Super Fly

The action on spottails in the Biloxi Marsh is unbeatable for anglers carrying long rods.

The din of the 90-horsepower Mercury had barely left my ears when I spied the first redfish while taking my place on the front deck.

Capt. Gregg Arnold climbed up the poling platform of his 18-foot Hell’s Bay flats skiff to begin a battle with a day-long 10-knot breeze.

A 23-inch bronze beauty sauntered its way toward the boat as though it had been called to it. Many people, including me, think that Louisiana’s redfish population is so unbothered that many times they are actually curious of things such as the vibrations of a vessel pulling into their waters.

“Looka here, Gregg,” I said as I hurriedly loosed the bait from the fly rod, stripped line and made a quick downstroke to get the fly line outside of the guides, allowing the moderate breeze to aid the task. “How do you like this?”

This fish, though, had no such curiosity. It was just one of a hundred redfish to be seen that day as they cruised the broken shoreline. This one was about 6 inches below the green surface water, not making the telltale wake of those hanging closer to the surface. One false cast with the 9-weight Loomis rod was all that was needed to put the fly in front of the target 25 feet away.

Unfortunately, the cast missed its mark by a good bit. I was very close to “lining” it (passing the line over the fish’s back), and only three huge strips and a lunging of the 9-foot rod to the right gave the spoon fly a chance.

“That’s a good one,” said Arnold, referring facetiously to the cast, not the fish, as I began the recovery process.

Halfway through the frenetic machinations, the roller coaster of emotions that average fly casters experience in the Louisiana marsh began its ascent. A wondrous sense of peace came over me as I recognized the pattern of movement between fly, leader, fly line, ripple and fish. The fish continued on its pattern and was undeterred at the business around him. This thing had a seemingly singleness of purpose to get to wherever point B was.

The motion of the rod and my left hand were the same, but the instincts that everything would be fine in just a second took over. The behavior of Louisiana redfish allow for screw-ups such as this. A man on the pole in Florida might have blown a gasket, especially had it been getting along in the day, seconds after the fish left a vapor trail of mud or sand. Those fish would have never tolerated such sloppiness, but for this fish it was no problem.

Like a car crash, everything slowed down in my mind. The lure passed directly in front of the fish’s nose, and it powerfully flicked its tail a bit, flared its gills and sucked in the thumb-sized bait deep in its mouth, just short of its crushers. It was a reaction strike without a doubt, almost out of self-defense. We’ll never know if the fish was hungry; this was a strike not because of what it wanted to do, but what was imprinted in its gene pool for who knows how many years.

It was back to reality 25 seconds later as the 5-pounder found the only clump of hydrilla for 50 yards and the sloppily tied loop knot came unbuttoned. The angst that one of Rich Waldner’s prized purple spoon flies was gone was much more relative than any harbinger of ill fortune that might come from losing a fish on the first cast. Even though we didn’t see another for two or three minutes, a lack of fish was the furthest thing from our minds.

Arnold — an ardent fly rodder for many years — says one of the reasons he encourages anglers to take up fly fishing is that an average fly caster has a much better chance of success in the sight-fishing arena than an average spin or conventional caster. The ability to simply pick up a short, inaccurate cast (or one in which the fish zigged while you zagged) and re-present it quickly and stealthily is much to the advantage of those with 6- to 7-foot rods who must recover a miss by burning the lure back to the boat and casting again.

“Bait-casters and spin fishermen usually only have one or two shots at a fish,” said Arnold. “That fish is not going to put up with a bait being flung at him multiple times.”

Also, even when the fish being presented is ready to feed (a sure sign is throwing behind a fish and seeing it whirl around looking for what just made the vibration), there’s no guarantee that it will stay that way long enough to present it in this, its most vulnerable state.

“A fly fisherman can line up a fish and the fish can change directions, and you end up behind it. When it’s in a feeding mood, it’ll spin around looking for what it just felt, usually after the lure’s out of sight,” said Arnold. “You can then put it right back in front of it — you don’t have that long to do it — and catch it. You might not have that chance with spinning gear.”

Now, you might ask: If fly fishing is so great, why don’t the pro redfish circuit guys use it? The answer is that those guys are dead-on accurate with whatever choice of tackle, much like professional bass fishermen. I remember riding along with Paul Jueckstock and Eric Mannino, two highly successful circuit pros from the east coast of Florida, and being continually amazed at how accurate they were with spinning tackle.

Even so, Arnold says, the pros don’t generally cast to fish more than 40 feet away, mainly because the state’s muddy bottom makes it difficult to see fish despite very clear water.

Arnold and partner Barrett Brown own E-Z Fly Guide Service (504-237-6742) and work the marshes from Venice to Myrtle Grove to one of Arnold’s favorites locales, the Biloxi Marsh out of Hopedale.

