The Smartest Fish:
Fly Fishing for Trophy Trout
by Scott Sparrow
The dean of American fly fishing, Edward R. Hewitt once said, “First a man wants to catch the most fish, then the biggest fish, and finally the smartest fish.” Perhaps that is why most of the fly fishers who prefer to target trophy speckled trout are in midlife or beyond, and have long since mastered lesser challenges. And so when I asked my 24-year-old son Ryan if he’d like to join me on a big trout quest in mid-January, I was surprised when he said “yes” without hesitation. Knowing that going out specifically for big trout is equivalent to proposing marriage to your favorite movie star, I wondered why he would submit to such a thing. I couldn’t help asking him.
“I like seeing a tailing red as much as the next guy, but I have never landed a big trout,” he said. Simple as that.
During the winter months when the sun is low in the southern sky, I struggle between leaving the dock as early as possible in hopes of fly fishing in calm conditions, or waiting until later and “fishing the sun.” The forecast called for low winds, so Ryan and I decided to leave early enough to fish the calm conditions, but late enough to avoid the worst of the predawn chill. Wearing our waders on the 15-mile ride from Arroyo City to South Cullens Bay, we were shivering and my hands were numb when we finally approached our destination and could see Stover’s Point in the distance, presiding over a mirror-like expanse of calm water. The ivory blossoms of the Spanish Dagger glowed brightly along the Atascosa Refuge shoreline in the morning sun, already signaling the coming of spring.
After reaching the clearer water near the shoreline, we began to spook game fish that moved away from us with the steady, powerful thrusts that bespoke of big trout. Shutting down to protect the shallowest area from our encroachment, I staked the skiff in a foot of water and we set about to prepare our gear. I grabbed my six-weight combo, and Ryan unsheathed a matching seven-weight. Rosie, our four-legged companion, wagged her tail and make it clear that she was ready to wade with us, even in the chilly water.
We couldn’t have chosen a better place to embark on a near-impossible mission. While speckled trout range from the northern Mexican coast to the upper Cheasapeake Bay, the Lower Laguna offers a unique combination of plentiful, large fish and expansive, shallow, and clear water. Five out of seven of the current fly rod world records––including Bud Rowland’s unprecedented catch of a 15 lb. 6 oz. behemoth––were caught sight casting within a few miles of where Ryan and I had staked the boat. However, the hypersaline estuary is also the largest continuous flat in North America, encompassing almost 300 square miles of shallow water. Trout spawn, live, and die here––indeed, they never leave except for brief excursions into the surf––but finding them can be as nearly as hard as catching them.
The greatest reward of fly fishing the Lower Laguna for almost 40 years has been discovering that world record-class trout are predictably available to sight casting anglers in at least three venues at different times of the year.
Stover’s Point. South Cullens Bay near Stover’s Point is the epicenter of big trout activity in the winter time, especially when the water is critically low. One never knows what to expect. On one occasion while guiding, Rick Hartman and I poled our clients into huge schools of trout from 24-32 inches long. I’ve never quite seen that again, but it makes you realize that the area is special to big trout for some reason only known to them.
If an angler can arrive just after daybreak on a calm, clear winter morning, and hit the lowest tide during a full or new moon, these prime sight casting waters will often be devoid of mullet, sheepshead, and redfish, permitting a stealthy angler to discern the subtle movements of big trout without having to deal with the confusing interplay of multiple species. Given the unpredictability of the winter weather, a dedicated angler would do well to seize the moment if he or she can foresee the convergence of low winds, extreme low tides, and full sun.
