Confessions of a Fish Counter

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Illustration by Paul Pucket

Illustration by Paul Pucket

I’m really excited to share a chapter from from Tosh Brown’s new book “Top of the Flood, halfway through a fly fishing life”! I received and advance copy and I can’t say enough about how much I like it. Here’s my quote from the book jacket.

“From the Conch Republic to the northern tundra, via bushplane, kayak, and Mexican ambulance, Tosh Brown takes us on a vicarious thrillride from home waters to storied waters. The subtitle of this book is a modest tag; this could easily be a life and a half.”

Sit back and enjoy, “Confessions of a Fish Counter” by Tosh Brown

The affliction started as a benign quest for knowledge.
No, really, it did.

In the fall of 1990, I caught my first redfish near Port Mansfield, Texas. There was a small knot of gulls hovering over a pod of tailers. Shrimp were jumping and tails were flopping and gulls were squawking, and when my line came tight I thought: this is really fun and I need to do this more often.
For the next few years I booked guides up and down the Texas Coast and caught more redfish. Though pricey, that program was working pretty well until my friend Will Myers said, “Hey, I’ve been fishing a few flats near Port Aransas by kayak. They’re covered with redfish, come check it out.” The word “kayak” immediately spawned images of seal skins and harpoons. I had no clue what Will was proposing but I was game to give it a try.
A few weeks later, in June of 1994, I met Will before daylight on the causeway near Port Aransas. Strapped to the roof of his Suburban were two long, skinny 14-foot plastic boats. They were a fairly new breed of roto-molded craft called “sit-on-tops.” No spray skirts required. We slid them off his truck, strung up our rods, and paddled across the Shrimp Boat Channel to a system of shallow flats behind the Lydia Ann Lighthouse. About 20 yards into the first lake, Will slowed to a stop, motioned me forward, and pointed with his paddle.
Thirty feet off his bow was a pile of waggling redfish in a foot of water. Twenty feet beyond that was another group. As I looked out across the flat I could see more pods tailing up. It was almost as if someone had flipped a switch marked “DIG.”
The lake we were fishing had a soft mud bottom laced with oyster reefs. It was too mucky for wading, so the kayaks provided a simple and stealthy means of approach.
For the next six hours Will and I paddled from one tailing pod to the next. When I got back to Austin I stopped at the local paddling shop and bought a sit-on-top kayak and a paddle and a roof rack for my truck. A week later I went back to the same flat and again found it crawling with redfish.
Since that day, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time watching the weather, reading tide charts, juggling calendars, and driving back and forth between Austin and the coast. I like redfish in skinny water. And I especially like them when viewed from about three feet above the surface, which is where my eyes are when I’m sitting in my kayak. To me, their tailing, slurping, crawling, dashing, and waking is not nearly as exciting when viewed from the bow of a poling skiff.
The learning curve was steep in those early years, but I quickly found that water movement is everything to a redfish. No tide, no show. Redfish are lazy and they like current because current nudges the shrimp and the crabs and the baitfish into view.
In 1998 I took the deal a step further and bought a boat that I could use to ferry my kayak to new waters. That program opened up a lot of new territory beyond my comfy and familiar home flats.
I don’t recall exactly when the idea came to me, but one day I grabbed a notebook and divided a page into columns. I labeled the columns: Date, Location, Starting Tide, Ending Tide, Temperature, Wind, and Fish.
My entirely innocuous plan was to begin jotting down some stats on each day of redfishing. I wanted to see if over time I could better predict fish movements based on tidal flow and the weather. No big deal, right? Lots of people keep fishing logs.
My hope was to eventually compile enough data so that that my decision making on which flat to fish and what time to be there would become an ingrained reflex and not a blind swing in the dark.
You see where this going, don’t you?
For the first few years of this program I filled up pages and columns of fishing data. And indeed, over time, I began to see certain patterns emerge. After 4-5 years my decision on where to fish became automatic. While drinking coffee each morning, I’d check the online tide tables to see which direction the water was moving. At the dock, before stepping into my boat, I’d check the actual water level on the pilings to make sure all was in sync. From there I’d head toward a flat or system of lakes where I knew I could catch an incoming tide with gluttonous redfish pushing in on the new water.
It was a great system, but it came with a price.
Over time, the column marked “Fish” became more important than the tide and weather data. Had I simply jotted down the day’s catch and moved on, I’d have never contracted the disease. Looking back, I can point the finger of infection toward my computer. Transferring the data into Microsoft Excel was a good idea. Using the Sum and Average functions was a terrible mistake.
With those virulent computations in place I could quickly devise a daily average of redfish caught. I could divide the data into years and months and compare my catch rates from one season to the next. At first those numbers didn’t mean much, but over time they completely consumed me. After each day of fishing I’d race home and log in my catch. I’d then check the daily average column and fix that number in my brain. The next time I went out, I had to meet or beat that number.
Sad, I know.
But it got worse. I started cherry picking my days and not fishing when the weather wasn’t perfect. I stopped exploring new water and kept hammering the same flats that had produced well in previous years. I quit watching the birds and enjoying the sunrises and shooting photos of tailing schools.
I was a fish counter.
Oddly, though, at the height of my redfish tallying addiction, I wasn’t keeping records on other species. There were no spreadsheets for tarpon, bonefish, or steelhead.
Just redfish.
Maybe it was because those species required plane tickets and guides and lodges? All I needed for redfish was a weather window and a paddle.
Whatever the impetus, the number had completely replaced everything that I loved about redfish. Most unsettling were those epic summers when the weather held and the fish tailed for days on end. The daily average would creep to new heights and I’d have to beat it. On days when the fish were really turned on, I’d hook one and immediately start looking for another tailer or cruiser before I landed the one I was fighting.
I was a tournament of one. A stoked-up number cruncher on a mission to snatch the trophy away from myself. I didn’t have sponsors or logos; I was shrink-wrapped in data.
The years rolled by and the number grew. I’ve never written any articles about redfish, and I’ve only shared the number with a few people who have asked. But I kept on counting.
And fishing.
And counting.
But then one day I stopped.
Like Forrest Gump at the end of that really long jog, I just stopped.

