J.T. Van Zandt, son of a Texas singer-songwriter legend, guides clients toward a gentler way of fishing and living.
After a six-hour drive from Dallas, we arrive in Rockport, Texas, just in time for dinner at a seafood restaurant on the shore, where palm trees are silhouetted against the glow of a salmon-colored April sunset. My photographer friend Daniel Rodrigue and I have just finished a plate of crab cakes when our guide for the next day’s fly-fishing trip calls to discuss when and where to meet. When he learns I have never cast a fly rod, he is flabbergasted.
“It would be a miracle if you caught anything,” he says. Now I’m the confounded one: I thought he was supposed to help me do just that. But I’m not discouraged. Despite my guide’s doubts and despite all the evidence in my past fishing experience that would confirm them, I am optimistic about the expedition.
The next morning, we arrive at the boat ramp a few minutes early. Our guide is already loading his skiff, an 18-foot Chittum Yacht Laguna Madre Edition, as the rising sun lights up the sky in neon pink. There we shake hands with J.T. Van Zandt, the son of legendary Texas singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt and something of a star himself in the world of fly-fishing.
As we grab our own gear from the car, I realize I’ve forgotten the cooler I was hoping to fill to my single-day license’s daily limit of redfish. No matter. Van Zandt informs me we won’t be keeping any catches — and reminds me again that it would take nothing short of divine intervention for me to catch anything anyway. Later I learn it’s probably a good thing he didn’t see the cooler, a disposable foam cheapie.
I put on the sun-protection gloves and facemask I’d bought at Van Zandt’s recommendation and smear SPF 10,000 on every uncovered patch of skin, and we set out.
J.T. Van Zandt plays guitar and sings, sometimes performing his father’s songs at various events, but he realized years ago the outdoors appealed to him more than music.
He got hooked on fly-fishing at age 21 while still recovering from a biking accident that left him with a badly broken leg and searching for “a more grown-up sport.” With no YouTube tutorials or social media connections to experts available instantly on a smartphone screen, he watched VHS tapes and talked to people at outdoors shops to learn. Eventually he got good enough to guide anglers himself, and the hobby became one of his jobs.
He poured creative energy into custom-building gorgeous wooden-decked canoes in addition to guiding for a time, but he’s content now to make a living solely as a fishing guide. And he does have to make a living, he points out: Townes wasn’t as keen a businessman as he was a songwriter. “My dad was a very irresponsible artist and signed some terrible agreements,” J.T. says. “The main thing I inherited was legal fees.”
Yet he also already considers himself retired — he’s now 51, a year shy of the age his dad died. “I am retired from all the bulls--- in life,” he says. “I literally refuse to engage in anything my brain is telling me not to do.”
Van Zandt’s style of fly-fishing is sight-casting, in which one visually acquires a fish and slings the fly directly in its range for a bite, rather than casting a fly atop a promising area and reeling it along the water’s surface until a fish spots it.
For someone who’s never even held a fly rod, like me, it adds the challenging need for accuracy to a style of casting that can already be tricky. Van Zandt does not hold back in criticizing my form as my fly lands in spots that have little to do with where I aim it. But the razzing doesn’t feel barbed coming from someone so laid-back.
And as I told the two other men in the boat, I am feeling lucky.
Van Zandt almost always releases his catches. The flies he crafts are barbless, so they slip easily out of a hooked fish’s mouth as soon as it’s netted for a quick victory photo.
It’s not that redfish are endangered — commercial harvesting lowered their numbers to near extinction at times along the Texas Gulf Coast in the 1970s and ’80s, but the species rebounded after a 2007 executive order from President George W. Bush declared them a protected game fish. Today, licensed recreational anglers can keep a limited number that meet size requirements.
Throughout and after our trip, Van Zandt speaks fondly, almost reverentially, about redfish. “You know, I travel for fish of other species, but I am very much a proud Texan,” he says. “Sixth or seventh generation, originally Fort Worth. Van Zandt County up there.” (The county is in fact named for his family.) “So being from Texas and being proud of the state is a big part of my life. And redfish are what we have, number one. And number two, redfish are the fisherman’s friend. They’re one of the shallowest species of saltwater fish. Meaning that as a beginner, you can come to catch redfish and they’re more forgiving.”
As he motors or pole-pushes us around, Van Zandt tells me the only meat he eats at home comes from animals he hunts himself. He speaks admiringly of President Theodore Roosevelt’s dedication to conservation. He points and scoffs at a section of large new houses along the shore built by wealthy owners who only stay in them seasonally. “We’ve got to get past the idea that progress is destroying a natural habitat,” he says.
More than once, he tells me the sight of single-use plastic conveniences like straws and grocery sacks infuriates him. Someone meeting him for the first time can avoid an awkward start to the fishing day by not packing bottled water — or bringing a Styrofoam cooler, I assume. Van Zandt brings jugs of cold water and clean drinking cups.
He plucks plastic bottles and any other trash he spots out of the water and says he loves watching clients’ sons and daughters pick up the same habit. A natural-born people pleaser with a competitive streak, I feel a tinge of jealousy that these punk kids managed to impress Van Zandt. All I’ve managed so far is to irritate him by trying to make the point that corporations are far more responsible for environmental destruction than consumers, and that guilt-tripping individuals gives cover to the true villains (I’ve worded it much more cohesively here than I did in the boat). That doesn’t take away an individual’s responsibility, Van Zandt counters, ending the debate.
