Danger Afoot, Over-rated and Otherwise - Part One

Danger Afoot, Over-rated and Otherwise - Part One

A salty friend recently stated, "When I'm in waist-deep water, I want to be wading. I see no reason to stay in a boat, and it's just more fun when you're in there with 'em!"

That is a sentiment echoed by many able-bodied anglers along the Texas coast; wading is our school of plugging, one that dates back more than 75 years. Of course, several exceptions must be conceded.

For example, attempting to traverse the seemingly bottomless goo-pie muck of a "back lake," sinking to a knee with each laborious step, can be brutal. Also a consideration, a deliberate wade along a vast shoreline of unknown potential might waste too much time. You can only move so fast while effectively fishing; drifting or poling is a much more efficient approach for covering water to locate fish.

But when the bottom is manageable and prime water waits just downwind, the celebrated "Texas Two-Step" is a great way to go. The low profile helps prevent spooking shallow fish and you have the time to position for accurate casts.

And, for the uninitiated, here's the secret thrill of wading: Each fish truly seems larger than life. A big strike at the end of a long and unencumbered cast across a shimmering flat takes the game to a higher level.

Unfortunately, "when you're in there with 'em," the cozy association is not just confined to speckled trout and redfish.

Here's a look at the top two marquee hazards of saltwater wading:

SHARKS - The "Grayfin Express" is the apex nightmare. We're not talking about three-foot ankle-snappers; no, we're looking at a full-blown bull or lemon or blacktip measuring six-to-seven feet and appearing from nowhere in pursuit of a hooked or strung fish.

Even an honest five footer can give you a major case of the spooks. When a revved-up shark of this caliber is flying all its flags as it passes within rod-tip range, it will seriously get your attention.

Of course, the shark is after your fish - not you. The inshore Gulf species are plentiful but none is a routine man-eater. The bites that do occur (most often in Florida) almost certainly are the result of mistaken identity. A splashing hand or kicking foot can resemble a baitfish, especially amid the limited visibility of foaming waves or sandy currents.

Larger sharks traditionally are associated with the open Gulf but the Big Boys can show in the primary bays. Physical size isn't a deterrent; look at the playful schools of dolphin often sighted inside the passes and ship channels.

Bay or beachfront, keep in mind that the successful wader either dragging a stringer or fighting/landing a fish is, literally, trolling for sharks. A keen shark is attracted by the scent and sound of a struggling fish - your six-pound sow trout, you lucky rascal - and shoots in for the kill.

The bite from a six footer on a hooked or strung "keeper" speck typically severs the entire body in a clean crescent right behind the gill plates. Of course, the stricken head promptly streams puffs of blood, not exactly the best shark repellent known to man.

If this happens, you sincerely want to ease quietly out the area. Unload the fish-laden stringer and shuffle for the beach or boat. You are using a 10- to 12-foot cord stringer with a big cork on the end, right? And a quick-release knot, yes?

It's a rookie mistake to firmly knot a flimsy little six-foot perch stringer to your belt. Don't even think about the horrifying matador passes that could occur when you are tangled in a waist-deep girdle of trout and a "lit up" lemon is intent on feeding.

A fish basket (life ring float with mesh bag underneath) might prevent a few gill-chopped fish, but the drag of the basket can be an ordeal amid breaking surf or running current. I've seldom used them, but the concept is valid.

A salty ploy if you see a curious shark nosing close is to viciously smack the water with the rod. You might even poke the Bad Boy with the tip - "Have some of this, sucker!"

But the key word here is "curious." A cautious shark often is spooked by aggressive sword play; however, once the invader hits a fish, I question the tactic. The sudden rod commotion near the lit-up predator might send the wrong signal and excite a reflexive rush for a follow-up snap. No, my advice once an agitated shark has grabbed a fish is to remain motionless or back quietly away.

You know what they say about "tugging on Superman's cape."

Repeat, statistics support the fact that inshore Gulf sharks almost never knowingly attack humans. What you want to avoid is a close-quarters case of mistaken identity.

Frankly, I am surprised more waders are not accidentally hit while attempting to hand-grab fish. You slide the splashing speck close and the grasping hand is right there as a jacked-up shark boils up to hit the easiest target.

Several years ago, while plugging waist-deep in the Florida Everglades, I had a five-pound snook snatched off the surface by a big bull shark. The beaten snook was on its side, just beyond my outstretched hand.

The shark was moving fast as freight and looked almost black in the tannin-stained water. All I saw was the blunt snout and open jaws lunging straight in my direction; I heard the "Clop!" as the shark severed the poor snook and I felt the wash against my thighs as the damned thing blew past.

That was only one of several dramatic encounters.

A year or two prior, I was yanked backwards in thigh-deep bay water when a blacktip grabbed the cord stringer trailing in my wake. Eight keeper specks were wadded under the cork and the shark took two fish in two bites. It made a lazy and deliberate circle, passing within several yards, then vanished.

Strap me to the nearest polygraph and I'll swear seven feet. Well, at least six-and-a-half.

