Fishing

8-11-2015

Hats!

 

There was one thing that my wife Barbara and I managed to agree on while we were having our new house built. I would have a loft where my fishing tackle, guns, reloading set, fly-tying bench, and computer desk would be located and not scattered all over the place like it had been when we lived in the apartment. And that worked out pretty well: my eight casting rods, two spinning outfits, 11 fly rods, and nine tackle bags/boxes were soon neatly arranged in a corner (And against the banister), and most of the guns were racked in a nice-looking display cabinet against a wall. The reloader and tying desk were aligned against another wall, and the computer and its desk were centered beneath a window that overlooked the backyard. The walls were adorned with the types of pictures and corpses that one would expect to see in the loft of an avid outdoorsman, and they, too, had some method in their arrangement. So while it all might have seemed to be a bit cluttered, it quickly became obvious that everything had its own particular place. Well, until you noticed the hats…
They were everywhere!
Have you ever thrown away a hat? I haven’t – at least not in the past twenty-odd years, but I sure have acquired a lot of them. It seems like every time I start doing something different – or have a mood-swing, I simply must have a hat for the occasion.
I’ve been deer hunting and bass fishing since I was a kid. Back then I had two hats. The hunting hat was warm because I hunted when it was cold, and the fishing hat was cool because I fished when it was hot. Life was wonderfully simple.
But about the time I started high school, I began to hunt doves – in September – when it was way too warm for my cold-weather deer-hunting hat. And it didn’t take long for me to figure out why the doves wouldn’t fly within decent shooting range of me while I was wearing my light-blue bass-fishing hat. So I bought a camouflaged hot-weather dove-hunting hat. And not long thereafter I began hunting ducks, seemingly always in the rain – which would really screw up the wool lining in my deer-hunting hat. So…
I wouldn’t say that life was getting complicated quite yet, but by the time I finished college, went to work, and got married, some genius had come up with the idea of putting things on hats other than baseball-team logos. And it soon came to pass that all things once held sacred weren’t anymore – hey, if I had really stolen that particular hat from Mabel’s Whorehouse, I surely wouldn’t have had the deed emblazoned upon it!
Still, since that time I have received as gifts, bought, swapped, and not stolen a bass-boat-full of hats. Many of them had innuendoes that felt right at the time, some were camouflaged and could be worn on a dove hunt, one was in florescent blaze orange for socializing, a couple in light blue were suitable for bass fishing, and a few were so blatantly tacky in their inferences that they could never be worn in polite company, much less afield or afloat!
But I have never been able to throw away a perfectly good hat – or even one that’s not quite so. And I even wear a few of those once or twice a year if I’m feeling particularly frisky at the time – the one from Mabel’s is light blue and therefore appropriate for bass fishing. However, Barbara and I don’t go socializing as much as we once did, so the orange one usually remains with the other four dozen, perched atop the shelf above her dresser’s mirror.
There’s no real reason why my trout-fishing hat sits on top of my shotshell reloader, but there is definite justification for its existence. I mean, what kind of philistine would go trout fishing wearing a bass-fishing hat, anyway?
There are a lot of scraggly-looking dry flies stuck into its band. They are all very special to me; each accounted for a fine fish. They are also anchored very well into it, and since the time I broke the hook on the fly that accounted for my first brown – while I was trying to remove it from the hat, they have remained there unmolested. That makes cleaning the hat a little problematic, and the grunge around the band – and on the flies themselves – that has accumulated over the years has become pretty well anchored, too. Personally I think it gives the hat character; Barbara says it’s disgusting. Come on – it’s a trout-fishing hat! If we decide to go socializing, I’ll wear the orange one!
My cold-weather duck-hunting hat hangs from a hook on the side of my gun cabinet. So does an offshore-fishing kidney harness, though that’s probably not especially relevant here. My warm-weather duck-hunting hat sits upside-down on top of my chest of drawers, along with my formal light-blue bass-fishing hat, formal dark-blue saltwater-fishing hat, three cowboy hats (Which I haven’t worn in almost 20 years), and my cold-weather-fishing-for-anything hat.
My retirement hat from the late Gulf Oil Company, through which I acquired – and retained for sentimental purposes – six plastic hard hats, rests on a wall-hook above my side of the bed. And the tour of duty I spent with them in the offshore drilling department resulted in a friend giving me the “Cooper Brothers Well Drilling” hat which hangs from the book-rack in the loft. And the fact that I have no brothers does not detract a bit from its net worth to me!
My loft overlooks the living room, and on the posts along the banister there sit my two “flats hats”, my “river-bass-fishing-and-general-go-to-hell” hat, and my “sporting hat”. Now I am certainly not trying to mark my territory, so to speak, with them as my wife and daughter once seemed to do with the not-so-random placement of certain articles of upper-female-body apparel around the house: “POSTED, KEEP OUT!” It’s just there’s nowhere else to put them, and I simply must have them.
For instance, I once wore my trout-fishing hat on a trip to Missouri to visit the in-laws – and to fish for smallmouths. That was before it got so grungy, so Barbara and her folks didn’t seem to mind it while it was in the socializing mode. Nevertheless, wearing it other than on trout waters seemed almost sacrilegious, so the “river-bass-fishing-and-general-go-to-hell” hat was an absolute necessity.
But here, it might seem that my life was becoming a little complicated. You see, that hat – which for expedience I shall now refer to as my river-bass hat – was hot, especially so during summer. And to me, river-fishing for bass is just not formal bass fishing, so the light-blue hats – even the one from Mabel’s when I was feeling frisky – were not entirely appropriate. But the warm-weather duck-hunting hat proved to be just fine, especially after I stuck a largemouth hat-pin into it besides the mallard pin so folks would know it was a fishing hat as well as a hunting hat.
Since I’ve gotten a little older the orange hat has become a bit gaudy for my tastes, so I now wear my “sporting hat” to socialize. I have also taken some very nice river-dwelling smallmouths while wearing that hat – just depends on my mood. And I wear the river-bass hat occasionally on saltwater-fishing trips during the winter when it’s not cold enough to warrant the “cold-weather-fishing-for-anything” hat. So you see, while I do have a hat for all occasions, I change them around according to external stimuli – or my mood. Of course, by doing so I certainly don’t want them to become misleading to anyone.
Their adornments – like the mallard and largemouth pins on my warm-weather duck-hunting hat – help prevent that. And I do tend to adorn some of them, because besides there being nothing as dull to me as an un-ornamented hat, those that are vague in their inferences are better off with none at all.
My trout-fishing hat, for instance, with all the ratty-looking flies stuck into its band, denotes quite obviously I am some sort of fly-fisherman. However, bluegills and trout alike will strike those same flies, and I surely wouldn’t want to mislead anyone into believing that I am a perch-purist! So I stuck a pretty little sterling silver trout pin onto the front of the crown – along with a pair of pewter insects which those flies are supposed to mimic on opposite sides for additional clarification. Now there is no doubt it is the hat of a fly-fishing trout fisherman, though for the life of me I can’t remember why I stuck that pintail tail-feather into it several years ago.
People have been wearing feathers of some sort in their hats for centuries. I am no different – my duck-hunting hats have been festooned with mallard curls, pintail sprigs, and goose pinions for years. Personally, though, I prefer my feather-décor a bit on the sparse side. Some folks I know literally encase their hats with feathers – one guy in particular has so many turkey feathers on one of his that it has lost the “hunting look” and taken on the semblance of a special-forces jungle-combat hat! Come to think of it, maybe that’s why he’s killed so many turkeys…
Anyway, aside from my duck-hunting hats – and the lone, don’t-really-know-why-it’s-there pintail sprig in my trout-fishing hat, my other hats are featherless. Their identities – or mine – are created by pins, patches, and “modifications”.
The armadillo pin I stuck into my formal light-blue bass-fishing hat is supposed to symbolize my Texas roots. Lately, though, it seems like there are armadillos everywhere you look, even around my home in the Mississippi River Delta. I’ve even seen some walking along the side of the road lately, for whatever that’s worth. I don’t really know why I decided to stick it into my bass-fishing hat; my “sporting hat” would have given it a lot more exposure. Obviously, though, it would not have been appropriate on my formal dark-blue saltwater-fishing hat – on the other hand, the beer-can pin on that one is quite so
Personalizing my hats has been done in ways other than affixing feathers and pins to them, too. Creasing the bills of baseball-type hats is one of my favorite ways. I actually got one the way I wanted it once. All the others came out different – or wouldn’t hold the crease.
That’s something which has puzzled me for some time and continues to bewilder me in one specific instance. My warm-weather duck-hunting hat is an Indiana Jones-type, camouflaged, and with a 3-inch brim all the way around it. One day on a warm-weather dove hunt when I felt like wearing it rather than my dove-hunting hat, I walked into a low-hanging tree limb. The collision put a permanent, off-center crease in its brim.
After numerous unsuccessful attempts at shaping the brim back into its original design, I decided to create a “balanced” look by creasing it an equal distance off-center on the other side of the hat. That crease will simply not hold its shape, even after a rather forceful application of a pair of long-nosed pliers. It looks pretty funky, to say the least – even for a warm-weather duck-hunting hat, but I just can’t make myself throw it away and buy a new one. I guess as long as the ducks and the doves – and the bass – don’t mind, I should care less about how it looks to me.
Besides, I wear my flats-hats a lot. They are about the ugliest hats civilized man has ever conceived, and there is no way you can crease their bills to (try to) improve their looks!
I had a patch custom-made for the first one I ever bought in an attempt to doll it up a bit – “Sneaky Pete”. I won’t get into the particulars about that, but the point is that though it’s a very nice patch, it didn’t help the looks of the hat a bit!
That bothered me a little. I take some pride in being a fairly well-accomplished saltwater fly fisherman, and I wear the flats hats – besides hoping to prevent acutely-sunburned ears – as an inference of that. All right, I might also be a tad bit vain, but nevertheless, I have no doubt recognition is all too often something like this:
“Hey Joe, look at that guy over there. He must be a fairly well-accomplished saltwater fly fisherman, judging from that God-awful-looking hat he is wearing!”
Now some of you might be wondering why I have two similarly shaped, colored, and ugly flats hats as well as a formal dark-blue saltwater-fishing hat. Simple, I wear the formal one on offshore trips for the glamorous types like tarpon and tuna, and I wear one of the flats hats when I go inshore fly fishing – and when I go offshore fly fishing. And I also wear my formal hat when I make an inshore meat run – sure don’t want to desecrate the image of the fly fisherman while I’m harvesting skillet-material by wearing a flats hat! There’s nothing complicated about that.
All right, you might say, but why two flats hats? Well, the first one didn’t have a chin strap. That was okay for a while, since my boat is pretty slow, but after I began fishing with friends who had fast boats, I was afraid I’d lose it. So I bought another one that had a strap. And to be entirely honest, the older one was getting a little beat-up and grungy-looking too – but I still can’t bring myself to throw it away.
And I must confess that I actually have three flats hats, but the third is a bit different, being of the same configuration but colored in light and dark blue, light and dark green, white, and red. It’s ugly to the max, but like the grungy one, I can’t bring myself to pitch it – but I do keep it well hidden at the bottom of the cedar chest.
When you get right down to it, only about six of the 50-odd hats that I have get worn with any regularity. I look at them occasionally – sort of like collectibles, and anyone walking up the stairs who notices the ones on the banister and gun cabinet – and on the book rack – should know right away that he is entering the realm of an avid outdoorsman, pictures and corpses aside. Still, it seems a waste to have so many perfectly good hats sitting around that are not being put to their best use.
Has anyone out there got some they might want to swap? I’ve been looking for one from Carp Pro Shops for years now – let me know if you have one, a little grungy or not. But I am not swapping the one from Mabel’s for it, and come to think of that, I am feeling especially frisky right now.
Whoops, there’s Barbara hollering for me to step on it – almost late for a socializing tonight…
“Hold on, hon, let me get my hat…”

 

 

6-25-2015

The Great Midnight Lump Fly-fishing Debacle

Yellowfin TunaSackett Bank is a small hill – the snout of a piercement salt dome – on the bed of the Gulf of Mexico roughly 16 miles on a heading of 200 degrees from the mouth of the Mississippi River’s Southwest Pass. While it is fairly small in areal extent, it rises from surrounding depths of 450 feet or more to less than 190 and by doing so creates some serious bait-concentrating upwellings in the prevailing currents. It also stands only a short distance from the rim of the continental shelf and is covered from time to time with cobalt-blue water. It is therefore a gathering place – prime feeding grounds – for large offshore pelagic species, and to those of us who fish there for these great beasts, it is fondly known as “The Midnight Lump” – a title gained by the site’s well-known late-night “bites”.

