A week after my foray up Silver Creek above Poncha Springs, Colorado, in search of fishable waters (See my blog from late May 2017.), the sun has been shining brightly and everything has busted loose. The Big Ark stands at 2,500 CFS near Salida and even the South Fork, normally a quiet little gem near my cabin, has jumped its banks.
To make matters worse, the high country lakes are still locked up with ice thanks to a cold May in this neck of the woods. What to do to remedy this angling fever? I check the water level on Poncha Creek (which Silver Creek drains into) and am surprised to find it still stands at about 100 cfs, just a tad more than last week. That might mean Silver Creek is still fishable, and I only fished the middle section below Sheep Mountain and the Gates. So I go prospecting with my GPS and just above the guardian Gates palisades, beyond the short canyon stretch, I see lots of beaver ponds and a winding creek in what looks to be a series of wide meadows. Now sometimes what shows on the satellite view is much different when you put boots on the ground, but there really aren’t any options. So I load my daypack up for a little hike, stuffing it to the gills with fly fishing paraphernalia, waders, etc. and set the alarm at 5:30 a.m., images of icthylogical pleasures dancing in my head.
“… when the lawyer is swallowed up with business and the statesman is preventing or contriving plots, then we sit on cowslip-banks, hearthe birds sing, and posess ourselves in as much quietness as these silent silver streams…”
The Compleat Angler (1653)
Late May 2017
I’m hunched down behind a big beaver dam high in the Colorado mountains. I gingerly step on the twisted mass of branches in front of me so I can peer over the dam, the preferred way to scout out a beaver pond where the trout are often very skittish. I carefully elevate my head and spot a nice foot-long brown trout finning in the slow current not 30 feet away. With an extra abundance of caution, I begin my casting motion, making sure not to snag in the overhanging willows behind me…and promptly spook the fish that heads pell mell into the next county. I can only laugh! Fortunately, I haven’t scared off all the fish and am able to seduce a couple of brightly colored little brookies that are hiding in deeper water out of the sun.
I’ve just gotten off the road after two weeks, my annual migration from Florida to my cabin in the Colorado mountains near Salida. It was time to escape the 90 degree heat and pesky, voracious salt water mosquitoes in the Everglades as well as the incessant political chatter about Biggly 45. So I am in serious need of a wilderness injection and trout remedy. The problem? The Big Ark, my home water, is running at over 1,000 CFS, which means any real wading is risk of life. And most of my favorite streams are also blown out with runoff from the peaks. Fortuitously, one of the local fishing gurus, Fred Rasmussen (founder of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited and conservation raconteur par excellence) has suggested trying Silver Creek as an option. It’s only a short drive from my cabin…so here I am and let the fun begin.
Want to see playful dolphin up close, scads of wading birds, and big sea turtles and sting rays while scoring a Texas Gulf Coast Slam–some nice reds, trout, and maybe a big flounder? Load up your kayak and head for the Texas Paddling Trail out of Port O’Connor, Texas. The State of Texas maintains an extensive network of 57 marked paddling trails throughout the Lone Star Republic, and the ones out of Port O’Connor are among the least-visited, fishiest around. They are so good that after two great days on the trails last year (See my blog post from October 2016), I was lured back this spring for more action. And Port O’Connor doesn’t disappoint!!
