A Dickens of a Day

redfish multiple tails

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was a time of multitudes of fish; it was a time of no fish. It was a time of hope; it was a time of despair. It was a time of satisfaction; it was a time of frustration.

Ecclesiastes tells us that for everything under heaven there is a season. There is a time to for all our human activities and existence. This seems to be true even in fly fishing. There is a time for fishing and there is a time for catching. My recent trip to McClellanville brought the words of both Solomon and Dickens to living reality for me and my steadfast old friend Mike.

The day began, as most fishing days, filled with anticipation and optimism. In stark contrast, my recent trips had been filled with frustration. I seem to have been afflicted with what I refer to as “Fisherman’s Block.” It is the sporting equivalent of another of my maladies- writer’s block. Sometimes even the best writers sit for hours staring blankly into a computer screen, unable to coherently connect even two words, much less a plot. My theory is that fishermen have similar episodes when they suddenly seem incapable of connecting fly to a fish’s mouth. Today seemed such a day.

The weather was as good as it gets, unlike me. Mike, selfless friend that he is, pushed the boat over the flat with an eighteen foot long graphite rod as I stood scanning the water for redfish sign- a tail, a push of water, the fin of a cruising fish, even a ripple, or the subtle movement of spartina grass as a redfish pushes past it.

I was rewarded in short order by one of my favorite sights- a redfish tail swaying in the salty air. Mike expertly poled the boat into easy casting range without disturbing the merrily dining redfish. I took careful aim and discharged a cast towards the fish. It fell much too far to the left of the fish. I reloaded and shot once more. This effort dropped too far right of target. The line was retrieved and I readied yet a third cast, but too late as the fish had now disappeared, moving on to locate another crustacean lunch special. I was disappointed by my poor performance, but as we moved along, I had numerous shots at redemption. Each presentation seemed worse than the preceding one. We saw somewhere around fifteen tailing redfish in short order, but I now seemed to have never even cast a fly rod, so inept were my offerings. I implored Mike to come down off the platform and demonstrate his always impressive skills, so as not to allow these manifold opportunities to go for naught. He declined, insisting I continue until the spell had been broken.

I failed to connect the dots that day in every conceivable way, maybe some inconceivable ways. The one fish that haunts me even now was a smallish redfish, slowly swimming parallel to the boat’s path, stopping occasionally to go head down and tail up in pursuit of its quarry. It was uncomfortably close to the boat.  I feared the smallest shift of my feet would send the fish bolting away. Yet, I managed three casts without spooking it before the redfish turned its head towards my fly and the boat, not more than twelve feet away. I stripped the fly and saw the fish’s mouth open around the fly. Like a rank novice, I over reacted and pulled the fly out of its mouth in an effort to insure a firm hook set. I hung my head and expected Mike to make me walk the plank, abandoned to my fate on the flats while he sped off to another spot to catch a few reds himself. But, he did no such thing, instead encouraging me to continue my quest.

It does seem to be true that such drubbings may be key to preventing fishing from becoming boring. Days such as these force me to become a better and more patient fisherman. It keeps me returning to the flats, determined to enhance my skills and demonstrate my improvement, mainly to myself.  Despite my deep disappointment in myself, I felt even more ashamed of letting my friend Mike down. I am indeed fortunate to have a friend who is willing to overlook my failings.

Now when is the next high tide??

 

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The Old Man and the Creek

redfish driftwood 2 James Sept 2012

Just getting out of bed wasn’t going to be easy. Every last joint in his aged body ached with the first rays of the October sun. Butter colored shafts of light  were sliding through his eastern facing window and across his age spotted face, now covered with three days of whitish face-hair. Each uncombed wisp of his silver hair seemed to value its independence and had sought its own direction, making him look a little like Einstein, he thought, as his countenance reflected blurrily into his as yet un-spectacled eyes.

