"Texas Reds on Top"
by Capt. Scott Sparrow
An article that appeared in the next Sept./Oct. 1003 issue of
Saltwater Fly Fishing


     The first time I casted a fly rod, it was on a small pond fed by an artesian well in the semi-desert brush country of south Texas.  With great excitement, I carried my brand new $2.95 Herter's reel on my brand new Garcia rod to the edge of the water and began casting panfish poppers to the largemouth bass that were cruising in the shallow, clear water.  I was blessed by considerable luck that day, and I caught one bass after another. The sound and sight of those fish hitting my flies affected me deeply; thereafter fly fishing became, whenever possible, a topwater affair. And so it was natural for me to take deer hair poppers onto the Lower Laguna Madre one spring morning in 1978 when the idea struck me that redfish would surely take flies.  As fate or luck would have it again, I caught the two reds that exploded on my crude popper, and my fascination with catching fish on top moved to a new setting.
     Twenty four years later, on a windless morning in late October, my wife Kathy and I left our dock and headed for a remote lagoon on the Lower Laguna Madre. The lagoon is usually too shallow to hold fish, but during the high tides of spring and autumn, it attracts impressive schools of redfish feeding on shrimp. Depending on the tidal flow, the schools may break up into singles and roaming pods, or they may congregate in groups of 50 or more fish that sweep slowly around like folk dancers with arms entwined.
 When we entered the lagoon, the mirror-like surface telegraphed the movement of every fish in the vicinity. Deep retreating wakes told us that the area was full of reds, and that to go any further would risk offending our hosts. So I cut the motor, and poled the Curlew quietly toward the middle of the small bay, while Kathy opened her fly box and contemplated her choices.
     "What are you going to use?" I asked.
     "Topwaters, don't you think?" she replied. I wasn't surprised to see her reach for an orange, weedless VIP popper that I'd tied  for her the night before.
     I staked the boat, slipped on my booties, and tied on a VIP, too.  The size 4 popper -- comprised of a foam head and a spun deerhair body -- was more refined than the crude deerhair popper that I'd used to take those first two reds 24 years before.  But I'm not sure the fish could tell the difference.
     In a few minutes we were wading in a foot of water.
     The action was intense. Casting to swirls, wakes and tails, we drew explosive strikes from fish that often missed the first time, but came back again and again until hooked.  I wish I could say that we did everything right from that first moment, but in our haste to be on the water, we had not taken the time to replace old leaders and knotted tippets. Not surprisingly, Kathy and I managed to hook three reds apiece -- only to break off on every one of them within the first few seconds!  To be fair, the fish made it more difficult than usual by dragging our leaders through algae that clung to the bottom, but regardless, we weren't feeling very good about our angling skills up to that point.
Something finally broke the spell. Perhaps it was the 16-pound tippet that we tied on to combat the algae. Or maybe it was the baby alligator that sent Kathy scurrying back to the boat with visions of its mother lurking nearby.  But soon afterward, my leader held up under the thrashing fight of a 29-inch red that took the VIP on the first strike, and then proceeded to drag around several pounds of algae before I managed to grab the fish by the tail. Freeing the red from the green mass, I lifted the fish out of the water for Kathy to see, and then yelled, "Your turn."
     We went on to catch and release seven reds that morning in conditions that would have defeated us if we'd been using subsurface patterns of any conceivable description. But even if the water had been clear of algae, Kathy and I would have used our topwaters, anyway.  For, after years of stalking redfish in shallow, clear water, we have found that a properly designed topwater fly can double your strikes, and greatly increase your hook-ups.
     The choice of the fly definitely matters, but there's more to catching redfish on top than simply tying on the right fly. Several problems have to be understood -- and solutions adopted -- before placing the remaining burden on the fly's design. These problems are: the redfish's mouth and his style of attack, the method of stripping the fly, and the influence of the angler's profile.

     The redfish's mouth and style of attack. Like his cousin the croaker and the black drum, the redfish has a small, "inferior" mouth. That is, it's positioned on the underside of his head. When feeding on crabs, worms and shrimp, the redfish's mouth is well-designed to root out and to seize the prey where it normally resides -- in the sand and in the seagrass. But redfish are aggressive gamefish that drive baitfish and shrimp to the surface, too. In these conditions, when the reds finally strike, their heads often come completely out of the water as they lunge forward with their inferior mouths. This movement frequently causes them temporarily to lose sight of the target, and to miss the mark.  But they make up for their inaccuracy by striking repeatedly until the prize is won.

