Saturday, June 28, 2014

Topwater


A thick carpet of mottled green moss and algae seals the surface of the water at the back of the creek. The 30-yard-wide area sports a max depth of four feet, but the deepest spots were hidden beneath the blanket of vegetation. Further upstream, natural springs pump cool water into the creek, which, when intermixed with the warmer lake water, presumably boosts the growth of the green barrier which floats in front of me. I get a quick whiff of the musky, mildewy odor of the moss before it moves along with a very slight breeze from the west. Amidst the muck, turtles poke up their heads, painted in bright reds and yellows and randomly speckled with neon-green polka dots. Massive-sounding bullfrogs croak loudly from dark, hidden places within the tall, overhanging grass at the water’s edge. Birds call from the canopy above and two blue-jays screech harsh alarm cries to their feathered friends as my kayak slowly slides into the scene. 
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Topwater. Whether it be a popper chugging across the surface of a cobalt blue ocean or a hopper plopping down at the edge of a grass-adorned undercut bank, topwater fishing has tremendous allure to us fishermen. It’s visual, which is most of the fun, but it also carries with it a horror-movie set of emotions, as each cast is accompanied by the anxiety that the offering could get clobbered at any moment. A grasshopper pattern drifting along a fishy-looking seam can elicit the same feeling as watching the clueless coed walk down into the dark basement by herself to check out the noise she heard. You are prepared for something to happen, but when the violence occurs, it’s almost never when expected. Just as the masked guy with the ax is not in the closet, but standing right behind her, the brown trout doesn't strike when the hopper drifts over the root tangle, but it clobbers the hopper in the innocuous, fishless-looking seam. 


Fell for da Hopper.
Regardless of age, experience or personality, all fisherman giggle and grin when their topwater fly or lure is crushed from below. It may elicit a whoop or two, most often from a co-angler, but it’s pure adrenaline and easily the best cure for whatever ails ya. You’ll forget how seasick, how hungover or how aggrieved of allergies you are when your scum frog disappears instantly in a swirl of black water and lily pads. 

The best topwater strike I ever experienced was while fishing with guide-buddy David Perry of Southeastern Fly one morning on a local tailrace. It was one of those perfect situations in which a month full of constant generation from the big dam attracted an endless supply of skipjack and shad, and following closely behind, hungry striper. Rain drizzled from the windless gray skies and a sheen of mist lay over the river. An array of fly-rods rested in rod holders inside the gunnels of the boat, but a heavy casting rod armed with a seven-inch redfin slept beside the rowing bench. 

As we drifted down from the put-in spot, I pounded the banks with an articulated streamer, hoping for a big brown trout or maybe an even bigger striper. No luck. But, as David backstroked the drifter through some very fishy-looking water, I put down the long-stick and picked up the casting rod. With my thumb lightly resting above the spool, I heaved the giant hunk of plastic at the banks and slowly brought the Redfin back to the drift boat, leaving behind it a steady “v-shaped” wake. A fish boiled behind the lure a time or two, but no strikes for the first few hundred yards of the drift. We then came upon a small creek which dumps into the main river. I’d fished this spot so many times before, but almost always at low water. I knew the creek mouth abruptly met the main river channel, and when it did, the depth of the water went from a few inches to several feet. I figured striper would likely congregate here, so I called my shot and plopped the Redfin down about 30 feet up the creek. After letting the ripples clear, I slowly cranked the bait toward the river channel, maintaining a steady but methodical pace as the lure drunkenly wobbled in the surface film. As soon as it cleared the creek mouth and hovered over deeper water, it happened. 

I remember the sound the most. Deep, resonant, violent. An immense explosion, instantly followed by the slap-swoosh! of the fish’s tail as it swirled and inhaled the hunk of plastic. It was as if a Volkswagen dropped from the skies and crashed down in front of us. Mouths agape in shocked smiles, David and I watched my line go tight, and I instinctively reared back and set the hooks into a river monster. 

Sadly, the fish story ends there. After a few minutes of tug o’ war, I lost the big striper. The Redfin came back to me with my only tangible takeaway from the experience: a large scale skewered on the point of one of the trebles. But, I’ll never forget the epic topwater take.
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It’s now mid-summer, and on the trout streams, it’s terrestrial time. Fishing hopper patterns on breezy days is a favorite pastime, and while the strikes are no where near as visceral as a striper taking a Redfin, they are just as exciting and, to a certain extent, more unexpected. Most appreciated, however, is the fact that more often than not, the trout zoning in on the rubber-legged grasshopper imitation is a pretty good-sized fish. Big brown trout, in particular, will abandon cautiousness and strike in the middle of a sunny day if a protein-rich meal like a juicy grasshopper presents itself in just the right way. 