“You might as well stay home and watch the History Channel,” remarked his wife, now gathering herself over the old gas stove to cook up some coffee for them both. The Old Man raised the thick ceramic mug to his dry lips. The liquid it contained was the color of coal- and tasted just like he imagined coal powder dissolved in water might. “Good brew today, dear,” he slyly said, the tiny curl of a smile forming at one corner of his mouth as he thought that “brew” had been a clever word selection.  “You know you’ll catch nothing except maybe a cold out there today,” his wife said. “Well, I need to be in The Maker’s world today. I’m not getting any younger sitting in front of the tube.” “Oh, all right then. Just be sure you have your cell phone with you- and don’t forget to put it in a plastic baggie!” she commanded.

He sat very still. His father’s ancestral baitcaster rested firmly in the Old Man’s right hand. Somewhere on the bottom of the creek lay a chunk of cut mullet, its aromas, like the coffee his wife had prepared earlier, spreading silently across the tide. He surveyed his surroundings. Deep green spartina grass stood in thick array in every direction, save the unruffled surface of the creek. He noticed the periwinkle snails that had scaled the slender stalks of spartina to escape the hungry blue crabs scurrying around on the mud flats below them. “Don’t worry, Mr. Snail, “he whispered to the hordes of white shelled invertebrates, “Mr. Redfish will be along soon to make a dandy snack of those pesky crustaceans.” He observed legions of fiddlers their one oddly disproportionate claw raised to a defensive position rush to and fro between piles of perfectly round previously sifted mud. They displayed their daytime colors now- dark in sunlight but light at night. It seemed counterintuitive to the Old Man. Nature remained an unending source of fascination for him and made the long periods of waiting for his line to move entirely enjoyable.

The ancient rod tip quivered, then made a series of bounces. The Old Man redirected his gaze from the marsh’s inhabitants to the now rapidly disappearing line. “See, Old Woman! The magic still works!” He raised the rod to the cloudless azure sky now. Feeling the increased resistance, the redfish hit his turbocharger and accelerated rapidly down the narrow creek towards the bay.  “I better slow this big boy down a little before he spools me,” the Old Man thought to himself. He lowered the rod tip, then, as if turning a tarpon, pulled it to his right. Just then, the fish surged, forcing the rod to strike the gunwale of his battered aluminum boat. POW! The rod snapped, and as it did, the spool overran, creating a monstrous knot of twenty pound monofilament. The fish pressed on, now switching on full afterburners. The Old Man watched in horror, helpless to prevent the knot from its inevitable collision with the tip top of the rod. Suddenly, the top section of the rod parted company with the lower section as the knot snapped the line and ripped the upper rod half into the water. The Old Man watched as the rod tip trailed along the surface of the muddy water, now in tow by the redfish, or whatever it was. “Could have been a shark.” He thought as he fired up the tired Johnson outboard. It took five pulls, but at last it came to life, sputtering in protest. He put all five horsepower to work as he followed the rod tip. He hoped to retrieve both rod tip and fish once he caught up.

The tip section, along with the fish, slowed now and finally came to a halt. The fish rested as the Old Man contemplated an appropriate course of action. The rod, with its bird nested line and missing section, was essentially useless. He looked quickly around the johnboat and his eyes came to rest on a spool of fifty pound mono. It was wound around one of those larger spools that has a large central opening. An idea materialized from the ether. He rummaged around and located a box of weights. With one eye on the still floating, and still stationary rod tip, he tied four of these in a non slip mono knots. Now he had a new fishing rig- what Cubans call a Yo-Yo. The theory was simple- toss the Yo-Yo line around the rod tip, then pul it to him, and bring the fish to his hand.

The practice was not so simple however. By now whatever creature was fast to the other end began to make slow movement to and fro, as though it might have returned to seeking its next meal. The Old Man was worried that misses might spook the fish into bolting, but he hoisted the weights, swinging them vertically, like a South American cowboy might throw a bolas. After three or four misses, he found this was not so. Finally, after multiple attempts, the line fell across the rod and even managed to encircle it twice. A wide grin now filled his face and he slowly pulled the line towards himself and his boat.

