Rick Hartman had just navigated a pair of husband-and-wife anglers to a pretty little stretch of sapphire-colored water along the scruffy sand-grass shoreline of the Lower Laguna Madre, off the South Texas Gulf Coast. Normally when a redfish guide pulls a skiff into an area he wants to explore, fish bolt from it, at least until the guide cuts the motor and begins poling. But when Mr. Hartman steered his craft into this spot, he told me when I called him to ask about a trip to the little-known but beloved angling destination, reds were everywhere, “circling, tailing, in the middle of the water, just offshore.”
Right away, his charges began catching fish. Before long, things got just plain silly. When one of his clients would make a cast and hook a fish, a second would chase the fly in the first one’s mouth, and his other client would cast to that fish and hook it. “We must have had eight or 10 doubles,” Mr. Hartman said, referring to two fish hooked at once. “I think our grand total was 41.”
A championship fly fisherman who has plied these waters for more than 25 years, Mr. Hartman knows that saltwater fly-fishing can just as easily be a brutal, ego-bruising pursuit. He was dumbfounded by the virtually unheard-of haul. “All I remember thinking was, How is this possible?” After five or six hours of more or less nonstop success, his clients asked to head back to shore early. “They were too tired to catch any more fish.”
Tucked between the Texas Gulf Coast to the west and South Padre Island, the popular spring break destination, to the east, all just a long cast north of the Mexican border, the Lower Laguna Madre is, as its name suggests, a mother of a fishery. Measuring 59 miles from north to south and seven miles from east to west, the shallow, hyper-saline estuary is one of just a handful of bodies of water like it in the world, a wild and sprawling aquatic Elysium. And the adjacent Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge — 97,000 acres of broad tidal flats and coastal prairie inhabited by a menagerie of flora and fauna from sea lavender and prickly-pear cactus to egrets and ocelots — is a natural wonder in its own right. If South Padre Island is MTV, the Lower Laguna Madre is the National Geographic Channel.
The area’s lack of literary glamour — this is not Hemingway’s Key West or Norman Maclean’s Montana — tends to keep the hordes away. That people typically associate the Louisiana coast with fishing more than the Texas side of the gulf only helps. And yet the Laguna Madre is every bit as deserving of a globe-trotting angler’s attention as more celebrated locales. Mullet, black drum and spotted sea trout all inhabit these waters — some of them, in keeping with the state’s “everything-is-bigger” reputation, of world-class proportions. But the area’s most sought-after prize is Gulf Coast redfish. Reds thrive on hard, shallow, white-sand flats, and the Lower Laguna Madre, with its average water depth of 3.3 feet, is an ideal environment for the species.
Duly seduced by Mr. Hartman’s fish stories, I traveled to the area last October for a weekend of chasing reds with him. Warm and friendly, Mr. Hartman, 50, has a habit of talking adoringly about his nurse-practitioner wife and track-star daughters in a winning Texas twang. He’s also remarkably good at steering clients to fish. I am an experienced fly fisherman, both freshwater and saltwater, but had never fished for reds.
Among sport fish, redfish strike a near perfect balance between challenge and reward. Typically weighing from six to eight pounds (the largest on record, taken off Cape Hatteras, N.C., tipped the scales at 94 pounds), Sciaenops ocellatus offer solid heft and a worthy fight, and sit nicely on the spectrum of catchability. The color for which the species is named is a beautiful coppery brick shade, and their tails are marked by a signature black “eye spot,” an adaptation biologists believe evolved to fool predators into attacking a relatively nonessential part of their anatomy. Redfish feed largely on small crabs and shrimp on the sandy bottom of the flats, sometimes rooting with their mouths to unearth their prey. In that position, their tails poke out of the water; casting to so-called tailing fish is considered the most exciting way to land a red. It’s a sight anglers dream about, magical and adrenaline-inducing.
Catching reds isn’t about blind casting; it’s about targeting specific fish. The idea is to pole a flats skiff, gondola-style, or wade on foot in a promising area, spot a fish or a group of them, then cast, retrieve or “strip,” your fly, and, if you get a strike, set the hook. On a typical day, an angler might have shots at 20 fish, and land five or six of them. The biggest redfish caught in Texas — 15 pounds, 37 inches — was taken in the Laguna Madre, and anglers routinely catch reds measuring 25 inches and weighing up to 10 pounds here. On the other hand, saltwater fly-fishing is a game of myriad variables, many of them beyond an angler’s control, so shutouts happen, too.
