cast is made to a point ahead of the fish, but the distance is misjudged by 2 ½ inches or so and the fly lands atop the grass. There, roughly 999 times out of 1000, it becomes firmly stuck. The fish is still coming – just about to reach the point where the fly rests undetectable atop the grass. If you could just give it a little tug it might come free and flip into the water ahead of the fish. Lots and lots of experience dictates it won’t. A harder tug invariably results in a clump of Sargasso the size of a 5-gallon bucket breaking free from the mat and surging toward the approaching fish. Guess what happens then.

            When dealing with Sargasso grass it is almost always best to allow a fly that was cast a bit off target to remain fouled until after the fish has passed it. Then retrieve it (By line strips, not by snatching at it with the rod which is a very effective way to convert a two-piece stick into a travel model!), clean it while your helmsman maneuvers the boat into position for another cast, and try again.

            One of the many exasperations of finding fish around an oceanic hazard is the difficulty of casting the fly to or retrieving it through the optimum spot – which all too often seems to be about the size of a dollar bill! Generally, the more times a fish sees a fly but doesn’t immediately attack and eat it, the less likely it will be caught. This is especially true with tripletail – an oceanic favorite of mine and a species which regularly positions itself beneath or beside a piece of flotsam in such ways that make an effective cast to it the result of either a minor miracle or magic.

             In my part of the ocean tripletail are commonly found under floating logs, often at right angles to the log and with their noses just beneath it. A fly retrieved parallel to the log on the fish’s side of it will not be detected; a cast to the opposite side of the log will not be detected until the fly has sunk some distance, and by then it will probably be too far away to entice the fish. And a cast across the log – even with a “weedless” fly – is lifetime guaranteed to snag it. Finally, if you keep casting – hoping for either magic or a miracle, you will assuredly end up lining the fish and spooking it. The best thing to do here is to be patient and wait for the fish to move – or have a boat-mate with a heavy outfit intentionally hook and then slowly “retrieve” the log. That can cause the fish to change its position if (A) the log isn’t retrieved too rapidly, and (B) the log is small enough to be retrieved with a fly rod in the first place.

            Cobia and bull dolphin have as much of an affinity for flotsam as tripletail do but are much less likely to be found laid up beneath it. Those which are discovered patrolling odds and ends like a log, pallet, ice-chest lid, salt sack, small mat of various grasses, and so forth probably have some form of prey hemmed up beneath it and are waiting for the morsel(s) to attempt an escape. As the fish circles the flotsam it will present you with a series of crossing, going away, and oncoming shots. In this setting I prefer to cast at the fish when it is approaching me, since at that angle a cast which is a bit too long will not snag the flotsam and seems to have no adverse effects on the fish provided a rather fast retrieve is immediately initiated. On the other hand, if you foul the fly on a log, pallet, garbage sack, or dead turtle, you have lost your chance at that fish.

            And if your boat-mates have tender tummies like I do, if you snag a week-old shrimper’s garbage sack or a turtle that’s been aged for a bit longer, you’ve lost your chance at retrieving that fly, too. Take your shot at the approaching fish!

            One oceanic hazard that I have great trouble avoiding is similar to the hole on a green which is easily reachable with a short iron and has “Birdie!” written all over it. However, just off the edge of the green nearest the hole is a deep, yawning sand trap just waiting to cause me grief if I miscue slightly in that direction.

            In my case the “hole” is a big fish – usually a cobia but occasionally a bull dolphin – and the “sand trap” is one or more smaller fish. A cast off the mark will be penalized by an abrupt hook-up with one of the babies, blowing my chance for an “easy birdie” with the big one. And it continues to happen with aggravating frequency!

            What’s the surefire solution? I have no clue. Snatching the fly from an intercepting small fish accomplishes that purpose, but it often leaves me too off-balance to make the quick and accurate follow-up cast necessary to hook the big guy. It would seem that once again patience – allowing the desired fish to move into the most favorable position – and then making a cast right on its nose would be the best practice. Indeed, it has worked for me before – when I thought about it. And that is probably the key to it all.

            For sure, you will never see a good golfer walk up to his ball, remove a club from his bag, and take a whack without first giving his shot a lot of thought. Just as sure, there will be times offshore when a fly fisherman must take a quick shot or the opportunity will be lost. Nevertheless, when offshore hazards surround a good fish, thinking about the best presentation before making the cast will lead to more hooked fish – and a lot less contact with those hazards.

(Fly Fishing in Salt Waters 1-2006)

 

4-22-12

Louisiana’s Spring Cobia 

 

            I got along very well for almost 45 years without cobia playing a role in my life. Then, for some reason known only to beings higher than myself, I contracted a desire to catch one on a fly. It was so strong that it led me on a quest which was not fulfilled until five years later and during which time Mr. Murphy’s law ran amok!

            Success, when it was finally realized, was very sweet, and between the time of the capture of the great brown beast on that drop-dead gorgeous early-autumn morning – while alone in my bayboat on the hallowed grounds of West Delta – and the end of my life in the lower Delta, I simply could not get enough of them. Of course, one reason for that was that I continued to fly fish for them whenever possible, and we all know that fly fishing was the act that led to the formulation of Mr. Murphy’s law. There are a lot of ways to not catch a cobia when you are fly fishing!

            Still, back then I ate grilled cobia steaks fairly frequently, and I found a few patterns (And those are not necessarily flies!) that led to more strikes, if not more steaks. One of those was that toward the end of those glorious years, I fished for them considerably earlier than I did early on.

            That wasn’t as early as the folks along the Florida Panhandle, Alabama, and Mississippi find them, but it was a lot earlier than many anglers hereabouts once thought they should be fishing for them. Fact is, there was a lot of erroneous thinking about cobia up until only a few years ago.

            Some of that which is pertinent to these lines was the belief that with the cooling water of autumn cobia, similar to tarpon, left Louisiana waters for warmer areas. At this writing, however, there have been at least 18 re-captures of tagged fish in the north-central Gulf during winter, along with several catches of un-tagged fish, which were reported to the Cobia Research Project of the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Notably, all were taken from water deeper than 100 feet, a depth that may provide them with a thermal haven sufficient to hold them in our waters throughout the cold months.

            These are apparently the first fish to appear near the surface after the water temperature has exceeded 70 degrees. In many years that occurs in mid April, and by early May the fish are well established in their warm-weather haunts, their numbers growing daily with the arrival of migrants. At least, that’s how it seems to be happening recently.

            There was, however, an exception to that pattern: the buoys marking the offshore reaches of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, a deep-water channel that once lead from New Orleans through the marshes of St. Bernard Parish and Breton Sound to the Gulf, terminating not far from the vast Main Pass Block 41 oil field. Those buoys usually provided the earliest action to be had in our waters – on the surface, anyway, the way my buddies and I liked it best.

            Those fish were probably migrants from the east; indeed, if you hear of cobia being taken along Mississippi’s barrier islands, you can bet they’ll be in the nearshore MainPass area in a couple of weeks. That can be as early as late April. Hit it right with fresh, un-pressured fish, and you will have a day you will never forget. Hit it a bit early, and you still have the excellent bail-out options around the remnants of Grand Gosier and BretonIslands, which the MRGO once passed between and which can offer fantastic fishing for big specks at this time!

