Sunday, January 28, 2007

Polar bears

One day a baby polar bear approaches his mother with a confused expression on his face and says, "Mom? Am I a polar bear?"

I arrived at the campground to find my only child sprawled on the ground, surrounded by a gaggle of 7-year-olds, his sneakers smoldering.

As I carefully removed his charred socks and then applied a rag soaked in icewater to the blisters on his ankles, he sobbed out the story.

Apparently he and three of his friends had been playing by the lake shore when they saw a large depression filled with grey powder. It looked interesting -- or maybe something on the other side did -- so they waded right through it, Patrick in the lead.

Later he said he thought the stuff drifting off the top was dust stirred-up by the wind. I suppose smoke might look like wind-blown dust. Or ash.

Either way, it was the last time he was truly warm the entire weekend.

"Well of course son!"
The cub replied, "You're sure I'm not a panda bear or a black bear?"

"Pack 20 Polar Bear Campout." The title of the event alone should have warned me away.

By sundown the wind whipping off the lake was truly cutting. The "observatory," which for some reason I had imagined as a heated, domed building with a sliding roof -- maybe with an open bar and a fireplace -- turned out to be a bunch of telescopes set up in a field at the top of a hill.


Later, after the campfire had been lit, various adults repeatedly warned the 70-some-odd elementary kids not to stray inside the logs laid around the fire. You could see that it was probably warmer in there, but you couldn't get quite close enough to tell for sure.

"No, of course not. Now run outside and play."
But the baby polar bear is still confused so he approaches his father.
The cub asks, "Dad, am I a polar bear?"

By 9 p.m., the wine was gone and there was nothing left to do but go to bed. Suddenly the "0-degree" sleeping bags Cabela's sent me looked inviting.

I tried for a few minutes to read by flashlight, but to do that I also had to leave my arms outside the bag. No good.

"Why of course son!" the papa polar bear gruffly replies.
The cub continues, "I don't have any grizzly bear or Koala bear in my bloodlines?"

10:30: I've inadvertently unzipped my bag in my restless sleep, and the cold is flooding in across my left ass cheek. I zip the bag up again and roll over.

11:23: I awake to the wailing of some Cub Scout's little brother, somewhere on the other side of the camp. The banshee-like screams continue until 11:47.

12:13: Patrick has rolled into the tent pole and I awake with a layer of nylon across my face. Our breath has condensed and formed ice on the inside of the tent.

2:21: I awake again and realize that I have to pee. I ponder this until about 2:29, when I decide it's just not worth it.

3:40: I really have to pee. I struggle out of my sleeping bag, don my hiking boots and jacket, and unzip the tent. It's freezing, probably because the evening's cloud cover has blown away. A million stars spangle the night sky. I hear something clattering on the ground as I go about my business. I'm pretty sure it's my urine, turning to ice.

4:17: Patrick rolls over and says: "I always wake up at this time when we're camping." Patrick, I say, it's 4:17 in the morning. "Oh," he replies. The diffused starlight through the top of the tent, refracted by the ice that has again formed there, looked like the gray light of dawn.

5:10: I awake from a nightmare in which the surgeon who performed my back surgery in June is standing over me, frowning and wagging his finger. I roll over and try to ease the ache that's spreading from my lower back into my thighs.

"No son. I'm a polar bear, your mother is a polar bear, and by god you too are one hundred percent purebred polar bear!! Why in the world do you ask?"
"Because I'm freezing my BUTT off!"

6:30: I wake-up again, and hear the voices of kids running across the campground. Maybe, I think, someone has coffee on. I stumble out of the tent and head across the campground. Still rubbing sleep out of my eyes, I stop and stare at the dad who apparently is standing in the fire. Sparks swirl and dance around him. I push through the two ranks of sleepy campers who are toasting their hands over the flames and ask him if there's room for two.

7:05: Sitting in my truck with the heat on high, trying to gather the courage to get back out and pack up.

7:27: Packing sleeping bags and the tent one-handed, as I desparetly clutch a cup of hot coffee in the other. Nick, the Cub Scout pack's grand poobah, walks over and hands Patrick a patch.

