The Lower Laguna Madre:
Salt Water Fly Fishing at
by Capt. Scott Sparrow
Accepted for publication in a 2003
Southwest Fly Fishing
have been any time of the year in deep south Texas, but it happened to
be a Sunday morning in late December. The wind had died, the early morning
clouds were burning off, and the temperature was rising into the low 70s.
On an impulse, Kathy and I grabbed our fly rods and gear and headed for
our dock on the Arroyo Colorado. But before we could slip out the back
door, the phone rang and it was Skipper: "Hey Scotty, the big trout
are as thick as fleas east of Three Islands." Thanking him, we slid the
Curlew off the ramp and headed for the Lower Laguna Madre, five miles to
Anchoring in 15 inches of water, we donned our lightweight waders, tied
on red and white Deceivers, and slipped into the crystal clear 65-degree
water. Spreading out, we began our search for large spotted seatrout, and
a school of spawning-size reds that were also rumored to be in the area.
Casting only to visible fish, Kathy hooked and lost a trout that
would have been a new women's IGFA world record, and caught a pair of 27-inch
reds out of a huge school that literally encircled her. Feeling a bit left
out, I finally landed a 24-inch trout, and then caught a red that
was about the same size.
a great day for catching fish, but we both later that the sheer beauty
of the crystalline water against the cloudless sky would have been enough.
In the distance, the glassy, unbroken surface of the bay mirrored the sky
with faithful precision. Only the occasional mullet jumping broke
the illusion that heaven and earth were one and the same.
What Makes It So Special
Laguna is the largest continuous shallow-water estuary in North America.
It encompasses over three hundred square miles of clear water ranging from
less than a foot to three feet in depth, and is the only true subtropical
fishery in the U.S. outside of Florida. Regarded as the least pressured,
most available saltwater fly fishery in the U.S, it has also been hailed
as the "best there is" when certain factors converge, most notably sunny
weather, casting skill, and the ability to see fish.
up 45 miles inland, but spent many of the weekends of my childhood at my
dad's fishing cottage on the Arroyo Colorado, a river-like tributary that
enters the Lower Laguna near its north-south midpoint. My father's plywood
V-bottom boat could only travel in the channels created by dredging, which
limited our range of exploration considerably. Back then, we would
head to the mouth of the Arroyo, and find a place to anchor along the edges
of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) -- a manmade channel that cuts unnaturally
through the Lower Laguna from north to south. There we would cast
live shrimp on treble hooks back into the deeper water, and wait for the
bobber -- which we properly called a "cork" regardless of its composition
-- to disappear.
ensuing years, shallow-draft skiffs opened the flats for those willing
to explore them. It was then that spin fishers began to outfit their boats
with towers made of PVC or aluminum so they could sight cast to visible.
But fly fishers continued to overlook the obvious until the late 70s when
a few locals like myself began to ask, Why not? Having taught myself
to fly fish on south Texas ponds when I was only 12, I finally took my
fly rod down to the bay on a foggy morning in 1978, and promptly caught
two redfish on deer hair flies. I realized in an instant what a treasure
I had overlooked.
Laguna is an unusually primitive setting. Bordered by Padre Island National
Seashore on the east, and the King Ranch and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife
Refuge on the west, it remains one of the last undeveloped estuaries in
the world. Nestled between the Upper Laguna Madre and the Laguna Madre
de Tamaulipas of northern Mexico, the Lower Laguna is first among equals,
being clearer and shalLower than its sister bays. Joined to the Upper Laguna
only by the ICW, and to the open Gulf by two dredged passes, it is, in
its natural state, virtually landlocked. With limited tidal exchange, and
a near absence of fresh water inflow, the Lower Laguna remains clear and
hypersaline even during periods of heavy runoff.
The Cast of Characters
fly fishers come to the Lower Laguna to fish for red drum -- a.k.a. redfish.
Properly speaking, the estuary is a nursery for juvenile reds -- that is,
fish up to 28 inches or so. Once redfish feel the spawning urge, they leave
the bay and spend the rest of their lives in the open Gulf.
Laguna redfish are known for their aggressive, opportunistic style. I have
heard that redfish can be selective in other areas
of the country, but for some reason, on the Lower Laguna they will just
about always take a well-presented fly of any reasonable description. Of
course, "just about" is a pregnant phrase covering any number of occasions
where redfish stop cooperating for no discernible reason. And "well presented"
has to be qualified, as well. While Lower Laguna redfish will attack
just about any fly that you cast to them -- as long as you don't line them
-- they have excellent eyesight, and are extremely sensitive to noise.