During winter and early spring it is one of the hottest spots in the entire Gulf for yellowfin tuna and wahoo. At this time a sizeable commercial fleet anchors on it and “chunks” – a chumming technique which is as effective on tuna as earthworms are on bluegills. Most often when the fickle weather of the season allows us to venture there in our smaller sportfishing boats, we troll for them. Occasionally the fish school and feed high in the water column. We found them like that one lovely winter day not all that long ago, caught several fine wahoo, and I had the rather unique experience of refusing to cast a fly at a fish – a yellowfin that was inappropriate for 50-pound trolling gear, much less a 12-weight fly rod!

More often, though, they hold deeply, requiring downriggers to reach them – or chunking to bring them up. And that’s where the idea that led to “The Great Midnight Lump Fly-fishing Debacle” began.
I blame it all on a north-Louisiana buddy who, along with his brand-new 12-weight outfit, I had put on some pretty respectable king mackerel at the Southwest Pass jetties a while back. A couple of months thereafter I related to him the results of the aforementioned trolling trip to the Lump. He said he’d like to try that with a fly rod – I guess since he had been able to tame the kings without too great an effort, he felt there wouldn’t be that much more trouble capturing the arch-beasts. So it apparently didn’t quite register with him when I mentioned that while the 50-pound ‘hoo I had caught conventionally might have only dumped the entire 500 yards of backing off my reel had I hooked it on fly, the big yellowfin would have surely destroyed it!
“You should have at least cast at it”, he innocently declared. “You could have broken it off any time”.

I had no doubt about that, but could I have severed the relationship in time to save the reel? Besides, while I have grown quite fond of the handsome, swift, and succulent wahoo, I have never had much use for tuna which, in my humblest of opinions, are more work than fun to catch and provide no spectator-sport whatsoever – well, not unless you like to watch someone else sweat. Thoughts of fly fishing for them – a practice no one in Louisiana was admitting to doing at the time – had been very few and without much enthusiasm

In retrospect, I guess, it was mostly my fault. The reason I had taken my 12-weight outfit along on that particular trip was because I felt I could handle an average-sized wahoo with it – at least I wanted to try. Had I not brought it along, the incident with the big tuna would not have occurred, I therefore could not have related it, and the “inspiration” would have not arisen.

Not in such a heated state, anyway. But I had planted a seed at an offshore fly-fishing seminar some years back – though tuna and wahoo were not a part of it – and that had begun to grow in a few of those who heard it.

My up-country buddy – who had heard it – dropped by the house a few weeks later to pick my brain on just how he and a couple of other seminar attendees could possibly catch those fish on fly. I offered him – somewhat unenthusiastically, I must admit – what I knew about rigging wire, flies that should be appropriate, what to expect from the fish, and so forth, but after an hour or so of that, he finally got around to the real question:
“How would we fish for them?”
“Oh”, I responded, “chunk ‘em up, I suppose.”

So it came to pass that Brandon was hired for an early-spring day of chunking on the Midnight Lump. It would be a day when no conventional tackle would be allowed on board – a day well planned and prepared for fly fishing for the arch-beasts – a day for which I was invited along to serve as a “consultant” – a day that was eventually blown out by the weather.

The trip was subsequently re-scheduled, though on a day when neither my up-country buddy nor I could come along. I had other commitments – fishing – and by chance my guest and I returned to the marina that afternoon at the same time the participants of Phase One of the “Debacle” were pulling up to the dock. Never before or since have I seen such a defeated, dejected, and bedraggled bunch of fly fishermen!

I knew one of them fairly well. He was the most experienced of the group, though with somewhat smaller and tamer beasts than tuna and wahoo. It turned out he was also the most coherent of the crew, and as it appeared they’d had no luck, I offered a sympathetic “What happened – couldn’t get ‘em up?”
“Oh no”, he whispered hoarsely, “we got ‘em up!”

The ensuing conversation – with me in the middle and all four of them trying to talk at once – was a bit of a blur, but I was able to interpret that at least three complete fly lines, a sizeable amount of backing, a box-full of flies, and a top-line rod had been casualties of the day. And not a tuna had been boated!

After they had departed, Brandon and I partook in a couple of cold ones as he related the day’s events (He received a very large tip, by the way!). While he is not a real, honest-to-God fly-fishing guide, I had shown him enough about it over the years – and let him catch some good fish with my gear – so that he knew what was going on.
“Man”, he kept saying, “I sure wish you’d have been there…” – a statement which I soon realized could have been taken as a dare.

Within two days he, Brent, and Dave – all supposedly good friends and fishing buddies – had coerced me into trying my hand at it. By mid-morning on the third day Dave, Brent and I had secured the anchor atop the Lump and begun to chunk, and it wasn’t long before the arch-beasts arrived. Now, here’s the deal.

The fly – as near an exact duplication as possible of a thumb-sized chunk of bloody bonito-meat – is cast at the same time a handful of chunks is tossed overboard (The “cast” is only some 8 to 10 feet, but that’s what makes it honest “fly fishing”). Then the fly is allowed to sink and drift with the current at the same rate as the chunks – not unlike an extended “downstream reach”. Being as scientific about it as I could, I limited the distance of my “reach” to about 50 feet so I could retrieve the fly quickly in order to make another cast as more chunks were dispensed.

The first beast which appeared in what was to become a tremendous cobalt-blue aquarium was the largest wahoo anyone aboard had ever seen – perhaps 100 pounds! This gorgeous, fast-swimming open-ocean predator would slowly and methodically approach a chunk, eat it without effort, then glide on to the next, and he wouldn’t even look at a fly or baited hook which had a short length of light, single-strand wire attached to it. Neither would the tuna; that’s why my friends’ hooks were tied directly to their 20-pound lines and why my flies were tied to the class tippet. And that’s why none of us caught that or any other wahoo that visited our chow-line that day. We also didn’t catch most of the tuna we hooked, though for other reasons, and since this is supposed to be about fly fishing, I’ll only mention the minor malfunctions that affected me.

The first fish – and thankfully the only one that led to a fly line’s demise – established Phase Two of the “Debacle” well into the backing. I have a bit of a problem figuring that one out, since the backing was 50-pound test and the class tippet was 20. Maybe the backing contacted another fish, which was quite possible with the number of them that was present around us! Whatever, a short time after I swapped out reels, the second fish broke the class tippet – after I had pumped it back from its initial 220-yard dash and as it was circling deep beneath the boat.

The next two pulled the same stunt, except they just threw the hook after making me work back all that line. But I got the fifth – a small yellowfin of about 23 pounds – after almost an hour of mostly pumping and humping. And sweating. And I must mention the fact that there were several contests with hefty little tunny in between the bouts with the tuna! So by the time I got my fish, I was thoroughly beat, and I ain’t bashful about admitting to it! Then I cased the rod, popped the top on a badly-needed cold one, and after catching my breath (And well into my second “cold one”!) took over the chunking duties for my friends.

The belly bruises from the rod’s fighting butt disappeared after a week or so. It only took three days for the pain to subside that developed in my reel hand after cranking back – let’s see, 5 times about 220 yards each equals a total of 1100 yards of backing (Plus that which the little tunny carried off a ways!), and the flyline company expedited sending me a replacement line, so I wasn’t out of business very long. All that’s not too bad – actually it’s a lot better than what happened to those valiant souls who ventured to the Lump in Phase One of the “Debacle”. But now I have claim to a yellowfin tuna on fly – at the time a pretty rare accomplishment hereabouts, and do you know what? Even with the lack of enthusiasm that I (Still!) have for tuna, one day before I die I just might go fly fishing for them again.

 

 

 

1-15-2014

Genesis

 

            My grandfather on my mother’s side, the late Clifford Herbert Zirkel, came from stout German stock and lived his entire life in San Antonio, Texas. His formal education ended at the 8th grade, but he had great business sense and, upon retiring after some 30 years of running his family’s quite successful monument works, he was named chairman of the board of a big savings and loan company, a position he held even after an operation left him legally blind.

            Because of his talent with business, my grandfather was fairly well-to-do. That allowed him to pursue the outdoor activities he enjoyed so much – deer and turkey hunting and fishing – and toward the end of the Great Depression he bought a ranch way back in the wilds of the Texas Hill Country. There, he and my father would teach me the wiles of the fisherman and the lore of the hunter.

            He and his family also had a second retreat at Rockport, then a small and rather remote fishing village on Texas’ central coast. However, even as such the town was much more civilized than the ranch was, with electricity, telephones, and refrigerators, and the locals were really nice folks. Still, my grandfather never did buy a house there for the purpose of a camp, choosing instead to rent an apartment or a cottage for their stays. By the time I entered the world, summer trips to Rockport had become a ritual.

            For the first 10 years of my life I was relegated to the care of the womenfolk while the men fished. Most of my time was spent swimming in the bay, doing boyish things, and tagging along when the ladies went browsing through the few local curio shops. Late in this period I began to fish, catching mostly sea catfish on dead shrimp from the piers, where I remained under watchful eyes.

            The piers. Almost every waterfront home or apartment building that fronted Aransas Bay had a pier back then. Who knows what kind of wood they were made of, but they were built upon two parallel rows of pilings driven into the bay’s hard sandy bottom, and they extended across the broad expanse of nearshore flats to a point just beyond where the water began to deepen some 200 yards, sometimes farther, from the bank. There, a tee was constructed at the end of the pier to provide room for several fishermen to work what was usually the pier’s best water.

Many of those creations were works of art. On the other hand, most tested your coordination – and your nerves – as you made your way across loose and askew planks to reach the tee. None was very wide, and I cannot recall one with handrails, but all were strung with an electric wire, and a half-dozen or so bright lights were attached to uprights toward the ends of the piers and along their tees. These lights were for the purpose of attracting baitfish after dark, in hopes that spotted seatrout – “specks”, the fish of choice along the Texas coast – would soon follow.

As a child, I never did catch much from the piers, since the specks usually arrived long after I had gone to bed. As a teenager I fared somewhat better, and late one afternoon while wade-fishing near a pier that had been beaten into near oblivion by a recent storm, I hooked a great something that took my lure and a lot of line with it as it surged away. But early on, most of my time upon the piers was spent on my stomach, peering into the water beneath that bright blue Texas sky, or beneath the lights, to see what might be there.

                               Speck

            At the age of 10 I began to fish with the men. By then, due in great part to a lot of loving patience from my grandfather and the blessing of a beautiful creek that ran through the ranch, I had become reasonably competent with a casting rod. At about the same time, I discovered in the rafters of an outbuilding there an ancient bamboo fly rod with a rusting “automatic” reel and a silk line. In later years “Pappaw” would tell me that I caught a bass with it that summer on a ratty Gray Ghost streamer. I do not remember the fish, but I do know that I began fly fishing about that time, and within a year or so I was as comfortable with the fly rod as I was with the casting outfit – on the creek, anyway, and on the lakes near my home. The world of saltwater fishing was just beginning for me, and I gave no thought to entering that world with a fly rod in hand – a practice virtually unheard of at the time.

            Pappaw bought a boat the year I turned 12 – the year my youngest sister was born. Mom sent me away for a couple of weeks after she got back from the hospital, and I passed those days in youthful bliss with my grandfather aboard his boat on Aransas Bay. In the mornings before that eternal southeasterly gale began to build, we caught specks, and I met the ladyfish and the sail-cat – pests to the older anglers, wonders to the young. In the afternoons I began to wade the flats around the piers, and in the evenings I’d fish from them. Sometimes I’d catch a few, always I’d look a lot. From daylight to well past dark, saltwater – and all that was within it – saturated my mind as well as my body. I loved it.

            I loved the creek at the ranch, too, and by the following summer the casting rod was usually left inside the house during my afternoon fishing hours there. Fly fishing had also entrenched itself in my mind, and for an all-too-brief time I spent many spring, summer, and autumn evenings probing the creek’s deep, sycamore-shaded pools and long, rocky runs with poppers and streamers. At home – and at school – I daydreamed endlessly of fly fishing on the creek and catching specks at Rockport. For a gift that year – I don’t recall whether it was for my birthday or for Christmas – my parents gave me my own fly rod.

            It was a Shakespeare Wonderod – 8 ½ feet for the equivalent of an 8-weight line and bright yellow in color. In retrospect, it was a bit heavy for my purposes, but it was mine. I doted on it, and I saved my meager allowance to buy flies for it. One of those was a long, thin, green popper in a size that was really too big for the creek and for the panfish and bass that I usually caught in the lakes near home. But when I saw it I simply had to have it.

            Late the following spring my parents related to me the saddest news I had ever received up till that time: my grandfather had decided to sell his ranch. That summer we all gathered there for one last retreat, then my parents and sisters drove home, leaving me with Pappaw for a final week there together – the week of my 14th birthday. And after the packing and cleaning chores were done in the afternoons, I would take my new fly rod down to the creek and cry as I fished with it.

            He felt as bad about it all as anyone did, but it was something that had to be done. In an effort to ease the pain of it – for himself, I’m sure, as much as for me – he suggested that after we finished our chores there we should spend a week at Rockport. That was in July, 1958.