The Sand. Once the tides rise in early March, the visible big trout action moves east onto the gin-clear waters of “the sand,” a sparsely vegetated flat that runs along the edge of Padre Island. Beginning a few miles north of the town of South Padre Island, the sand runs for nearly 40 miles north, and varies from 200 yards wide to over a mile. On a sunny day, this is my favorite venue for stalking big trout, but the action usually only lasts for a few weeks until the spawning season commences in late spring. Until then, it’s common to encounter pairs or small groups of big trout cruising together. These fish are easy to see and can be surprisingly easy to entice with a fly. But on some days, they
The Intracoastal Waterway. Speaking of my fellow guide Rick Hartman, I know that he regularly targets big trout that congregate near the Intracoastal spoil islands in the spring and summer. Not long ago, we fished for fun during a clear June morning with my son Ryan. I was poling Rick on my Stilt while Ryan looked on. We all spotted a 28-inch trout cruising away from the boat along a prop cut, apparently unaware of our presence. Casting a deer hair mullet, Rick dropped the fly just ahead and to the side of the big fish, which immediately struck the fly as aggressively as a largemouth bass. Rick’s catch that day (see photo) was not that unusual for the Lower Laguna, but I rarely see such fish caught from the bow of a poled skiff. Frankly, few people are able to cast accurately and quickly enough to fool these consummate predators, so I personally prefer wading my clients with topwaters in this grass-filled venue.
“Which way should we wade?” Ryan asked.
“I think we should spread out and head toward the shoreline. There will be some sheepshead, as always, but I’m hoping for mostly trout.” Rosy jumped in the water and took up her customary position just behind me.
At that moment, the sound of outboards interrupted our conversation. Two boats were running the shoreline, heading directly toward us. I winced, thinking that any big trout feeding in the shallowest water would be terminally spooked by the noise and head to deeper water. To add insult to injury, the boat owners yelled back and forth at the top of their lungs as they approached. While I was increasingly annoyed by the fanfare, I was also pleased to hear one of them suddenly yell, “Big trout! They’re everywhere!” At that point, I began to wave them off, and they accommodated me by veering away from a collision course, and shutting down a few hundred yards from the shoreline. Several wakes bearing the stately signature of retreating trout moved slowly toward us from the commotion, and settled out of sight within 100 yards from our boat.
“Maybe they did us a favor,” I said to Ryan, who was still close enough for me to talk to without raising my voice.
“Maybe so, but I’m sure glad that they’re out of here,” Ryan replied. “I’m going to head towards that patch of mangroves. What kind of fly do you think should I start off with? A Mother’s Day? A Clouser?”
I suggested that we both use Mother’s Day Flies with brass eyes and weed guards. We slipped off the boat and began wading west into the glassy water. Almost immediately, we began spotting dramatic surface breaks between ourselves and the shoreline. Large single gamefish were exploding on bait, and then settling back down in the pewter-like glare. “They’re out there, Ryan!”
“I hope so,” he answered. “If all these are trout then we have really hit the jackpot!”
I suddenly encountered three or four fish that were snaking along the surface, showing just enough of their dorsal and tail fins to provide clear targets. I casted my Mother’s Day Fly ahead of the pack just as they passed inside my casting range, and stripped the fly. One of the fish ran forward and hit it. Still unsure of its identity due to the low light, I strip struck and was greeted by the thrashing head of a sizeable trout, which promptly threw the fly.
The action seemed to subside after a while, so Ryan and I waded back to the boat to take a break. “So what did you see?” I asked him.
“I only had one real hit and I believe that it was a sheepshead,” he said.
“‘It’s the damned difficulty that makes the fun,’” I said, quoting Dobson’s Faithful Travelers.
We cranked up the Yamaha and took the Stilt a little further south and west toward the small mangrove-covered islands that mark the edge of the “tabletop,” a shallow bar out from the shoreline. We began to see departing wakes again, so we shut down and were out of the boat in a minute. The sun was as high as it ever gets in January, providing just enough light to see a fish within 30 feet or so. Almost immediately wakes began to approach from the west, as if they were leaving the shallowest water for deeper haunts. Hoping they were trout, I stopped and waited without moving or casting. Big trout are so sensitive to encroachment that it’s common for an angler never to experience a head-to-head encounter. While the sensitivity of the lateral line enables pelagic fish to perceive movements within a couple of feet, they are able register distant water pressure changes in the air bladder, and then “hear it” by way of a nerve that relays the information to the ear. It’s obvious to me that trout are particularly talented in this regard. Indeed, if as T. S. Elliot says “A cat is an animal that’s always on the wrong side of a door,” a trout is an animal that is always heading in the wrong direction. Because of their sensitivity, I have found that if you want to get close to a trophy trout, you have to completely stop and wait for it to approach, or at least approach it obliquely.
