Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
I don't think home water has to be a specific place, but rather the sum of all places where a person is most comfortable fishing. Perhaps I say this because I've fished a variety of places and different types of water. Maybe home water is just a certain type of water - fast moving river or still pond, an estuary or rocky shoreline; a type of water that makes a person feel at home. But I'm getting ahead of myself....
I remember going on many camping trips in my native Maryland and it's neighboring mid-Atlantic states while growing up. My parents often took the family camping, and fishing was almost always a part of the trip. I started out small, fishing for bluegills along the banks of a tidal river that eventually ended in Chesapeake Bay. The particular spot I am thinking of was at a state park campground, and not far from the road that wound among the camp sites. There was a tree, oak I think, that was its own little island, with a moat around it, separating the island from shore. It seemed a vast cavern of river bottom between the bank and tree island, but my guess is that now it would be barely a long step from shore to island. At low tide, the space between the tree and shore was exposed, and probably a foot deep. At high tide, the moat was a tannin-stained stillwater that held hungry bluegills that often fell for a piece of nightcrawler threaded carefully onto a hook. Armed with a fiberglass pole and closed-faced Zebco reel, I took this pursuit seriously. I don't remember keeping more than a couple of fish, practicing catch and release fishing without really knowing it.
We camped at this park often. With time, we explored other sections of the river by canoe. There were other spots I fished on family camping trips, each with its own memories, many with better fishing. But the feeling of familiarity belongs almost exclusively with that moated oak tree island and the tannin-stained waters of the river that gave the island life. I think I would recognize the spot instantly if I happened upon it again, and would feel the energy of the river. And I'd know just how to fish it. Although I haven't returned to this campground, or even the river on which it lies, for countless years, I think it would feel familiar even before I recognized where I was. That's my first fishing memory.
While in high school, I kept a small aluminum boat at local reservoir, and spent many weekends exploring the coves and points in search of fish, mostly largemouth bass. Sunfish, walleye, pickerel, yellow perch, the occasional smallmouth bass, and crappie also lived in the waters of this reservoir. The exploration of the reservoir was a time-intensive process because this was an electric motor-only waterway, which greatly limited how much area I could cover in a day. I have far too many memories of rowing home after the battery was spent spent, bearing the wrath of the fishing center manager waiting for me to return so he could close the gates. As I remember, he never did ask if the extra exploration and fishing was worth the long row home.
Many times I schemed to have a friend take my car from the parking lot so it would appear there were no boats out, and the fishing center would close. Fishing would be best at dusk, which is just when the fishing center gates were locked. I never followed through with that plan. I'm not sure why. Maybe I couldn't get a friend to help, maybe I didn't want to risk being caught. Getting caught would have been the end of my boat space at the fishing center. What a terrible thought. But I can't complain too much, I was never questioned when I headed out in the boat on those weekdays during the school year.
At some point I got hold of a topographic map that showed the slope of the land now submerged. The map was probably once available at the fishing center or a local fishing shop, but I remember the map as a tough find and a valuable possession. I dutifully recorded my explorations and fishing results on this map, and kept it in a plastic bag along with a small notepad, in which I recorded the usual fishing log information; time of day, weather, temperature, lures used, fish caught.... Over time, the map became dog-eared and torn along the creases, and was eventually a patchwork of ever-smaller taped-together pieces of scribbled-on paper. As the map became worn I looked for a replacement but was never able to find one. I don't know why I didn't photocopy the map, but a copy would have seemed artificial and contrived. From where I sit now, years later, the worn map has character, and tells more than what’s written on its face. It’s kind of like the fiberglass mold of a mounted fish - the magic of the fish and everything associated with it is lost in the plastic hanging on the wall. That map became a treasured possession. I think I still have it somewhere.
To a certain extent, there is no repeating the aura of fishing these waters years ago, but that is fine and as it should be. Still, each cove and point, and even the weed beds, are familiar. The grove of submerged tree stumps at the island should hold a decent fish, and the edge of the weed bed in Picnic Cove is a favorite spot for crappies, which are especially hungry in the late afternoons. Even some of the coves that were nameless on the map, which I then named - Bluegill Cove, Carp Cove, Ninth Hole - seem to be as they were, and true to their names. I imagine that as long as this water stays as it was, I will call it a home water. Nowadays, it is only a handful of times a year that I fish fresh water and I live far from the waters of my youth, but I still chance to visit this reservoir.
Every spring, summer, and fall for the past four years I fished the sand flats of Cape Cod for striped bass and bluefish. Fishing these shallow waters allowed me to sight fish, which many years ago became my true fishing passion. I dragged myself through the gloomy New England winter days with images of casting to stripers cruising across open sand in clear, knee-deep water. With each year I came to know the flats a little better; what spot to fish at which tide, which fly was best for each flat as the seasons changed. I found some flats that I usually had to myself, even on busy summer weekends. As with any and all waters, I had good days and bad, double-digit fish-catching days and humbling days without a fish sighted, large or small. (Note the school of stripers on the middle-right side of the photo below.)
I carry crystal clear images of some days on these waters. It may be a vivid memory of fish - the sound of hundreds of striped bass crashing through schools of herring that have fled into shallow water to escape death, and then the sudden, violent pull on the line and bend in the rod as a striped bass mistakes the fly for a meal and heads for deep water with fly line in hot pursuit. Or perhaps the surreal early morning glow of a mirror calm water surface enveloped by a thick, wet, gray mist, back-lit by a sun too low in the sky to burn through, yet too stubborn to go away. Sometimes, the fog lasted all day, but on better days the sun burned through, the wind stayed down, and the fish swam on the flats. Even on those wet misty mornings the fish often showed themselves - small swirls in the glass-smooth surface, or loud slurps from out of the mist. Then, it is almost like sight fishing - waiting for a sign and casting to it, laying the fly in the widening ring encircling a recent swirl, or casting in the direction of the unseen slurping fish.