Inch by inch, the Old Man worked the fish back. The redfish , realizing it was restrained once more, began to resist harder. It bulldogged and even shook its head in an unredfish-like manner. This made the Old Man think maybe it really was something other than the redfish he sought. The water was fairly clear in late October, most of the algae killed off by the recent cold snap. As he forced the fish to his will, the Old Man could now see that it was indeed a redfish. And what a redfish. He was treated to a closeup inspection when he had the fish boat side and was astounded by the size of this specimen. He estimated it to be over thirty five inches- a giant of unusual mass this far up a creek. With the heavyweight at the gunwale, the Old Man reached for a tape measure. He thought he would measure it alongside the boat since this one was significantly over the slot limit. He suddenly recalled that he had left his phone, and its camera, in his pickup at the ramp, neatly enclosed in a double plastic baggie. “That all right. At least I can measure it.” He comforted himself.

Someone else had noticed all the commotion caused by the fight. It was the Man in the Brown Suit- a bull shark of about six feet. His sensitive nares tracked the distress pheromones released by the redfish and the shark was now coming, torpedo-like straight at the redfish lying alongside the boat. The Old Man saw only a huge splash of water and blood as the hungry shark devoured the redfish in a single great flash of teeth and fury. The Old Man was grateful he had not yet put his hands and the tape measure in the water.

“I told you wouldn’t catch anything,” said the Old Woman as she stirred the pots containing dinner for the couple. “You could have saved yourself all that trouble, not mention the gas, and stayed here. Maybe made yourself useful by cutting the grass today!”

“Wonder what’s on the history channel tonight?” asked the Old Man. A small smile formed at one corner of his mouth.

 

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No See Gar!

wee tee lake

The day’s quest seemed simple enough. First, we determined to catch a few largemouth from a very remote oxbow lake Mike had fished a few times in the remote past. The location of this particular lake is, in fact, so remote as to necessitate the use of a GPS. Mike’s internal GPS, typically amazingly reliable, seemed to uncharacteristically fade in and out, like an old television with rabbit ears. We struggled to force the GPS unit in his new vehicle into submission, and ultimately were rewarded by the sight of this hidden, fish filled angling nirvana. At least that is what we had anticipated.

 

We quickly let the small electric boat slip into the dark water and boarded, arranging our gear in anticipation of achieving our secondary goal for the day- catching one of the lake’s numerous gar. Regarded as undesirable, most anglers do not pursue these exceedingly common fish. The species is considered ancient, with fossils dating from the Cretaceous period. They, like tarpon, sport swim bladders that are able to function as primitive lungs, causing them to frequently rise to the surface and gulp air, especially in poorly oxygenated waters. They can grow to amazing size, with some sub-species reaching nearly ten feet and one hundred pounds.  They are said to be strong fighters, sometimes leaping into the air while battling the angler. I hoped to see for myself and to add gar to my life list of species captured on a fly. My minnow imitation was affixed to the business end of a six weight fly rod lying at the ready in the bow of the boat. In my right hand was a light spinning rod armed with a plastic worm for unsuspecting bass.

gar fossil

Gar Fossil

Leaden skies seemed to inch slowly toward out little boat as we cast repeatedly around blowdowns and tree bases populating the lake’s edges. Bites were hard to get, so we made frequent lure changes. In the center of the lake, we observed many gar breaking the surface and submerging, creating telltale splashes and ringlets. “This overcast sky makes spotting the gar in time for a cast an almost impossibility” remarked Mike. “I had hoped that we would have good sun, and detect them from enough distance to be to make a cast with the fly rod.”  As we worked along, searching out the occasional bass, I was startled by the simultaneous appearance and disappearance, of several gar right by my station on the bow.  There was not enough time to grab the fly rod, much less to make a cast. I was tantalized by the large spotted tails as the fish thrust themselves towards the deeper water.  Our fishing day was complicated by the occasional errant cast, resulting in a lure stuck in a tree branch. After successful retrieval of my lure on one such occasion, my baseball cap was suddenly snatched from my head by a limb. We scanned the area for it, knowing it would be floating, making recapture a simple task. To our surprise, it not on the water, or in the boat. Puzzled, we backed away from the bank, and then we saw it, suspended on a tree limb, just like my lure!

wee tee hat in tree_edited-1

Hat Trick!

