Kathy and I are headed down to Beaufort, South Carolina, for a board meeting of The Turneffe Atoll Trust in mid-march. A strange place for a meeting of a Belize conservancy, but with some of the board members living nearby and having accommodations for most of us, it became our venue of choice. The meeting, however, was canceled while we were en route due to the countrywide outbreak of Caronavirus. We continued on down the coast anyway since we were halfway there from Maryland, and we couldn’t get our hotel reimbursed. This allowed me to fish instead, so we winged it and called a place I knew of in town that sold flyfishing gear. Without any research, we scheduled Friday the 13th for guided flyfishing. The date gave me a slight pause, especially with all the panic that was ensuing on news media about the pandemic. Anxiety arising from continuous listening to the news on the radio, over the last few days of driving, gets one jumpy and tuned up for anything that might go wrong. Not enough to dissuade us. We arrived late to Beaufort and got about 3 hours of sleep at our hotel before waking up at 0530 in the morning to take advantage of the tide.
The trip out to our meeting location at a boat landing in Okatie SC, only allowed us to buy some coffee for breakfast and pre-made sandwiches for lunch at a local gas station. It was pitch-black when we drove out and attempted to locate the boat launch, with our cellular data giving us an erroneous position. I had to call our guide to refine our search for the boat ramp. When we got there, we parked at the far end of the boat ramp parking area under a street lamp and struggled to put the rods together and assemble our gear. Kath had forgotten some clothing items like a buff and sun-gloves, and I had left my preferred sunglasses back at the hotel. These little morning speed bumps were starting to mount up and make me think this could be one of those days where everything goes south. Then to make things more ominous, Sherriff’s office vehicles arrive and officers begin inspecting some of the parked cars, flashlight in hand. Soon, a truck towing a Sherriff’s boat arrives. A quick interchange with one of the officers, and we findd that a commercial diver is missing, and they were starting a search. This scene in the dark of morning just seems to make things that much more unsettling. “Stay optimistic,” I say to myself.
Shannon O’Quinn, our guide, is at the boat ramp with his boat ready to back in, but then thinks better of it and drives across the parking area, boat in tow, to introduce himself, offering to save us the walk with all of our gear across the football-field length of parking. I’m impressed at this gesture and start to think this might just workout. Shannon is a big fit broad-shouldered man, with a squared head, looking every bit like a big rugby player and fitting his last name. He is wearing a light green long-sleeved shirt, shorts and flip-flops, a little underdressed for the early morning chill. His boat is a nearly immaculate East Cape flats boat with a substantial leaning post raised on the foredeck for casting. The truck, the boat, and the man all seem well maintained and leaves one with the impression of complete professionalism. Things are looking better, I think. Our day-prior conversation with him indicated that he thought my bringing 6 wt rods was a mistake and that my 8 wt would be more appropriate. At the car now, though, while we assemble our gear, he suggests we leave my 8 wt back since he has one already in the boat. The 6 wt Rods are stowed aboard, with flies attached that he has selected out of my boat-box. As we talk, I realize the wind is non-existent in the early morning darkness, making the 6 wt rod still possible. I am a bit reserved about leaving my 8 wt. I can foresee disaster if a big wind develops and forces me to move to an 8 wt rod that I am unfamiliar with, but the lack of wind gives me some confidence, which is reinforced by his now evident support of our rod selection.
Ten minutes later, we are gliding across mirror flat water with the quiet hum of the 90 horsepower Suzuki outboard pushing us into the pre-dawn light. It is low tide, and the 5 ft high dark mounds of oyster beds are gliding by us as we weave up a riverine marsh. Occasionally the loud protestations of waterbirds are heard in the half-light as they wing away from our intrusiveness. At one point, Shannon slows to an idle, commenting, “ In my 14 years of fishing this area, I haven’t seen it this low here.” “Is this good or bad?” I ask myself. In the uncertain world of fishing I generally don’t like to hear a guide talk about how different things are.
As the day dawns, we glide to a stop off of a series of oyster-bed points that extend out into a large shallow bay of water. Shannon gives us his practiced introductory speech on what we will do, with likely schools of red drum to our front working off the points in the low tide. We will be looking for nervous water with tell-tale bow-waves of the big fish. The oyster mounds are mostly dark masses out in front, but higher mounds are topped in white dead shell, indicating the high tide mark that is, at this time, about 4 feet above us. He will use these shell color changes as references to guide our attention to the fish when he spots them. He will also use the standard clock pattern that all guides use. He is still talking though his client orientation checklist when he spots the first school off of a shallow point of oyster bed. No explanation needed for me. It is a large school pushing a lot of bow-waves, with the shallow side of the school showing tails and dorsal fins out of the water. I am blown away. This is way different than the fishing I was doing in Swansboro, NC just 2 days prior.
As Shannon silently poles us toward the school, I choose an older medium-action 6 wt rod that I have been fishing with recently and cast at the shallow side of the school where I see tails sticking out of the water. I am consistently 5 ft short short on my cast, or miss my mark when I find the distance and am over-powering my casting stroke. Shannon has reasonably set the boat out from this “happy” school of fish to not alert them to our presence. As I struggle to come to grips with casting my older rod accurately at this distance, the fish move off down the shoreline. I change rods to the new Fast action 6 wt rod that we bought for Kathy recently and find a little more control at long distance. We close back on the school, and I throw a black and purple fly to the edge of the school. No takes with the fly. I am told to adjust my retrieve to shorter strips and do so without any improvement in my luck. I miss multiple opportunities with reasonable presentations of the fly but no takers.
