I own one pair of shorts and couldn't 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
he's one of them.
It was more than an hour's 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 I'm 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. Harry's 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 wouldn't
come forward. I pulled again and – being a freshwater fisherman
and accustomed to numerous snags such as cypress knees and the
like – 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 'spots of time,' but it is really fishermen who
experience eternity compressed into a moment." He was right.
I don't 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 didn't 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 I'll 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 water's
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 I'd move my letter
soon as I got home.
All this time I'm 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
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 won't even try to improve
on that great trout fisherman's 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
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 you'll just have to take my word
for it that I'm not.
It was the fish of the day, to be sure, but I won't say
it's the fish of a lifetime. That one remains to be caught,
and I haven't given up yet. I learned two things that
disappointing but exhilarating afternoon: Louisiana redfish
like gold bendbacks, and Harry Boyd's bamboo rod will handle
'em just fine.
I'll get him. It's just a matter of time. Stay tuned. ~ Roger