            With the closing of the MRGO, I’d imagine its buoys have been removed. However, there are others along the Louisiana coast, and fishing them is about as basic as it gets. Idle up to one, look beneath it, and if there is a cobia in attendance, cast a “queen cocahoe” at  it – chartreuse with glitter and a red tail is a good choice – and you will likely get bit. The only “particular” involved here – once you’ve found the fish, of course – is to ensure the helmsman has paid attention to which side of the buoy’s cable the fish ran so that he can follow it and keep your line clear. Also, if you find a small school beneath a particular buoy, catch one of them, and the rest disappear, try that buoy again later in the day. When these fish take up residence around  one, they stay put, though they may not re-appear on the surface for some time. If that’s the case, deep-jigging around the buoy should do the trick.

            By early May many migrants have begun to work their way around the Delta. In some cases this takes them well offshore. There they discover rips – and the groceries which are typically concentrated along them – and take up temporary residence. Some of the best of these rips have blue water on their offshore sides, and occasionally at this time those move quite close to the mouths of the passes – well within 15 miles – and cobia can be found literally alongside bull dolphin and blue marlin!

            Nearshore blue-water rips can be fairly common off the Delta now; indeed, for three consecutive springs prior to the writing of this article, one moved well inshore and provided memorable action with cobia for those who could tear themselves away from the billfish potential. Early on, the most fish (We are still talking about cobia here!) are usually to the southeast of South Pass. As mid May approaches, many of the fish will have moved further to the west. Two springs ago a strong blue-water rip moved to within 11 miles of the mouth of SouthwestPass, and it was loaded with them! And at about the same time last spring, Brent Ballay and I found them on a rather unusual north/south blue-water rip a couple of miles south of West Delta Block 152, though that is getting out there a whole lot farther than one needs to go now.

            As the fish clear Southwest Pass, many of them move north into the middle and upper reaches of West Delta – say, from blocks 84 and 86 north to the 30’s. Some continue on, with one extreme example being tagged in Navarre, Florida and re-captured off Port Aransas, Texas, and only 61 days later! That was just a little lagniappe, though it goes to show that with cobia – both “resident” and migrants – nothing is carved in stone.

            By mid May I have begun pursuing them in earnest, sight-fishing when conditions are appropriate, deep-jigging when they aren’t. As in high summer and early autumn, my quest takes place along nearshore current lines where clarity is sufficient and around caisson-supported oil and gas wells. Strangely enough, while I have deep-jigged cobia around full-blown production platforms at this time, I have never seen one on the surface there now. Maybe that’s because I don’t fish them as much as I do the caissons and the rips. Whatever, the tackle we use isn’t really stout enough to prevent only a fair-sized cobia from gaining its freedom beneath a multi-legged platform.

            However, it does just fine in open water and around the caissons. If by some chance you have an interest in fly fishing for them (And if you don’t, then you should – it is really neat stuff!), a 10-weight outfit, floating braided mono-core line, and a 9-foot leader tapered to 16-pound “class” and with a foot of 50-pound for a shocker – both fluorocarbon – is entirely adequate for fish to 40 pounds or a bit more. Size 3/0 green and white and green and yellow Deceivers are effective flies. Once you see a fish, put the fly right on its nose and immediately begin moderately-fast 6-inch strips.

            While several of my regular cobia-fishing buddies also fly fished for them, my son-in-law, Chris Disher of Lafayette, did not. He used a 6 ½-foot medium-heavy freshwater “pitching stick” with a Penn 965 and 17-pound line with a 2-foot 50-pound mono leader. With it and the aforementioned “queen cocahoe”, he did quite well in open-water sight-fishing settings and had a lot of fun doing it.

            I also used that outfit to deep-jig (in not-too-deep water) with a cigar minnow in lieu of a soft-plastic on the 3/8-ounce jig-head, but for fishing deeper than around 40 feet, I prefer a stouter outfit: a 6 ½-foot extra-heavy “Musky” rod, an Ambassadeur 7000 loaded with 30-pound, a 60-pound mono leader, and a one-ounce jig-head dressed with a 6-inch curly-tail grub. Toss the jig to the up-current side of a caisson (Or a full-blown platform if you are so inclined), let it sink to bottom, and retrieve it quickly with broad upward sweeps of the rod. As with the MRGO buoys, the helmsman must be ready to pursue a fish around whichever side of a caisson it has run; at a platform, getting away from it quickly is the key.

            A lot of Louisiana folks are occupied in mid spring chasing big specks, billfish which are often as close to shore as they get, and the season’s first tarpon. They do their “lemonfishing” in summer – the way I used to do it.  No more! I’ve been waiting too long for the opportunity to once again lay a fly across one’s nose, and nowadays, having realized just how many of them are out there waiting to accommodate me, I am not about to procrastinate. Besides, I depleted last year’s stash of cobia steaks over two months ago…

(Gulf Coast Fisherman 4-2000)

        

    

10-20-11

Flying with Kings

Talk about an attitude adjustment!

For most of my life king mackerel ranked well down the list of my favored saltwater targets. I had actually caught quite a few of them over the years – drift-fishing with cutlassfish, live-lining white trout and blue runners, and trolling Mag-Raps and Russellures – and I had one fairly respectable specimen to my credit. But fishing for them in those fashions never really rang my chimes, and I never have cared for eating them.

Still don’t, but once I began fly fishing for them, their esteem increased tremendously, and when the opportunity to catch them thusly arises, I’ll head out after them in a New York minute! Here’s why.

Most often the strike is unlike any I have experienced with other fish. There is no solid thump, no sudden weight; one moment I am wrapped in total concentration on the retrieve of my fly, the next moment all the loose shooting line has shot into the Gulf, and in half a heartbeat I stand in shocked amazement at how quickly my backing is disappearing from the reel!

The fish’s first run could be compared to that of a bonefish, but I am not fishing with bonefish gear: the outfit is a 12-weight, and its reel’s drag is set at fully five pounds. And still the fish streaks away. Finally – though actually only scant seconds have passed since I first felt him – he slows, then stops 100 yards or so distant. Then the work begins. Two shorter runs – almost as fast as the first – break up the hump-and-pump routine, and then he is at the boat. In reach now, my companion quickly grabs the fish’s handle at the base of its tail, and after a pair of vigorous kicks it is slid aboard for unhooking, a quick picture, and a safe release. It is only a fair one – 20 pounds or so, but it was a whale of a lot of fun on the fly rod. And it is quite possible that the very next cast could account for one half again as big – or bigger. Super stuff!

In some areas, notably south Florida, fly fishing for kings – usually in conjunction with chunking – has been a fairly popular sport for quite some time. It is a productive technique, too: my friend, Ben Bergeron, from Houston, Texas, whose 55-pounder has held the top spot in the 20-pound tippet category of the I.G.F.A. fly-fishing records, caught that fish while on a chunking trip with ESPN celebrity Jose Wejebe. However, there is another way kings can be taken on flies which – to some of us, anyway – is a bit more lively than chunking, and if it is not as productive, then we could care less! Three or four 20 to 30-pounders in one morning are more than enough for this ole boy! You’ll see.

