The Red And The Black

The Red And The Black

Gulf Coast Drum Come in Two Colors...

  • By: E. Donnall Thomas

Far from civilization in the southern reaches of the Laguna Madre, the dredge-cut islands along the western shore of the Texas Intercoastal Waterway support a remarkable array of wildlife. Guarding their turf on the only dry land around for miles, gulls keened noisily overhead as I slipped my legs over the side of the skiff and adjusted my polarizing glasses. Rows of wading birds lined the narrow flat stretching away downwind in front of me: herons, egrets, spoonbills, ibises. A skimmer passed low above the shallows, tracing a wake across the surface as delicate as an etching.

Creeping forward across the pleasantly firm bottom, I reminded myself to slide my feet ahead of me, for the bay's warm waters are one of the best places in the world to experience an unpleasant encounter with a stingray. Fortunately, there's more to this unique ecosystem than birds to watch and rays to dodge, and 100 yards from the skiff my eyes recorded the first positive radar blip of the day.

Initially, the sighting looked like nothing but a piece of flotsam, but then it rose and disappeared and when it surfaced again the gentle morning sun revealed the unmistakable hue of a feeding redfish. The acute angle of the light made it impossible to see the fish beneath the surface. But each time its tail broke water I scooted forward until I'd finally worked my way within casting distance, at which point I settled down to make sure my first shot would also be my best. Poised and ready, I watched the fish's tail dimple the surface twice without making a cast. The problem was that I couldn't tell how the fish lay, and I didn't want to risk disturbing my quarry by casting behind it. But finally the entire tail rose into the sunlight, and after composing a mental picture of the fish attached to it I sent the Clouser Minnow on its way.

The shot looked perfect…to me. Unfortunately, the only opinion that really mattered belonged to the fish, which ignored my presentation completely. Retrieving carefully to avoid disturbing the water, I waited for another opportunity, and when the fish showed itself again I did my best to drop the fly on its nose. The gentle plop that followed sounded louder than I intended and when the surface grew still I briefly worried that I'd spooked the fish. But a sudden bulge greeted the second twitch from my line hand and my strip-set met soft, heavy resistance. Leaving a broad wake widening slowly behind, the fish accelerated toward the relative safety of the nearby channel, but with a well-set hook and a flat free of obstructions the fight that followed proved uneventful. Which was fine with me. After a year's absence from redfish water, I really wanted to enjoy a closer look at the fish belonging to the sentinel tail that had aroused so much excitement in me.