Consequently, under calm conditions, they will often spook when you come
within 75 feet of them. Indeed, I have taken many clients onto the flats
on calm mornings, who were able to see upwards of 100 tails around them,
but never able to get within range of the the first one. Fortunately, even
under these ultrasensitive conditions, redfish will usually come within
range of a short cast, but only if you stop moving, Lower your profile,
and wait for them -- a tall order for any angler on the edge of cardiac
Because redfish often feed head-down -- either singly or in pods -- it
is often hard to get their attention with subsurface flies, and they frequently
spook when you cast the fly close enough for them to see it. So, we prefer
using small topwaters, especially when the surface is calm and the fish
can hear the popper above the wave action. I've heard a lot of people complain
that they miss too many strikes by using topwaters, but by using a fly
that has a wide-gap, chemically sharpened hook, and by keeping the rod
tip low until the fish is definitely on, topwater flies can result in a
significant increase in hookups.
Trout. The other game fish that attracts fly fishers to the Lower Laguna
Madre is the spotted or "speckled" seatrout. Specks live in the estuary
throughout their entire life cycle, and become spawning adults when they
reach 15 or 16 inches. This popular species offers both the easiest
and most difficult challenge for visiting fly fishers. On one hand, "schoolie"
trout -- that is, trout from 10-18 inches -- can easily be caught at night
on small subsurface flies from lighted piers, or by blind casting small
topwaters or Clousers along the edge of the ICW in the morning.
larger trout are a different animal, altogether. Considered "tougher than
permit" by such experts as Nick Curcione -- who fished with me this past
summer -- trout above 24 inches present the kind of fly fishing challenge
that appeals only to anglers like Nick, who have caught the most fish,
and the biggest fish, but now want to catch the most difficult ones.
When it comes to trophy specks, the Lower Laguna offers the best fly fishing
that you can find anywhere. Not only does it have the largest population
of big trout on the Texas coast, but it is the only place in the world
where fly fishers can regularly sight cast to tailing and cruising trout
from 24-30 inches long.
Four of the current IGFA records -- not including Kathy's previous 12-lb.
tippet women's record -- were taken on the Lower Laguna. It's likely that
more visiting fly fishers will be targeting giant trout as they find out
about the largest speckled trout ever caught on a fly rod -- a 15 lb. 6
oz. behemoth -- that was caught and released by local legend Bud
Rowland on the Lower Laguna in May, 2002.
easy to conclude that big trout are especially finicky, because they typically
refuse the fly. I often hear, "They're not eating," to explain their fickle
behavior. It is true that big trout feed only about two hours out of every
day, and so they are rarely hungry. However, they can be provoked to take
a fly even when they are not actively feeding. Not long ago, for instance,
Rowland caught a trout over ten pounds on a tiny fly, and the fish had
a half-swallowed 10-inch mullet in its gullet. Obviously, hunger
had little to do with it, but if they'll take a fly between meals, why
are they so picky?
fly fishers agree that big trout are so difficult because they see us before
we can present the fly. Given this theory, the key to catching them
is to see them before they see you, which is no easy feat. Big trout blend
into their surroundings better than reds do, so in order to see them first,
you have to go slowly, study your surroundings, and do your best to blend
into the natural order.
Species. Some fly fishers enjoy sight casting to the wily, hard-fighting
sheepshead, which can be found tailing on the flats in large numbers all
year round. We have developed flies that imitate the sheepshead's favorite
food sources, and believe that we have begun to crack the code on a fish
that most fly fishers consider a waste of time. It is not unusual to get
50 shots a day at tailing sheepshead in the 2-5 lb. range from December
through February, when for some reason they seem more willing to take a
fly. So if an angler can figure out what they want, he will be amply rewarded.
drum in the two- to five-pound range visit the flats in large schools from
late summer through fall. They, too, can be caught on flies, even though
they are much harder to please than their look-a-like cousin, the redfish.
Feeding on slow moving organisms such as tiny crabs, worms and mollusks,
they are less aggressive than reds, and will not chase down fast-moving
flies. Recently, a client from Delaware, Steve Puzoli, caught a new state
fly rod record -- a 19 1/2 lb. fish that took a dead-drifted Deceiver,
of all things. The huge fish was swimming in a foot of water near the edge
of a channel, and its back was three inches above the surface.
of warm-water species visit the estuary from March until December. Fifteen-
to 30-pound jack crevalle enter the bay in the autumn and venture onto
the flats during extreme high tides. You can see them crashing bait a half
and if you're lucky enough to hook one, you may be unlucky enough to lose
your whole line before its over.
Tarpon usually stay just outside of the estuary from March until December,
and they can be caught near the jetties at the two outlets to the Gulf.
However, the tarpon's next of kin, the ladyfish, spends spring through
autumn feeding inside the estuary alongside redfish and trout. Known as
the poor man's bonefish, the ladyfish is the highest jumping, hardest fighting
fish on the Lower Laguna. But despite her virtues, the ladyfish often intercepts
flies intended for redfish and trout, leaving fly fishers wishing that
the ladyfish would take a hike. For instance, I recently stalked a tailing
pod of about a dozen redfish. When I cast my VIP popper into the bouquet
of tails, a ladyfish hit the fly the moment it touched the water. The tails
promptly disappeared, and I grumbled quite audibly, but I was able to keep
from hooking the spirited ladyfish by keeping my line slack. I lifted the
fly out of the water and presented again, hoping the redfish were still
in the area. This time, a ladyfish came completely out of the water to
take the fly. Frustrated by the interference, I avoided the hookup again
by letting the fish run without resisting it. Again the fly came free.
