Tune in to get at least quarterly blog updates related to the book, the outdoors, and future work
Part 2 of 2 of the tarpon blog:
The return trip to Belize didn’t result in my first landed silver king like I had hoped, but I did walk away with a new found appreciation for engaged and motivated guides. Come to find out, not all fishing guides care whether you’re on a mission to land your first tarpon or not. I’m well aware that there are disparities in talent and knowledge in fishing guides like there are in any occupation, but that’s not the issue here. This trip revealed a stark contrast between two guides and their care factor.
Prior to this one, I have fished with George Bradley exclusively on my trips to Belize. He cares. George is the kind of guide that will inspect your leaders and flies to make sure everything looks right prior to wetting a line. He will often tie on his own gotcha or shrimp pattern if he’s not satisfied with the look of your over-priced fly from home. He and Jose, his brother-in-law on the push pole, will work together to get even the greenest angler a makeable shot on a fish. I have sent many clients his way, many who have never fly fished before, and I have yet to hear of someone who hasn’t caught a bonefish. A full day is a full day with George; he will continue to hunt fish until you’re ready to call it. Perhaps as important as any of the factors above, I sense genuine excitement in George when he’s putting his clients on fish.
We fished with George on day one and had a great day; no tarpon, but a great day. My son caught six or seven bonefish with the majority of the bow time. We didn’t even go to the tarpon flats and I didn’t ask because McCoy was having such a great time with the bonefish. Watching George coach my ten year old was worth it and I knew I would have shots at tarpon on day two.
The plan on day two was for George to take my son and another ten year old, while the two dad’s go with another local guide who reportedly specialized in tarpon fishing. I could tell right away this was not going to be the George experience, but still held hope that this was going to be the day. My first impression was made when we handed this guide about three thousand dollars worth of fly rods that he piled in the back corner of his panga like my six year old does our spinning tackle at the beach. When asked what we wanted to do, our only request was, “put us on the tarpon”.
Our initial plan of attack was to stake up on the edge of the deep flat and wait for the tarpon to come in, which they eventually did. With no inspection of my rig and zero commentary on what we should be throwing, guide #2 handed me my 11 weight and I waited on the bow to get a shot. On successive shots, that I felt were good enough to get eats, the fish snubbed me; just flat out didn’t want to eat the fly. I looked back at the guide in frustration and he cooly commented that the fish don’t like dark flies in the clear water, referring to my purple tarpon bunny I had been throwing. That would have been a great conversation to have prior to putting shots on fish that I had been hunting for two years. Clearly he didn’t know that landing one of those fish would have made my year, but clearly he didn’t care either.
To guide #2’s credit, we did see a couple dozen tarpon, in groups of two or three, that morning. His controlled drifts were effective at finding them. There weren’t many shots to be had, but we were pretty confident that eventually it was all going to come together. Shortly after noon, guide #2 told my buddy to sit down on the bow so we could make a move. Assuming we were just moving around the flat to find the fish, neither one of us objected. The next thing we know we’re heading east back toward Ambergis Caye. OK, we thought, he must have an afternoon spot that he’s taking us to. As we entered the lagoon to get to the east side of the island where we were staying, it became apparent our day was over. Without a word being said about throwing in the towel, or any discussion for that matter, we found ourselves back on the dock with a totally unfulfilled feeling. We still had fight in us, but clearly our guide didn’t. It felt like we were being cheated out of a final at-bat with the game on the line.
As a side note, George and our boys didn’t show up at the dock for another two hours. They each had caught bonefish and my son had one of those knee-shaking near misses with the silver king that I described in the first part of this blog. They walked away with an experience they will never forget.
I will never again complain about the salty guide that cusses when his client misses a fish or makes a mistake; I’ll take him/her any day over the apathetic guide that is literally just collecting a paycheck. The true gems are the George Bradley’s of the world that have the passion and are willing to work for as long as it takes to share it with those lucky enough to fish with them, regardless of skill or experience. For those current and future guides out there: you have the ability to make or break your client’s experience and it’s not all about the catch. Show some engagement, a sincere desire to put your client on fish, and a willingness to do what it takes to get it done. You’ll distinguish yourself from those who don’t and will create long lasting relationships that lead to return trips and word of mouth referrals. As for guide #2, it will be a one and done for me. The hunt continues....
