Timing is Everything!

Timing is Everything!
It’s coming! Impressive frontal system approaching the Galveston area marsh country.
The first "drain day" finally arrived and it was as good as advertised. Hordes of hungry reds exiting the marsh on the hard-falling tide, feasting on the shrimp that were being flushed from their backwater hideaways, is about as good as it gets. Those days are addictive and I'll drop everything if there's even the slightest chance the conditions will line up.

I've written often about these drain days and the circumstances that lead to them, but what about the day after? What should you expect to find in the days following such an epic feeding event? There really aren't any hard and fast rules on this one. Mother Nature has far too many plays in her arsenal to know for sure what's coming. Weather, bait, water level and time of year all play a part, whether individually or in some combination.

First a little refresher on the drain day–cold fronts along the Texas coast are generally preceded by a strong onshore wind. That wind will usually push the water levels higher than normal and flood the marshes. Along the upper coast anything with an easterly angle will start the process. The flooding tide scatters the bait into the salt grass before the front rolls through with a strong north wind. For my area it needs some west in it to really get the water flowing out. If I see a prediction of WNW or NW at 15 mph or higher coinciding with a falling tide, it makes for a sleepless night of anticipation. Under the right conditions the marsh can lose a couple feet of water in a matter of a few hours setting up a feeding frenzy.

Being there when it all comes together is awesome, but it doesn't last long. I once had a father and son team out with me under the perfect drain conditions. A few hours into it the dad asked me how many fish they had caught. I had no clue and just replied, "A whole bunch." While hooked up on yet another double, he says he'd lost count at forty for him and he knew his son had more than he did. Sounded about right to me. It was crazy good with a steady stream of feeding reds sliding down the drains, wreaking havoc.

The guys had to get back to the dock for some pre-Thanksgiving related family obligations so I dropped them off and grabbed a little lunch. An hour or so later I headed back out with my camera hoping to capture some images for this magazine. During that time the wind had died to a whimper and the tide had stopped moving. Upon arriving back to the same area where hundreds of reds had been feeding all morning I found nothing but eerie quiet. As I sat there pondering my next move, a good sized school of reds slowly swam by headed back towards the lakes. The water had only risen a few inches, but it was apparently enough for them to feel confident in getting skinny. I watched in amazement as they calmly fanned out onto the mud flat they had frantically fled only hours earlier.

I tossed a jig in front of the next school and it was totally ignored. I tried a number of retrieves and various lures as well as flies; never caught a fish all afternoon. It was the most profound change in piscatorial attitude I've ever witnessed. Thankfully it didn't last long. The next morning I headed out with my customers not really knowing what to expect. It wasn't great, but at least a few fish were ready to eat again.

I'm no fisheries biologist, but I do spend a lot of time watching these critters. In general the early season fronts are blustery, but not all that cold. They're also fairly short-lived. Following these fronts the water tends to come back to near normal within a day or so. The shrimp and other bait isn't ready to migrate out of the marsh yet and they'll move right back in with the returning water. The reds just follow the food. If they didn't get too full during the drain event feast they'll get back to normal feeding pretty quickly.

This pattern usually repeats several times throughout October and November, but eventually there will be a serious cold front that changes the game. Most years it rolls through some time between Thanksgiving and the middle of December. This front completely blows the water out exposing the marsh mud to the cold air for a couple days or more. When the water does return it gets chilled by the mud and the shrimp don't come back. That's the bad news.

The good news is most of the reds don't leave with the shrimp. They simply change their feeding habits to a diet of more crabs, mullet and other baitfish. While the crazy feeding frenzies are a blast, some of my favorite days are when the water stays low as it slowly warms up. The dark mud flats absorb the heat on those sunny days following a front causing the shallower areas to heat up quicker than the deeper bayous. The baitfish are drawn to the warmth and the reds are ready to fill their bellies.

This is when you'll get to see them doing something very few other predator fish do. Call it backing, crawling, crabbing or whatever you want; I just call it fun. I love watching a full grown redfish slither across a mud flat with his back fully exposed up to his eyeballs hunting for a meal. I love it even more when my fly plops down a foot in front of him and he throws up a roostertail of mud to pounce all over it.

Once the water levels get back closer to normal the sight-casting game comes into play. The colder temps kill off the algae and plankton allowing for the clearest water of the year in the marshes. Most folks think there aren't any fish left in the shallows, but redfish are fairly temperature tolerant and will continue to prowl around on the warmer, sunny days providing great fly fishing opportunities throughout the dead of winter.

Now excuse me while I check the forecast; I think I heard the local weather-guesser mention something about a winter vortex. I liked it better when they were called blue northers.