Sunday, April 24, 2011

Night Moves...

The clock on my phone reads 1 a.m. The alarm is chirping, and vibrating the nightstand next to the bed.

Get up. Get up. Fish are waiting.

I tap the phone with a lazy hand. Mercifully, it quiets, and I drift back to sleep and to the dream I can't for the life of me remember. Then a knock at the door. And another. Didn't I just get to bed?

"Let's go, Idaho!" a voice at the door shouts–the south Texas accent is a little thick this time of morning. Then the knock turns to a pound. "Early bird gets the worm, buddy!"

Damn... fishing should be a solo pastime. These friends of mine have an odd way of showing a guy around South Padre.

A small speckled trout falls for a shrimp pattern under the lights.
Twenty minutes later, we're standing on a dock on the bay side of South Padre Island. Bright lights shine down onto green water, and on the edge of the lights, in the shadows, I can hear all hell breaking loose as the saltwater's Darwinian environment is put through its paces yet again. Little fish have the least-envious spot on the food chain here at the coast. And the bigger fish that eat them aren't immune... everything's on the menu in the dark, night-time water of Lower Laguna Madre.

Above us, a condo rises into the night sky, and instead of silence that might be expected at almost 2 a.m. on a Thursday, there's music and laughter.

It's Holy Week, and it seems that all of Northern Mexico has funneled onto South Padre for a little pre-Easter party. These folks, I think, gave up their sanity for Lent. But then, I'm no different. I'm the nut standing on the soggy planks of a boat dock under a moonlit sky casting a shrimp pattern into the murk in search of speckled trout. I'm not partying or dancing to lively Latin funk. I'm fishing at 2 a.m. But I'm fishing in paradise.

Who's crazy?

Special thanks to Capt. Ronny Marett of Lone Star Charters, for sharing a secret with an Idaho fly fisherman. Want to fish South Padre? Give Ronny a call at (956) 346-2736.

We're not alone, either. Night fishing under the lights is common along the Gulf Coast–baitfish are attracted to the lights on the water, and the trout that eat them rest just below the schools, where they patiently pick off the least-wary of the tiny fish and shrimp. I've been told the best fishing is just at the edges of the circles of light that shine relentlessly over the water. There, the bigger trout swim, just outside the light's revealing orb. They lay in wait for their next meal to venture within striking distance.

And out in the black gloom, I can hear mullet jumping, and the occasional "blow up" at the surface, where a skipjack and it's sandpaper jaws have just made a meal of a small trout or a big mullet. It's a subtle reminder of how easy we've got it.

I mean, the chances of being eaten as we go about our lives are, um, miniscule.

A few casts into the early-morning adventure, and my line goes tight. A small trout–maybe a foot long–grabs the white shrimp pattern and puts up a spirited fight, complete with the signature head shake before I'm able to lift it out of the water and rest it on the dock. Almost before I'm able to reach out and grab the fish, a young man walks over with a pair of hemostats.

"You might need these," he says in heavily accented English. "They got teeth."

They do indeed, but I have my own pair of grabbers. I thank the kid, and start working the hook loose.

"Man," he says, "I've been here a friggin' hour, and I haven't caught a single fish. You guys walk up with your fly rods and already you're catchin' fish."

"Beginner's luck," I tell him. I offer the fish to him. He politely refuses, and I unceremoniously drop the trout over the edge of the dock and back into the salty water.

I slowly work the sleep out of my eyes as I cast my 5-weight tight to the edges of the circle of light. Moments later, a bigger "speck" nails my small white shrimp pattern, and it dives deep. I can feel it shake its head, desperately trying to spit the hook that's now firmly planted in its toothy jaws.

The toothy maw of a nice night-time speck on South Padre Island.
I lift it out of the water and plop it unceremoniously on the dock. The Mexican kid is back.

"Man, can you teach me?" he asks, as I struggle with my little point-and-shoot camera to get a photo in the night light. I carefully remove the fly from the jaws of the 16-inch fish. As I work the hook free, the trout spits up a mouthful of tiny baitfish, maybe an inch long each.

"Sure," I say. "But we need to change flies. They'll hit this one, but I think I have a better idea."

I comb through my fly box of saltwater flies–it's a limited selection of Clousers, shrimp patterns and spoon flies, and I choose a baitfish pattern with bead eyes and a mylar body that's just about the same size as the minnows the trout threw up moments before.

The dock works as the perfect casting platform, and the young kid from Matamoros is able to get the basics down, albeit awkwardly, in about 20 minutes. His first genuine fly cast lands just on the edge of the lighted water, and he begins to strip line.

The baitfish pattern zips through the green water, and just as it enters the orb of light, a beefy trout appears out of nowhere and grabs it.

"Whoa!" the kid exclaims at the suddenly at the visual display that fly fishing often offers the angler. He quickly drops the slack line, and the line goes limp. I coach him to strip line in rather than try to reel the fish in, and he picks up the line again. The fish is still there.

Seconds later, the kid is admiring his first fly-rod fish–a 14-inch speckled trout.

"Can I keep it?" he asks.

"It's yours," I say. "Keep it."

He looks back toward the other end of the dock, where others from his party are fishing with cut bait rested on the bottom. Then he looks back at me, his eyes alive with excitement.

"Can I do it again?"


  1. Sweet. The speck fishing has been very poor out here the last few years because of winter kill and increasingly strict regs. Glad to hear you caught some and made a friend :) It's always nice to teach someone the ropes.

  2. I had a ball... the wind was tough on a small-stream trout angler, but I managed to work through it. I'll definitely be back down there... one of my new favorite places. I especially loved wading the sand on bay side of the island... very cool place.

  3. Really inspiring story about the kid. He'll probably remember you forever. Immortality is yours...good job.