Friday, June 17, 2005

"Hunting" fish in the grass

We pulled over at the end of the dirt road and sat facing about 20 acres of spartina grass. In the far distance I could see the sparkle of the Coosaw River and to my left a small tidal creek flowed slowly by. "This is it," Scott said. "We're here." It was October and still warm in Beaufort, S.C. There was just enough wind to scatter the bugs. This was my introduction to wading a grass flat for tailing redfish. I had no idea what to expect. I also had no idea it would profoundly change my life. I will explain that later. It may sound hyperbolic, but it isn't. We strung up the fly rods, tied on a fly and crunched our way over the wash up dead spartina grass and onto a sparsely vegetated expanse of pungent, black plough mud. There was no water at all at the time but with the nine-foot diurnal tide that would soon change. Scott walked. I followed. Soon we were standing out in the middle. We hadn't said much on the way out and still didn't. There was no need for words-it's a guy thing. A shared experience in nature needs no background vocals. Occasionally a jet from the nearby Marine Corps Air Station would thunder through the sky but other than that and the occasional buzz of an outboard motor in the distance, it was silent. The mud was damp, but fairly compact. The blades of spartina grass were covered with small snails hanging on for dear life. Fiddler crabs roamed the mud and darted in and out of their small holes. We stood and waited. Then it "happened." The water did not come in over the river edge and wash over the flat as I had expected it to-the water seemed to just percolate up from the ground. One minute there was no water at all and a minute later I could feel the water creeping up to my ankles. It was like Mother Nature turning on a switch-the entire grass flat came alive. Tiny minnows flipped around, blue crabs scurried by, smaller crabs climbed the grass stalks and swung back and forth. Finger mullet cut V-wakes through the rising water. The water looked and smelled like an opaque "nature soup." Ten minutes later the water was at mid-calf. I looked around and the entire flat was covered in water-it didn't vaguely resemble the place we were standing just 30 minutes prior. I heard the click of Scott's fly reel-he was stripping out some line so I did the same. I had no idea what to look for or to expect. We heard a delicate "splash" behind us and I followed as Scott checked it out. "There he is!" I saw nothing. "There he is again! Did you see it." I lied and said I thought so. Then I saw the most incredible sight-I still get chills when I see one now. A broomlike fish tail stuck out of the water and waved back and forth for what seemed like five minutes. The fish was standing on his head. The water was about 18 inches deep and at least 12 inches of the fish was out of the water-that will give you an idea of how big the thing was. The tail would go back into the water then reappear ten feet away. These fish cruise the shallow flats on a rising tide and literally stand on their heads and suck fiddler crabs out of their holes. They have "inferior" mouths (known in humans as an "overbite). They possess poor eyesight, but they can "hear" the slightest commotion. Scott let me have the first cast to him. I threw the fly right on top of him-a big mistake. I could have poked him with a cattle prod and gotten similar results-he spooked and smoked across the flat and out into the river. Lesson learned. We saw tails waving all over the flat and took turns casting to them. Scott threw a homemade crab fly about two feet to the left of a tailing fish, waited a couple of seconds, then gave it a twitch. The water expoded-it sounded like toilet flushing or someone dropping a concrete block into a pool from the high dive. The drag on the reel whined and I could see the yellow fly line flying across the shallow water. Ten minutes later it was worn out. It was a beautiful 30-inch fish with several spots. It had a bronze-red tint on it's back and a white belly. Released, it sped out to the freedom of the river. I did not catch a fish that day, but they "caught" me. I was hooked on the fish and the mud flat and the serenity and I have remained hooked to this day.