August 2018/Part one of two:
I’m on a two and a half year mission to land my first tarpon on the fly. It was October of 2016 when I experienced my first near-miss on a crystal clear deep water flat just west of San Pedro, Belize. We were fishing the “boobs”, as the local guides call them, a couple of spoil islands aptly named for their appearance from afar. My guide, George Bradley, who is quite possibly the most patient and soft spoken fishing guide in the world, except when he is cussing about the young guides burning up the flats, (sound familiar to anyone?) stood next to me on the bow while his brother-in-law held the panga steady from the stern with a 10 foot stick for a push pole. The fish were cruising onto the flat from the south and were large in both number and size. I made my share of bad shots, but the first good one I made was on a fish swimming straight at the bow. She was a big girl who had no idea we were within thirty feet. My fly landed just to the left of her path and I was able to strip it back to a point of intersection where she broke the surface and tried to eat, but completely missed. Frozen by a collision of adrenaline and disappointment, I started to cuss when George, in as much excitement as one would get from George, commanded “strip; strip; strip” in a matter of seconds I had the fly back in front of the fish and she was eating again. A second miss left me shaking at the knees, exasperated, and yet hungry for more. Whether I stripped the fly out of her mouth twice, or she just plain missed her prey, it wasn’t meant to be and she continued her track north without a fight. Come day two I was ready for war with the Silver Kings. We returned to the same flat and while this time they were cruising the east edge, the fish were still there. They seemed a little more spooky this time around and were definitely not giving us an easy, which for me at the time was the only, shot. Instead of swimming straight at twelve o’clock into the bow, these fish were veering off to the port side well in advance. I managed to get the fly in front of one of the pre-historic beasts and within ten feet of the boat she ate on the surface. What I didn’t expect was an immediate jump. I still had considerable slack in the line when she ate and as I was trying to strip it taught, she vaulted nearly her entire body out of the water. I was crushed as the fly that had clearly been hooked to the fish came unbuttoned and sailed worthlessly back towards the panga. My eight year old, who was born fishy and had been patiently waiting to bonefish with George, added insult to injury when he exclaimed, “come on Dad!”. While completely deflated, I had come one step closer to landing that first one and had a good story to tell over rum and cigars at the El Pescador bar.
Fast forward two years later and I’m still on the hunt for that first one. I’ve had sightings and near misses; my wife has even battled a big girl on spinning tackle in the South Padre Island surf for 45 minutes just to see her break the line on one last desperate jump. More recently I’ve put a purple tarpon bunny perfectly in front of a south Texas fish that had just rolled on the surface. I watched her dark silhouette swim towards the fly, narrating the action to the others on the boat, “she’s on it, she’s on it”. The fish surfaced less than twenty feet in front of me, ate, and then rolled back down with the fly in her mouth. Not wanting to repeat the same mistake from my last hook-up with a Silver King, I let her take the line freely, hardly putting any tension on her. This proved to be equally ineffective as the line went slack and I stripped my fish-less fly back to the surface. I could chalk it up as another one in the “L” column, but I am learning something every time I try and trick one of these fish.
Thus the intriguing and yet maddening sport of fishing for tarpon on the fly. It seems that nearly everything has to come together perfectly for one of these gigantic fish to be landed. If you manage to feed one a fly, the game has just begun. All that connects you and the fish that, in many cases, is as big as you are, is a 3/0 hook tied to a leader, fly line, and a whole lot of backing. Add a few violent jumps in the mix and what could go wrong? I have yet to be perfect, but I’m bound and determined to get there. I’m binge watching Silver Kings, one of the best shows on TV, and In less than a week I’ll be back in Belize, hopefully within casting range of many of these incredible creatures. Whether I’ll land one or not, I’m confident the hunt and the pursuit of perfection in the battle to be better than the fish will be totally worth the trip. More to come in the next version of the blog.
