Fly Fishing Outside the Margins:
Targeting Reds in Bootie Deep Water
by Capt. Scott Sparrow
It was a Saturday afternoon in September. K. and I had both worked long hours at our desks on our respective academic duties. I could see that the work had taken a toll on her, so I gingerly suggested that an evening boat ride with the dogs might be in order. She brightened visibly, and proposed that we take a bottle of wine and a light dinner, too.
“And rods,” I asked?
“I might not fish,” she said.
I had my doubts about that, even though I kept them to myself. K.’s days on the Lower Laguna Madre had gone from four days a week while she was guiding, to about four days a year. I suspected that the huntress within her was spring loaded for action. Also, I knew that she had never fished the area that I had in mind––an extremely shallow, 6-8 inch deep expanse of water that lay just beyond the geographical limits of her extensive fly fishing experience.
When we arrived at 5:30, we beached the Curlew against a half-acre island and looked east across a thousand acres of unbroken glass, beyond which the high dunes of Padre Island reflected the evening sunlight. We could see redfish with their backs out of the water just beyond the tiny island, and for at least 200 yards further. Reddish egrets danced happily across the liquid mirror, “canopy” hunting amid the feeding reds. Needless to say, K. decided to fish.
Somehow we convinced our three dogs to remain on the island while we waded eastward into the cool water on the other side. Soon they were content to run up and down the island barking and cavorting, while we shifted our attention to the more serious task of noiselessly approaching redfish in water that was barely deep enough to support them. We hadn’t gone far before we removed our wading boots and left them behind. It was simply too pleasant to be encumbered with footwear. Tiny black shells were sprinkled across the sandy bottom, and they massaged our feet with every step.
K. was on her knees within five minutes casting to a red that swam right up to her, showing a bit of his back and tail as he would stop to inspect something of interest. In between casts, the fish would somehow disappear in only half a foot of water, leaving her waiting breathlessly with line draped in hand. She casted several times, only to have the fish eventually turn and swim away, obviously aware that something was amiss without knowing what. The fish had been too close for accurate casting, but K. was still a bit frustrated with herself.
“I’m really out of practice,” she admitted, shaking her head.
“Don’t worry, there’s plenty more,” I said, already pointing to another tail with my rod tip. “Put the Clouser about three feet from the red’s head, and then wait a second before stripping.” I was reflecting on having observed the reds’ behavior during several previous days of guiding and personal fishing. “If you strip too soon, you may pick up grass before he gets there, and then he’ll just follow the fly without eating it. Wait for him to approach, and then barely strip.”
Minutes later, the old form asserted itself as K. casted to a red that was being followed by a Reddish Egret. The fish moved forward to inspect the fly in the skinny water, pushing a bulging wake. A less experienced fly fisher would have overreacted and lifted the rod, but K. kept her rod tip low to the water and gave the fish time to ingest the tiny, size 6 Clouser. The surface exploded, and the red did its best to fight, but it was in far too little water to exploit the homefield advantage. Minutes later, K. landed and released the red. With a sense of relief that “the stink was off,” we turned toward a dozen backs and tails within a stone’s throw of us.
K. and I were fishing in an area that was a mile beyond where most boats venture to go during normal tides. We were on the far east side of what locals refer to simply as “the sand,” and above a barely submerged shelf that roughly defines the eastern edge of Padre Island––an area that I call the “upper sand.” The tides had recently risen to autumn levels, pushing a few extra inches of water onto the upper sand. While the few anglers able to approach the shelf would have happily fished along the deeper edge, thinking that nothing could lie beyond, K. and I were fishing in breathtaking conditions to visible, aggressive fish outside the margins of conventional angling.
While few people have experienced this kind of “extreme” fly fishing, it is more available than one might think. And further, it may be increasingly available, at least for a while, on the Lower Laguna, for a couple of reasons.
Fresh Water Influx. Up until a few years ago, south Texas was in the throes of a decade-long drought. The Lower Laguna, which is a hypersaline, was even saltier than average. This above-average salinity stressed many of the aquatic plants and animals, most notably some plants and animals that play a big role in attracting redfish into super shallow water.
