Sunday, September 11, 2011

An Essay: Redfishing

Raccoons swim out of a marsh near Charleston, SC

Wound in the Salt

The marsh takes two deep breaths a day, and as it slowly begins to exhale its water back to the ocean, my hopes of hooking my first redfish trickle away with the tide.  Two hours earlier, my head was on a swivel, turning to tailing fish on my left then to   violent slashes of water on my right, chasing sight and sound.  This Charleston area grass flat is the only place I’ve ever fly cast to a red, and in this, my 6th attempt, the conditions are ripe.  As I wade in my first glimpse over the spartina grass reveals the shimmering orange, exposed body of a red fish rolling. 

My grandfathers old sixty percent poly Dickies make excellent wading pants, and the thin head of surface film rests just below the permanently pleated knee. The sun is high and slightly to my back, allowing me to see otherwise stealthy fish cruising the eighteen inches of water, nearly wakeless and undetectable from any other angle.  As one swims by 10 feet in front of me, I cast five feet ahead of its path, and it swims right by my pulsing metallic fly like it was a perfectly camouflaged, odorless fiddler crab, safely buried in the mud.  Moments later I see a large fish, tailing well out of range.  Do I move? What if I spook a fish near me that I haven’t seen?  Then the surface of the water rips and breaks behind my back.  Is it a school of mullet, or is it a red fish?  A small wake pushes my way, and a well placed fly is ignored again.  Desperate, I put on a spoon fly. No feathers, no fur.  Just mylar, metal and epoxy.  The unmistakable wake of a redfish meanders my way, then changes directions and stays out of range.  I begin to blind cast, stripping the spoon, pushing past ideals, exercising moral flexibility, feeling like a spin fisherman disguised as a fly guy.  I glance to the left, and silently and suddenly like a ghost, a tail slips out of the water 6 feet from me.  I notice that I’m shaking again, and the fly drops a foot from the tailing fish.  No wake. No spook. No take. 

I’m baffled, and I’m reminded of my teenage and college years when I was dependent on fly shop conversations to gain knowledge to improve my fishing skills on the trout streams of North Carolina.  It makes for a slow learning curve when you have more fishing knowledge than your buddies, you can’t afford a guide, and its trial and error on the stream.  The marsh is no stream, and I begin to wonder if my fresh water fly fishing even holds an ounce of transferable experience for chasing reds in shallow water.

The spartina snails cling to their pale masts as the grass silently stirs, pushed by a slight breeze.  The only sounds are fiddler crabs searching for high ground, the soft trickle of the rising tide, and the muted whir of traffic crossing the drawbridge. The rotting odor of marsh mud hangs heavy, laced with sweetness.  Frustrated, intrigued, and yet hopeful, I begin to cruise through marsh grass like a red fish; alert, looking and listening, with a heightened anticipation.  It’s a slow, stalking hunt. Time passes and the only bend my rod has felt is from a loading line.  The fish elude me, seemingly safe under the now thigh deep water that covers tails and masks wakes.  I taste the salt on my lips.  Four raccoons appear swimming out of the vastness of the marsh towards land, looking at me, wondering why I’m dumb enough to linger. I sigh with the marsh.

This is not the story of a trophy or the makings of a film.  It is, however, a common story. The fruitless hunt, that shapes and hones our senses, drawing us that much closer to a hook up next time. It’s the suicide sprint in basketball practice, or the humbling defeat on the field that sends you home looking for answers. It’s the effort that will make my first redfish to hand all the more sweet, rewarding, and exhilarating. Maybe it will be tomorrow. Yes. It will be tomorrow.

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