Winter 2017-2018: I now know what stir-crazy feels like. Long stretches of frigid temperatures, freezing rain or snow, and no sunlight may be routine for the Midwest in the winter, but that’s one of many reasons I choose to not live there. In the good ole days you could just get in the car and drive south until the sun was shining and the temperature was above sixty degrees. The various warring cartel factions along the border have made that a less than attractive option. A gringo driving through Tamaulipas these days is akin to running the proverbial gauntlet. The State Department has, as of recently, assigned a level four travel warning to our neighboring state in disarray; the same dubious honor held by Afghanistan and Syria. I do hear it’s nice there this time of year.
I considered loading up my decoys and heading east to the Laguna Madre; they say nearly freezing temperatures and sleet are a die hard duck hunter’s conditions. Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am not a die hard duck hunter; I’m just not that mad at em. Once in College I had to cut a hole in the ice to float some decoys and I swore I would never do it again. Over ten years ago I had my best duck hunting experience in southern Tamaulipas at Rancho Mariposa on an inland lake. Balmy 70 degree weather, an endless supply of coronitas, and what seemed like endless waves of waterfowl spoiled me forever.
Nevertheless, my dad, my newly turned ten year old, and I did make it out for one three generation duck hunt on the Lower Laguna a few days ago. We fortunately, or unfortunately depending upon your point of view, picked a warmer day. By the time I had beached my skiff, trudged through the mud down a shoreline to setup decoys and a portable blind, hauled guns and chairs, and sat down to actually hunt, the sun was up and I was drenched in sweat through my three layers and breathable waders. There was literally no wind and very few birds moving around. The reward, however, was almost immediate as we did have a flight of three ducks come over the decoys within shooting range. Life Lesson: always be ready because you never know when you’re going to get your shot. These three caught us off guard and no one got a shot off as we were frantically trying to load our guns. The rest of the hunt was extremely slow, with one unsuspecting duck landing in the decoys and taking a lethal dose of steel shot, and a couple more flights of high flyers. Life Lesson #2: A ten year old in waders does not make a decent substitute for a duck dog. Uno, the family lab, is 20lbs over weight and on heart failure medicine and Chula, the finicky family pointer, doesn’t do ducks, doves, or anything wet for that matter. We lost what we thought was a dead duck to deeper water as he furiously swam away with the boy in hot pursuit.
Two hours in and it became apparent that it was not going to be our day with the ducks, so we decided we would see if we could go find some fish. It was the second day of warming temperatures, the tide was coming in on the lowest water level I have ever seen in the lagoon, and the lack of any wind made for great water clarity. My son got a 7 weight Orvis Clearwater rig for his birthday and was anxious to put it to the test. We pointed the Maverick HPX-T south, towards deeper water, and ran over some fish on an open flat. After only a couple of minutes on the poling platform, we spotted a medium size speckled trout within a few yards of the bow to the port side. The fish was facing a way from us and didn’t sense our presence. McCoy saw the fish before I did, the kid is pretty fishy for a ten year old, and had already started a back cast. With still a little awkward double haul, he put the white clouser minnow fly several feet in front of the trout. Strip, strip, “let it sink”, and the trucha turned her head to eat. The fly disappeared and the fifteen pound fluorocarbon leader went tight. In the blink of an eye the fish swirled and ran at light speed away from the boat, the fly now back in sight and the line limp. I looked back at McCoy who had his rod held up at a 90 degree angle. He had trout set the trout and he knew it. A great cast had come up empty when the excitement of the eat overtook the angler.
Sometimes, and I would argue most of the time, the experience is worth more than the kill or the catch. While the ducks didn’t fully cooperate and we didn’t land that fish, I got my salt water fix with my father and son on a beautiful winter day where there were shades of purple and orange in the clouds over the gulf that you just don’t see in other months. It was satisfying to see ducks, albeit few of them, come into a spread of decoys that I had setup, and to see my son come that much closer to connecting with a fish with his new fly rod from the bow of my skiff. My real barometer on the success of the trip came when I asked him if he had fun and his response was, “yes sir; that was cool”.