The opportunity is created around the combination of a jetty extending seaward into depths of roughly 20 feet or more and the autumn spawning run of the striped mullet. This is not to say kings can’t be taken around jetties at other times; one of my most memorable days spent fly fishing for them occurred in July. Autumn, though, is the time of the most fish, the biggest fish, and the most consistent action.

The proximity of the mullet schools to the jetty is what governs the fly-fishability of the pursuing kings. Here, the jetty serves not in its usual role as a microcosm of local prey and predators but as a blocking element. As such, it concentrates both the mullet and the kings in a relatively narrow band of water, thereby making it easier for the fly to be detected than if it was randomly cast across the open ocean. Any fish you notice skyrocketing 100 yards or further from the jetty only serve as an indication of their presence at the time. Working them – in my experiences – is a complete waste of effort.

However, should you see a few raising merry hell within 30 yards or so of the jetty, then you are quite likely to experience the signature of the king mackerel – that first screaming run – and very shortly!

Working them requires good teamwork between the angler and the man at the helm. While I have been able to both fly fish and maintain the boat’s position with a bow-mounted trolling motor on very infrequent gut-slick days with little current, that practice is really asking for trouble (Pete’s Law #8: At the most inopportune moment, a trolling motor will grab a fly line.). It is best to keep the outboard running at all times – idling from one indication of fish to that of others, in neutral while casts are being made, and then – upon a hook-up – quickly moving the boat out into open water. It’s also safer, allowing for a rapid retreat from the jetty if a rogue swell or the wake of a passing ship demands it, and the kings don’t seem to mind it a bit. On most days my outboard is shut down only for lunch and then well offshore of the jetty.

Jetties, seawalls, and breakwaters which fall within the parameters mentioned earlier often have two things in common: they are made up of large boulders – frequently granite, and a cross-section of their lateral axis would reveal the shape of a pyramid. As a pack of marauding kings drives a school of mullet toward the jetty, the baitfish will be forced upward by the slope of the boulders. Therefore, your flies should be worked fairly shallow. I prefer to cast mine at between a 30 and 45-degree angle to the rocks – placing the fly about six feet from them, let the intermediate sink-tip line settle for about 10 seconds, and then begin the retrieve.

On that note, you cannot take a fly away from a king, and they like it moving fast! Nevertheless, I will not advocate placing the rod between your upper arm and body to allow you to strip with both hands, since that is an open invitation to have it suddenly transferred from armpit to ocean by a king’s strike. Of course, if you need an excuse to buy a new outfit…

The strike, as I related earlier, is often very fast. It can be so fast that within the time from its detection to the point where all your loose fly line is in the water and your reel begins to scream (Yes, I have honestly heard one, possibly in need of some lubrication, emit sounds like real, honest-to-God screams!), you have neglected to set the hook. Well buddy, it’s too late now!  That happens all too often, and it is the reason why your hook’s point should be sharp enough to cut your eye by just looking at it! Mine aren’t quite that sharp, but they are close, and even then – due to the rapid sequence of events – I am frequently unable to get a good hook-set and lose roughly half my fish, usually at the end of that first run. And as my friends suffer from the same affliction, apparently that is simply a part of the exercise.

During that first run – assuming you remembered to lay a wet towel across the trolling motor and other potential line-grabbers and successfully got the fish on the reel – the rod should be held low and pointed at the fish with very little bend in it. Then, when the work begins, pump him back with short upward strokes of the rod just like you would with a short stand-up trolling outfit. If your tastes are similar to mine, you want to get him in quickly to ensure a better chance for a safe release, and a 9-foot rod held high with a big bend in it will not work on the fish nearly as much as it will work on you. Keep it low, and keep the heat on him.

The release requires a bit of discussion. First, it should be done quickly. Second, while you can slip a small hand-gaff through the fish’s lower jaw and then pull it alongside the boat to revive it, the gaff could damage its gills. If you choose that option, do it carefully. I prefer to grasp the fish’s “handle” with my right hand, cradle its belly just behind its pectoral fins with my left hand, and then vigorously thrust it headfirst into the water just like I was throwing a spear. I have been told that works just fine; so far I haven’t seen any “floaters” to disprove it.

As far as tackle goes, a 12-weight outfit is heartily recommended. The reel should hold a lot more 30-pound dacron backing than you would ever imagine was necessary, and its drag should be nothing less than the best available – otherwise you will be needing a new reel in short order; set the drag at between 20% and 25% of the class tippet’s rating. An intermediate sinking or sink-tip line and a 9-foot leader tapered to 20-pound class and finished with around eight inches of 60-pound single-strand wire has done the job for me on fish to 36 pounds. It also provides the means for getting them to the boat in relatively short order for release.

Flies? Thankfully there is no need to match a foot-long mullet. However, the best choices are fairly large, bulky, flashy, and tied on size 4/0 hooks – sharp 4/0 hooks (See sidebar)!

Kings may not be as glamorous as tarpon or sailfish, but in many areas they are much more readily available. At times – especially during autumn – when they gang up on a school of baitfish and trap them against a jetty, the ensuing madness has to be seen to be believed. It is truly a fly fisherman’s dream come true. Try it; catch it right and it will be an experience you will not forget. That’s guaranteed!

Sidebar

Since a single strike from a king mackerel will likely as not mangle the fly, I create fairly simple patterns for them. The one which has proven to be best is a Clouser Minnow some 5 to 5 1/2 inches long. It is tied with “medium” brass hour-glass eyes for weight, and from top to bottom it consists of a half-dozen peacock herls, green bucktail, chartreuse bucktail, and white bucktail, and it is finished with a dozen strands of Krystal Flash ™ running full-length on each side. The kings love it!

(Salt Water Sportsman 8-1999)

6-20-11

Best Bets for Bull Reds

 

Across the Gulf and southern Atlantic coasts, bull redfish provide one of the best big-fish opportunities available to anglers who are limited to fishing in relatively protected waters. However, few of these prizes will fall for the techniques that are commonly utilized for “regular reds”, specks, and other popular fly-fishing targets.

Over the years I spent many days fly fishing for them specifically and noticed some productive patterns evolve. First of all, to catch bull reds consistently, you must fish in places where they are likely to be found. With a few rather notable exceptions, those areas do not include “interior” waters. And while broad, seaside bays and sounds can hold these fish in surprisingly large numbers, the opportunity found there frequently consists of open-water surface melees which are randomly encountered and often short-lived. While those do occur often enough to warrant keeping an eye out for them, much better potential is found in the surf and around jetties extending seaward.

Although both scenarios offer good fly-fishing potential for several other species as well as “regular-reds”, some fine points relating specifically to bull reds must be included here. For instance, the surf of southern barrier islands is typically best for these fish from late autumn through early spring. However, “where” is the key here, not “when”, since bulls make guest appearances in these waters throughout the remainder of year, just rather infrequently. Still, if you have the great fortune of being able to fish a barrier island any time you want to, you will assuredly get into some bull reds and probably sooner than you would imagine, no matter time of the year it is!

While the smaller versions of the species are frequently found in the surf’s first trough, in any cuts through back-side flats, and in pockets that have formed within the islands, bulls will most likely be encountered in the surf’s second trough and near sharp drop-offs adjacent to surf-side points. In calm conditions both settings can be worked from craft like bay-boats, but wading is most popular since it provides better stealth and the ability to work a particular area more thoroughly. Here a rising tide has always seemed best.