As the wakes got closer, I yelled “Hey Ryan, let’s don’t move. Let’s let them come to us.” He, too, stopped and waited.
Several small groups slipped under our radar and broke up before we could discern the subtle movements of the fish in the low-angled sunlight. I knew that it was frustrating for Ryan, because he hadn’t been out in a while, and it was so hard to see the trout, much less get them to see our flies before they saw us.
My second head-to-head encounter came as a big fish turned off from a small group and swam directly toward me. I casted the fly in front of the gray shape, and let it sink for a second before stripping it. Years ago, Tom Kilgore––who once held the 4-lb tippet world record trout––told me that the key to catching big trout was, of all things, the sink rate of the fly. I’d since learned that Kilgore was right––that big trout will swim right under or over your fly, and will rarely take it unless it’s in their face. This is probably because big trout actively feed for only about two hours every day, and thus you cannot expect to catch an otherwise well-fed specimen without provoking its aggression.
The trout nipped at my fly, but I never felt it on the line. But then, as if the tides of fortune suddenly shifted, I saw what appeared to be a dozen fish approaching on top.
“Look, Ryan!” I said, pointing. “I hope they come your way.”
“I see them, but it looks like they are heading right for you Dad!”
I was hoping that Ryan would get the cast, but it wasn’t in the cards. I was a bit hasty, and laid the fly out ahead of the fish before they came within range. Once they were within a foot or so of the fly, I began to strip only to discover that the fly had sunk to the bottom and fouled on the turtle grass. Nonetheless, one of the fish went head down on the fly, and as it did so, a black tail almost the size of my hand popped out of the water. They were all big trout!
I retrieved the fouled fly as fast as I could, and anxiously stripped the grass from the hook gap. A sense of failure was descending and I fought it back simply by attending to the task at hand. Once I looked up, I could see that the pod had broken up and that a smaller group of three or four was quartering slowly away. I made a Hail Mary cast and put the fly just ahead of them. Stripping twice, I suddenly felt resistance and wondered if my fly was in the grass again. But at that moment, a seven-pound trout porpoised completely out of the water and started a blistering run. I really had no expectation of landing her, given the fact that big trout often throw the fly; but I was very happy to have hooked her, nevertheless. Ryan was only 100 feet away at this point, and started heading over my way.
Ten minutes later, I lifted her briefly out of the water for photos. While we revived her in the cool, oxygenated water, we admired the golden mouth, the rosy hue, and the spots along her back for which she is so aptly named cynocion nebulosis or “starry nebulae.”
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she, Ryan?”
“Yeah, she is a beauty! How big do you think she is?”
She was a hair over 27 inches, and nearly seven pounds on the Boga grip. Trout are especially healthy and heavy in the winter and early spring. Indeed, it’s the best time to catch a world-record class fish, for they begin to spawn weekly from late spring through the summer. The same 28-inch trout can weigh eight pounds in the early spring, and only six pounds once she’s spawned out.
While Ryan was disappointed in not landing his own trout, I assured him that in almost every situation where I’d encountered so many big ones, I had almost always failed to land even one; and that every missed cast and every hasty presentation was indelibly recorded in my long list of angling failures.
As we headed back, I remembered a day several years before when Ryan and I had been fly fishing near Port Mansfield. I was happy to see several tailing pods of redfish near the boat, and I encouraged Ryan to go after them. “They’re yours. I’m going over here,” and I gave him a wide berth.
“I don’t want to do that, Dad. I want to go after bigger fish along the shoreline.” I was shocked. Older men would have hyperventilated at the sight of tailing redfish pods, and yet Ryan wanted something more challenging. As I recalled the character displayed in that moment, and his willingness to fish fruitlessly for big trout on a chilly winter day, I didn’t have any concerns that one day soon a big trout and other forms of attainment would lay like a constellation of stars at his feet.