10/10/17: International OCD Awareness Week
There were several motivational factors for writing The West Texas Pilgrimage. Many things about the story inspired me to tell it, not the least of which was my own annual pilgrimage to Big Bend. One of my major objectives, however, has yet to be accomplished. When I dedicated the book to those who suffer in silence, I had a specific target audience in mind that I feel I haven’t touched. Most of my reviews and positive feedback have come from friends, professional book reviewers, and social media contacts. With the exception of one reader who stated that she now understood some of the thought processes of her middle aged son, I haven’t heard from the sufferers of OCD and depression that I had intended to reach.
There is a stigma associated with mental health in my world that prevents young men from seeking help. My world is a man’s man world; one in which being perceived as weak or soft is of greater concern than individual well being. Asking for help or even admitting you have a problem is not easy in my world. When it comes to a chronic disorder that is widely misunderstood and one that will make the sufferer doubt literally every belief he holds to be true about himself, it becomes very apparent why a young man in my world would struggle with communicating his struggles.
The West Texas Pilgrimage was intended to tell the story of a young man who went through what I went through internally. Through no one’s fault but my own, it took me ten years, depressive episodes, countless lost opportunities, and strained relationships before I finally admitted I had a problem and sought help. If my book can convince one young man that he isn’t alone, he isn’t weak, and that there is help and treatment available, then and only then have I accomplished my objective.
This week is International OCD Awareness Week and my hope is to help generate awareness of this chronic condition that impacts 1 in every 100 adults and 1 in every 200 kids in the U.S. alone. Through Sunday the 15th of October, I will mail a free copy of the book to anyone who contacts me about a loved one, a friend, or a personal experience with OCD or depression. No details necessary; just a name and an address. Help me spread the word. Contact me at Matt@westtexaspilgrimage.com or through the Facebook page.
7/17/17: Well it's July and I'm a little behind on my commitment to a quarterly blog. This Summer has already been a busy one and despite having a lot to say, it has been hard to find time to write.
I have been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time on the water recently with my Dad. Father's Day was a few weeks ago and that holiday serves as a great reminder not to take your dad for granted. Many no longer have their fathers around, while many others do only in the sense that they are still alive. I'm of possibly the minority of sons that not only still have their fathers, but also have a genuinely close relationship with them.
The thing I am most grateful to my Dad for is that he taught me how to be a Dad. He may not have always agreed with or even understood me, but he was always there when I needed him. He is and always has been unconditionally dependable. To this day that holds true. I know if I were to pick up the phone right this minute, and this minute happens to be late, to ask him for help, there would be no hesitation, irregardless of how large or small the ask.
Within the context of spending time on the water, I have an appeal to make to Texas Parks and Wildlife: SAVE THE LOWER LAGUNA MADRE. The fishing pressure on our relatively confined lagoon seems to escalate every year, and the lamenting of the old timers who have seen the lagoon in its' glory days no longer seems to be just embellished rhetoric.
As more and more shallow-water, tunnel hulled, overpowered boats hit the pristine flats of the Lower Laguna on any given weekend, less and less consideration seems to be given to conservation and sustainability. Whether it be due to ignorance or carelessness, consideration for fellow anglers has also taken a turn for the worse. Those that may not be killing every fish they can within the limits of the law are running them off the flats and ruining the fish catching chances of anyone else in their path.
While there are many contributing factors to the overfishing and overcrowding of our bay system, the number of fishing tournaments on any given weekend between Easter and Labor Day is getting to the point of ridiculousness. This is where I talk out of both sides of my mouth; I enjoy fishing in tournaments and fish in at least four of them in our home waters of the Lower Laguna Madre every year. They often promote a worthy charitable cause or at least provide an enjoyable experience with good competition and fellowship amongst anglers. The problem lies in the numbers. It is not uncommon to have multiple tournaments out of South Padre Island, Arroyo City, and Port Mansfield all in the same weekend. Each tournament will often have anywhere between 20 and 200 boats, with each boat typically having three to four anglers. At its’ worst, there could be upwards of a thousand tournament anglers on the water in a single day. All of the sudden our 59 miles of lagoon seems very small.