Bulls are occasionally hooked around barrier islands by speck fishermen prospecting speck-sized flies. If such an angler happens to drag that type of fly close enough to a bull’s nose to arouse the fish’s interest, the fish just might eat it. However, bigger flies are usually much better, and bigger flies require tackle somewhat stouter than what is commonly used for specks. Here, as in most other places where bull reds are found, I rely on 9 or 10-weight outfits – usually the latter. Size 2/0 Clouser Minnows around four inches long are hard to beat!

Another area where bull reds are often found is near passes, those being best illustrated as the mouths of coastal rivers or the links between an interior sound or bay-system and the ocean. The surf adjacent to them is frequently similar to that off barrier islands, with a sequence of troughs and bars extending seaward. Here, though, the pass cuts through them, forming an avenue of sorts for both the prey and the predators.

During summer and early autumn, passes can be productive on both the rising and the falling tides, especially where a pass drains expansive interior waters. During the falling tide the current draws prey from the bay into the pass and then disperses it along the seashore. There, between the bars, is where the reds feed. On rising water large schools of bulls can congregate near the mouths of that type of pass to spawn, allowing the current to carry their fertilized eggs into the estuary where they will hatch and the new crop of reds will spend their juvenile lives. However, not all the bulls in those aggregations spawn at the same time, and those that don’t, eat.

On the falling tide a pass can get pretty lumpy as the current bucks the incoming swells. Therefore it’s best to anchor your boat just outside of the pass in a trough whose outside sandbar creates the first breakers. That trough is the usual target area and can often be worked effectively with a floating line with a clear intermediate sinking-tip. On the rising tide the pass itself should be the target area. Here, the anchoring position is not usually critical, since the fish tend to move around. Also, the water can be quite calm during the incoming tide. If it isn’t, then it’s too rough to be fly fishing the surf anywhere!

Fish the passes themselves with a Class III or IV sinking line, make your casts up-current and follow the line with the rod’s tip, taking in just enough slack to prevent a big belly from forming. Here, a strike will cause some of the belly in the line to straighten out rather than give you a solid thump. Never assume by such a “gradual” line-tightening that your fly has fouled on bottom here. You can just about guarantee it hasn’t!

While I have taken a fair number of bulls from the surf and around passes through it, if I just had to catch one I’d head for a jetty – that form of structure including those found inshore as well as extending into the ocean. Most of the bulls I have taken in this setting have been with an intermediate sinking line and a moderately weighted size 4/0 Clouser Minnow between 4 ½ and 5 inches long. A count-down is recommended to allow it to sink to the strike zone near the bottom of the rocks’ slope which can extend some distance from the visible rocks. So don’t concentrate only on the area immediately adjacent to those – just be sure your fly gets deep enough the further you cast it from those visible rocks. You will occasionally foul a fly like that and have to break it off, but that’s just a part of the exercise.

Except when it isn’t! Bull reds act kinda strange at times around jetties. Now and then you can come upon a patrol of them moving parallel to the structure just beneath the water’s surface. Get a fly in front of them before any boat/angler racket sends ‘em deep, and they WILL bite! They also follow hooked companions to the surface – be ready for that!

Friends and I have also taken a number of bull reds on flies in offshore waters. That should not be surprising, since that is basically where most fish that have become sexually mature spend the rest of their lives. However, the chances of coming across any in a fly fishable setting are remote. It is an opportunity, though, and any large concentrated patches of white water or schools of surface-feeding blue runners (a.k.a. “hardtails”) should be investigated. If any bulls are around, you’ll know it – just don’t mistake a gang of little tunny for the little jacks and go chasing them, because reds can’t keep up with those!

With all of that good scoop (i.e. “Well-documented data”!), just as sure as “floating” fly lines sink, some reader of this article will make a trip to his favorite patch of interior marsh, and there, while he is sneaking along a pond’s shoreline, he will almost collide with a solitary bull. Somehow in his sudden state of completely lost composure, he will make a decent cast, the fish will eat his fly, he will somehow manage to keep it out of the submergent grass, and he will eventually boat it. And then he will wonder what all the hoopla herein was about.

It’s about improving the odds of catching one of these grand fish on a fly. Remember, an old blind sow can stumble across an acorn.

(Fly Fish America 3-2008)

 

4-20-11

Meet the Strip-strip Teaser

 

Over the years I have held the top spot in several categories of the fly-fishing division of Louisiana’s fishing records. One of the reasons for my successes was that I was fly fishing in that state’s coastal waters long before it had become even marginally fashionable. Another reason was that I fly fished for a few species that were seldom targeted even by conventional fishermen. Fly fishermen? No way! But after long trials with plenty of errors, I usually figured out how to make the beasts eat a fly – well, sometimes. Take tripletail.

These fish are fairly common across the northern Gulf coast. You wouldn’t know that, though, unless you have been looking for them. That’s probably the main reason why most folks hereabouts don’t catch many of them. Indeed, it took a quarter of a century for me to catch my first, and all the while I was fishing in water where I later discovered they were often plentiful. The reason? I simply wasn’t looking for them.

In most cases that’s the first step in catching them. That makes it a sight-fishing exercise, the results of which will range from immense self-satisfaction through bewilderment and aggravation to complete frustration and back again. You’ll see.

Tripletail prefer temperate water and are found in a fly-fishable setting off the Louisiana coast from roughly early May into October. They inhabit water ranging from around 6 feet deep to well over 1000, and they have no average size; on any given day you may encounter fish from 2 to 10 pounds or more with a much larger specimen being a definite possibility. They are very strong fighters, jump on occasion, and are awfully hard to beat when fresh from a skillet. They eat a variety of prey, and if you offer one a fresh 40/50-count shrimp on a quarter-ounce jig-head suspended a foot or so beneath a popping cork, he will eventually eat it. On the other hand, if you offer him a fly, there’s no telling just how he will react to it!

In most cases, finding a fish requires locating an object of some sort which is floating on or penetrating the water’s surface. Tripletail have as much of an affinity for flotsam as dolphin do but are also attracted to piling clusters, buoys, and the legs of petroleum platforms. Fish holding to stationary structure are assuredly fly fishable, but angling pressure can cause them to become more temperamental than they are in their natural, unmolested state. And “temperamental” – albeit the unaltered characteristic – is what makes them such a boot to fly fish for!

Of course, it’s really nice to catch one every now and then. The odds of that improve somewhat when the fish are found in the open Gulf beneath random flotsam and that which has collected along a current line. There the fish can even become aggressive, though you are asking for an attitude adjustment if you ever count on one being so predisposed.

Ah, flotsam. You know, it’s a real shame how well the offshore oil industry has cleaned up its act. There’s not nearly as much tripletail structure floating around out there as there was only a decade or so ago. I guess that’s really for the best, and the offshore shrimpers seem to be taking up some of the slack. These days rope, garbage sacks, and salt sacks have just about taken the place of wooden chemical pallets, 2 X 12’s, and life jackets, and they hold fish almost as well. And there are still plenty of various grasses, the odd and end log, coconuts, and 5-gallon plastic buckets around to provide for a day of action – no, a day of opportunities. The point is, take a look around anything afloat – anything! – that you may come upon.