Rock bass (left) and cicada fly (right)
The same pretty much goes in warm water. In the local lakes and rivers, a simple popper pattern will get strikes all day long. While I love to hunt for big fish, pounding banks with a six-weight fly-rod armed with a rubber-legged popper and a bream killer dropper is one of my favorite summertime activities. It’s easy fishing that typically attracts all kinds of sunfish. But, the approach is also prone to the occasional surprise, as a bass inevitably shows up and clobbers the popper, and a catfish or carp may gobble the bream killer. 

Big ol' goldfish caught on a topwater terrestrial.

My Dad recently tied some bass poppers for me. Like all of his flies, they’re expertly tied and they catch fish. On this particular pattern, he added an epoxy-coated spoon, then, hand-painted the entire concoction. The result is a jewelry-like presentation that almost looks too good to cast. We used them a couple of weeks ago while fishing a private pond in west Tennessee. The pond is loaded with largemouth bass, and they were as big of fans of the poppers as we were.  


A largemouth bass on one of my hand-tied poppers.
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There’s no good way to exit a kayak. Tipping or falling out is, of course, less than graceful, but it’s actually a close cousin to flopping out purposefully. On this unbearably hot June afternoon, my feet feel like they’re melting into the polyetheylene, so I paddle to a shallow, rocky area, and slide my right leg off the starboard side and my left leg to port, and attempt to stand up in the semi-cool water. This maneuver morphs into a full squat, which ordinarily wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but after sitting in a yak for two hours, the connection between brain synapses and leg muscles is, well … estranged. 

The boat violently tips side-to-side, my paddle flips and smacks into the water, the half-full Gatorade bottle falls over and spills, and a fly box careens into the murky wash nearby. With a frantic two-arm wave, my body abandons the squat and I collapse back into my kayak seat, soaking my rear end in Cool Blue sports drink. 


Scummy, yummy water. 
Despite my unathleticism and the tsunami caused by the wobbling kayak, the moss-covered pocket of backwater remains undisturbed. The turtles, who had ducked their heads at the sound of the ruckus, begin to pop up again through the muck. The bluejay flew away, but it’s abrasive call is replaced by the pleasant tones of an unseen cardinal. I wait until everything settles, regain my balance and successfully slide off one side of the yak, my feet landing in the warmer-than-expected, knee-deep water. I carefully creep into position, armed with a spinning rod tipped with a plastic scum-frog. I flip the bail, load the rod and catapult the frog deep into the pocket, where it lands with a “splat!” and perches atop the pea-green moss at the water’s edge. I begin a random retrieve, shaking my rod tip and slowly reeling, causing the frog to slide-skip-and-pause across the surface. The bait slips into a one-foot wide open area of water — a pothole, of sorts, among the vegetation. Two twitches later, the frog disappears in a savage swirl, as if it had been flushed down a giant drain. I wait for an interminable two-count, allowing the bass to position the frog in its giant mouth, and then I rear back in my best B.A.S.S. hook set, causing the rod to double over with the weight of a big largemouth and a pound or two of moss. The fight is short, but spirited. The bass cannot jump due to the ceiling of vegetation, but it bulldogs its way to-and-fro until I’m able to convince it to join me in open water, where I bring the fish to hand and grab its bottom lip through its cloak of olive-colored moss and algae. 

There's nothing wrong with streamers, crank baits, spinnerbaits and even live presentations ... but man, in my eyes, topwater is the most fun way to fish. 

Backwater bass.



Monday, May 26, 2014

Navarre 2014: Tidal Coefficients and Fistfuls of Ham

Everything was in our favor. Great weather. Multiple tides per day. A beach rental with a wide expanse of open beach for us to deploy a gluttony of surf rods. The previous week's reports bragged of an ongoing pompano run, and Spanish mackerel which were figuratively chewing down the pier. Redfish were said to be cruising the beaches in great numbers, and bluefish ... well, if you weren't catching good-sized bluefish, you were an idiot.