There are places on this earth with a unique capacity to soothe. These places differ from person to person. Some find a golf course to be a haven, others a hiking trail. I used to play a lot of golf but I would never characterize a golf course as a haven for me-I'm too high strung and competitive. Even though the courses themselves are often beautiful, lush and green, for me to feel serene during a round of golf usually means throwing down about 20 beers or a bottle of schnapps. I avoid hiking like the plague even though the scenery can be outstanding. I just see no reason to walk someplace, turn around and walk back. I will hike (but for only short distances) if the trail leads to a place to fish, but that's the only time. Just hiking seems incredibly pointless-to me. A lotof folks swear by it. I am cursed (or blessed) by having an active and restless mind. My brain is constantly churning with thoughts, ideas and general clutter. It is only quiet when I sleep and then I'm sure it just continues to percolate, just without my cognizance. In the early 1990's, I took up fly fishing on a complete whim. I was not influenced by "that movie," in fact found the movie so maudlin and pathetic it probably did more to delay my foray into the sport than anything else. I hate a yuppie more than just about anything. I did not know if I would like flyfishing but I am always curious to try new things so I bought a rod and reel, some flies and the requisite clothing. I took to the stream looking as if I had walked through an L.L. Bean store and everything stuck to me. I certainly looked the part. I lived about an hour away from the nearest cold, running water that supported a trout population. It took me almost an entire year to catch my first fish. Normally that type of utter futility would nudge me on to a new hobby-I like to do the things I do well or not at all, but this new pastime was different. It wasn't about the fish or the numbers at all. As Thoreau once wrote, "many go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after." For me it was the quiet roar of a trout stream-the cool water flowing over and around the stones that comprised the riverbed-that drowned out the disquiet in my head. I could step in the stream and forget every vexation-I was as serene and tranquil as I was capable of being and I sought this refuge over and over, and yes, I also learned the art of catching fish on a fly rod. Flyfishing also forged a bond among my friends who enjoyed the same pursuit. I became a friend of Scott through our mutual love of flyfishing and tying flies. We have fished in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Texas, Virginia, Florida and all over the Carolinas, from the mountains to the coast. This is how I happened to wade that mud flat with him when he yanked a 30-inch fish from 18 inch deep water. This is how I happened to be there standing in the warm, rising saltwater with fiddler crabs and tiny minnows tickling my legs, scanning the water for redfish tales. It was nature, it was beautiful, it was riveting and it engaged completely my restless mind.

It has been just over five years since I left the piedmont of North Carolina for the ocean, bays, sounds, rivers and tidal creeks of the coast. One afternoon I eased the boat down into the far reaches of Bell Creek, a tidal flow that is just off the Intracoastal Waterway at green daymark #21. I was scanning the creek for bait to net and rounded a curve that abutted an old church graveyard. As I looked to my right, over in the sparse grass, I saw a redfish tailing and wallowing in the mud. I had my very own grass flat! I have shared this place just with a few friends and have sworn them to silence. I live for the spring, summer and fall high tides that flood the place and allow this type fishing. It is my refuge-the first place I go when the time and tide is right. I know every inch of it by heart. I know where the hard mud is and where it is so soft it is dangerous to wade. I have a favorite place-a small cut into which I can get my boat way up into the grass. I can stand on the poling platform from where I can spot a tailing fish hundreds of feet away and where I can get out and wade and hunt for the tails. Regardless of whether I catch a fish or see one or ever make a single cast, I can spend hours in the salt marsh by myself. It gives me peace of mind. If it weren't for the falling tide pushing me out, I don't think I would ever leave it. The redfish tail I first saw in 1998 caused me to fall in love with the simple pleasures and "curative powers" of salt marsh, spartina grass, mud flats and yes, the fish. It has truly changed my life. Enjoy the pics below of Bell Creek-my personal sanctuary. Have a great weekend-you'll know where to find me.


Anonymous Dana said...

What a beautiful post. I was reeled me in...

12:52 AM  
Blogger Kelly(Mom of 6) said...

That was incredible. Your powers of description are amazing. I could almost smell the marsh smell.

6:31 AM  
Blogger The Wizard said...

Another Fly-fisher/Blogger...I Love it! My Weekend of Fly-Fishin post will be up tonight!

Nicely told tale!

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Lambert said...

It can't actually work, I believe so.
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10:55 PM  

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