If there is a fish in attendance, it will appear in two distinctly different fashions. The first is in an upright position that you would expect of a fish. Here it will display a mottled brown coloration. In the other manner the fish will be lying on its side like a flounder and appearing almost starkly white. I have no clue why or how it does this, so in order to maintain a scientific approach to the subject, I phoned Jim Franks at the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Jim, a long-time fisheries biologist, is THE authority on cobia and no slouch when it comes to tripletail. When I asked him about the fish’s changing their planes and color, he mentioned things like pigmentation, communication with other fish, and fear, then paused for a moment and said “Hell, Pete, I don’t know!” I guess that makes it sort of unanimous. Anyway, they like to tease you by pursuing your fly while on their side and appearing white.

One of the surest ways to get a tripletail to eat a fly is to incite a reflex strike. This is done by dropping the fly quite close to the fish’s nose and then immediately retrieving it with very short but fairly quick strips. The problem is that if the fly lands too close, its impact will send the fish scurrying into the depths; if it’s too far he will simply follow it a ways – teasing you – before returning to his piece of structure. And the proper distance varies with each fish. Nice, huh?

There are two things that can broaden that distance somewhat. The first is to make your cast in such a fashion that the fly does not slap the water. The second is to use fairly small flies, as they are much less likely than larger ones to spook a fish with their sudden appearance. Put the two together and try for a spot about a foot beyond and a foot ahead

of the fish. And hope you hit it.

If the fish does not immediately spook, it will either strike or begin to follow the fly, the latter usually being the case. If it follows from some distance – say three feet or more – without closing, then it’s probably teasing you. On the other hand, if it is close to or closing the fly, it just might strike. A problem can arise there because a tripletail will often closely follow a fly all the way to the boat. At that point the fly can no longer be stripped, and it’s a rare day, though it does happen, when a ‘tail will eat a fly that’s being jigged.

But you gotta do what you gotta do. If jigging the fly doesn’t work and the fish doesn’t spook, it will often swim right back to its piece of structure. Do not cast at it while it’s doing so. Instead, change flies: same pattern but a size or two smaller. Give the fish a little time to forget what just happened, then when he’s resumed doing what he was doing in the first place, take another shot.

A following – “teasing” fish will sometimes respond favorably to a change in the fly’s retrieve. A favorite technique is to stop stripping and give the fly just the slightest twitches – almost undetectable. Another is to stop the retrieve entirely and let the fly sink. Here you get to watch the fish appear to stand on its nose as it follows the fly out of sight, frequently from a distance of an inch or so. Somewhere along the way it just might strike, so keep as much slack out of your line as possible without moving the fly. That will allow you to feel the hit. Word of warning, though: If you try this, it doesn’t work, and you start your retrieve again, that fish will assuredly spook.

In the Gulf you may come upon a ‘tail swimming along a sparsely-littered current line and relatively clear for a shot. Take it right away. However, more often the fish will be holding to the edge of something with its nose pointed “in”. In such cases making a cast so that the fly can be drawn between the fish and the structure can be quite a challenge – or virtually impossible. This is the main reason why all tripletail-directed flies should be tied “weedless”. That may not entirely prevent you from snagging a log or harvesting a big gob of sargasso grass after a tiny error in deflection, but at least you gave it your best shot.

If you are patient enough to allow it, a fish with its nose against or beneath a piece of flotsam will eventually move. This will possibly give you a better angle or a larger target area. Wait a while for it to happen; if you haven’t gotten too close or made a lot of racket, the fish shouldn’t pay you a bit of attention.

Speaking of close, it’s a lot easier to cast accurately when there’s enough line out to load the rod than it is at shorter ranges. Stay far enough away from the target area to permit that. Also approach it from the side that offers the best sub-surface visibility; if you are running a current line, keep the waves on your stern to prevent hull-slapping, and go no faster than dead idle. Radical changes in outboard rpm’s – like shifting from high-idle to neutral when a fish is spotted – may not spook the fish, but it will usually turn a potential striker into a teaser.

Occasionally you will encounter a sizeable piece of tripletail structure like a large, concentrated patch of sargasso grass, a sheet of visqueen or plywood, or something similar that can conceal even a school of fish and at such a distance from its perimeter that the fly will not gain their attention. A technique that will often alert such fish that a possible meal is nearby is to first cast a popping cork or big popper with a conventional outfit to the edge of the structure and then make some racket with it. This will often bring at least one or two of the residing ‘tails out into the clear where the shot with the fly rod can be taken. It’s also a sure-fire way to determine if a cobia is around, and that brings up the subject of appropriate tackle.

Because of the cobia potential in this area and the fact that quickly and effectively swapping fly rods on the offshore grounds is not easily accomplished, I would recommend a high-end 10-weight outfit. Yeah, that’s heavy for fish that commonly range from 2 to 10 pounds, but one like it has accounted for lots of cobia for me besides the tails, including a pair of 40-pounders. The rod has a moderate action; that combined with a tarpon-taper line allows for fast and accurate short casts. The reel holds the line and about 250 yards of backing, and the leader is 16-pound class with a foot of 50-pound fluorocarbon for a shocker. If the fish are being especially aggravating, lose the shocker and pray that doesn’t lead to the loss of the cobia of a lifetime!

As far as flies go, tripletail love small crabs. If you know how to make a crab imitation look natural, try one. I found out real quick that I am not so gifted, so since ‘tails also eat lots of other things, I use an attractor pattern. It vaguely resembles a short-tailed Deceiver about 2 ½ inches long and is tied – semi-weedless – on a super-short-shank size 2/0 hook. It has a big head with 7mm doll eyes affixed to its base, and a clump of marabou extends from the top of the hook’s bend to the ends of the hackle wings. It is primarily chartreuse with a green bucktail and peacock herl back and is loaded with Krystal Flash ™. The fish tease me about it occasionally, but often enough one will eat it, and revenge is sweet!

Some readers may feel that this article might have been a little – well, “light” for a hard-core saltwater fly-fisherman. When it comes to tripletail, I strongly advise you adopt a light attitude. Take them too seriously and they will blow your mind – rattle you to the max – cause weeping and gnashing of teeth. Appreciate them for what they are, though, and they can be as fun as it gets.

I know – I’ve been through all of that!

(Fly Fishing in Salt Waters 9-2003)

 

2-24-11

Judging Jetties

Virtually any anomaly found in saltwater, be it either benthic or within the water column, will attract fish. Most of this “structure” is naturally-occurring; however, there is one type scattered across much of the coast which is man-made and equally if not more attractive than the natural forms: jetties.

Typically, jetties – “breakwaters”, “moles”, or whatever you choose to call them – are created to prevent silting at the mouth of a major shipping channel or to protect an anchorage or docking area from wave-action from an adjacent bay or even the ocean. They are usually created of large boulders – granite being a common type along the Gulf coast – which either stand alone or serve to reinforce a concrete structure. Whichever the case, jetties are fish-magnets of the first order.

I caught my first speck from the jetty that protects the boat basin at Rockport, Texas from the ravages of Aransas Bay. My largest fly-caught red drum and king mackerel – both weighing 36 pounds – came from the east jetty at the Mississippi River’s Southwest Pass. And the largest live speck I have ever seen – also caught on a fly – was taken by a friend from the jetty at that same river’s South Pass. And the tales I could tell of slightly lesser events in which rocks played a major role…

For fly-fishing purposes, jetties should be classed as either inshore or offshore types, with both requiring different techniques and equipment for the best results, yet there is one constant. The rocks used to create them – either in their entirety or to reinforce their outside faces – slope. Therefore the jetty’s base – which provides just as much habitat for prey as its face – is some distance from the part of it that you see above the water.

