Games of Chance. Games of Sport.
Some time ago, and with varying degrees of reluctance, I gave up the luxury of “let’s go fishing”. Capitalizing on bluebird days, nonexistent wind, perfect tides, a hot bite, or even being within 800 miles of a redfish with little or no notice is a thing of my past and currently an impossibility. Now my fishing days are few and sacred and I exercise them carefully. I bide my time. I wait. I scheme.
The strategizing behind getting on the water and getting a line wet must be meticulous. It starts months in advance. Getting coverage for myself at the restaurant, flight schedules, hotels, rental cars, time of year, dates, tides, and moon phase are all known quantities that are fed into the crucible of a well-laid plan in the making. There are variables that must be entered too. Weather. Fish. Other people. These variables, if they come into play in any way can affect an entire three or four days of fishing for better, or, unfortunately, worse. And alas, these last and most important pieces can only be left to chance.
Two weeks ago, on my way to New Orleans and an opportunity to hunt monster redfish in the Louisiana Marsh, I sat in my aisle seat aboard a Boeing 737, staring over the shoulders of the couple seated next to me out the cabin window over the tarmac of Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. A passage from Blood Meridian was running on a loop through my head.
“He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard.”
What is put at hazard in the pursuit of winter redfish by an angler who lives and dies with every minute of the few short hours he is allowed on the water but a few times a year? Everything.
The monumental clusterfuck taking place on the CLT airfield at roughly 9pm on the 16th of February was a bit mind-boggling to me. The snow had ceased falling. Stars were visible in the lower declinations of the sky. The tarmac had been plowed of the 2 inches of snow that had fallen. The runways were clear. Only a few puddles winked beneath our running lights. Generally speaking it was a rather pretty winter evening. Yet chaos regined. Planes lined up four deep for de-icing could be seen out the port side of the aircraft with their attendant trucks bathing them in great plumes of propylene-glycol. Airport vehicles raced along under the eaves of the terminal. To our starboard I counted seven planes ahead of us at a dead stop in the taxi line approaching the gate. No planes in the air. None detaching from their jetway. Everything was at a halt. The pilot came over the PA, “We’re gonna be out here for a while. It looks like a lot of mistakes were made tonight.” I had an hour and a half to make my connection.
The first forty-five minutes passed rather slowly. My blood pressure elevated only slightly. I read. I checked the status of my connecting flight. On time. 10:30pm. I checked the weather report for the following day, my first of three days on the marsh, at least a hundred fifty times. Clear. 50 degrees. Wind at 3 knots or less. Perfect. I did the math in my head. If I can make the gate by 10:15, I can make my connection.
When 10pm hit, so did the panic. We still hadn’t moved. I imagined it all coming apart. Missing that bluebird day on the marsh. All those shots at titanic redfish remaining unrealized, figments of my imagination. I checked for later flights. Everything into New Orleans was booked. For the next two days. There would be no marsh. No redfish.
Then, at 10:15, we started to move. My connecting departure showed a delay of five minutes. The window had opened. Elation is a word. Yet here it does not quite serve how I felt. I let out a very quiet whoop and may have been in a constant fist-pump as we rolled along the tarmac.
Fifty feet from the jetway we stopped. Minutes passed and so did my departure time. Heartbreak City.
When I came out of the jetway at 10:45pm the madness in the terminal was general. People were everywhere and in various states of disarray and agitation. US Air employees were trying their best to answer the questions being flung at them by the ten or fifteen travelers grouped around the podium at the gate. I offered my flight number.
“Delayed. Now at 11pm”
I covered the length of the B, C and D terminals at a dead sprint. When I made the gate, panting like a sick animal, I spoke to a gate attendant. Two very important things were conveyed to me. That the 10:30pm flight bound for New Orleans had already been once boarded (without me on it), pushed from the jetway, and was sent to the runway only to be turned around and sent back to the gate to be deplaned and filled with passengers heading to a different destination. Fortuitous to say the least. She also assured me that our plane WOULD fly that night. I professed my love to the gate attendant, twice, and took a seat amongst the other travellers.
Despite another two hours waiting in the terminal, the departure gate being changed at the last minute to one two terminals away, another half an hour waiting on the plane for it to push-off, and getting to the hotel with time for only a mere hour of sleep before meeting my friend Capt. Greg Dini, I would have my days in the marsh.
Having fished the Louisiana marsh for the first time last January I was no stranger to the tremendous bulk of the redfish that rule over these immense, winding shallows and the great numbers in which these monsters can be caught. Unfavorable weather conditions last year scuttled our attempts to cash in on one of those legendary days where the giant redfish come to hand so often that it’s a struggle to keep count.