It was a blazing hot day in July 2011 and the flats around Port Aransas were heating up to intolerable levels. The fish were up shallow and active right at daybreak but then they’d scoot into the creeks for a cooldown. I had caught a few fish early but by mid-morning they had scattered. I knew that the odds of catching more fish were slim but I kept on paddling and looking.
The number.
At noon it was pushing 100 degrees, there was no wind, and my boat was a speck on the horizon. I reached for my water bottle…and it was empty. I hadn’t screwed the lid down tight after the last sip.
The number.
I started paddling back toward my boat. After twenty minutes of stroking and sweating and gasping, I looked up and it didn’t appear any closer. I pictured myself crawling in tattered clothes through the Sahara toward a shimmering mirage. I was miserable and I was pissed and I was embarrassed. I thought back to what my urologist said about staying hydrated. A phantom pain began building in my lower back.
When I finally reached the boat, I chugged two bottles of water, stowed my kayak, and motored back to Port Aransas. I had planned to fish one more day, but I didn’t. I pulled the boat out of the water, hosed it down and drove back to Austin.
When I got home, I didn’t tally my catch. For the first time in many years, I didn’t care how many redfish I’d caught.
The heat wave continued through September and the flats never cooled down. And then the hunting seasons started and redfish were shelved for the year. Looking back, that hiatus was the treatment that I needed. A stark elixir of abstinence.
In April of 2012 we spent Easter weekend in Port Aransas. My son Blake was home from college and he was itching to fish. We launched on a bright calm morning and paddled a flat that I hadn’t fished in years. There were scattered singles and a couple of tailing groups and I had a great time shooting photos of Blake.
By 11:30 the tide had gone slack and Blake said, “Dad, you haven’t even picked up your rod.”
“I know, let’s swing past that grassy point on the way back to the boat. I’ve seen fish there, before.”
Just past the point I found a single redfish working a clump of oysters. When my fly landed he moseyed over and gave it a sniff and then he turned and dashed away in a billowy mud plume.
I looked at Blake and he cringed and said, “Bummer.”
But I didn’t care because I wasn’t going to write it down anyway.

The book retails for $24.95 and signed hardbounds can be bought at Ebooks are available through Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble for $9.99

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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4 thoughts on “Confessions of a Fish Counter

  1. Terrific story. Catches the love and danger of red fishing. It can be an addiction. I got my sit on top kayak in 1994 and began paddling the redfish flats off Tierra Verde FL and surrounding waters. While the fishing was not nearly as intense and abundant as the Texas coast and we had much more pressure (too much for the fishery), the memories of chasing tail came to the fore while reading this nice piece of writing with a lesson for all fishermen. Thanks for bringing it to us and bringing the book to our attention.

  2. Tosh Brown: photographer, author, publisher, recovering numerologist.
    Tosh, you’d better avoid bingo parlors!

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