Unless prey is detected swimming along the surface near the jetty, or a fresh slick suddenly pops up, or fish are seen breaking the surface – and all that happens often enough to warrant a lookout for it, they and the associated predators can be found at any depth along the face’s slope. So in the cases of both inshore and offshore jetties, the most effective presentation will cover as much of that slope as possible.

This can be done in two ways. First, from a point some 30 feet from the visible structure make a 60-odd foot cast at an angle to a point around five feet outside of it. Allow the fly to sink for 5 to 10 seconds or so, and then retrieve it in a stop-and-go manner with the “stops” becoming progressively longer to enable the fly to descend the slope for as long as possible.

Another method is to move the boat to within 20 feet of the rocks, make a long cast parallel to them, allow the fly to sink to a point near bottom as determined by the water’s depth and your line’s sink-rate, and retrieve it along that line, pausing occasionally to enable the fly to maintain its depth. If that doesn’t produce action, move in five more feet and repeat the presentation, adjusting the fly’s count-down for the slightly shallower water. Repeat this – if sea conditions allow it – at 10 feet from the rocks, then move ahead a short distance and try again.

In either case, upon a strike or hook-up make note of any obvious irregularity in the jetty adjacent to the point where the strike occurred – an unusually large or curiously- shaped boulder, or a high or low spot in the rocks, make good landmarks. Then return to that spot ASAP for further prospecting. Certain, otherwise undeterminable points along a jetty consistently hold fish, so remember where your strikes occur!

Along inshore jetties the water is usually shallow and best worked by the first method, and that brings up an important point. The outside face of most inshore jetties – the one that takes the beating from the waves – is usually the most productive. Nevertheless, I know of a few of them – all of which are constructed entirely of boulders – that have provided action on both sides. If the water is of sufficient depth along the jetty’s backside face – say, at least deep enough to float your boat, try that side, too.

Still, the outside face is normally the best and will offer the best chance for the widest variety of species and the largest fish. Besides specks and redfish which can be expected during most of the year, flounders and ladyfish can be encountered with some regularity during the warm months. Gafftopsail catfish occasionally make appearances during that time – they pull very nicely, thank you, and don’t be surprised if you hook something that shows you your backing. Bull reds, big crevalle jacks, and even outsized black drum are often drawn to inshore jetties. I’ve even hooked (But not caught) tarpon off one of these structures!

For that reason alone, a 10-weight outfit is recommended, and its reel should have a decent drag and capacity for an intermediate sinking or sinking-tip line and around 150 yards of 30-pound backing. A 16-pound class tippet finished with a foot of 30 or 40-pound fluorocarbon, depending on the water’s clarity, is sufficient for most of the beasties you will encounter here.

Although virtually any inshore jetty can be worked efficiently with Clouser-type flies – size 1/0 being a good all-round choice, poppers can create great action when conditions for their use are suitable: reasonable water clarity and a gradual increase in depth to 5 or 6 feet some 15 feet or more from the jetty’s face. Something like that, anyway. Poppers – also in size 1/0 and best worked with a floating line on an extra spool – are very effective on specks and ladyfish, and occasionally a big red will crunch one, but if you are looking for variety, stick with the Clouser-types.

Finally, inshore jetties tend to be most productive on the falling tide, the top half being my preference. That’s not to say fish cannot be taken around them at other times – as long as the tide is not slack, but falling water in interior areas always seems to perk ‘em up a little.

Offshore jetties offer a fly fisherman an excellent chance to catch large pelagic species very close to sheltered water. They generally run in pairs – one on each side of a navigation channel, though they might be of different lengths – and frequently the water outside one of them is deeper than that outside the other. As in the case of inshore jetties, the outside faces are usually the most productive, but here the inside faces can also provide action – a real perk when you arrive to find the ocean a bit too rowdy for working the jetties’ outside faces.

Generally, the jetty with the deepest water alongside it will be the better of the pair – at least it should offer the best shot at the largest of several of the species you are apt to encounter there. Besides the bull reds and king mackerel mentioned earlier, big jacks, cobia, and tarpon can be found along the Gulf coast’s offshore jetties. Lesser types commonly include blue runners, bluefish, Spanish macks, little tunny, and even specks and groupers. And don’t be surprised by others. Capt. Ronnie Granier of New Orleans captured Louisiana’s only recorded snook at the Southwest Pass jetties, though he did it conventionally, and retired U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Jim Barkuloo recorded striped bass off the Panama City, Florida jetties during a diving survey. Then there was the pair of jewfish I once saw on the rope stringer of a guy soaking bait inside of the Port Aransas, Texas jetties. There’s just no telling what you might hook along an offshore jetty – things you might not really want to hook!

Working their faces in the same manner as inshore jetties is effective for several of the species encountered here. On the other hand, types like kings, jacks, and little tunny appear to like their intended prey a little more lively. If the fish that you expect to be relatively deep aren’t cooperating – or if you notice some concentrated surface activity, cast the fly in the same manner as recommended for inshore jetties but work it shallower and with short, fast strips.

Roving bands of predators can show up at an offshore jetty at any time, on virtually any stage of the tide. However, I still prefer the lower ends of both stages here, since several of the offshore jetties on my part of the coast have subsided or had waterline boulders slip down their faces. During high water this allows the river to flow across them with current that makes fly fishing very difficult. If you are not faced with such a problem, fly fish an offshore jetty any time the weather allows it, and don’t sweat the tide.

While most of the beasts I have caught around offshore jetties have been taken with a clear 12-weight intermediate sinking line, I now occasionally use a 10-weight Class III sinking line for the deep work. I must avow that it has not proven to be more effective, but it requires less time to sink to the desired depth, and that is important when the current and the swells are moving the boat around in a disadvantageous manner. The 12-weight, though, remains rigged and ready for surface action. It is also armed with the largest fly – a size 4/0 Clouser-type around 5 inches long – and a short wire trace (See “A Better Way to Wire?” in the “Gear and Stuff – Fishing” page.).

The 10-weight outfit – which includes, like the 12-weight, a high-end large-arbor reel and LOTS of backing – complements a 16-pound class tippet with a 50-pound fluorocarbon shocker and a size 2/0 Clouser-type around 4 inches long. Admittedly, and even with its aforementioned time advantage – and even though I have had the pleasure of counting coup with several beasties while using it – I still prefer the 12-weight here and use it both deep and shallow whenever I can. That’s probably because I am simply no longer able to hold up to long-term relationships, and the big stick helps to even things out. Of course, blind-casting with a 12-weight outfit for four or five hours – and in the meantime (Hopefully!) catching several beasties which have threatened to whip me before I whipped them, can be somewhat tiring.

That’s happened to me quite often, and I am proud to say I have shared the experience with several friends – wonderful spectator sport! And it’s not really all that hard to do – inshore or offshore – along a jetty.

Believe it!

