Bull Fever

Try sight-casting to a feeding bull red in ankle-deep water, and you’ll be cursing this new illness.

My first deer hunting experience ended far before it ever should have. After being placed on a normally productive stand, I sat and waited for an hour and a half or so before figuring it was near sunset and that it just wasn’t going to happen.

I’d failed miserably to stay still, swatting mosquitoes and spending most of the time giving myself a neck-ache, straining to see if the faraway flocks of birds on the treeline were wood ducks or not.

I ambled down the ladder, stretched my legs and wondered how long it would be until I’d be picked up.

Twenty minutes later, the sharp crack of a rifle resounded across the field. I think it was then that I realized why it was taking so long and — potentially — what a mistake I’d made by not seeing the hunt through.

It might have been a cute story had I been 11 or 12 years old. I was 16 at the time.

That was a perfect time to experience “buck fever,” but as it turned out I chose never to give it another try.

There is, however, a different strain of buck fever that exists in the intermediate marshes along the coastline this time of year. Huge redfish and drum move away from deep, summertime haunts and into shallow water, where they stick around the often frigid climes, entertaining their bellies and sight fishermen alike until warming conditions near the official beginning of spring send them scurrying back to the coziness of the offshore oil rigs and passes.

The sight of these monsters is often more than the uninitiated can handle. Anglers used to seeing redfish on the lesser side of the state-regulated 27-inch slot ambling toward the boat are more than a little taken aback by fish that typically range from the mid teens to 50 pounds or more.

Fortunately for the afflicted, there are days where there are many chances to right oneself after the initial ignominy of “bull fever.”

The anxiety associated with sighting an animal of trophy proportions and the realization that a properly executed shot will secure it is a concept I’d read and heard about — and absolutely believed in — but never experienced until a recent winter in the Hopedale marsh.

The day began brightly enough. The winding route into the Biloxi Marsh was as picturesque as winter vegetation and low tide can be.

Gadwall exploded out of unseen ponds, and flocks of shorebirds performed their flawless synchronic aerials over the oyster grass marsh as Capt. Gregg Arnold steered his 18-foot Hell’s Bay flats boat toward our initial spot.

Clouds were on the horizon, though, and soon enough they would threaten the success that had come so easily the previous day.

“Yesterday was just unbelievable,” said Tim Aid, supplier of the flies, who had fished the previous day in a separate boat than Arnold. “This place is great — and I think it’s every bit as good as Venice, but I’ve never seen the fish that I saw yesterday.”

There weren’t any stories of single fish and the details of their capture. The previous day had been, according to both, one of the best days they’d ever had, if not the best. I didn’t even bother to ask how many had been caught, knowing that 1) neither man kept count, and 2) most any absolute number couldn’t come close to topping the feeling emanating from either’s account.

As we slowly entered the first pond, wakes much larger than I was accustomed to began slowly rolling away from the boat. When three fish — their identity hidden by the off-white glare of the low morning sun — spooked off of a point, the engine was shut off and the 20-foot Stiffy push pole got its first stroke.

I was summoned to the casting platform first, and I soon realized I should have refused and taken a later turn. That realization came at about the time a wide tail waved seductively in the back of a small cove.

I had — at that time — a severe disdain for tailing redfish, feeling that those which tailed were most often only interested in eating what they were grubbing on at that moment. A cast had to be perfect: too far in front and the fish would never see it, too close would spook it.

My second cast toward the fish was more than good enough, though I couldn’t get a read on how close it was. I was ready to try it again when Aid hissed from the platform.

“He’s coming!”

The combination of hearing one thing and being set to do another sent my mind into overload. The half strip, half pick-up was enough to send the fish scurrying toward the deeper ditch toward the back and elicit low, disapproving groans from both members of the audience.

The thing about “bull fever” is that it not only lingers, the details can inexorably morph into almost uncontrollable levels. Looking back, that fish was not likely more than 15 pounds, but it might as well have been 50 by my reaction 45 minutes later.

For penance, Arnold and Aid didn’t move a muscle toward a rod or the casting platform. Rather than allow me to retreat to the fetal position, not a word was spoken, a clear missive that I’d have to face the demons immediately if not sooner.

Soon enough, after a merciful change of venue, we were back in the game, though not without significant obstacles. The clouds that had threatened at daybreak were now solidly overhead and hindering our best efforts to spot redfish up to an estimated 40 pounds until we were almost on top of them.

As we reached the sweet spot on the otherwise pedestrian-looking flat, they would quickly bolt from our path, pushing water almost a foot high, smooth uniform wakes that enveloped the pesky 3-inch chop.

