Winter FlyFishing the Texas Tropics
by Scott Sparrow
Published in Tide Magazine, Jan-Feb 2004
It was the third day after a "blue norther" had swept through deep south Texas, and the nighttime temperatures were dipping into the lower forties. By contrast, the midday forecast for the Lower Laguna Madre called for low wind, full sun and a toasty 70 degrees -- making for pleasant wading and perfect sight casting conditions. Pinning our hopes on an accurate forecast, my buddy Skipper Ray and I decided to brave the early morning chill, and go after the big trout and reds that had been congregating in the same area for over a month.
We left the dock on the Arroyo Colorado around 8:00, and said very little as we huddled behind the Curlew’s sleek console. "Tim would have made you a windshield if you'd asked." Skipper said, referring to Tim Clancy of New Water Boatworks, the maker of the Curlew. "It would have spoiled the look," I answered, wishing at that moment that we'd put creature comfort higher on our priorities. Thirty minutes later, we reached a shallow flat that was barely submerged by the winter’s lowest tides. As we planed onto the flat, we were relieved to see the wakes of retreating game fish, so I brought t he Curlew off of plane, and let the fish settle down. The sunlight and the low wind brought much needed relief as we stripped off our first layer of winter clothing.
I suggested that we drift sideways and sight cast from both ends of the boat. Skipper concurred. But only moments later, a huge wake retreated from our intrusion. “Forget that plan,” I said hastily. “I’m going after that fish.”
Slipping into the chilly, foot-deep water, I was glad that I'd worn my Gore-Tex waders. I proceeded slowly and awkwardly across the boggy flat in pursuit of the wake, but after a brief chase, it was obvious that the big fish knew I was there. So I decided to wait it out. I laid my line behind me on the water and, standing motionless, watched the fish's wake retreat for a while longer before it turned and headed back in my direction. Finally, I lifted the line out of the water, and placed my Deceiver just ahead and to the side of the “V.” I saw the wake veer toward the fly, and then I felt the strike. Excitedly, I strip struck, but there was nothing there.
As I nursed my disappointment, Skipper fished from the front deck of the Curlew. Glancing over his shoulder, he spotted a huge trout heading directly for him. He cast his tiny Winslow Whisper just ahead of the fish, and let it sink. The trout went head down in pursuit of the fly, but lost track of it. So Skipper lifted the fly from the water, and cast again. As the fly hit directly in front of the fish, she rose and took it on the surface.
Skipper yelled, “Got one!” I looked back to see him standing beside the boat with his rod bent. Hurrying back so I could photograph the fish prior to its release, I was pleased that Skipper had, once again, worked his magic. A few minutes later, he landed an 8 lb. 4 oz., 30-inch trout.
Skipper's mid-January catch was by no means extraordinary. The Lower Laguna Madre (LLM) is the only true subtropical fishery in the continental US outside of Florida, and -- with the clarity and shallowness of its hypersaline water -- affords anglers spectacular, year-round sight casting opportunities.
While there are a growing number of anglers who take advantage of the LLM's relatively mild winter conditions, it is not surprising that the vast estuary remains virtually untapped as a winter fishing venue. After all, waking up to heavy frost in Austin or Houston would make it hard for anyone to believe that it's 20 degrees warmer only 350 miles south, and that temperatures will rise, on average, to the mid-60s on any given January day.
Even local anglers, who would presumably know about the LLM's off-season potential, often express considerable resistance to the notion that the fishing can be so good during the winter months. I've interviewed quite a few of them, and I have found that there are three beliefs that tend to keep fisherman away from the Bay in the winter:
* There's not enough water to get around.
* The fish leave the Bay.
* Even if some of the redfish do stick around, they don't tail in the wintertime.
Because I never fished the LLM in the winter months until recently, I always assumed these assumptions were true, and never thought to plan my fishing trips to my home waters in the "off" season. But after moving back, and fishing the LLM with my wife Kathy every winter since 1999, I have discovered that these beliefs are largely unfounded. Nevertheless, let us fairly consider their merits.
There's not enough water to get around. It is true that the winter tides are often so low that only the shallowest-running boats can venture safely beyond the Intracoastal Waterway. But for anglers who have shallow-running, tunneled skiffs, the skinny water poses no problem. Even if an angler only has a deep-draft boat, there are endless options for parking the boat along the Intracoastal Waterway, and then wading or kayaking onto the flats.
When there is less water in the estuary, the fish are more congregated, and much more visible. If the sun is out, they are easy to see just below the surface, and if it's cloudy, their backs and tails often protrude above the surface as they cruise and feed. In contrast, during the seasonal high tides of spring and fall, I sometimes boat for miles on a cloudy day without ever spotting a fish; and so, ironically, finding and catching fish during the winter months is often much easier than during the "high season" of spring and fall.
The fish leave the Bay. Not long ago, I was visiting with fly fishing guru Bud Rowland, of Port Isabel. He'd fished and duck hunted the South Bay of the LLM with his sons all winter, and he had kept a log of his hunting and fishing results. He opened the little notebook, and began reading a list of the big speckled trout he'd caught. After he'd recounted several impressive mid-winter catches, he turned to me and said, "Scott, people think the fish aren't there in the winter. But they’re always there."