The patch shows three polar bears walking across an ice flow with the words: "It froze in Texas."

What?! These guys knew it was gonna do this? They knew far enough in advance to have patches made?

That's it.

For the second time in my life I'm quitting Cub Scouts. After I take a hot shower. And a nap.

Photos courtesy Pack 20.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Schaumberg, who are you?

I don't really need to know, but I am curious. Send me an e-mail, or post a comment. I don't think I know anyone in Schaumberg, Ill.

Baton Rouge?

Belize -- hey Mike. Hope to see you sometime in the next year or so.

Mexico! Hiya Mel. Hope married life and the art world are both treating you well.

I'll get something fresh up here soon ... weekend weather here has been gruesome, and I've been busy at work. But ... I have a Cub Scout "polar bear" campout coming up this weekend, maybe a Hill Country road trip next week. Surely there will be something blog-worthy in one of those.

In the meantime, go check out Hornetbear's site. He's been fishing. Or go see Steve over at The Sneeze. Dude's hilarious. His "Ask Dr. Michael" series, from a previous webzine effort, is one of those things you read and think: "Man, why didn't I think of that?!"

In other news, keep an eye on the weather. There are rumors of a Siberian cold front headed this way at the end of next week. Some of the long-range forecasts are predicting sustained sub-freezing temps as far south as the Yucatan.

If that pans out -- and I sure hope it doesn't -- it could be disastrous for our burgeoning snook fishery. Not to mention mangrove snapper and speckled trout.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Hill Country morning

Okay, I'm starting to feel a little too much like Mr. Sensitive New Age Guy ... here's another paddlin'/fishin' story. This first appeared in Texas Fish & Game magazine in Feb. 2003.


I heard my mother's voice as I stood waist-deep in the frigid water, momentarily too stunned to react to the events that had just overtaken me.

"Pride goes before the fall." As the oldest of three children in our house, I spent the better part of my childhood repeatedly proving my mom's favorite admonition, a paraphrase of Proverbs 16:18.

To all appearances, I had done it again.

I shook myself out of my reverie, noting that the oddly out-of-place blue object racing downstream through the rapids was my cooler, and remembering that inside its zippered pocket were my wallet and keys. I sprang, wetly, into action.

Righting the boat, I leapt aboard and stroked ferociously after the soft-sided Igloo (retrieved with billfold and keys soaking, but intact). A quick turn to intercept a bobbing water bottle.

Running down a mental checklist: rod and reel most likely on the bottom, where I went over. A sweep stroke to point the bow upstream.

I leaned into the current and realized that the narrow touring blades were not going to overcome the water rushing through the channel. I quickly beached the boat and began wading against the torrent.

In the bend, caught in the submerged branches of the massive pecan that had been the architect of my embarrassment, I found the ultra-light spinning outfit.

I sighed in relief, then glanced furtively over my shoulder. Still no sign of my compadres ... maybe, I thought, I could pull this off without revealing the full extent of the disaster.

As Dub Dietrich and Wade Cherry carved their way down the chute, pulling up short in front of me, Dietrich coolly surveyed the meandering high-water mark across my shirt, then glanced to the disarray on the deck of the kayak.

"What happened?" he asked, in a voice betraying only mild concern. "Did you fall off the boat?"

"Something like that," I mumbled, unable to meet his steady gaze.

Finally, as I prepared to resume fishing, I realized the one item I had not recovered was Dietrich's tackle box--the one he had painstakingly put together for me, for this river, for this outing. Time for a full confession.

A wry mile touched Dietrich's face. Then this, in faintly mocking tones of wonderment: "Man, what kind of person capsizes a Ride? I'm just sorry I didn't see it."

Good question. The same question, in fact, I had posed earlier in the day when Dub told me the worst thing that had happened in a year of guiding kayaking trips in the Hill Country was one fellow flipping the famously stable sit-on-top boat.

On my personal list of things that can go wrong, capsizing a kayak and losing a tackle box on a fine, warm, early winter afternoon don't rank very high. Dub threw me a jighead and a couple of curly-tailed soft plastics, and--bashful blush receding from my cheeks--I was back in business.