Texas Paddling Trails/Port O’Connor
Day 1: Little Mary’s Cut Loop
Having rolled in late last night to my RV park after a long drive from Mississippi on the fourth leg of my annual migration to the Colorado high country for the summer, I decide a long-distance expedition in my Hobie pedal kayak in the face of a 20 mph southeast wind is not advisable. The wind do blow here in Port O’Connor, something you just have to get used to and plan accordingly. I get some savvy advice from local fishing guides and gurus Capt Jim Reed (361-648-5688) and Capt. Kenyon Mason (512-297-4822). [I highly recommend hiring one of these two if its your first time fishing the Port O’Connor area.] They suggest I stay close to port and hide behind the islands on either side of Little Mary’s Cut in Barroom Bay and Big Bayou. Even though a relatively short paddle from Port O’connor, they say this area gets surprisingly little pressure as the guides and anglers in their powerboats jet to more remote locations. I’m particularly attracted by the name of Barroom Bay. Any place called a bar room must be good! Then I learn from Kenyon that the locals pronouce it bah-roooom. Not to be deterred, I chart out a relatively short six-mile loop trip starting at the public kayak launch at the jetty in Port O’Connor. I’ll pedal through Fisherman’s Cut, across Barroom Bay towards Little Mary’s Cut, around an island into Big Bayou, then back through the Little Mary’s Cut towards Port O’Connor. (Following paddle trail markers 1, 2, 43, 44, 4, 3, 2, 1 for the roundtrip.)
The waves are already crashing in as I launch my kayak at 7 a.m., but I manage to bounce over them and then pedal towards the quieter water in the little sandy notch in the shoreline across the channel. I’ve rigged up one of my 6 1/2 foot, light/medium weight spin rods with a Zara Spook surface plug which I have been advised to pitch towards the shoreline for trout and reds….but come up empty. I turn the yak around and throw a white, curly tail plastic grub towards the deeper, marked boat channel and immediately pick up a couple of high-jumping ladyfish who mercifully throw the hook for a long-distance release. I work the shoreline carefully as I head west towards Fisherman’s Cut, the gateway to Matagorda Island, but get zippo. When I get to the cut, I decide to stretch my legs and wade south through it along the firm, sandy bottom shoreline. There must be some fish here, I think, because a family of dolphin entertain me by working the deeper water of the channel hard, searching for breakfast.
Just up the cut a few hundred yards to the south, I hit the first kayak trail marker so jump back in the kayak and aim towards Little Mary’s Cut….and immediately get a jolt, my pedal kayak fins running aground on the shallow flats. I soon learn that the best route is to paddle back towards the channel markers between Fisherman’s Cut and Little Mary Cut–but staying just out of the channel to avoid the motor boats that are now speeding by.
When I reach Little Mary’s Cut around 8:30 a.m., the wind is really kicking up; I decide to turn to the northeast and fish along the leeside of the island where it is relatively calm a hundred feet or so off the grassy shoreline. The tide was low at 6 a.m., so continues to rise and is starting to push more into the grass…and I am hoping the reds follow. It will peak today at around 4 p.m. at a plus .73 feet. I try the Zara Spook and a Texas roach-colored paddletail on a jig, but no hits. But before long, a get a solid strike on the white curly tail about 50 feet out from the shoreline, and the fight is on. It’s a stout redfish that bores deep, twisting the kayak around. The line sings, but the 30# flourocarbon leader holds fast. He finally comes to the boat, a good 24-incher. A quick photo, and he’s back to the water.
I continue working the shoreline carefully, probing the nooks and crannies and creeks that feed the bay, but manage only one more small red before I decide to circle back and try the shoreline to the west of Little Mary’s Cut. Here the bottom is nice and firm, so I hop out of the yak and proceed on foot. I immediately connect with another red, this one up in the grass. Where smaller channels cut through the island, I coax several more reds. The action is not spectacular, but steady, and the reds–in the 18-20-inch range–are all good fighters. All fall for the white curly tail grub on a red 1/8 ounce jig head.
By 1:00 p.m. I am rounding the far west point into Big Bayou and heading to the north shoreline of the next island that is lined with vacation houses levitating in the sky on stilts. The first one I come to even has a very modern-looking outhouse up on stilts. I am momentarily amused and distracted as I pitch a cast towards the shoreline, and of course just then get a jolting strike. What I guess to be a big red bolts off, and as I try to leverage him away for the grass where he can get wrapped up and break off, my leader parts company with the curly tail. Aargh!! That would have been the day’s trophy. I take this as a sign to climb onto one of the docks that protrude out into the water and have lunch, drowning my sorrows in an RC Cola.