As for plants, widgeon grass or “ditch grass”––which provides habitat for crabs and shrimp––is, properly speaking, a fresh water species that has been recently spreading across the shallowest areas of the east and west sides of the Lower Laguna. While some areas of the LLM are losing shoalgrass, shallower areas that were largely vegetation-free are now meadows of widgeon grass. I have observed that there are more crabs, shrimp, and baitfish in these areas than ever before. Not only is there apparently more habitat in extramarginal waters than before, the overal shrimp production is enhanced, as well , by the influx of fresh water into the hypersaline lagoon.
The Absence of Hurricanes. In addition to fresh water inflows that have supported the growth of various plant and animal life, the senstive estuary has also been spared a direct hit from a major hurricane for the last two decades, giving the seagrass a chance to gain a purchase on previously windswept, largely unvegetated areas. I rarely observed significant populations of shrimp on the east side until various seagrasses began to get a foothold on “the sand,” turning it from white to yellow, and even to green in many places. Whereas I once started each day fly fishing for tailing reds in westside lagoons, I will often target tailing reds and tailing pods of reds that have started congregating at first light on the east side in these fertile, grassy areas. The next hurricane will surely sweep the east side of its tenuous vegetation and cover it with fresh sand, thus restoring “the sand” to its former status as the “the white sand.” But until then, redfish may gravitate toward these temporarily fertile areas.
The eastside area where K. and I fished was clearly infested with shrimp that September evening, which accounted for much of the feeding activity that we observed and overheard all around us. I fully believe that the sparse widgeon grass accounted for the shrimps’ presence, which, in turn, accounted for the significant numbers of feeding redfish.
Certainly, “extramarginal” fly fishing has always been available regardless of fluctuating conditions. The problem is knowing where and when it can be found, and how to gain access to these areas.
The Zone Approach
The Lower Laguna is the largest continuous shallow water flat in North America and, according to some estimates, comprises about 300 square miles. But the fishable area of the Lower Laguna fluctuates dramatically as a function of tidal depth and the shallow water capability of one’s boat. For an estuary that varies only a couple of feet from “deep” to “shallow,” an extra foot radically transforms the angling picture. Normally, the position of the sun relative to the earth adds a good foot to the tidal average from September to December, and then again from March to June. Meanwhile, the moon accounts for monthly fluctuations that add and subtract from the seasonal averages. Beyond these predictable rhythms, heavy rain runoff will temporarily add to the LLM’s depth, and any tropical system that makes it into the Gulf will send a surge of seawater into the Lagoon, as well, thus creating a significant deviation from the usual pattern. With this in mind, anglers can get a pretty good idea about how to find extramarginal waters at any time of year if they follow the tidal charts and stay abreast of unusual weather conditions.
I find it useful to break the LLM into five depth zones. Zone One averages three feet or more at mean low water, and defines the navigable waters for deep draft boats. When people speak of fishing near the Causeway, west of Green Island, east of Three Islands, in the Saucer, or in Redfish Bay near Port Mansfield, they are referring to the large basins where bait fishermen and blind-casting spin fishermen customarily anchor or drift in the deepest water on the LLM.
Zone Two might be generically called the “grass flats.” Solid and broken patches of shoal grass and turtle grass grow there in about 18-24 inches of water. This zone attracts anglers who primarily spin fish, whether they are blind casting or sight casting. The deeper areas of Rattlesnake Bay and Payton’s Bay, the Target area south and west of Mansfield, and the area southeast of Stover’s Point, all fit this description.
Zone Three averages about a foot at low water, and may be heavily vegetated or largely clear of vegetation, depending on which side of the estuary one is referring to. On the east side, “the sand” defines the third zone. On the west side, the third zone can be found in such areas most of Paytons Bay, the Mud Hole, south RattleSnake Bay, and south Cullens Bay.
Zone Four is, on average, about six inches deep, although these areas may have deeper troughs that provide access to skiffs. Areas such as Parker Lake (aka Lake “X”), the shallow area to the west of Dunkin’s channel, as well as other unnamed back lagoons on the west side fit this description. The upper sand on the east side is a Zone Four venue, as well.
