Blue-Collar Bonefish: Wading the Texas Coast for Reds

Blue-Collar Bonefish: Wading the Texas Coast for Reds

As a Westerner, it always takes me time to adjust to the sight of the sun sitting on the horizon early in the morning. That’s not the way it works on the Pacific Coast. But there it was, casting gentle, oblique light across the surface of the Laguna Madre, the long strip of inshore shallows that lies between Padre Island and the south Texas mainland. The abundant neotropical birdlife wading the shoreline seemed as exotic as the shirtsleeve weather in March—herons, egrets, and numerous others I wouldn’t be able to identify without binoculars and a bird book. I was about to enjoy all the excitement of a distant saltwater flats fishing destination without ever leaving the country.

Lori and I were there courtesy of one of those coincidental friendships that often arise among those of us dedicated to spending as much time as possible outdoors. The previous fall, Dick and his hunting party showed up in my Montana hometown to hunt upland birds. Somehow, Dick tracked me down by phone and asked if I would like to meet his father while he was there. I drew a blank until he explained that his Dad was Bill Negely, a bowhunting legend and the first hunter to take all of the African Big Five with a bow. Of course I wanted to meet him, and we spent the next week chasing the local population of pheasants, sharptails, and Huns.

As it turned out, the Negelys were as accomplished with fly rods as they were with shotguns. Dick had a place in Port Mansfield, the epicenter of Laguna Madre flats fishing. Grateful for the bird hunting we’d shown him, he invited us to visit him there the following spring. Only a fool would decline such an offer, and my mother, who as it happens was born just up the road from Port Mansfield, didn’t raise any.

Our quarry that morning was redfish, a species with which I had no experience and knew nothing beyond a few old stories from my own Dad, who used to fish the Laguna when he was growing up in the Lone Star State. I decided it would be best just to extrapolate from what I knew about flats fishing for bonefish, with which I’d acquired considerable experience during more trips to the Caribbean than I’d been able to afford. (Spending your children’s inheritance on hunting and fishing trips, I’d already decided, helped them build character.) Dick assured me that my bonefish tackle would be fine and advised me to regard anything I saw on the water’s glassy surface as a redfish tail until proven otherwise. Then I bailed over the skiff’s gunwale and received the first pleasant surprise of the morning.

My genes are hardwired to make me a do-it-yourself outdoorsman. I never enjoyed being poled around in a flats skiff and always preferred destinations where I could take off and wade on my own. That preference cost me some bonefish opportunities in Caribbean destinations where the flats were too soft and marly to wade, but I still stuck with that choice whenever possible.

My first look at the Laguna Madre flats suggested a mud bottom that would just be too soft to wade, but as soon as I leapt from the boat my feet encountered solid, hard-packed sand. I sensed that I could wade almost anywhere I wanted, but that due to the vagaries of currents and the complex topography of the islands dotting the area, I would have to be alert to exceptions. When Dick fired up the motor and told me he’d meet me a mile down the shoreline, I felt like a kid just released from school on the first day of summer vacation.

For several minutes, I stood still and let my eyes do the hunting. I’d done plenty of sight fishing and had always nurtured a quiet pride in my ability to see fish—the toughest skill most novice flats anglers need to master before they start catching bonefish. The problem was that I didn’t know what I was looking for. The angle of the sun was still too low to allow spotting fish beneath the surface, so I did what I do when faced with this situation on a bonefish flat. I changed my visual scan, stopped looking for submerged fish, and studied the surface for tails or nervous water.

Conditions could not have been better. The wind was calm, and I could see forever across the water’s pristine surface, broken only by an occasional diving bird. Then I saw what looked like a floating leaf far off in the distance and remembered Dicks’ advice. It didn’t look much like a tail, but I began to wade slowly in that direction.

I was halfway home when the “leaf” suddenly disappeared, only to reemerge several minutes later, 10 yards from its original location. Clearly, the leaf was not a leaf. I watched for several minutes, trying to get a fix on the fish’s direction of travel, and then I plotted a vector to intercept it. In retrospect I recognize that I was moving more slowly and cautiously than I had to, for I had yet to learn that redfish aren’t nearly as spooky as bones. Eventually, I reached casting range, but once again I paused and studied the lie. I wanted to be sure I was casting to the right end of the fish.

My line unfolded from a tighter loop than I deserved after the long winter layoff, water droplets glistening like jewels as they fell. I admit that the cast wasn’t perfect, but it was perfect enough. The instant the fly—a Crazy Charlie plucked at random from an old saltwater fly box—hit the water, a wake accelerated in its direction. I couldn’t see the fish take the fly, but suddenly a soft, powerful jolt of energy ran up the line, down the rod, and into my hand.

I was hooked up solidly to my first redfish, the beginning of a long journey that would take me back to the Gulf every spring for years to come, covering water from Texas to southern Georgia.

Idyllic sight casting conditions such as those just described are not unusual on the Laguna Madre early in the morning, but wind will eventually put some chop on the water and the sun can always find clouds to hide behind. It didn’t take me long to appreciate the value of birds when the weather declines to cooperate.

A mixed flock of gulls and terns rising and falling just above the water almost always means fish below them. It’s likely to be a mixed school containing not just reds but the Laguna’s other premier gamefish, the speckled sea trout. These waters hold some big ones, although the over-sized “alligator” trout are more likely to be solitary.  Trout are harder to spot than redfish, since they don’t tail. In a mixed school of fish feeding beneath birds, the trout are likely to be just below the surface, the reds closer to the bottom. If you have a preference, just let your fly find its proper place in the water column.