After a hearty lunch and good half-hour break, I get back in the kayak and continue fishing up the south shoreline of Big Bayou. When I reach the east end of the island, I think about heading further south, but am immediately dissuaded as I round the point and am blasted back by wind and whitecaps. Instead, I let the wind push me north towards the north shoreline of the bayou which is sliced by several channels that lead back into Barrroom Bay. Unfortunately, in the mottled sunlight I don’t see the shallow oyster bar that guards the widest cut and merrily run aground to the sound of plastic being scraped off the hull of my kayak. Grrr. I have no choice but to get out and haul the boat over the oysters, shedding more plastic in the process. Fortunately, the hurt is partially salved when I get a nice red in the deeper water below the oyster bar.
For the next hour or so, I weave in and out of the cuts between Barroom Bay and Big Bayou, managing to land a couple of more decent reds on the white curly tail. Because the water is shallow and pocked with oysters, I have the place to myself. I get to put on a nice show landing the reds for several motor boats that are anchored off shore and can’t get to the shallow water against the shoreline where the reds are feeding! Finally I am back at Little Mary’s Cut where I turn north and start the return journey to the ramp, dodging the flotilla of motor boats zooming through the channel. Only one has the courtesy to slow down a bit to avoid sending big waves my way.
The return trip is quick with the gusty wind pushing me along. When I round the bend out of Fisherman’s Cut and turn east, I am met with the sight of a big dredge and several barges anchored in the main channel. It’s ID says it’s home port is Abbeville, Louisiana, over 375 miles away! Hard to believe that ungainly looking vessel can navigate over the open ocean that far.
I hug the shoreline past the big dredge back towards the jetty launch, casting here and there without any luck. Then as I near the launch I remember Jason telling me there is a big sandbar just offshore where sea trout like to hang out. I test the depth with my paddle and sure enough, it’s shallow, less than three feet–but with the waves churning over it I am not optimistic. However, on the second cast, a nice trout going almost 20 inches nails my lure, a great way to end the day, joining the 10 reds that couldn’t resist the undulating siren’s call of the white curly tail. Soon I’ll be toasting them back at my mobile fish camp with one of my favorite brews, a Shiner Bock!
Day 2: Return To Fish Pond
Last October I had a wonderful day exploring the southern reaches of the Port O’Connor leg of the Texas Paddling Trail courtesy of a yak attack shuttle with Capt. Jim Reed (See my October 2016 blog.) I fished Mule Slough Bay, the Fish Pond, and Big Pocket. I was itching to come back because the last couple of hours that I spent wade fishing the Fish Pond shoreline were dynamite, producing some explosive strikes from big reds and sea trout. Today Capt. Jim meets me early at Clark’s Marina, loads up my Hobie pedal kayak, and were off for the 6-mile ride to the Fish Pond.
While a good stout, muscular young man might paddle 12 miles roundtrip to Fish Pond and still get some fishing in, the vissicitudes of age persuade me to opt for the shuttle which will give me plenty of time to fish. Fortunately, Capt. Jim charges a very reasonable $150 to shuttle me in then come pick me up at the end of the day. He doesn’t charge extra for the savvy, impeccable fishing advice he imparts.
Wending his way through the islands and sloughs, a half hour later Capt. Jim drops me off near kayak trail marker #31 at the west end of the Fish Pond. It’s very shallow here–only a few feet deep, and the bottom is firm enough for me to hop out of the boat and help wrestle the my kayak into the water. I clip the kayak tow line to my belt and off I go wading up the south shoreline of the Fish Pond as Capt. Jim heads back to port.
