Over the dunes

Sheepshead on the flats of South Padre Island
south padre island dunes | texas
Dunes on Texas' South Padre Island (photo: Stuart Seeger / cc2.0)

One fruitless day spent walking up and over mountains of sand on South Padres Island wasn't enough, apparently. Or at least that was the prevailing mood. Honestly, though, I think we were just stubborn. I think we believed, deep down, that if we didn't give it every ounce of effort, we were short-changing ourselves and, by extension, the adventure we'd embarked upon a few days earlier.

Fishing had been slow. Simple as that. I'm blaming the wind, but I blame the wind a lot. I suppose there was the outside chance that we simply didn't know what the hell we were doing, but ... yeah, I'm blaming the wind.

I know this. I can't blame the lack of effort. As we trudged along the eastern edge of the Laguna Madre looking for a stretch of clear water that might have just a bit of leeward cover, I knew we had officially dipped into the reserve supply of desperation. Over the last three days, we'd endured gale-force winds and brown tide. We'd wandered through strange grocery stores and up and down causeways looking for obscure turn-offs to fishy locales. We'd eaten salsa off of tortilla chips shaped like the state of Texas. And at least one of us endured a cramped aisle seat next to the crapper on the plane ride down.

And, making this supreme effort to find fish even more important, more seminal to this journey to the gusty, salty edge of Texas, was what lay ahead. We didn't know it, but we'd still need to muster the energy to take in the odd experience of enjoying a truly fine Italian meal prepared on the border with Mexico in a restaurant owned by an expat Iranian while a tenor sax player performed "Feelings."

No shit.

As the coastal wind continued to beat the hell out of us, I looked at Mike and pointed to the horizon, where the shoreline jutted out into the bay. In my head, I thought there might be some calmer water on the other side of the point.

"What do you think?" I asked.

"Let's do it."

I think that's what I like most about Mike — the guy is up for anything. Like me, he was of the mind that we'd come this far to fish, and by God, we were going to fish. What's another mile trudging through the coastal mud and sand if there's even the smallest chance that something fishy is swimming in the warm, clear water of the Laguna on the other side of that point? What's another hour? Or two?

Our suspicions turned out to be correct — or at the very least, the wind settled down long enough for the two of us to do what we'd come to do. We came to sight-cast to fish on the flats, and with the subsiding breeze, the clear waters of the bay settled just a bit and we began to see things.

At first, we were seeing schools of small bait fish and larger mullet moving over the hard-sand bottom. Then I started seeing bigger fish. Target fish.

I shared the details with Mike, but he couldn't pick them up through the chop. I realized something very important that moment. A trip to the Bahamas the month before, while embarrassingly frustrating, had taught me one very necessary skill — the ability to spot fish on the flats. And not only could I spot them, but I could tell Mike what they were.

"Sheepshead," I said, staring intently at the moving pod of nice-sized flats-feeders. Occasionally a tail would break the surface, and I'd let out a little holler to Mike: "See that tail? Two o'clock, fifty feet."

He stared intently at the water.

"I got nuthin," he said.

I cast to the first pod, armed with the same Clouser that fooled my only redfish of the trip earlier that day. I bounced the fly along the bottom in front of the fish.


I changed to a shrimp pattern. Same deal. The sheepshead — notoriously picky — ignored it, too. Thankfully, wave after wave of these toothy fish were working their way into the wind not twenty feet from the bank.

Opportunity. Now to solve the puzzle.

I dug through my fly box and my fingers settled on a small crab pattern that I actually put in the box for the Bahamas trip. I quickly tied the fly to the end of my leader and eyed the water again. Through the busy surface of the bay, in water no more than a foot deep, I could see the tell-tale vertical black bars lining the side of an incoming sheepshead about 80 feet away.

I loaded the 8-weight rod and, in what I honestly believe to be the cast of my life up to that moment, put the fly within inches of the target fish. Strip. Strip. Set.

Fish on.

Moments later, as Mike and I carefully handled the fish and loaded up memory cards with dozens of images, we noticed a bright flash off to the north. The sky, which moments before had been blue and generally clear, had turned dark and threatening in what seemed like precious minutes.

sheepshead fishing | south padre island | texas
Photo: Mike Sepelak

I looked into the water. More pods of sheepshead were coming in. Another flash of lightning cracked through the dark clouds. I think we both looked at our fly rods simultaneously, and our minds were made up. Time to go.

Reluctantly, oh so reluctantly, I followed Mike out of the water and across a muddy salt flat to the dunes.

Two miles later, after a sandy march through the guts of Padre Island National Seashore, it started to rain. And the wind, which had shown us a bit of mercy as the sheepshead pushed through, returned in full force. Lightning flashed against the dark sky, closer than ever.

Minutes later, we crested a series of tall dunes and stared out over the wind-whipped surf of the Gulf of Mexico. I looked back over my shoulder and could see the Laguna off in the distance, shrouded by dark clouds. I knew the sheepshead were tailing in the shallow water not far from the bank. I also knew that if we had stayed, we'd have invited disaster.

We put our heads down and pushed south across more dunes until we hit a stretch of sand not far from the beach. There, in the distance, was the rental car and the promise of a little shelter from the elements.

We rode in silence back to the little beach town of South Padre Island, contemplating the afternoon and the extraordinary effort we made to find something we could cast for.

Was it worth it? For one fish?

Yeah. I think so.


Quite possibly the best shot I've seen in all my years of fishing. Glad to have been along for the ride, despite the weather. Someday we need to get back down there again. Next time they need the rain...

Chris -- you can really write! What a great testiment to the enduring optimism of fly fishers, and I guess all fishers. It's just freeken amazing what we will put ourselves through and how far we will travel to put ourselve through it to be able to cast some feathers into the water. Of course, if we are finally successful -- and often enough not -- we then put the catch riight back into the water, hopefull to live a long fish life.

Are there fishing therapists? Probably some of us should sign up for one.