Luckily the fish have not yet spooked. I change my fly to an orange and black Clouser Minnow. It’s a bit heavy for the shallow water, as evidenced by its consistent hesitation on the oyster bottom, forcing me to strip the fly a little too fast. Still, I finally connect with a fish during a strip, feel I have him solidly hooked, and raise the rod, only to have the fly unseat and sail by my head. Shannon kindly reminds me to strip-strike with the rod pointed down the line. I am not fishing for trout like I was a month ago in New Zealand. At least the pattern is working, I change to a smaller, lighter-weight version of the same fly.
The fish are consistently moving from the outside shoreline of the oyster beds, into a channel that leads back to the marsh grass some 50 yards away. We post-up in the throat of the channel with the stern of the boat touching an oyster mound just short of the opening to the channel. I have multiple shots and misses at good-sized fish. They wander into us, churn into a big wake 40 feet out from us when I drop the fly near them, and then bolt out away from the channel leaving big puffs of mud in the panic of water. We move deeper into the oyster beds, looking to catch them as they move into the marsh with the rising tide. Finally, I see a single bow-wave moving toward us at 50 ft and cast to a spot in front of him. The line immediately comes tight, with a resonating hum as it moves cross-wise to the incoming currents between the oyster mounds. The rod bobs with the fish’s head-shakes. The line now comes toward us, into the current, stopping just abeam the port-side of the boat at about 20 ft.
I am hand-stripping line in quickly to stay in touch with the fish. At the same time, I am trying to reel in the excess line that is cascading down around the casting platform. I am hoping to avoid fouling the line on the stand or getting a line knot that might stop on the rod guides should he make a run. I still don’t have an idea of the size of the fish, and guess that he is a small puppy drum. Once the excess line is entirely on the reel, and I’m tight to the fish, I attempt to steer him to the front of the boat by applying some additional pressure with the rod. He responds to this pressure, and I suddenly realize he is larger than I first thought. He moves out to our front and then ducks under the boat, forcing me to raise the rod butt above my shoulders to avoid excessive rod-tip bend. We dance a little bit around the bow back and forth before he moves to the starboard side of the boat, heading toward the stern where there is a chance of tangling around the power pole on the stern or the lower unit of the outboard. Shannon urges me to pull him back to the bow, so I lower the rod sideways and put some more force on the fish. I’m still getting used to what lifting power is available on this new 6 wt rod, but it seems up to the task. The red stops abeam the stern and then moves back toward the bow where he finally is shallower in the tannic water, and I get my first glimpse of a nice coppery medium-sized fish. “Yea, baby! Nice fish!,” I say, and continue to wear him down. This is what I came for, a well-bent rod and bull of a fish matched perfectly for great sport. An 8 wt rod would have been overkill for this sized fish. A larger fish might have overpowered this rod, but right now, all is perfection.
Shannon moves to the rail and grabs the leader to land the fish. Out of the water, he is a beautiful fish, the color of a new copper penny with a single tail-spot forward of the blue-hued caudal fin. This fish is the quintessential red drum in my mind; not the small silvery one you sometimes get, or the big muddy- colored bull drums that can be had. He is a pretty fish representing the species well. We take some pics and quickly release our prize to swim easily back into the water.
After a handshake with my guide, we resume fishing with Kathy taking the bow. The winds are still very light and there are still remnants of the school scattered around the oyster beds, undisturbed by the commotion of landing this last fish. Kathy is still working on her cast and is challenged to get the fly out to the fish before they come too close to the boat and spook. She sees them, though, and is excited to get the take, even though frustrated at her casting abilities. Eventually she gives the casting platform back to me so I can get a couple more takes and land another fish. Kathy has now experienced how invigorating it can be to be up against these nice fish in shallow water in such a beautiful setting. Between this trip and our recent trip to New Zealand, Kathy has now become convinced that she needs to work on her casting and come back after them. I consider myself extremely lucky to have found these moments that make my favorite sport appealing to my spouse. This day is turning out to be luckier than I had hoped.
We finish out the remainder of the day on a high tide looking for fish on the fringes of the flooding marshes, not finding fish, but reveling in a beautiful warm afternoon, in the sun and light wind amidst the gorgeous marshes of the low country of South Carolina. The mounds of dark oysters have receded into the 5 ft tide change, leaving only vast expanses of marsh grasses and water.
The next day we go into the Baystreet Outfitters store in downtown Beaufort to get Kathy a nice wind-proof jacket and replenish some flies that we used the day prior. I am still looking for the right fly line for her 6 wt rod, and am offered some assistance by a polite lady, who I estimate to be one of the co-owners of the shop. I inform her that I am looking at saltwater lines. She seems a bit perplexed at such a request in that most saltwater rods are heavier, and their selection of lighter-weight lines is limited. While she half-heartedly shuffles through their inventory, I let her know that I fished with one of their guides yesterday with the 6 wt rod. She queries me on this a couple times. “You fished 6 wt line, a 6 wt rod, here?’”. When I re-confirm this fact, she responds by scolding me for “over-stressing the fish.” I’m taken aback. I’m tempted to go engage in a discussion of the reasons why a 6 wt made sense with the light wind, medium-sized fish, and the cold water that is less stressful on fish, but it seems without merit to go there. I mumble a feeble response that “the fish were not that big,” and leave it at that. We are on different frequencies, no 6 wt lines are in stock, and we part in uncomfortable silence. Our interchange bothers me for a moment since I consider myself a good conservationist, and it seemed evident that she thought less of me. On reflection, I realize I was just lucky enough yesterday to put the right rod on the right fish in the right conditions for one of those great moments in the sport of flyfishing. I smile to myself inwardly and move on, thinking I’ll fish the 6 wt more often and look at Friday the 13th differently from now on.