Fly Fishing on the Edge:
The Remarkable Fishing Opportunities Along the
Intracoastal Waterway of the Lower Laguna Madre
by Capt. Scott Sparrow
A dominant feature of the Texas bay system is the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), a 3000-mile-long passage for commercial barge traffic than runs from Boston, Massachusetts to Brownsville, Texas. Construction of the ICW commenced in the 1920s, but the last section -- connecting Corpus Christi to Brownsville through the Upper and Lower Laguna Madre -- was only completed in the late 1940s. Today, the ICW effectively links otherwise isolated ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coastlines, creating a seamless exchange between supply and demand.
Few coastal anglers can remember what it was like before “the ditch” existed. For most of us who grew up on the Texas coast, the ICW has always been there, and it was a place that excited our childhood dreams. In the age before shallow water sight casting, we would stand side by side with friends and brothers aboard old boats distinguished only by service, and we would cast live shrimp on treble hooks into the deeper water and wait for the bobber -- which we properly called a “cork” regardless of its composition -- to disappear. We caught a lot of fish that way, but in time many of us began to wonder what mysteries lay beyond “the edge.”
Some of us eventually left baitfishing behind, and turned our attention to sight casting to the larger reds and trout that fed in shallower water. Assisted by shallow-running “scooters” and tunneled skiffs, we were suddenly able to stalk visible fish and to rely on our casting and sighting skills instead of blind luck. Fishing became more like hunting, and the thought of going back to watching a “cork” until it disappeared offered little appeal compared with the multisensory experience of stalking visible fish. It’s been over 40 years since I cast my last shrimp into the ICW, and today I spend much of my free time stalking reds and trout far from a channel’s edge. But there are days and nights in the late spring and summer when fly fishing the edge of the ICW on the Lower Laguna Madre rises to the top of my list of things to do. In my opinion, fly fishing “the edge” remains a best-kept secret for fly fishers on the Texas coast.
The months of May through August offer fly fishers especially good action. During the outgoing tide, in particular -- and when the absolute water level is especially low -- the mullet will congregate on the deeper side of the channel’s edge, and mill about on the surface, giving the appearance of a light breeze upon the water. Beneath this constant surface commotion, speckled trout and ladyfish will feed aggressively on shrimp and small finfish, and will attack just about anything small that you throw their way. It’s not particularly challenging action, but the sheer numbers of strikes and hookups will bring a smile to anyone’s face.
By wading parallel to the dropoff, and stripping small topwaters along the edge, a fly fisher may reap as many as 100 strikes from trout, ladyfish, and an occasional redfish feeding just beneath the mullet stream. While the fish will often miss the popper, it’s not unusual to land 20 or more fish before the action subsides by midmorning. And some of the trout will surprise you by their size.
Kathy and I love this action, not only because it offers us the best blindcasting opportunities on our home waters, but because it allows us to sight cast to trophy trout at the same time. The square tail of a big trout will often appear starkly defined against the flickering disarray of mullet tails. The noise of the mullet stream, while drowning out the sound of the popper to some extent, will also mask the angler’s presence, giving him time to make multiple casts to a gamefish famous for its intolerance of imperfection.
While casting poppers across the channel’s edge, a fly fisher can also scan the shallow flat adjacent to the ICW’s edge for signs of trophy trout. Big trout will saunter on and off the flat, spending only a few minutes prowling the skinny water before slipping over the edge and disappearing into the mullet stream. Resembling a snake swimming acoss the surface, these tailing and cruising predators often lure us away from the sure success of the mullet stream in favor of a more exacting, and singular challenge. If catching a “schoolie” trout in the deep water is easy, catching a big trout on the adjacent flat is as difficult a challenge as you will find anywhere,
Fly fishing experts who specialize in catching big trout will tell you that the best venues for catching the trout of a lifetime all lie within 100 yards of the ICW. While these anglers may speak in vague generalities when referring to their favorite big trout locales, I think they would all agree that the flats adjacent to the ICW offer incomparable action for trout over four pounds.
Trout spawn on the shallow, grassy flats adjacent to the ICW, and can often be seen -- with back and tails out of the water -- in less than eight inches of water on a calm summer morning. Most people don’t look for them, so they don’t see them. But once you know what to look for, big trout opportunities along the ICW can become a regular part of your day. While the grassy conditions make it nearly impossible to capitalize on these opportunities with conventional tackle, a fly rod can work magic in these conditions. Indeed, Capt. Skipper Ray of Laguna Vista made history by becoming the first fly fisher to win the entire Bay Division of the Texas International Fishing Tournament by catching two trout over seven pounds within a few yards of the ICW.