            By then a handful of motels had been constructed between the cottages and apartments along the waterfront. We stayed in one that had sufficed in recent years when our favorite cottage wasn’t available. It was located right at the mouth of the boat basin, and its pier extended almost to the channel, pointing toward the foot of the jetty. It was a familiar place, and a place that would host us in future, happier times. And I believe it’s still there.

            Too many years have passed for me to be able to recall the particulars of that week. It’s likely that my memories are repressed by the events that took place during out last days at the ranch, and the pain of the loss of my beloved creek. But one night after supper while my grandparents were sitting on the porch, I remember walking out onto the pier – just to see.

            It was not a normal night for that part of the Texas coast during summer. The afternoon gale did not build that day, and the water beneath the lights was flat calm and as clear as I’d ever seen it. Specks and ladyfish were everywhere, plainly visible chasing small brown shrimp across the placid surface. The regulars who were fishing from the tee were having fine luck, and as I watched the fish and the shrimp, a thought arose of the long, thin green popper. Perhaps, just perhaps, those fish might strike it.

            I returned to the motel room where I rigged up the fly rod – temporarily forgotten in the trunk of the car where I had left it upon returning from the ranch. And I’ll never forget Pappaw’s expression as he looked up from pondering the smoke of his after-supper cigar and saw the fly rod. But he said only “Good luck,” and very soon I was back beside the light on the pier.

            And for a while, anyway, the pain of the loss of the ranch was soothed as the ladyfish slashed at the popper, hooking themselves, cavorting wildly across the lighted water, and then – usually – throwing the hook. But I caught three of them before the mangled fly was engulfed by a big speck and the badly-frayed leader parted. And that was it for the night.

                                   

                        Ladyfish            

            A lot of years have passed since I caught those ladyfish – my first saltwater fish on a fly. The rod, and all of the old folks, are gone now. Rockport has become a major venue for Texas fly fishermen and hardly resembles the little bayside village that it once was. And the ranch? Well, who knows. But it all came together on that one night to conceive in me a love of saltwater fly fishing that has lasted a lifetime – a love that would not have blossomed had it not been for dear people and dear places. I have been a very fortunate person.

(Saltwater Fly Fishing 10/11, 1999)

 

12-10-13

The Wonderful Brain-Dead Red

 

            Writers of “columns” – blocks of prose that appear regularly in a publication in about the same place every time – are faced with a variety of responsibilities. For instance, in a fly-fishing magazine it is of primary importance that they relate experiences and how-to-do-it data that pertains to that sport alone and not wander off on hunting pintails or effective trolling spreads for tarpon. Then too, many readers look to columnists as sources of data that will greatly benefit their efforts. So in order for that data to appear as valuable as possible, columnists occasionally must create the illusion that a particular topic is (A) possessed with great intelligence (i.e. a brown trout), (B) as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room-full of rocking chairs (i.e. a permit), or (C) as finicky in their feeding habits as my teen-age daughter (i.e. a tripletail).

            Now some of the most popular fly-fishing species are excellent examples of “none-of-the-above”, but readers still like to read about catching them. And if someone knows anything at all about the certain, brain-dead topic that a columnist is attempting to glorify by hinting that very stealthy stalks, long precise casts, and exact replications of juvenile female pogies are required to generate any positive reaction at all, letters to the editor will sooner or later put an end to his literary output. Nevertheless, because of their popularity, columnists are obliged to risk writing about them occasionally. Take redfish, for instance.

            I fondly recall a nice one that I came upon doing his thing in some very thin water up against a patch of grass. The cast to it was made at about 30 feet, and the fly landed a bit further from it than I had intended – in other words, it was a pretty sloppy presentation. Still, the fish saw it and immediately pursued it to the point where it entered a clump of the mossy crud which plagued that area at the time. As I snatched the fly from the goop, the red stopped – maybe 20 feet from the boat, waited for me to clean the fly, and then struck it immediately when I flipped it back to him!

            Relating an incident like that will probably not be very beneficial to your future efforts. However, reds are a topic of great interest along much of our coast, and at times they can act pretty dumb. And if you don’t know that, then you haven’t been fishing for them for very long. So…

            Bubby and I came across one finning nicely between two patches of emergent grass in some shallow marsh one fine summer day. I was in the bow with an appropriate amount of shooting line coiled on the deck, had some 15 feet of line shaken out past the tip-top, and was holding the fly – a popper – in my left hand. When the fish first appeared, the angle to it required the cast be made across one of the grass-patches, so ol Bubby pushed the boat ahead a few feet and spudded it down. And there we waited for the fish to show itself again.

            It’s pretty amazing how a fairly large fish can make absolutely no surface disturbance in such skinny water as it swims, but after a short while, it had become evident that the fish had moved. But where?

            Right there! No more than five feet from the boat – and directly beneath my rod which was poised for a quick cast – was the fish, apparently checking us out. And it was quite obvious that any rod movement would send him on his way in a boat-rocking swirl of mud and crud. Now what…

            Well, I am proud to declare that my underhanded lob – left-handed! – of the popper placed it in the exact position I would have attempted to cast it, but all was for naught since the fish spooked anyway. However, the very first application of what Bubby immediately Christened “The Pete Cooper Underhand Cast” was surprisingly successful even though it failed to yield any fish-flesh!

            While an angler should always strive for the short-range – and thereby usually the most accurate – presentation to a redfish, there comes a point where the normal length of the fly rod becomes a severe handicap. Another friend and I staked out my canoe one day in a shallow tidal cut that drained a broad expanse of lush interior marsh into a large bay. The cut was some 20 feet wide; the canoe – which was held almost directly across the cut by the wind – is 12 feet long. Add nine feet for fly-rod length, and my friend could touch the cut’s far bank with it. And it was there where the redfish were passing!

            Such close-range work demanded we sit, keeping as low a profile as possible. The reds – which were quite difficult to see against the dark mud bottom from that position – would suddenly appear about eight feet distant. I recall that we caught exactly one of the three dozen or so that passed by us before we decided to try to find some that we could actually cast to.

            Eight-foot casts with nine-foot rods are something of a challenge, and I do not intend to expound herein on the pros and cons of a 6 ½-foot 9-weight rod, hypothetical as one might be, since none of the country’s rod manufacturers have responded to my pleas for creating such a badly-needed stick. The point is – in my part of the world, anyway – that you can frequently get so close to the fish that you just can’t make an honest-to-God cast at them. And, I must add, that position is more often than not unintentional!

            I understand that just the opposite is often the case in areas that I have never fished before. In these, one must sneak up on the fish and present to them at some distance. Maybe those fish are a sub-species that are more intelligent than ours; for certain, water clarity has absolutely nothing to do with it!

            I got into some of our “Louisiana Dumb Ones” one bright, sunny Spring morning on the backside of Curlew Island in the Chandeleurs. The water there, not so incidentally, compares favorably to that in south Texas – very clear! Anyway, the fish were cruising along the edge of the marsh-grass and fully visible at almost 50 yards!

            I know that because I was about that far away from them when I first saw them, as I was in some slightly deeper water hunting one of the super-specks that the islands are infamous for. The flies I had with me, therefore, were a bit too big for skinny-water reds, but I simply could not leave those fish un-molested. And I ended up catching three and briefly wallowing a couple of others, and I must reiterate – that water was clear-clear and only a foot deep. Maybe a foot deep! Yet every fish was hooked at a distance not exceeding 40 feet, and the ones that didn’t spook from the big flies’ impacts rushed and consumed them with great gusto!

            I guess there simply has to be times when hunger totally overrides any sense of self-preservation. Conversely, there are times when reds simply don’t want to eat, and they won’t – no matter how sexy a pattern you try to force-feed them. However, that hasn’t been often in my experiences, when a little enticing usually convinces them to eat. And occasionally they will do everything they can to get at a fly, no matter if they have seen the boat but not spooked or if they’ve suddenly decided they’d be better off somewhere else and right now! Ever seen a red that for some reason suddenly hauled butt, then stopped on a dime, made a quick 180, and crashed a popper? Makes you wonder if they’ve got any grey-matter at all…

            It becomes even more questionable when a red has company! I’m not talking about the super-stupid mid-winter cold-water gangs, and I’m not even considering the competition factor involved with feeding pairs and threes. I’m referring to those glorious surface-feeding melees where they throw every bit of caution that they might possess to the winds. Here, they really get dumb!

            I’ve come across reds schooling like that from the shallow interior marsh through the Mississippi River’s deep passes and out some 15 miles or so into the Gulf. In every instance the fish have resembled a crowd watching a Mardi Gras parade and shouting “Throw me something, Mister!” Throw ‘em something – anything! – and they are life-time guaranteed to fight over it!

            I recall a school of juvenile 4 to 6-pounders so dumb Bubby and I had to holler “Uncle!” and quit after catching 35 of them in less than three hours. And I have been offshore in schools of mature bulls so thick that the ones we hooked destroyed my fly line by dragging it across the backs of others, yet the fish refused to spook, scatter, or sound. Nevertheless, most of the reds I have caught over the years have come in ones. Those are truly the most entertaining, since you never know just what they might do.

            I once stalked one that was waving its tail at me along the grassy shoreline of a small, shallow cut, only to have it suddenly ground itself in an all-out attack on a fiddler crab. After a good deal of some really serious flopping and gyrating to regain the water, it soon began tailing again, but by then I just couldn’t bring myself to make a cast at it

            Another shook the fly after a brief tussle, stayed put, then slammed the fly again when I half-heartedly pitched it back to him. Another struck a popper which had fallen overboard and which I was unknowingly “trolling” alongside my canoe as I was paddling along in search of others. Man, that strike sure got my attention! And I could never forget the one I found while bass-fishing from a pirogue with a 7 ½-foot 6-weight outfit and a fairly small bass-bug. The fish was tailing just off the shoreline of a deep canal and weighed a hair under 15 pounds – and it never got into the backing! That’s because it towed the boat up and down the canal – for fully 25 minutes! My first “Cajun sleigh-ride”! But I’ve always wondered why such a big fish took an interest in such a small fly…

            I guess stuff like that is what makes them such popular fly-fishing targets. I absolutely love ‘em; yeah, okay, a lot of that is probably because I can catch them – most of the time, anyway. And like I like to say, “fly catching” beats the hell out of just “fly fishing”, whether the creature you are seeking is a little lacking between the ears or not. Besides, they do pull very nicely.

            So from time to time, we must write about them…

 

6-18-12

On an Old Spot

 

            Do you remember any of the places you fished long ago and those innocent days when your abilities may have been somewhat limited, but the fish didn’t seem to care, and there were usually few, if any, others around to notice anyway? I do, and maybe a little too often, but it’s comforting every now and then to slide back a few decades and relish in some of the memories of what was so good back then.

            Sure, many of us are able to fish much more often now than we could back then, and I am not so sure that we don’t have at least as many of several of our favorite targets swimming around these days as we did in those past “golden” years. But the one thing I treasure most – and remember best – about the old spots is that they were ours to fish and enjoy in our own way and not be hassled by a bunch of high-speed hotshots who always seem to be in such a hurry to leave a place where they aren’t biting and rush to another where they probably aren’t biting either. Most of those old spots weren’t really secrets, there just weren’t a lot of folks fishing in them back then.

            The turtlegrass flats outside of Traylor Island below Rockport on the central Texas coast are one of my very special old spots. Yes, I realize those are some pretty exact coordinates for those who might become interlopers, but I don’t have the opportunity to fish there much anymore – it’s awfully far away. So if someone goes and gains some of the feelings I have for the place because of these lines, that’s fine – he could do a whole lot worse.

            My Grandfather on my mother’s side loved speck fishing and made frequent trips every year to Rockport from his home in San Antonio. My folks and I would join him and Grandmother there once or twice each summer, and from the time I reached 10 every fishable morning would find us drifting along the edge of the flats, slinging hardware and catching mostly school-sized fish: fine eating and lots of good family fun. “Bonding”, if I may, and not tritely – we were close. But by age 20 the tales of the locals and the sights in the fish markets had created in me a very strong desire to catch redfish, and with a little luck and a lot of loving toleration from Granddaddy, I succeeded later that year.

            I remember a lot about that day – and the day before when I had confronted my first reds, caught none, and made an impertinent, ungrateful fool of myself before him in an effort to return to the place where the fish had been – a very long way from our normal grounds. But grandfathers are one of God’s greatest gifts to children of 20 years. If those could only realize it in their time…

            He took me back to the place the following morning. For over two hours I searched the flat where the fish had been the day before, my entire being torn by guilt and concentration, and saw only the birds and small creatures of the shallows before a single fish waved its tail at me and I caught it. Standing there in the crystalline, shin-deep waters of MesquiteBay – alone in the turtlegrass a quarter-mile from the boat with my first redfish – I was much happier than I thought I should have been. I felt a whole lot better about it after Granddaddy smiled.

