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Ready, Aim, Catch

Anglers satisfy an innate urge to hit targets while sight-casting for redfish.

By David Sikes

The game’s objective was to squarely strike a designated fence post with a smooth brown rock from Paw-Paw’s driveway. The irregularly shaped stones (slightly smaller than a golf ball) fit well in our young hands. I was maybe 5 at the time and my brother Phil was 18 months older.

The upright post supporting horizontal white planks stood about 25 feet away, beyond which stretched Paw-Paw’s pecan pasture. I can still recall the sound created by a well-thrown stone when one connected with the post. It was the solid knock of victory. Yes, we were keeping score.

The supply of ammo at our feet was as endless as a summer day. Who knows how long that innocent game of skill could have lasted if not for the all-seeing eyes of a grandfather?

“Boys!” Paw-Paw shouted in a voice that prompted every dog in the neighborhood to tuck its tail between its legs and run. “Do you know what happens when the blades of a lawnmower hit a rock?”

“No, sir,” we replied, knowing we had tossed our last rock at Paw-Paw’s fence post and the score would never be settled.

That illicit competition might have ended prematurely, but my desire to take aim at targets was just beginning. Many of us cannot suppress this primal urge to throw things in order to hit, break or kill something. Visit any carnival midway for proof of this proclivity.

For me, rocks led to slingshots, which led to BB guns, which led to shotguns, archery equipment and so on. Now I’ve come to embrace a target game involving one of my favorite pursuits: fishing.

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With this game, the prize is not won by hitting another object exactly. In fact, that would result in failure. This variation of target shooting involves guiding a toss with enough finesse for it to land undetected but close enough to a fish and with proper coercion to make the fish strike. I see this as a natural evolution of child’s play, and I relish the opportunity with childlike enthusiasm.

Ask any anglers who choose a target before releasing a lure and they’ll tell you sight-casting changed the way they look at angling.

Once I started sight-casting, which typically involves casting when the fish are spotted first, I became a more engaged and focused angler. Never again would I simply look across a flat for a prospective geographic destination. I have learned to let signs point the way. On the Texas coast, sight-casting is growing in popularity.

As with many disciplines, the culture has cultivated a percentage of purists. These practiced aficionados certainly earned this distinction. They possess impressive hand-to-eye coordination, adept casting ability and discriminating fish-spotting skills enhanced by a fine pair of polarized lenses. And for this mastery, they are rewarded with thrills beyond a blind-caster’s imagination.

The thrill is not exclusive to the aficionados. Modest success in sight-casting does involve a time-acquired skill set, trained eyesight, accurate aim and quick reflexes, but sight-casting is no snob. Sight-casting can be enjoyable even when you’re not very good at it. (I hear golf is that way.)

Part of the attraction of sight-casting involves the angler’s desire to rely less on luck. It combines the thrill of spotting and stalking with the intensity of knowing you usually have a single opportunity at an elusive and sometimes moving mark. In a clear tide, the show is nearly as impressive as the reward. When it all comes together, sight-casting can be addictive.

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Sight-casting often is compared to hunting. But there’s a pointed distinction — sight-casting does not necessarily involve an animated or identifiable target. By my broad definition, sight-casting also includes tossing at surface wakes or toward visual evidence of a predator attack. You can cast at a shrimp or mullet breaking the surface, at sandy potholes within a seagrass meadow, at a structure or at a color/contour change where predators likely would lurk. Surely, when I’m a tossing a lure beneath feeding birds, I am casting by sight.

Any angling practice that fully engages the sense of sight to identify, aim and direct a lure or bait toward a desired target constitutes sight-casting to me. And yes, tossing shrimp at visible black drum can be as enjoyable to a novice as lofting a Clouser fly to a trout can be to a veteran fly-caster.

Arguably, the great equalizer in sight-casting is the Holy Tail. I’m referring to the blue-fringed tailfin of a redfish poking above the surface, announcing its presence. Perhaps the most advantageous aspect of this announcement is that the fish’s attention is focused downward. Plus, in the proper light, a tail can appear in the distance like a gleaming beacon, allowing the savvy angler to assume the appropriate creep while mentally preparing for the finish.

I’ve seen it go the other way, when distance and too much time to think about the finish produce a kind of buck fever or tail anxiety. Regardless of the target, sight-casting requires an element of mind and body control. Experience and steady nerves usually produce better results.

The hardships and benefits of sight-casting while wading are different from those of fishing from a drifting skiff or paddlecraft. Waders have the advantage of controlling the pace of their approach. Bowhunters understand the importance of recognizing when to draw their bow and when to freeze. It’s all based on the attitude, movement and reaction of the animal. It’s the same when approaching a redfish on foot.