After several minutes of back and forth along the edge of the channel, the six-pound specimen conceded and granted my request: flanks glistening in the soft sunlight, hints of rose and amber highlights, not one but four ink-black spots between its dorsal fin and tail. As always, a fish worth traveling long miles to see. I have friends who regularly scrimp and save to make annual expeditions in pursuit of the glamor species: steelhead, salmon, permit, tarpon. But redfish? That would be me. After falling under their spell years ago, I find it hard to go too long without returning to the lonely backcountry waters they haunt. And despite their limitations as a world-class flyrod game fish, I don't mind admitting that sight-casting to tailing reds has provided me with some of my most enduring angling memories. There's just something about redfish. But let's address those limitations first. Saltwater anglers accustomed to stalking fish on gin-clear flats will need a bit of attitude adjustment. Although water clarity always remains prone to variation, the combination of wind, tide, freshwater runoff and soft bottoms in the typical habitat redfish prefer often makes it difficult to see actual fish. That means depending upon ancillary clues like wakes and tails. Then there is the red drum's performance on the end of a line. Because you fish for them like bonefish there's a tendency to expect them to act like bonefish when hooked, which is likely to lead to disappointment. Reds are powerful fish, but they don't jump, lack endurance and accelerate slowly. Although any redfish over five pounds will likely take you into your backing, let's save the screaming reels clichés for another story. So what's the big deal? The fish are beautiful. I love the lonely, unpretentious habitat they prefer, which in my experience invariably lies far from the madding crowd. Finally, there's the magic of tailing fish. There's something indescribably sensual-hell, make that sexy-about those tantalizing glimpses of redfish tails appearing and disappearing by magic on a flat's glassy surface with a Gulf Coast sunrise in the background; it's the ocean's own equivalent to a free lap dance. So leave the attitude behind when you head to redfish country. It's just you and the water and the fish-as it should be. Although redfish are said to range as far north as Massachusetts, I've done most of my fishing for them in south Texas, near the southern limit of their range. But I've also enjoyed redfish in Florida, both in the Everglades and farther north. In fact, I had one of the most memorable redfish outings of my life near Amelia Island, outside Jacksonville. Invited recently to the area to address an outdoor group, my wife, Lori, and I were also given the opportunity to spend a day fishing with an irrepressible sixth-generation Floridian named Russell Tharin. We immediately liked Russell for more or less the same reasons we like redfish: no pretense, no attitude, no desire to impress. But as he outlined the plan for the evening, I had to admit that he sounded more than a little bit crazy. As nearly as I could tell, we were going to run his canoe up into the spartina grass at high tide until it wouldn't go any farther, and then we were going to listen for fish. That's right, listen-the thing you do with your ears. As we bobbed around in the canoe waiting for the grass to flood, Russell explained the fishery's quirky nature. During the spring, one or two tides a month build high enough to cover the spartina, and when they do, reds pour into the grass to gorge on crabs hiding in the foliage. Because of the thickness of the cover ahead, I could barely see the water let alone any fish, and I couldn't imagine how to cast a fly through the stuff without fouling at once. But Russell assured us our ears would take care of the first problem and the weed-proof flies he'd dug out of his vest would take care of the second. After a final glance at his watch and the water level, we eased forward to find out for ourselves. As we pushed our way up onto the flat, he suddenly stopped and pointed toward the grass to one side."Hear that?" he cried happily."And look. You can see the tops of the grass moving!" Indeed I could, but what that had to do with fly-fishing remained to be seen."You're up," I said gallantly to Lori."Hop out and go catch it.""How do you know that's not an alligator or something?" she asked."Tell the truth, I suppose it could be," Russell admitted."Actually," she said as she handed me the rod,"you're up." Climbing over the side of the canoe, I was pleased to discover that the flat offered surprisingly firm footing. Closing the distance to the disturbance ahead, I finally abandoned my skepticism and unfurled a cast that left loops of floating line draped across the tops of the grass. But when I gave that line a twitch, something actually struck, and after a fight that reminded me of goat-roping more than fly-fishing I finally stood incredulously admiring an eight-pound redfish. It was the first of many, as it turned out. We stalked gurgling noises and waving grass-and caught redfish-until night and falling tide finally drove us of off the flat. Unique or insane; you make the call. But that's the kind of fishing that makes people like me fools for red drum. As Doug Swisher and Carl Richards acknowledge in their guide, Backcountry Fly Fishing in Salt Water, variety accounts for no small measure of inshore fly-fishing's appeal. In Texas, seatrout can provide flyrod action to rival redfish, and I've taken flounder, sheepshead and ladyfish in the Laguna Madre as well. In