            Hooked as solidly as that fish, I soon lost interest in the specks and would abandon the boat, armed with my casting rod and a box of spoons, at every opportunity to wade-fish the shallows. I didn’t catch many, but that never seemed to matter much. Doing it was what counted; those that came to hand were something extra – a bonus to the pure and simple fascination of the flats.

            The fly-fishing idea came after years of freshwater efforts and a few short minutes one night with some ladyfish on a Rockport motel’s lighted pier. The opportunity came later when, for some unknown reason, the usual afternoon southeasterly blow didn’t, and Granddaddy – who was a strict morning fisherman and the sole captain of his boat – relented and let me take it out by myself.

            I set the anchor on the edge of the flats about midway down the outside of TraylorIsland and waded toward the shallows next to the bank where I had taken most of my spoon-caught fish. A small flock of early-arrival pintails rose from the marsh behind the island as I approached, and a pair of roseatte spoonbills – so pink and out of place against the backdrop of green water, brown summer-seared grass, and that big blue Texas sky –  lumbered awkwardly aloft from the scrub cedars above the tide line. Pelicans circled and dove along the outer edges of the grass – fascinating creatures for a Louisiana college boy who had to go to Texas to see his own “state bird”. There were lots of distractions like those, even curlews, along TraylorIsland.

            As usual the clear, shallow water also abounded with life. Crabs scuttled off a short distance to drop into the thicker patches of grass in attempts to hide. Stingrays and small flounders erupted away in clouds of sand from almost underfoot, then glided gracefully across the grass until they faded into nothingness. Sheepsheads, with their rigid, nervous tremors, poked their noses into the nooks and crannies in the grass, occasionally sending a brown shrimp skipping across the surface of the unusually placid water. And the ripples of small schools of mullet – “nervous water” so rarely seen in the wind-driven chop of normal evenings – showed here and there, marking them as plainly for me as for the reds and pelicans.

            Wading along that particular stretch of shoreline was relatively easy with only a few soft spots, and I soon found myself a good half-mile from the boat. It wasn’t unusual for me to lose track of time and distance while I waded, wrapped within the search and all the distractions. That evening was even more rapturous – one of those rarest of August days when the wind lays, the water becomes just a little clearer, and the birds and creatures of the sea seem to be everywhere. And I had it all to myself – and I felt I was a part of it all.

            Feelings are strange things. I remember the days before I was allowed to fish with the older ones in one of their boats. Then, and always in the company of an adult, I did my fishing while wading or from the piers or the jetty, coveting the experiences of my elders afloat.

            I remember my father awakening me – altogether unexpectedly – before daylight on that morning of mornings when I first went out onto AransasBay in a boat. But for the next decade, though the mornings would be spent afloat, I would return almost every evening to water’s edge to wade. School-time daydreams of sundown casts soon became the clearest of all those I had of the coast as the years passed.

            I may have envied my boat-blessed elders at one time, but I believe I have always preferred to wade-fish. I guess that’s because it all began that way – roots. Until the day I caught my first red, it was not very productive for me at the coast, but its appeal – the promise, the thrill of being in the element of the adversary and hunting it, the quiet solitude – made it the way to fish that I preferred. Even now, almost half a century after I first joined the old ones to motor out onto the wonder of AransasBay, I fish while in the water every chance I get. Back to square one? No, I never really left it.

            And I clearly remember the long wade back to the boat that evening with my first fly-caught redfish tugging on the end of the cord stringer behind me, the long lines of egrets crossing the firey sunset, and me – glowing every bit as brightly – alone on a Texas turtlegrass flat.

            Over 12 years would pass before I was able to return to Rockport. During that time I caught my redfish while fly fishing from a pirogue – the Cajun canoe – in the brackish marshes of southeastern Louisiana where widgeon grass is only a fair substitute for turtlegrass and where there is no bottom beneath the footish depths of the flats – only gumbo. And one does not wade in gumbo.

            When I was finally able to go back, I went by myself. Granddaddy, and a few of the others, were no longer with us by that time, and the gill-netters were well on their way to killing everything in the water that was big enough to die. Still, I managed to find a couple of reds and a few school-sized specks on the first day.

            Late the second evening I ran around the outside of Traylor Island, anchored the bassboat a hundred yards or so out on the flats about half-way down, took up the fly rod, and waded off up the shoreline. It had gotten pretty windy by then – a “normal” evening. It was hard to imagine it had been so calm on that so-special day so many years ago. I didn’t see a single redfish, but I did see – and felt – a whole lot more.

            The birds and flats creatures were still there – and still fascinating, personal things – like the turtlegrass. Tagging base? You’d better believe it! It was wonderful, and there wasn’t another soul around to blast through it, looking for a “better” place, and mess it up. So I gained some new memories of an old spot – can you blame me for reflecting on them from time to time…

(Tide 3-2001)

 

8 March 2012

Requiem for an Island

            The Chandeleurs were once the most precious gems in Louisiana’s chain of barrier islands. I met them in 1964 on a crew-boat ride to a drilling rig in Mobil Oil Company’s Main Pass Block 6 field. Our location was a short distance off the southern tip of the big island – ChandeleurIsland itself – which glowed beckoningly in the sunset of a clear evening. I recall gangs of cobia circling the rig’s legs from time to time, and one day after supper I caught my first one from the deck of that rig.

            But the Chandeleurs themselves are not notable venues for cobia-fishing. They are best known for their specks and redfish – and those include trophy fish as well as skillet-material. But because the islands are a long run from the marinas near the home that I eventually built in the lower Mississippi River Delta – and because of a wealth of the local and quite good opportunities there – over 20 years would pass before I would see them again.

            During that time I heard many inspiring tales of the outstanding fishing the islands offered. Finally an opportunity arose for a trip to them – a late-spring run to Breton, which is the southernmost in the chain. There, in the surf off the lower end of the island, I took the biggest speck I had caught in years. The following October a friend and I braved Breton Sound in his 16-foot bass-boat to experience one of the maddest flounder melees of my life – again at Breton but this time at the edge of the lush spartina marsh that graced the island’s sound-side back then.

            Those two trips proved that fishing the Chandeleurs just might be as good as it was reputed to be, but having no boat suitable for reaching them, I was able to make only a few trips to them over the next half-decade. During that time my life changed considerably. A long and rewarding career in the oil field ended, I became a full-time writer of magazine articles about fishing and hunting activities, and I renewed an old friendship with Dave Ballay, who was also an ex-oil-field hand and who built the Venice Marina. And we began to fish together regularly.

            On the trips to the marina, I eventually met Capt. Bill Herrington and his wife Sandy. He was a fishing guide, and Sandy cooked and cleaned for his clients who chose to spend the nights between fishing trips on their houseboat. We soon became friends, and in the process we discovered that we both thoroughly enjoyed wade-fishing.

            That was Bill’s preferred technique, and the Chandeleurs – being one of very few wadable places along the Louisiana coast – were his regular grounds. My first trip out there with him was a life-saver of sorts, as one of my editors had come down to the Delta to do an article on the fly fishing in my life. For three days before his arrival the wind howled, the bays turned the color of café au lait, and I got desperate! But on the night before our intended trip, Bill rang my phone, said the water on the back side of the islands should be clear enough, and did we want to go see?

            To this day I have no clue as to how he knew my situation!

            Anyway, our destination was Grand Gosier – one island above Breton. It was also my first trip there. The wind was pretty stiff from the east by the time we arrived, but even so the water behind the island was indeed surprisingly calm and much clearer than I had imagined. And I caught just enough reds and a nice speck for my editor to get his story and the associated pictures.

            I can’t honestly say that it was love at first sight, but Grand Gosier assuredly got inside me that morning, and my affection for it grew with every visit. Bill had a special fondness for it, too, and on all but one of the trips we made to the Chandeleurs together, Breton was ignored. Occasionally we’d make a run up to Little Gosier – just north of the larger island – and we did catch some fine fish up there, but we always seemed to spend the biggest part of the day somewhere on Grand Gosier.

           Dune islands are not very complex – at least not to the inexperienced eye. On the other hand, they are dynamic, their configuration, elevation, and make-up often being changed radically by winter storms. And hurricanes! Early on in my relationship with Grand Gosier, those changes only made the island more intriguing – spots that produced fish along it last year were often washed away, while potentially productive pockets and troughs had been created. It seemed like there was something new every time we went out there.

            The island faced the Gulf with a sand beach, littered here and there with driftwood and odd and end pieces of flotsam. Its north end swung a bit to the east, and that bend – a result of the prevailing currents, would build and recede over the coming years, creating a lovely pocket one year, losing it the next only to regain it by the following spring – at least in part. Along much of the backside of the island was a sparse to moderate growth of various grasses, and within that the gulls, least terns, skimmers, and pelicans nested in the spring and raised their young. Because of the large population of birds there, the ChandeleurIslands were designated a wildlife refuge.

            With the exception of the racket from the birds, Grand Gosier was a very quiet place. On calm autumn days after the birds had left – and on those rare late-winter afternoons when the only description of the island that is adequate is “drop-dead gorgeous” – the only sound would be the surf, gently lapping at the beach. The water around it was usually considerably clearer than it was at Breton, and the bottom was much firmer and easier to wade. It didn’t take long for me to become as fond of the island itself as the fishing around it, and that appeal grew immensely after my first trip to it during the cooler months.

            That one took place just after the Thanksgiving that followed my first trip out there with Bill. That afternoon he caught his first saltwater fish on a fly from a trough that ran through the flats behind the island’s south point – two nice reds. “Nothing to this”, he said. Yeah, right! Come to think of it, I believe that was the same spot that gave up my first Grand Gosier fish earlier that year!

            The following February I caught what is believed to be the first bull red taken on a fly in Louisiana waters – 22 ½ pounds – again from the island’s south point but this time surf-side. That afternoon I discovered that there isn’t much that’s better than standing at the edge of a winter sea with a fly rod in hand, catching your biggest redfish with it while a good friend is watching – even if that fish hadn’t earned the top spot in the state’s fly-fishing records. We raised sundowner glasses to that red’s memory many times.

            We had plenty of other memorable days out there, and even though Little Gosier would give up some notable catches from time to time – and Curlew, further to the north, with its submergent grass-beds would occasionally beckon with its siren song – we always felt that in going on to either one, we would probably be passing up more fish at Grand Gosier than we could ever hope for. And that was probably the case.

            On 4 October 1995 Hurricane “Opal” raked the Chandeleurs with 150-mph winds. Curlew was shredded into islets, Little Gosier and its lush interior marsh was washed entirely away, and Grand Gosier’s deep interior pocket and its short offshore leg were wiped out. But most of the island, its grass, and the troughs and bars off its south point – both in the surf and through the backside flats – remained basically unchanged.

            November was drawing to a close before Bill and I could get together for a trip out there to see what had happened. The day that we were finally able to go was hand-made – a day that could not be better spent than with a best buddy, alone and thigh-deep in the calm, clear autumn surf of a barrier island. Late that afternoon we found a gang of reds – again in the trough through the southern end of the island’s back-side flats – and we had a ball catching them! If there had to be a last trip to the island together, it couldn’t have been any better.

            Three weeks later Bill suddenly and quite unexpectedly passed away.

            On a bright, crisp early-December morning, four boat-loads of us hauled-to just inside the south point of GrandGosierIsland. There, dressed better for church than for crossing an island’s backside flats, four of us waded ashore to spread Bill’s ashes and hang a wreath on a refuge sign. Grand Gosier would never be the same to me again.

            Yet it still produced soul-cleansing afternoons, fine catches of specks and reds, and a few unforgettable memories. The following summer that editor I mentioned earlier and I made a fine hit on the specks there. By the early spring of 1997 we discovered that Little Gosier had reformed, and the redfish were thick around it. But even better news was that the outside leg of Grand Gosier had regenerated and built a bit to the south, causing the island to resemble a horseshoe more than a comma and forming a large and fairly deep pocket within it that later proved to be very attractive to specks – and to one particular bull redfish! The future looked bright.

            Then on the night of 27 September 1998, Hurricane “Georges” undid all the good that had taken place since the passing of “Opal”. Still, even though a trip out there the following April revealed that Little Gosier had again been beaten beneath the waves, the larger island had suffered only the loss of its offshore leg. Its bars, troughs, and grasses were alive and well – and so was the fishing.

            The following March we were again thrilled with the regeneration of Little Gosier and treated to one of the biggest redfish aggregations I have ever witnessed. And later that month we realized that Grand Gosier was again forming into a horseshoe with what was once the surf-side of its south point now the west edge of a big interior pocket. But what a pocket it proved to be!

            For the next three years only four moderate-strength tropical storms affected the Chandeleurs. Any changes in them that were noted on initial spring trips were minimal. Once again, grass began to grow on Little Gosier, and it began to expand on Grand Gosier, though some of that was the result of plantings by the USF&WS. Productive troughs and pockets around the larger island became familiar and produced fine catches, year after year.

