One to remember in Savannah

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Seigo Saito

Fly fishing for redfish and trout in the bitter cold is a daunting chore. See how two Saltwater Series contestants tried to beat the elements.

It’s unseasonably cold even for mid-November on the south Atlantic Coast, and two anglers and their guide, competing in the second and final day of the ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series Redbone Savannah Red Trout Celebrity Classic, are swaddled in winter clothes for their morning run.

Hoods, hats, gloves, glasses, boots, balaclavas, synthetic windproof/waterproof/painproof this, that and the others … the works for four guys in an 18-foot skiff racing north through the Intracoastal into a 20 mph head wind. It’s 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday, right about the time when dreams are supposed to be tapering off into thoughts of breakfast, not when we should be outfitted for an ice climb in the Andes.

Sitting on the floor of the boat with his back to the onrushing chill is Bob Vaught, visible only as a strip of pink face underneath the hood of his Weather Channel-branded jacket. He’s going fly fishing — fly fishing! — and looks like he’s about to deliver a live report from the business end of a Nor’easter.

Across from him is Capt. Scott Owens, piloting this mad craft. Beside him is a friend of Vaught’s since time immemorial, Johnny Hurlburt, who’s clutching chemical hand warmers and has hunkered and knotted his body against the wind like a balled fist. On the floor across from him is a writer — who is of little consequence on this trip — who defines success as avoiding hypothermia.

How did we get to this point? Savannah’s only two highway hours from Florida; we should be holding beers against our foreheads to stay cool. However, the tournament was going to unfold regardless, and the show must go on. Sub-freezing overnight lows were no excuse to renege. And in the case of Vaught, Hurlburt and Owens, redemption was on the line. Fishing in the tournament’s fly division — the most technically challenging category, more daunting than throwing live shrimp or artificial lures on baitcasters — the men had caught only a single fish the day before. The good news, at least, was that they had found gobs of redfish, 60 to 100 per school, meandering around a cove near Hilton Head, S.C., that Owens and Vaught had analyzed before the tournament. With a ruler and a map at Vaught’s house, the men determined that this particular pocket of water would be the most sheltered from the wind.

And that turns out to be a good thing. The run up there is a different story. As the crew hits the water a little after 7:30 a.m., what had been merely a cold day becomes frigid while speeding at 30 mph into a 20 mph head wind.

The ride is nasty cold but endurable until we hit a bay fraught with whitecaps. An overnight northeast wind had blown the high tide a few inches higher than usual, and now, with the wind still blowing down the pipe between two islands and the receding tide pushing back against it, the little skiff struggles.

Then Owens blurts, “Sit up, sit up, sit up, sit up!” As he tries to weave through the wake of a passing boat, a wave slops over the port bow. Vaught springs up a moment too late, and the water runs over and under him, starting with the middle of his back.

As we press on across the bay, its surface a meringue, water sprays everywhere, soaking pants, leaving salt deposits on glasses, drenching shoes (and that’s about all that anyone feels from their toes for a while). The bottom of the skiff, built flat to allow passage into the shallowest backwaters, smashes against the waves. On the verge of calling it quits, Owens decides to take the long way — a series of back canals that adds 20 minutes to the trip but promises smoother passage.