The Spotted Grail

The Spotted Grail

Green-swelling tide was coming in as silver-headed Casey was going out, which was just the way he liked it. After five decades of wading the surf, he could read the movements to a fraction.

The breeze was light, from the sweet southeast, and the spring currents felt sharp in the dawning air. The first steps always were cool then, after the washing of a few waves, the temperature was tolerable - even exhilarating. Casey bobbled across the inside gut, turning sideways to block each tumble of foam, and reached the waist-deep shelf of the third sandbar.

The outside bar was his special place; it was, literally, as far as a fisherman on foot could go. All the clutter and confusion of the land was at his back; in front, beckoning for the next cast, stretched the restless promise of the open Gulf.

The sun broke above squall clouds far over the horizon and the water sparkled. The incoming swells were riffled with schools of passing mullet. Black-headed laughing gulls wheeled and hovered. An occasional surface flurry telegraphed the nervousness of massed baitfish on a dangerous tide. Killers ran amid the heaving shadows of green and gray and gold.

Casey toed forward, feeling the clean surge against the sand, and fired his first level-wind cast. The two-handed rod flexed and spray shot like smoke from the Curado as the MirrOlure climbed across the breeze. The cast carried like a well-driven golf ball. Nobody ever said that Casey didn't know how to chunk.

The low profile of the bridge marked the sprawl of San Luis Pass. Beach traffic already was moving at a regular interval, much of it from the growing infestation of condominiums. As to changes, Casey had witnessed a multitude.

What great wade fishing he, Biff and Ed enjoyed in the late 60s, back when they were cutting classes at the University of Houston, back when the beach was new and fresh and the green tides of spring and summer always seemed to produce heavy stringers. It was back when Casey did not ache; back when M.D. Anderson was not a lifeline, but just another building in the Medical Center.

The three friends enjoyed wading the bay shore behind the pass, "free shrimping" with light lines and No. 8 Eagle Claw "triple strength" trebles to catch speckled trout, redfish, sheepshead, ladyfish, and flounder in the deep gut behind Rooster's Camp. Now and then, somebody would hook a jackfish or a Spanish mackerel.

And on those crystal days when the surf ran green and full of life - Like now! - How they loved to plow into the foam and cast Tony 5H's and Dixie Jets and 52M MirrOlures. The surf-run specks always seemed larger and stronger than the bay fish.

The three friends agreed that wading and plugging were the ultimate extension of the sport. It was their school of fishing, the classic Gulf Coast approach honed by the old masters such as Rudy Grigar, Felix Stagno, and Anton Stettner. The fast reels, light lines, and whippy rods had a correctness that heavy boat and pier tackle could not equal, and the one-on-one contact of a sharp strike at the end of a long cast was supreme. You planted your feet into the sand and savored the first powerful surge of the running fish as the tide tugged at your khakis and the salty sun burned into your face.

And the big speckled trout was the spotted grail. The only light-tackle fish on a plug that could rival a sow speck was a snook, but you had to go to Deep South Texas or, better, Florida or Mexico to catch snook. The wonderful trout were within reach of a tank of gas on the next green tide.

The three friends fished hard through graduation and, with Vietnam raging, left fate to chance with the draft lottery. It was understood that anybody holding a number less than 150 was "West-Pac bound." Ed's number, based on his drawn birthdate, was a bulletproof 348. Barring thermo-nuclear war he wasn't going anywhere except San Luis Pass.

Casey and Biff were goners, both drawing double-digit numbers. Casey joined the Marines; following six months at Camp Pendleton he was on a troop transport to Vietnam. Biff joined the Navy and was accepted into officer candidate school; after the four-month training in Newport he was assigned to an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin. They agreed that Ed had used up every fraction of luck for big trout and hot babes and anything else that mattered.

In May of 1969, a guy on the Flagship Pier caught the state-record 13-pound, 2-ounce speckled trout. Casey got word of the huge surf-runner when Ed's FPO letter caught up with him at the Tan Son Nhut air base. He promptly relayed the news to the USS Hancock on Yankee Station. The pier fish subsequently was beaten by several trout from the Baffin Bay/Laguna Madre complex, but the documented catch proved that the surf can yield rhino-class specks.

Casey returned stateside in 1971. He had a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart - and he was ready for a Red Reel and a Green Tide. He seldom spoke of his experiences "over there," but allowed that the greatest hardship endured by Ensign Biff no doubt was a sore butt from sitting in CVA 19's wardroom and reading Field & Stream and Playboy.

During the early '70s the three friends began fishing together again. The efforts were intense but the returns were mixed. Even the most promising tides often yielded meager results; unregulated gill netting and beach seining for the commercial market was draining the coastal finfish resource.

The Gulf Coast Conservation Association was formed in Houston in 1977 and the three friends were enthusiastic supporters. Casey remembered the big banquets at the old Emerald Ballroom, when they would bid on framed Cowan prints and exotic fishing trips. A good one was the snook fishing trip to the Everglades.

The laws were passed and the nets were outlawed and the fishing along the Texas coast began to rebound. The freeze of '83 was a major setback but the tide for conservation was turning and, now and then, something grand would happen.

