I own one pair of shorts and couldnít find them at 4 a.m. that morning, half-awake, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and searching with the other. Worried about deer flies and such, I opted for jeans, though I knew it would be hot as the dickens by noon.
But by then I was standing in temperate water somewhere far, far south of Morgan City on a shell reef. The water was up to my thighs, and I was able to wade out a good yardage from the reef.
It was the latest installment in my quest to catch redfish on a fly rod. Not just any fly rod, mind you, but a bamboo fly rod. I have yet to christen a new rod built by Harry Boyd, a bamboo rodmaker in Winnsboro, Louisiana. A heavy-bass, light saltwater stick, Harry makes bamboo fly rods that compare with not only the old masters but the new ones as well, because heís one of them.
It was more than an hourís ride from the Berwick boat landing down the Atchafalaya River to where I stood. My fishing host, Lamon Miller, had deposited me there on the reef where he said the "bull reds" can often be found. A "bull red" is a redfish of enormous proportions, literal juggernauts, freight trains on the end of a fishing line. He had taken off in the boat to investigate other places while I happily waded around on the reef.
A couple of other boats had shown up after Lamon had departed, anchoring off a few hundred yards away to fish, and Iím sure they were perplexed by the guy in the fedora standing up to his zipper in the Gulf of Mexico, fly fishing, wondering how the devil I got there. I paid little attention. The wind was low, not slack, but not bad. Harryís rod performed like a champion thoroughbred even in my mediocre hands.
I caught two "rat reds" or small redfish where the water was breaking over a point of the shell reef, and felt encouraged. Those were my first redfish on a fly rod, even if they were small. I was using a fly called a "golden bendback" tied by my friend Gary Henderson from Florida, his favorite fly for speckled trout and redfish.
Standing there on that white shell reef, casting blindly to potential fish, I was elated. Over the past year or so I have grown restless of spirit again, uneasy and suffering wanderlust. Far off the coast, these magnificent shell reefs, lightly dotted with shrubs and washed-up debris, are often pristine, often trashless and always beautiful. I could nearly imagine what the whole coastline of Louisiana looked like a century ago when these reefs numbered a thousandfold what they do now, before they were nearly dredged into extinction for the value of their shell.
I made a good cast, which for me is about 60 feet, right at the edge of the breakwater. Gathering line in my hand I began my usual retrieve after letting the fly settle a moment or two. Strip-strip-strip, quick jerks taking in line, then let it settle. In my mind, I could see the fly rush forward, rush forward, rush forward, then settle like an exhausted baitfish for a moment. The process was then repeated.
At the end of one settling of the fly, I pulled line for another strip and the line slipped through my fingers because it wouldnít come forward. I pulled again and Ė being a freshwater fisherman and accustomed to numerous snags such as cypress knees and the like Ė the snag pulled back.
All at once the world seemed to shrink around me. The boats anchored away from the reef were gone. Somewhere in the boat searching for another fishing spot, Lamon vanished. Even the reef behind me was gone.
Norman Maclean wrote in A River Runs Through It that, "Poets talk about Ďspots of time,í but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment." He was right. I donít know how long what follows took. Later I told Lamon it was about 10 minutes. It might have been 20. It might have been five. I have no idea because time suddenly became meaningless.
The fish broke water when I set the hook, but I didnít see it. Only a mighty swirl of something big suddenly disturbed beneath the surface there in the shallows over the reef edges, and awful unhappy about it. He took off, and Iíll say it was a redfish because of the reputation this area has for bull reds and the fact that I caught two small ones in the same spot, but the fact is I never saw it.
He made a swift but not amazingly fast run away from me, and before I knew it he was at the end of my fly line, 110 feet. Behind that line I had a 150 yards of braided line for a backing. The way that fish was running I knew the backing would vanish fast, so I said a prayer to the fishing gods, and to Harry Boyd (who is a Baptist minister by profession in addition to being a rodmaker) and I "put the wood to him" as we bamboo rod fishermen say.
I made sure my rod stayed at about 45 degrees to the waterís surface but I leaned on the big red, the rod arching over in a studious curve. And I felt him twitch his head in annoyance, then turn toward me. Now I was scrambling to get line back on my reel as the fish meandered back in my direction but at about 50 feet out I had him back on the reel and, unhappy about it, he made another run this time to my left.
This time he took me well into the backing, shrugging off the drag on my fly reel as if it were nothing. I leaned on him again, hard, reminding myself that the monofilament leader tied to my fly line had a breaking test of 17 pounds.
And to my great pride, I turned him again.
I was raised Baptist but kinda fell by the wayside a couple decades ago. I silently promised Harry Iíd move my letter soon as I got home.
All this time Iím slowly walking sideways and sometimes backwards toward the reef and more shallow water for when I got him close enough to grab. His run to my left was less vigorous, but no less determined, and now he was more or less a dead weight out there about 80 feet from me, and I carefully pressured him toward me.
That was all he was going to tolerate.
At that nudge, he took off toward the breakwater where I had hooked him. My reel spinning and my backing line vanishing quickly.
Grimacing to no one except those far off anchored anglers who may or may not have even noticed my personal battle unfolding, I leaned on him again.
And suddenly the weight and the freight train and the irresistibility were gone.
Norman Maclean wrote it best, so I wonít even try to improve on that great trout fishermanís words: "No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone. I shall remember that &#%$@ forever."
I stood there, rod in my hand at my side, for long moments. Out there, somewhere, I could imagine the bull red meandering off with my gold bendback in his mouth. But when I finally reeled in my line, there was my gold bendback at the end of my leader. The leader had not broken, my knot had not slipped. The hook had simply pulled out the third time I put the wood to him.
Lamon returned about 20 minutes later and I told him the story, with the caveat that, "I got no witnesses, I could be lying through my teeth."
I could be, but I guess youíll just have to take my word for it that Iím not.
It was the fish of the day, to be sure, but I wonít say itís the fish of a lifetime. That one remains to be caught, and I havenít given up yet. I learned two things that disappointing but exhilarating afternoon: Louisiana redfish like gold bendbacks, and Harry Boydís bamboo rod will handle Ďem just fine.
Iíll get him. Itís just a matter of time. Stay tuned.