On launching Dini’s East Cape Vantage Sunday morning beneath an empty and bluing sky it was evident that the weather would be nothing short of spectacular. The wind was a rumour and the marsh waters were barely patinated with riffles. For a moment, I remained skeptical of whether or not the fish gods would also see fit to smile upon me.
As we came onto plane I could taste the salt and mud of the marsh on the air. It reeked of fishiness. It was also hard to argue with the fact that Greg Dini, one of the most talented shallow water guides south of the Mason-Dixon line, was going to be on the pole behind me. So, I allowed myself a thought that no skeptic angler ever does. We’re gonna fuck these fish up.
We pushed up onto the first flat and freezing, with numb fingers I stepped up onto the platform and peeled sixty feet of floating line off the reel and set my feet. I played back in my mind what I knew about hunting big game in the marsh. 70 and 80 foot casts are not often needed. Your mid-range and short game is paramount and it has got to be drum tight. These fish will let you get close, but you have to make it count. And there is A LOT of up and down close casting needed. At 30-40 feet out and less the margin for error on sightfishing a redfish over twenty pounds is nearly zero. The distance closes too fast. The fish spooks. And he looks you in eye as he blows out. There is no question that you’ve lost. “Try him again” is rarely an option.
Standing there, rod at port, with a lush purple fly in hand, I couldn’t help but feel a little like Ahab. For I had lost to big redfish on the fly more times than I could count or cared to remember at that moment. The history of my bow time in the Mosquito Lagoon, Louisiana, and Flamingo is rife with too many one-that-got-aways. And never had I brought to hand a fly caught redfish over 10 pounds.
Dini called the first fish out at 10 o’clock. I picked it up, a big fish, and the made the cast. The fly settled, I stripped and the fish ate. I missed the hook set. The fish bolted. I suck. 0 for 1.
A second fish floated up. Another slab. This one was close. 15 feet. I made a cast, stripped, and he was on. For a second. Then the fly shot from the maw of the beast and leapt from the water back at me. 0 for 2. Cue fantasies of ultimate failure.
“Relax. It’s just a fish,” said Dini.
Just a fish.
For the third time in ten minutes Dini called out a stud redfish. 1 o’clock. Twenty feet. I went up and down. One Strip. The hook stuck this time. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of coming tight to a fish that you’ve been waiting fifteen years for. A large part of it is euphoria when you’re that close. There is also a significant amount of fear. Ultimately it is wonderfully strange and something as an angler you only get to experience a few times in your life. It’s why we fish.
The fish and I, we battled. I won. When the redfish finally came to hand the faint bitter quality of finality that comes with accomplishing any goal came with him. Although, fucking amazing, would be feeling that best sums up that moment and the preceding few minutes of angling bliss.
There was a high-five. I kissed that magnificent creature right on the mouth and sent him on his way. With the serious business of getting that first hog to hand tended to, it was time to have fun. We stayed on the flat less than ten minutes more without sighting another fish. We cranked up and motored a short distance to the next flat. Once there it took less than a minute before Dini called the next fish.
“Couple fish at 11 o’clock. Coming at you. Small ones. You can throw if you want.”
I did. I made the cast and came tight. The fish turned, and the line cleared and drag started to whine. I looked back at Dini.
“This fish has to be ten, right? Twelve?”
We moved further onto the flat. Another set of “small” reds were coming at us. I made a cast and it fell behind the fish,I took a second shot and came tight. Dini never even called the fish and I wasn’t sure why. In less than a minute it was evident why. He hopped down from the platform, drew another 10 weight, played off some line, and started a cast. His last loop was just laying down fifty feet away when I saw the fish. A stud. Dini didn’t even move the fly and the fish ate. Double time! Another whoop. Another fist pump. I landed and released my fish and got on the camera.
I wouldn’t make the mistake of wasting a shot on a “small” fish again. Nor did I count the number of redfish in the fifteen pound range that I let swim before end of my fly rod without even giving them a second thought. We doubled up another seven times. We picked off single fish. Slobs. All of them. To the very last fish. The eats were awesome and an insane amount of backing was seen. Basically, we killed it.
The redfish party was briefly crashed by a black drum, my first, that was heavy and pulled hard, but was just nasty looking. He smelled awful too.
I usually don’t drink when I fish. I tend to save it for the mainland where I am better suited to clouded judgement. But after sending home another titanic redfish I put the fly rod down, also something I don’t come to lightly, and with sore hands cracked a beer. Possibly the most delicious beer I’d ever had.
