Turning the Page

Turning the Page
J.P. DaFonte caught this splendid 30-inch trout dangling a worm under a cork, verifying the value inherent to remaining ready to evolve with changing conditions.

On those long and chilly boat rides north of Baffin Bay, I would listen to the engine droning out its one-tone song, and I'd think about the trout I caught or lost the trip before. There I was, on the boat again; there I was, out on the stage. There I'd go, playin' the part again; there I'd go, to turn the page.

Obviously, the previous words pay homage to Bob Seger's famous song. I honor them here because I find the central concept of his tune relevant when considered in the context of the multi-faceted art-form we call angling. Regularly, inevitably, things don't play out exactly as planned, and we're forced to alter our methods in order to catch fish.

All accomplished lure chunkers make and execute plans, and all rely on proven principles to generate their plans and to make choices about changing them. The plan for a day of fishing in some ways resembles a song, or a book of scripted plays, like the ones coaches use to orchestrate the offense in a football game. At some point, circumstances and events will conspire to force the creator of the plan to deviate from the envisioned sequences and to metaphorically turn the page.

Turning the page in a day of fishing might involve scrapping the plan to fish somewhere because of sensory observations made on the way to the place. When a captain spots several slicks popping in a cove full of panicked, airborne mullet, pulling into the area often makes more sense than racing past it, toward a previously determined destination. Certainly, some anglers will use the steering wheel to change their planned course when they spot a tightly bunched flock of squawking gulls hovering and diving along the way to a new spot.

Turning the page might also involve altering tactics, usually because the ones originally deemed most appropriate don't work well enough. Less often, when the first plan works really well, anglers might make a switch because they feel free to experiment, in the hopes some other play might produce even more bites, or bites from bigger fish. This sometimes applies in the area of lure-choice. I've used the concept of switching "up" to catch big trout many times in my career.

I did on the last day of October, in 1998, when I first made myself known to the top trout fishermen in the state. While competing in the inaugural Troutmasters Classic, I started the breezy, balmy day throwing a Spit'n Image, using the lure as a kind of fish-finder, also to prove the fish would blow up on floating plugs as I suspected they would, and as they had the day before. Once I succeeded in earning three or four strikes within the first eight or ten casts, I made a conscious decision to switch to a larger topwater, in hopes of attracting the attention of the biggest fish within my reach.

I selected a brand new bone Ghost, one I'd been given in my bag of goodies at the captain's meeting the night before, then caught the tournament-winning trout on the first cast. The fat fish snatched the lure from the air as it jumped from the crest of one wave to another, while I employed what I call a skim and pause retrieve. I well understand my prize trout might have made the same kind of determined attempt to kill and eat the Spit'n Image had I left it on the end of the line, but no one can deny the events turned out precisely as I intended.

The same can be said about the events of the morning of the first day of February 2014. I and a customer started a wade right before daybreak on the west end of Cathead, in water reading a shade under 50 degrees. The value had risen from the low mark reached about a day earlier, in the wake of one in a long series of bitter cold fronts that raked across the Texas coast between December 2013 and March of '14. I instructed my customer to tie on an eighth-ounce jighead and work a soft plastic low and slow, dragging it on the bottom and hopping it up lightly every few feet or so.

"Be ready, though," I said. "If we start catching easily enough, or if the bites feel really aggressive, I'll be switching up to a slow-sinking twitchbait." About fifty yards into the session, having caught at least half a dozen trout on about ten bites, and as we approached one of the productive micro-spots related to the rock formations lying close to the famous sand bar, a fish attacked my Provoker with deadly intent. The message in the hard whack traveled down the braided line, through my hands and into the processing center in my mind; I knew the time had come to add a new riff to my solo in the song of the day.

So, I snipped the worm off my line and replaced it with a gold/chartreuse Catch 5, then threw it past the spot where the bite occurred and walked my dog right into the scene. The fish didn't strike the noisy, wobbling plug with any inspiring intensity, but the tap I felt turned into a slug-fest with a heavy fish, one that eventually pulled the springs on the Boga Grip far enough to reveal the ten-pound line on the scale. I strongly felt the scene had more to give, and turned to my customer, hoping he would help me take the improvisation to another level.

