Memory Lane: How I Got Where I Am Today

Memory Lane: How I Got Where I Am Today
All fish caught during afternoon minor feed period, up shallow on Custom Corky Floating Fat Boys. Great group of guys that are totally catch and release anglers.

What a year 2020 was…right? But let us not dwell on the negative. Let us instead be thankful for all that we have endured, knowing that we are stronger for the experience. I hope all of you are doing well with the Covid pandemic and the economic struggle it has brought for many. Texas is a great state in a great country with tougher than tough residents. I am just so proud of us and I hope you are as well.

This month’s article is going to be a departure from my normal, How-Where-When teaching pieces. I am going to share a perspective gained through a fishing guide’s now 63-year-old eyes, things my 25-year-old eyes could not see. I hope you will not be disappointed.

For background – I began writing for the Rockport Pilot in the early 1980s and then graduated to Tom Nix’s Saltwater Angler.  When Tom passed unexpectedly in 2003 I came to work for Everett and Pam here at Texas Saltwater Fishing Magazine and it has provided me a platform from which I could promote saltwater fishing alongside the effort to promote my guiding business. In addition to my writing I have presented fishing seminars all over Texas. Seventeen years ago I started the Jay Watkins Fishing Club with the help of Ken Vestal of Creative Visions. The online updates on that members-only platform provide day by day, wade by wade, blow by blow information every day that I fish.

None of what I do would be possible without the help of many great people. My latest fishing education outreach is Instagram, mostly tips and other little things that can make us better anglers. Lisa and Lindsey Laskowski, owners of Magnolia Moon Media, are huge helpers with this social media venture and the real reason many of you have received messages from me. Heck, I’m a fisherman, I basically had no clue about Instagram messaging when we started this gig. 

So, there’s lots going on in my fishing world and with copy deadlines, video updates and blogs, I sometimes forget what it is that I truly love about fishing. In this article we are going to focus on learning more about how to truly enjoying fishing, please bear with me as I try to allow you to see through my eyes all the enjoyment a day on the water can provide. Hopefully, you will see and understand how I arrived at the point where I am today.

All the perspectives I will share are based on my own guiding experiences, no others. For the record, I am guilty of having negatively impacted and promoted the wrong aspects of the sport, and the fishery, in my younger career.

I was a “string ‘em up” guy in the beginning. Hero stringers, “Hey, look at me!” I said it was good for business. Mike McBride says it was a “sausage measuring contest.” Crude way to put it but, looking back, that’s pretty much what it was. Good days were gauged by how many we could string and limits were the goal. I cultured this attitude amongst my clients; I alone was to blame.  

The focus eventually shifted to catching bigger fish, especially trout. I spent my entire career in a bay system that was never known nor likely will ever be known as a trophy trout fishery. Have we caught trophy trout in the Aransas Bay System? Yes! Does the possibility still exist? Certainly, but several other bay systems offer anglers much better chances for success.

I enjoyed the success of being able to target and catch larger trout but I had still not been able to return many of these fish to the water. I was not promoting keeping larger trout because I believed my people needed them; the honest truth is that I felt it made me look good. This continued until the late Tom Nix organized the first saltwater tournament series with emphasis on live weigh-in. The tournament also featured a four trout limit for a two man team – groundbreaking stuff. The success and upshot of Tom’s tournaments spawned what we see today in just about all the major redfish and trout tournaments here in Texas.

I did the tournament thing, won some and lost more than I won. At one point I had to decide what and who I wanted to be. Chase the tournaments or become a better guide and step out of the limelight to become someone that led others to memorable days on the water? Little did I know that the direction I chose would start me on a journey that I’m still on today.

Over the next seventeen years I started to incorporate teaching and coaching of individuals wanting to become better anglers. I hope in the following paragraph you can get a sense of the emotional connection I have gained with the world I call my home most days. I have grown in my belief of the importance of the role we as fishermen play in the conservation efforts that will preserve our fishery for future generations.

My day starts around 4:45 AM. My truck is loaded with fishing gear, my fishing cloths are laid out in the laundry room the night before. Coffee is brewing as I wash my face and teeth and get dressed in my tackle room so that I will not wake Renee. Out the door by 5:15, which starts one of the best times of the day for me. Rockport is so peaceful in the early morning hours. I roll my windows down to enjoy the smell of the bay.  

I love sipping coffee and riding along the waterfront. I remember living on Water Street and walking downtown when downtown was only a few stores. I like the sound of the shrimp boats idling in the harbor and the waking of the birds. I love the silhouettes of the cranes that roost in the windswept live oaks. Heading north I stop and put ice in the boat. There’s the nice man that owns the two automatic ice plants in town. He is deaf but he signs good morning to me. Hard working man and I admire that in people.