With the shoreline providing some windbreak, the water is relatively calm so I break out the Zara Spook. It’s an absolute thrill to have a big trout or red blast the surface lure, creating a miniature crater in the water. I immediately get some strikes on the Spook, but they are half-hearted nips. Then a couple of fish explode on the surface lure, but I miss them. All goes quiet. I am about 0-12 already in strikes to hook-up average. Just as I begin to wonder if this will be one of those off days, something big and strong yanks on the white curly tail. He heads for deeper water, so I give chase, towing the yak behind me. The drag on my reel is absolutely screaming. I fumble to loosen the drag, fearing he’s going to snap the leader like the big red did yesterday. Finally I turn him, then the fish rushes back at me and under the kayak, bending the my rod at a perilous angle. I lunge forward and sprint around the bow of the kayak, avoiding calamity. I’m thinking a monster redfish, but when I finally bring the fish to the surface, it’s a big flounder, my biggest ever. These weird looking critters, both eyes on one side of their flat body, are terrific fighters. Given their size and shape, they are a bit tricky to release while standing in the water, but after a couple of misses with the pliers, I finally execute a release. Great start!!
As I continue wading east up the shoreline, several motor boats zoom into Fish Pond seeking refuge from the wind. Fortunately, they don’t come close to the shoreline where the water is too shallow, and apparently the anglers don’t like to get their feet wet, eschewing wading…much to my delight. Because now the reds are actively feeding in the marsh grasses close to shore as the tide rises. I see a fin break the water and carefully cast the curly tail a few feet in front of the fish. He rushes forward and pins the lure to the bottom and the fight is on. It’s tricky because of all the grass, but the stout leader holds and soon a good 20-inch red comes in to pose for a quick photo.
I continue wading west, casting close and into the grass beds lining the shoreline. I have a couple of shots at 30-inch plus reds feeding in the shallows, their backs out of the water, but they studiously ignore my offerings. Mercifully, some smaller ones, in the 18- to 20-inch range, take pity on me and pounce hungrily on the curly tail. By the time I reach the big point at the east end of the Fish Pond, I have caught and released six nice reds. Surprisingly, I have caught only a couple of small trout unlike last fall when I fooled several big ones along this shoreline.
It’s getting close to noon by now, and I decide to head north through the channel into Mule Slough Bay. I glide by Marker #18 and to my surprise, the channel where I caught lots of medium-sized trout last year is occupied by several big power boats bait fishing in my prime spots. I glide by them, and in retribution catch a small red just downstream from where one of the craft is anchored.
I wend my way north, gliding by trail markers 17, 16, and 15. Near marker 15 I see a swirl along the shoreline between two islets where there is a good current. Mullet? Surprise! A fat, fiesty 18-inch trout nails the curly tail. After releasing the trout, I turn east to fish the long peninsula that I have been told holds reds. Despite fishing it thoroughly, I come up empty. I backtrack to markers 14 and 13, then turn east again to fish the long peninsula that leads to Mule Slough. Just past the point, I score a small red on the curly tail along one of the grass beds along the shoreline, but that will be the last fish for a good hour despite the water and grass looking very inviting. I am entertained by a lovely great white egret that has taken up residence in a large derelict boat, probably blown up against the shoreline during a hurricane and abandoned.
All the wading, dragging the yak behind me, and catching muscular reds has me tuckered out and ready for a late lunch. Fortunately, Mule Slough Bay is peppered with duck blinds that make great dry shelters from the wind for anglers during the hunting off-season. I wolf down a gourmet meal featuring barbecued mango jalapeno sausage and some blue cheese.
It’s almost 2 p.m. by now and the wind is really cranking out of the southeast. I have to find some shelter, so drift towards the chain of broken islands to the northwest of trail marker 12. These islands are ringed by beautiful grass beds and firm sand flats, a great combination for redfish. Last year I caught several 20-inch plus reds around the islands. This time around, the going is slower, but as I wade on a flat between two islands, a large red gulps down the curly tail and takes off on a sizzling run towards the next island. I unhook the yak and take chase, doing my best imitation of Usain Bolt, high stepping through the shallow water, trying to keep the red away from the deeper water that looms. I finally turn him–a chunky 22-incher!