A freshening breeze and darkening skies prompted me to comment that I thought rain was inbound. Looking skyward, Mike agreed and within minutes we were being pelted by heavy raindrops. As neither of us had brought a raincoat, instead trusting the Weather Channel forecast, we made for a relatively protected spot under some low trees whose branches reached out over the water. This proved futile and we soon returned to our journey, now being forced to bail rainwater from our little craft. Our enthusiasm, unlike our clothing and skin, remained undampened and we slowly moved to the next spot, continuing to hold out hope for a fly caught gar, despite that now being extremely unlikely.

fishing tee wee with Mike_edited-1

Angling Dedication on Display!

Though bass fishing remained unusually slow and gar fishing now impossible, we were treated to the sight of a number of nature’s creatures. Among the branches of a blown over tree, Mike spotted a Prothonotary Warbler, its bright yellow feathers resembling something straight out of a tropical rainforest. Dozens of medium sized alligators prowled the surface of the lake, eyes barley above the waterline.  We continued to see quite a few gar, but poor light prevented me from presenting a fly to one of these swimming dinosaurs.

pro warbler_edited-1

A tropical bird in the swamp?

Darkness was rapidly covering the lake and we made flank speed for the landing as the sun’s last rays petered out against the irregular treeline to our west.  We will not require a GPS when next we visit this lake, neither will we neglect to bring raincoats!

 

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Kings of the River

DSCN1077

Years ago, when I was a child, there was a daytime television show directed at the average American housewife called “Queen for a Day”. It aired each afternoon just as I was arriving home from school. My Mom usually had the TV tuned in to that station, though she was busily ironing, cleaning, or carrying out some other domestic duty. Hosted by Jack Bailey, the program introduced Americans to the concept of the big money giveaway show. The winner was decided by the volume of audience applause after each contestant had spun her particular tale of woe to the drama loving crowd. Prizes were often extravagant and the object of every woman’s desire. It was so successful that advertising cost $4000 per minute in the fifties!

My friend George and I recently ventured north to Virginia to spend a day fishing the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia. Under the expert tutelage of our guide Matt, we became Kings for a Day on the James River- King George and King James, as it were. Our quest that day was the smallmouth bass, though the James is replete with other gamefish, notably the carp and the Mighty Musky. Yes, the Fish of Ten Thousand casts resides in these waters and Matt frequently seeks these fish exclusively for anglers with endless patience and equally tireless casting arms. King George and I however, were more easily satisfied. We had come to the Colonies in search of the more easily fooled smallmouth.

We set forth from a downtown ramp, to my dismay. I imagined spending our day drifting past factories, courthouses, and high end retail shops, but was very soon delighted to see all vestiges of civilization fade into the rearview mirror as we rounded the first bend in the broad expanse of the James. The James is a couple hundred yards wide. It’s clear waters are often quite shallow and peppered with boulders and rock outcroppings that keep most watercraft safely on its banks. Our polypropylene drift boat was impervious to these dangers and had been designed for use on the wild and bumpy waters of western trout rivers. No other boats incroached upon our watery kingdom that day.  Matt’s intimate knowledge of the river coupled with his impressive boat handling skills quickly put us on the most fish dense areas of the river, without wasting time in search mode.

The morning saw King James manning the bow, six weight in hand. King George took the after station, ready to pick off all the fish missed by the bow man. George drew first blood, landing a nice smallie on a surface fly. In fact, he brought several nice smallmouth to the boat, while I dredged the deeper waters with a larger minnow imitation. After some frustration, Matt switched my fly to highly impressionistic subsurface fly called a Tequeely. This copper colored flashy fly with three pairs of seductive undulating legs proved irresistible to the smallie. Soon, I had landed several lovely fish. I was particularly pleased as I had encountered but a single specimen of this gamefish prior to this outing. That one was accidentally caught while steelheading the Snake River in Idaho.

DSCN1062

One of my captures had taken the fly unusually deeply, resulting in significant bleeding. To my shock, Matt demanded I relinquish the Coca Cola I was imbibing. He held the hemorrhaging fish by the lip and quickly poured the Coke down its open gullet. Naturally, I was quite amazed at this type of resuscitation. Matt informed me that pouring Coke over the gills and throat both aid in stopping the bleeding and also raises the fish’s oxygen level. I had no idea. Perhaps Coke’s 1906 slogan was accurate- “Coca Cola revives and sustains”.

smallmouth likes coke

George and I continued to work the overhangs and downed trees along the river, periodically switching to the opposite side as Matt’s experience dictated. We caught goodly numbers of smallmouth and a couple of larger ones. In Virginia, the angler who lands a 20 inch smallmouth gets a plaque and commendation letter from the Virginia DNR. George and I each came close to award size, but fell slightly short. George’s fish was 18 inches. Matt measured mine at 19 inches, but in the King James Version, it was really 20 ½ inches!