I coaxed him to tie on a Paul Brown Fat Boy, and he did, while expressing his concern with the plan. "I've never caught a fish on one of these," he admitted. Acknowledging the fact, I gave him some quick pointers and told him the moment had as much potential for learning how to use the lure as any we might imagine. Within no more than a half a dozen casts, he hooked, fought and landed a 29-inch, 8-pound trout, the biggest of his life, adding a whole new verse to a supremely satisfying set. The song of the day ended with a higher crescendo, when he caught an even bigger trout.

Years before, in quite different circumstances, on an April morning, I made a similar play to catch the heaviest trout of my career. While wading a normally productive stretch of shoreline in Alazan Bay, four customers and I struck out. I walked back to retrieve the boat, and when I pulled it into the shallows to pick up the crew, intending to move to a completely different section of the bay, I saw first one, then two, then a third long needlefish dancing on its tail, obviously in fear for its life. I can't say I knew exactly what kind of predators might inspire such fear, but I knew enough to scrap the original plan and try to identify them.

So, rather than load up my customers and make a longer move, I told them what I'd seen and sent them in the direction of the meaningful action. I followed them, taking the inside, where the water seemed too shallow to even fully cover the back of a monster trout. A few minutes into the walk, I watched my giant come off a small grass bed and attack my floating Fat Boy from behind. I had to grit my teeth and force myself not to react until I felt her weight on the line. At a shade over 31 inches, weighing ten and a half pounds, she verified my prediction in a picture perfect way. Sometimes, the script reads "exit stage left," but the door to the right becomes a better choice when it's time to turn the page.

Keeping the head on a swivel and paying attention to everything in sight plays a role in opening the doors of perception and revealing the truth inherent to the unfolding scene. On the last day of March 2015, I'd just moved to the flat between Baldy and the bar lying to its south, fishing in bright sun and gusty winds in the midst of a brown-tide event. We'd been catching some trout, but no big ones, throwing soft plastics dangled under corks. Soon after we jumped out a bit west of Yarbrough Pass, I and a client caught twin trout measuring about 23 inches. These were better fish, but they didn't distract me from all the frantic mullet I saw flying around between me and an old oil-field ditch running south to north, into the shallowest part of the area.

I told the guys I'd investigate, and caught a 30-inch trout within minutes of arriving in the midst of the melee. I waved the group into the skinny water, and not long after they joined me, I caught another of the most significant fish of my career, a ten pounder measuring about 31 and 1/2 inches. The memory of the strike, fight and landing of such a splendid trout in water barely hiding my wading boots will remain indelibly etched in my memory until my dying day. Respecting their obvious significance, I used the events of that afternoon to formulate a new plan for the next day.

Early the next morning, I knew exactly where I wanted to fish, but I didn't start the day off throwing the cork and jig. With lighter winds in play, and the light level low, I figured the big trout lurking over mooshy grass beds in our corner of the lagoon might have their eyes turned upward looking for breakfast, so I tied on a hothead Spook Junior. Around the time the sun peeked over the horizon to greet a new day, I caught another 30-incher, validating my new plan. But, we didn't continue throwing topwaters all day; once the sun climbed high, we tweaked the script again and went back to dangling soft plastics a foot or so under corks, and one of my clients caught another picture-worthy fish, adding a productive play to our new book.

All these details document the value inherent to the combination of intelligent vigilance and a willingness to evolve in the moment. As the clock ticks, situations change; players in a game should attempt to alter the script accordingly. In the fishing game, evolving sometimes means making a slight adjustment in lure-choice; sometimes it dictates moving to a new location, maybe one close by, maybe half a bay away.

Bob Seger used the famous phrase to describe an aspect of his life as a musician―the road required him to roll with the changes, like a tumbling dice. He referenced the emotions inherent to constantly moving from one town to the next, from gig to gig and stage to stage, out of the arms of one fan, into the eyes of another. For me, as a guide and angler, turning the page means keeping the senses alive, finding the way to the next big thing and fishing like a rock star.