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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Spring Fever

“The pond we will be fishing today is overstocked” my friend told me as we motored down the two lane asphalt road towards our destination. “The owner insists that we keep every fish we can catch. I promised him we would do just that”. The pines and scrub oaks flashed past the rolled up windows of my SUV, now laden with a thick layer of that yellow-green airborne  gift we southerners are accustomed to receiving each spring.  “Will it be mostly bass in this pond?” I inquired. “No, there is a mixed bag of bass, crappie, and bluegill in it’ he responded. “You know, it has been a long winter and I really don’t care what kind of fish we catch. I just want to get hooked up to a few feisty fish today” I replied.  “Well, you know what they say ‘The tug is the drug’ “was my buddies’ response.

“Turn left at that dirt road just ahead’ I was instructed. The trip had been relatively short and that suited me just fine. Fish Fever had me in its grips and the sooner I could get a lure in the water the better. About a mile into the dusty old road, a small pond came into view. It was not large and appeared to have been manmade and quite old. “Do you know how long this pond has been here?”  I asked. “Not entirely certain, but more than a hundred years.  So, the fish have had lots of time to grow old and fat”. “Just like me!” I said. We both laughed at that one.

I pulled my truck up to pond’s edge and opened the driver’s door. It creaked and groaned just like my worn out old knees.  George had already exited the vehicle, bouncing merrily towards the back liftgate. I sometimes think he just enjoys showing off his amazing level of fitness. I never know whether to be dumbfounded at his agility or jealous since we are exactly the same age. “Hurry up and get this open so we can get after those bass” George said impatiently. The tailgate at last opened and George collected his tackle box and headed down to the small aluminum boat tied off on a scrub oak at the water’s edge. Meanwhile, I rummaged around and found the smallish bag with my gear in it. “Damnation!” I muttered. “What’s the matter?” George asked. “I forgot my big tackle box! Left it on the shelf in the garage. Just in too much of a rush to get back on the water.” “Well, don’t fret” said George. “I have plenty of lures and rigging stuff. Of course, tackle is never cheap on the water!” He laughed out loud, and was so amused at his own wittiness that he continued to chuckle as I walked to the boat, my pitifully small bag in one hand and my favorite bass rod and spinning reel combo in the other. “At least I did remember my fishing rod” I added, frustration showing on my face.

We loaded our stuff into the boat and assumed our fishing positions. I took the bow, George seated comfortably in the stern. We donned the inflatable lift vests we found onboard, and I picked up the broad wooden paddle that had been lying on the deck. “Where should we start, George?” I wondered, deferring to my friend’s greater fishing experience and knowledge. “That blowdown on the far bank looks good to me” he snorted, knowing it lay at the far end of the pond. “Are you serious?” I asked. “Well, actually, yes. I have fished this pond a couple of times and those submerged branches hold lots of bass waiting to ambush baitfish. Sorry it is so far away.” In a display of false bravado, I replied “Hey, not a problem. I have been working out hard on a rowing machine. No sweat. I got this”. We both knew I was lying.

We eventually made it. George even claimed to be willing to do some of the paddling, but I insisted on preserving my male ego by doggedly keeping at it. Once we were at a proper casting distance from the tree, George rifled through his box. “I think I’ll start with a green lizard rigged Carolina style. He was ready in record time and began a series of skillful casts, dragging the plastic lizard past the length of the tree. No takers. Meanwhile, I realized that I had but three lures with me. My bag contained a pumpkin colored plastic worm, a medium square billed crankbait in shad colors, and a white buzzbait. I considered asking George for something else, but decided against it. “George,” I am such a good fisherman that I bet you a Coke that I will outfish you with just these baits”. “OK. You’re on, my friend”. I tied on the crankbait since George was using a plastic bait on the bottom. I like those square bills since they usually will bump up against underwater wood and just pop over the obstruction rather than hanging up. PLOP! Into the water it went on the opposite side of the tree. I worked the bait back but again, no response. George and I worked that tree for maybe fifteen minutes before deciding to make a move. I paddled us to a group of promising looking stumps  and we began casting. George casted left and I went right. We fished in silence for a few minutes before George said “ No hits yet, so I am changing”. He cut off the lizard and put on jerk bait. “ Hmmm, I said, kidding my good friend, “ That seems appropriate!” We shared a laugh and George cast again. He worked that bait close to an old cypress stump and WHAM! A huge strike. “Looks like you got a nibble there, George”, I said as he set the hook and tightened his drag slightly. “Yeah, I think so too” he said, turning his reel handle in intermittent circling motions. We peered into the dark waters straining to see the fish. The bass leaped into the air writhing in midair and fell back to the water. “HOOWEE!!” exclaimed George. “That’s a good one, George” I said. “Be careful with him”. “Oh I got him, don’t you worry” George said, reaching towards the bass with a landing net. He soon held the fish by the lip posing for a hero shot. “George, I hate to tell you this, but I forgot my camera too!” “Well, no problem. I am just happy to have caught this guy. Maybe I’ll get a quick photo at home before he goes into my frying pan”. The fish suddenly wiggled and jumped out of George’s hand and back into the water. “Guess we won’t be taking that one home!” he said.

I made numerous casts but without success. I too decided to change lures. I went with my plastic worm and soon resumed casting. After twenty minutes of effort, I suggested we try another spot. We moved to a shallow flat type area with aquatic grass along the bank. I tried my worm what seemed like a thousand times but not even a bump. George was not having any better luck, so once more we made a move. A brush pile in the middle of the pond held promise, and we set up near it. George exchanged his lure once more for a spinnerbait. He offered one to me, but of course, I demurred, having bet I could outfish him with my meager gear. We made multiple presentations around the brush and were once more disappointed. It seemed neither George nor I could even buy a fish.