I'm paraphrasing, but the gist was Navarre's surf zone was a piscatorial paradise. Excited beyond measure and limited only by the amount of available space for our fishing tackle in the back of Fred's reliable blue Yukon, we slipped the surly bonds of responsibility on a Tuesday night, and began the gradual conversion from cubicledom to beach chair nirvana.


Stairway to Heaven.
By noon on Wednesday, we had lines out. Fred, Barry and I spaced our surf-rods equidistantly along a quarter-mile stretch of sugar-white sand, as emerald-green water ebbed and flowed in our foreground while meetings and conference calls sulked a safe distance behind us. Beers were opened and an impromptu toast was made. Then, we plopped down into our respective beach chairs and watched rod tips breathe with the rhythm of the gentle tide.

Barry caught the first fish, a pompano. No trophy, but a keeper. We took an obligatory photo, and he tossed the mirror-sided jack into the fish cooler. High fives.


It'll keep.
We had to wait quite a while for the next fish, and in the midst of the downtime, we watched an endless chorus line of sport-fishers, bay boats and shallow-water skiffs daisy-chain east and west along the outside edge of the first sandbar, each boat featuring at least one crew member perched high on an observation tower, ceaselessly peering down into the clear water in search of the telltale brown shape of a migrating cobia. As the hours passed, our rods remained tightly adhered to the fishless bottom a few dozen yards away, and nary a cobia boat stopped to cast a fluorescent orange jig. We began sensing bad juju.

Stephen arrived from Birmingham, bringing with him a needed dose of optimism, a big bag of smoked turkey and a plethora (in every sense of the word) of surf-fishing paraphernalia. Now, it was on. Now, we were getting serious. Steve parked his surf cart and unloaded an arsenal of rods, and baited up the rigs and launched them into the incoming tide.



But, the fish would not cooperate. So, we sat. We drank. We knocked back Doritos and Pringles and fistfuls of ham from the big bag of pig Barry brought with him from Tennessee. We shared stories. We teased each other. We checked rods and made sure we had fresh baits. Stephen scoured the wash with his sandflea rake and picked up a few panicked mole crabs. We sent obnoxious texts to Joe, hoping to drag him from his work to join us on the beach in advance of his proclaimed departure time. The sun set.

Along the way, we picked up another fish or two. The pompano fed best right after the sun dipped below the houses behind us, but the bite was all-too-short. Nonetheless, the fish box had fish in it, and as darkness fell, the bluefish kept our rod tips shaking for a while. Fred also picked up a small shark that I dubbed an Atlantic sharpnose, although in all honesty, I have no idea what type it was. But, I proclaimed the species confidently, and sometimes, that's all you really have to do.


Probably not a hammerhead.
The first day ended, and while the fishing wasn't great, we had an awesome time and were properly enthusiastic about multiple tide changes predicted for the next three days. Plus, Joe was scheduled to arrive Thursday night, bringing with him additional mojo. And, more fishing rods. And, a bag of ham.

Tidal coefficients. Surf fishing is often all about the tides, and many experts say the best times to fish are the hour before and after a high tide. At the very least, you want to fish when the tide is moving. Slack tides are the worst, as baitfish are not at the mercy of incoming or outgoing current, and most predator fish choose not to burn a ton of calories chasing down their desired meal. Tidal coefficients describe the amplitude of the tide forecast -- or in other words, the difference in height between the consecutive high tides and low tides in any given area. Tidal coefficients are calculated from parameters involving the sun and moon including straight ascension, declination, parallax and the distance between earth and the celestial body. I had to look that up. It's a horribly boring concept. So much so, I fell asleep typing this paragr  

While boring, tidal coefficients can play a big role in determining fishing success ... as we discovered. While we were blessed with multiple tides per day, the corresponding tidal coefficients were minimal, meaning while the tides were moving, they weren't actually moving that much. It was like fishing four days of slack tides. And, that seemed to doom our expected hot bite.


Fred gives it his all.
Day two. Screw the coefficients. We unleashed an embarrassment of surf rods at the unsuspecting fish which hopefully swam somewhere near where our baits were waited. The diurnal dance of checking baits, sitting in chairs, scraping for sandfleas, walking back to the house to pee, opening a new beer, rinse, repeat, continued. The cobia boats worked the edge of a sandbar like a music-less baby mobile. At one point, I counted 46 boats. None were hooked up on fish.

