By Casey R. Smartt
“Why is fishing so important to you?” I have been asked that question many times over the years (often under duress) and I have yet to adequately answer it. Maybe it’s a spiritual thing, or my DNA, or just a passion for the outdoors that drives me to fish. All I know is that fishing is an undeniable part of who I am. And although my love for it has caused me to make a few unwise choices over the years, fishing has always brought me great joy and great memories. It refreshes my spirit, clears my mind, and reinforces my love for my family, friends, and wild places.
One trip recently was especially memorable. I was fishing with my buddy Jon Fisher from San Antonio. Jon and I have been fly fishing together for years. He’s a good angler, he’s patient, and he has a great sense of humor. Perhaps that’s why Jon puts up with most of my wild ideas and notions about how to catch fish on flies.
On the first day of this particular trip the flats were a mess so we headed out toward bigger water. We located a steep sandbar where a strong tidal rip created a wedged-shaped area of chop. After anchoring the boat, we began to cast into the rip, letting our lines swing with the current and sink into the abyss. On the third cast, I felt my fly line pull defiantly tight and nearly straight down. I set the hook into a heavy moving object and my rod bent deeply. It was promising news at the end of a tough day. The fish swam in a solid deliberate manner, slowly circling the boat and working the current to his advantage. It felt like a broad-shouldered creature, clearly not a speck or skipjack, but at the same time not quite feisty enough to be a redfish.
After a brief tug-of-war I lifted the fish toward the surface. A dark body and long tentacles became visible. “What the…. Ha!… It’s a gafftop,” I said. I clumsily lifted him and the slime-covered leader into the boat and reached for my pliers. “Hey that’s a nice gafftop you got yourself there Case,” Jon said with a smirk. “Quit messing with me and grab the camera Jon,” I said. Jon reluctantly retrieved his line and snapped a few shots with one of my cameras. I tossed the thumping gafftop back overboard and tried to de-slime my leader. We caught several more gafftops as the last bits of evening light played out.
The following morning we were back out at the channel and it was alive with signs of life. Broad swaths of birds were diving, and the water flicked and splashed with baitfish and predator activity. We positioned the boat upwind of a flock of feeding birds and began to drift into the action. Jon hooked up with a strong fish right on cue. Seconds later we identified it as a big skipjack as it jumped high in the air. Jon’s fish plunged under the boat and he put pressure on it. As he lifted the fish from the depths, his line bounced in a strange manner. Something didn’t seem quite right. From the front deck of the boat, I looked back down the side and into the deep green water. A huge grey object caught my eye as it materialized from below.
As it drew closer, we could both see the creature was a massive bottlenose dolphin rising up towards the boat in a sideways position. The dolphin burst to the surface and to our amazement laid there on its side with its huge body nestled up against the gunnels of the boat. It was a magnificent animal with slick skin and polished teeth that gleamed in the morning sunlight. Carefully balanced across the dolphin’s open bill was Jon’s skipjack. The skipjack had not one scratch on it. It was as though the dolphin was delivering the fish straight to us and I swear he looked happy to do so.
Jon and I stood there speechless. The horrified skipjack made a desperate attempt to escape but the dolphin just twitched and kept him balanced across its nose. On his second attempt the skipjack got lucky and flopped off the dolphin’s nose, ripped out Jon’s slack line and threw the hook in the process. The dolphin took a disappointed look at us and then dove below the boat.
“What is wrong with you?” Jon said. “Where’s your damn camera? I stopped what I was doing last night to take shots of your gafftop and then you miss a shot of THAT?” I didn’t know what to say, except that the dolphin must have hypnotized me or something.
Just then the dolphin reappeared on the other side of the boat and stuck his head up over the edge. Adding insult to injury, he looked at us both and then leaned back and sank belly-up into the green depths. It was a surreal experience.
Jon was pretty quiet up in the front of the boat, so after a few minutes I decided it might be a good idea to take a spin. I fired up the motor and headed down to a corner along the channel where several pelicans were drifting over a large dark patch of floating weeds. We anchored the boat a short distance from the pelicans and began to cast. “So… you still pissed about that whole no-camera deal with the dolphin there Jon?” I asked, hoping to break the ice with a little humor. “Pretty much,” he said. More silence followed. But the silence broke moments later when we discovered the dark spot below the pelicans wasn’t a pad of drifting weeds, it was a giant school of redfish.
Jon hopped in the front of the boat and punched a cast at the approaching school. Seconds later he was hooked up with a big redfish and believe me… I was snapping photos. After a lengthy fight, Jon boated the fish. It was just shy of 30 inches- his biggest redfish on fly tackle. Jon released the red and organized his line with shaky fingers. The huge school circled around us and he fired cast at them, hooking up immediately with another large red. Countless redfish enveloped the boat as Jon fought the fish. It was an amazing site. Jon landed and released his red and we traded positions on the boat.
By then, the school had stretched out in a long winding purple trail backlit by deep green water. I shot a cast toward the right side of the trail and one of the reds casually peeled off and grabbed my Clouser. When I set the hook he streaked off toward open water. What a great feeling to be standing on the deck of the boat with your line singing off the reel and into the depths. I eventually got the red to the boat and after several photos we released him back to the channel.
The school had vanished, but that was alright. For nearly 30 minutes they had been all around us. Jon and I knew it couldn’t get much better than that. It had been a strange day on the water. It was a day I will never forget, and yet another answer to the question of why I love to fish.