We moved onto another flat. One with a sharp edge that gave way to deeper water. Single fish, all chunky girls and boys nice and thick through the shoulders, obliged us with a handful of excellent eats. These fish would drop off the flat on their initial run and were kind enough to bring some friends to the party on their return. More doubles? Yes, please.
Easily two dozen of these bronzed brawlers were brought to hand by the end of the day. More importantly I was able to finally check off a redfish on fly over twenty pounds from my bucket list. Not to mention the fish that easily eclipsed the twenty-five pound mark. It was simply epic.
It should be noted here that I was told by my better half, in the midst of my airport freak out the previous night, “You are the most rational person that I know…until it comes to fishing.” And she is 100% correct. Especially when concerning redfishing. Even more so when the end result is this:
That night, over a very large, very overproof Old Fashioned, fantasies of a second day thrashing swamp donkeys in the marsh danced through my head.
But in the Louisiana marsh, the weather giveth and the weather taketh away.
Our arrival at the ramp on day two was rather ominous. Skies that had been clear and gilded at the horizon with the paling yellows of sunrise at our outset from New Orleans were mantled with immense rafts of clouds. Curdled, grey, and low. Sunlight and even the celestial body itself had vanished entirely from that grey waste. And the wind was absolutely howling out of the north. The whole marsh shook and buckled. And there was this…
Dismal conditions aside, we dropped the boat and set out. White caps rolled over the wider and more exposed stretches of marsh waterway. There was spray. There was cold.
“…that which is put at hazard,” right?
There were fish to be seen. When the boat rode nearly over the top of them. Shots were made. At redfish that to me were chimeras amidst the glare and chop and nothing more. The wind felled one cast and then another. The hook never found any flesh save for when the point found my ankle at the end of a ruined cast. After three valiant or possibly foolhardy hours we called it. There is beating a dead horse. And then there is what we were trying to do. Besides, I guess that I had sleep to catch up on.
Day three started off much as day two had. Sunless, cloud ridden, and windswept. We were not without hope though. Wide vents of clear blue were hung at intervals in the east. Some were run through with sunlight. The wind had dropped out of the 25 knot plus range, switched to a southerly blow, and was hovering in the high teens. We started the day throwing topwaters on spinning gear. One fish that would have tipped the scale at over thirty pounds gave chase, but he wouldn’t commit. Jerk.
When the clouds did finally break we brought out the longrod and made for clean water.
We patrolled shorelines in search of redfish working along the banks of mud and spartina grass. We dodged a nutria. Some absolute pig redfish showed themselves where deeper water met the bank, but just a little too late to get any real shot at them. Eventually we started get into cleaner water and better numbers of fish. Despite the wind blowing as hard as it was and running around the compass overnight, the redfish, after initially seeming crazed and tearing about like March hares when the fly would land in front of them, began to settle down and cooperate. We managed a fistful of upper and slightly overslot redfish.
Towards the end of day three we snuck up on a last redfish, a chunker in the mid-teens, that was sun-bathing tight to the bank and glowing bright as a lode of native copper. It took two shots, but only one strip to get the fish to eat. We slugged it out on the 9 weight and after some minutes she came to hand. Bright, beautiful, and healthy, she served as a perfect coda to the losses suffered and the victories won against both the machinations of chance and the mouths of monsters in the Louisiana marsh.
Louisiana is home to nearly 8,000 miles of coastline, a significant portion of which constitutes the meandering shorelines of the Louisiana marsh itself. With 1.6 million acres of tidal marsh accounting for 40% of the total coastal tidal marshland in the continental United States (when forested, scrub, tidal and fresh marshes in the Louisiana coastal zone are totaled they comprise 26% of ALL marshland in the continental US), well over a dozen wildlife refuges, preserves, and management areas, the Louisiana marsh is a thing to behold. Vast, wild, staggeringly beautiful, and boasting the most remarkable redfishing I’ve ever had the good fortune to enjoy, the Louisiana marsh is a special place that demands a visit at least once in a lifetime and is certainly a place to which I will undoubtedly return to year in and year out.
I mean what kind of life would I be living if I didn’t at least try to break the 30 pound redfish mark?
Special thanks to Capt. Greg Dini for his excellent photography work and for getting me in front of those epic redfish.
You can look up Capt. Dini at http://www.flywaterexpeditions.com/ . The best time to hunt big redfish in the marsh is from September to March. I’m serious. Go. Do it. Call him.