The dunking did serve as a reminder, though, that even the seemingly benign waters of the clear-running Llano River deserved a modicum of respect.

It was part of my education that day; an education that included insights into everything from 500 million-year-old rock formations to the habits of Guadalupe bass to the ingredients of a pretty darned fine salsa.

Growing up on the Texas coast, the Hill Country had always been a sort of mythical, enchanted place for me, defined as much by its sweet, fast water as its limestone crags. Childhood forays to the Frio and Sabinal Rivers had reinforced the notion that the largely unpeopled land--and the rivers that ran through it--were, in a very real way, the heart of Texas.

Dietrich, a native of far West Texas, reached the same conclusion early-on, and for the past two decades has put it to the test by systematically exploring and fishing some of the wilder stretches of water most people glimpse only from bridges and the occasional low-water crossing.

A little more than a year ago, the independent oil and gas geologist launched Hill Country River Adventures, a kayak-based guide service catering to fishermen and naturalists.

"You just can't beat these rivers," Dietrich told me. "It doesn't get much prettier than this."

An understatement if I ever heard one; the five-mile stretch we paddled that day near Mason delighted me with its changing moods and breathtaking vistas. And lagniappe: the barred owl sitting high atop a crenellated limestone cliff; the green kingfisher--smallest and most colorful of three species in Texas--flitting along the bank just ahead of us; the spray of purple asters falling to the water along one quiet stretch.

Oh, and the fish. Lots of fish.

"If you like fish action, rivers are the way to go," Dietrich said. "You're going to catch a bunch of fish, but you're going to have a shot at one or two big fish during the day, normally. Most people come out here thinking they're going to fish five or six hours and end up fishing 11."

A late start and, possibly, the high-pressure system that had just settled over the area, slowed the bite for us that day. I brought to hand and quickly released about 30 fish--sunnies (red-breasted and green), largemouth bass, and Guadalupe bass.

Dietrich and Cherry each did a little better, with Cherry taking honors for the biggest fish--a bass over the 2-pound mark. Dietrich's personal best on the river is 5 pounds, and he's seen a 7-pounder taken from the waters. A good day is 75 fish per angler; the one-day record, so far, is more than 160.

"Occasionally, you'll find an area that will have some big bass in it, but that's kind of the exception, not the rule," said Steve Magnelia, an inland fisheries biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "Typically, what you'll find on all these Hill Country streams is, the harder the access, the better the fishing will be. Wherever access is tough, that's where you're going to find a lot of fish."

Access, and expert knowledge of what is around the next bend, is maybe the most important thing Dietrich offers his clients.

"If you don't live in the area, there's no way you can research it without extensive effort," he said. "I did an overnighter in March last year. A norther blows in, and we're paddling 11 miles into the wind."

With more than 80,000 miles of rivers and streams, Texas offers anglers plenty of river fishing options. Dietrich specializes in trips on the Llano, Blanco, Colorado, and San Marcos Rivers--the last not really a Hill Country stream at all, but one he returns to again and again. Like the others, the San Marcos boasts long stretches that see few if any fishermen on a given day, with the added attraction of the only cichlid species native to Texas.

Each river has its own attractions. On the Blanco, it is a remnant population of smallmouth bass--the vestiges of a TPWD stocking program that was put on hold in the 1970s after smallies and the indigenous Guadalupe bass began hybridizing.

The run on the Llano near Mason is one of Dietrich's favorites, a stretch of water he prizes for its solitude and its wildness (he told me he's never seen more than four other paddlers during a trip).

"On the Llano, there are no big towns or developments on the river, so it's still rugged hill country," he said. "There's very little trash. The only trash is from people partying at the low-water crossings."

About 20 percent of the remaining public land in Texas is found in streambeds, and while a guided trip can help ensure a safe and enjoyable day (or two) on the river--especially for first-time river anglers--as Dietrich points out, "it's not rocket science."

"Fishing from the kayak is simple. It' enjoyable," he said. "It's finding the right runs that's the work, and the right bait."

