It’s a rude 5:30 wake-up on Saturday morning after a long day spent anchored up at Mason’s Inlet, but the fish don’t care whether or not the events of yesterday got the better of you; they’re awake and ready to feed.
I flopped out of bed, opened my curtains and cringed as the harsh morning light flooded in. As I stood in the bathroom listlessly scrubbing my teeth, I slowly came to terms with my lack of foresight. I wandered back into my room, slid on my pants, pulled my buff over my head and put on my salt-faded, mesh trucker hat. With a soft rub of the eyes and a quick pocket check⏤“phone, license, shades, pliers, nippers,” it was time to hit the water. In need of a little extra motivation, I recited my own version of a well-known psalm, “Today is the day the lord has made, let us rejoice and catch fish.”
By 6 AM, I’ve made my way over to the dock to see my buddy John pulling into the slip with his 17’ Maverick. With local knowledge on my side, I picked my hardware: two 8wt Scott Tidals equipped with the Nautilus NV-G’s. Now it was time to see if I could get the job done in some of the most difficult conditions the summer had seen so far, thanks to the jet skis, tubers and paddleboarders that had put the Redfish on edge. On top of that, three days of cold rain had muddied the water and colder temperatures had lessened the feeding habits of the local fish. Despite all that, I kept my faith. We were going to catch fish, not a doubt in my mind.
We pushed off from the dock and began our extra-long boat ride that would take us around the busy waters of Wrightsville Beach, and after close to an hour we arrived at our first flat. It was an unfamiliar area, so I was eager to get to a closer look at it. I pulled out my fly box and searched for the magic fly. When selecting my fly I usually let my gut make the call, picking the fly that gives me the most instant sense of confidence. In this case, my gut choose a tan, buck-tail shrimp pattern. It was a manageable fly that pushed enough water to draw attention, but not in a way that was too intruding and would spook wary fish. We polled for hours in the morning without a shot at a single fish, and it began to look like the Reds were going to prove me wrong. A little doubt wasn’t enough to make me turn the boat back, so John and I agreed that we would not call it quits until we had landed a Redfish. So, with that in mind, we dropped the motor and sped to a different flat.
We arrived at our new location: a much smaller flat adjacent to the ICW with hundreds of yards to work and plenty of water to cover. Unsuspectingly, we polled right on top of a group of at least 30 fish that were far closer to the mouth of the flat than we had expected. Now that we knew they were there, we settled ourselves and began to slowly work our way around the flat in search of the school we had pushed.
I stood on the bow of the skiff, scanning the surface of the water for the slightest disturbance and found my mark within minutes. About 40 feet out, I gave three quick false-casts, keeping my fly a few feet in front of his face as he slowly swam towards it. Two quick strips and he began to follow. A few more strips and I thought he was locked. Then suddenly, with two powerful swipes of his tail fin, he turned off my fly and bolted into the grass. I instinctively looked at John, as if to ask what I had done wrong, but I knew there wasn’t much else I could have done. While that didn’t prevent the doubt from setting in, there were far too many fish and not enough time for self-pity.
We moved onward in search of the bigger group, investigating the skinniest part of the flat when we finally saw a group of fish begin to move off the grass and towards the left-side of the boat. I dropped a cast 30 feet out to the front and left of our skiff and popped the fly across the still water. My heart pumped as a large Red approached my fly and raised his eyes out of the water before calmly deciding against it. This time, I knew I was at fault, because once I had stopped moving my fly, I gave the clever, old fish a full look at my fly, which he then decided he didn’t like. Another chance and another miss, but with many fish still lurking about, I knew I would have at least a few more shots.
With the current tide, I was surprised to see tails begin to break the water’s surface as tailing Reds crushed the fiddler crabs dancing across the muddy bottom. Not wanting to spook the group, we polled just outside 60 feet of the group and with the wind being almost non-existent, I was able to drop my fly within inches of my target. I gave three hard strips before, out of nowhere, a red pulled off of the bottom and jolted toward my fly, aggressively hammering it. With my rod tip down, I gave a hard strip set, frantically trying to reel in the slack at my feet. He made an immediate run away from the boat that lasted about 20 yards before he gave two head shakes and put my line slack. I folded to my knees and hung my head in disbelief, feeling the angler’s greatest agony of losing a fish during the fight. I slowly brought my line in and grabbed my fly to inspect the damage, finding that he had bent my hook.
I decided to recuperate and have a drink. Somehow the fish were still around, most of them unfazed by the ruckus my fight had caused, but I still needed a moment to relax and try to put the three fish that I had missed behind me. After a short break, I picked up my rod, got back on the bow and began to look for fish once again. There were still a few nearby, so we crept towards them and waited for our moment as they slowly pushed through the shallow water, making an undulation like that of a brick being dragged across the shallow bottom. I narrowed in on my target, which was a little over 40 yards out.
I plopped my fly a foot ahead of my mark’s nose, barely having time to move the fly before he turned and walloped it on instinct. I had made a strong connection on the stripset and was in position to get this sucker to the boat. The fish immediately began rolling back and forth, thrashing his head with force, but he gave up on that tactic and opted to bolt back and forth in short spurts. My rod shook with the force of the fish, as my nerves and knees began to shake in unision. After gaining more control, I walked the fish to the stern. As John readied the net and I began to bring the fish towards the boat, he got a glimpse at the net and went on another tear, burning out line at an screaming pace. After another few minutes of determined fighting, John reached out and netted the overslot Drum.
It’s a thrill that I’ve never grown tired of. From my first Redfish to my last, each one has provided very similar joys, thrills and pain. That day yielded us a few more shots and one more netted fish, but nothing was more fun than landing that first fish, after hours of low spirits amidst the low tides.