My Red Heaven

Of all the flats and shallows in the United States, why come to Texas?

A new lodge on the Texas coast serves up world-class redfisihing with a heap of Southern hospitality.

Just before sunrise, we slip our kayaks into the water. I maneuver into a two-seater behind "Lefty" Ray Chapa, our guide for the day here in Aransas Pass. My fishing partner, Ruth Stokes, gets into the other kayak, an animated, bright-yellow throwback to World War II named the Floating Tiger.

We launch from the Crabman Marina just off Highway 361 and have to cross Aransas Channel to get to Lighthouse Lakes. Texas Parks and Wildlife department developed a kayak trail here, complete with numbered posts and maps. This is one of two areas where Chapa guides kayakers. The other, called Brown and Root, lies on the opposite side of the highway. Both are ideal for kayaks: Lighthouse Lakes has narrow, snaking cuts, channels and small flats, while Brown and Root is known for its expansive flat and big, interconnected mangrove islands.

"I call this area the 'kayak capital of Texas' even of the country for shallow-water fishing," Chapa says.

Aside from a boat or two in the distance, we're the only ones on the water. Chapa takes us to a narrow, winding cut where we anchor our kayaks and set up to wade along the banks of the channel. As fish work their way through, we're ready for them. Stokes and I stand on opposite sides, and after about three casts she lands a small redfish. I keep fishing, seemingly in the same water and with the same small Clouser, when suddenly she pulls out a speckled trout. After a few more empty retrieves, I manage to hook the smallest trout I have ever seen, and as I'm admiring its bright colors Stokes catches yet another one. I finally put down my rod for a camera, happy to witness her early-morning luck.

Chapa is a novelty in this area, and would be in many other places. He has been fishing the waters around Aransas Pass for 10 years, and all of them in a kayak. While a few local guides employ them at times, Lefty is the only full-time paddle-powered fishing guide. The guy genuinely loves to kayak, and his passion is the only reason he has made it his profession.

"What really sets me apart is that I'm teaching people how to do this with a kayak," he explains. "I'm taking a teaching standpoint more than a guiding one."
 Many of his clients are beginners who book a day with him to figure out the how, where and when of fishing the area, then come back on their own.

By now, the sun is high overhead, and Chapa leads us to a sprawling flat. We ease our kayaks onto it and then get out to stalk reds on foot. A steady wind ripples the surface of the water, making it hard to see fish. He quickly points out a pair of nice-sized reds that Stokes and I don't see until we spook them. Suddenly Chapa points to a small school nearby. We instantly freeze, then follow his lead as he moves closer. But it's no good; they spot our shadows and take off across the flat. Stalking fish on foot is tough.

We go back to fishing the winding channels since they've proved most productive for us today. Between the beautiful scenery, good company and fish on the ends of our lines, the day turns out fantastic. Chapa practically has to drag us in, but he shows us a sandbar just on the near side of the channel to try for a Texas slam - we need a flounder. He stations Stokes and me at opposite ends of the bar. Standing as close to the edge of the drop as we can, casting into the deeper water, it's hard to believe that the quiet, empty flats, bays and channels are less than a mile away from these busy road in front of us.

**A Taste of Texas
**Of all the flats and shallows in the United States, why come to Texas? First, it consistently produces the largest trout anywhere, including almost all the record fish. Next, it has nice-sized redfish in the 4- to 12-pound range - lots of them - year round. Texas is also known for its good sight-fishing conditions and multiple shots at tailing fish, but what sealed the deal for an overdue spring fishing trip was a unique "new" lodge.

Just over two years ago, Shoal Grass Lodge went from  corporately owned facility to one-owner retreat when Limestone Creek Properties bought it. The lodge sits on a small hill on 2 1/2 acres overlooking Redfish Bay, right in the heart of duck country and just outside Corpus Christi. The original section was built in 1928 by Pittsburgh Paint. It changed owners over the years, though it remained a secluded haven for some big-name sportsmen and politicians. Hurricane Celia struck in 1970, and eventually, in 1987, the original lodge was torn down. An annex with six bedrooms and a 1,400-square-foot conference center was built in its place. Today, the lodge retains the same feel it had throughout the early years when it was used for business retreats and as a place for a select few to get away from it all. Staying at Shoal Grass Lodge is like being invited to one of your friends' buddies' cabin, and there's one simple reason for this: the small, friendly staff.

