“The Season” is a new online column from F&S editor-at-large T. Edward Nickens. You can also follow Nickens’s adventures on Instagram @enickens. And you can read about his adventures in his newest book, The Last Wild Road, an anthology of his best F&S stories. Order it here or wherever books are sold.
It wasn’t my first shot at the fish, and it wasn’t the best cast I’m capable of, but it was the one that worked: The bull red chased the fly straight toward the boat and smashed it at 40 feet. He came so hard and so fast that I had to strip-strike five feet of fly line in two giant, ripping pulls—and when the redfish felt the hook he went bonkers. The little marsh bay exploded. We knew in an instant this was one of the big ones, and when he turned to run, he pushed a basketball-size bulge of water in front and rooster-tailed Louisiana saltwater behind. Our jaws dropped. And then we saw the others.
I didn’t know it at the time, but big bull reds will often investigate anything unusual in the vicinity. My buddy Matt Maness saw another brute coming, on a beeline to the boat, and he barely had time to pull a fly rod from stowage and zing a 15-foot cast to the fish. Now we were both hooked up, and our guide was making a grab for rod number three. A half-dozen big redfish zoomed around the bay. A triple was not out of question.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw of Maness hopping one-legged up the port-side gunwale of the poling skiff, his fly rod bent and reel zinging. Somehow, he had stepped between the fly line and the reel, and he couldn’t stop the fish until he’d untangled his legs. Maybe it was all that fuss and howling and commotion, but just as Maness was about to run out of fiberglass my fish decided the Gulf of Mexico was the place to be, and put on a drag-searing second run. I sprinted to the back of the boat, unable to stop him. And at that very moment, two things seemed abundantly clear: I was going to snap my rod in a jungle of motor shafts and trim tabs. And Maness was headed for a swim.
We’d put this trip together months earlier and, while we’ve all fished with one another in various combinations—me with Mike Neiduski, Mike Riddick with Matt Maness, me with Maness, Riddick with Neiduski—it was the first time our foursome had all fished together. It wasn’t a blind date, really, but you never know how a group is going to gel until you jump in together. One thing we did know: We needed Louisiana’s big skies and marsh and redfish to recalibrate our spirits. I’m convinced that there is no better way to cleanse your soul of a holiday hangover—wipe it clean of conspicuous consumption and anything related to pumpkin spice—than a few days in Louisiana’s Gulf marshes, with a fly rod in hand and a guide whispering sweet casting instructions into your ear: 10 o’clock, 30 feet. Facing left. See him? You got him? I got him.
Miracle of miracles, Maness and I both landed our trophy bull reds. There was laughter and back-slapping and a round of quick photos, and then the fish slipped from our hands to leave us breathless. At such a moment, I’m not sure it wasn’t me who got caught by the fish.
My last shot at a really good redfish came on our second day. I was in the boat with Riddick when a redfish tailed 200 feet away. The square tail seemed to hover over the water like a flag. This fish was completely undisturbed. It was my turn on deck, and as our guide poled us closer, it was ever clearer that this was the trip fish—the biggest we’d seen so far, in the wide open and without a care in the world.
At 60 feet I was on my feet and stacking fly line. The red was nearly vertical, in water so clear we could see the entire fish as it grubbed along the bottom, then submerged for a moment. It was like watching a dove fly into the field from 200 yards away. You tense, and shift the gun, and see it all in slow motion so that you mount the gun way too early, aim the shot, and never swing fast enough and miss the bird cleanly. Too much time. Too much to think about. You know where this is going.
The guide poled me to within 30 feet of where the fish disappeared, and then the bull tailed again, 15 feet away. I laid out the fly line perfectly straight—the fly four feet past the fish, precisely so that it came down across the exact center of the biggest redfish tail I’ve ever seen.
No one said a word when the fish blew up and blew out in a 100-foot contrail of mud. There was utter silence in the boat as I reeled in the limp line. And for a long time, I didn’t look up—as much to watch the fleeing fish for as long as possible as to avoid exchanging glances with my companions. I’d just missed a buzzer-beater layup when I’m actually pretty decent at sinking three-pointers.
Riddick fiddled with his lunch, avoiding eye contact as well. If Maness or Neiduski would have been in the boat, the smack-talking would have come fast and relentless. But Riddick and I were pretty much on a blind date. He might not have known whether to console me for my colossal blunder or open up the grief bucket and let me have it straight-no-chaser.
That will change, I suspect. What’s the point of having a fishing buddy if you can’t rub salt into every fresh wound?