A 16-pounder appeared at 30 feet, and served to exorcise my demons with an eager gulp of the slowly stripped Haley’s Comet, a fly named after one of Aid’s children.

After a 10-minute fight punctuated by a sizzling initial run toward a small ditch that spooked a half dozen other reds, it was nice to be off the hook, though the pair of 28-pound fish landed by Arnold and Aid back-to-back brought back those negative thoughts in spades.

Though taking these fish often requires casts longer than many are used to, there are still some blissfully oblivious fish of large proportions on many days.

I’d love to say that my ultimate redemption fish was a perfect 50-foot cast, but truth be told, I picked him up in the half-foot chop and severe overcast as he was heading straight for the boat at 20 feet. He zigged while I zagged on the first cast, and the second cast had to be a tight stab at the water when the fish was a couple of yards off the bow.

The 21-pounder slurped up the fly seconds before disappearing under the hull.

“You’re generally not going to catch a 30-pound fish 10 feet from the boat,” said Arnold. “As a fishery, (Louisiana) has become known as a place where you have a lot of opportunities where the fish show up at close range and you make a quick cast. That’s not the case with these fish.”

Because the fish are generally in very shallow water, they can usually be seen a good distance away, the first signs revealing themselves at around a hundred yards.

“The first thing you’ll pick up is the mud. These fish, when they’re in a feeding mood, are going to be cruising, but they’re so big that they’re going to be kicking up a lot of mud,” said Arnold.

Smaller, similarly cruising fish are the most willing to strike lures, but often are moving just under the surface, leaving little indication to the untrained eye as to their proximity.

Like a duck that surprises a hunter with a pass over a blind, a willing fish in range, requiring a quick cast, is often the best opportunity for a hook up. Seeing a fish at long range and having time to think about it can turn the mind into mush.

Soon after the telltale puff of mud is spotted, a long dark shape typically comes into view, making an unusually large disturbance on the water that you might think is a dolphin jumped by an approaching boat in shallow water — that is, until you actually see one of the large mammals spooked out of the forage-filled shallow spots.

As impressive as a bull red is moving around in shallow water, it’s nothing compared to a motivated dolphin getting out of harm’s way in a foot and a half of water, its tail vertically propelling the beast toward safety.

Soon enough, the fish can be identified and a cast made. What’s on the business end of the leader can be as critical to success as a properly placed cast. While spoon-flies are dynamite for smaller fish in warmer months, Arnold says that the fish he’s been chasing in winters past generally won’t give them a second look.

“These fish want something that’s dramatically different than what’s around them. These fish are a little more educated than your typical 6- or 8-pounder,” said Arnold. “If you’re looking to match the hatch, you do it with a smaller fish.”

One exception to the rule is the Haley’s Comet, Aid’s answer to the popular crab pattern. The fly, while nicely imitating a quarter-sized blue crab, gives casters the best of both worlds with a soft entry and barbell eyes that get it down in the water column and in front of the fish in adequate time.

The last point is extremely important. Clearing your mind and making the perfect cast is wasted should the offering not be seen by the fish, which are often grubbing for food on the bottom.

Arnold is a big believer in barbless hooks. While he says the conservation aspect is nice — all of these fish are released unless a record is possible — the main reason is to get good hook penetration on these giant fish. Keeping a tight line on a 20-pound-plus redfish is seldom a problem after a few seconds.

“These fish are going to run a pretty good ways when they feel the hook, so getting them on the reel is no problem,” said Arnold, referring to the frequent problem of his customers losing contact with a hooked fish when “stripping” it in instead of reeling.

Listening to Arnold speak of finding these fish, it really sounds simple — until you try prospecting large, protected flats close to the outside. These bodies of water are made even shallower by the season’s northerlies.

The good thing is that once the water temperature reaches a certain level, it tends to clear and remains that way until early spring. That’s not to say strong cold fronts will not murk the water considerably as the surrounding marsh is flushed by losing tides, but the lingering effects of such events are short.

Even stiff breezes can be overcome by what many have theorized is a sort of “heavy water” effect. Just as offshore seas are relatively light in murky green water and can turn heavy in warmer blue water, the marsh water’s chill keeps it from getting too rough.

“The oldtimers around here say that the water is always a lot clearer when it’s cold,” says Arnold. “There are plenty of reasons for it to be dirty, so it’s gotta be something.”

If you’re like me and can’t stay still on a deer stand for more than 10 minutes, try a bull red fast approaching in 8 inches of water. Maybe you’ll get a taste of what “buck fever” is all about.

Capt. Gregg Arnold can be reached at (504) 237-6742.