Soon, the day was ready to come to a close. As we approached the take out ramp, Matt commented that we could be lucky enough to catch one last smallmouth right at the ramp. As we neared the concrete pad, George threw his fly 2 or 3 feet short of it. Bam! He was rewarded with the final fish of the trip- a solid smallie of some 15 inches. As Matt loaded the boat for the trip back to town, George and I joined in a royal handshake and congratulated ourselves on our crowning achievement on the James- more smallmouth than either of us had ever caught.

( To enjoy a regal day of your own fishing for smallmouth or musky on the James, contact Matt Miles at http://www.mattmilesflyfishing.com. Matt is an Orvis endorsed guide)

 

 

 

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Two Gentlemen of Murrell’s Inlet

redfish double

Credit- Shallowsouth.com Used with permission.

Adam and Val grew up fishing the Inlet together. They were nearly the same age and both had been born to families who had lived in the Murrell’s Inlet area for many generations. Using a spinning rod had come naturally to each boy and they reveled in the bounty to be found in the marshes and around the jetties . On the occasion of their graduation from the local high school, each was gifted a fifteen foot aluminum johnboat and an accompanying outboard motor. Of course, being teenage boys heavily under the influence of a burgeoning supply of testosterone, competition was unavoidable. Each relished making the bigger catch, giving him the right to unmercifully lord it over the other until the next trip.

“Val,” began Adam. “Let’s work the rocks along the south side of the jetty today. I just know the big reds will be there today.” “No, I think they will be over on the north side, so I’ll fish there. You try the south side and we’ll see who has better fish sense,” replied Val. The two buddies departed the ramp and snaked their way through the marsh, bound for the jetties. Val’s faithful Boykin Spaniel, Bluecrab, sat up front, her brown curly ears flapping against the passing air. The warm June sun had no clouds to hide behind that day, and the winds which had kept the pair shore bound last week had disappeared. Conditions were perfect.

In a few minutes, each young man had set up on his preferred spot. Each selected a live mud minnow from a bucket and dropped the baits to the bottom. An hour and a half passed. Val dialed his friend’s cell phone. “Adam, you having any luck?’ “Who need luck when you got skill?” his buddy replied with a laugh. “We both do today. It’s slower than molasses out here today.” They persisted for some three hours and tried every artificial bait they had in addition to the usually dependable minnows. Adam’s phone rang. “Looks like they beat us both today, man” admitted Val. Even Bluecrab seemed despondent, hanging her frizzy head down in doggie despair.

They met at the ramp and loaded their vessels onto their trailers. “You know, Adam, I was thinking.” “Oh that’s where all the smoke behind your boat came from. I thought maybe your engine was on fire!” laughed Adam. “Very funny, wiseass” was the response from Val. “Since we got totally skunked today, I am thinking of driving down to McClellanville tomorrow and giving it a whirl. You in?” “Sure, why not? Can’t do any worse there than we did here.”

Bluecrab, who had been wandering around the ramp as the guys talked, spotted a fisherman unloading his boat. Like a flash, the playful dog had seized the man’s rod by its handle and was rapidly dragging it up the ramp. “Bluecrab! Come back here and give me that rod! “commanded Val. Bluecrab slowed sufficiently to allow Val to grab the rod. After a brief, but intense struggle, Val gained possession of the rod and handed it to its rightful owner. “Sorry about that, Sir” said Val, apologizing for his dog’s boorish behavior. “I will get the cork replaced for you. My dog did put a few bite marks on it. “Naw, it’s OK. I have a lab at home and he has already gotten a hold of the rod and gnawed on it. Don’t worry about it”.  “I appreciate that,” responded Val, casting a disapproving  glare in Bluecrab’s direction.

