- The First Time -
I am watching an undulating blob seep over a map of Charleston County. It is mostly green when the time-lapse starts, but it quickly melts into a yellow and red mess making its way east towards the Atlantic Ocean.
The Doppler radar didn’t bode well for a trip out to try and find some fish… but the skiff was new, or new to me at least, and I had a feeling that I was probably, maybe, going to catch my first redfish on a fly rod.
The time-lapse says the majority of the storm will be off the coast by 6 o’clock.
I tell my wife yes, Rob and I are still actually going, and not to worry; we would be safe.
She says okay, but she clearly isn’t thrilled about the idea of me being on the water. I head to the garage quickly knowing further conversation may lead to more rational decisions.
I put the gear and my 8 weight into the skiff. I pick up my spinning rod and look at it for a few seconds. Don’t do that… if it’s not on the boat I don’t have the option, I tell myself putting it back in its holder.
Barreling down the road towards the coast, my phone lights up. Rob wants to know where I am. I remind him that the lightening isn’t going anywhere anytime soon which doesn’t do much to calm him down. He may have it worse than I do.
I had met Rob through work the previous spring. He was a self-proclaimed redneck, a salty one at that, from Stone Mountain, Georgia. He only drank Budweiser and only dipped Copenhagen snuff; everything else was for pussies, or so he told me. He was 39 years old living in Missoula, Montana when his wife got the itch to be closer to family. He tells me a second kid will do that to a woman.
Rob reluctantly began looking for jobs and just so happened to get me on the other end of one of his applications. I was working as a recruiter in Charleston at the time. My company ended up placing him with a local client in the area.
We were fast friends as we quickly realized that we had a mutual obsession with fishing and a love for the outdoors. We walked the same flat a handful of times that summer. The one the local fly and tackle shops give out to tourists as a “good place to start.” We would occasionally see tailing fish, but we were never able to seal the deal.
We pull into the Isle of Palms Marina parking lot around 5:45. The rain and lightning were still a little heavier than we had hoped, so we duck into the Marina Market to grab some Budweiser and beef jerky.
We have enough waiting by 6:30, so we get the gear situated, back the truck down the ramp, and put the skiff in the water.
Light rain falls as we motor south down the Intracoastal past Goat Island. The front had brought cooler air and pushed the wind off shore. The water looks like mercury glass as the rain lightly disturbs its surface.
By 7 o’clock we are snaking up the zigzagging creek towards the flat. The creek begins to thin out and get skinnier until, eventually, we can’t trim the motor any higher without fear of burning up the impeller. I kill the engine, trim the motor, and climb up on the poling platform to push us the last ten yards into the basin.
The flat is about a third of a mile long by a quarter mile wide and is shaped like the head of a periscope. The creek we came up dumps us into the center of the flat where the water begins to fill into the grass as the tide pushes in.
Despite the storm, we are still a little early. Poling the boat is difficult as the hull drags in the grass. We need to wait for more water, so Rob advises that we stake out in the topside of a pocket being fed by several small creeks. We open a couple of Bud heavies and Rob explains to me how a can of Budweiser has the same nutritional value as a pork chop.
It’s hard to see, but it happens quickly and soon the boat is floating a little higher. We jump back into position, me on the poling platform and Rob on the bow, eight-weight in hand.
After about five minutes, a tail breaks the mirrored plane of the blue-grey water and lazily waves at us as a bolt of lightning streaks over our heads spreading out slowly like a spurge weed. We dismiss the lightning despite the fact that we are both holding ten and twenty-foot graphite and carbon fiber lightning rods.
The same fish appears again, about ten yards to the left of where we had first seen it, moving away from the stern of the boat.
Rob scurries to the back of the skiff and strips line off of his reel as he tight-ropes the gunwale. His first cast is short and wide left. He false casts twice, stripping and shooting more line in the process, and lays the fly down in the direction the fish was headed.
The water explodes when the fish bumps into the bright orange floating line. The fish had cut back and made a right turn towards the boat, making Rob’s cast about ten feet too long. We sulk for a few minutes and replay what we should have done differently.
After composing ourselves, we head back to our pulpits. We work into a few more fish but they all seem to disappear as soon as we come into casting range.
