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This tops the list

Mike Leggett, Commentary

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Rockport fly fishing guide Chuck Naiser, left, spots fish for angler Russ Fedderson of Fulton during a redfish hunt in the shallows near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.

Purple tails and orange backs churn the surface near the shoreline grasses a hundred yards away. Up and down, up and down. A half dozen glints of reflected sunlight pulse anticipation at the speed of light.

Spots on tails as wide as a boat paddle wink like precious black pearls flashing on a trophy wife's neck, waving a lazy semaphore signal: redfish.

More fish join the turmoil behind a ray that is gliding over the bottom, roiling clouds of silt alive with shrimp, baby crabs and tiny minnows. It's a traveling redfish smorgasbord.

"The fish are happy. I'm happy. We're all happy," whispers veteran fly fishing guide Chuck Naiser, who is using a long, graphite pole to maneuver our 18-foot Hell's Bay Waterman skiff in very skinny water.

We're just east of Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in saltwater shallows on the edge of this coastal bay. The wind is from the north, so we're drifting south parallel to the Intracoastal Waterway. Matagorda Island is to the east and beyond that the Gulf of Mexico. It just after dawn, but the sky is clear and the sun is warming me, Naiser and a friend of his from Fulton, Russ Fedderson.

The water ahead undulates as 2-foot-long bodies twist and squirm.

"Let's be careful now. They're acting a little suspicious. But look at all those fish." Naiser does this for a living and still gets excited. He's doing his Hemingway thing today: khaki cap, bandana and gray beard.

I've been hunting and fishing for nearly 60 years now, in Texas and around the world, and fly fishing for redfish is my favorite thing to do, and easily tops my list of the 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies.

Part of my obsession is the fish itself. All along the North American coast, from New England to Texas and Mexico, this is considered a prized game fish by anglers who know them by a variety of names, including redfish, red, red drum, channel bass and colorado.

These fish are rarely red, but tend to be orange or copper. The distinguishing mark is the black spot on the upper part of the tail. They can exceed 3 feet and weigh more than 40 pounds. They are fast, wily and strong. They spend the first three years of life in coastal shallows where the water is 1 to 4 feet deep.

The other part of the obsession is the method of fishing. I use a fly cast to reds in very shallow water, often so shallow their backs are exposed. Fly fishing isn't random. I cast only to individual fish, presenting the fly in a way that will invite the strike. I use a hook with no barb so it does not set and injure the fish. If I'm lucky enough to get one to the boat, I release him.

In other words, it's a personal thing — just me and the fish.

We're closer now, drifting. The roiling slows. The school has dropped below the surface but is still feeding. Suddenly a massive school of glass minnows bursts through the surface in waves of terror. Diamonds of sparkling bait are airborne briefly before dropping into the gullets of hungry redfish.

I'm on the bow of the skiff now, stripping line into the basket, my eyes glued to the last spot where I saw a specific fish, trusting the coils to maintain their purity below my line of sight. Nearly in range now. Gauging angle and distance and wind velocity like a field goal kicker, I use a tiny roll cast to put 15 feet of line in play, one false cast over the school's submerged heads for good measure, and lay an imitation shrimp fly just in front of "my" fish.

Big bass are wonderful. Catfish are cool. But there's something about a red drum on a fly, any size, any place, any time, that's among the most magical things in life. I could do it every day, all day, just for the chance to cast to a single feeding redfish.

There was a time when I was certain that wading for big speckled trout with lures was as good as it could get. That was nearly 20 years ago.

Then, one day at the end of a six-week journey down the Rio Grande, I spent a morning with my friend Steve Ellis, fishing for reds out of Port Isabel way down in the Lower Laguna Madre. I can still see those fish in very shallow water. I can still see the badly placed fly catch their attention and still feel the surprise at how quickly they attacked. Pectoral fins flaring out and flickering orange as they sucked in the fly. Nine times I saw that and nine times I caught the fish.

I was hopelessly hooked and have been since.

Somewhere along the way I found Naiser in Rockport, and with 40 years of Texas coastal knowledge, he has lifted me up and carried me along on the best saltwater fishing trips of my life.

The wonderful thing about redfish, especially for the fly angler, is that there may never have been more of them in Texas coastal waters. They are all over the place, and you can fish them from skiffs, kayaks or boats. Or docks, or bridges. Or you can wade for them.

Now, truth is, they spook easily and can be frustratingly picky about what kind of fly they will strike. But it doesn't take a thousand-dollar fly rod and brass reel or a fancy boat with sonar. A skiff and a $50 discount combo will work just fine. And along the middle and lower coast, from Port O'Connor south to Boca Chica, the reds are biting year-round.

Naiser jerks me back into the present. Don't mess it up now, he laughs, using saltier language than is suitable here.

I'm leaning forward, my knees pressed against the stripping basket. My cast appears to be too far from the single large red I've selected on the edge of the school.

Still, the fly lands without disturbing the water, and Naiser says, "Let it drop." I pause.

Then, "Now, strip, strip, there!" The fish is fast and accurate, shooting forward and inhaling the hook. Before I can react, he starts a long, stinging run toward deeper water and the distant shore of Matagorda Island.

There are no tarpon-like jumps, no speckled trout head shakes, no flounder bottom-suction standoffs. Reds are like bulls, head down, charging in one direction like a torpedo. On the rod, they're a constant weight, but alive and powerful. There is no barb, so I must keep a constant tension on the line.

Naiser jams the pole far down into the shell and sand bottom to hold the boat steady and scrambles down from his platform at the rear of the skiff to wait for the fish to tire.

He rests on the port gunwale, talking me through the fight. We've done this a hundred times before, but it's still reassuring. I am better equipped mentally than I used to be and in a little less than five minutes the 7-weight TFO rod is victorious, though the 25-inch fish made two runs into the nylon backing.

Finally, Naiser reaches over the side, eases a hand under the fish's belly and lifts the chunky red into the boat.

Like every one before it, the feeling is transcendent, exhilarating. The fish could be the first one I've ever caught. Lean, but with a gut, orange-fire scales over a white belly, underslung mouth and a bright, black spot on its translucent tail. A team victory that was worth the effort.

"Well done," Naiser says and releases the fish.

There's nothing else to say.

mleggett@statesman.com