Never ignore the significance of a solitary gull on the water. If the bird is tacking back and forth in a specific direction and appears reluctant to fly, it is probably following a solitary redfish and eating crustaceans the fish roots from the bottom. Approach slowly to avoid spooking the bird. Once you reach casting range, lead the gull by 8 to 10 feet and let the fly sit. I can’t count the number of times this tactic has saved a tough day for me.

The history of the red drum, as its properly known, as both a gamefish and table fare, proves almost as interesting as the fishing. For decades, reds were regarded as trash fish throughout much of their range in the southern United States, which extends north to the Carolinas. Credit—or blame—for its eventual change in status goes to celebrity New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme. In 1979, Prudhomme left his position as executive chef at Commander Palace, one of New Orleans’ most prestigious restaurants, and opened his own K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, with the goal of developing a wider audience for the Creole and Cajun cuisine with which he grew up. In March 1980, he dredged a redfish fillet in a complex mixture of hot spices (his own invention), heated a cast iron skillet until it glowed, and tossed in the fish, producing an explosion of pungent smoke. Blackened redfish was born.

The recipe took the country by storm, so quickly and emphatically that I can’t remember another culinary phenomenon quite like it—and this in the pre-social media days, no less. Suddenly everyone wanted blackened redfish, which meant everyone had to have redfish to blacken. Inshore commercial fishing exploded, and nets began to take their toll on fish stocks. Recreational anglers rebelled, and in 1987 commercial fishing was banned in offshore federal waters in the Gulf. Texas, Louisiana, and Florida enacted similar bans in their inshore waters in 1988. Fish numbers soon began to rebound. The leader of the movement in Texas was none other than my old friend Bill Negely, who received numerous conservation awards for his efforts. Today, redfish stocks are in good shape around most of the Gulf, although warming water and agricultural runoff from mainland shrimp farms still create uncertainty about the future.

One of the elements of fly fishing for reds that I enjoy so much is the variety of experiences it offers from one location to another. As much as I love wading the south Texas flats, redfish in the Laguna Madre are small—puppy drum, in local parlance—that rarely weigh more than 6 or 7 pounds. They get a lot bigger. The current all-tackle world record, taken in North Carolina, weighed 94 pounds. Catching fish over 20 pounds usually requires fishing from a boat offshore. The good news is that with adequate local knowledge those fish can be taken readily on flies. I have friends who do it every year off the coast of Louisiana. My own personal best came from a grass flat on the northern edge of Florida’s Atlantic coast and weighed somewhere between 15 and 20 pounds (admittedly, a guess).

The wildest red fishing I ever experienced came from the same general area, courtesy of a local friend. It’s only possible to enjoy this manic fishery once or twice a year when high spring tides flood the spartina grass along river estuaries. When Russell ran the skiff up a slough, cut the motor, and let Lori and me climb over the side, I thought he’d lost his mind. The grass was so thick that I couldn’t even see the water, much less reach it with a fly.

“Pretend you’re hunting hogs with your bow,” Russell advised. “If you see grass moving, it’s a redfish. If you hear water sloshing, it’s a redfish.”

“What do I do then?” I asked.

“Localize the fish and cast,” he replied as he handed me a half-dozen weedless flies.

“But how do I get the fly into the water?”

“You don’t have to. The fish are feeding on crabs that have moved in to spawn on the high tide, and they’ll climb right up the spartina. The reds will go right after them.”

Admittedly skeptical, Lori and I finished rigging up and began to move slowly through the grass. We couldn’t see anything but spartina. Lori asked some nervous questions about alligators and didn’t seem impressed by my attempts at reassurance. Then I noticed the tops of the grass waving 15 yards in front of us, followed by the sound of sloshing water. Russell had been right. This was just like stalking feral boars in the swamps of Australia.

“Take the shot,” I suggested to my wife.

“This is crazy,” she replied, but she made the cast anyway. Her aim seemed accurate enough given that we couldn’t see what she was casting to, and it left her fly line festooned across the top of the grass like tinsel on a Christmas tree. I couldn’t see her fly but felt certain it never reached the water. Just as I was about to suggest that she try again she gave the line a twitch and the grass exploded in front of us. The fish—which eventually proved to be an 8-pound red—bulled a path straight away from us toward the main river, dragging clots of grass behind it in its wake. We just followed the line as if it were a trail of breadcrumbs, stopping periodically to pick it free of obstruction, until Lori reached the fish, the first of a dozen before darkness overtook us and we headed back toward the skiff.

Eating Redfish Ceviche-style
(After all, this is Meat Eater.)

I have written previously here about the conflict between releasing gamefish or retaining them for food and don’t need to revisit the topic now. I do enjoy redfish, but after the population crash described earlier, I’ve never felt comfortable about hauling them home by the cooler-full, so I don’t. It helps that I’ve never developed a taste for blackened redfish, but I’ve found a simple compromise that allows me to enjoy one occasionally with a clear conscience. The firm flesh of a redfish makes great ceviche, prepared roughly as follows:

One-pound fresh redfish fillet
3 limes
3 garlic cloves, crushed and diced
3 green onions, diced
1 tbsp. tomato salsa, preferably homemade
2 tbsp. fresh cilantro, cut fine
Hot sauce (Tabasco, Sriracha), to taste

  1. Squeeze juice from limes into glass or ceramic bowl.
  2. Add all other ingredients except fish, mix thoroughly, and place in refrigerator.
  3. Use a sharp knife to cut fish into thin strips and refrigerate in separate bowl.
  4. One hour or less prior to serving, add fish to lime mixture and mix until all fish surfaces are in contact with seasoned juice. (Longer marinating can leave fish mushy.)
  5. Serve with corn tortilla chips.

Feature image by Tosh Brown.

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