If Zone Four is largely unknown to most anglers, Zone Five is about as familiar as the dark side of the moon, and is only three or four inches in depth. On the east side, it is the Algal Mat––a dark-bottomed expanse that is covered with a slick coating of algae because of its periodic exposure to the air. On the west side, the largely sterile Zone Five extends westward from the last of the vegetated areas to the mainland. It, too, shows signs of exposure to air, and is largely free of vegetation, except for patches of stressed glasswort.
A Shifting Focus
A fly fisher who wishes to target extramarginal waters will do well to concentrate on Zones Three and Four, depending on the time of year. During the midwinter and midsummer low tides, Zone Three will generally define the shallowest areas that will still accommodate feeding fish. However, the water in Zone Three may become so shallow and undesirable from a temperature standpoint (too cold in the winter, and too warm in the summer) that the area between the grass and the sand––often referred to as the “transition”–– may offer the best extramarginal angling.
During the moon-driven high tides of summer and winter, or during the higher tides of fall and spring, the extramarginal waters shift to Zone Four and Five. This is an exciting time for fly fishers, who can now venture into areas that were too shallow to host feeding game fish during the seasonal low tides, but suddenly become refuges from the normal boat traffic for larger feeding reds.
I have found that the average size of redfish that venture into extramarginal waters tends to be somewhat larger than the average redfish in slightly deeper waters. The reason for this, I believe, has to do with the greater level of threat in shallower water. In water shallower than a foot deep, any fish smaller than 22 inches is a potential target for ospreys, cormorants, and blue herons. However, a larger redfish has little to fear from predatorial birds. The only conceivable threat to larger fish is from coyotes, which often prowl the flats looking for fish. While coyotes pose an insignificant threat in the overall picture, a friend of mine recently spotted a coyote carrying a rather large redfish in his mouth.
It may be surprising to learn that redfish are relatively easy to approach in extramarginal conditions. Fishing with my son Peter just a week before K. and I visited the upper sand, we encountered a phenomenon that fly fishers would die for. Dozens of redfish were streaming toward us from the east, passing slowly by us on their way to deeper water. Spending most of my time trying to facilitate Pete’s success, I watched fish after fish pass within 15 feet of him while he was casting to, or hooked up with another redfish on his fly rod. Meanwhile, he would become distracted by the size of the passing fish, urging me to get on the ball and catch one.
What makes redfish easy to approach in six inches of water has to do with their purpose for being there. They show up in such places for one reason only––to feed. Consequently, they tend to be visually focused on what is immediately in front of, and beneath them. However, while they may overlook the presence of an angler, they will pick up on the slightest sound, making it necessary for the stalking angler to move without making any noise. Indeed, the reds are extremely sensitive to the slightest disturbance in the water, and will come from as far as six feet away to investigate the plop of a tiny fly entering the water, or move away from the slightest ripple that passes overhead. Because a Zone Four venue can be filled with Widgeon Grass on the east side, or a mixture of seagrasses on the west side, a fly fisher must either cast close to the fish and hope not to spook him, or wait for the fish to come to investigate the fly before stripping. Otherwise, the fish will usually depart in disgust upon discovering a fouled fly.
Because these shallow, sensitive conditions call for a delicate approach, a fly fisher would do well to use use a size six or seven rod, at most. The fish cannot fight very hard in such shallow conditions, so a lighter rod poses little threat to their recovery. As for flies, I recommend using a size 6 weedless Clouser on the east side, and either a weedless shrimp pattern like my own Mother’s Day Fly––or a lightweight spoon such as my Kingfisher Spoon––on the west side. I always discourage clients and friends from using poppers in extramarginal waters, because the fish will too often spot the angler just as soon as it looks up.
Fly fishing is clearly the method of choice in such sensitive conditions. While a spin fisher can succeed by throwing an unweighted Texas-rigged worm or a weedless Sluggo, casting anything larger and heavier is equivalent to setting off a small bomb in church. If redfish had wheels, they would leave rubber on their way to deeper water.