The area is, for the most part a saltwater environment, with just a little grass to contend with. Arnold has around a dozen areas to choose from scattered throughout the huge complex making up the Biloxi and Louisiana marsh. Ponds range in depth from 10 inches to around 2 1/2 feet, and all have one thing in common — escape routes to deeper water. Many people figure that redfish want to get as far back in the marsh as possible. Not so, says Arnold.

“Redfish have got to have a way to get out of there. A good pond is one that has many escape routes,” he said.

Along with security, the fishing area around the Biloxi and Louisiana marshes benefits from the amount of current present in the area, which serves to flush the region on a regular basis. Fishermen put off by even days of winds shouldn’t hesitate to make a trip when the wind lays. Putting it off to allow the water to settle down may mean a missed opportunity.

“It doesn’t take any time for the water to clear up, even after a good blow,” said Arnold. “The water can be really beat up, and if the wind lays down at around sunset and stays down, it can be beautiful the next morning. Most times it doesn’t even take that long.”

Security also has a lot to do with how fish react to lures, even when they’re in plain sight and acting seemingly normal. Working fish from the outside in is preferable, even if it means backing off of a great-looking area a bit.

This point was illustrated later in the day as Arnold and I found ourselves suddenly in the midst of a half-dozen waking redfish. Ten frustrating minutes later, Arnold finally hooked a fish, and by the time the fish was landed, they were gone.

In addition to the almost universally accepted spoon fly, which mimics the weedless spoon with its wobbling, erratic action, Arnold relies on a baitfish-imitating concoction he calls the Rebel.

It’s a fly he played around with for a while before settling on placing a barbell — usually used in providing weight to the popular Clouser minnows — in the middle of the hook shank.

“What I like about it is it has enough mass when the bait is in the proper position, it’s virtually indestructible,” said Arnold of the fly which can be tied in any color, though black is his favorite.

Another favorite is Waldner’s Mardi Gras Mama, a purple and gold Clouser minnow. Several features of the fly interest Arnold, including the fact that the head is a solid one, a departure from the traditional Clouser minnow.

“I like the way it rides hook up. You can fish it in some shell and grass and not worry about it hanging,” he said.

For spinning and baitcasting anglers — whom Arnold has no problem whatsoever taking on his boat — there are a few favorites as well.

For windy days, Arnold finds that weedless spoons are the best weapons for doing battle with redfish. A ¼- or 3/8-ounce Johnson Silver Minnow is compact in weight and aerodynamic in shape for spin fishermen to make accurate casts.

While gold models are a mainstay of his purchases, Arnold makes several modifications to give his customers the best chance for success on a given day.

“When it’s clear, I like either a black or a red spoon,” said Arnold, explaining the process of painting the lures, if only for very temporary use. “They usually last about a day. And I use only recycled spoons for painting.”

After roughing up the surface of the lures with a coarse scrub pad, Arnold simply spray-paints the entire lure, hook and all, with Rustoleum red or black spray paint. Covering the hooks probably wouldn’t be a bad idea — duct tape is a good barrier — but Arnold says he doesn’t bother.

“I’ll give them two coats; I don’t really worry about the hooks,” said Arnold. “That paint doesn’t last very long.”

Plain gold does the job on overcast days, says Arnold. For rigging the spoons, he takes an 80-pound split ring, a 12-inch length of 25- to 40-pound-test mono and a barrel swivel to prevent line twist.

Weedguards are replaced — the spoons don’t seem to run right without them — with a length of braided leader wire sautered onto the spoon.

“It seems to wobble better (with a weedguard) rather than just spinning without one,” said Arnold.

Calm days find Arnold’s customers using an old classic, the split tail beetle, as a tool for both blind casting — what the man on deck frequently does while the person at the plate waits for a visible fish — and sight casting. While he favors a rhythmic jigging motion for non-visible probing of the waters, the strategy for conventional casters is similar to those favoring the long rod.

“Just get it in front of him,” said Arnold. “It doesn’t matter what color you use, if you get the bait right in front of his nose, nine times out of 10 he’ll eat it.”

Black, glow and chartreuse are his favorites on the split tail soft plastic, which Arnold says has a nice action with its twin tails. While paddle-tail baits are excellent for creating fish-attracting vibration, the same tail-flapping motion takes place in the air, causing a slight loss of accuracy. It’s not a huge difference, but inches count when one is limited to the confines of spinning or conventional tackle.

As co-manager of Uptown Angler, New Orleans’ only full-service fly shop, Alec Griffin hears fishing stories most every day about the fantastic angling offered by the Biloxi Marsh and other state locales.

A native of North Carolina who lived and worked in Jackson Hole, Wy., at a fly fishing shop, he says he’s consistently amazed at the fishing he’s experienced in his time here, and doesn’t doubt much of what is said at the Camp Street location in the CBD.

“This is the best-kept secret in fly fishing in the country, if not the world,” said Griffin. “To be able to expect 20 or more shots at fish of this size while sight fishing is just unbelievable.”