I’ve admittedly become increasingly cold averse the longer I’ve lived south of the Mason-Dixon. Long retired is the teenage boy who played ice hockey in shorts and wet waded for Steelhead in January. In his stead, stands a man who takes pause when the mercury dips below 50 F. A man far more willing to succumb to the warmth of hearth and home, to a hot cup of coffee and a few extra hours behind the vise. Even still, there are those rare January days where youthful indiscretion wins out. And in those moments, I find myself drawn to the water regardless of the weatherman’s warnings.
While those from more temperate climes may scoff at my aversion to seemingly mild conditions, I can assure them that blood does thin (if only figuratively). And, in a region where the average low only slips below 50 F three months out of the year, those rare dips in the mercury are certainly cause for momentary pause. So as I pondered what to do with my day off this second week in January, it should be no surprise that “stay home and tie” originally ranked high on my list.
For three days, lows had dipped to near freezing and the prospect of climbing into a small plastic boat to battle the wind and chill just didn’t hold much in the way of appeal. Still Wednesday projected to be mild and sunny along the coast with temperatures between 46 F and 52 F throughout the day and winds below 5 MPH. Couple this with tidal conditions similar to those during my late December visit, and it began to feel like one of those days when youthful indiscretion might win out.
Deciding to play it by ear, I spent the day prior restocking my redfish box.
On the Road Again
Rising to my wife’s alarm around 6 AM, I reviewed the forecast one final time. With sun still forecast throughout the day and no wind to speak of, conditions were ideal (by January standards). Still, in no rush, I enjoyed my coffee before loading the car and finally hit the road around 8:30 AM. With low tide projected for 10:30 AM, my 11 AM ETA would have me on the water just as tide began to turn.
Crossing the LA-1 toll bridge, any concerns of chill quickly left me as blue skies reflected off shallow, mirrored waters. Still 10 minutes from my launch, the scene unfolding around me proved enough to deem the trip an unmitigated success. To my left, I watched as a pair of dolphin cruised a shallow flat. The water so low, their backs remained exposed to the morning sun. Overhead, Brown Pelicans soared and circled. Crashing down upon schools of mullet left exposed by the winter tide. And along both shoulders stood a menagerie of wading birds of all colors, shapes and sizes. Egrets, Herons, Ibis and Spoonbill all adorned my path. Had I brought my camera, I could have been just as satisfied spending my day reveling in the diversity of life supported by this amazing ecosystem.
Nevertheless, I continued on. Content to enjoy the scene in passing. If all went according to plan, I had fish to catch.
Really Low Tide
Though a pair of trucks were parked at my combat launch, I felt confident I would have the marsh to myself as I surveyed my surroundings. The tide a full 4-6″ lower than my prior trip, I could see a vast exposed mud flat between the launch and my intended destination. It would be a challenge to traverse the remaining skinny water in my small kayak. In their pedal-driven tanks (inferred by the Hobie sticker on each window), it would be all but impossible.
Poling my way across a shallow muddy oyster reef before portaging across an exposed sandy flat, I eventually made it to my destination. The water notably lower than my prior trip, I beached my kayak on a mid-channel sand bar and proceeded to fish on foot.
That was an unexpected start!
Rigged with the same tandem pairing (Redfish Ritalin & EP Shrimp Fly) that had produced on my prior trip, I began working the lower pool. Taking care to let the flies settle to the bottom before beginning my retrieve. On my second or third cast, I felt a light tap and set the hook. Obviously not a red, I momentarily thought I had stumbled upon a school of specks or white trout as a small, silver flash emerged from the depths.
To my surprise, the fish that emerged was neither. But instead, something I had never expected to catch on a fly: A Striped Mullet?! The predominantly vegetarian baitfish had taken the EP Shirmp. Mistaking it for what, I do not know? While not my desired quarry, I was still pleased with my early success and snapped a quick photo of my first Lifer of 2021 before sending it on its way.
Slow and Not So Steady
Returning my attentions to the lower hole, I proceeded to methodically work from end to end. My slow, steady retrieve elicited no response, however, and it quickly became clear that the fishing would not be as easy as my earlier trip. With the recent stretch of cold nights, I decided to slow my retrieve further in hopes of drawing a strike.
Switching to a strip and pause retrieve, I began allowing my flies to settle for five to fifteen seconds between each strip. Though I missed the first few hook sets, a series of light thumps indicated I was on the right track. And, eventually, I drove the hook home and was rewarded with my first red of 2021.
A small, beautifully colored fish, I took advantage of the uncharacteristically clear water along the sand bar to capture the accompanying image.
Sending the rat on its way, I continued to work the lower pool. The bites that followed were few and far between, but, among missed hook sets and broken leaders (8 lbs Fluorocarbon can be surprisingly weak), I began to land fish. While none were of size, the bite remained consistent as I alternated between the lower and upper hole.
As temperatures warmed, a large raft of mullet appeared. Extending across the shallow flat, they seemed to avoid both holes, and I wondered if this were simply due to water temperatures or the presence of predators in the depths.
Unlikely to ever discern which, if either, supposition were true, confirmation bias towards the latter was quickly provided as my fly was met with a heavy thump on the cast that followed. Getting the fish onto the reel quickly, it became apparent I was not in control as the large fish did whatever it pleased. Sprinting the length of hole repeatedly, I could not turn the fish and only gained line in those instances when it ran in my direction.
Five minutes in, however, I felt the fish begin to tire. Tightening my drag slightly, I gently began to swing my rod to the side in an effort to turn the beast. At first, it seemed to be working as I could feel the fish begrudgingly turning in the depths below me. Then in a final burst of energy the fish shot down the hole once more. My drag now tightened, pressure won out and my line went limp. Expecting a snapped tippet, I was surprised to see the hook had simply pulled free.
Dejected at having lost what was either a Bull Red or large Black Drum, I spent the next few moments cursing before composing myself.
Returning to the lower hole I missed a second decent fish (presumably a slot red) two casts later. Refusing to be deterred, I switched to the upper hole and proceeded to land a stunning little little leopard red before my rod doubled over once again. Not as powerful as the fish I had lost previously, the fish on my line was clearly a slot red, and I wasn’t about to lose it. Playing the fish longer than was likely necessary, I finally brought the 18″ fish to hand.
Knee deep in the water at this point, I left my phone tucked away and passed on photographing my first keeper of the day before sending it back into the depths.
Satisfied with my consolation prize, I cast a few more times in the upper hole before returning to the lower. I was bound and determined to land a larger fish from this hole and dedicated my final 20 minutes on the water to working every inch of bottom contour.
Just one more cast…
Two rat reds and as many popped tippets later, I finally drove the hook home on a decent fish.
No where near the fish that had bested me earlier, this red still managed to put a nice bend in my rod as it made a handful of short, powerful runs across the pool.
I played the fish with care and after about eight minutes managed to turn it into the shallows. As with all of the fish landed before it, it had favored the EP Shrimp over the Ritalin.
Exhausted, I landed the fish on the now inundated sand bar and snapped one quick photo of my prize before beginning the arduous task of poling my way back to the launch.
Back at the truck, I did some quick mental math and tallied eight to ten Redfish landed over the course of three hours. With only two Slot fish, the day’s results were a far cry from my trip two weeks prior. Still, it was a beautiful January day on the water. Who am I to complain?