(Fly Fishing in Salt Waters 7-2005)

 

1-17-11

Points on Drag

A guy could fly fish for most of his life – even in saltwater – and never have to overly concern himself about his application of “drag” on the fish he catches. However, drag is such an important part of offshore fly fishing that it deserves some special notes.  And this seems like a pretty good place for them. So…

In my well-worn copy of Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, one of the many definitions of “drag” is “something that hinders or obstructs progress”. In a fishing application that could be correctly modified to “something which impedes a fish’s progress”. In a fly-fishing setting that “something” is composed of many elements, some of which are mechanical and some of which are physical. If they are understood they can be used to tame a great beast in a short period of time; if they are not understood, they can combine to exceed – often greatly – the mechanical drag you had purposefully set on your reel and lead to a broken class tippet, broken backing, or a broken rod.

The proper drag, and control over the fluctuations which it will undergo during a contest with a big fish, begin with the setting of the reel’s drag-system – a mechanical part of the drill. However, before doing so it is very important that the leader’s class tippet is “matched” to the rod. For instance, properly setting your reel’s drag for a 20-pound class tippet that will be used with an 8-weight rod can be a very effective way to test the validity of that rod’s warranty against breakage. Unless you have need for fray resistance in the class section of the leader, and then discipline yourself to use it for that purpose and not for its breaking strength, consider following these rules of thumb: use a maximum of 12-pound for an 8-weight, 16-pound for 9’s and 10’s, and 20-pound for the bigger sticks

Now strip the entire head of the fly line off the reel. By doing so you remove a sizeable part of the effective diameter which the fly line creates on the reel’s spool. Setting the drag at this point rather than with the head on the spool – which will cause the preset drag to increase once the head is removed – is the most accurate way of determining how much resistance you are putting on a fish during much of the contest.

Yes, as the fish removes running line and then backing from the reel, the drag will still increase due to the “spool’s” decreasing diameter, but not by much. This effect is even less on a “large-arbor reel”, one of the genre’s best attributes. Conversely, the reel’s pre-set drag will decrease as the fish is drawn near the boat and the line’s head is wound around the spool. Solutions to the former problem will be discussed shortly; the latter case is not really a problem but rather a benefit – insurance against break-offs during boatside flurries. If required, additional drag at that point can be easily increased by palming the spool.

Now with the line’s head off the reel, make four or five wraps of the running line around the hook of a set of scales. Have a boat-mate then take the scales and begin to pull more line off the reel – with the rod pointed straight at him – as you tighten the drag. When the scales indicate the reel’s drag has reached 20 to 25% of the class tippet’s rating, that’s enough.

Finally, once the drag is set, leave it alone! Conversely to what some manufacturers claim about the ease of changing their reels’ drag settings during a grueling fish-fight, you shouldn’t do it. If you feel the need to increase the hindrance on a fish, do it with your fingers – which are much more sensitive than any mechanical

apparatus. Conversely, if you think you should take a little heat off the fish for a moment, point the rod directly at it. Now, let’s go fishing.

For illustrative purposes let’s say the target of the day is king mackerel, and you are armed with a 12-weight outfit and a 20-pound class leader. In accordance with the formula your reel’s drag is set at around four pounds. Soon you have a strike, and as these fish are prone to do, this one immediately heads for somewhere way over yonder in a very rapid fashion.

At this point you must understand that nowhere in Mr. Webster’s dictionary is there any mention of “drag” being used to stop something. It is a hindrance only! As the fish races away that hindrance increases automatically with both the decreasing diameter of the reel’s “spool” and friction on the increasing amount of line in the water. And as you watch it disappearing into the ocean, a fear arises that you still might not have enough in reserve.

Here, do not try to stop the fish by lightly palming the reel’s spool – adding physical drag to it with your hand. Likewise, do not try to increase the resistance on the fish by raising the rod – an act that also adds physical drag by means of the line’s friction through the guides of the bent rod. By doing either the additional drag you will add to the reel’s pre-set mechanical drag plus the increasing physical drag caused by the spool’s decreasing diameter and water-friction on the line can combine to exceed the class tippet’s breaking strength. Keep the rod low and pointed toward the fish, keep your hands off the reel, and the fish will eventually stop. If it doesn’t and you become concerned about it dumping you, then chase it.

That’s why God made outboard motors!

Chasing a fish is also a good idea in an open-water scenario with 100 yards or so of backing off the reel, especially with lines of 10-weight and heavier. This is because recovering line will lessen any belly and the associated resistance which the water imposes on it as the fish makes a sweeping run. However, there are two concerns here, the first being that the fish is not being fully “hindered” while it is being chased, so recover the line quickly and then go back to work on it. Second, the way you chase the fish can do more harm than good.

Actually, you should chase the line rather than the fish. If, for instance, the line is entering the water directly aft of the transom, the fish suddenly appears racing across the surface from left to right off the port beam, and you turn left to pursue it, you will increase the water’s friction against the line and backing by increasing the belly in it.

When conditions allow it, “chasing line” is always best with the angler in the boat’s bow. The helmsman can usually see the angle of the line well that way and thereby follow it easily; an angler hooked up in the cockpit requires “backing down” on the line which can cause spray from swells breaking against the transom to inhibit the helmsman’s visibility. To be most effective, the helmsman must follow the line at the exact point where it enters the water, turning the boat with the turn in the line’s belly.

Okay, the backing is now on a relatively straight path between the rod’s tip and the king, the fish has stopped its striped-ape run, and the work begins – hump and pump. Knowing that any bend in the rod at this point is working to tire you instead of the fish, you keep it low, fighting the big king with the power in the rod’s butt-section along with some heavy-handed spool-palming – or fingering the line against the rod’s grip – to add additional drag as you pump. “Palming” and “fingering”, incidentally, in fly fishing is

quite similar to the same moves applied to the spool of a big-game trolling reel while a big fish is being pumped up from the depths. Just remember to do it while you are pumping, not while the fish is running.

After a couple of shorter runs – during which you kept your fingers well away from the reel’s spinning spool – the fly line is back on the reel, and shortly thereafter the fish is near the boat. But it is directly beneath the boat, it is still green, and it won’t give an inch to the pressure you are putting on it from directly overhead. Now what?

In truth, that might be slightly abnormal behavior for a king mackerel, but it certainly isn’t for other deep-water beasties. Here, it’s not the amount of drag – or “hindrance” – you put on the fish that counts, since that won’t prevent it from simply swimming along with the boat’s drift, but the angle of that hindrance that works against it.

If you find yourself with a fish which is directly below you and which will not budge – big crevalle jacks and tuna being some of the best at subjecting you to this mistreatment – you have two choices: you can work yourself into near-exhaustion by trying to pump it straight up, or you can simply ask the helmsman to “move the boat over there a little ways”. This must be done cautiously to prevent breaking the class tippet (Or the rod), but to be effective it must be done fairly quickly. Otherwise the fish will simply continue to follow the boat at its leisurely pace. Point the rod tip down and directly at it, keep your damned hands off the reel, and then at some speed between idle and that which puts the boat on plane, move it some 50 to 60 feet away from the fish. Then go back to work on it.

You may have to do that two or three times to capture an un-cooperative fish, but that’s much better for both of you than letting it sulk along beneath the boat. It’s something to remember, and it’s just another aspect of drag – the angle of the hindrance – which when understood makes capturing great saltwater beasts with a fly rod just a little easier.