I’m getting more anxious about my prediction of success.
Certain that nothing I am doing will lead to a close-up view of a redfish, Van Zandt asks if we want to see one, as if he can simply catch one at will.
He proceeds to do just that.
After a couple of precise warm-up casts, he is reeling one in within seconds of my handing his rod back to him. The fish gives a game fight but is no match for the man at the other end of the line. Van Zandt nets it and backs the fly hook out of the creature’s lip, holding it firmly but delicately, as if it were a wriggling puppy, to show us. This redfish isn’t red, though it has a pinkish hue to its fins, particularly the tail, which also has a single black spot. Its iridescent scales gleam every color under the white morning sun. Then Van Zandt lowers it back home.
We motor toward one of his favorite areas. Once we’re in the vicinity, he notices an osprey dive into the water, so he directs the boat toward the spot knowing it will be full of mullet, a bait fish that redfish and ospreys alike find irresistible.
He cuts the engine and climbs onto the poling platform to push us through winding areas of clear water amid clumps of spartina on the shoreline. We glide up a creek and ease to a stop near what looks like a jacuzzi full of mud and thrashing silvery fish. Black cormorants perch on posts in the water nearby.
The scents of saltwater and decomposition and mud hang in the air. The only way I can come up with to describe it is that it smells like life, but I keep the thought to myself. “This is a very fertile place,” Van Zandt comments as if reading my mind.
My casts get smoother. They don’t look professional, but with practice, Van Zandt’s instruction has me dropping flies within a few feet, sometimes even inches, of my target.
We move every few minutes as I scare off school after school of redfish. As our time ticks away, I grow increasingly distressed at the prospect of not catching anything. Van Zandt will see a fish and I’ll look in the direction his finger is pointing, and maybe one out of three times I’ll see what he sees, a shadowy oval just a shade darker than the surrounding water. I whip the rod back, forward, back again, and fling the fly at it, and the fish disappears from my sight — though Van Zandt tracks it with his experience-sharpened eyes. Occasionally I feel the line go taut, but it always proves to be a snag or a fleeting nibble.
Then an unmistakable tug straightens the line. Instructions on what to do should this unlikely situation arise flood my head in jumbled order. I know I have to set the hook, so I pull the rod to the side, then am not sure if I’ve done it correctly — do I need to do it again before letting loose of the line, or do I let the fish run now? As I hesitate, the rod arcs down toward the water, then springs back up, trailing loose line. I lost it.
Is there such thing as half a miracle? I’m embarrassed to have lost my lone catch and one of Van Zandt’s flies, to have hooked some poor fish and left it with a gaudy lip piercing. But Van Zandt waves off my apologies, selects another fly, and ties it on.
When photographer Rodrigue takes a turn with the rod, I switch places with Van Zandt on the poling platform and he tells me how to propel the boat while he repeats his casting lesson. He points in the general direction we should head.
I move us onward, the boat turning a couple degrees to the left with each push on my right side. It feels like I am doing it the same way I’d watched him do it, but my technique is off. Below me, Rodrigue whips the rod and sends the fly on a haphazard course to nowhere in particular. They both laugh.
“This is awesome,” Van Zandt says to Rodrigue, and they laugh some more. “Jesse’s poling us in circles while you’re just flailing all around.” I manage a smile, then remember they can’t see my face under my polarized sunglasses and balaclava of sun-protective headgear, so I give a courtesy chuckle. The forced laughter becomes real as I ponder how seriously I am taking myself, with my fisherman-ninja outfit and my futile effort to push our boat arrow-straight through the marsh. This is supposed to be fun — this is fun.
Afterward, shelling peanuts, sipping cold beer, and chatting in the Swan Point Landing Fly Shop managed by his friend Dave Hayward, Van Zandt expands upon his philosophy, a common one among fly-fishing guides and their clients, of seeing this form of angling as a gentler, more ecologically friendly form of the sport.
“There are so many other things to see and enjoy other than bagging your limit of fish,” he says.
Besides, he doesn’t even like the taste: “I’d rather eat an avocado,” he says.
I suspect his fondness for the redfish, that symbol of his Texas, mascot of his beloved spot on the Central Texas Coast, might have something to do with his distaste for them but don’t say so.
“They’re the fisherman’s friend,” he says. “They might reward you like that one did you today. In a situation where maybe you haven’t earned, you haven’t worked hard enough to earn that opportunity, but they’ll reward you anyway. And they can be [extremely] challenging. ... You can take it from an extreme beginner level to an extreme expert level with a fly rod, and you’re still going after the same species, just in a different environment.”
Redfish aren’t as elusive as the permit fish, a cautious and picky eater, Van Zandt says. Once hooked, they won’t offer an intense battle like one might have with the massive, speedy, leaping tarpon. And that’s just fine with him. He’d rather load up a boat with friends and beer and spend a few low-key hours relaxing on the water, not concerned an entire day could ride on landing a single perfect cast or witnessing a miracle.
Find out more about fly-fishing with J.T. Van Zandt at jtvanzandt.com.
Photography: Daniel Rodrigue
From our May/June 2020 issue.