THE CURVE OF THE SURF by Joe Doggett

GAME COPS by Matt Williams
May 25, 2017
COMMENTARY by Kendal Hemphill
May 25, 2017

Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The surf beckons. It always has, since my earliest years in fishing.

An open beach of clean sand and the push of green tide and the wheel of excited gulls are an undeniable draw on the salt-scented southeast breeze. This is the essence of wildness. Some of my first angling adventures occurred while wading the beachfront, and the Texas surf remains one of my favorite fishing experiences.

A great appeal is the solitude of wading out and facing the moving Gulf. Everything bad in your life is left behind, and a rich horizon waits ahead. There’s nothing out there honking or clattering or jamming to compromise the moment.

There is a special satisfaction in laying smooth casts across the restless water—and a real thrill when a speckled trout jolts the rod. Fish just seem bigger on the outside bar.

This feeling never grows old. I don’t go as often as I once did, but it’s still there.

A 7 1/2-foot casting rod with a gold spoon is a good start for a surf outing.

I recently felt the tug of the surf and decided to pull the trigger on a solo afternoon run. This spontaneous quick draw is one of the pleasures of beachfront fishing. No hassles, you just toss a few necessary items in the vehicle and go. 

Pick an easy drive-to the access point and wade out. With the exception of the occasional wreck or washout, the open surf of hard sand bottom is all pretty much the same. Schools of predatory fish tend to move laterally, following bait, and any random stretch can produce. The important factor is to coincide your go-out with a moving tide of fishable clarity.

I’ve always preferred the mornings, especially during the heat of summer, but you go when the surf is right and the siren calls. So I loaded my “Beach Tahoe” and departed my Houston home at 3 p.m., aiming to coincide with a strong incoming tide. An hour or so later I reached Surfside Beach.

The first glimpse across low saltgrass dunes revealed white lines of small breakers foaming on the bars between the green guts. That initial sight of “trout water” always has had a risky impact on my accelerator foot. You want to get out there quick, before the tide gets funky or the dreaded southwest cranks up and stirs sandy chops.

I turned on one of the scrabbly gravel access roads about halfway to San Luis Pass—no particular reason other than beach traffic usually is sparse along that stretch. One rusted truck was parked here; another two or three far up the way. I drove the hard-packed ruts slowly, looking for birds or bait.

Instinct or impatience caused me to stop. Several rafts of finger mullet drifted through the inside swells and scattered birds milled overhead—nothing absolute but positive indicators.

I grabbed my time-honored essentials—heavy leather wading belt with pliers and knife, 10-foot cord stringer with float, and a ratty straw hat festooned with “killer baits.” An old Stearns life jacket fitted with pockets to hold extra gear completed the grab-and-go ensemble.

I prefer a 7 1/2-foot casting rod in the surf; the extra length is less apt to drift low on a chest-deep backcast and hit the water or, worse, snag the trailing stringer. It also provides a wider strike arc when “raring back” to set the hook amid turbulent conditions.

The rod was fitted with an expendable casting reel spooled with 14-pound mono. I say “expendable” because rough-and-tumble surf soaking is no place for a new top-shelf model. Attached to the terminal line was a three-foot length of 30-pound mono shock leader. Finesse is not a big issue in the brawling surf.

As is often the case, I elected to start with a 3/4-ounce gold spoon.

The compact metal spoon has superior ballistics when punching into the prevailing onshore wind—and the open surf is one venue where covering water is a plus. Also, the venerable spoon can be fished fast or slow, high or low, and the wobbling flash provides more come-here amid the rolling waves and washing foam. 

Finally, the proper spoon with its single hook is reasonably safe when hand-grabbing a thrashing fish. Plugs are excellent on big trout but the multiple sets of trebles can be risky against a close-quarters fumble amid crashing, churning breakers.

I stepped into the shore wash and pushed through the shallow gut to the second bar. Mullet and minnows scattered like shards of bright shrapnel through the swells. I started toe-hopping to reach the outside bar—bobbling and bouncing, the old “Gulf Coast Two Step.”

Recurring whitewater marked the shelving bottom ahead. The gut was chest deep, then shoulder deep before I reached the relative security of the shallow bar. I checked the reel drag and made several casts to test the free-spool tension, then started shuffling left-to-right to gain a favorable angle across the southeast wind.

The glittering spoon arced out, dropping with a clean plop amid the swells. The rhythm was good, the cadence of the casting was positive. You get in a groove and you know it’s going to happen.

I fired another shot, then turned sideways to hop a breaking wave, then spun as a firm pull yanked down the rod tip. A fine speckled trout shook at the surface. I screwed my feet into the sand and leaned back against the solid weight. 

Playing a “keeper” trout on a long line in the surf is a thrill to savor. You don’t want to rush it; you don’t want to horse a green fish too close, too fast. Keep the trout out there until it’s manageable.

The trout was 22 or 23 inches. It worked in a slow circle around me, as the good ones often do. The high rod eased the fish closer and the silver sides flashed with bold spots and lavender hues. The open maw was tinged with yellow. A solid speckled trout slicing through a green tide is, truly, one of the most gorgeous sport fish.

I regretted leaving the awkward landing net. Tangles or no tangles, hassles or no hassles, the mesh is good insurance on fish that matter. The abrupt push of a breaking wave knocked me into a stumble. The trout made a head-shaking flurry against the weight of the metal spoon and the cursed hook pulled free. Well, nothing’s perfect. 

During the following hour I caught 9 specks, one or two here, then 10 minutes later another farther along, that sort of session. And, of course, several strikes were missed.

I strung six fish, none as large as the first, but all between 16 and 19 inches; in fact, all 9 probably could have been kept on the 10-trout upper coastal limit but with no accurate tape handy I was wary of the 15-inch minimum. 

Another wave broke and I turned sideways and leaned into the advance of foam. Several casts later the wading belt felt lighter. The stringer was gone, plucked from the metal belt clip by the passing wave.

There! The cork was bobbling about 50 yards closer to the beach. At least the incoming push and prevailing wind were carrying it in the right direction.

I reeled up, pinned the spoon to the reel, and started backpedaling to the beach. Now, with the tide approaching full, the inshore gut was overhead—never a reassuring feeling. I held the rod high in the left hand and began sidestroking with the right, giving an occasional kick with the wading boots and trying to keep the straw hat above water. 

A chop hit my face and the flotation vest rode tight against my shoulders as I bobbled and kicked. An eager toe found the sand after stroking 20 or 30 yards across the lateral current. I scrabbled onto the inshore bar and forged through the foam to retrieve the drifting stringer.

I turned and gazed at the open Gulf. The afternoon sun was low and the water was turning gray and gold, somehow unsettling in the fading light. They were still out there beyond the recurring lines of surf, riding the currents and slashing at the baitfish. But the stringer was secure and the dry beach was close and, yes, I was a bit spooked. The gagging chop didn’t help.

A short swim is nothing for even a semi-competent dog paddler, but getting tangled in tackle amid frantic flailing can create problems. Quit while you’re ahead and wade out a winner, old-timer. I shouldered the flapping string and retreated to the vehicle.

Pressing solo into the open Gulf maybe isn’t the smartest idea. The “buddy system” certainly is safer but what can I say. Now and then the solitude of the surf beckons.

A string of six decent trout perhaps is a minor achievement against a day on a tricked-out guide boat, but there is quiet satisfaction in going alone and wading out and doing it yourself. And the outside bar is, literally and figuratively, as far as you can go.

—story by Joe Doggett

 

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