Essay: Chrome, Plastic and the Big Empty

29 Apr

When the alarm clock rudely lives up to its name, I can think of ample reason to groan, roll over, and drift back into dreamland. 

Not the least of which is the prospect of spending a goodly portion of my day perched upon – or cramped upon as my aching back is bound to proclaim – a 12-foot piece of rotomolded plastic being tossed about on a wind-swept inland sea in North Texas known as Lake Texoma. 

Ignoring an assortment of bodily protests, I will myself out of bed and move towards the day’s objective: the catching of sweetwater chrome, striped bass on the fly.  

Chrome, both from a Chrome Clouser fly and a kayak caught striped bass, both have a way of restoring the angler's soul.


If pursuing a pelagic fish species by way of a sit-on-top sea kayak and a fly rod seems a bit unconventional, I suppose it is. 

But then again, when it comes to outdoor pursuits, I’ve rarely been called conventional. 

The challenge is the thing, the central aspect that brings to me the allure of fly fishing, bowhunting, and kayak fishing. In short, the more difficult the outdoor pursuit is, the more sweet the rare reward when it comes. 

Today, however, what I am seeking isn’t just the chance to hear my Orvis fly reel sing as a well-shouldered striper peels line out into the deep. 

Thanks to the uncertainty of these times and a run of misfortune, I’m hoping to lose myself – figuratively, not literally – upon the “Big Empty” expanse of the 89,000-acre reservoir that separates Oklahoma from Texas just miles from my back door. 

A day of little if any problem solving, a dearth of contemplative thinking, and a minimal amount of cerebral energy spent is the goal. 

Instead, what I come to the lake actively seeking is a day in which to lose myself in the grand wash of physical senses as I see what the Creator’s daily canvas has to offer in the way of restoring my soul. 

And of course, to catch a striped bass or two in the process. 

If there is a fish made for the fly-rodder’s non-trout game, then it must be the striped bass, a sleek and muscular predator that prowls relentlessly in pursuit of its next meal. 

On Lake Texoma, that is shad, either threadfins or the larger gizzards, whichever species happens to be the most handy to these rockbass at the time. 

Like my guide pal Steve Hollensed says, “On Texoma, it’s always a shad, shad story.” 

While reservoir stripers in the southern Great Plains may in fact be distant cousins of their wild northeastern kin, the linesiders in my home water have made themselves quite comfortable in these local environs that mimic the current filled, wind tossed, and rocky waters of New England brine.     

With similar internal metabolic engines that rarely stop churning, the book on Texoma striper fishing success has routinely been to chase them over the vast acreage with a big boat powered by a large engine consuming many gallons of petrol. And when the on-board electronics show stripers below, toss over a live shad speared on a 2/0 hook and hang on. 

My 2/0 Chrome Clouser (a silvery Krystal Flash filled version of Bob Clouser’s original fly, tied up this way by a Texas Hill Country fly-rodder named Casey Smartt) will have to do. 

And so it does as I trail the fly behind my Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120 and bear down on the paddle for a distant point. 

As sudden as a Texas spring storm, a linesider is on. 

Brought quickly to the boat, or my flimsy excuse for one, I unbutton this unexpected fish and admire its sleek form and simple chrome beauty as the warm springtime rays of early morning sun sparkle. 

I then release it to delight another angler on another day. 

Or terrorize a school of shad, whichever comes first. 

As I float bobber like in 60 feet of water, I come to realize that there is a minor point lying immediately in front of me, a blip in the lake’s bottom contour that I was about to speed by, admittedly a relative concept in any craft powered by muscle alone. 

So while a known commodity of past angling success lurks in the distance, I decide to turn my exploratory instincts loose and to see what this nearby structure might hold. 

It holds plenty of striped bass and white bass it turns out, both species reacting to the underwater topography that is allowing a southerly breeze to push the phytoplankton/shad/striped bass food chain into motion. 

Soon, I’m attached to another striper, a lean and mean 20-incher that puts a serious bend in my Temple Fork eight-weight fly rod. Brought to the boat and released, another linesider, and then another, and then another are all caught by the metallic looking creation tied at the end of my 15-lb. leader. 

In the process – and without realizing it –  the frantic pace that I hit the water with earlier is down-shifting into a lower gear as I adjust to the rhythm of the wind, the waves, and the fish. I do my best to intersect with that rhythm by the methodical casting of my fly line. 

After a period of steady action, I commit an angler’s unpardonable sin – leaving fish that are willfully biting – to continue my quest elsewhere. 

After a fairly short paddle, I reach a cove that looks deliciously inviting to the unrepentant black bass fisherman’s soul that lies within me…largemouths, smallmouths, and spotted bass beware.  

Problem is, as tempting as the cove is, I can’t find a single piscatorial critter at home among the rocks, the ledges, and the stick-ups. 

So I move on, pausing at another minor point jutting out from the rocky shoreline. 

This point, however, is a bit more shielded from the wind and as a result, I can only find a couple of stripers intent on the Morone saxatilis version of a “Happy Meal.” 

After another session of pulling hard on the paddle, I arrive at my intended destination. By now, however, I’m nearly a couple of hours into my day and it remains to be seen if the fish I expected to find are actually there or not. 

On Texoma, active schools of striped bass can cover a dozen or more miles a day in their never-ending quest for protein-rich sustenance. 

I’m banking on the fact that not all game fish in this vast reservoir possess such a nomadic spirit. 

Some stripers, according to my guide buddy Mark MacNamara, find “shad-trap” structure to their liking and more or less set up shop, at least as much as a wild striped bass is prone to do. 

A couple of casts across this point yield nothing and I begin to fret. 

But then the Rio sinking line is greeted by a sharp jolt and a strip-set strike later I am fast to the best fish of the day. 

Like his earlier pals – or is it her pals? –  this fish reacts to the sting of the hook with an initial bull-dogging run. 

But unlike the previous fish, this fish has plenty of muscle and continues to sound for the deepest contours of the lake bed below me. I grunt, lean hard into the fish, and allow it to get onto the reel where the see-saw battle slowly turns towards my favor. 

Finally, I catch a glimpse of the fish and its 24-inch frame in the water, H2O that has been made disturbingly clearer in recent months after the undesired arrival of aquatic filtering zebra mussels. 

But any concerns about the long-term effects of these invasive exotics on Texoma’s sizable and shad-driven striped bass population are momentary at best as I finally bring the quarry to hand. 

As I hoist this fine fish up for a photo and an admiring glance, a smile creases my face. 

A smile made possible by the gleam of chrome, a piece of space-age plastic, and the big emptiness of my home water. 

Back in its liquid home and revived, the fish turns and swims for the depths of the point below. 

Meanwhile, I pause and instinctively check my fly and leader…and unknowingly smile once again. 

And not because of the epic day of fly rod action that will continue to unfold around me over the next several hours. 

Instead, that outward sign of inward peace arrives on my face thanks to the realized and simple joy of being alive and blessed by God with another day upon this spinning rock. 

As that fills my soul, I gather the fly line into my hand. 

And I cast again.


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