When targeting elusive species on fly, it can be tough getting used to long periods of time with no action at all. I know that the longer I go without a grab, the more I will appreciate it when it finally happens. Some fish have eluded me for days, others for weeks, but when it came to the most challenging freshwater game fish in Central Texas, it was years.
With a perry poke (a type of Spey cast), I set my anchor. Sweeping my rod, my line rips off the water to form a D-loop behind me, inches from the rock wall at my back. Keeping the line in constant tension, I come forward and stop high. The rig is airborne. Monofilament line shoots through my guides as the head, sink tip, leader, and fly unfold one after another, until stopping tight to the reel and falling at 90 degrees to the bank. I mend upstream to position the rig for a deep, healthy swing. I am fully present in this moment, focused on controlling every variable required to present my streamer at the right depth and speed.
Cast. Swing. Step. Repeat.
Soon I was lost in the rhythm. I imagined myself surrounded again by the evergreens of a coastal steelhead stream. A few decades earlier, on the nearby Skagit River, a group of line-splicing steelheaders were beginning to develop the very techniques I use today. Thanks to them, I’m Skagit casting, which is a sub-genre of Spey casting that allows for the effortless delivery of heavy sink tips and large, weighted flies at long distances, all with minimal casting space. It’s definitely a sleeper move around here, but in these conditions, the single-hand Skagit-swing is my tactic of choice.
Blake and I had anchored the canoe and waded along a conveniently shallow shelf, about 4 feet across, situated in a bankside eddy of the Colorado River in Central Texas. Towering above our heads into the dark, grey sky stands a bluff that makes a back cast impossible. Perfect. Beyond the eddy, in the main channel, landlocked striped bass make their home among the enormous boulders that have rested immoveable for nobody knows how long. Having held their ground through the near-biblical floods of 2018, these structures are worthy of the stripers whose Latin name, Morone Saxatilis, translates to “dwelling among the rocks.”
A few hours passed, and neither of us had gotten a tug, but in this game, optimism is key. It doesn’t matter what happened in the last hour, week, or month. The past has no bearing on what might happen on the next cast. I laid out another one, angled slightly upriver. After plunging towards the bottom on a slack line, I felt my fly go tight downstream as it reached the end of its leash. I visualized my white marabou streamer pulsating as it hovered through the depths of the pocketed river bottom. Mid-swing, I felt a thump. Immediately, I lost my breath.
I kept my rod low, pointed directly at the fish until my drag gave up its first inch of line. Quickly, I jammed a sweeping hookset towards the inside bank. The fish answered without hesitation, violently turning to initiate its downstream escape. With my 8-weight held high and jaw dropped, I watched as the fish put hundreds of feet between us. We jumped back in the canoe, and from the stern, Blake shoved us out of the eddy and into the main channel. Thanks to a boost provided by the swift current, we began closing the gap on the distant striper that had yet to turn from its bulldozing run. I kept the pressure on and after many slow lifts, I brought all 37 inches of the mammal-sized striper to the surface.
After a lengthy battle that took us at over 200 yards downstream, I finally gripped the monster by its jaw. Over the past few years, we had put in countless days on this stretch, catching largemouth bass that rarely broke 6 pounds. Though extremely rare, we had seen some large stripers around since they were brought down from the upstream reservoir during the 2018 flood. We didn’t know of anyone that had ever fooled one. Laughing, Blake asked, “So did you wake up this morning and think, ‘I guess I’ll go catch a striper today’?”
It definitely felt like a freak accident at first, but I was set on finding out if another one might fall victim to the swing. The forecast showed that the cold, rainy conditions were here for the week, so I was feeling hopeful. Two days later, I returned solo. After seven hours, I swung up another one, 28 inches long, proving to myself that the first fish was no fluke. Consecutive swing grabs from two solid stripers in a 3-day period had me unable to think about anything else. I had to come back for more.
The next day, with my friend Noah, I was utterly shocked when another striped bass ate a 3-inch white streamer down low. This one got the better of me quickly though and snapped my tippet fifty yards into its initial run. I didn’t get a look at it but based on its fight, it must have been the biggest of the three I hooked that week. Two for three in four days, and my streak came to an end.
The week’s perfect weather pattern moved on, and I’ve come up empty-handed on my two attempts since. There’s no telling how long it could be before I connect with another one, but there’s a lot of other fish to keep me busy until then. I won’t always target river stripers, but when I do, I’ll swing.
Article and photos from John Coffman, follow along with his adventures @jcoffman214.
Video from Ben at @roundiii.
Understanding Steelhead and How to Fly Fish For Them [An Angler’s Guide]