Rob decides he has had enough and just wants to catch a goddamned fish. He reels up his fly line and puts his rod under the gunnel trading it for a spinning rod. He doesn’t waste time as he grabs a mummichog, hooks it through the top of its head, and climbs back on the bow.
Another fish slinks through the grass forty yards away. I push the skiff about twenty-five yards and stop the boat. The fish makes quick work of the mud minnow and Rob lets out a loud hoot as he brings the fish over the side and onto the skiff.
I smirk at him as I crack a fresh beer and remind him that it doesn’t count unless it’s with a fly rod. He rolls his eyes as I hand him the push pole and we trade spots.
Rob has not had much time on a polling platform and struggles to maneuver the skiff. The wind is picking up, making things more difficult on both of us. After a few desperately long casts it looks as though our night might be coming to an end. The water is draining quickly, and I do not want to risk getting stuck. Spending the night stuck in the marsh doesn’t sound like a great plan.
It was a three-hundred-yard pole back to the creek mouth where we had entered the flat two hours earlier, so Rob and I traded spots again as I’d be able to get us there more quickly. We don’t see any more fish on the way off.
We putter down the winding creek, not much wider than the skiff, feeling satisfied and glad to at least have the skunk off of the boat, even if it doesn’t actually count.
There’s still some light so we decide to nose into the grass and check out the confluence of three small drainages as they came off of the main flat and into the creek. The area doesn’t seem to be holding any fish after a few minutes of scouting so we decide to call it a night. I kick the engine on and maneuver the boat out of the grass and back into the creek.
We had only gone about five yards when I spot a tailing redfish on a small flat off to the right. I kill the motor and grab my eight-weight as the boat slides into the edge of the grass just in time to watch the fish as it pushes across the far side of the flat and out of reach.
The berm separating the flat from the creek is too thick to get the boat through. There is no way we are going to be able to pole this section. I sit down and slide myself off of the bow into the knee high water and began walking towards where the fish is tailing sixty yards away.
I had only gone a few feet when Rob calmly calls a tailing fish at thirty feet to my right.
A slow wake pushes through the grass lazily heading towards me.
I strip off a few yards of line as every poor cast I have ever made to a redfish runs through my head. There would only be one shot to get the cast right.
The fly lands sixteen inches directly in front of the fish with a light plop. I watch the wake speed up and then abruptly stop exactly where I think my fly is. I hold my breath and twitch my line.
The water boils as the fish flares his gill plates and sucks up the black and purple fly. As my line begins to tighten, I remember to keep my rod tip down pointed straight at the fish. I pull once to set the hook and again to ensure the fly buried deep in the fish’s mouth.
The set is followed by a strong burst of energy as the fish realizes something is not right. It turns and heads toward a patch of taller thicker grass.
I do my best to stay calm and pay attention to my line clearing, doing my best to make sure it does not wrap around the cork handle or my reel while trying to keep just the right amount of pressure on the fish.
The line clears quickly and the fish continues its tear through the spartina. I begin stumbling after the fish trying to keep as much line out of the grass as possible. My legs sink a different depth with each step into the soupy pluff mud.
The fish makes its way towards a pond in the middle of the flat as I follow behind, as best I can, trying to gain line.
Just as the fish is about to swim into the pond, my right leg sinks up to the knee in the mud. The fish abruptly changes direction and starts heading towards me. I flail wildly doing my best to keep the pressure on while trying to free my submerged leg.
The line goes slack for a half second. I reel as fast as I can, fearing the fish had bested me, but then the tension comes back. The fish breaks into the pond and the hard part is over.
I steadily gain line as it swims left and then right.
The skies open up and rain begins to poor down as I reach into the water to lift up the exhausted fish. I stand on the edge of a pond fifty yards from where I had started.
Soaking wet and covered in mud, gratitude floods through me as I look into the fish’s bright yellow eye. Its amber gold scales give way to a bright white underbelly. The deep black spot is complimented by an iridescent purple lining the tip of its tail. The fish is gorgeous, and I am not sure I will top the way I feel in this moment.
The rain passes and the orange skies give way to the blue black of night. Hoots of elation ring out across the water as we speed down the Intracoastal towards the boat ramp.