            By the spring of 2004 the big offshore leg of Grand Gosier’s horseshoe had subsided into a shoal, though the deep interior pocket remained. However, winter storms had also eroded away a productive point on the backside of the island and filled in a long and fairly deep trough surf-side. Fishing there became difficult – a pattern that had shown signs of beginning a year earlier, and though every trip to the islands would still begin at Grand Gosier, they would now almost invariably end at Breton.

            The wreak and ruin caused by Hurricane “Ivan” on that Godforsaken day in late September effected me a lot more than it did the rest of my island-fishing buddies. I’m sure that was because I had – and must admit that I still have – more emotional ties out there than they did. On the first trip to the islands after the storm we discovered that Grand Gosier had been reduced to shoals – no more grass, no more pocket, no more south point. And no indication of where Bill’s remains had been scattered.

            And that really hurt.

            But not nearly as much as I hurt a year later from the passing of the arch-fiend.

            I am almost certain that I will never see Grand Gosier again – not even its remaining shoals, but others may. I hope with all my heart that some of them will one day experience the wonders of fishing it, especially on a hand-made winter day like those spent with Capt. Bill that I remember so well, and grow to consider it a very special place, like I did. The storms of winter can heal an island – not entirely, for sure, but enough to return life to it. I’ve seen it happen twice at Little Gosier. But if Grand Gosier does rise from the ravages of the waves, it will be as a barren bar – not an island as we knew it. Time – much time – will be necessary for the return of the grass, the dunes, the feel of the place that was once so soul-soothing, yet so exciting – time without batterings from hurricanes.

            And I wonder if time like that will ever come along again…

(Louisiana Life 3-2010)

 

1-21-2012

Fishing with a Guide – the “Other” Way

 

            Many of us who fish with flies in saltwater have at one time or another employed the services of a guide. Some folks even prefer it to owning a boat themselves; when they feel the need to fish, they charter one – and let the skipper worry about maintenance and finding the fish.

            Those are the two main reasons why I never became a guide. I learned long ago I was no outboard motor mechanic, and although I do know how, where, and when to fish for most of the popular species found around the northern Gulf of Mexico, I vary my targets and techniques too much to stay on a specific “pattern” with consistency. I prefer it that way, since variety has become the spice of life for me, but it’s not very conducive to being a good guide.

            I don’t really consider myself as such when a buddy comes fishing with me. If we catch some that day – and we usually do, then that’s great; if we don’t there’s always the next time. Occasionally, though, a situation arises when I must take someone out on a certain day and feel I must produce, and that puts some pressure on me, especially when that someone is himself a guide.

            Ever taken a guide fishing before?

            I have – several times. Living in the middle of some of the best fishing in the world – the lower Mississippi River Delta – along with being a full-time outdoor writer who can procrastinate with his written work at almost any time in order to make a field trip to gather new data (i.e. “go fishing”) has been the cause of it. Most of them have been from Florida and were over here to see if our fishing was as good as it has been blown up to be – and every now and then I have been able to show them that it was. Then there’s Capt. Bubby Rodriguez.

            He guided fly-fishing trips for red drum in the marsh up the road a ways, and over the years he became a buddy. As such, it was no big deal if we didn’t catch anything once in a while when he went out with me. Not to me, anyway. But that aside, he had taken a few Spring sabbaticals over to the Keys – fishing a lot with Capt. Jose Wejebe – and as some folks tend to do, while he was over there he talked about fishing over here. Eventually Jose said it sounded like it might be fun, and he would like to try it one day. So it came to pass one early-summer afternoon while Bubby and I were seeking cobia along the offshore rips in West Delta, he asked me if I’d help set up the “particulars” for Jose’s visit and show him around for a few days.

            Now just in case you aren’t familiar with this guy, back then he was one of the most highly-acclaimed guides in Florida. He was also in the clique with folks like Chico and Lefty, and he was hosting the ESPN series “Spanish Fly”. That’s a pretty appropriate title, since he is of Cuban descent, and he is one of the best in the saltwater fly-fishing world. Bubby mentioned that he is also a lot of fun to fish with, and I should learn a lot from him – stuff his limited number of chosen clients pay him top dollar to learn.

            I certainly had no problems with that, but it did generate a bit of apprehension. Although I had fly fished in saltwater since long before it became fashionable hereabouts – and had received some degree of recognition for my accomplishments while doing so – I never was “refined”. In other words, I’ve been doing things “my way” (and many of them the “wrong way”) for so long – getting by only because I was doing them so often – that it had become quite difficult to do them the “right way”. And when I fished with someone like Bubby – who did it all by the numbers, I tended to become a bit self-conscious about my rather coarse techniques. Now, I’d soon be in the presence of a “great one” who, I had no doubts, would be scrutinizing my stuff. That was scary!

            The party consisted of Bubby, Jose, and Ben – a mutual friend from Houston. Dave Ballay – a buddy of mine who owned the Venice Marina at the time – had agreed to help split the group, skippering one boat; I had the other. The first day Ben and Jose fished with Dave, Bubby with me.

            The morning began with Ben’s taking the third tarpon known to have been caught on fly in Louisiana waters. How’s that for a start? A bit later Jose got his first tripletail on fly – and subsequently he and Ben got a few more, and that afternoon Ben got a monster jack crevalle behind a shrimp trawler. Bubby and I ran all over a significant part of the Gulf – which was flat calm, as it was for their entire visit (Thank the Lord!) – and never hooked a fish. Sure glad he was with me that day and not one of the others!

            Jose fished with me the following morning. Our first “action” consisted of some futile attempts on my part to position the boat within casting distance of a mega-school of tarpon. He was nice enough to not say anything derogatory, though I’d imagine he knows tarpon don’t especially care for outboard motor noise.

            A little later we discovered a big patch of sargasso grass and soon located a school of tripletail beneath it. They had become one of my favorite fly-fishing pastimes by then, so we entertained ourselves with them for a while. Jose did cast beautifully, but like us “lesser types” he still managed to tangle his line with some regularity. That made me feel a little better about it all, along with the “Great shot!” he complimented me with after I made an uncharacteristically good cast at one and caught it. He even got one on a popper – the first I had seen taken in that manner; we got a real boot out of that strike! The ‘tails would have probably made our day had not a school of tarpon popped up right beside us.

            Let’s just say their close and sudden proximity rattled me. I was fishing for them conventionally every chance I got back then, and at the time I did have one of  “the three” on fly to my credit – and sorely wanted another. But the fly-fishing potential hereabouts is marginal, what with our deep water and the fact that the fish usually don’t stay up and stay put long enough to get a fly into them. Now, through nothing more than sheer luck, the boat was right in their path, and they were approaching us slowly – happily – a perfect set-up!

            Actually we did get a few casts into the leading edge of the school, but when the masses surrounded us, one of my back-casts coincided with one of his, and by the time we had cleared the ensuing tangle, most of the fish had passed us. Not long thereafter the thought arose that had I been a real “guide” that day, I probably would not have received much of a tip…

            Later on I commented that those fish didn’t seem to be very hungry. Jose replied they catch a lot of tarpon on flies in Florida, so it was no big deal. I was beginning to really like this guy…

            Dave had to head in around noon, so that left me with the three of them. We changed the pace a bit, jigging for redfish at the jetties at the mouth of the river (They thought I really knew my stuff, putting them on those fish; in truth, if you can’t catch ‘em there, then shame on you!). Then it was off to chasing trawl boats for big jack crevalle.

             We found the first trawler in an ideal mode – just picking up his nets. The jacks were thick behind him, and as I moved in towards his stern, Ben and Jose mounted the bow-platform to cast. Then I noticed a rope running from boom to boom and dragging in the water about 30 feet behind him. Frantically, I hollered “Wait, don’t cast!”

            Directing Bubby to a small gaff, I then sent him forward where he hooked and lifted the rope. Then Jose and Ben cast, immediately hooked up, passed their rods beneath the rope – which Bubby then dropped, and I showered down in reverse to get away from the boat. That’s what you call a “coordinated effort”!

            They got both – each a big, tough jack which really worked them over. Then we all had a good laugh about it and slapped backs for a while before taking a break. I’d imagine they will remember those fish for some time – the kind of stuff that makes a “guide” feel like he has done well.

            We had another double-header that afternoon, though because there wasn’t another “boom-to-boom” rope, it was not nearly as exciting as the first. The following morning the four of us went out with Dave’s son Brandon. After a quick tarpon melee – in which Brandon caught one on a casting rod, but there were no strikes on fly – and a disappointing attempt at setting up a chum line, we again sought out the trawl boats. There – twice! – five of us were simultaneously hooked up with big jacks on fly. Talk about some cockpit chaos! I don’t believe I have ever heard as much whooping and hollering – or seen as much ducking, dodging, and passing rods around – as I did that last hour we fished together!

            “Thanks for a great trip”, they said. I believe they meant it.

            I didn’t learn much during those three days – except maybe how good it feels for a guide to have his party really enjoy themselves. I enjoyed it too, and I’d do it again with them in a heartbeat – later on sometime. That’s another reason why I never become a guide, having to do it day after day, same-ole, same-ole. Not me! After their trip and an adequate amount of R&R, I was out in the marsh, running around chunking spinnerbaits at redfish. Variety, after all, is the spice of life.

            At least, it is for those of us who are not really “guides”…

           

          

        

9-20-2011

Pilgrimage

Those of us who have spent a good deal of time afield or afloat assuredly have our special places. They may be long-ago spots where we shot our first buck or mallard and now exist only in our memories. They may be present places where we can rely on taking a limit of doves or redfish, and they may be areas that appeal to our aesthetic senses as much as they appease our desire for outdoor action – maybe even more so. I have one like that, and besides being a very pretty place which has given me many fine days over many decades with its bass, it has become a spiritual spot. Several times it has provided me with badly needed soul-medicine, and I say that without a trace of facetiousness. It is Bayou Dorcheat.

I met this alluring waterway while passing over it on US 80 when my parents would drive me from my home in Shreveport to boy scout camp on Caney Lake north of Minden, but I never yielded to its charms until after I received my driver’s license. Then – and especially after my folks gave me an 11-foot duckboat for a high school graduation present – and even with all the days I spent prowling Bistineau and Wallace Lake, I passed many wonderful afternoon hours on the bayou near Dixie Inn.

There I met the chain pickerel and grew to know him as a strong, flashy – worthy – adversary. My newly-discovered fondness for the spotted bass was also strengthened in the reaches of the bayou where its dark waters flowed across a gravel bottom. And then there were the largemouths – lots of good fish along with a few respectable ones in the days when the Florida bass lived in Florida. But there was a lot more to Dorcheat than just fishing it.

It was and still is a stream of many faces – never quite the same on any trip there. I have seen it in full flood with its current tearing at the bridge abutments and the ancient, mid-channel cypresses – the sentinels. That was always a very frightening face. And I have seen it fully six feet below normal due to an autumn draw-down of its offspring, Lake Bistineau – the face of severe affliction. I have relished its youthful appearance during mid-spring as it flowed easily through its corridor, lush with fresh green growth, and I have been enraptured with its sensual autumn beauty as its black waters glowed with reflected reds and yellows of the shoreline hardwoods.

It is also a stream of memories – of high-school and college sweethearts and best buddies who shared the duckboat with me, of the startling slap of a nearby beaver’s tail while night-fishing, of the once-forgotten thrill to the squeals of passing wood ducks, of quiet solitude among the timeworn sentinels, of a particular October afternoon…

Barbara and I had lived in Buras for nine years by then, so my fishing had been concentrated in Delta waters. Visits to Shreveport were without the duckboat and were usually too short to fish. Most of our time there was spent shopping, eating out, and trying to bring a little life back into Daddy’s rapidly-tiring body. Mom’s phone-call that early-autumn morning told us he had just slipped into his eternal rest.

None of us had been expecting that, though we weren’t too surprised about it – he had been sick for a long time. He was a good father to me and my two sisters, apparently a good husband, and he tried hard at everything he did, though he never seemed to have a very good time at most things that were supposed to be fun. I guess his “thing” was Mom and us – and providing for us – and he left us a lot, ethically and spiritually as well as financially. He was a good man, and he had a lot of real friends – you couldn’t help but like him.

Barb and I stayed over for a few days after the final services to give Mom some company and help her begin sorting out the pile of insurance policies and paperwork – the unpleasant stuff that must be done at such an unpleasant time. It finally got to me; I just had to get outside, even if only for a couple of hours. So not having brought along any fishing tackle – or suitable clothes, I drove to a local sporting-goods store, bought a casting outfit and a handful of lures, and headed over to Bayou Dorcheat. There – in suit pants, a dress shirt, and my best shoes – I slogged along the banks of the bayou, fishing and soaking up the colors of the trees and the cool, winey air of that gorgeous October afternoon. And I caught three nice bass and five pickerel – and for a while I was able to forget. That was 1977.

Eighteen years would pass before I was again drawn to that so special place. Barbara and I had continued to make occasional trips to Shreveport, but fishing was never a part of them. That was being done in the Delta, near Barbara’s home in mid-Missouri on extended vacations there, at an old family retreat on the central Texas coast, and in the mountains of western North Carolina. And as the years passed, more and more of it was being done with a fly rod.