The next morning, the boys made their way down Highway 17 to the quaint fishing village at McClellanville. Neither had ever tried the labyrinth of low lying flats that dot the landscape between the village and the Atlantic. They reached the ramp after an hour of driving and backed their boats down the dual lane facility. Adam was especially anxious, clicking on his GPS as soon as he was in the water and the little Yamaha was purring. Val, meanwhile, had starting issues with his Mercury. He tried everything from altering the choke, to squeezing the filling bulb for a second time, to just cursing at the motor.

 

Val, knowing that his friend’s motor was sometimes cantankerous, shouted “I am going on ahead. Just meet me at the GPS numbers I gave you.” He knew he should wait and help Adam, but the idea of catching the first McClellanville red overpowered him. How great it would be to get there first and land a thirty inch fish by the time Adam got there. Off he sped to the numbers the tackle store owner had given him.

 

 

Val’s GPS guided him directly to the location that was promised to be carpeted with shiny red tails on this morning’s flood tide. He quickly shut off the motor and picked up the nine foot eight weight fly rod his father has loaned him.  He stood on the back bench and scanned around him. For fifteen minutes he saw nothing but the semi-clear waters of the flooded flat. Then, a faint glint of light caught his eye. It was a smallish redfish, happily tailing while chasing a frightened crab. The rod began a much too rapid motion, arcing through some two hundred degrees of travel, far too much to be effective. Though the fish lay a mere thirty feet away, the extra wide loop formed in the fly line by the excessive motion resulted in a cast that travelled perhaps ten feet before the line suddenly stopped and crashed in a pile on the water’s surface. Dejected, Val sat down. He attempted to analyze his failure as his eyes followed the redfish swimming away. “I should go help Adam” he realized. Even if he had indeed caught the first redfish, and that one on a fly, he began to feel that it would be a hollow victory. Fifteen minutes later, he rounded the corner and the ramp came into view.

Bluecrab stood on the front of Adam’s john boat, tail wagging and barking at Val’s approach. “Hmm.. “ Val thought. “A bow wow on the bow!” as he chuckled at his own cleverness. It would definitely be more fun to fish with his friend.  Adam’s boat lay tied fast to the dock while he rummaged through his less than complete tool box in a last gasp effort to get the motor running. “Adam, let’s load your boat and just both fish from mine.” Said Val. “The redfish are there!” he added.

The tide was beginning to fall when the boys and Bluecrab returned to the flat. The forecast had predicted a big tide, nearly seven feet, for that day, so they had plenty of time to fish the tide down.  Val displaced Bluecrab from the bow, while Adam took the after position. Adam suddenly said “Whoa! Look at that! A monster tail sticking up out of the water. Check out that blue tinge on the tip!!!’

“I see another one over there!” exclaimed Val, as he excitedly pointed out to eleven o’clock. Each young man cast, Val with the fly rod and Adam with a spinner bearing a gold spoon. This time, both lure and fly gently dropped a foot from their respective targets. The water boiled around each fish and just like that they had a double. Val and Adam looked at each other, eyes wide open, and began the celebratory whoops. Val watched his buddy land a gorgeous redfish of some twenty inches and thought “New places can be great, but old friendships can be even greater.” Aroused by all the shouting, Bluecrab grabbed a spare spinning rod by the cork and swung it around as if she were casting it. Adam and Val laughed so loud, they swore they could hear the sound echoing off the old lighthouse.

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Tangled Up in Red

redfish driftwood 2 James Sept 2012Early one spring the sun was shining

I was lying in bed

Wondering if she had changed at all,

If her scales were still red.

 

My wife said our life together

Sure was going to be rough

She never did like

My new flats boat

Our bank book wasn’t big enough.

