It is noon before the dense fog lifts and the sun peaks out from above the thick blanket of moisture. It hits my skin through the window and I can feel the heat. It draws me beyond the shadows of my cozy home that I have taken comfort in during the soupy mess that plagues my intentions. I’ve fidgeted nervously all morning piddling with lures, rods and reels, waiting for my chance to cure cabin fever. I can’t help but to think about how fish react to the same environmental stimulants as myself. Cold; find shelter. Warmth; play in the sun. I take that thought and that thought takes me by second nature to a place that I have dreamed of. The place is not specific, it’s based more on scenery or conditions if you will; green water, nervous bait and pelicans diving. Lure hits the water, twitch, twitch, pause… Thump, tension, hookset, bent rod, drag screaming. As soon as I see the huge yellow mouth surface trying to shake the lure, I ask myself; “Is this, the one?”
February marks the beginning of what I consider speckled trout season in Rockport Texas. Air temperatures reach close to 80 F on some days in the dead of winter, slowly warming the frigid shallows. Large trout use this optimal warming trend, combined with spring rains to reap the benefits of perfect spawning conditions. Trout spawn year-round despite popular belief but peak season is late winter to early summer when conditions promote optimal survival rates. In response to reproductive urges, large female trout tend to eat opportunistically in order to provide appropriate nutrition for their young. Forgive me for being blunt ladies and gents, but if you are pregnant you eat differently by second nature; your body craves certain foods that most likely benefits your child. Fish are not that different from humans with respect to natural urges; twitch, twitch, pause… Smack pop, tension, hookset, bent rod, drag screaming. Maybe this is the one?
The one I speak of is the largest speckled trout of my life. I’m always searching for her. I remember my personal best, and many that would rest just beneath her shadow had I not released them. What fuels my desire is finding the one again. Unfortunately, for a trout fisherman on the Texas Gulf Coast the one becomes larger with each personal best. Chasing my own shadow might seem just as productive at times but every once in a while the trout makes a crucial mistake whereas the shadow does not. That is my only advantage; one mistake.
Finding that perfect spot at the perfect time under perfect conditions is what I’m always searching for and it’s not something easily found. Paying attention to every meticulous detail will point you in the right direction. I actually prefer to scratch off areas that I will avoid and focus on the small percentage of water that holds hungry fish. 90 % of the fish live in 10 % of the water. Do the math, eliminate most of the bad water and focus on the 10 % that you think holds fish. Your chances of success increase dramatically through process of elimination. Easier said than done but using simple logic can take you a long ways. Let me explain.
Let’s assume the wind speed is 15 to 20 miles per hour out of the north; scratch off most, but not all unprotected windward shorelines and mid bay reefs where water is the color of chocolate milk with heavy chop. This already eliminates possibly 50% of the bay. You can assume that the tide will be going out or lower than mean level with north winds so also scratch off where you, your boat and the fish can’t go within the 50% of the bay available. I’d say that we’ve knocked off another 10% of dead water leaving us with 40% to work with. The ultimate goal is to find that magic 10% of water.
Let’s try to narrow our search for fish to even better odds. Timing is crucial. The water temperature has dropped with the passing cold front so the fish might be a little cold first thing in the morning. Plus there’s supposed to be some afternoon sun with the highest temperatures of the day around 3:00 pm. While inspecting the solar/lunar calendar for feeding times, a descent bite occurs at 5:00 pm. It takes a significant amount of time for air to warm water but two hours of direct sunlight can change the water temperature by a few degrees and sometimes that’s all it takes. Knowing when to be in the right spot at the right time is crucial. I’d say we’ve knocked off another 10% with consideration to timing and location.
20% of the possibilities are still available before narrowing this down to the magic 10%. This is where your eyes and mind narrow down the odds even further with impeccable precision. Understanding how to “read the water” isn’t well represented with respect to this last 20%. Your ability to read the water will ultimately dictate how successful you are any day. All patterns and variations of patterns must be considered and at times this is daunting. The best approach is to cycle through what you know works best. Start with your favorite lures and set aside (but don’t forget) the ones that don’t make sense to you based on conditions. It’s been cold; scratch top waters but don’t forget about them late in the day when your fingers hit the water and it feels warm.
Reading the water is an art and in my opinion art is never perfected. Art always has flaws but this is what makes it unique. Not a bite. You decide to change to a top water from a plastic when your fingers hit the water and it feels strangely warm. Despite setting that type of lure aside earlier in the day, because it was cold and your logic told you to do so, you didn’t forget about it. At first you work the top water slow because it’s been cold; twitch, pause, twitch, pause, twitch, twitch and repeat. Still nothing. Second cast, new variation, it’s become warmer; twitch, twitch, pause, twitch, twitch, twitch, POW! Tension, hookset, bent rod, drag screaming! This is art. It wasn’t perfect to begin with, it wasn’t in the end, it had flaws but I am satisfied looking back at that moment because I found that 10%.
Understanding lure patterns with regards to conditions is another fishing art. Take a lure and place it in the water. Does it look out of place? Take into account how natural it looks. You should be able to see it but if it resembles a real live bait, it should also disappear fairly quickly as it sinks or blend into the surface as it floats. Many vibrant colors exist for lures and some can pay off in extreme conditions but most of the time, mimicking the actual bait present combined with a little pizazz such as sparkle, hints of bright colors, large eyes, and some sound is a solid approach to lure selection. You want your lure to look like the bait, only slightly more appealing. The best approach is to think like the fish; once again, easier said than done.
Let’s sets aside the last scenario (but don’t forget about it!) and build a new one. Full moon, midnight, water temperature warm, light ripple on the water, bait jumping, wade fishing and your goal is large trout. One of my first choices for lure selection would be the obnoxious looking top water painted black with a chartreuse head. During the day this looks unnatural but at night, from the perspective of a fish, the black silhouette combined with the chartreus head stands out slightly better than the rest of the bait. Despite this lure appearing obnoxious and out of place during one time of day doesn’t mean that it won’t pay off in the dead of night. Imagine yourself as the fish. Would you eat it? Think like the enemy in order to defeat it.
Thinking is just as important as execution; they both rely upon each other in terms of success. Thinking outside the box, or should I say, ‘out of your mind and in the fish’s mind’ is the most important strategy any angler can possess. This might sound vague but it’s the foundation of fishing strategy. Many people ask me, “What do you do on your days off?” My best response is, “I fix all the broken things and then I go fishing.” They scratch their heads mostly about the fishing part. Essentially, I like to work on my days off. I’m always chasing the one and if you are serious about catching it, there is no better way than through the process of trial and error. Get out and fish! Make some mistakes; the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing. Today is my day off and as of this moment I am done fixing broken things. I think you know what comes next for me. The winds are light, the tide is high and the sun is setting.
-Capt. Johan Coombs
“As no man is born an artist, so no man is born an angler.”