“What the hell was that?” my father yelled into his headset microphone, as he ducked lower in the cockpit.
“Looked like a turkey buzzard,” I replied.
“We almost hit him!” he said, obviously rattled by the menacing blackish brown streak that passed off our right wing at 105 knots.
“No we didn’t. It’s not the buzzards you have to worry about. They generally get out of the way. It’s the hawks that don’t move for some reason,” I said.
I nudged the trim wheel and flicked on the old singe-axis autopilot that was crammed into the dash of the little plane. We were on our way to Freeport, on the Golden Crescent of the Texas coast to hunt redfish on the fly – something neither of us had done before.
The plane was a loaner, a 1976 Grumman Cheetah that some eccentric former owner painted to look like a P-40 Warhawk. It was complete with desert tan paint, Air Force emblems and even tiger teeth and eyes. The bubble canopy and low wings made the little plane – from a distance, in just the right light, almost look like a fighter. Never mind it was one quarter of the size and one of tenth the horsepower of the real thing.
I grew up fly fishing on freshwater ponds and reservoirs in East Texas. I imagined the stagnant stock tanks were glacial streams – the bluegill and largemouth were my brookies and cutthroat. The lowbrow fish that gobbled my flies cared not of the haute cuisine of pale morning duns, stone fly nymphs, and blue winged olives on which I had caught them. I didn’t care, I was a trout fisherman trapped in a redneck kid’s body.
Every couple of years or so we’d trek north to the Deschutes or Poudre and I’d get a taste of blueblood fishing, but that was a treat, not my classroom. It’s not that fly fishing in the southern fresh water is not without its merits, (as anyone who’s ever fought a Frisbee-sized bluegill on a three weight rod will confirm) but once I grew up, I realized that the real challenge for down-south fly fishing was in the salt.
We decided on Rockport because of its reputation for producing trophy redfish. A friend had recommended a guide. Chuck, a former Houston businessman turned fish/duck bum that left the sweltering concrete prison for the marshes and bays of the Texas coast years ago. I was told two things about him – he caught fish, and he didn’t put up with any shit. Ok… I can handle that.
After landing at the smallish airport and renting what I suspected to be the town’s only rental car, we headed to our hotel to get some rest. The Pickled Pelican bar next door was hosting midget wrestling that night and the bar parking had overflowed into the motel lot. Rockport takes their midget wrestling seriously.
The next morning we met up with Chuck and struck out on his Hell’s Bay skiff. We seemed to fly in ground effect, inches above the water of the glassy bay. He killed the engine and we coasted towards a spit of grass and wading birds.
“Ok,” Chuck said, “look out there and you’ll see the mud trails. That’s fish.”
“You’re up first,” he said, looking at me. “You know how to snot it out there?”
“Snot it out there!” he growled. “You get one cast. This ain’t that damn movie where you sit there floppin’ your line all over the place for five minutes before each cast. You do that, you’ll scare all the fish off. One backcast, and then snot it out there! Right in front of his face!”
“Oh, ok. Sure, just snot it out there,” I thought quietly to myself.
He knew what I was and how I fished. I usually took great joy in slowly feeding line as false cast after false cast filled the sky. The rod and line would glisten in the sun as the line swooshed through the air. I looked good – and the bluegill never cared. This was different.
Standing on the bow, I peeled line into the stripping basket. With one mighty backward lunge of my rod, I slurped up the bright yellow spaghetti fly line out of the basket. Once I felt the wad of line reach the top of the arc, I heaved forward with all my might, expecting the line to explode out of my left hand like a bullet toward its brown muddy target. What happened was closer to someone dropping a pile of wet rope off a balcony into the water, twenty feet away.
“What the shit was that?!” Chuck bellowed. “You just scared ‘em all off!”
Crap. The brown smoke trails had split in opposite directions.
“You know how to double haul?” He yelled, referring to the practice of pulling the slack line with your free hand while casting, thus accelerating the line speed and furthering the cast distance. “Do that when you backcast. Practice now before we find new fish.”
I peeled the line into the stripping basket as before, but this time, gave a big yank on the fly line as I lurched backward. To my surprise, when I thrust the rod forward, the line leapt out of the basket and rifled though the rod guides, sending my chartreuse streamer sailing.
“That’s it. Just do that,” said Chuck.
I was ready. This wasn’t jonboat pond fishing, this was different. One shot, one kill. This was hunting.
We slid silently through the tall grass as Chuck poled the boat through what appeared to be only a film of water. Finally, he pointed off the starboard bow, “There! That’s a big school. Don’t screw this one up.” Yeah, thanks Chuck, I got it.
I instinctively crouched lower on the bow as if the fish were watching me. Ahead, there was a chevron of brown mud trails like fleet of underwater bombers on their way to a drop. They were hunting, not worrying about me. As soon as I was in casting distance, I reared back for my best snot. Line sailed ahead, pulling the fluffy parachute of a fly stubbornly through the air. The leader rolled and plopped the fly five feet in front of a big brown trail.
“Pull it in as fast as you can!” Chuck scream-whispered.
I began yanking line with my free hand, watching the brown blob for any sign of movement. Midway through a pull the line froze. Snagged. I turned around to ask Chuck to pole over so I could retrieve my fly, but was interrupted – “set the hook!” he yelled. I instinctively snapped my rod tip skyward expecting the dull tension of a snag. Instead, my fly reel exploded in a shrill scream.
“There he is!” Chuck blurted.
With my palming the lip of my reel, I let the big red peel line. Once I detected slack I furiously began cranking, only to again have the reel vocally protest as the spool quickly depleted. As the back-and-forth battle raged, the runs grew shorter and less intense. Finally the fish’s outline appeared like a surfacing submarine. The fish wasn’t huge. By no means a trophy, but a respectable fish, nonetheless. After getting it onboard and taking a photo, I slid it back into the tea-colored brine, watching its black tail spot wag and fade away.
My dad had been sitting quietly for the most part, letting me take the abuse like a house comedian. “You’re up,” Chuck said, looking at him. “Don’t forget to snot the line, dad,” I quipped.
We landed a handful of fish, losing a few of the nicest. We were not used to the red’s trick of running straight for the boat, only the throw the hook in the slack. We fished the rest of the afternoon and headed in as the sun began to dip below the horizon.
It was belt sander racing night at The Pickled Pelican, so we had a few beers and talked about our new love of saltwater fly fishing over the sound of electric sanders screaming down plywood chutes. The Costa coon eyes burnt into our faces by the sun gave us the patina of the authentic saltwater fly fisherman.
Even as we planned on returning soon to the reds of the Texas coast, we have yet to do so. The Cheetah is gone and the five hour drive from Houston is just long enough for us not to make a quick weekend of it. I still fish the muddy stock ponds and take the occasional northern excursion to freshwater trout Mecca, but hunting the skinny water is what I miss. Yearly we talk about heading back down to fish with Chuck, and with the same regularity, we inevitably cancel. Perhaps one day soon we’ll find our way back to snot line at shadows and just try not to screw up.
Travis Martin is an outdoor writer and editor from Texas. His work has appeared in a variety hunting and fishing publications and websites. When he can afford it, he can usually be found in the field, forest, or surf. He can be reached at [email protected] or the Devil’s Backbone Tavern.