 

I was standing in the yard

Rain falling on my shoes

I was heading out to McClellanville

Lord knows, I’ve paid my dues

Now that winter’s dead

Tangled up in red

 

She was tailing when we first met

Trying to catch a crab

I helped her out by throwing a fly

Made from deer hair so drab

It fell in the water by an oyster shell

So I moved to the right,

Over the muddy seabed

Till it was just where I liked

Six inches from her head

Tangled up in red

 

She turned her head to look at it

And then glanced up at me

Thought you’d never cast my way she said

You look like a big dummy

Standing on your fiberglass sled

Tangled up in red

 

She opened up a book of tips

And handed it to me

Written by an American angler

From the nineteenth century

Every one of those words rang true

And glowed like burning coals

Pouring off of every page

Till they were written on my soul

And filled my head

Tangled up in red

 

I cast again with different flies

I got to get to her somehow

All the sliders and poppers that I tied

They’re an illusion to me now

I even thought about using live bait

But something inside of me died

I looked down at my casting rod

And froze up inside

When she refused every fly I cast

I became withdrawn

The only thing I knew how to do

Was to keep on casting on

Till fish and fly were wed

Tangled up in red

 

So now I’m going back again

Got to get to her somehow

All the fish I’ve caught before

Don’t seem to matter now

Some are giant tuna fish

Some are really big bones

Don’t know how this all got started

She has left me all alone

But me, I’m still in my boat

Searching all over this flat

Hoping I wouldn’t have to look too far

For a redfish so fat

Feeling like I have bled

Tangled up in red

( My apologies to Mr. Bob Dylan)

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Redfish Fortune

It was the sun glinting off its coppery surface that caught my eye. I stood fueling my flats boat and daydreaming about catching a big redfish when the brightness focused my gaze to the object lying on the asphalt of the convenience store lot. I leaned over despite fears of reawakening the back pain that plagues me to retrieve it. “How can a penny be worth stirring up the pain that could result in a premature finish to my fishing trip?” I asked myself. I examined the coin, rough and well worn, before deciding it could be an omen, a sign of good things to come on the flats, a lucky penny bearing the same coppery color of the fish I planned to pursue that day. I placed it in the depths of a wading pant pocket and tightly secured the Velcro fastener.

Three hours later, I stood on a flat near McClellanville, eyes scanning the surface for blue tipped tails exposed to the sunlight. Mike, my longtime friend and fishing mentor, had dropped me at this lonely spot before speeding away to a flat of his own. Back over the village, a heavy thunderstorm growled and barked, its darkening clouds occasionally glowing from massive cloud to cloud lightning.  We had consulted the Weather Channel on my iPhone only minutes before leaving the safety of the dock.  The radar imagery had suggested that the storm was heading off to the northeast, but I was not so sure now as I stood exposed holding a nine and a half foot graphite lightning rod in my hand. As I slowly ambled towards what seemed to be a slightly higher spot, I carefully reconnoitered the area, while silently appealing to the Ultimate Weatherman to direct the clouds anywhere but where I stood.

Within minutes, the first redfish appeared. It was not an especially large specimen, but it was the first red I had seen this season. I approached as stealthily as a two hundred and fifty pound man can and amazingly reached casting range without disturbing the merrily dining fish. My old standby redfish fly had been affixed to the tippet and after two false casts, it gently entered the muddy water about a foot from the fish. The fish pounced to the fly, and in my haste to catch my first redfish of the season, I overreacted and pulled the fly away from the fish’s mouth. He then departed, seeking sustenance elsewhere.

I plodded on, my neoprene shod feet sinking under their heavy burden into the soft plough mud.   Soon, a second fish made its presence known. This one was already within my casting range. “Stay calm,” I told myself. “Don’t blow it. Let the fish eat. THEN set the hook.”  I waved the rod a couple of times and let the fly seek out its target. Once more, all seemed well, the fish continued its search for food as I stripped the fly to make it look alive for the hungry redfish. On the second strip of the line, the fly’s hook dug deeply into a clump of spartina grass. The vibration caused by my efforts to free it resulted in the fish fleeing to an alternate area. I watched it as I worked the fly loose, entirely too late to make another presentation. I reached into my pocket and rubbed the penny.

Sweat was now turning my technical casting shirt several shades darker as I worked my way across the flat and through the mud. Furtive glances behind me confirmed that my earlier supplications had kept the thunder at bay. Over the next hour, I saw three more redfish, but had no chance to cast to them. The tide, as I had been warned, was running a foot to a foot and a half higher than predicted. The island on which I walked had been transformed into an almost uninterrupted expanse of water now, with only the odd grass clump or old tree stump protruding above the water. I reached for my radio to call Mike, hoping I had not somehow unintentionally offended him. Suddenly, I felt very lonesome. Should he elect to leave me here, I would be in serious trouble. The radio crackled on, and Mike announced he was making his way to my position. Relieved, I stood still, hoping my legs would not sink further until he could rescue me. The water was now groin deep and still rising. I scanned for fins as I waited.