Smiling, upbeat Terry Upton, the lodge manager, had greeted Stokes and me at the airport when we arrived the previous afternoon. Once at the lodge, stepping into the Great Room made us immediately feel at home. There's a fully stocked self-serve bar, a big-screen TV surrounded by comfortable couches, a coffee table covered with magazines, tarpon and bull redfish mounts and fish photos gracing the walls. The huge windows showcase a view of Redfish Bay, which guests can also enjoy from the porch that lines most of the back side of the lodge.
Shoal Grass' full-time chef, Tom Robertson, already had appetizers waiting. We were warned not to eat too much since dinner is quite a production around here, but somehow that didn't prepare us for the full spread Robertson laid out on the dining table. Starting with a fresh salad and ending with his homemade desserts, each dinner at the lodge is an offering from Robertson that's based on what's available that day and what strikes his fancy. From spicy Southwestern fare to fresh blackened seafood and choice beef, I can honestly say that not one bad morsel came out of the kitchen.

Take Me to the Promised Land
The next day, we wake up before daylight to the sound of the alarm - Upton knocking on our door. We dress quickly, grab our rods and follow Tim Fading, the lodge sales manager, out to the van. Today, we're headed south. We're fishing with guide Kevin Shaw, who has a good feeling about a place he knows, but it's a bit of a run. Shoal Grass' central location means you have the option of going a bit farther north or south, depending on the weather and fishing reports.

It's still pitch-black as we take the ferry across Ship Channel and keep going south past Port Aransas, or Port A as it's called here. When we meet up with Shaw, Stokes looks at him and says, "It looks like I'll be able to fish today." He gives her a questioning look.

"I have a rule," she answers. "Life's too short to fish with ugly guides."

We all have a good laugh at that as Shaw launches his boat and we head out. It's chilly as we run south for almost another hour, but he insists he's got this feeling that the fish will be there. Although the channel is lined with stilt shacks and fish camps, we pass few boats this early.

We finally turn east into an area known as the Graveyard because of two planes that wrecked here. It's also called Nine-Mile Hole since it's a vast flat that's, you guessed it, about 9 miles long. It's starting to warm up, and no clouds are in sight. As we come to a stop, I look next to the boat; a red is within 30 feet. Shaw picks out some gold spoon flies and is already climbing on the poling platform as we're getting our gear ready. I look up again to see tails easing up all over the place.

"Whenever you guys are ready ... " he urges quietly, without a hint of impatience, probably completely immune to the sight in front of us.
 Stokes and I bumble around the boat like we're in a Chinese fire drill, and somehow I get to go first.

"OK," Shaw says, "there's a single about 40 feet at 10 o'clock. Or you can go for the double at 3 o'clock."

I flub my first couple of casts to the pair, but they're so intent on their meal they barely notice. Finally, the fly lands just right, and the larger of the pair grabs my offering. I set the hook and start taking up the slack as it shoots off, but I'm not fast enough.

Shaw poles us in another direction and suddenly we notice the tails are everywhere again. Literally. My mouth falls open, and Stokes just laughs in disbelief. She's up.

"OK, Ruth, do you want to go for the two at 11 o'clock, the small school farther out at 1 o'clock, or the single that's 10 feet from the boat?" Shaw asks.
 She tries for the two, but they spook.

"That's OK. We'll just mosey over in this direction and try for this guy over here, or maybe the small school headed toward us or the three at 2 o' clock."

No matter in which direction we look or how far away, there are tails and swirls, from 2 feet from the boat to as far as we can see. Half of our bad casts don't even faze these fish. There is not a hint of wind, and not even the slightest trace of another boat near this flat. We have this whole world at our feet; Shaw has led us to redfish heaven.

Stokes makes a nice cast and is finally rewarded. She plays her red just right, letting it run when it wants line but keeping just the right amount of pressure on it. She lands it, and we take some photos before she lets it go.

As I take the bow again, the fish are still tailing everywhere. It's unbelievable. I cast to a single, and it looks like I hit it just right but he ignores my offer. I am starting to feel dejected.

"Cast again, Jess. Cast again," Shaw whispers.

On my next cast, two strips are all it takes. It's a fat-bellied red that won't stop running. Every time I bring him in, he takes off again, but I'm careful not to lose this one. After a few minutes, I finally get him close to the boat. Just as Shaw is reaching over to grab him, he makes one last surge and wedges himself between the boat and the trim tab. While Shaw trys to gently pry it out, Stokes is up front pointing out more tailers.

"Oooh," she says, "let's get a double."

She gracefully picks up her rod and starts casting to 11 o'clock. Just as Shaw gets my fish unstuck, we hear, "Fish on!"

We look like the three stooges running around the boat trying to make room for Stokes, keep my rod out of her way and find the net.

"That's my first double on fly, ladies!" Shaw tells us proudly.

We take tons of photos before releasing our fish, and we continue to fish that flat until the wind picks up and the tailing subsides. Riding back to the dock, we are salty, sweaty and sunburned - and grinning ear to ear.