Introduce croaker, otherwise known as trout crack, to the above equation and Laguna Madre: we’ve got a problem. With the magic of the little bait fish that could, any meathead with a 250 horse power engine, no offense to my meathead buddies, or literally anybody with a pulse, can catch a limit of trout. If the numbers haven’t started to make an impression on you, just take five trout for every angler mentioned above. I’m no marine biologist, but that seems like a lot of fish pulled out of a fishery in a single day. We haven’t even started to count redfish.
My appeal to Texas Parks and Wildlife is to regulate tournaments on the Lower Laguna Madre. Don’t outlaw them; just create a set of criteria and standardized regulations that every tournament has to follow. Create a minimum fee to hold a tournament that would put dollars back into the fishery. If you’re going to host a tournament that takes from the natural resource, why shouldn’t you have to pay to help restore what you have taken? Make this fee high enough so that not every charitable organization in south Texas thinks that the Lower Laguna Madre should support their cause. Set a tighter slot for the fish that will be killed in the tournaments, like a 25” trout slot instead of 28”, and/or set standardized limits on tournament stringers such as one fish per species. Finally, and most importantly, outlaw live bait in tournaments. If you don’t want to outlaw all live bait, outlaw croaker. Let the meat hauler who wants to catch dinner continue to use whatever legal live bait he or she can, but tournament anglers, particularly in the numbers mentioned above, should not be able to use live bait. Isn’t the intent to be a competition of hard work and skill? With the exception of handicapping in golf, other sports don’t offer crutches to even the playing field in competition. If you want to win, you’ve got to be better than the competition. Believe me, I am acutely aware of this myself, having only rarely been in that position. TPWD: PLEASE DO SOMETHING!
On the book front I’ve started book number two, as promised, a novel about a crooked south Texas health system and the tremendous impact it has on the local community. I think all readers will relate to it as “what’s wrong with healthcare” seems to be a pretty common discussion these days nation wide.
If you’ve had a chance to read The West Texas Pilgrimage, please take the time to post a review on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. They really do make a difference in terms of readers choosing to spend their time on the book or not. If you haven’t read it, you can get an autographed copy right here on the site. Thanks for your support.
4/11/17: Someday soon I will write a book set in Port Mansfield Texas. The only thing that distinguishes this salty piece of land from its' humble origin as an isolated fish camp on the Laguna Madre is the fifty and sixty-foot sport fishers docked in the marina. Otherwise not much has changed in this place where the fish, the fisherman, and the whitetail deer all blend together to live in harmony. The characters and stories are endless, and every year in April we return for a three to four day stretch to soak it all in.
Todos Locos Invitational Fishing Tournament is aptly named for the great group of guys that put it on every year and the dicey weather patterns of South Texas in early April. Wind is the mother lagoon's answer for weekend warriors like me. It seems that the nicest days are always when I'm sitting behind a desk, and by the weekend God has turned on the fans full blast. This first weekend in April was no exception. It is no doubt a blessing to this already over-pressured fishery.
Getting to the flats from the Port Mansfield Harbor means crossing a stretch of deep water where the intercostal waterway comes to a "T" in shallow running, tunnel hull boats. Add 40 mph gusts to that equation and things get sporty in a hurry. With the prevailing southeast winds, going out can feel like you're sitting on a jackhammer, and coming in feels more like you're stuck in a washing machine.