TPWD's Magnelia recommends downsizing everything when fishing a Hill Country stream: ultra-light conventional tackle; 5- or 6-weight fly rods, if that's your pleasure; and diminutive topwater, crankbait, and soft plastic lures.

"I'd go with some lighter stuff," Magnelia said. "You're generally fishing for smaller fish than you'll catch in a reservoir." Magnelia added that he was surprised to find so many fish (including aggressive, lure-slurping channel catfish) in the riffles, the edges of the fast water.

For the adventurous or those setting out on a follow-up solo trip after a guided one, Magnelia recommends picking up a copy of B.L. ("Bud") Priddy's 1994 classic, Fly-fishing the Texas Hill Country. Conventional anglers read it for the information about access points and river characteristics.

The Roads of Texas, distributed by Shearer Publishing, and the DeLORME Texas Atlas & Gazetteer are also useful for identifying put-in and take-out spots.

Dietrich has spent the winter months (when bookings slow) exploring new water.

"You see a river you want to do, I can do it," he told me before the holidays.

How 'bout all of them?

For more information on guided fishing trips in the Texas Hill Country, call 512-292-8215, or see Dietrich's website,

Saturday, January 13, 2007

What lies beneath

So ... that last post got me to thinking about my junior poet project again, and more generally about poetry.

I did Donne. Done did it. Because my friend Patrick already had picked Hopkins, and David Oliver Davies advised me that if I could grasp the 17th c. metaphysical poets, I could grasp just about anything.

But ... since, I find that I never read John Donne for fun. Or inspiration. Gerard Manley Hopkins, yes.


BUSY old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us ?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run ?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school-boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices ;
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

(from "The Sun Rising)

There is a sort of exuberence in Donne's language, and certainly in his "conceits" -- the images and ideas that stand for something other than their objective meanings -- and in some seasons I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him in bemoaning the day's meddling interruption.

Donne's not so bad, really.

But think now on this, Manley's recounting of a hawk on the hunt:

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
(from "The Windhoever")

The music of his verse, its rhythm and alliteration, cries to be spoken -- sung -- aloud.

Hopkins, a Jesuit priest who suffered nearly his entire life from depression, struggled mightily with his faith, with the bleakness he found in his own mind and soul.

But somehow, it appears, he never gave up.

He frequently -- in poems like "Pied Beauty" and "Spring" and, especially it seems to me, in "As kingfishers catch fire ..." -- uses what he sees in nature to illuminate what, as he saw it, lies beneath.

Invariably, for Hopkins, that is the order of God's universe; the ingeniusness of His design; and the notion that everything signifies something.

Do I believe this?

I don't know. I would like to, I suppose. I keep thinking about it. But I'm still not sure.

I'll leave you with "As kingfishers draw fire," my favorite Hopkins poem for its music, and for -- in the end -- its powerfully humanizing argument that every man and woman is imbued with the same worth and dignity.

Read this aloud:

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Four eyes and one big brain

In college, my roomate and I one semester waited tables at the same restaurant. Sometimes on the same shift.

One day a waitress there -- I think we both had a bit of a crush on her -- was refilling someone's Dr. Pepper and sort of sighed, as she gazed longingly across the room at my friend: "Trey's so smart."


"I mean, he's really, really smart," she said.

"Yeah, he's a pretty bright guy," I answered, puzzled.

A little later in the day, she said it again: "I can't get over how smart Trey is!"

I was starting to get annoyed.

"Well, ya know ... Trey and I are in a lot of the same classes and we make about the same grades," I offered.

In fact, I had just kicked his hiney in the semester-long, dreaded "Junior Poet" project. But, he was my buddy, and my intention wasn't to make him look bad ... just to make me look not quite so ... not not-smart.

The waitress eyed me speculatively.

"Yeah, but Trey looks smart."


I thought about it. And thought about it. What about Trey dressed him as a towering intellectual in the eyes of this woman?

It finally ocurred to me: the glasses. The wire-rimmed glasses he needed to do anything from read a menu to write his name.