This action repeated itself a third time, and by the time I had my fly
back, I assumed the reds had left the area. But on my fourth cast, a 24-inch
red found an opening and took the fly explosively, as though it knew it
had to act quickly.
rational point of view, unless you're interested in eating your catch,
the ladyfish has no peer as a hard fighting fish. To give you some idea
of what I mean, when Kathy recently caught a new state fly rod record ladyfish,
the fish almost spooled her, and it only weighed 3.1 pounds.
more fly fishers are beginning to target the Southern Flounder, a game
fish that is surprisingly easy to catch on a fly -- that is, if you know
where to go and what to do. Skipper Ray, a guide operating out of South
Padre Island, has perfected a technique for taking flounder on the fly,
by using a two-foot section of lead core trolling line on the end of his
floating line, and then casting heavily-weighted Clouser-like patterns
along the edge of the ICW. In this way, Skipper regularly catches a dozen
or more flounder in areas where they congregate on the outgoing tide.
A Superb Sight Casting Arena
Lower Laguna's shallowness and clarity, it provides remarkable sight casting
opportunities, Indeed, sight casting accounts for about 90% of what we
do. On an ideal day, we’ll cast topwater flies to tailing and cruising
reds and trout from daybreak until midmorning. Even if the fish aren't
tailing, any subsurface movement in 12-18 inches of calm water will often
produce a wake or a subtle bulge that telegraphs the location of feeding
game fish. Casting your fly off to the side while you’re waiting for a
target to appear will often draw an occasional strike, as well.
sun rises to about 45% above the horizon, we shift our efforts to sight
casting -- either from a poled boat, or from on foot -- to fish that can
be seen just below the surface. Learning to see fish in time to make an
takes a while for most folks, so we urge visitors to plan on fishing for
at least two days, in order to give themselves time to develop this crucial
less ideal conditions -- as during a windy and cloudy day -- we go in search
of gulls hovering and diving over pods of tailing reds and trout feeding
on shrimp. This often occurs at the end of the day, giving our clients
a chance to experience a relatively easy way to catch a redfish after having
faced more daunting challenges. This scrappy action can save us from our
last resort -- casting blindly in areas where fish are known to congregate.
While I have little interest in blind casting on a body of water so large
that each fish can easily have an acre of water all to himself, it can
provide some fast action for small trout and flounder that gather along
the ICW's edge.
The Lower Laguna's Many Faces
immensity of the estuary, there is simply no way to fish all of the bay
in a single day, of even a week. Most local fly fishers concentrate on
no more than a half dozen familiar places separated from each other by
one to five miles. As guides, Kathy and I usually concentrate on the central
third of the Lower Laguna, an area that includes the shallowest part of
the bay. Within any given section of the estuary, however, there are a
variety of features that can be sampled.
mainland side of the Lower Laguna, the fly fisher encounters small lagoons,
grassy banks, spoil islands, and old channels, all of which provide structure
that attracts feeding reds and trout. When guides and locals refer to their
"secret" places, they are usually referring to these close-in, intimate
west-side settings where two's company and three's a crowd.
head east, you encounter less grass, a firmer bottom, and a vast unbroken
flat that runs the entire length of the estuary. If you go far enough,
the grass plays out almost entirely, and you enter a strip adjacent to
Padre Island known as
the white sand. This area resembles a classic bonefish flat, and the action
is similar. Whether fishing from a poled skiff, or wading on the rock-hard
bottom, the fly fisher can spot approaching fish from 75 yards away, and
spend the next several minutes getting into position for a long and
precise cast. While the beauty of the white sand can move fly fishers to
tears, the challenge can bring them to their knees as they discover that
the game fish can see them coming from 75 yards away, too. Not surprisingly,
most anglers concentrate on other areas, leaving the white sand for those
who prefer the greatest challenges.
As Good as It Gets
to imagine a place that offers more beauty and diversity of challenge for
fly fishers than the Lower Laguna Madre. But since I lived on the east
coast for much of my adult life, and split my fly fishing time between
the mountains of Virginia and the Lower Laguna Madre, I really don't
know from personal experience how the Lower Laguna stacks up to other salt
water fly fisheries.
get a sense that it compares favorably. When Nick Curcione was visiting
recently, I expressed an interest in fly fishing other places, and doing
some of the things that he has done. He surprised me by saying, "I don't
know why, because if I lived here, I'm not sure I'd ever want to leave."
would like to cast to tarpon in Belize and bones in the Bahamas, and stalk
giant Trevally on Christmas Island. But if I don't make it to all of these
place, it's good to know that the Lower Laguna Madre is about as good as