Fly fishing was indeed the means that brought me back to Dorcheat. Interest in the sport, especially when practiced in saltwater, was growing rapidly across the state by the late 1980’s. Word that I had been doing it for many years eventually leaked out, and I was asked to present seminars about it to various groups, most of the first ones being in south Louisiana. At several of those meetings I met Bill and Judy Stall of Gibsland, and they later invited me to speak in Shreveport. To sweeten the offer, they included a fishing trip. Our first to Dorcheat was in April, 1995.

Memories – and the bayou’s somewhat high, off-color water – flowed easily through that day, and the experience brought about an inner peace I could have never foreseen. The sentinels in their fresh green dress, the squeals of the wood ducks, and the soft gurgle of the swirling water seemed to welcome back a long-lost soul. We drifted from the Jungle to the Island, scarcely saw another boat, and the bass we caught – on fly-rod poppers – were only a little lagniappe to the beauty of the surroundings and the joy of being on Dorcheat once again. It was a great day.

The following year Bill and I tried to make an October float below the I-20 bridges. That was the year Bistineau’s draw-down so sorely afflicted the bayou; there was virtually no current, and we caught no bass. But the day was bright and crisp, there were colors in the trees, the wood ducks flew, and there are not many better ways to spend an autumn afternoon than with a buddy in a johnboat on Dorcheat, catching fish or not.

We didn’t talk much, just paddled along looking and occasionally flicking our poppers at an inviting stump or blow-down. But at about the time the sun set and a chill settled onto the water, I mentioned the following October would be the twentieth anniversary of my father’s passing, and I did not intend to spend that day anywhere but with Mom and on Bayou Dorcheat. He said he’d gladly take care of the bayou-part.

I drove up on the sixth and passed a nice afternoon and evening at home with her; she never re-married, and at age 77 she was still as active as I could remember. She didn’t realize the significance of the next day, though – and I did not tell her. After breakfast that morning I drove to the cemetery to pay my respects, and just before noon I met Bill at the bayou’s back-down ramp at Dixie Inn.

The day was warm, breezy, and cloudy with light intermittent drizzle. The bayou was again low from an extended dry spell, but its black water was as clear as I could recall ever seeing it – another face of Dorcheat. I got there early so I could sit on the bank for a while and look – and remember. For some time I had intended the day to be a celebration of Daddy’s life, but I must admit it began rather sadly.

That changed once Bill and I began to idle our way up the bayou. Again the sentinels welcomed me, though this time they were clad in pale yellow dress, and the wood ducks announced my coming. The peaceful hour that it took us to reach the Jungle was interrupted only by the outboard bumping a few submerged stumps and by one light shower. We passed only three boats, all of which were headed back downstream; the bayou would be ours alone for the entire afternoon.

We began our drift in the bayou’s intimate confines just below the Jungle. Bill chose not to fish, opting to sit on the outboard, make an occasional swipe with the paddle, and just look – Dorcheat will do stuff like that to you. I looked a lot, too – and remembered, but I fished happily, and we talked of fun things. And I know Daddy’s spirit smiled. And as we drifted along in our quiet solitude – the ancient sentinels watching over us protectively – the bass bit. I renewed my treasured acquaintance with the bayou’s spots, caught a very nice largemouth, and another shed the popper on its second spectacular jump – and was roundly applauded for its efforts. It was a wonderful day – a day for Daddy – a day for me. It was a day I’ll never forget – a day so like another two decades ago, yet so unlike it – and a day that only a special place can give you when you need medicine for your soul.

Back at home that evening something vague on TV caused Mom to remember. She gasped slightly, paused for a moment, then looked questioningly at me.

“You knew, didn’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, “This trip has been a pilgrimage.”

(Louisiana Conservationist 7-1998)

 

5-3-11

A Bayou Boy’s Thoughts on Vermont Brook Trout

(Note: this was created in October 1994. The events are true – well, basically. And it might be surprising that my articles continued to be published by the editor mentioned herein for several years thereafter. He really was a great guy!)

Whenever we begin a day on the water – whether it is salty or fresh, running or still, steelhead or shark-laden, one of the very first matters we attend to is the attachment of a fly to our tippet. Some of us do so in an attempt to match a certain hatch of insects that we anticipate will occur shortly. Others tie on a time-proven bass-bug. The size and type of a selected Atlantic salmon fly – so I’ve been told – is frequently determined by the flow rate of the river. And on the flats, we gear up for the particular species we hope to encounter – I don’t believe anyone would intentionally pitch a size 4/0 tarpon toad at a permit! Whatever, we all have our reasons for tying on the day’s first fly.

I am no different, yet recently I performed that act for a purpose never before envisioned in four decades of tying flies to tippets!

It all began innocently enough with an offshore trip. I had premeditatedly rigged my 12-weight with what I hoped would entice a cobia – in size 3/0, just in case I stumbled across a big one. A 9-weight was armed with an innovative creation – in a fairly innovative color combination but one that had been wreaking minor havoc with the local tripletail population recently. And with an 8-weight in reserve, yonder I went.

And in the five hours of perfectly good time I wasted out there (Back then I was still learning the particulars of how to catch cobia and tripletail on fly!), I almost rammed the only lemonfish I encountered while it was lying complacently – and unnoticed – in a foamy patch of grass. And the single and unfortunately Boone-and-Crockett-sized tripletail that I came across yielded not to my temptations – typical of the genre on most occasions. So I went home.

Well, almost…

On the way in, I came across some terns diving in the pass just below the marina. And lo and behold, as I slowed to take a look, a redfish appeared – on the surface and out in the middle of the deepest water!

I’m pretty sure I could have caught it – and some of the others that suddenly began raising merry hell with a passing school of shad nearby – with my tripletail fly on the 9-weight. However, like most other folks I do prefer surface flies whenever the opportunity arises – like right then! So I quickly rigged my 8-weight outfit, tied on a funky-looking green and white popper that I had created for such possibilities, and proceeded to put a really good hurtin’ on ‘em! The final tally was something like eight fine reds, seven white bass that would have shamed those inhabiting a few much fresher waters I know of that are infamous for those fish, and seven rambunctious ladyfish. I ended the day very well-pleased; the popper ended it very well-worn!

Now I have always been quite willing to share my fly-fishing knowledge, expertise, an experiences, especially with folks who are unfamiliar with the opportunities that Louisiana’s waters offer. At the time, that was especially true with a particular editor of a far-north fly-fishing magazine who, for some unfathomable reason, had recently become a sort of fly-swapping pen-pal. That worried me a little every now and then, since his were always much more masterfully crafted than mine, and he did have the final call when it came to buying my articles. Anyway, in a moment that I thought was sheer brilliance at the time but later had some very strong doubts about it all, I sent him the battle-worn popper, a “fresh” one to serve as a “before-and-after” enlightenment, and a list of the fish – and no letter of explanation!

I didn’t sleep very well for a couple of weeks after that, figuring I had probably lost both a friend and a market. But since by that time I had received no pink slips in the mail – or any of the rather sizeable stack of articles he had amassed from me, it appeared I was out of the woods. At least back on the bank! Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mind stirring the stuff a little, but I also have to pay the bills! Well, imagine my surprise when not long thereafter I received in the mail a small padded envelope from the magazine of my editor/buddy.

Within it were two flies: one a beautiful Deceiver-type (With which I was certain I would slay some sizeable saltwater beasties later than summer.) and one bedraggled, bent-hooked “something” comprised of God-only-knows-what and a lot of tinsel that looked like it had been wrapped around a hair curler. There was also a note.

It seemed that my friend actually appreciated my sending him the ‘before-and-after” poppers and wanted to share something similar with me. It turned out that the “something” – once another gorgeously-crafted Deceiver-type fly in size 1/0 (At least that was the best I could tell) – was rendered into its present state by a single encounter with a Vermont brook trout!

Having never made the acquaintance of that creature before, the related incident – along with the condition of the fly – got me wondering if Vermont brook trout are so savage that one fish could so despoil a creation made by such a talented tier as my editor/buddy, or were Louisiana redfish such wimps that my semi-ugly poppers could hold up to eight of them? So one day – after (Almost) straightening out the “something’s” hook – I tied it to my tippet and sallied forth, just to see.

Here I must clarify a point. When you get right down to it, redfish may not be quite as dumb as dirt, but they are often rather indiscriminate in their diets. And the “something” – though pretty-well chewed up – still looked passable in the prey-depicting department. The “Test” was strictly to see whether the reds would mangle it more than – or not as much as – the brook trout had.

In an attempt to be as scientific as I could about it all, I discovered an element of extreme concern within the parameters of the test: I had no idea of how large the Vermont variety of brook trout grew.  However, a semi-Cajunese acquaintance of mine had once taken one of 19 inches or so from a lake in Maine, so I figured that was close enough to provide a base-line, and a comparable red would make a good “average” fish for the test. Sure didn’t want to stick a 10-pounder right away and blow the experiment apart! The problem with that was in finding a spot where the odds of such a potentially disastrous event occurring were fairly low.

Now that is a problem and something I had never faced before, since one of my main goals – like, I’m sure, that of most other fishing folks – is to catch the biggest one I can. Nevertheless, for the sake of science my mental re-conditioning was almost painless as I set out for the pass where I had enjoyed the action that led to all this, praying that only “average-sized” reds – and no bulls whatsoever! – would be present.

I never knew it could be so difficult to catch an “average-sized” fish! But be that as it may, the test was, alas, a success, albeit a very discouraging one.

The “something” accounted for three redfish (Two below “average” and one well above) and retained the same basic physical characteristics that it possessed before the test. Then a ladyfish ate it, and the test was terminated.

I guess it’s a pretty good thing that all this came about. I’d been toying with the idea of heading up to Vermont for several years – the brook trout up there apparently grow much larger than those in the southern Appalachian streams I was fishing at the time. Sure did want to catch a big one, but after the “test”, it seemed to me that those things might be a little dangerous. And besides, I wasn’t sure I could afford all the flies I might need should I happen to get into a bunch of the brutes feeding on a big hatch!

Or on a big “school”!

So it turned out that I decided I’d best try to keep myself happy with my wimpy and not-so-bright redfish. I’ve sure had a good time with them over the years before the “test”, and I’m pretty sure I’ll get over all this after a while…

Anyway, a buddy and I have a wade-fishing trip lined up for the Chandeleurs tomorrow, so I have to run. There are usually a lot of sharks out there in the surf this time of the year, and I still have a few flies to tie up for them…

3-21-11

A Tale of a Louisiana Tarpon

A while back I was invited to be a member of the panel at one of Salt Water Sportsman’s National Seminars. Mark Sosin was the moderator of a tarpon-fishing session, and he mentioned I had caught one on fly in Louisiana waters – a very rare event. His following question was something like this:

“Pete, just how did you catch that tarpon?”

My response, after some consideration, was something like this: “Lots of blind, dumb luck!” – and the audience, all 500 strong, busted out laughing! Hell, I was serious!

Not that tarpon are scarce off the Louisiana coast – far from it! And I do know a little about how to catch them – conventionally. Fact is, I’ve been smitten by them since I met my first ones on trips to the Texas coast as a teenager: three dear but very brief relationships. Back when I had more money than sense I even bought a boat especially for tarpon fishing around the lower Delta, and after four years of mostly burning gas and drinking beer, I actually caught one – a big one, too! But most of my experiences with them, and all but two of those which I have caught, have been with at least one member of the Ballay family – Dave, Debbie, and their sons Brandon and Brent – each and all crackerjack tarpon fishermen.

I had known Dave for many years when we both worked in the oil field and each of us had more money than sense. We both made “career moves” at about the same time: he forged a marina out of a piece of southeastern-Louisiana swamp, and I became a writer – and for a while both of us had neither sense nor money. But that aside, we began to fish together, mostly for tarpon.

I had long since sold my boat, so initially our trips were made on his: a 24-foot Topaz. It was the top boat in Louisiana – and possibly the entire Gulf coast – one year, accounting for 107 fish, tag and release! But Dave eventually sold it for the down payment on a charterboat for Brandon, who became the youngest captain in the state. He caught fish, too, and on the days when he didn’t have a trip, we would go out with him. But because of Brandon’s job – and his reputation as a tarpon-ace – that didn’t happen very often. At least, it didn’t happen often enough for Dave. So the following winter he broke down and bought another boat – an old 24-foot Wahoo, and dropped a big new diesel into it. By the time the fish arrived, the boat was shipshape, and we were ready.

And after burning several hundred gallons of fuel, we discovered the damned thing couldn’t pull a strike on a dare! Bad vibes, I guess – some boats catch fish, some don’t. That one didn’t, so late in the season and desperate with only two fish in the tag-book, Dave replaced the diesel with a gas motor and caught the last fish of the year – a good ending, but not much consolation for his worst season ever.