Motoring north on 35, I cross the Copano Causeway. When the old causeway fishing pier was still open I could see the fishing lights on the pier with a few hardcore anglers still fishing. I sometimes see me and my dad standing at the twelfth light, him towering over me as I lean over the rail working our modified speck rigs. My dad would cut the back jig off and replace with a 52M MirrOlure. I wonder if from heavens shores he checks in on me from time to time as I wade the Cavasso shoreline, another of our favorite areas. When I think of Copano I can’t help but think of Robert Brooks. He helped me learn Copano’s winter fishing patterns, lessons I will never forget.  

Heading into Lamar, I pass the old Mills Wharf-Sea Gun resort. Still pink but much faded. This was the hub of saltwater fishing where many of the charter boats were moored. On the Park Road and slowing so the deer can move to the side as my high beams signal my approach. On my left I see Charlie Hale’s house and Bob Parks, two old-time guides from way back. Charlie did more with one arm than most could with two. Bob was the gentler one, nice man as I remember. Mullet Gregory and his wife June lived a couple of streets over. They shrimped in Copano and St. Charles bays. Everyone on the water knew their boat, the June Bug.

Entering the State Park and pulling up to the dock to ready for the day. It’s very crowded most days, this being only one of three launching facilities in the area. I am typically short and sometimes not too nice at the dock. Jay Ray tells people that Dock Jay and Bay Jay are totally different guys. He’s right, I am particular about my routine. Any interruptions can start a negative vibe in me. I’m working on this.

My guys are on time, rigged and ready. I am happy again as we idle away from the dock. Up and running now, sound of the boat and the smell of the day trigger all the senses that make this the only thing I could ever do. Now the questions begin about where we might start our day. My answer is most always the same. “The fish will tell us the answer to that.” Running east, the grey light of predawn yields to brilliant orange and shades of blue. No sunrise is ever the same and the view from my office window is never the same, nor has it ever disappointed. “The man sure can paint,” I think to myself.

I am checking the ICW marker pilings and points of shell reefs to determine tide level and movement. Quick glances at the onboard water temperature gauge adds valuable intel. With the conditions present on this particular morning, I am headed to windward shoreline guts or windward reef edges. There’ll be signs that point me in the proper direction. Scanning the horizon I search for what looks like bricks hitting the surface in the distance. Brown pelicans hitting the surface over schools of baitfish the wind is stacking along shorelines or reef edges.

“There they are, 500 yards out,” I mutter to myself. My talking, which is too much most of the time, is just me verbalizing what I am thinking. By repeating over and over, the patterns have become ingrained in my head. When I see a familiar scene, my brain computes what my eyes are seeing.

Ease in now and get my group mentally prepared by laying out the picture in front of us. “Ease in guys. Make long casts and be patient, we want the fish to come to us.” Being observant is the key to any good fisherman’s success, but taking mental notes of these observations are the keys to being able to repeat the process.

As I instruct I notice a kingfisher sitting on a dead salt cedar, waiting for a small fish or crab to come into view. In the background I hear that telltale calling of three whooping cranes feeding just inside the flooded grass. A male and female with their juvenile chick call to one another from time to time. A redfish crashes in in the flooded grass, a sound that one never forgets once identified. An osprey chirps as it hunts from hundreds of feet above. “If we are lucky guys, we’ll see her dive and catch a fish.” Kingfishers are the absolute best of fishermen. A great blue heron stands motionless in the tall, flooded grass. It’s become part of its surroundings and goes almost unnoticed by the group. “See that small slick that just popped in the gut along the shoreline? Look upwind for the first piece of underwater structure. That’s home to what made it.”

As bites are received and fish are caught, it is often easy to overlook all of the things around us. These are things that are meant to be enjoyed and deserve our attention. On this day I watch my group as they slide parallel to the shoreline gut that we are focused on. Bites are scattered but when we get bit, it’s the right fish.

Question: If they happen to not be the right ones, if there is such a thing, are we to be unhappy with the wade? If we are we are missing all too much of what the day is offering. I think you can see this in the lines above. Our day ended with some solid fish and a lot of what I refer to as “just trout.” Something I am trying to correct.   

Fishing for me is still about the chase. It’s calling your shots, making it happen when it is not supposed to happen. But it’s also about being observant and appreciative of all that is going on around me all of the time. If teaching leads to learning and learning becomes knowledge we should be smart enough to take in all that we can each and every day we are able to be on the water. We owe it to ourselves to give ourselves the chance to truly enjoy all there is to fishing, besides simply the catching.

I hope you enjoyed this month’s article and I hope that your next visit to your favorite shoreline provides you with a little better insight into all that is really out there for us.

May your fishing always be catching!  -Guide Jay Watkins

Pinch Points Concentrate Fish: