And the River Turned to Salt …

Throughout a lifetime of fishing and planning fishing trips you’re bound to be thrown some curveballs. After all, fishing conditions are purely conditional. With a sense of resignation borne of experience, you fish with the grimly inherent understanding that when it comes to wetting a line nothing is guaranteed.

Nothing.

Especially the weather.

Three-day forecasts predicting gentle whispers of wind instead deliver screaming-out-loud gales. Cold fronts promised to leave a sparkling white blanket of postcard frosting on East Texas pine needles fizzle out and crash somewhere north of Tulsa. The fiercely-approaching “blue norther” that prompts you to pack enough goose down to fill Paul Bunyan’s sleeping bag turns out to be nothing more than a fizzled-out, red-faced embarrassment for the local television weatherman. Southeast winds swing to due west. Bay waters morph from trout green to mud cat brown in all of an hour.

In the twisted parlance of the National Weather Service, “fair to partly cloudy” is occasionally code for “electrical storm,” especially during late summer. Out of Padre Island or Islamorada, ominous, anvil-shaped thunderheads punctuate hot-weather horizons behind miles and miles of bathtub-flat bays just begging to be explored.

The list goes on. And, admittedly, much of it is our own fault. We place far, far too much faith in meteorologists.

Think about it for a second. Who in their right mind expects fishing weather to be “fair?” Who expects anything about fishing to be fair?

“Fair?” “Fair” is for fights, not fishing.

Little Johnny is right. He’s been dutifully going to school all week long, patiently awaiting the magic moment with Dad come Saturday morning. It’s not fair, he contends, when fishing conditions kick butt all week long only to deteriorate to something two shades shy of a hurricane by late Friday night.

Welcome to the Wonderful World of Fishing, Little Johnny.

This isn’t the neighborhood soccer league, where no one keeps score, everyone is a winner and both teams go out for pizza after the game is over. Bass and redfish don’t give a damn about your self-esteem. There’s not a bass alive that gives a flying flip about your “sense of empowerment” or “issues,” even if casting conditions turn out to be awesome.

All too frequently, it doesn’t. I’ve seen it at its worst, and as a forum reader and avid angler, I suspect you have as well. Fishing is an often-cruel and always-unpredictable sport.

But never, not once in the almost five decades I’ve spent toting everything from Calcutta cane poles to Orvis 8-weights, have I gone freshwater fishing and ended up in saltwater.

Not until last Friday, anyway.

My good friend Ron Orlando, a Houston-based CPA and serious bass angler to boot, had expressed an interest in catching largemouth bass from a river. It’s not that hard to understand why. Like most ardent bassers, Orlando couldn’t begin to name all the impoundments he has fished in search of largemouth bass. Those lakes, however, all share a common trait.

They’re manmade. They’re brought into the world with the damming of a river. Somewhere along the Colorado, Lavaca, Angelina, San Jacinto, Rio Grande, Mississippi and a host of other rivers that have freely carved their own meandering banks for time immemorial, at some point in time, someone decided that said river needed to be short-stopped by a humongous concrete gated dam.

Usually created first and foremost as municipal water supplies, most lakes concurrently become “bass lakes.” This unnatural event occurs so quickly, in fact, that many people soon come to believe that the aforementioned dams were built solely for the express purpose of creating places to fish for largemouth bass, not as flood-control tools (something that anglers in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Basin are currently painfully aware of).

After the lake hits pool level and the dam gates are closed, the river, regardless of its essential role as the singular artery that facilitates life on Lake Whatever, falls back into the obscurity from whence it rose.

Until the lake or lakes overflow, that is. At that point the river in question quickly regains its status, or just as often, notoriety.

Fact is, rivers don’t get much respect. And that’s a shame. Aside from their lake-creating, freshwater-providing, flood-managing, bay-enhancing attributes, rivers collectively share a common trait, one that is undeniable.

Almost without exception, they are ruggedly scenic places.

Some, like the stretch of the Trinity River east of Houston where Orlando and I fished on Friday, are hauntingly beautiful.

Native American tribes once lived here. Archaeologists have found ample evidence of their presence. Still, even without the shards of pottery and errant flint stones they left behind on now-buried and long-forgotten middens, it’s impossible not to sense the essence of the people and cultures that were born, and ultimately perished, amid the dark and dancing shadows of the massive and ancient cypress trees that rim the banks of this portion of the Trinity.

The last time I saw cypress knees in such abundance was on Caddo Lake in deep northeast Texas. Caddo is best known as the only natural lake in Texas. It was a pileup of timber, trees felled by once-abundant beaver populations and concentrated so tightly as to form a natural dam, one that initially filled the basin of Caddo Lake.

The Trinity River, where Orlando and I fished Friday, came perilously close to being dammed up as well, not by beavers but by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bulldozers. “Wallisville Reservoir” came very close to being built, its progress brought to a halt only by the presence of the Upper Coast’s last remaining cypress stand and the wildlife it harbors on a year-round basis … one species of which is the bald eagle.

You hear it said all the time that it’s the fishing, not the number of fish caught, that provides the measurable quality of an outing for the vast majority of anglers. Boat ramp creel surveys conducted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department invariably reinforce this contention, one that many non-anglers are loath to believe.

“Lemme see. You guys rolled out of bed at 3:30 in the morning after spending an entire day getting your gear ready. You towed your boat for an hour, launched it, spent six hours on the water and didn’t catch a fish. Then you trailered the boat, hauled the whole works back home and unpacked all your gear. You went to bed dead-exhausted and woke up feeling like you’d spent two hours in the ring with Evander Holyfield. And you say you had a great trip.


A ‘great trip’? Tell me one thing that was ‘great’ about working so hard and not catching any fish.”