I, on the other hand, looked like a former linebacker from Hicksville, Texas. Ironic, because Trey was the former linebacker ... but still.

Since then, I've been waiting somewhat anxiously for my eyesight to go.

For the past 16 years I've read in low light every chance I get. I frequently venture outside without sunglasses. I avoid carrots.

I've even thought about buying a pair of designer frames with, um, glass lenses. Just plain ol' glass. But it seemed a little too much like ... oh, I don't know: hair plugs; liposuction; a penile implant.

The other day I woke up and, over coffee, tried to read the newspaper. The text kept blurring. I closed my left eye: Yep, blurry. I closed my right eye: clear.

At last, I thought (monocles no longer being fashionable): Glasses!

By noon I was seeing fine. Turns out I was just hung-over.

So I'm still waiting.

Trey, on the other hand, has since moved on to contact lenses, earned his Ph.D. and is now a professor of English literature in Virginia.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Conservationists and environmentalists

In the Fall 2006 issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine, Hal Herring revealed that hunters and anglers might also be conservationists:

"To be sure, many members of the self-described hook-and-bullet community don’t look like stereotypical environmentalists. It’s no secret, and no wonder, that hunters and nonhunting environmentalists often make each other nervous.

"But what may come as a surprise is that sporting and conservation groups, including the Conservancy, frequently turn to each other as partners. And while they may not see eye-to-eye on every issue, what connects them is an understanding that healthy ecosystems mean healthy habitats for game animals."

I think maybe the tree-huggers are more surprised than the so-called "hook-and-bullet" crowd.

Hunters and anglers, in my experience, typically are conservationists. Whether that's out of some narrow self-interest (Ducks Unlimited purchases thousands of acres of wetlands and protects it to boost the numbers of migratory waterfowl) or genuine appreciation of the natural world for its own sake ... well, who knows?

Maybe a little of both.

It's a chicken-or-the-egg question for me. I can't remember if I first wanted to fish so I could be on the water, or if I wanted to be on the water so I could fish.

I do remember the first time I spent an entire morning in a duck blind watching an osprey work for its breakfast and enjoying the sight of late-season bluebills and buffleheads alighting in my decoys. I didn't fire a shot that morning.

So what's the difference between an environmentalist and a conservationist? According to Webster's, the respective objective definitions are pretty similar:

Environmentalism: 2 : advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment; especially : the movement to control pollution

Conservation: 1 : a careful preservation and protection of something; especially : planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect

Subjectively, I'm much more comfortable being called a conservationist. A conservationist, in my mind, recognizes human needs in the environment. An environmentalist, perhaps, may not.

Other than those vague connotations -- and I'm not at all sure I'm right -- I really don't know what the difference is.

Thoughts on this? Let me know.

My links ...

Okay, people; click on a link every once-in-a-while. Please. I don't get paid for them.

The linkees didn't ask to be linked ... in fact, some of them may be horrified to find out they are unwittingly associated with me.

First of all, the "TexasMix" link -- KTXN-FM out of Victoria, Texas -- really will take you to the best radio station on the planet. It's some sort of genius format only they can do: Larry Joe Taylor and Brian Burns segue to Van Morrison and Dave Matthews Band which leads right into Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett with a little Jimmy Buffett thrown-in to keep the Parrotheads happy.

KTXN plays more Austin musicians (Darden, Bob, Marcia, Trish, etc.) than any station in Austin. Check it out.

Okay ... reviewing my links, there are some you can actually safely skip, unless you're shopping for a new kayak or you want a fishing report. But check out Radio Lab: those folks produce some really interesting shows. And Ira Glass and This American Life -- freakin' hilarious stuff.

Oh, and visit Hornetbear's Haus o'Anglin'. He posts some great photos, and he's pretty damned funny. Too cool to e-mail me back, apparently, but what the hell ...

I'm not even going to make this easy for you by linking the sites in this post. You're gonna have to make the trek over to the right side of the page here and do it yourself. Go. Now.

A bad hop

I know this girl, a brainy, beautiful biologist-type, who eschews violence toward other living things. Unless it's a specimen destined for scientific study. Or the occasional fish for the frying pan. Or a cockroach.

