(Reprinted courtesy of the Corpus Christi Caller Times)

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David Sikes/Caller-Times

February is when Cliff Webb shines. He’s caught dozens of trophy trout in harsh conditions and helped put dozens more on the walls of other anglers.

Tried and true trout tips

The big ones are out there - if you know where to look

February 20, 2005

It's difficult to know whether Cliff Webb draws his trademark enthusiasm from optimism or whether optimism is what fuels said enthusiasm.

More likely both traits sprang, or rather bolted, from his consistent success at catching big trout. In this case, the word consistent requires qualification. Nobody catches 30-inch trout every day. Not even close. But Webb is among the best at finding them and he truly believes each day will rival or exceed his most memorable time on the water. And he carries this attitude even into February. Or perhaps especially in February.

It's one thing to perform when the summer stage is crowded. It's another to carry the show, virtually solo in winter.

Webb's habitual musings that seek to explain his angling successes might sound like circumstantial evidence. But every now and then the verdict erupts true in the convulsive nod of a broad-girth speck.

And now is Webb's time to shine, when the sun rarely does. It's wall-hanger season south of the JFK Causeway and Webb has done much to bolster this seasonal claim. Just ask local trout stuffer and artist John Glenn from whom he derives a good portion of his wintertime taxidermy submissions. He'll point to a certain grinning blond surfer.

There's a lot of experience behind that grin.

Webb records and recalls observations like a scientist inscribes data. And though his theories couldn't be proven through pure experimentation, few would dispute his anecdotal conclusions, while they marvel at his results.

Is there a shortcut to such painstaking insight? Probably not.

But with luck and a glimpse into Webb's thinking, a semblance of his enthusiastic optimism might produce for us the mighty trout of a lifetime.

That's the idea behind this column. After spending hours on the water with Webb, I sat before him for a lecture in his living room, a mini-seminar if you will, on his methods, his observations and why he believes these combine for success.

While on the water, one of the things I noticed about Webb is that his language reflects a heightened focus and sensitivity to the inner workings of his world. Mullet don't simply jump. They flip. This is an important distinction, one that could determine whether a mullet is particularly worthy of an angler's attention.

Next time you see a mullet breach the surface, try to notice whether its body and tail are straight and static or whether the fish's airborne attitude resembles a swimming motion. Also notice the sound it makes upon reentry. Is the noise a hollow flop or a flitting slap?

The airborne urgency and reentry of a mullet fleeing for its life is different from that of a mullet casually jumping for any other reason. You'd do well to recognize this distinction. Webb does.

And though he does not ignore other baitfish activity, every flip attracts a cast from the instinctive Webb. It's not important to know the percentage of times this has paid off. It's only important to note that it has paid off big more than once. That's enough for most of us.

Several times recently, I watched Webb pull fish from water I thought I had just thoroughly covered along the King Ranch Shoreline. I may never understand what we did differently. It's a humbling realization, but one that drew my focus even tighter to my instructor and his methods.

I'm not sure this intangible aspect of success could be taught. Like most great anglers, Webb has uncanny vision through his mind's eye. This allows him to better negotiate a lure where he imagines fish might be. I aspire to this.

Many anglers wade or drift miles of this Upper Laguna Madre shoreline, unaware that certain sections sport the black soft mud that holds heat and attracts winter trout so well. There are few landmarks to signal the whereabouts of these mud pads. Webb has about 20 of them marked on his GPS and in his brain, the result of trudging through them endlessly. Start your search by wading near the subtle points.

Two of Webb's favorite laboratories are Cathead and The Badlands, both near the mouth of Baffin Bay, not far from its north shore. Both of these spots are situated well for what Webb believes is the ideal February pattern for big trout. Dozens of fish from here hang on angler's walls, in part, because wintertime trout take on more bulk than during any other season. A 30-inch fish weighs a pound or so more in winter, compared with a fish of identical length in summer, according to taxidermist John Glenn. The previous state record trout, a 13-pound, 11-ounce fish, came from Cathead in February during one of Webb's favorable patterns, with Webb within sight. Webb caught his personal best trout that day, a 12-pounder.

The catcher of the then-state record fish, Jim Wallace, is a friend and former client of Webb's. Here's why Webb and Wallace were there that February day.

During cool fronts, Webb believes as most of us do that trout retreat to the center deeper waters of Baffin Bay. When the days that follow are sunny and calm, this warms the nearby dark, soft-bottomed flats - Webb calls it a mud platter. Typically a February northeast wind periodically causes warmth to spill from the platter into the deeper center, inviting baitfish and big trout onto the flats of Cathead or The Badlands.

Webb believes these trout use predictable routes. He calls them trenches, which reach into the flats. These are ideal structure for hiding the black back of a big trout looking to ambushing a hapless mullet. Webb will stake out a trench for hours, often motionlessly waiting for a mullet to flip. He wouldn't go to these lengths unless the dividends were impressive.

The most favorable time for this pattern begins three to five days before the moon shines brightest. During the full moon itself, this pattern could continue, but only if the nights are cloudy. Otherwise, fish feed during the moonlit nights. The second best period begins two days prior to a new moon.

Tidal movement is the primary reason these moon phases are best, Webb said. And it works year round. During winter, however, when these times combine with fat trout, scant baitfish, light winds, cool nights and sunny days, watch out.

During a falling tide, find a spot where water is falling off a flat into deeper water. The drop-off would be your ambush point.

During a rising tide, big trout ease into the shallowest water possible. That's when Webb wades slowly on his knees to catch them.

I'm not doing that.

Native Americans referred to the February full moon as a Snow Moon or Hunger Moon, because weather conditions usually created the harshest hunting conditions of the year. It's not always a picnic for anglers either. But for Webb and those most patient and stalwart among us, a full moon in February is a harvest moon indeed.

Outdoors writer David Sikes' column appears Thursdays and Sundays. Contact him at 886-3616 or sikesd@caller.com

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