After boarding the boat, Mike sped us to a very fishy location we discovered a couple of years ago that we were calling our “Double Secret Spot”. When we arrived, we were shocked to find two boats already poling along and looking for fish. The tide was nearly at its zenith, making locating tailing fish virtually impossible. After thirty minutes, the other anglers appeared to be sufficiently discouraged to stow their push poles and head for the barn. We then proceeded to our “Triple Secret Spot’ as we waited on the tide to fall off the flat enough for us to locate fish tails. After a while, our patient strategy was rewarded by the sight of a number of those oh so lovely redfish tails slowly undulating in the late afternoon air.  Mike, self sacrificing friend that he is, insisted on poling my excessively heavy boat while I manned the bow, fly rod in hand. His high tech composite flats boat that we usually fish had been sidelined by mechanical woes. He verbalized his love for his easy to pole boat, wishing it, like a long lost love, would magically appear. “Well, you know a heavy guy needs a heavy boat” was the best response I could mount.  “Straight ahead!” he exclaimed quietly. “There’s a nice redfish tailing.” I quickly began the familiar casting motion as my eyes locked onto the redfish.  The fish was coming straight at us- a perfect situation for a fly caster, especially with no discernible wind. A new fly had been substituted for the one that hung in the grass, a homemade pattern I had tied with a weed guard. It was a new design, about to undergo trial by fire. It fell two feet from the fish’s nose. A single short strip and my line came tight. The line shot up into the guides and I saw with a sickening feeling a large knot in the fly line coming up off the deck into the guides. “Oh NOOOO!” I said. “That knot will hang in the tip top and then the tippet will break and this fish will be gone.” Mike was now working like a galley slave, pushing mightily in an attempt to maintain pace with the large redfish fast to my line. For my part, I did my best to hold the line firmly against the rod with one hand, while trying to untie the Gordian Knot of fly line with the other, letting go as necessary to manage the fish. My anxiety meter was pushed to the stops when I got a good look at this fish. It was a very nice red, one of the largest I have hooked.  The struggle went on for some fifteen minutes, but ultimately, the knot came undone and I had the fish on the reel. Mike brought it aboard, and soon I was posing for a hero photo. I looked back towards McCllellanville and saw the storm slowly pushing south. We released the fish after measuring it at thirty inches.  As it swam away, I rubbed the penny again.

James big red June 2016

 

“Mike, I cannot adequately express my gratitude. That was truly a team fish. Let me pole the boat now so you can get one”.’ He demurred, but agreed to stop the boat and wade for the next fish we saw. I reluctantly concurred, recognizing that I probably would not be physically capable of pushing the boat properly.  “I see one!”Mike said. Quickly, he came off the platform, grabbed his rod and slipped over the side. The redfish tail disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared. Mike made a blind cast to its last known location. After a few strips, his fly line came tight. I literally jumped for joy. Now we had each caught a redfish, his Herculean efforts coming full circle. I pulled out my camera as he reached for the fish. Suddenly he burst out laughing. “What’s so funny?” I inquired. “It’s a mullet!” he said “A mullet?? You caught a mullet on a fly?” I responded. Mullet are algae eaters and will not normally take a fly or anything else for that matter. “I fouled hooked him in head just above the mouth. If you didn’t look closely, you would think this fish ate that fly.”  We shared a huge laugh and then realized that we would have to leave the flat right away, as the tide had fallen dangerously low.  Another ten minutes, and we would be stuck here, unable to reach deep enough water to make our way back to the ramp.

mullet man with fish

“I am sorry you didn’t get a redfish today, Mike, but consider this. Anybody can catch a redfish, a bonefish, or even a sailfish on fly, but you are such an expert fisherman that you have done the impossible and caught a mullet on fly!”  We chuckled as I exited the boat. Together we pushed the stern to the edge of a small creek. It had been a wonderful day after all.

 

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