The Mississippi River Delta is a gathering grounds for these great fish. They migrate there from both south Florida and Mexico, usually arriving some time in early May, and from that point into early autumn when they depart, their numbers grow phenomenally. Indeed, the Delta is the premier destination for tarpon in the entire world during the months of August and September, and they are big fish; the next strike is as likely to come from a “150” or larger as from one less than 100!

They are also normally found in some pretty deep water – 50 to 100 feet give or take a little, and with one notable and fairly infrequent exception – a surface “melee” – they usually feed deep and on the move. Trolling heavy jigs has become the proven tactic; casting them into surfacing fish is done when the opportunity arises. Fly fishing for them is not a very worthwhile endeavor.

Oh, I had tried it before. A friend and I had found a school in what seemed to be an ideal setting – the fish slow-rolling and wallowing on the surface of a gut-slick sea – and followed them with the trolling motor for some distance, casting a variety of patterns into them without as much as a sniff. Since a dedicated Louisiana tarpon nut cannot tolerate much of anything that isn’t working when poons are present, I eventually broke out a big casting rod I had smuggled aboard, made a few casts with a jig, and caught one – some 2 ½ hours later – which we estimated to be in the 180-pound class.

That fish mauled me. It took three full days for the pain in my left forearm to subside. And that led to a lot of negative conditioning about fly fishing for our deep-water tarpon – which often sulk at some depth and require some heavy-handed pumping to bring back up. Thoughts of having to pump up that 180-pounder – which was taken in 75 feet of water – with my 12-weight were not very appealing. Besides that, those fish – which were in one of the most fly-fishable settings I had ever witnessed – had showed no interest whatsoever in our flies. So the fleeting fancy of catching a Louisiana tarpon on fly quickly faded – but the 12-weight still accompanied me on trips with Dave, should we have a chance encounter with a cobia or any of the other beasts found around the Delta.

I doubt Dave’s new gas engine had 50 hours on it by the time April rolled around, but he and Debbie had received many hours of ribbing about their bad year and the apparent “loss of their tarpon-fishing expertise”. It all culminated one night during a “roast” at the monthly meeting of the New Orleans Tarpon Club. Finally, having taken all the verbal abuse she could tolerate and in what has to be one of fishing’s all-time greatest boasts, Debbie rose from her chair and proclaimed long and loudly that she and Dave would show them about any “lost expertise” by catching the first tarpon of the year – tomorrow! That would be April 22 – slightly less than prime time for our fish – not too good for reclaiming lost expertise. Or for saving face after a boast like that!

Dave phoned me at eight the following morning, asking if I would like to participate in the capture of the year’s first tarpon. I don’t believe I’ll quote my response, but it had something to do with the trip’s questionable timing. Still, I hadn’t been offshore in a couple of months, and the day promised to be nice, so I gathered up the 12-weight – just in case – and off I went.

The day was gorgeous – and the third of its type in a row: warm, calm, and clear – and awfully early for tarpon fishing off Louisiana. We set the year’s first trolling spread at 10:40, and at 11 jumped off the first fish. But that one doesn’t count…

As usual the 12-weight – rigged and ready – was in its spot beneath a gunwale. I wasn’t about to interfere with their efforts, but it was nearing the time when the cobia begin to appear in West Delta, and if we found some of them – and no tarpon – I surely didn’t want to miss the opportunity. We troll for four more hours without a sign of another fish.

Three o’clock. The sea is gut-slick and grey, mirroring now a thick overcast. There is no horizon, there is no activity – neither bait nor broaching fish – to break the pane of flat water or the monotony that has set into the three of us.

Then Debbie sees something off to port – some kind of fish moving directly towards us. It seems unhurried, purposeful, its wake slight but true to its course. Occasionally its dorsal and the tip of its tail gently break the glassy surface – no ray, it must be a cobia.

I take up the 12-weight, ascend the bow’s casting platform, shake out some line, and set the drag as Dave kills the engine. The fish never wavers from its heading or its depth – straight at our port quarter. Through the surface glare we still can’t be sure of what it is, but at 50 feet I let fly, and the big streamer lands just ahead of it. Two strips and the fish sees the fly, surges ahead in a great swirl, and misses. But as its momentum carries it alongside and then beneath the boat, its broad green back and long dorsal whip are plainly visible: tarpon!

Now the once-barren Gulf is alive with them. They come in singles and small schools, the tiny waves from their fins and tails marking their presence. Their courses are steadfast and methodical, a single mysterious heading just beneath the surface in 50 feet of water.

Debbie takes the helm as Dave and I swap places on the casting deck. My fly, while suitable for cobia, is not for tarpon. I replace it with one that I once tied while wishfully thinking, never daring to imagine the reality of the moment.

The boat is positioned so that the tarpon approach from port. Dave lines the first school with his casting rod and spooks them, but he quickly hooks up in another. Forgotten trolling lines are cleared and the rods secured. The fish gives us six jumps, then the hook pulls. “First fish” is proving to be difficult.

I am on the bow again. As a pair approach, I think of sight-casting to redfish that are cruising along a grassy shoreline in the marsh – except these are not reds, this is not the marsh! They are moving directly towards me. I drop the fly some 10 feet short, let them come to it, and begin to strip. One immediately bolts ahead, takes, and I hit it hard. But as it tears away and upwards, the loose running line fouls on the bow-cleat, and the hook straightens. Murphy’s Law.

Dave gets near-missed twice as I re-rig, then lightly sticks another that throws the hook on its first jump. Another makes three passes at his jig, the last one right at the boat! I have never seen them act this way, and I have seen a lot of tarpon.

A small school is about to cross the bow. I lead them just enough, one hits, I hit back, and as it vaults skyward I freeze in a deer-in-the-headlights trance, and the leader breaks. My knees are shaking uncontrollably – I have never had a realistic chance to catch a tarpon on a fly before. Now everything is perfect – beyond belief. I may never get a better opportunity.

While I again re-rig, Dave is short-struck in two schools. The setting is becoming almost surrealistic: here come some more, choose the school, move the boat ahead of them, kill the engine, wait until they are in position, cast. Invariably there is either a near-miss, a short strike, or a solid take.

I have two near-misses in a row, then a short strike in another school: six chances for a fly-caught tarpon within an hour! How can I even dare to hope for another – but the parade continues.

A pair approach – their courses exactly the same as that of countless others, their wakes small, slow, straight, and true, quartering towards me from the left. I wait; I can feel my pulse, I need a cold one badly – I need to get rid of one worse. There is no way I would have ever believed this had I not seen it for myself. Keep coming fish, keep coming…

I dump the first cast almost on top of them, but they don’t spook. Lucky again – how much more is left. I let them pass, then pick up the fly and try again. This one is on target, and the lead fish takes immediately – and this time Mr. Murphy wasn’t looking.

Five jumps and 20 minutes later with Dave having touched the leader just above the fish – the Louisiana way of counting coup with tarpon – the fly came free with the tarpon right at boatside. And that was just fine with me. Somewhere around 90, he said – the first of the season, and my first on fly.

And a short while later Dave got his, and that was enough.

We just drifted along for a while after that, watching the parade continue – an absolutely awesome event. There sure were three happy tarpon fishermen aboard the old Wahoo that afternoon; “face” had been saved, “expertise” regained, and I had claim to my first fly-caught tarpon – at the time only the second known to have been taken in that manner in Louisiana waters and the first by a resident. Needless to say, some serious celebrating ensued after we returned to the marina, not only in commemoration of the fish, but of the day.

April 22, 1994, was the rarest of days for those of us who have pursued tarpon around the Delta: perfectly fly-fishable during the unsettled weather of spring and at the exact instant the fish arrived. Then there was the way the tarpon did arrive where the slightest breeze ruffling the water’s surface would have masked the signs of their presence – so out of character for them during the “normal” times of summer, anyway. And of course, there was the fortune of being invited to go out on that particular day during such an unlikely time. Maybe it wasn’t blind, dumb luck. Maybe Debbie had some premonition the fish would appear that day. Still, she sure couldn’t have manipulated the weather – or the way the fish acted.

The next morning Dave and I made another run, had one strike while trolling, tagged and released it, and never saw another fish. That afternoon a screaming norther ripped across the Delta – residual winter. Over three weeks would pass before the next fish would be taken. Yeah, my first fly-caught tarpon really was the result of a lot of blind, dumb luck. But that hasn’t bothered me a bit, especially when I know that luck can repeat itself…

Like it did a few summers later for a friend who got number three…

 

1-31-11

The Fish That Started it All

Throughout most of my life I’ve kept a record of the days I’ve spent fishing – the weather and water conditions, where I fished and what I fished with, what kind of fish were involved, and how big (Or how little) they were. Sadly, all of the data prior to 17 August 1969 was lost to Hurricane Camille. However, it didn’t take long for it to begin amassing again, eventually into a very sizeable tome, and even today I refer to some of the earlier notations to determine where and with what I will fish.

And to establish the background required for a bit of fishing lore. So…

I began fishing at around age seven, fishing with flies at age 10, and had become reasonably competent at both by age eleven. My targets were primarily largemouth bass and various panfish, and I was not particular about how I caught them. But I did seem to have a “thing” for fly fishing.

While virtually all of that had been done in freshwater prior to my fourteenth birthday, that year one of my family’s regular trips to the central Texas coast resulted in a genesis of sorts. My fly rod had been left in the back of my grandparent’s car after a recent trip to their ranch in the Hill Country. One night after supper an opportunity to fish on our motel’s lighted pier caused me to recall its presence, and with it and a popper I caught three ladyfish – my first saltwater fish on a fly. Very neat stuff!

I’d like to say that I became an instant convert, but I didn’t. For eight years I neglected the fly rod on subsequent trips to the coast, though I did use it frequently to catch bass and “bream” near my home in Shreveport. Then for some reason I cannot recall, I carried it on another trip south. One day I accounted for a nice catch of shallow-water redfish while using casting gear and spoons, and the thought arose that if they would strike a spoon, they should strike one of the ratty streamers I had back then. And one day on that trip – an unusually calm one, I recall – one redfish did.

The following year Barbara and I married, and fishing trips to the Texas coast abruptly ended. A year later because of a job transfer, we moved to the Mississippi River Delta where I originally fished for specks and reds conventionally and for bass with flies – almost exclusively with poppers and with a short fiberglass 6-weight outfit. And I did quite well in both manners.

Camille caused me to lose my original job in the Delta, so when we returned – me not about to permanently leave such a wealth of fishing opportunities – I gained employment elsewhere. But I maintained some friendships that had developed during the first job, the person of particular note being the company welder who simply could not fish often enough. My kinda guy!

One chilly March evening he rang my phone and related a recent bass-fishing trip. The interesting part of it was not especially the fish he had caught but the water – a section of a pipeline canal that was isolated by wooden bulkheads and quite clear for the area. He said we would have to use a pirogue to access it.

So a few days later I trailered my bass-boat down to his shop. There we slid the pirogue into the larger craft, tied it down, and made our way to the backdown ramp where we launched my boat and piggy-backed his through a maze of canals to the secret spot. There we secured my boat, slid his over a ridge and down a bank, and beheld the canal.

And it was pretty! The isolated section was perhaps two hundred yards long – maybe a bit longer, and both shorelines were overhung with spartina grass. We soon discovered that there was an abrupt drop-off beneath that overhanging grass, though the fact that it was spartina and therefore a sign of some salinity eluded me for some time. After all, we were bass fishing!

Within the short hour between the time we began fishing and the time my friend received a call on his little FM radio, informing him that he was needed at the shop, I caught a speck over two feet long and a 17-inch flounder on a spinnerbait! The speck was the largest I had ever taken – and we never saw the first sign of a bass!

But on the drive back to the shop my friend avowed they were thick in the canal’s clear waters. And that drive deserves a little sidetrack.

I guess that in the rush to return, we neglected to tie down the pirogue securely, and at the exact point where we were passing a trailer park that was inhabited by a few individuals who were well known to be avoided if at all possible, the pirogue launched itself out of my bass-boat! It landed fair enough on its bottom on the shells of the trailers’ parking lot and then slid across it through scattering, squawking chickens and scrambling, shrieking toddlers to come to rest beneath a trailer. My friend and I then and there gave it up as a lost cause and were about to hasten away, but two of those “avoidable types” quickly appeared, fetched the pirogue, and slid it back into my bass-boat. Almost miraculously the pirogue – a 17-foot plywood model – only had one small scratch on it. But my stomach still rolls over when I think of how many chickens and children we could have wiped out that afternoon!

Since my buddy was on 24-hour call, I began to fish that inviting section of the canal by myself, ferrying one of my own pirogues there and back in my bass-boat – and making damned sure it was well secured therein for the drives to and from the launch-site! Initially I worked the canal with spinnerbaits and plastic worms, caught a few bass and flounders but no more specks, and eventually decided those abrupt and overhung shoreline drop-offs would be best tested with fly-rod poppers.

