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Tough Days In Louisiana

By Toby Swank

The trip ended with just another one of those moments in an angling life that is best described as nothing less than disappointing. Standing on the bow with my 11-year-old son, staring at water the color of lead, I saw the slightest of bumps, maybe 80’ feet out at 12 O’clock. Stillness followed for a time that seemed long enough to indicate that I had seen nothing after all. The water moved again, this time at 15’ and 1 O’clock, followed by a hauntingly orange glow that just barely poked its way through the dark grey water of the Louisiana Gulf that October morning.

Matthew made the cast, stripped tight and one can imagine the rest. The line cut clean on an Oyster shell after 10 minutes or so, leaving us with that empty feeling, knowing only that we will never know what might have been. This wasn’t his first rodeo and he shook off the disappointment quicker than most, moving on and looking for the next push. The next push never came.

Four months later, we arrive once again to the Gulf Coast shores just south of New Orleans in search of Bull Reds and respite from the bitter cold of our Bozeman, Montana home. The forecast was not in our favor with the weatherman calling for clouds, cold fronts, and winds in the 15-20 mph range for the duration of our stay. The guide was willing to give it a shot, so we geared up and headed across lagoons, bayside ponds, open water, narrow trenches and man-made canals in search of hungry Redfish. The conditions were terrible and the visibility even worse with water the color of Louisiana mud.

Most anglers would have opted for a few days off Bourbon Street and chasing who knows what around the Big Easy. Matthew isn’t old enough to know about these distractions, so he opted to stick with it and just keep looking so long as our guide was willing to push-pole us across and up into the relentless winds that wouldn’t settle.

Day one was a shut-out followed by a day two that held very little hope of being much better. The sun worked its way through the clouds sometime late morning and the water clarity went from none to just a little bit less than some. We started bumping fish here and there with their pectoral fins out and bellies glued to the mud with no sign of tailing fish, nervous water, or the occasional push of a feeding fish.

Just after a lunch of Oreos and PBJ, Matthew stood tall once again on the platform and renewed his efforts to find something to cast at before we lost the light. Just around a couple of bends in a small channel connecting a pair Oyster ponds, we saw a tail stand tall for just the narrowest window in time, 200’ out and downwind. Our guide slowed the boat and we settled in to stillness, staring intensely for another sign of whatever it was we had seen. The tail reappeared at 20’ and 11 O’clock, Matthew made the cast we all wish to make when it matters most, and the fly settled just inches from the Black Drum’s probing mouth. Needless to say, the line went tight, ripping away through those narrow waters with the reel screaming and us all savoring the moment. Matthew landed the fish after 10 minutes or so and brought to hand his largest Black Drum to date at just a notch over 25 pounds. Still, dad was riding the skunk-train high and dry for two days in a row.

The morning of day three greeted us with calming winds and warming air cloaked in a pea-soup dense fog from ground to sky. Once again, far from ideal conditions held just enough hope for us to salvage the trip if only the wind or sun decided to show up by late morning. Per usual, neither really made a grand appearance and we ended up navigating to the holy waters via GPS and some gut feelings on our guide’s part that seemed more certain than not. We ended up finding some clean water, tucked into a lee shoreline with some sun here and there as the fog began to move, more so than dissipate.

No More Skunk

Eventually, one ate my fly and the 2.5-day skunk was gone.

Fish started to show, and contrary to my typical Redfish experiences, they wouldn’t eat. We made cast after cast to laid up fish, cruising singles, and even a few schools moving in and out of the grassy cuts lining the shore. Eventually, one ate my fly and the 2.5-day skunk was gone. However, as any dad will appreciate, I had hope that the cooperative one would have been on my son’s fly rather than mine. Still, we smiled, laughed, posed for the pic and released one of the hardest earned fish in my angling life. Matthew told me that he was happy for me and thanks for bringing him along as we watched the fish swim away. Hard to beat, to say the least.

The fog began to settle in once again and the 4 O’clock light convinced our guide that we should start heading back. References were made to the loneliness of a winter night spent on a Louisiana oil well-head. He followed his tracks and picked our way across the open water as the sun began to set with the fog turning the light a pumpkin orange.

The boat slowed as our guide decided to check one last Oyster pond that had eluded us the previous days as the winds and tide had made the opening inaccessible. He tested the depth, made a push, and suddenly we were in. The light was pretty much gone in terms of being useful for spotting fish by this time of the day. Still, we could see a push here, some mud clouds there, and even a few tails poking up near the bank. We made some blind casts with little spoon flies and crab imitations, stripping slower than one would expect with the day rapidly disappearing into darkness.

I felt a tug, saw a splash and watched my line go limp as the hookset never came and yet another fish won the battle. Another tug followed moments later with a small Redfish coming to hand in the evening light.

Matthew asked if he could use my rod for the last few casts to which I offered no objection and watched as he methodically worked the water out and ahead as we prepared to head to the dock. The tug didn’t come, he seemed understandably frustrated as he was casting and fishing well. When I offered words of encouragement, he asked if I would take the fly from my rod and put it on his rod for the last few casts. As I finished the loop of leader to fly, a push of water showed just 30’ out at 12 O’clock on a small point just ahead. Matthew climbed onto the platform, made the cast, and got the fish.

He has caught many fish to date, including Permit, Tarpon, and even a 30-pound Bull Redfish on previous trips to the salt. I’ve been fortunate enough to be there for all of them (except the Permit - which he caught with his grandfather) and I know that this little 5-pound Redfish will always be near the top of his list. He would surely love nothing more than having one of those days where big Redfish show up and eat from start to finish, but I think that he will always cherish the success found on the hard days more than most.

I love fly fishing. The greatest gift the sport has given me is the medium in which I share my life with my children.

Perfect Setups

My Setup: Sage Igniter 990 with a Spectrum Max 9/10 and Rio Winter Redfish Line

Matthew’s Setup: Sage 890 X with a Spectrum Max 7/8 and Rio Winter Redfish Line

About the Author

Toby Swank is the owner/outfitter of Fins & Feathers in Bozeman Montana and a Sage Elite Pro. Click here to learn more about Toby and Fins & Feathers.