     The stripping method. Given the possibility that a redfish will miss a topwater fly on the first strike, the fly fisher must observe a disciplined approach to retrieving the fly if he has any hopes of succeeding.  He must strip consistently so the redfish can keep track of the fly, and he must avoid reacting to the sight of the fish following and striking the fly. In essence, he must learn to respond to feel rather than to sight.  Regardless of how much I emphasize this fact, a fly fisher will almost always do what comes naturally when a redfish strikes his fly for the first time -- lift the rod and pull the fly away.
     Typically, a fly fisher makes this mistake when he sees the redfish rising to take the fly. Because the redfish must lift his head to seize the fly with his inferior mouth, the strike is preceded by a pronounced bulge behind the fly. There is a tendency to mistake the bulge for a strike, and to pull the fly away from the redfish just before his can seize it.  Capt. Gene Zamba of Tarpon Springs, Florida, tells his clients, "Feel the fish, don't read the fish." In order to help them resist the impulse to pull the fly away, Zamba will often distract them by talking to them just as the redfish's wake appears:  "When I see the red turn and start to make its move, I distract the client by asking him some question, like 'Is your line wrapped around your reel?'.  Of course, the client will stop to inspect his gear, thus giving the charging redfish time to take the fly."
     If the fly fisher succeeds in not reacting to the sight of the wake, he may still jump the gun by trying to set the hook after the fish has struck for the first time.  Since a redfish often misses the fly, it's likely that the angler will pull the fly away from the fish before he's mouthed it, either by stripping too hard, or lifting the rod.  Not to be deprived of dinner, the redfish will frequently speed up and search for the fleeing fly, but having lost sight of it, he will often overshoot the mark and swim underneath the fly. Meanwhile, the angler is forced to strip desperately to catch up with the red, or to reposition the fly with a sloppy roll cast, both of which are usually doomed to fail.
     Given this scenario, it's always best to strip slowly and consistently until you can feel the fish on the end of your line.  Or, as an alternative to continued stripping, Larry Haines -- owner of The Fly Shop in Port Isabel, Texas -- recommends letting the fly sit in the water after the fish has missed. "He'll usually come back and hit it again if you just let the fly sit there," Larry says.
     Of course, the erroneous belief in all of this is that we have to do something extra to hook the fish.  Fortunately, it's just not true. If the angler will simply keep the fly positioned just ahead of the attacking fish, the redfish will usually keep hitting it until he takes it. And then, by reacting only to the feel of the fish on the line, the fly fisher can be virtually assured of a hook up.

     The angler's profile. Using this disciplined stripping method will increase hook-ups in situations where the fish is more than 30 feet away. But if a redfish comes much closer, he is likely to catch sight of the angler’s profile as he rises to take the fly. Fly fishers often mistake a redfish's abrupt departure for a rejection of the fly, but a true rejection is characterized more by a fish's disinterest than by its flight.
     To compensate for the tendency for redfish to spot the angler, it's important to crouch as low as possible as soon as the wake appears behind the fly. There's no need to watch what happens next, because as we’ve already established, the sight of the redfish striking can be more of a distraction than an aid.
     For obvious reasons, casting topwaters from a poled or drifting skiff can result in a lot of spooked fish, especially in close quarters.  The last thing you want a cruising or tailing redfish to do is to look up and see the boat, so this is one context in which subsurface flies excel over topwaters.
    However, for fly fishers who prefer wading, topwaters can be more effective than subsurface patterns when the fish aren't showing on the surface, or when they're tailing with their heads in the grass. Indeed, a noisy topwater will attract redfish's attention from as far away as 10 feet.
     Just the other day, I was guiding two seasoned fly fishers -- Don Massey from Dallas, and his brother Cal from Utah.  When we came upon several tailing pods of redfish, Cal tied on my favorite shrimp pattern -- a Mother's Day Fly -- and began wading toward the first pod. Meanwhile Don, who was using an orange VIP popper, spotted a second pod and set off in hot pursuit.
     When Cal came within casting distance of his first pod, he placed his fly just a bit short of the tails, and the reds showed no reaction. As Cal kept casting, Don hooked his first red on the popper.  After about a dozen casts, the reds finally saw Cal's fly and promptly fought over it. But by the time his landed his fish, his brother had already hooked his second red on the popper. Needless to say, Cal gladly consented to a change of flies, and minutes later, he handily hooked a red on his first cast to a nearby pod.