Okay, so maybe she's not the Mahatma Gandhi of the natural world. But she is the kind of person who will stop and move a turtle across the road.

A couple of months ago, driving through the Everglades, she did just that. A few miles down the road a large bullfrog blindly leaped under her moving tire, emitting a loud "pop" as it expired.

She was a bit distressed. The frog, she said, had "taken a bad hop."

The phrase kind of caught-on, and now it's shorthand for any "oops ..." or "d-oh!" moment.

Sometimes the bad hops come so quickly one on the heels of the other that I just want to hunker-down and stop hopping altogether.

Of course, sometimes I leap right into something really cool. A tasty dragonfly. A book deal. Maybe a winsome young lady bullfrog who has responded to my drainage-ditch croaking.

It happens.

Anyhow, here's wishing you plenty of good hops in the New Year.

Who reads this thing?

My mom, for one. After that last post I got an e-mail from her: "Are you depressed?" (yes) "Are you quoting someone?" (yes -- the narrator in Moby Dick) "Are you okay?"

Yes, Mother, I'm fine.

The best blogging, I think, is writing that is close to the bone ... by folks who allow their most personal and specific thoughts and struggles illuminate a common human condition.

It takes a lot of courage to do that. Wendee does it sometimes, but she also says she's a "heart on my sleeve kind of gal ..." I spent some time reading a blog a while back that was all about the dating travails of four 30-something single women. It was hilarious.

I don't think I'm quite there yet.

And of course, for me, blogging is (in very small) part marketing ... my book publisher reads this. My magazine editor checks in. God knows who else.

I have a subscription to Google Analytics, and it gives me some very basic aggregate information -- don't worry, I can't tell all that much about who you are; but I can make some guesses. And some of the data are pretty interesting.

For instance, apparently someone from Jasper, Texas, checks in pretty regularly. I've been to Jasper, and it's a pretty small town. A small, pretty town in fact.

And I have more than one reader -- or one reader who uses more than one computer -- in Lake Mary, Florida. Don't think I know anyone in Lake Mary, unless it's one of my Snook Foundation friends.

Key Biscayne, Florida: thanks for checking in, Lisa. And thanks for checking my facts, too!

Aransas Pass, a regular visitor, might be Dean, or it might be another TKF regular.

Gaocun, China? No idea. San Diego? Huh ..... Here's one: Palatine, Illinois. Regular visitor, and I'm pretty sure I don't know anyone in Palatine. But thanks for visiting!

Referrers are pretty predictable, for the most part ... some folks get here from search engines, some from links on message boards or friends' blogs ... I had one the other day from ""

No thanks. Really. I'm really hoping that one was completely random.

But people -- some of them people I don't even know -- say the nicest things, too. Here's one comment I got the other day from I-don't-know-who:

"I have been reading your blog for a while now and really enjoy the way you write, you have the uncanny ability to transport your readers to the place and time of your adventures. Keep up the good work it brings joy to more people than you probably realize."

What a wonderful compliment! Thanks so much.

Anyway, in case you're wondering, here's the breakdown:

I've had about a thousand visitors since the last day of October, 2006. A whole bunch of you come back more than once, and I thank you. I hope you'll continue to find something useful, or entertaining, or at least a little bit interesting here.

Over the life of this site so far, an average of about 11 folks pop in each day. Lately the average has been a bit higher -- about 30 each day.

Most of you live here in the States, but I've also had visitors from: Canada, the UK, Spain, Germany, South Africa, Denmark, Italy, Belgium, Columbia, Argentina ... and a handful of other places.

A good portion of you read the three latest posts, or one of the three latest posts, and go away. But a whole bunch of you really liked the fly fishing post (kinda funny, because really I was just trying to be slick and avoid giving a fishing report), and the article about fishing with Patrick and about restoring an old sailboat were pretty popular, too.

Anyway, thanks for stopping in. And, really Mom, I'm okay.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Call me Ishmael

Sometimes the only thing for it is get blind drunk and hope things are a little better if or when you eventually come-to.

