The Texas Cure for Winter
An unedited version of the article that appeared in
the Feb-March 2002 issue of Salt Water Fly Fishing
by Capt. Scott Sparrow

     Last January, a certain Monday dawned windless and clear -- a perfect day for fly fishing on the lower Laguna Madre.  I had a few errands to run in Harlingen, Texas, but I agitated inwardly until I couldn't stand it any longer. Finally I called Kathy on the cell phone and said, "Let's go fishing." I don't remember having to persuade her.
     It was about 75 degrees when I arrived home,  so I decided to  wade wet. As usual, Kathy was decked out in a fleece top, and had packed her waders on the boat just in case. She proceeded to give me the predictable lecture about needing to take precautions against the chill -- but hey - what chill? The day was just too spring-like to be burdened with such things. As we boated eastward down the Arroyo Colorado toward the lower Laguna Madre, feeling the intermittently cool and balmy air of a south Texas January afternoon, I thought that winter fishing on the lower Laguna had to be just about as good as it gets.
     We came to the mouth of the Arroyo Colorado, turned south into the Intercoastal Waterway, and then ventured onto the glassy,  clear flats. The tides were seasonally low, and the flats were alive with churning mullet -- a sure sign that the sun had warmed the water enough to draw the reds and speckled trout back into the shallows. Before we'd gone a hundred yards, we noticed numerous wakes retreating from the boat's intrusion. We shut down in 12 inches of water and fiddled with our gear, giving the fish some time to resume their natural feeding patterns. In less then five minutes, we began to see redfish tails popping up all around, scattered among the flickering tails of feeding sheepshead.
     Staking the boat with the push pole, we slipped into the water armed with lightweight shrimp patterns. I had to admit that the first step was a chilly one -- but only to myself, of course. I warmed up considerably a few minutes later after casting to a tailing 25-inch red who ate my fly without hesitation. Kathy -- who still considered herself a novice at the time -- caught and released two 24-inch reds before a gentle northwest breeze informed us that a cold front would soon be passing through.

    I believe it was the Greek mathematician Thales who once wrote, "Tis better to love all the seasons than to fall hopelessly in love with spring." To some fly fishers, this means hanging up the rods in the autumn and gracefully turning to other interests. To others, it just means finding a place where they can fish without getting hypothermia. While tropical fly fishing venues abound in various far flung parts of the world, some of the most precious places can be, as Parcifal was told in his search for the Grail castle, just "down the road and across the bridge" -- like, for example, the lower Laguna Madre of deep south Texas.

     The lower Laguna is a shallow, usually clear, subtropical estuary that lies between the mainland of southernmost Texas and Padre Island, the longest barrier island in the world. Stretching over 60 miles from north to south, and averaging about five miles wide, the lower Laguna is so vast that few fishermen can claim to have explored it completely. An incredible array of fortunate circumstances have protected it from the encroachment of modern life. Some of the largest cattle ranches in the United States claim almost the entire western shoreline northward of where the Arroyo Colorado -- a river-like tributary -- joins the Laguna.  Having maintained the shoreline as pasture for the first hundred years of its existence, the ranch owners now actively cooperate with the state to limit the impact of runoff and development on the fragile ecosystem.  And then, to the south of the Arroyo Colorado, the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge effectively insulates the western shoreline of the lower Laguna for another fifteen miles.
     On the northeastern side of the Bay, Padre Island National Seashore protects the scenic estuary from further encroachment. Only the southern tip of Padre Island bears the imprint of modern civilization, with its high-rise hotels rising surreally above an otherwise unmarred horizon. Except for this distant reminder of modern life, the lower Laguna remains pretty much as it has always been, and survives as one of the last remaining primitive estuaries in the world.
     The lower Laguna Madre is a year-round fly fishery that remains, as yet, virtually unknown and untapped during the winter months. Even among locals, who would presumably know about it’s off-season potential,  I have found a lot of resistance to the notion that the fishing can be so good during the winter months. I've interviewed a few, and I know 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 in a boat.
 * 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 lower Laguna in the winter months until recently -- having lived most of my adult life on the East Coast -- 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 fly fishing the lower Laguna during the warmest and coldest winters on record -- 2000 and 2001 --  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 mid-winter tides -- like the mid-summer tides -- are often so low that only the shallowest-running boats can venture safely beyond the Intercoastal Waterway. But for fly fishers who specialize in sight casting, and who have skiffs that can negotiate the shallowest waters, the ultra skinny water is like a briar patch into which they dearly love to be thrown. Even if a fly fisher only has a deep-draft boat, there are endless options for parking the boat along the channel, and then wading or kayaking onto the flats.
     Further, the fish are more visible when there is less water in the estuary. 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 can often seem much easier than during the "high season" of spring and fall.
    The fish leave the Bay.  I was visiting with my friend and local fly fisher Bud Rowland last March. He'd fished and duck hunted the South Bay of  the lower Laguna Madre 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 Dept. of Parks and Wildlife, Bud is dead right. Except for spawning-size redfish -- this is, fish over 28 inches or so in length -- that leave the Bay in the autumn to spawn in the Gulf, the redfish remain in the estuary year round. While there is some movement to and from the Gulf throughout the year, it is not significant, nor does it occur principally due to temperature changes. The other prized game fish -- the spotted or "speckled" sea trout  -- spawns in the estuary, and remains there throughout its life cycle.
     During cold snaps, resident reds and trout may seem to disappear, but they only retreat to the warmer waters of the Intercoastal channel, or to the troughs between the spoil islands. 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.  On rare occasions, the fish even get trapped in cooling water that is so deficient in available oxygen that they may asphyxiate before they can reach warmer water.  Fortunately, these extreme cold snaps happen only once in a long while, the last one being in 1989 when thousands of big trout, in particular, died in the icy shallow water. Even though rapidly cooling waters can pose a threat to resident redfish and trout, neither species retreats to the open Gulf to avoid such conditions.
     The movement of redfish and trout back and forth from the deeper water within the lower Laguna is one of the most important patterns affecting wintertime fly fishing, and if you understand how it works, you can hit it right most of the time. In our research over the past two 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. Indeed, we have caught them during these warming trends so gorged on baitfish and crustacea that they look like a fatter, different species of fish altogether.
     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. Indeed, this may appeal to novice fly casters, in particular. My friend  Skipper Ray, who is one of the best-known fly fishing guides on the lower Laguna, says that "January and February provide opportunities for those who may have difficulty sight casting to targets. We often do well blind casting with weighted flies around structure -- such as along the edge of the Intercoastal Waterway,  and in the intersecting channels." This approach can produce good numbers of reds and trout that are temporarily holding in deeper water following a cold snap.
    To illustrate how different the fishing can be from one day to the next during a warming trend, last January I was finishing up an article on big trout, and I needed some more photos. So Kathy and I went out to see if we could find a willing subject. Fishing on the first day of a warming trend,  we found nothing on the flats, so we stopped and blind casted into a two-foot-deep trough between two spoil islands. Using a weighted shrimp pattern, I caught and released a 27" trout that pounced on the fly like a bass would in the spring time. The next day, after the sun had begun to warm up the flats, Kathy and I accompanied Skipper out on a similar big trout mission, and found that the fish had moved onto the flats.  Wading and sight casting in the shallow, clear water along the shoreline of Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Skipper caught and released  a 28" trout and some reds on subsurface flies.
     So, regardless of whether the game fish are taking refuge from the cold, or prowling the clear flats, they are usually quite willing to take a well-presented fly.
    The redfish don't tail in the winter.  This past winter was one of the coldest winters on record in south Texas. And yet, in between the unusually frequent cold fronts -- during which the temperatures fell into the 40s -- the redfish could easily be found tailing in the grassy areas of the east side of the lower Laguna. Indeed, the tailing action resembled the vigorous tailing that we usually observe through the spring and summer. After fishing several times a week all winter for two successive winters, I see no evidence that the redfish ever stop tailing for long.