And you will appreciate that a lot as the years pass by!

(Fly Fishing in Salt Waters 3-2004)

 

Jan. 3, 2011

Edges in the Ocean

It’s a well-established fact that edges make excellent fishing structure for a wide variety of popular saltwater predators. For the inshore angler they appear as the perimeters of grass-beds and shell reefs, rock seawalls and jetties, the slight drop-offs along a bay’s shoreline, the banks of tidal cuts, and a sequence of troughs and bars in the surf. For the offshore angler edges come in the form of rips.

These are not to be confused with the wild waters caused by the clash of tide and prevailing currents like those found off the northeast coast. They are simply a line of demarcation between waters of different temperature and clarity and are created by opposing currents, and they can be found quite close to shore as well as on the far-off grounds.

Unlike other types of edges, rips are such productive structure because they are always moving, the currents along them sweeping the sea of all that lies in their paths, and in doing so they gather and hold an abundance of various oceanic prey species. They also gather every bit of flotsam which lies ahead of them. That provides a degree of cover for the prey, though the predators – including knowledgeable fly fishermen – consider it prime hunting grounds, something that will be discussed shortly.

Rips could justifiably be classed as life forms. Some can be quite short, the sharp color contrasts, temperature variations, and current speeds found along their midriffs gradually melding into much less dynamic water at both ends. They can also extend beyond the horizon as keen and as straight as a knife’s edge.

They can be temperamental, day after day refusing to make up until they are good and ready. The water you crossed while heading out in the morning, which gradually changed from murky-green to clear-green over a distance of a hundred yards or so, may hold a strong rip by noon as the tide begins to fall. By dusk, though, it may have moved well offshore and then broken up as the tide went slack. This type of rip – greatly dependant on tidal changes – is usually very short-lived, but during periods of good tidal range it is reliable and will almost assuredly make up again at approximately the same place at the time the tide turns the next day.

Another type can be long-lived and rather domiciled, moving out and in across a very limited sector of ocean for several days before the gyre from the far-off currents that created it weakens and causes it to disperse or retreat offshore. Rips like this have cobalt-blue water on their seaward sides and host beasts that I, for one, do not care to hook on a fly rod. They are also found farthest offshore and in the deepest water.

The rip that is typically found closest to shore is often created by a strong rising tide acting against the effluent of a fairly large coastal river, and it is at its best when that effluent has been directed offshore a ways by jetties. Here, one of the perks many rips offer – sight-fishing – is not normally feasible, though any log or similar object floating along the clear side of the rip should be investigated for tripletail or cobia. In this setting, though, the best action usually comes from blind-casting along the clear side where Spanish mackerel and little tunny are commonly encountered and king mackerel are a distinct possibility. Size 2/0 Clouser Minnows, a short wire trace, and an intermediate sinking line make a good combination. While a 10-weight outfit might seem a bit too heavy for most of the fish you will catch here, using anything lighter is an open invitation to having it wrecked by a king.

The next rip (or rips) you will find frequently run generally parallel to the coast, so locating them is best done by heading offshore directly, not at an angle. These are often of the “temperamental” variety, so if you pass over an area where gradual clearing takes place, keep it in mind for later on, should you be unable to locate any others further out.

These rips are my favorite type, since they are normally found within safe range of my 20-foot center console rig, and they offer excellent sight-fishing for both tripletail and cobia – two of my pet saltwater fly-fishing targets. While the best of them hold abundant flotsam – grass, logs, and man-made objects, others almost as productive are simply color changes with associated foam-lines.

The latter type of rip may not seem to offer much promise, but if bait – especially crabs – is apparent, then it is worth a look. Admittedly, I once ignored “foam-lines”, opting to try to find something with more debris along it, but I quickly learned better! The key to the best ones – aside from the presence of crabs – is the amount and compactness of the foam, which is created by the opposing currents. A wide, sparse swath indicates little current and therefore little “gathering capacity”, while a narrow, thick band – usually on the dirty side of the rip – denotes strong currents with good gathering capacity.

For fly-fishing purposes, any rip should be worked from the side that offers the best sub-surface visibility. Frequently that will be from the dirty side, and you will be tempted to concentrate your search across the rip in the clear water. Don’t overlook the water either adjacent to the dirty side of the rip or just alongside a foam-line. Cobia, especially, cruise along the dirty side of a rip as well as beneath a compact line of foam. You probably won’t be able to see him when he is “undercover,” but occasionally he will make a sashay out into open water where, if he’s high enough, he’ll be visible. The point is, resist the temptation to focus on all that pretty green water across the rip and be alert for fish on the grungy side – and always be prepared for a short, quick, accurate cast!

The currents along any rip do not flow at a consistent rate. Eddies creating “elbows” are fairly common. These tend to concentrate debris, under which baitfish attempt to hide and cobia and tripletail attempt to find. Frequently the debris in an elbow is covered with foam, and very often the areal extent of this mat of cover is fairly large. Do not be in a hurry to continue on if nothing is visible along its perimeter, since enough fish to provide a day of great action could be just out of sight beneath it. Also, never leave one like it without speculating a couple of blind casts to different points along its edge. Here, you might even try a popper to “call them out”.

While foam-lines are usually best along the sections with the strongest current, and any given piece of flotsam in a trash-laden rip can yield a fish, the point where the latter type disperses is often the best of all. Do not be discouraged if you discover your lovely-looking rip has just broken up. Look around; bits and pieces of debris will be scattered randomly across a wide area nearby. Bait will still be trying to hide beneath it, and cobia and tripletail (And jacks and kings!) will still be seeking them out. A spot like this is almost guaranteed to produce action.

Since you are about as likely to spot one of these species as the other, and since cobia can average about 10 times bigger than tripletail, I’d again recommend using no less than a 10-weight outfit. Here, a floating line with a short head is best (“Tarpon Taper”), and a foot of clear-green 50-pound mono for a shocker is beneficial. Slow-sinking flies like Deceivers and Seaducers in size 1/0 and 2/0 are effective, and don’t forget some big poppers for blind-casting around the mats in the rips’ elbows.

The same tactics can be applied on the blue-water rip, except here, you’d be wise to use a 12-weight outfit. Cobia are not usually too common here, though I once found one on such a rip some 35 miles offshore in depths of more than 1300 feet. Tripletail, though, are surprisingly common even over great depths, and they are frequently found beneath something different along the rip – like a 55-gallon drum on the edge of a swath of sargasso grass. However, the target most readily available here and the one most fly fishermen seek is the bull dolphin.

That does not imply other species can’t be hooked on size 4/0 Deceivers and such along the blue-water rip. Yellowfin and blackfin tuna – the reason for the heavy outfit – can erupt into a nearby school of flying fish at any time, and a wahoo could easily rocket out from beneath a mat of grass to intercept the fly you just cast at a dolphin. And if you look closely there beneath that school of dolphin, you just might see a pair of rainbow runners – and experience the challenge of getting the fly through the voracious surface-feeders and down to their level. The blue-water rip is indeed a place of many opportunities.

Yet except for some of the species found there – and except for the color of the water on its seaward side – it is little different from the rips found much closer to shore. Any one of them can provide you with action you will never forget – action that could only come from an edge in the ocean.

(Saltwater Fly Fishing)

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