That's my theory, anyhow.

Fishing would be healthier. Paddling much healthier. A good dinner and long talk with friends probably more efficacious.

Putting nose to grindstone and working, working, working would certainly be more constructive in the long run.

But there's something darkly attractive about just abandoning oneself to grief, to that profound sadness, even if just for a while. Sometimes it's good not to be able to think all that clearly.

I've been browsing the Merchant Marine Web sites again. And the used sailboat listings.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

You can call me Ishmael. But, of course, I'm not. I'm just me.

Thursday, January 04, 2007


What a trip! The motel was uncharacteristically crappy, my paycheck was late , and it was kinda chilly.

Even with all that, we had a great time.

The goals were these:

1. Find paddling access on the upper end of the Brownsville Ship Channel. Most of the industry surrounding the Port of Brownsville – even the shrimpboat basin – is fenced-off and patrolled by security guards and homeland security.

2. Danny was gunning for his first-ever Texas snook. A couple of trips to Packery Channel in Corpus Christi this summer turned-up nuthin’, so it was time to head for the species’ stronghold in deep South Texas.

3. Me … I wanted my first snook on the fly, and I wanted to end the year with a snook and begin 2007 with one too.

Mission accomplished, all the way around.

Danny is one of my oldest and best friends, and with his grad school and work schedule, we just haven’t been able to spend much time fishing lately. I think August was the last trip we made – a day trip in the Houston area.

So it was a treat to get to spend some time exercising our fishing muscles. He and I drove in to Rockport together (having arrived in Tivoli about the same time – him from Houston and me from Austin) and spent a delightful evening with our friends Kendal and Gretchen.

Ken and G have the hospitality thing down cold. The drinks, the snacks, the incredible breakfast … and homemade fudge, to boot.

Saturday morning it was up early (relatively speaking, given our hangovers) and off we went. By about 1 p.m., we were in Brownsville. After a quick bite at Taco Palenque, we started scouting the ship channel.

It took us about three hours to find a way down to the water that was close enough to actually fish the areas we wanted to fish without undertaking a Kon-Tiki-like voyage. Our plan at first was to find the access, go check-in and drop-off our stuff at the motel, then come back and fish until late.

When we saw the water, and the bait activity, we decided to chance locking our stuff in the car (turned out the laptops wouldn’t quite fit in the bow hatch of either boat) and hit the salt.

I was bound for one particular shoreline that has always given-up robalo, and for some familiar structure at the western end of the channel. On the way, Danny saw something “busting bait” on a shoreline and hung a right. Shortly thereafter, he hung his first snook – a solid linesider that just hit the 24-inch minimum for the Texas slot.

After that, it was pretty much non-stop. The highlight, for me, was two fish over 30 inches. A 31-inch snook on 12-lb. tackle out of a kayak … well, it doesn’t get just a whole lot better in my book.

We landed 11 robalo by the time the sun went down and left ‘em biting.

Overnight the water fell out of the channel, and Sunday was disappointing. We paddled about 12 miles, total, and caught two redfish, one really nice trout and a whole lot of ladyfish. These fierce little acrobats (and they weren’t all so little -- some of them going 24 inches easy) are a lot of fun for about 30 minutes, and then the slimy, poop-squirting, leader-fraying suckers begin to annoy.

But we also watched ospreys fish (one flew over us with a flounder in its talons) and enjoyed a beautiful sunset and listened to the coyotes sing off to the south.

The Brownsville Ship Channel is like that -- gorgeous water and tons of fish (I even caught a small great barracuda this trip) -- in a most unlikely setting. The shores are littered with the broken hulls of ships in the process of being scrapped, but just beyond the breaker's yards and tank farms is the semi-arid Tamulipas thorn forest. Ocelots and even jagurandis are known to scratch out a living in the narrow strip of land between the channel and the international boundary.

About 10:30 p.m. Sunday, after more than 10 hours on the water, we decided it was time to head in and get some hot chow and a cold beer to celebrate the New Year.