Wading the flats of New England waters requires an investment in some cold weather gear. Having fished most of my life in southern climes, I never had a need for waders before venturing onto the flats of Cape Cod. Now I have two pairs of waders: thick neoprenes for those spring days when the fish are hungry, the time of year when striped bass are more likely to taste most anything that moves; and light-weight waders for summer and fall, when I might spend most of an entire day on the flats. I did see some anglers on the coastal flats during the summer in only shorts and shirt, and some seem to spend much of a day wading the flats in search of fish. But my blood was (and remains) too thin to tolerate the never quite warm ocean waters of New England.
During my time on the Cape, I found a couple of sand flats in protected bays, where the water warmed to a reasonable temperature, and when fishing these flats during summer, I often left the waders at home. In mid-summer, I liked to wade shoeless across the knee-deep flats that cast their own bright golden glow in the high summer sun. The water over the flats seemed warm enough to keep larger fish from venturing onto these shallow backwaters, but the smaller fish I did find often fell for a well-fished fly, and put up quite a fight on a 6weight. I do know that larger fish are in these bays, because I saw them in deeper water, and I caught them when fishing deeper flats from my canoe. But the best chances at large fish on the flats came in the cooler shallows along the coast. With all that said, even though I fished the area frequently for four years, even fished it well on occasion, it never became a home water. This is how I found my relationship to the flats of New England.
Don't get me wrong, I very much enjoyed the warm summer days sight fishing for striped bass in shallow water. But the feeling was just not right. Perhaps it was the lack of intimacy with the surroundings; it is hard to feel alone and connected with these waters that are so crowded with anglers, boaters, and sun loving vacationers during the summer months, when flats fishing is best. A number of times I walked a considerable distance to separate myself from the crowds, only to find myself in the company of other anglers. A couple of time, anglers appeared out of nowhere soon after I brought a fish to hand. There were times of year when I might find myself alone on a certain flat, when I didn’t have to worry about hanging my back cast on a passing angler. But these uncrowded seasons are also the coolest times - those spring days when the wind still has the bite of the cold ocean that pushes it ashore, or the ever shortening days of fall when the sun is not resident long enough to warm the shores before passing again into darkness. Not that the fishing isn't good, because spring and fall fishing is good. But fishing in the spring with neoprene waders made me feel cluttered, and somehow further from feeling the energy of the flats. I like to feel the sand on my feet and the water against my legs.
The fishing in the fall was perhaps the best of the year, as the striped bass and bluefish gorged on hapless baitfish as they began their fall migrations. But for the most part, this was not sight fishing. Fall fishing in New England is very much a hit or miss proposition - checking out a list of probable spots, looking for signs of feeding fish. I found it hard to find a rhythm in this run and gun season. Did I enjoy fishing the flats and shorelines of New England? Of course. Did I know the waters well enough to find fish? Yes, on most days. Nonetheless, there was something in my gut that kept me from truly connecting with this water. I know the water well, but cannot call this a home water.
In case you think my home waters are merely reminiscings from my youth, I want to introduce you to my passion; wading flats of mixed deep-green seagrass and parchment white sand, the water crystal clear and warm, sunlight bending through the wind-wrinkled water to throw dancing shadows on the uneven bottom. With shadows of nearly invisible fish drifting through it all. I feel most at home in these waters, most connected. And I need no waders, nor jacket to break a brisk ocean wind. It is the energy, the sights, the sounds, the feeling of connectedness that fuels my passion for fishing the tropical flats. I have visited flats that I had never seen before, and felt immediately at home, somehow on a first name basis before even setting foot off the shoreline.
I'm not quite sure how this happened. I grew up in the mid- Atlantic state of Maryland, fishing mostly freshwater, with occasional jaunts into tidewaters. My first venture into salt water fishing was surf casting chunk bait along ocean beaches. But somehow, I get the feeling I was pointing toward this for some time. Bonefish and permit are, of course, high on the list of fish to target, but I will often fish a flat knowing my reward might be only a barjack or blue runner. 'Only' is a poor word, for these fish are worthy in their own right, aggressive to the fly and able to put a bend in an 8 weight.
I have many images of these magical waters etched in my memory. The soft light of dawn on smooth water along a shallow mangrove-lined shoreline, with small patches of nervous water the only sign of feeding bonefish below. Or perhaps the tip of a tail and fin break the surface as the bonefish moves through water too shallow to hide his sleek form. The first hours of light are also a good time to come upon the unforgettable sight of the large forked tail of a permit waving fully exposed above the water surface as the fish digs in the bottom in search of a meal. But the best time on the flats is when the sun warms my back and lights up the flat with such intensity that all shades of blue and green are reflected skyward. A light breeze blows from the east, just strong enough to ripple the water surface to hide my silhouette from the wary fish I am here to catch. And I become but another piece of the great puzzle in a warm tropical sea.
The Fisherman's Coast approach focuses on how coastal gamefish interact with their habitats and prey. The more you know about the gamefish you pursue with a fly rod, the more often you'll be in the right place at the right time with the right fly making the right presentation. It's about catching more fish.
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