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If you’re on a soft mud bottom, stealth requires careful and deliberate steps. Yanking a stuck boot from the mud will result in a surface splash and a wake that could spook your fish. Similarly, the crunch of an oyster reef underfoot or a bay bottom scattered with shell could foil a plan. Waders also suffer a possible sight disadvantage when targeting fully submerged fish. (This would not apply to chasing visible tails.)

Kayakers who are willing and able to stand in their boat enjoy a more favorable vantage for spotting fish in a clear tide. But again, controlling the boat’s direction and pace on a flat requires either ideal wind speed and direction or a paddle or push pole. And because most kayakers paddle alone, they’d need to juggle both fishing rod and paddle, quietly and quickly. I’ve seen it done, but it takes practice.

Sight-casting from a skiff can be broken down to technical poling skiffs and traditional center-console bay boats. I’m not ruling out johnboats, but I rarely see them used for sight-casting, possibly because every sound that vibrates from an aluminum boat sends a warning to already wary fish in a shallow tide. Sight-casting is mostly a shallow-water endeavor.

The advantage of a poling skiff comes with the addition of a partner willing to work a push pole. Under classic conditions, the poling platform at the stern is much taller than the casting deck on the bow. This means the person responsible for the pace and direction of the skiff also acts as fish spotter.

When the two work as a team, aided by good communication, I’ve seen the system work beautifully, sometimes even when I’m on the bow. The person at the stern spots a fish in the distance, alerts the angler and steers the boat slowly to a spot with the best casting advantage, often based on wind direction. At the proper moment, the person on the poling platform plants the push pole into the bay bottom to steady the skiff. An accurate cast is made and the fish follows the script.

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I’ve witnessed a nearly textbook approach like this end quite differently. The fish may not be holding steady or it’s moving slowly in an unpredictable pattern, making tracking difficult. A sudden wind gust or a noisy lure entry can foil a good plan. And even when everything seems right, the fish could ignore your offering or swim away in fear. Each of these disappointments on a given day leads to a more determined search for the next opportunity.

After a while, an angler experiences enough happy endings to erase the memories of most disappointments.

One of my most cherished recollections involves a solitary float through an eastern section of Corpus Christi Bay generally referred to as Shamrock, a series of shallow, cordgrass-lined coves carpeted with seagrass and interrupted by oyster reefs, islands and green guts.

I had followed kayak guide Steven Utley and his wife, Susan, into a fog on a Monday. We assumed a path that only kayaks and airboats could navigate, paddling a fair distance northward from Wilson’s Cut.

When Utley announced we had arrived roughly at our destination, the fog was beginning to lift, but the sun still could not reach the bay surface. All was misty and still. The three of us began paddling in different directions in search of life. But it seemed even baitfish were sleeping.

After a while I noticed Utley in the distance. He was paddling with purpose toward a destination I assumed held redfish. An audible commotion signaled success, but the distance between us was greater than I cared to close.

A gentle northeast wind began to carry my boat toward an open flat, while clearing the shroud above the bay. Soon, sunlight penetrated the scene before me, adding sparkle to the water and raising my hopes. I stood up with the breeze at my back and few obstacles in my path. My footing was a bit wobbly at first, but that improved quickly enough.

Water clarity was just about perfect for sight-casting. And so was the water depth, which varied from 8 to 18 inches.

We had gotten a late start because of the fog, so when the sun finally shone through it was midmorning or close to it. The ideal period for sight-casting for submerged fish is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. A high sun reduces sight-killing surface glare.

As I found my legs and set down my paddle for a long drift, I noticed something encouraging. The edges of this flat were quivering with what I assumed were mullet. The bay was awakening, and I was perfectly positioned to take advantage.

I spotted a redfish within casting distance, so I tossed a gold glitter DOA shrimp. It fell not where I had aimed, but instead about a foot behind the fish and well beyond it. I hurriedly began to retrieve the lure, hoping I could take a second shot.

To my surprise the fish turned and raced to engulf my offering. Rarely are mistakes rewarded in sight-casting.

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But this day was an exception. My next two casts were a little more accurate. Same reaction.

I tossed at a sandy pothole. And while my lure was arching toward the surface I spotted a redfish I had not previously seen. When my lure crossed the yellow patch of sand, the fish swam to intercept it. I startled another fish, which bolted from under my boat. These spooked mistakes also rarely end well. Instinctively, I zinged my lure in the general direction of the escaping blur in a Hail Mary attempt to give it one final opportunity to thrill me. Unpredictability again was part of the day’s thrills.

It takes just one day like that to turn you into a sight-caster for life. You can’t win if you don’t play. Sight-casting can be like knocking down milk bottles at a carnival midway — you rarely win the game, but the thrill of playing and the occasional win get you hooked. 

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