Actually, I could give ‘em a hell of a lot more than one reason to explain why my trip with my friend Ron, and so many others like it in the past, constituted a bona fide “great trip.” To touch on a select few …

The company. The partner one elects to fish with is a decision that’s arguably far more important than the mere fish-specific elements of where to go and what to throw. Good company makes for a good trip. Conversely, bad company can make a super-productive trip seem like a prison sentence. Remember, you’re going to be isolated with this person on roughly 20 feet of boat hull for at least half a day, so choose wisely.

Want another? The ambience, in essence, the playing field. If it’s about as crowded as Houston’s Loop 610 during Friday rush hour, a place is going to lose its appeal in a hurry. I’ll take a few meditative hours chilling out on the recesses of a non-pressured river any day of the week, fish or no fish, rather than get run over by a half-dozen high-speed bay boats rabidly chasing the same flocks of working birds wheeling about on any given Saturday morning on Galveston Bay.

Which brings us to what is arguably the main point of the trip … relaxation, the proverbial opportunity to “wind down.”

I’ve fished a few saltwater tournaments in my day, and usually had a blast doing it. I won a few bucks, and now and then, lost a few more. But it was what I chose to do, and in virtually no way does it compare with the kind of fishing trip that Orlando and I made last Friday.

We’d both spent the previous two weeks running like mad, trying to make deadlines and honor responsibilities. A veteran CPA who is intimately familiar with the byzantine ways of the Internal Revenue Service, Orlando spent almost every waking minute prior to this year’s April 18 tax return deadline trying to get his clients’ financial affairs in order. I think I can speak for him when I say the last thing on his mind was counting how many fish we did or did not catch.

I guess it’s kind of like the old Texas Aggie saying, roughly restated: “From the outside looking in you can’t understand it; from the inside looking out you can’t explain it.” Again, the fact that you are reading this, that you are a visitor to and likely a registered member of this fishing forum, tells me that you almost certainly fall into the second category.

Given the chance to do it again, there are a few things that I would have no doubt done differently regarding Friday’s trip. For one thing, I’d have believed the indicator on the super-cool digital battery charger Liz bought me last week when it told me my deep-cell battery wasn’t accepting a charge. That fact became painfully apparent Friday morning when the trolling motor blade began turning at an RPM that wouldn’t get the job done for a hand-cranked ice cream maker.

Fortunately, we weren’t up a creek without a paddle. We were up a creek … a long, long creek … with a wooden paddle that we used to help guide the wind-assisted drift and clear the deck of the countless spiders that kept slipping down from the cypress boughs and landing in the boat.



(Sorry, spider-lovers. I don’t do spiders. Not unless it’s with a boat paddle, a hiking boot or some other similar spider-destroying implement or footwear.)

I will keep carrying a paddle onboard my bass boat. With the exception of using it to push away from boat docks, however, I will pray that I never again have a need for it. Tomorrow morning, I am off to buy a new deep-cycle battery.

The main thing I would do differently? I’d have stopped to remember that the Trinity River is not a lake, and as such, is prone to change without notice, and change dramatically.

We fished Black Salty baitfish near the bottom, close to the river locks. Two solid bites, no fish. Then a crab … a fair-sized blue crab. That should have been a hint as to what was going on.

We threw Blakemore Roadrunners along the bridge pilings and shoreline timber. Again, no takers.

Orlando tossed a wacky-rigged plastic worm against the wooded banks of the aforementioned cypress-lined creek probably a hundred times. Zero. Zilch.

Nada.



Given the productivity of trips past to this secluded area, none of this made sense. These are proven freshwater techniques, utilized the same exact way they were utilized the last time around with immeasurably more success.

How do you go from fishing a place that produces largemouth bass and whacking the fire out of em’ … not big fish, but sometimes big numbers of fish … to fishing the same place for the same fish and ending up with nothing to show for it?

You ignore the obvious; that’s how.

Last time I fished the river, the area around Livingston had been thoroughly sweetened by a generous rainfall. This time, we went to the old hideout during the worst drought for the February-through-mid-May time frame than the area has experienced since 1950.

Nine-tenths of an inch of rain in 90-plus days leaves room for a whole lot of saltwater, particularly when you’re fishing only a few miles from the mouth of Trinity Bay. I’ve been fishing Trinity Bay for years, and can’t remember all the springs when bay fishing was a blowout because heavy rainfalls upriver had caused the bay to turn all but fresh.

Somehow, it didn’t occur to me that this phenomenon works both ways. And because of that slight oversight, I took my friend Ron to a “bass fishing” locale that probably hasn’t been home to a largemouth bass since Christmas.

As we were pulling the boat out of the water, a couple of sunburned locals stopped to ask us how we had done.

“Exactly zero,” I answered. “But we had a great time anyway. It’s a beautiful place, and for the first time in two months I feel completely relaxed.”

Orlando concurred on both counts.

“I know what you mean,” one of the visitors said. “By the way, did you guys know they’re catching some nice redfish early in the morning only a mile or so downriver from here?”

“No,” I responded, we didn’t know that. Orlando looked at me; I looked at him, and as if on cue we both cracked up laughing.

Turning away, the two young fellows looked back at us as if they thought the sun had perhaps made the old dudes a bit kooky,

“We oughta' try fishing for redfish next time,” I suggested to Orlando. “I promise; we’ll catch at least as many fish as we did this time around.”

He cranked the boat trailer winch tight, then peered over the bow before stepping back to the truck.
“Sounds like a great trip to me.”

And I have no doubt whatsoever that it will be.
_________________________
Larry Bozka
Coastal Anglers
Contributing Writer/Saltwater - Tide Magazine, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, Texas Sporting Journal