According to Randy Blankenship, staff biologist with the Texas Deparatment of Parks and Wildlife, Bud is dead right. Citing TPW fish survey data, Blankenship states unequivocally that the LLM trout and redfish hardly ever leave the estuary. While trout are rumored to migrate long distances, most of them never venture beyond a mile or so from where they hatch. As for redfish -- except for leaving the Bay once they reach sexual maturity at three to six years in age -- they remain in the estuary year round, as well. While there is some movement of both species to and from the Gulf throughout the year, it is not significant, nor does it occur principally due to temperature changes.
During cold snaps, resident reds and trout may seem to disappear, but they merely retreat to the warmer waters of the Intracoastal Waterway, or to basins and troughs only slightly deeper than the shallowest flats. During such times, the flats may seem devoid of life. If a fisherman happens to visit the Bay during or just after a cold snap, he may conclude, reasonably enough, that the fish have departed for the open Gulf. But the fish are still there, out of sight in the deeper waters, waiting for the flats to warm up again.
The lower Laguna is so shallow that the water temperature of the flats rises and falls much faster than the deeper waters. This results in the sudden appearance of redfish, trout, and baitfish on the flats during rising temperatures. Conversely, the rapid cooling of the flats during a cold front can abruptly send the fish retreating into deeper, warmer waters.
The movement of redfish and trout back and forth from the deeper water within the LLM is one of the most important patterns affecting wintertime fishing, and if you understand how it works, you can hit it right most of the time. In our research over the past few winters, Kathy and I have found that the sun rarely warms the water sufficiently to bring the fish onto the flats on the first day of a warming trend. But by the second day, and thereafter until the next cold front pushes through, the redfish and trout can usually be found actively feeding -- especially in the afternoon -- making up for lost time. Skipper, who has guided year round for over 28 years on the LLM, agrees with this scenario. "It's a pattern that you can set your watch by," he says.
If you happen to time your trip before the water has warmed up enough to bring the fish back onto the flats, your chances of catching fish by blindcasting into deeper water are excellent. Skipper points out that "January and February provide plenty of opportunities for those who may have difficulty sight casting to targets. We often do well blind casting with around structure -- such as along the edge of the ICW, and in the intersecting channels. This approach can produce good numbers of reds and trout, along with a flounder or two, that are temporarily holding in deeper water following a cold snap."
The redfish don't tail in the winter. I'm not sure where this belief originated, but LLM redfish can often be found tailing in the grassy areas of the LLM during the winter months. Indeed, winter tailing action resembles the vigorous tailing that we ordinarily observe through the rest of the year. With water temperatures ranging from the upper 50s to the upper 60s most of the winter, the redfish never stop tailing for long.
Last December, on a mild, windless morning, I guided Lewis Robinson -- a developer from Rockport -- onto the LLM. As we reached the Bay at daybreak, a low fog hovered just overhead, creating a soft, flowing canopy above the mirror-like surface. I shut down the Curlew only a couple of hundred yards from the Intracoastal Waterway and began poling toward the rising sun. Within minutes, we began to see the tips of redfish tails breaking the surface.
Casting from a raised platform in shirt sleeves, shorts and deck shoes, Lewis had shot after shot at tailing and cruising reds. After landing his third red in the 24-inch range, he exclaimed, "Scott, where in the continental US, except south Florida, could we be doing this on December 28th?!"
Whenever someone asks me what my favorite time of the year to fish the LLM is, I say, "Any time the water is low and clear, the wind is calm, and the fish are willing." Those who follow the changing faces of the Lower Laguna Madre will know that this means, quite simply, summer or winter.
In early February, for instance, Kathy and I were wading along the shoreline of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge on a sunny weekday . After 15 minutes of wading through a turtlegrass meadow, I spotted the shadowy form of a slow-moving fish about 70 feet away. I stripped off more line and casted, and again the fly landed too close for comfort. The fish spooked slightly, but quickly resumed its unhurried pace. On the next cast, the fly landed gently about two feet from the fish. I lost sight of it for a moment, but then suddenly, a big trout came out of the water, shaking her head and trying to throw the fly. After a spirited 10-minute fight, I landed, weighed and quickly released an 8 lb, 2 oz. trout.
We continued wading downwind without noticing the surface swirls and blowups that were coming from behind us. Turning finally to inspect the sound of a surface strike, I noticed the unmistakable signs of redfish pods streaming out of the deeper water off Stover's Point into the shallow, sun-warmed water of South Cullen Bay. As they slowly filled the area, the reds began tracing large, imprecise circles as they drove tiny baitfish ahead of them. Casting whenever the fish swept by within casting range, we were soon hooked up and yelling support to each other. Later, after landing several reds, we climbed onto the boat, laughing and marveling at our great good fortune. It had been a spring-like day in every way, except one: The fishing had been better.
Of course, there's always a catch in every idyllic fishing scenarios. In the case of winter fishing on the LLM, the sticking point is the intermittent cold fronts, along with their falling temperatures and blustery winds. Winter fishing on the LLM is a great option for anglers who can drive to south Texas, and have flexibility in their travel plans. It is always a good idea to watch the weather forecasts up to the last minute, and to have a fallback date already planned. If your schedule won't allow this wait-and-see approach, then it's advisable to wait for more predictable weather.