southern Florida's backcountry waters, tarpon and snook sometimes make it difficult to concentrate on reds. But one species deserves special mention because of its biological similarity to the redfish: the often frustrating, occasionally intimidating black drum. Another thick-scaled bottom feeder, the black drum (known simply as"drum" in Texas waters) shares the redfish's basic build and habit of producing loud underwater noises when mating (which reminds me of the hot tub during my college days… forget I said that). In appearance, the black drum is distinguished by barbels on the chin and the absence of the red drum's characteristic tail spot. More subjectively, the black drum looks as unattractive as the redfish looks lovely. And it's notoriously difficult to take on flies. So why bother, other than in deference to Mallory's famous declaration because it is there? Well, those willing to concede that size really does matter need look no further. Black drum grow huge: Hundred-pound specimens have been netted offshore, and I've watched plenty of 50-pounders taken on bait during the spring migration through the shipping channel that connects the Laguna Madre to the Gulf just east of Port Mansfield. (Red drum grow nearly as large, and 40-pound redfish are taken regularly in the surf outside Padre Island. But these big bull reds-most of which are actually female-seldom appear in the shallows where they can be reached by wading fly rod anglers.) Intrigued by the possibility of catching a big black drum on fly tackle, I have spent many futile hours casting fast-sinking shooting heads into the channel when the drum were running. While I managed to catch a few small specimens on the flats incidental to the pursuit of other species, the big ones always eluded me-until recently. After a long, productive morning sight-casting to redfish on the Laguna Madre, rising wind and choppy water had almost made us give up for the day. Determined to coax one more fish from the bay before calling it quits, I set out down a flat beside the Intercoastal Waterway while Lori declared a unilateral lunch break aboard the skiff. Suddenly a large sheepshead appeared in front of me, and when I flicked the fly in its direction, the fish turned and struck. Talk about species that don't enjoy the respect they deserve! The fish came unbuttoned on its first run, but as I reeled in to check my leader I spotted an ominous, dark tail waving from the edge of the flat and immediately realized that I had a legitimate shot at a big drum. Since the fish seemed to be feeding in a stationary position, I decided to change flies. I've heard all kinds of advice on the subject of fly selection for black drum, most of it laced with frustration. But drum are primarily crab eaters, and with this information in mind I hastily tied on a Del's Merkin while keeping an eye on the fish. My first cast looked dead on, but the fish ignored it. After several more unproductive attempts, I decided to try the permit"drop" technique, and the next time the fish's tail fell and began to move away, my line moved with it. Mindful of my eight-pound-test tippet, I strip-set as hard as I dared and hung on. And on and on. As the hulking shape powered along the channel, I eventually realized the fish had wrapped itself around the leader and I frankly didn't see how the tippet could survive the abrasion against its flanks. But it did, and I eventually wound up steadying the fish against my thigh as I maneuvered to release it. World-record material? Who knows? We didn't have a scale aboard and that's not my thing anyway. But I know I'll never catch a bigger one. Gearing Up For Reds A 7-weight rod covers most backcountry redfish situations well, although you may appreciate an 8-weight in high wind. I've never felt the need for anything other than a floating line in the situations described. At least in the Laguna Madre, reds aren't leader shy and there's no compelling reason to use tippet lighter than 10-pound test. I've listened to many theories regarding fly selection, ranging from meticulous imitations of local baitfish and crustaceans to utter nihilism. Since I often chase redfish shortly after returning from tropical flats expeditions, I've used a lot of beat-up bonefish flies and have never found one that wouldn't take reds. The Crazy Charlie, for example, turns out to be a great fly for Gulf Coast redfish. More conventional choices include Clouser Minnows and shrimp imitations. My old Texas friend Dick Negley taught me years ago that redfish show a rather surprising enthusiasm for small surface poppers. Fishing the spartina flats demands a weed-proof fly, and molded epoxy spoon-flies are a popular choice. (Obtainable from Capt. Jim Dupree, 352-371-6153, if you don't feel like messing with their manufacture yourself.) Never mind the argument about whether they're really flies or not-the fishing is too much fun to miss.-D.T. When to Go Redfish inhabit Texas' Laguna Madre year around. Locals prefer summer and fall fishing, but that's mostly because their idea of uncomfortably cold weather differs from my own. (I suppose that's why so many Texans wear waders while I'm slogging along in cut-offs.) I've experienced excellent fishing there in March, April and May, although spring cold fronts can send fish off the flats and into deeper water. Large black drum migrate into inshore Texas waters in March and April. Summer is prime time for south Florida redfish. Fishing the flooded grass flats in northern Florida depends on high spring tides. Plan on March, but consult the tide book carefully beforehand.