     Ten days of rain in late October turned the Arroyo into a muddy, swollen river that swept toward the Lower Laguna, five miles to the east of our lodge. I dreaded to think of the impact it was all have on the shallow estuary. So when the sun finally broke through the clouds, I had to go look.  I was pretty sure that the reds would have fled from the runoff, but when I reached the lagoon where Kathy and I had fished only a few weeks earlier, I was surprised to find the water clearer than I’d expected it to be. Shutting down, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the sunset. Ten days of rain had turned the sky a bright turquoise, and the Spanish daggers on the horizon gave a serrated edge to the diminishing light. Looking toward the middle of the lagoon, I was surprised to see a black seam on the calm surface that announced the presence of a school of feeding redfish.
     "Just one fish, and then I'll go home," I said to myself. I tied on a VIP, and set off on foot for the school. It began to get dark, and the fish seemed to stay just out of range.  But as I was considering turning around, the school turned slowly toward me. I stood there and waited, as the sounds of feeding fish grew louder. Finally, I cast my fly about 10 feet ahead of the line of backs and tails, and stripped twice. An invisible fish hit the fly so loudly that it startled me.  I stripped again, and I could feel that the fish was on. Instead of putting pressure on him, I let him stay with the school, and watched to see what they would to. They just kept coming. I crouched low, and watched them wrap around me as though I was only a heron. And then, they exploded. Some came out of the water as they fled in all directions, and the hooked fish took off on a run that I thought would never end. I was afraid he would spool me, but he finally turned and gave up 15 minutes later. In the twilight, I held him against my rod and determined that he was over 30 inches long. Releasing the big red, I started a long walk toward the boat in the twilight.

     Using topwaters effectively for redfish proceeds from an understanding of how the fish's mouth affects his style of attack, and limits his accuracy. It requires a disciplined approach to stripping the fly and setting the hook while keeping a low profile. And it takes a fly that casts easily, and speaks loudly when it needs to. Fortunately, it's a method that works well for experts and novices alike.  As Lower Laguna Madre guide, Capt. Skipper Ray, points out, "The best thing about topwaters is the fact that you don't have to be extremely precise with the presentation. The noise will attract the fish to the fly."
     So the next time you target redfish, consider making a little noise. It's well worth the effort, for there's nothing much more exciting than catching redfish on top.
 

Side Bar:

     Effective fly design.  Once a fly fisher has adopted an effective approach to stripping the fly and keeping a low profile, the right topwater fly can remove the final obstacles to success.
     The best topwater patterns for redfish in shallow, clear conditions are small and lightweight. They must land quietly, but make enough noise when stripped to attract fish from several feet away.  Ideally, they can be lifted from the water without a great deal of resistance and noise. And further, a wide-gap, chemically sharpened hook like the Gamakatsu B10S or SC15 confers an additional, significant advantage.
     Four proven topwater patterns for redfish are the East Cut Popper, the Eddie Wilson Jumping Grass Shrimp, the Haines Popping Bug, and my own VIP.
     The tiny East Cut Popper, designed by T.J. Neal and available commercially, features a simple cupped plastic head, and a few short strands of Crystal Flash tied behind the head.  Beautifully finished in various colors, its durability, lightness and sound-making ability account for it effectiveness.
     The Jumping Grass Shrimp was developed by Eddie Wilson of Rockport. This lightweight, high-floating shrimp pattern has received rave reviews from several fly fishers and guides that I know. Wilson's instructions are as follows:
     Using a size 2 to 6 Tiemco 8089NP, tie in a tail of Artic fox or calf tail. Attach two strands of black Spirit River's Flex Floss. Attach black nylon eyes. Cut a 3/8" wide piece of closed cell foam, and taper one end to a point. Tie the tapered end just behind the eyes, leaving 1/2" extending backward, and attach a saddle hackle for palmering. Wrap the thread tightly over the foam forward to the eye. Palmer the hackle forward tightly and tie off. Trim foam to leave a popping lip of 1/4" long.
     At first glance, the Haines Popping Bug, designed by Larry Haines, does not seem to offer anything special. However, if you inspect this fly closely, you will see that Haines inserts the hook much lower in the foam head than the pilot hole made by the manufacturer, Edgewater Foam Products. (You can make your own hole with a heated bodkin needle.) And second, Haines uses the Gamakatsu B10S or SC15 exclusively for his poppers. "The wider gap makes all the difference in the world," says Haines.
     The VIP is a marriage of closed-cell foam and deer hair.  I have come to prefer a small rectangular head of closed-cell foam mounted in front of a single clump of stacked deer hair. Its angled, uncupped face makes it easy to lift quietly from the water, and it's wide-gap Gamakatsu hook rarely misses if you do your part.
     Instructions for tying are as follows:
     Using a size 4 or 6 Gamakatsu B10S, tie in six strands of Flex Floss mixed with a few strands of Crystal Flash. Stack one small bunch of spinning dear hair, and wrap thread through it tightly to flare the hair. Then wrap the thread over the remaining  hook shank, and wrap back and forth to build up a thread base. Cut a foam head from a block of 3/16" or 1/4" closed-cell foam, and make sure it’s longer at the top than at the bottom. Melt a hole through the extreme bottom of the block from front to back. Put a drop of superglue on the thread base and slip the head over the shank before it cures. Trim the deer hair, and attach two doll eyes with superglue. To install an inline mono weedguard, turn the fly over, and melt a hole in the foam just behind the eye. Insert a piece of mono and anchor it with a drop of superglue. Trim to where the end of the mono does not extend above the line of the hook point (to prevent fouling).