After this big boy, I decide to start circling back to the designated pick-up point near marker 13. On the way, I explore some interesting creeks and cuts and pick up a couple more 18-20-inch reds. By now, even thought it’s only 4 p.m., the withering wind has gotten to me, so I send an SOS to Capt. Jim. I’m ready to call it a day, earlier than usual. Luckily I have a couple of bars on my phone, and I soon get a text that he is on the way. By 4:30 we are loaded up and on the way to Port O’Connor. It’s been another great day on the water on the Port O’Connor paddling trail–an even dozen reds, couple of trout, and a flounder–a Texas Gulf Coast Slam!! Can’t wait till my return trip next fall.
It’s the fourth day of my annual Florida Keys fishing expedition, and I am itching to go further afield from my fish camp on Big Pine Key. Years ago I fished down near Key West with guide Luke Kelly where we connected with some tarpon in an area called the Shark Channel. I’m hoping for a repeat as I plot my route and hit the hay early so I can be on the water at first light.
Next morning I’m trundling down the Overseas Highway before sunrise, joining the morning rush into Key West. I am keeping sharp eye out for the put-in for this trip, the Shark Key boat ramp at Mile Marker 11, about 30 minutes south of Big Pine Key. Distracted by the sight of several boats out on the water, I naturally whiz by the ramp that is on the other side of the highway. The signage for this ramp is minimal, so take slow. I execute a u-turn and pull into the long narrow drive that leads to the ramp, load up the yak, and park my SUV on the other side of the road, heeding the no parking signs around the ramp.
I scope out the tarpon boats and don’t see any action, so I head east and sidle up towards the bridge as the tide starts falling…and fast. I cast a big tarpon plug behind the bridge pilings, hoping some bruisers are skulking in the depths, but after 15 minutes, come up empty. So I buck the swift current and head towards the east side of O’Hara Key, which looks extremely fishy. But looks prove to be deceiving–I only pick up a couple of baby barracuda.
I spot a cluster of islets further east and turn the kayak that way, again pedaling against the swift current. There’s a nice gutter around the first islet, so I fish it carefully with a tarpon plug, then the old reliable Mirrolure Heavydine 18 with its shiny sides that flash in the water. I’m grateful for the pedal kayak, which allows me to hold myself in position to cast by pedaling slowly into the current. I pitch a good cast up against the islet in the deeper water and something explodes on the plug. A long torpedo shape blasts off, peeling line off my reel and dragging the kayak behind!
After a couple of days of non-stop action and a severe case of ‘Cuda elbow, I took a day off to lollygag around camp, do a little reading and writing, and swill some margaritas on the sun deck at the Big Pine Key Lodge where I am staying in my mobile fish camp. Today I decide to go out, but stick closer to home. There are three keys within a stone’s throw of camp—Big Mangrove, Little Don Quixote, and No Name. All three have different personalities and offer great opportunities for a variety of fish, some big. No Name is frequented by tarpon, snook, and (of course) lots of barracuda. Big Mangrove is the haunt of snappers, cudas, and some hefty sharks. Don Quixote and the flats just to its north are favorites of permit, sharks, and occasionally some tarpon. This is a particularly good trip when the wind is blowing from the northeast after a front blasts through.
I am up early, timing my day to hit the flats between Don Quixote and No Name on an incoming tide. I could paddle out north from the ramp at the lodge, under the Overseas Highway Bridge, and directly to Big Mangrove Key, but my preferred route starts at the venerable Old Wooden Bridge Cottages towards the north end of No Name Key, about a 20-minute drive up the east side of Big Pine Key. I slip my $10 ramp fee under the office door and launch into the Bogie Channel, hankering for a shot at the sizeable snook that hide under the bridge that connects Big Pine to No Name Key. I pitch a white Gulp swimming mullet on a 1/8 oz jig head up against one of the bridge pilings, let it sink, and then….