Shadow Dancing

Shadow Dancing
Sight-casters hope to make the most of bright sun over white sand as storm clouds loom close.
A grand speckled trout drifted across the sun-sparkled flat of sand and grass. The slim gray/black image looked to be 27 or 28 inches long. They get bigger, but not often.

The fish had no idea I was anywhere near the Laguna Madre, let alone poised on the bow of a flats skiff about 80 feet away. I cocked the casting rod and eyeballed the Skitter Walk topwater plug and the 25-pound fluorocarbon shock leader to confirm nothing was tangled.

Then, as I glanced back to the water, the lights went out. A mutinous cloud blocked the high sun. The riffled surface and mottled grass erased the trout.

The boat was drifting and the opportunity was fleeting. I let fly, hoping for the best, and the cast arced above the dull water. I under-compensated and the 1/2-ounce lure landed with a jarring splat on top of the fish. This abrupt campaign of "shock and awe" resulted in a sucking boil and a roil of sand as the alarmed fish fled across the flat.

That depressing incident underlines the importance of bright sun when stalking fish in clear water. This so-called "sight casting" carries the game to its highest level–and excellent sub-surface visibility is your strong ally. Of course, good sun never is a sure deal.

When the lights go out and you are forced to shadow dance, here are several tactics to improve the chances of spotting a fish before it senses you:

First, use a quality pair of polarized sunglasses. Amber lenses are a good choice for all-around flats work, and seem especially good under dull conditions. The contrast really snaps out. I've been using a pair of reasonably priced Salt Life glasses this year and consider them to be exceptional. They use Zeiss lenses, if that tells you anything.

I also have a favorite pair of amber-tinted Onos that feature small magnifiers cut into the lower lenses–a smart idea for the graying, balding "boomer" attempting to re-rig on the water. Sadly, many of us fall into that category.

Regardless of brand, try several choices and pick a comfortable pair with large lenses and a snug fit to minimize side glare. Incidentally, the "aviator" type glasses look cool but they can allow too much side light to enter. Even less practical are the "granny" glasses with small round frames; unless a John Lennon lookalike contest is being held nearby, they are not the best choice.

Also a factor, big, snug frames and lenses provide better eye protection from errant hooks. One day you might be extremely thankful for this forethought.

Good glasses do make a difference in spotting fish, and unless you sit on them or they blow out of the boat or a sly partner swipes them, you're good for at least several years.

An in-range redfish or trout can be easy to miss even under ice cream conditions–and under flat light you're likely to be handcuffed by the fish before you see it. The dark spotted back of a motionless trout can be awfully hard to identify amid bouncing chops and broken bottom; so can the grayish-pink hues of an open-water redfish (opposed to the bold coppery bronze of a marsh red).

Drifting or wading, the tuned angler stands ready to cast close and cast quick. Looking way over there on a gray day will cost chip-shot chances.

You can improve the ability to spot fish in dull light by fishing over clean sand. Grass beds are almost impossible under heavy cloud cover. Of course, it helps if fish are on the sand. A clean bottom serves little purpose if the next 500 yards are void of meaningful life–but you get the idea.

Here's another advantage to prowling over clean sand: Even on a gray day you might be able to spot the faint shadow of a slowly moving fish. The slim shadow on the bottom acts like an exclamation point to define an otherwise vague target. Marking the shadow especially is helpful on translucent fish such as ladyfish and, on tropical flats, bonefish. Same thing with one of those pale redfish just in from the Gulf.

Conversely, even on a bright day fish shadows can vanish over a dark or variegated bottom.

Moving as shallow as practical also helps. Something substantial such as a four-foot lemon shark or maybe a 20-pound stud jack is a no-brainer as it pushes across a thigh-deep flat but a "keeper" speck or red can utterly vaporize in three feet of water. Working shin-deep gives average eyes a better chance of seeing fish.

If the skiff or scooter seems too bold along a skinny shoreline, it might be a good idea to sacrifice the mobility and elevation and get out and wade. If you sink to a knee in goo-pie muck, another option for the thin-water stealth mission is a tricked kayak.

Redfish, especially, are apt to "tail" in shin-deep water. And you certainly don't need sunlight to spot those waving, waggling pennants; indeed, a gang of bottom-grubbing reds frothing with saucy blue-tipped fans after crabs and grass shrimp is one of the most thrilling sights in coastal fishing.

This is assuming, of course, that in your haste to wade within casting range you don't blunder up the back of a hideous doormat stingray cozied into the sand and mud. Come to think of it, that kayak is starting to look even better.

Fish cruising through shallows often push wakes. Of course, not all surface movement is caused by trout and reds; the bulbous head of a bull mullet can displace an impressive hump. But, if the disturbance looks significant, it costs nothing to cast. At least you've got something in your sights. I've thrown at thousands of mullet and other assorted riffraff–and, every now and then, that big mullet turns out to be a dandy trout.

Most impressive is the bulging "V" caused by a school of big reds moving leisurely across a flat or down a shoreline. Just give a nod to Lady Luck and aim ahead of the moving water and hope you don't backlash. Again, you don't have to be an Aztec sun worshipper to make this work.

Calm, clear water can be a double-edged sword. Locating a fish on a gloomy day certainly is easier but one ill-advised move or "clunk" can blow the stalk. Shallow fish can be ultra-skittish under slick conditions.

Of course, many–no, most–days serve up a mix of sparkling sky and passing clouds. During summer, dark billows often build up over the humid Gulf and move inland on the prevailing southeast wind. Overall, this is good fishing weather.

But, when heavy clouds are a recurring issue, the determined sight caster on a productive stretch of water needs to maximize the minutes of bright visibility. Halting the wade or drift until a wad of clouds pushes past is a good way to keep from squandering good chances waiting just ahead.

And, when the lights come back on, the savvy angler takes a moment to study the close water before starting to move. This includes a careful glance behind. A nice trout or red might have eased within easy range. If a major cloud bank covers the area, accept the setback and use the down time to re-rig or relocate. Or maybe just take a break.

If the light really washes out and the clean sand and skinny shorelines show no promise, you might want to forget the whole sight-casting drill. Some days it helps to be realistic. Go blind cast over a deeper flat or reef, or work the edges of a channel.

Or run to the nearest dock and look for the nearest "Cold Beer" sign. Even under adverse conditions, these are usually easy to spot.