Redfish make excellent eating (remember the blackened-redfish craze of the ’80s?), but ecologically minded flyfishers generally adhere to a catch-and-release ethic. While the species has at times been overfished, conservation efforts have rendered the Lower Laguna Madre population healthy.
On our first morning, Mr. Hartman and I met at 5:30, drove to the boat ramp in Arroyo City (one gas station, lots of fishing boats) and launched his skiff under cover of darkness. As the sun rose, pelicans and egrets wheeled, and mullet and ladyfish leapt in front of the boat. The scene was so golden-hour idyllic, it was like something out of a Reagan-era “Morning in America” ad.
Mr. Hartman led us to one of his favorite spots, cut the motor and began poling us across the flat. To catch a redfish, however, one first has to see a redfish, and that was the issue. A layer of clouds had settled over the area, and the water level was unusually high. The visibility was awful. Time and again, we would spot cruising redfish, but not until they were too close to the boat to make a proper cast. When I shot my fly toward them, they spooked, and took off.
Just after lunch, the sun broke through the clouds, and Mr. Hartman saw something: “Redfish at 10 o’clock, 20 feet.” I made a cast, stripped the fly in front of my target, and hooked him. It turns out it wasn’t a red, but a spotted sea trout, a popular and handsome game fish in its own right. This particular specimen weighed a healthy eight pounds or so. We were on the books.
Toward the end of Day 1, Mr. Hartman was poling a relatively shallow flat when a school of reds perhaps 30 strong appeared around us. A situation like this is often a day maker, but instead of moving predictably into the current, as reds tend to do, these fish were moving in every direction at once. Just as we would draw a bead on one, it would change course. Instead of catching four or five fish in quick succession, as we might have, we got skunked. As I reeled up, Mr. Hartman summed up our first day with a bit of Lone Star State philosophizing: “Daggum.”
Day 2 promised new opportunities, and just before noon, Mr. Hartman stopped poling. “Shh, tails,” he said. He had found what we had come here for: a group of four tailing redfish. In fact, there were several sets of reds tailing around us. It’s not uncommon in saltwater fly-fishing to go for hours without seeing a fish, only to suddenly come upon a trove of them. That drama — sometimes long stretches of inactivity punctuated by sudden, urgent action — is a big part of the sport’s appeal. I managed to place my first cast smack in the middle of the group Mr. Hartman had pointed out. Strip, strip, strip. Nothing. Mr. Hartman repositioned the boat so I could get a shot at a second pod. Again, cast, strip, nada.
We moved once more, and I fired a shot at a third pod. “Leave it. Strip. He’s coming for it,” Mr. Hartman said. There was a tug at the end of my line, the scene began to unfold in slow motion, and something like pure joy started to fill my heart. Only my excitement got the better of me, and I set the hook too fast and pulled the fly out of the fish’s mouth. He was gone.
We had chances at a handful of fish the rest of the day, but I didn’t land any. It is a measure of the quality of the Laguna Madre, however, that just having a shot at tailing reds was as compelling as boating many other fish I’ve caught elsewhere. Norman Maclean famously ended his elegiac fly-fishing novella “A River Runs Through It” with the line, “I am haunted by waters.” I’ll head back to the Laguna Madre soon. Given just a little bit better luck, I saw how transcendent it could be. I am haunted by tails.
IF YOU GO
Although temperatures, wind conditions and crowds vary by season, the Lower Laguna Madre is a year-round angling destination, fishable at any time.
The closest airport to Arroyo City, a popular access point to the lagoon, is Valley International Airportin Harlingen, Tex., about an hour’s drive.
Where to Stay
Harlingen offers simple, functional hotels and motels, including a Marriott Residence Inn (956-230-1662; from $104 per night) and a Motel 6 (800-899-9841; from $60 per night).
Finding the Fish
Rick Hartman (956-245-8379) and Eric Glass (956-434-1422; captainericglass.com) are the area’s two full-time fishing guides; both are highly regarded, and charge $550 for a full day of fishing.