Undaunted, we fished determinedly. We were rewarded with a few pompano; again, just before dark. As we transitioned to night, we donned headlamps for the expected bluefish rampage, and hoped a bull red would grab one of the rods armed with cut bait. Most of the Gulf was illuminated by Stephen's headlamp, which seemed to burn with 1.21 gigawatts of candlepower, and was perpetually aimed in our faces. It was so bright, I wondered if a sea turtle could mistake it for the moon and crawl its way from the black water and lay eggs at the base of Steve's beach chair.



As Fred and I implored him to turn it off, Barry yelled from a few yards in the distance, and thanks to the spotlight attached to Stephen's head, we saw that his surf rod was doubled over and he was battling a big fish. Poor Barry. As soon as we saw this, the three of us excitedly ran to his side to offer guidance, instruction and assistance, all of which were uninvited ... and unnecessary.

Barry had a big redfish, or maybe vice-versa, and a spirited battle ensued. Luckily, Barry is blessed with an amazingly easy-going demeanor and was nonplussed by the three of us coaching him and occasionally bumping into or grabbing his fishing line, which shockingly remained tautly attached to a very pissed-off fish. Eventually, a wave crested and brought with it the beaten red drum and Stephen tackled it in the wash and tossed it onto the sand. Photos were taken, the fish released, and high fives ensued. The red weighed nearly 23 pounds and easily beat Fred's big fish from the previous year, which only weighed 11.15 pounds.


Dude.
Things settled down afterwards, and around 10 p.m., we slogged our way up the boardwalk to the house, cleaned our fishing gear and filleted a few pompano from earlier in the day. Joe finally arrived about 11 p.m., bringing with him a positive attitude, the promised bag of ham and a brand new surf rod.

The next morning, we split up in hopes of finding more fortune on the fishing front. Barry, Stephen and Fred went to the nearby pier to check on things, and Joe and I decided to hit the beach. Joe and I have known each other since grade school, as our acquaintance began by playing sports against each other in the Memphis parochial league and then combining talents on our high-school's basketball and baseball teams. We've been fishing together since we were 16, when we would wake before dawn, pile fishing gear and an unreliable five-horse outboard into a hatchback, and drive to Lakeview Lake in northern Mississippi to rent a leaky aluminum jon and spend half the day fishing for yellow stripe, and the other half trying to get the outboard to crank. Twenty-five-plus years later, we don't get up as early, but the outboard on Joe's bass boat always cranks, and we periodically get out on the Stones River and chase stripe and bass and anything else that will take a crank bait, jig or fly. We've had some good times on the water.



About 10 a.m., after letting baits soak for just awhile, my 8-foot UglyStik bent in half and drag steadily pulled from the Penn 6500 reel (very purposeful product placement -- you never know who will read these blog messages). I knew I had a big redfish, and I quickly jumped from my beach chair as Joe documented the fight via iPhone. In a flat-calm surf, I battled the stubborn fish, trying to keep it from stripping more 60-pound-test PowerPro from the reel and getting entangled in pompano rigs still deployed among the edge of the sandbar. Eventually, I wore it down, and the redfish turned on its side as the last wave pushed it onto the sand. Joe helped me land it, and took a few photos for posterity, before we helped the big female fish swim off unharmed. A shade over 28 pounds, it was my biggest fish ever landed from the surf. The 30-inch-plus gal ate a pink, shrimp-flavored Fishbite armed on a two-hook pompano rig.


Quit looking at my umbrella.
Shortly thereafter, the other guys returned, relaying abysmal reports from the pier. "Yesterday afternoon, no one caught anything." Tidal coefficients, man.

But, the crew was jazzed by the news of the big redfish, so after eating a few handfuls of ham, they were all down at the beach, setting up the surf-rod attack and plopping down in beach chairs. An extremely slow fishing day ensued. As we were all now pretty sick of eating ham, Fred, Stephen and I took a break from the rod watching and grilled softball-sized hamburgers on a $20 grill from Publix. Afterwards, we resumed our sedentary positions on the beach, our bellies swollen and senses dulled by the immense amount of ground chuck in our respective digestive systems, and hypnotized by the gentle lapping of the calm ocean and the occasional squawk of a seagull. While the big redfish had showed up at 10 a.m. and gave us great hope for the day to come, the next fish was not caught until 6:30 p.m. The cobia boats slowly cruised home in the fishless ditch that lay in front of us, until the light changed to purple-orange and a few of our rod tips began to dance. The fish cooler finally gained some keeper pompano.