Another time, a five-foot lemon chased a hooked skipjack through the tide wash along a barrier island. The terrified skipjack raced up onto on the sand - and the shark followed, scattering shell and spray in a furious rush. I was standing in knee-deep foam and the shark was half out of the water behind me, feeding on the dry beach. Don't let anyone ever tell you lemons don't have a "Hot" button.

Yet another time - well, you get the idea.

Wade the Gulf Coast long enough during the warm-water months and you will have a legitimate shark make a close pass at a fish. Count on it. Book 'em, Danno.

And I don't care if your old man was Tarzan and your mother was Wonder Woman, you are out of your element. In waist-deep water, the salvation of dry sand might as well be in a different zip code. Think about it; you are utterly helpless and royally screwed if the wrong signals somehow shoot across the tide.

I suppose it's a great tribute to sharks that this tragedy almost never occurs.

STINGRAYS - The notorious "male flounder" is a pestilence that poses a much greater real threat for pain and misery than any Gulf Coast shark.

They flourish during warm-water months in all the major bay systems and beachfronts. I am referring to the bottom-hugging stingrays, notably the southern stingray and the Atlantic stingray, not the free-swimming species such as cownose rays and spotted eagle rays.

The average inshore stingray is between one foot and two feet in diameter. But they grow much larger; the old Tackle Time Tournament headquartered each July 4th weekend at the base of the Texas City Dike had a stingray division that routinely produced fish weighing more than 100 pounds (not to mention really big sharks, notably tigers).

These hideous stingrays usually are caught in the open Gulf but I would not care to bet everything I own that one does not occasionally flutter near the beach or through the nearest pass.

To walk up the back of such a ghastly creature - well, let's not go there.

Regardless of size, the stingray cozied into the muck can be a trip-wrecker for the careless (or unlucky) wader. You blunder onto or against the ray, and it reacts with a slashing stab of the tail. The nasty serrated spine with its poisonous sheath is located near the base of the tail, and the reflexive aim usually is excellent. You get struck with a ripping, tearing spike, usually in the foot, ankle, or calf.

The good news: You almost certainly won't die (with all respects to the late Steve Erwin, the "Crocodile Hunter," who some years ago caught the spine in the chest while swimming with a big one).

The bad news: The immediate pain can be excruciating (mitigated greatly by immersion in hot water during the race to the nearest emergency room). And the stab from the spine is "dirty," with fragments of the ruptured sheath often remaining in the wound channel. Serious infection can result, requiring months of healing.

The salty wisdom of shuffling your feet when wading is certainly true, and this simple practice probably keeps you out of harm's way 99-percent of the time. It works by alerting buried rays of your approach. Get in the habit, always, unless you can plainly see the bottom in shallow "gin clear" water.

Fortunately, stingrays are not aggressive. It's the ray that you blunder onto without warning that will nail you. Keeping that in mind, before bailing from a boat for a wade, take a moment to poke the immediate bottom with a rod tip. This timely "tip" might spare a lot of grief.

Stingrays are not evenly distributed. They prefer soft bottom and dislike oyster reefs. But, as a rule, if you see one, others probably are in the area. They don't school but they do tend to congregate, one here, one over there, that sort of thing. This is not all bad; keep in mind that stingrays and redfish often go together. The mucky bottom favors feeding for both, so seeing the occasional ray might suggest a productive shoreline.

What you don't want is an over-abundance.

Once, I bailed from the boat to wade a small cove behind a barrier island. The water was clear, maybe thigh deep. The boat departed to drop other anglers and within moments I saw a stingray snuggled into the sand. Then another. And another.

The bottom was littered with stingrays, dozens of them, from pancake-sized zappers to brutes as large as trash can lids. Maybe it was a spawning ritual; I never before or since have witnessed such a rendezvous of rays.

I halted and looked around. The dry shoreline was 50 yards away. Casting the 1/2-ounce copper Johnson Sprite spoon never entered my mind. Like the rat in the old saying, I didn't want the cheese anymore; I just wanted my foot out of the trap.

By shuffling a wake like a Mississippi paddle-wheeler and stabbing my rod like a mine detector every few yards I reached the beach without getting barbed.

I hope I don't jinx myself here, but in 50 years of fishing and surfing I've yet to be hit by a stingray. Several of old plugging friends have, a few several times. My closest encounter was in a back bay near Port O'Connor; this was back when we waded in high-topped canvas tennis shoes.

I felt a flutter underfoot and an alarming "Whap!" but no pain. Following the wade I check the shoe - a one-inch slice from the whipping spine was on the side.

Various "stingray guards" are available, such as heavy leggings and re-enforced booties. Most semi-work, and I cannot discredit the use along target-rich shorelines. Please don them if you are so inclined. But they are miserably uncomfortable in hot weather and I seldom wear them.

Of course, this cavalier attitude might come from never having been barbed.

Stingrays are out there over mud and sand and grass, lots of them. Regardless of footwear, if visibility is an issue remember to shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. This simple habit is your great insurance.

PART TWO: Currents and waves, sunburn and skin cancer, exhaustion and dehydration, plus flesh-eating bacteria and other issues that can make the white bass run on Lake Livingston look pretty good. But we do cherish our wading.