New Year’s Day, my cousin Bob and his son Joey arrived with his 21-foot Carolina Skiff. We loaded the ‘yaks up on the big boat and launched at Port Isabel to make the long run up the channel. When we got to Saturday’s productive shoreline, Danny and I dropped Bob and Joey off on the east end, and we idled around to the west end.

Trap the fish in the middle as we wade, was the thought. Before long, we were seeing schools of mullet being scattered by something big.

With one well-placed cast, Bob hooked-up on a monster snook. The fish came out of the water like a tarpon, gill plates rattling in a display of acrobatic fury.

Turned out the fish taped at just over 28 inches, but I would have sworn it was 30-plus when I saw it come out of the water.

Aside from a small redfish, that was all that particular shoreline had for us New Year’s Day. We crossed the channel and began a leap-frog wade on the cove on the south side – a shoreline choked with mangroves.

About 15 minutes into the wade, the “bumps” I was getting along the shoreline turned into a solid hookset on another heavy 28-inch snook. This one I put on the stringer. I rarely keep fish of any kind, and for a long time I was reluctant to keep any Texas snook.

My friend Randy Blankinship, though, assured me that under the state’s current bag and size limits the fishery is sustainable even if every angler kept one fish a day. Randy was then the Lower Laguna Madre ecosystem leader and helped write the management plan for snook there.

The fish really do eat as well as they fight.

The big news in the Texas snook fishery this past year has been the resurgence of the species into the northern part of their historical range – up into Corpus Christi and even as far north as Freeport and Galveston.

One really hard winter freeze will likely stop that advance cold, but it’s exciting in the meantime.

Down south, relative abundance of common snook seems to be on a steady increase too. It helps that the Rio Grande has been flowing to its mouth for several years now. The border river is a prime nursery for the freshwater-loving linesiders.

One guide, who targets snook in the Lower Laguna Madre, told me that in the last year he’s begun booking strictly snook sight-casting trips for his fly fishing clients. He’s never been able to do that before and be confident his anglers would get a decent shot.

Another local angler said that this past summer he skipped his annual “tropical” fishing trip in favor of staying home and fishing his own back yard.

Florida is still the place to go for sure-thing snook; or, if you have the coin and want an even more exotic destination – Costa Rica. But Texas snooking is pretty damned good lately.

The Texas state record, from the Corpus area, came in just a few ounces shy of the current IGFA world record (a Costa Rica fish), and there’s no reason our waters won’t give up another really big girl one of these days.

In fact, I’ve heard many reliable accounts of snook over 40 inches being sighted and I have one report of a 47-inch fish being caught in Brownsville in the last year. I’ve pinpointed a “community” of fish over three-feet long … I’ve spent hours watching them ignore my baits, but one of these days I’ll figure out how to trick ‘em.

Because snook are such an important fish, recreationally, in Florida, a lot of good research on the species has come out of there. One thing Florida biologists are advising anglers these days is to never “hang” a big snook vertically.

The fish have rough mouths, like bass, and like bass they can be lipped when they’re landed. Pictures of proud anglers holding an 8- or 12-pound fish by the lower jaw are, sadly, pretty common.

How snook are handled while and immediately after being landed is critical to the fish’s post-release survival.

It’s an oddity of snooking that nearly all the fish caught on lures or flies are hooked in the jaw, most often the corner of the mouth. It has to do with the way they attack their prey (see video below for an example ... actually it's not a perfect example of what I'm talking about -- the way snook will hit prey and immediately turn, but it's a cool video).

But a fish that has been hung by the jaw vertically will very likely swim off only to die. In handling fish that way, it’s probable that anglers (who believe they are doing the right thing by releasing their fish) have damaged or even severed the tendons and connective tissue around the jaws, making it very difficult for the fish to eat.

An Australian study of barramundi, a closely related species with very similar habits, found that 50 of 50 barramundi handled that way later died.

So, when you head out to chase some Texas linesiders – and you really should – and when you land that first one, control the fish with your hand on it’s lower jaw but support the fish’s body horizontally when you take it out of the water for a photo.

Good luck, but beware: catching that first Texas snook may just put you off redfish and trout for a while.