The ICW’s edge is a haven for redfish, as well, especially after the tides subside in early June. As the redfish follow the migration of the brown shrimp from the back lagoons toward deeper and cooler waters, they will congregate along the edges of the ICW and tail singly and in pods within a stone’s throw of the deeper water. In the spring, birds will often work over the pods, giving boating anglers a “heads up” on the action, but summer podding along the ICW is usually devoid of gulls. This is when the pods will often go unnoticed by boaters. But if one is willing to stop and wait quietly, tails will usually pop up within a minute or two of shutting down.
There are two times that fishing the ICW’s edge is predictably good -- from daybreak until midmorning on a calm summer day; and on a cloudless summer night under a full moon. As for the early morning action, the trout will readily take small poppers until the sun becomes too bright for them to feed on top. By switching to lightly weighted flies, however, a fly fisher can extend the action by another hour or more. While the deep water trout action usually falls off as the sun rises, the shallow water sight casting along the edge of the ICW can actually improve if sky is cloudless, and the water is clear.
In early August of last year, Kathy and I hosted fly fishing author Danny Hicks and his wife Diane, who wanted us to fish with them so they could get some photographs for Danny’s new book, Fly Fishing Texas (Amato Publications, 2005). Knowing that the ICW action was “on” from previous days on the water, we headed north from the mouth of the Arroyo, and shut down near one of the passes into Payton’s Bay. Danny and Diane, along with Kathy and me, took up positions within a few feet of the ICW dropoff, and began casting VIP poppers over the edge. Within an hour, we’d landed three trout around three pounds apiece, over a dozen smaller trout, three reds and a bunch of ladyfish. Around 9:00, we headed toward one of our favorite remote venues, where we shared a more challenging chapter in the Lower Laguna’s play book by casting poppers to tailing reds. But the confidence established by our sunrise vigil on the edge of the ICW carried us through the rest of the day.
One might think that weekend boat traffic would interfere with this high-paced action. Certainly, it is better to fish the edge on a weekday, but on the Lower Laguna Madre, the visible gamefish cruising the edge will usually reappear within moments of a boat’s passage. The fish seem to grow accustomed to the regular “highway” sounds and do not let these intrusions keep them from feeding for long.
Fishing along the ICW is a strategy that most fly fishers probably overlook. It’s just too accessible, and most of us assume that if a place is accessible to everyone, then it can’t possibly be good. But if almost everyone thinks that way, then the most accessible venues will host some of the least pressured gamefish. Most likely, there are places along the ICW in your own area that virtually no one fishes -- areas out the way of crossing boat traffic with all of the ingredients that big trout and reds love.
So if you’re tired of grinding your prop to a nub in those far-off waters, then try the edge of the ICW -- a place that’s close at hand and likely to surprise you with its fly fishing opportunities.
And by the way...
Fly fishing the edge of the ICW under the full moon can be an unforgettable experience. The last time that Kathy and I went out together was during the August full moon. We left the dock on impulse at 11:00 p.m. on a windless night, and headed for one of our favorite big trout areas. Upon anchoring, we could hear dolphins surfacing breathlessly amid the popping sounds of trout and ladyfish chasing shrimp near the surface. I waded away from the boat, and took up a position about 20 feet from the channel’s edge. I could make out the black swirls of feeding fish on the silvery surface. My first cast was greeted by an explosive strike, a swift tug, and the sound of a trout shaking its head above the water. Seventeen trout up to 22 inches, and countless ladyfish later, the moon descended behind a bank of clouds, and the fish stopped feeding as if someone had flipped a switch. As for Kathy, her silence had long since told me that the woman who often outfished me had traded her fly rod for a pillow.
Since that time, I have returned many times to fish the ICW’s edge during a full moon --even to the extent of sleeping on my boat under the full moon for 13 consecutive lunar cycles, from January, 2004 through December. In July, I decided to sleep near one of the entrances to Payton’s, and to fish for trout early the next morning. At 1:00, however, I was awakened by the sounds of fish feeding. Trout and ladyfish seemed to be competing for who could make the most noise. Unable to resist the urge to fish, I climbed out of my sleeping bag, put on my reinforced Chotas, and slipped into the water. Seeing was easy; indeed, the light was so bright that I could tie on my fly by holding it up against the moon.
In between landing five ladyfish and two small trout, two big trout missed my fly after hitting it with a unmistakable-sounding “pop.” Then, finally, a big fish slammed the fly and took me way into my backing as it headed for deeper water. I could feel it shaking its head, and I felt certain that it was trophy trout. I was already trying to figure out how I was going to photograph the fish in the moonlight before releasing it.
I patiently inched the big fish closer until I could see its body shimmering in the moonlight. Instead of an eight-pound trout, I had snagged a 25-inch red. Visions of a world record evaporated in the moonlight, but I wasn’t disappointed. The night had been enough.