Predictable to form, the weather cooperated on Friday morning, but by Friday afternoon, the winds of change were coming. We found some good fish in a lagoon in the back part of the bay that morning and planned to return to that area the following day for the tournament. The getting there meant running in six inches of water for a long stretch prior to setting down in the lagoon. By Saturday morning, the aforementioned dreaded wind had literally blew ALL of the water out of this back bay overnight. By the time we knew we weren't going to make it to the Lagoon there was no turning around. The picture above is what happens when you run out of water and stick a 21 foot tunnel hull Shallow Sport in the mud. Congratulations to Wes and Kyra Hudson for building a boat that will run in almost no water and for selling them to guys like me who will put that theory to the test. I once heard about shallow water fishing, "if you're not pushing, you're not trying." Well, in this case we were trying really, really hard. Convinced that our day was over, the only thing to do was drink a beer and fish the lagoon, only 50 feet from where we ran aground.
The good news is that thanks to Captain Charlie Buchen, airboat Captain "Fred" of Port Mansfield, and my wife, as much as I begrudgingly admit it, help was just a phone call away. The even better news was that, while we waited for our airboat rescue, we discovered that the lagoon was chock-full of fish. Apparently they had retreated to the two to three foot depth of the lagoon as the wind blew the water out of the flats on either side. The result was big fish with nowhere to go for the immediate future; in the moment we could relate.
We had almost forgot about our predicament by the time the airboat arrived and pulled us out. The only down side was that Captain Fred didn't take longer to get there; we still hadn't filled out our stringer with two flounder. In retrospect we should have left one of our guys there to hike out once the mission was complete. Either way, the day was saved and we even managed to make it back to weigh in with a respectable, albeit not a winning, stringer. Many thanks to Will Caruth and Ryan Meyer, Team "Stuck It" (If that isn't ironic I don't know what is) for toughing it out with me and more importantly for splitting the $600 airboat ride. 'Till next year Todos.
2/5/17: The 8th annual pilgrimage is officially in the books. Last weekend I made the trek west to rendezvous with the Flying Burros once again. This trip included an extra stop in Marfa for a book signing at Marfa Book Company in the Hotel St George. Tim Johnson, the owner of the book store, was gracious enough to host me, on short notice, for the afternoon.
The best thing about a nine hour road trip by oneself out west is the opportunity to think and reflect. The worst thing about a nine hour road trip by oneself out west for an overactive OCD brain like mine is the opportunity to think and reflect. An extended period of time dedicated to only my thoughts and worries, with only Guy Clark Pandora and ESPN radio to serve as a distraction, had the potential to provoke levels of anxiety that typically only come with that nasty hangover in church.
Not this trip. I left myself plenty of time to enjoy the ride. The only stop was at the Pecos River crossing, where with a brisket sandwich and cold beer, I took in the rugged beauty of the landscape and began my step back in time. The Texas Historical Commission sign reads, "The Pecos is where the mythic wild west begins..." and while staring down the steep canyon walls towards the river, I couldn't help but think of days gone by.
I also managed to get a little work done while making speed on highway 90. West Texas, the inspiration for the first novel, proved to be helpful once again. The project I'm working on has been in development even prior to The West Texas Pilgrimage, but I haven't been able to pull it all together from start to finish. It actually started as a non-fiction documentary, but has evolved into a novel, which I hope will be more entertaining. I think I made some major progress in the storyline somewhere between Langtry and Sanderson.
Pulling into Marfa a little early for the book signing, I went and had a drink at Hotel Paisano, the old "Giant" headquarters, which is totally worth the stop if you "happen to be out that way". Marfa Book Company is a great store run by even better people. I really enjoyed the event and the discussion.
The rest of the weekend was as memorable as the seven before it. With Snow on Friday night and bluebird skies for the hike in the National Park Saturday morning, we were once again blessed with incredible fortune when it came to the weather. I don't think it is a coincidence; the odds of having that kind of weather in West Texas in January for that long of a streak are slim to none. Someone is looking out for us. If the weather isn't proof enough, the fact that no one has been killed or caught speaks volumes.
The one lesson learned was that seventy miles into the park, and as you are embarking on a Gringo Honeymoon to Boquillas, is a bad time to realize you left your passport in Marathon. I debated winging it and trying to pay a coyote to get me back across up river, but given the political climate on the border thought better of it. God willing, there's always next year. Until then, I'll just have to hear Robert Earl Keen sing about it.