     As for differences between the winter fishing and other times of the years, one can expect to find the lower Laguna flats less congested with sea grass after the first strong cold fronts of the late fall: The winds pile up the dead grass against the shorelines, leaving areas that were congested with grasses during the late summer navigable and fishable again. The water itself takes on a crystalline, Carribean-like clarity as the organic matter falls out of the cooler water. Whenever the winds shifts, however, the water may briefly cloud up, but only in those areas that have a softer, silted bottom.
     The winter months offer an unusual bonus for the visiting fly fisherman: Big sheepshead that normally refuse all offerings during the warmer months become surprisingly willing to take a fly. Usually considered impossible to catch by fly fishers who fish only during the summer season, winter sheepshead will sometimes come from five feet away to snatch your fly. If you have never fished during the winter time, you may find this hard to believe. But consider that on one warm Sunday last February, Kathy and I hooked five sheepshead, and landed two fish that were over four pounds apiece.

The Sticking Point

    Of course, there's always a catch in such idyllic fishing scenarios. In the case of winter fly fishing on the lower Laguna Madre, the sticking point is the intermittent cold fronts, along with their falling temperatures and  blustery north winds. The good news is that during an average winter, we may have a week or more of summer-like weather between cold fronts, and once a cold front hits, optimum fishing conditions usually return within two to three days. But what happens if you hit it wrong? Traveling 1000 miles, and taking a few precious days off work, only to land in the middle of 30-mph north winds and murky waters, is a scenario that would give most fly fishers a severe bout of clinical depression.
    Fortunately, modern weather forecasting can usually alert you and your guide to deteriorating weather conditions before you leave home; and further, most of the guides in this area are quite willing to reschedule their clients on short notice due to abrupt weather changes. Indeed, traveling fly fishers will usually find lower Laguna guides motivated to work with them around unforeseen weather reversals, as long as there is an agreement to reschedule a trip, rather than to cancel it altogether.
    To do this right, of course, you need to be somewhat in control of your own schedule, and able to change plans without risking dire social and job-related consequences. If you can negotiate these hurdles, then the only remaining obstacle is the problem of changing flight plans without incurring expensive penalties. Fortunately, Southwest Airlines  observes a flexible rescheduling policy, allowing you to cancel your flight, and take a credit toward a future purchase. Of course, if you purchase an inexpensive ticket weeks in advance of your planned travel, and then turn around and book a new flight less than one week later, you will probably pay more for the second ticket. It's not a perfect solution, but it works quite well if your new reservations qualifies for Southwest's week-in-advance discounts. Also, Southwest frequently offers deeply discounted fares, and will notify you of these specials via e-mail if you contact them via their website at www.southwest.com.

     The lower Laguna Madre offers a vast, world-class fly fishing venue for those willing to venture southward during the colder months.  It’s unpressured, it’s relatively inexpensive to reach by domestic travel, people speak your language, and the fish are usually quite willing to take a fly. Hundreds of square miles of foot-deep water, daytime high temperatures averaging in the 70s, and sight casting in gin-clear water, add up to making the lower Laguna an attractive winter fly fishing opportunity.
     And like many of the most precious things in life, it’s just "down the road and across the bridge."