By now we had been on the water for nearly three hours, with only a single bass for our efforts, and that one had escaped. “All right, George. It’s crunch time. I am going to my last lure- a buzzbait. If this doesn’t work, I’ll say uncle”. I have had good success with buzzbaits in the past and seeing a surface strike on one is always thrilling. George also changed, now going to a broken back rebel. I paddled us around the perimeter of the pond, casting repetitively as close as I dared to the stumps and tree trunks along the bank.  Still no luck.  For his part, George remained stoic, secure in having a one fish lead on me. He was getting no bites either. After an hour of trying, it was clear that I had been defeated by both George and the fish. “OK. I give. Time to pack it in George. You win”. I wound in my lure for the last time for that trip. I looked down at the buzzbait and was totally shocked by what I saw. The bait was new, having recently been purchased from the local Gander Mountain store. “Well, it is no wonder why I didn’t get a strike on this bait!” “What is wrong?” George asked. I sheepishly held the lure up in front of his face. The brilliant shiny white store tag was still wrapped firmly in place around the hook, rendering it completely useless! I had forgotten to remove it in my haste to land a fish. I was beyond embarrassed, but after a short silence, George and I burst into laughter. “I do not have a fish, but I have a great fish story!” I exclaimed. “Man that Coke is gonna taste extra good today!” said George.  I guess the tackle box and the camera weren’t all I forgot today”. I said. “What else did you leave at home?” George asked. “The most important piece of gear of all- my brain!

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Good Things Come to Those Who Wade

redfish tail with grass

 

 

My initial reaction as the bow of the boat touched the spartina grass of the small island was  “ I’m going to need some bigger shoes- like snow shoes maybe.”  The salty water appeared to be about a foot deep but the incoming water would soon be knee deep. I double checked my waterproof radio to be certain I had set it to the same channel as my friend as I slipped over the side and grabbed my backpack and fly rod. “Good luck!” my friend said as he slipped the engine into reverse. “I’ll be back on the other side of the tide.” With that, he sped away to his secret spot, leaving me to my own devices.

I was leery of the muddy bottom’s ability to support my not inconsiderable weight, tentatively placing one foot ahead of the other. After some steps had been taken and my confidence buoyed, I began to scan the water’s surface for signs of redfish, the target for today.  My polarized sunglasses proved a valuable asset as I searched for those gorgeous blue tinged tails fluttering in the midday sun. Sometimes less obvious clues to the presence of redfish are an angler’s sole means of detection. Fins barely jutting from the surface, wakes, or even the shaking of the grass can all give away the fish’s location. But nothing beats the sight of that magnificent tail sticking up like a billboard along a highway, to get a fisherman’s heart pounding.

Soon, I thought I saw one at a distance. I made my way as quickly and stealthily as I could manage to casting range. There it was, a nice redfish, busily rooting the bottom in pursuit of fiddler crabs. Focused on its task, it made no note of my presence, fortunately for me. The rod silently swayed in the warm air and dispatched fly line. Leader, and fly towards the happy redfish. The fly landed ten inches from its nose and suddenly, the redfish was happy no more. It bolted with the gold colored fly in its mouth. After a couple of satisfying runs, I held it in my hand. After its wonderful redness had been recorded for my collection, it was released, free once more to stuff itself on the abundance of food found on the flats.

We are blessed indeed to have shallow water flats in coastal South Carolina which are havens for redfish. Equally fortunately, these game fish take flies readily ( well usually anyway). They are available to the fly fisherman both summer and winter. In the warm months and fall, they are best fished on the high waters of the larger tides. The exact height required will vary by the specific fishing location. Some flats can be fished a tides of five and a half feet or even less, while others need over six feet of water. This knowledge is gained through trial and error, or a very good fishing buddy who is willing to share his knowledge. I generally prefer to arrive on the flat about two hours prior to the predicted high tide, though timing can be affected by wind and other weather conditions.  Wading can be quite effective when the water is too shallow for the boat, though in certain spots the angler risks bogging nearly to his waist in the soft plough mud. I have learned to stay well clear of the greener grass, which often indicates a small creek where the bottom is treacherous. Slow careful foot placement also advised. Quality wading shoes are an absolute MUST to protect the wader’s feet from oyster shells and to prevent loss of other types of shoe wear caused  by the suction effect of the plough mud. Tennis shoes are a NO-NO.

redfish June 30, 2012

The author with a typical redfish caught on local flats

Most redfish on our flats are in the two to five pound range, though we do occasionally catch a ten pound specimen. The largest I have personally encountered was estimated by my friend at eighteen pounds! I prefer an eight or even a nine weight rod if the wind picks up. But some anglers who appreciate a more sporting approach, may use a six or even five weight stick. Floating lines and leaders of twelve pounds work well. I like fluorocarbon, though mono works also. Experienced redfish fly rodders all seem to have a personal preference for flies. Standard patterns like Clouser minnows or spoon flies are staples. Personally, I am partial to gold colors.

Winter redfishing is a whole different ballgame. As there are no fiddler crabs to be found on the high water flats, the redfish are not there either. We like to fish for them at low tide along oyster rakes and in back creeks in the colder months. Although wading is not recommended, the angler with a shallow draft boat has the advantage of clear water ( the algae has been killed off by the lower temperatures) and the height advantage of being in the boat allows a larger sight range. Often in the winter, reds aggregate into large schools, as many as a hundred at times. Seeing them coming across the flat at a distance is quite a sight, much like bonefishing the clear waters of the Bahamas.

I have heard redfish called “The Poor Man’s Bonefish.”  I suppose this is true in the sense that travel to some exotic location is not necessary. But I can promise that your angling life can be greatly enriched by spending some time in your wading shoes on South Carolina’s incredible flats casting to feeding redfish.

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