The Lower Laguna is somewhat unique among the Texas coastal bays by being comparatively inaccessible by automobile. Much of the 300 square-mile estuary is surrounded by King Ranch, Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and Padre Island National Seashore. These protective barriers keep the estuary in its primitive state, but also prevent anglers from accessing the shallowest waters.
If you want to access extramarginal waters by boat, you need to have a boat that will take you into, or at least to the edge of, whatever zone is flooded by eight inches of water. Most anglers I know who can access this depth own Maverick HPXs (with jack plates and low water pickups), NewWater Curlews or Ibises, or small scooters such as the Maudy, the Shoalwater, or the Payton built by Cougar Marine. As a rule, four cycle outboards will prevent any boat, regardless of draft, from accessing such shallow waters due to the weight on the transom, and the relative sluggish hole shot against a firm bottom. As carburated motors make a slow exit due to the new emission standards, fuel injected two-cycles like the Tohatsu TLDI or the Evinrude E-Tec will keep extramarginal waters within reach.
For anglers who have deeper draft boats, all is not lost. There are areas of extramarginal water that lie adjacent to deeper water. For instance, the east side of the Saucer, the east side of the Three Islands basin near the drum boats, and the south side of the Mansfield East Cut near Marker 17 all provide access to “the sand.” However the upper sand and comparable westside lagoons will require a more considerable commitment from park-and-wade anglers. As a middle-aged man, I no longer relish mile-long speculative wades, but there are several areas that can be accessed by more industrious anglers. Such commitment often pays off. Two years ago, K. and I waded into a lagoon that appeared to be nearly dry during the low tides of mid-July. We wanted to see if the lagoon could support gamefish under such conditions. We trudged 250 yards through three-inch-deep water and gummy mud until the water gradually increased in depth. Backs began to appear, and we found ourselves among dozens of single redfish, feeding in about only seven to eight inches of water. Since then, I have looked upon waters that are “obviously too shallow” with new eyes.
Fishing extramarginal waters provides an exceptionally visual encounter with above-average redfish. While it may sorely test your casting skills, it will leave you “reeling” at the end of the day with wonder. Just a month ago, I guided my old client and friend Jim Posgate from Kerrville, and our mutual friend John Kautsch from the Rio Grande Valley. We went out on a “bad weather” day, hoping to skirt the edges of the promised storms. I planed over hundreds of acres of waking redfish on the way to the upper sand, knowing that the water was too deep in main portion of the LLM for sight casting fly fishers.
We parked the Curlew about 100 yards shy of the upper sand, and approached the area under calm conditions. Walking over the same grasswort-covered island that K. and I had visited with our dogs, Jim, John and I spread out and began to spot backs and tails against the glare of the sunrise. After catching three reds apiece, a storm chased us back to the boat. It seemed that the day was over, especially when the signs of feeding redfish had disappeared with the passage of the shower. But instead of leaving, I opted to leave the guys near the boat and hike eastward into shallower and shallower water. As the wind completely died, I peered against the glare and began to spot wakes 200 yards further east in the skinniest water imaginable. I called to Jim and John, who waded toward me, and we spread out to intercept the fish that cruised slowly toward us. Seven hours later, we dragged ourselves back to the boat, all talking at the same time, sharing stories about our on-the-knees encounters with big reds. As we headed back to the mouth of the Arroyo Colorado in the waning twilight, both Jim and John exclaimed that it was the best fly fishing they had ever experienced.
For myself, I sometimes think that I’ve seen it all, and that the feeling that I once had when I was a kid when my father would take me fishing along the ICW in our old plywood boat––the feeling of adventure among uncharted oceans of water and space––will never come again. But then I wade a bit further into the “mother lagoon,” and discover places that are so shallow and so remote that the old feeling of wonder comes back again. While there may be few areas of wilderness left in the world, it is my hope that there will always be wild places that are too shallow, too steep, or too rocky to attract most people. It is there that we may rekindle the feeling of wildness that, for many of us, makes living in a crowded, all-too-familar place, a tolerable proposition.