FLY LIFE – Southern Comfort
by Reid Bryant
First published Fly Rod & Reel, Autumn 2016
Just over a decade ago my parents moved from my childhood home outside Boston to the shores of Virginia’s Lafayette River. It was a fateful move, from an angling standpoint. From the postage-stamp of lawn that now constitutes their front yard, I can watch schools of bait flashing in the silty water of the inlet across the street. There, too, I often see the wakes of predatory fish that drive the bait against the inlet’s oyster-crusted margins. These little struggles ripple through the mouth of the cove and into the Lafayette proper, and then into the Elizabeth River, and then into the Chesapeake Bay near the Hampton Roads bridge tunnel. Just a few short miles to the south and east, the brackish meets the Atlantic salt at Virginia Beach, where the big fish water begins.
For the past decade I’ve visited my parents with a fly rod in the carry-on and my standard arsenal of inshore patterns in the saltwater box. The Chesapeake, after all, holds a place of provenance among striper and bluefish anglers, of which I considered myself one. With the proximity of water, the prevalence of bait, and the obvious interest of bigger, predatory fish, I assumed that success was a foregone conclusion. I was quick to learn, however, that my Northeast tactics were nearly as out of place in this Confederate water as my Yankee accent, my mispronunciation of ‘Norfolk’, and my persistent confusion over the genesis of grits. While chucking Clousers at the riprap banks and bridge pilings I drew sidelong, head-shaking glances from the hardware guys in their Grady-Whites, and for over a decade of intermittent trying I failed to turn a decent fish. So, head hung low, I dragged my ego to the local bait shop, and requested the services of the best light tackle guide. I was determined to get ‘em, even if I had to get ‘em with gear, and I was willing to sacrifice some scratch and some scruples to make it happen. The guy behind the counter recognized me at once. “Light tackle guide? But you’re that fly-fishing Yankee everyone’s been seeing out on the Lafayette River, ain’t you? Only one fella around here worth talking to if you want some good light tackle fishing, and he’s way the hell over in Gloucester. But I’ll tell you what . . . .” He whispered, seemingly embarrassed on my behalf. “He’ll even let you use that fly pole a’ yours.”
My wife and I met Chris Newsome well before dawn on a drizzly August morning, at a dock on a backwater creek in Gloucester. Chris and I had been in some contact, and he was incredibly patient with my questions, but emphasized one thing repeatedly: “Be here on time, promptly at five,” he’d warned. “If we’re not on the water and casting by first light, we’re missing the best of the day.” Chris was ready for us—boat loaded, rods rigged, and within minutes of our meeting we were off the dock and moving. The wind gained as we eased down the creek and out towards the cut, and into the bay.
A while later we slowed up and idled in the lee of a dock-strewn point, but everything was still gray. The landscape was quintessentially Old Bay: a broad, serpentine inlet was riddled with smaller coves and backwaters, many of which twisted out of sight into the pines. The shores were strewn with fine old homes, each with an expanse of lawn, and most with a dock that stretched far out into the water on driven wooden pilings. The Chesapeake and its myriad tributaries are generally quite shallow, with a substrate composed of gray mud and oyster bars. The water required for deep-draft pleasure boats necessitates that many of these docks span hundreds of feet, and all of that subsurface structure creates prime habitat for game fish. I have enough largemouth fishing in my sordid past to understand structure, and I said as much to Chris in that early light. “Should we just cast in around the pilings?” I asked, unplugging a baitfish pattern from a sink-tip rigged 8-weight. “Will the stripers be pushing bait up against it?”
Chris just smiled. “Let me check my fish finder,” he said, and turned to dip a small net in the live-well. He came up with a fistful of wriggling bunker, and threw them a few at a time towards the pilings. Within seconds, the water erupted as decent fish slashed the bait and chased down the cripples. “I’d say yeah, just aim at the pilings and strip in fast . . . .”
And that is just what we did.
Over the course of the morning, Chris landed fish for me and my wife, Kim, re-tied flies, and chucked peanut bunker by the fistful. He also patiently answered my tireless questions about the fishery, and his approach to it. “Basically,” he said, “I go about this inshore game the same way the snook guides do in Florida. I fill the live-well with peanut bunker, and chuck them around good structure. I’ll know pretty quickly which docks and oyster bars hold fish, and which don’t. Plus, having fished these waters all my life, I more or less know the hot spots. It’s just amazing that more guys aren’t chumming live bunker like this.”
His assertion was true. We saw several other boats through the early morning, replete with hardware fishermen. Almost all called or waved to Chris, and seemed friendly enough, but none were chumming live bunker, none were equipped with fly tackle, and, might I add, none were catching fish.
For the next few hours, we caught fish. That said, we saw far more than we caught, and I realized that these waters, which had remained barren to me for so long, had simply needed the secrets teased out of them. On the same, high-profile patterns of Chris’s design, we caught puppy drum, stripers, snapper blues, weakfish, flounder, and croaker. We lost count of the fish we’d caught well before things had dried up, but by noonish the fishing had slowed noticeably.
We parted at the dock with handshakes all around. It had been a beautiful morning, and a cathartic one, from an angling standpoint at least. I for one had broken my losing streak, and proved to myself that indeed there were fish in these inshore waters, and they could be taken on the fly. But more to the point, I saw a man at work who’s spent a lifetime becoming a master of his own backyard.