Hooked up in the late afternoon pompano bite.
While we entertained other opportunities, a trip like this is not always about the fishing. It's a chance to unwind. To stiff arm work and to relax amidst the sun, sand and shorebirds. You certainly keep up with spouses and family and other things via phone calls home, but you do so while semi-reclined in a beach chair in the shade of a cheap umbrella, with a nice breeze keeping everything but your sun-burnt feet cool and comfortable. And, as you catch up on life, you reflexively glance to the left and to the right, perhaps quietly hoping for the opportunity to say, "Hey, let me call you right back -- I've got a fish on." 

Day 4 was a hot, sticky mess. A huge storm system was working its way into the southeastern US, and it was using the ample moisture from the Gulf of Mexico to fuel its impressive instability. Our beach set-up was right in the middle of this transference, and our last day on the beach was enveloped in mist and fog and ridiculous heat. It felt like being wrapped in a wet wool blanket while standing next to the sun. The surf was completely flat, probably suppressed by the fact that most of it was being evaporated and sent northward to douse Arkansas. The cobia boat mobile ceased, as the mist made it impossible to see fish.


Joe casts the 8-wt into the mist.
We endeavored to persevere the conditions and sent lines out by about 8 a.m. Stephen picked up some bait on a sabiki rig, including the smallest pufferfish any of us had ever seen. We deployed the fresh baits (no, not the baby puffer), along with an array of Fishbites, sand fleas and anything else Half-Hitch Tackle advised us would work. None of it -- NONE of it -- worked, though.

By mid-afternoon, responsibility claimed Stephen, as he packed up all of his gear, said his goodbyes and headed back to Alabama. Over the previous four days, Fred, Stephen and I recounted the many fishing trips we had enjoyed together, beginning with an overnight offshore trip back in the late 1990s. Through the years, we've caught amberjacks until our arms ached. We've filled fish coolers with red snapper and gag grouper back when you could actually do such a thing. We've heaved topwater plugs in the dark at blackfin and yellowfin tuna while fishing in 1700-feet of water, as the Christmas-tree lights of the monstrous Petronius oil rig reflected off the waves in front of us. We paddled kayaks through St. Joesph's Bay, and caught great numbers of speckled sea trout. We had even thrown topwater frogs into the ample lily-pads of the lakes at Fred's family farm, and yanked good-sized largemouth bass into tiny flat-bottom jon boats. For the past three years, we've spent our annual fishing trips in the sand of Navarre, Fla., and filled our coolers with pompano, whiting and Spanish mackerel. The stories -- and the characters we have encountered throughout our trips -- should be documented in something more formal than an occasionally-updated fishing-and-art blog.



As Barry, Fred, Joe and I waved goodbye to Stephen, we walked back to the beach for a final time, re-baited our rigs and readied ourselves for the late-afternoon pompano. They arrived as predicted, and we tossed a few keepers in the box. As the light faded, we condensed our rod-spread and rigged up heavier leaders and bigger circle hooks, and used fresh-cut fish for our offerings, and hoped a big red or two would wander by. Alas, only bluefish came to the party, but we were glad to feel the tug of ... well, of anything. I texted Stephen and asked that he turn on his headlamp to let us know if he got home safely. After a couple of hours, exhausted and gooey with the paste of sweat and sunscreen, we packed up everything and took it back to the nearby rental house. The fishing trip was done, there were fish to clean, and lots and lots of rods and reels to hose down.


Down a man.
The next morning, we reluctantly checked out of the rental, and headed to nearby Pensacola to stop by Joe Patti's and stock up on ahi tuna, fresh shrimp and grouper. Fred had never been to this phenomenally busy and sensorially excessive fish market, but offered the quote of the day: "Get me out of here before I spend a thousand dollars." With our coolers now packed with frozen pompano and an array of freshly-purchased seafood, the four of us drove to The Fish House restaurant and enjoyed a celebratory meal. We toasted the trip, and how we were able to still catch a decent number of fish despite the effing tidal coefficients. We began discussing plans for next year -- or even for a possible fall fishing trip.

With the sand and sea at our back, Barry, Fred and I drove north, following the path of the moisture being vacuumed from the Gulf and eventually encountering the cold front that converted it all into rain, hail and TOR:CON indices. Eight hours after I paid my tab at The Fish House, I drove into my driveway as the rain fell and the daylight faded, and Betsy met me at the backdoor with a hug and a welcome home.