Casey cast again, jumping the smack of a curling wave, and recalled the morning in 1984 when he caught his career-best trout, a 31-inch fish that weighed 10-4 on certified grocery scales. The surf was much like today. Biff strung a 9 and an 8 on the on the same tide. The surf was alive with fish and the two pluggers stood side-by-side and caught their limits. It was their greatest session.

Ed was back in Houston, arguing with his future ex-fiancée, a fact that two of the three friends took great pleasure in reconstructing whenever they reunited at the beach house - partial payback for 348.

Casey shuffled to the right, angling with the prevailing wind. Another smooth cast arced and dropped. He was alone in perfect surf, a magical experience savored by anglers and wave riders. But he missed the two distinctive silhouettes bobbling along the bar - Biff in his ratty straw hat and Ed under the Styrofoam helmet. Both were stuck inside the 610 Loop. Conflicting schedules and busy cell phones seemed to unravel most of their trips in recent years.

The lone angler shrugged. It was fun with your friends even when it was semi-right, even when the whipping wind cut the water to sandy chops. Some of the fondest memories were of "fiasco" expeditions, like the time the tent blew down on Curlew Island over on the Chandeleurs. Or when the buggy got stuck south of Sixth Pass down in Mexico. Case-hardened companions make it work. That, and maybe a bottle of aged rum.

Casey retrieved a long cast, using the practiced stuttered cadence, and regretted that his two sons did not feel the oneness with a green tide. They took more after Sally, never caring for the "real outdoors." David uses weekends for golf and Niles does whatever it is they do in Montrose.

Casey wished he could share the special days with his boys but some things just don't work out. He flexed the rod and punched the 52M28 across the warm wind. His mind wandered but subconscious training directed the long arc beyond a rippling mat of mullet. He seldom cast without purpose. Fish follow bait.

When the strike came, Casey thought, "Jackfish!"

A vicious weight slammed into the lure and the limber rod swept down as line tore from the reel. A stud jack, he confirmed. Too much fish for a trout.

Casey leaned against the straining rod and thumbed the power in the running spool. Or maybe it's a king mackerel - the big ones sometimes ride the green water onto the beach.

The initial run carried 40 or 50 yards and slowed. The 12-pound monofilament line lifted across the water, indicating that the fish was stalling near the surface. The long line plucked through a humping swell, hanging briefly on a golden wad of sargassum weed, then pulled free and angled up the beach.

Casey clamped down and pulled back. The line stretched tighter and he felt a sudden and familiar head-shake. He knew!

An immense speckled trout wallowed on the surface. It was a speckled trout beyond belief. It was larger than any of the Baffin Bay fish. Baffin Bay, hell - Jurassic Bay. The great sow kicked with a crash of spray and bore for deeper water.

Casey shuffled along the bar, using his thumb on the spool, fearful of being "stripped." The second run faltered and stopped. Less than 15 yards remained on the reel.

He began pumping and reeling. The trout made a short dash, then stalled and turned. Casey regained most of the line and the fish glided past, finning through a gathering swell. The apparition was brief, first a fleeting image of gray, then a long flash of silver amid the sun-sparkle of green.

The trout was impossibly long - 37 or 38 inches. Casey saw the black spots and the bold eye. The red-and-gold four-inch plug pinned to the jaw was strangely small, out of register.

The tired head bucked and the fish turned, fading into the green as the rod tip dipped and line turned slowly from the reel. The spotted fan of waving tail looked as wide as two spread hands.

Casey loosened the star drag and gave line under a gracious thumb. This was no time to snub the fish or rush the landing. He worked the trout around in a slow circle, turning to keep the rod square with the angle of the line cutting the water.

Casey got another big look. He judged the trout against five decades of experience - without hesitation, 15 or 16 pounds. Maybe closer to 18. It was as awesome as an Everglades snook.

The rod lifted with authority and the ponderous sow yielded, sliding close on its side. One hook - the rear treble - was hung in the upper jaw, well back near the hinge. The standard across-the-shoulder hand grab was out of the question with such a massive fish, but the flared gill covers would provide a clutch hold under the throat.

Casey paused, realizing the magnitude of the fish. Somehow, against preposterous odds, the trout had survived, dodging freezes and diseases and who knows how many assaults. Then Casey had cast.

Ten years ago, Casey would have strung the trout and raced to the scales and the camera and the record book. But this fish, which had come from nowhere and after so long, was a statement against the changes and pressures that were squeezing the tides. It represented the promise that ever-beckons in fishing.

Perhaps that was reward enough. Casey knew that, for him, it was slipping away. He did not have many magic tides left. But he had seen the best of it and it had marked his life and for that he was grateful.

His friends - what a shame Biff and Ed weren't wading alongside to share the moment. But they would believe him.

The speckled trout floated in glorious submission against the high rod. The tilted head with its two snout teeth was as cruel as a barracuda's. The fine scales of the long body were iridescent, glowing silver and green and lavender. The clear current washed over the shining fish and stirred the fins. The life flexed through the rod.

Casey reached and placed a hand on the slab side. He gave it a soft pat. Then he reached with the crusty needle-nosed pliers that had grabbed so many hooks, and with a quick twist popped the treble free. He gave the tail a push, a silent salute, and the trout was gone.