Man, were they ever – so much so that one trip resulted in the best catch of largemouths I had ever made! And that led to the thought that I just might have a chance of winning the bass division of an upcoming and rather prestigious fishing tournament!

And so it came to pass that by paddling my pirogue up and down that closed section of the canal and prospecting its shoreline drop-offs with a popper, I took the first, second, AND third place bass. The “points” those fish accumulated also netted me the “Best All-Round Fisherman” award – and my fourth trophy of the event! That really blew my mind, and I recall that a few big-boat offshore anglers got a bit bent out of shape because of it – the winner paddling around a ditch in a pirogue while they were burning vast quantities of fuel trying to catch fish larger than they were! Incidentally, a really good friend accumulated exactly one point less than I did during three days of intense tarpon fishing. After over 30 years have passed, I still remind him of it, too!

<‘))))><

The canal’s overhung banks continued to provide some great action with poppers for the next few weeks. Fact is, it was so good that one morning, having ripped the pirogue’s sides away from its bow while shoving it across the ridge, I fished from it anyway. That was a little dicey, with nothing forward between me and the water but air, but I managed to stay afloat. Thinking back on it, the timing of that slight misadventure was pretty critical!

In any case, a pirogue-building neighbor repaired the little boat without much effort, so I was back in business in no time.

The day of infamy dawned clear, dead calm, and steamy hot – and the bugs in the wax myrtles atop the little ridge were so thick that breathing without ingesting huge numbers of them was nearly impossible! Strange how you remember stuff like that. Anyway, I was fishing – and catching a few bass – long before the sun peeked above the already shimmering horizon.

The tail appeared suddenly and altogether unexpectedly. I hadn’t seen a redfish’s tail in almost five years, and at first I thought it might belong to a gar. But closer scrutiny revealed it was indeed possessed by a red. And that brought up another thought: the water off the little grassy point where it was waving merrily at me was presumed to be pretty deep – far too deep for a redfish to be showing me some tail – a “normal” red, anyway! And finally, what was a redfish doing in that canal in the first place!

Those questions and observations flashed through my mind a lot quicker than it took you to read about them. So did the fleeting thought that even if I made a decent cast at it, the size 4 rubber-legged “bass bug” that I was using was probably far too small to interest the fish. Nevertheless, as the tail began to dip beneath the surface I made the rather short cast at it, gave the popper a couple of quick, soft bloops, and almost wet my pants as this huge form slowly and deliberately rose to the surface behind it. For an eternity that lasted perhaps two seconds – three at the absolute max – I sat transfixed, not believing what I was looking at. Then I guess subconscious conditioning took over, and I gave the popper the slightest twitch – and the red ate it like an alligator eating a blackbird!

For the next twenty minutes the fish towed me and my pirogue up and down the canal in the first “Delta Sleighride” I ever experienced. The little rod actually creaked from the strain on it, and the little reel chattered a time or two – the first time I ever heard such a noise, since I had never had a fish “on” a fly reel before. All the while the thought that I would lose the fish repeated itself in my mind. But everything held together, and even today I give thanks that the pirogue’s bow had not come apart earlier that particular morning! Still, I almost managed to capsize it as I netted the big red aboard. And it WAS big!

11 June 1971

After regaining a bit of composure I strung the fish on a tow-rope and continued fishing for bass, but my enthusiasm for that had withered. Besides, it seemed the fish would pull the boat into an unfavorable position every time I was about to make a cast! So I went home early, measured and weighed it, and had Barbara take a LOT of pictures. And at 33 inches long and just under 15 pounds, it remains after almost forty years the largest red I have taken on a fly in inshore waters.

If I would have had any idea that day what the future held for me, I would have surely had that fish mounted. But, of course, I didn’t. It was my first Louisiana redfish to be caught on a fly, and catching it thusly was really in great part an accident. But it – and subsequently perhaps 500 popper-eating others – would blow apart a long-popular theory that a red’s underslung mouth made for “inefficient surface feeding”.

At least they did for me.

But back to the big one and the canal from whence it came. I never caught another big red from that canal – on anything! Hooked one once on a spinnerbait, but after giving me another “Delta Sleighride”, it slipped the hook. Eventually a tiny coulee on one shoreline washed out, dirty water was able to intrude, and one day maybe fifteen years after the time of the big red I discovered a bassboat in the canal. After that the coulee got progressively wider and deeper, the fishing suffered accordingly, and perhaps a decade and a half before K. I wrote the place off as a sweet spot.

But I can never write it off as the spot where saltwater fly fishing began for me here in Louisiana.

 

1-19-11

To Catch a Lightning Bug

For almost two decades Barbara and I spent at least a couple of weeks each year visiting her folks up in the mid-Missouri Ozarks. It was hotter than usual while we were there during that last June trip – two years after Grandma’s passing and a little over a year before Grandpa would join her – but typically of all those years, the weather would become quite pleasant at dusk. The temperature dropped noticeably then, that blast furnace they called a breeze died, and the lightning bugs came out.

I’ve always been fond of those delightful little insects. They are harmless, entertaining – almost spell-binding at times, and I guess even though I have thoroughly enjoyed them flashing about in backyards, wood-lots, fields, and forests throughout much of Texas and Louisiana, they became a part of Missouri to me. I grew to expect them there, and I really did miss them when our trips up there didn’t coincide with their time.

Every now and then – before it got so dark that I couldn’t see them without their lights on – I’d wander around the front yard trying to catch one in my hand. I’d bet a lot of other folks have done the same during their youths. In case you have forgotten, it’s quite fun: once you see one you sneak up on it, grab it with your cupped hand – very easily so that you don’t hurt it, open your fingers a bit so you can watch it flash a time or two, and then spread your palm upwards and let it fly away. It’s good medicine, though after age 50 passed me by, maybe for a different ailment.

When you get right down to it, catching tarpon is a lot like catching lightning bugs. You must be in the right place at the right time to find either of them, both require a degree of stealth to approach, both are quite entertaining as they go flashing about, and if you are very careful, both are unharmed after you turn them loose. It’s a very satisfying experience – comforting, even, as I grow older – to still be able to thrill to the chase, be well entertained in the catching part, and know it will probably be none the worse because of it all, tarpon and lightning bug alike.

Up until I reached my early 20’s I spent a lot of time in Texas where I learned to hunt and fish, both in the Hill Country and on the central coast. At least once or twice every summer we would join Mother’s folks – and a few other San Antonio relatives – for a week or two at Rockport. As a child – and perhaps for a few more years – once the older ones would gather on the front porch after supper for vespers, and when that eternal southeasterly gale wasn’t whistling, I’d try to catch lightning bugs.

My “gear” was a glass jar; my hand was its lid. The object of the chase was to see how many of them I could catch in it, and invariably I would reach the point where many would escape as I was trying to capture just one more. Still, it was fun; I don’t remember it being so – Mother would tell me of it years later. From the actions of the neighborhood children I once watched as I sat on the front porch of the house in Missouri, it must have been.

My lightning bug entertainment diminished for a while as I grew older and began to fish, but my fondness for them remained. Tarpon eventually took their place, though not entirely and though the first three that I met escaped more easily than the fireflies of my early childhood had escaped the snare of the glass jar.

I met my first tarpon – and Merry – at Rockport just after my fifteenth birthday. She was my first love; both got away – I guess girls, too, can be a little like lightning bugs to a teen-age boy. But I don’t remember any lightning bugs that year, only her and the fish. You never forget the first.

Two years later I spent a week at a church camp beside a pretty little lake in the rolling, pine-clad hills of north Louisiana. Lightning bugs at twilight were a fitting part of that, too, and catching them was fine fellowship. And like the ones we would catch together, we all soon parted ways – as did Rockport tarpon number two and three later that summer. It would be six years before I met another lightning bug, ten before I saw another tarpon. Barbara brought me back to both.

Her dowry was Missouri: rolling hills, steep bluffs, clear rivers full of smallmouth bass, and lightning bugs. Her temperament was tolerance: she allowed me the means, and a whole lot of time, to fish for tarpon.

Out daughter, Christi, had almost passed that delightful stage of innocent childhood enthusiasm – when catching lightning bugs was part of the Missouri trips for her, too – the year I bought my tarpon-fishing boat. She’d still sit on the front porch, though, with Grandma, Grandpa, Barbara, and me and watch them. And every now and then she’d get up and try to catch one, though it almost seemed like she did it because she felt she was supposed to. By the time she was a bit into her teens she was staying inside when the lightning bugs came out, watching TV and talking teenage stuff with her cousins. I guess that’s some kind of priority progress many of us experience as we grow up – I wonder if it’s harmful…

I had caught my first tarpon by then. It was a big fish – seven feet long – and it had flashed about spectacularly, almost spell-binding, across the surface of West Delta. That was a very good year for me: Missouri smallmouths and lightning bugs in June and a Louisiana tarpon in July. Nine years would pass before I caught another.

A lot happened during that time. We built our first house, less than a year later I lost my job because of the crash of crude-oil prices, I sold my tarpon-boat, Christi began college – and ended her annual visits to Missouri because of it and summer jobs. But Barbara and I still spent a couple of weeks there every June.

Missouri really did seem to be medicine for me. Up there the fish I caught were measured in inches instead of feet, and they didn’t go flashing about quite like tarpon do, but they were wonderful fun to fly fish for. Then there were all the things to see that we didn’t have around our home down in the Delta, like deer crossing the sunset gravel bar to drink, towering sheer, limestone bluffs along the rivers – clear, flowing water, peaceful solitude on an Ozark smallmouth stream. All that, and when the day was over there were lightning bugs to watch – to try to catch, and in doing so, to not think about the worries back home.

A couple of years later tarpon were again providing my flashy entertainment and much more regularly than I would have ever imagined. They are medicinal, too, especially with no lightning bugs about. And for the two years before and after Grandma left, there were none.

That was awfully hard on Barbara – and very sudden. It happened in March; she spent three weeks up there then with Grandpa and her brothers. Her job – and our finances – would not allow our normal June trip later that year. That was awfully hard on me.

A year later we returned. Our trip coincided with the onset of the “Great Midwestern Flood of 1993”. Lightning bugs don’t come out in heavy rain – which sent my little smallmouth rivers well out of their banks. It was a very discouraging visit, especially so without the presence of Grandma.

The following winter really drug its feet. It wasn’t all that cold; it just didn’t seem to ever warm up. But by early April spring appeared to have settled in for good, and Barbara and I decided to plant some azaleas.

She was out in the backyard – checking on their progress, I guess – late one evening after a light shower when I heard her holler for me to come see. When I got outside, I was met by the biggest swarm of lightning bugs I had ever seen in Louisiana. Later that month and again in my beloved West Delta I caught a tarpon on my fly rod – the first of our season and at the time only the second ever taken by a fly fisherman on our coast. And two months later during our resumed June trips to Missouri, the smallmouth fishing on a very special little river was the best it had been in 10 years – and the lightning bugs came out every evening for two weeks.

Two nights before we had to leave for home, a norther blew through. The following morning was not too good for fly fishing for smallmouths, what with the wind and the high barometer, but I went anyway – one more time to keep from maybe missing out on something. It was wonderful there on the river, especially so after the break in the heat. I caught just enough to last until the next time and was back at the house well before sunset.

After supper I slipped away to the front porch. The wind had dropped a lot by then – as had the temperature. But the lightning bugs came out once more, flitting and flashing about across the yard. After watching them for a while I got up and chased a few, caught a couple, watched the fire fly as they crawled across the palm of my hand when I opened it, and grinned like a child as I let them go – just as I had with that last tarpon.

It was a fine way to end a fine day.

That November Grandpa came to live with us; there would be no trip to Missouri – and no lightning bugs – the following spring. But his passing in early October again drove us to Missouri where he was laid beside Grandma. For two weeks – his final gift to us – we were graced with divine Ozark autumn. I had several wonderful days with the smallmouths in my little river, and Christi got to see Missouri once more.

And in the evenings during those last days that we spent at the old family home, we sat on the front porch and watched the fireflies flicker across the yard as we had done for so many years.

The following May Barbara and I drove up for the sale of the estate. We stayed at her brother’s house, and while they cleaned the old place and sorted out its contents in preparation for the sale, I fished. The river was at its best, and the smallmouths treated me well – almost like they knew me, knew I would probably never return, and wanted to show their respect after so many years. And back at the house where we stayed – so foreign in a place so familiar – I even saw a few fireflies at twilight. Leaving was as sad a thing as I have ever done.

Later that summer I caught a very large tarpon that flashed and flitted across the surface of West Delta in a manner that was absolutely spell-binding. And occasionally on mid-spring evenings during the years since then, Barbara has hollered from the backyard for me to come and see, and there would be lightning bugs about – not many, but enough. I don’t try to catch them anymore, but they never cease to please me – and to cause me to recall so many wonderful memories of dear people, dear places, and dear times.

Like thoughts of tarpon do…

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