Walk down the hallway in Capt. Gary Taylor’s Slidell, Louisiana, home, and you pass a series of photographs of gorgeous redfish and of the guide posed with some of the biggest names in fly fishing. The one with Lefty Kreh is inscribed, “To the one of the Top 10 guides I’ve ever fished with” and signed with that loopy scrawl familiar to most fly fishers. It’s a pretty impressive bragging wall for a guy who didn’t pick up a fly rod until he was well into his thirties, but then again, Gary Taylor isn’t the kind of guy to do things halfway. That’s why, two decades later, he is at the top of his game.
There’s no doubt that Gary was born to fish, but very little about Taylor’s early life suggested his future occupation in fly fishing. He was born in 1949, down a dirt road outside of town, on one of the last patches of dry land before you get to the network of bayous that leads to the salt water of Lake Borgne and, ultimately, the Louisiana Marsh and the Gulf of Mexico. He was the third generation of Taylors to inhabit the property, which he still lives on today, and the family struggled to make ends meet.
Luckily for Gary, his grandfather owned a shrimp boat. From the time he was five years old, Gary and his two older brothers would head out in the morning on the big boat, which towed a small skiff behind. When they got to the marsh, the boys would hop in the little boat and fish all day while the adults shrimped. The target species was speckled trout, and the boys were armed with “slaughter poles”—long, stout cane poles with just a short line attached to the end. When you hooked a fish, you raised the pole and derricked the catch into the boat as fast as you could.
Even for young boys, this was pure meat fishing, and the ethos was that you ate everything you caught. At the time, redfish were considered a trash fish, only eaten by the poor, so whenever they hooked one, the boys would try to break it off.
“I hated those damn things,” Gary says. “If we brought them home, my mother would make a courtbouillon [COO-be-yahn]—a thick fish stew—that we would have to eat all week. That’s why, when I first became a rod-and-reel guide, I refused to fish for reds. If a client asked me to, I’d tell him that I didn’t know where any redfish were.”
By the time he was in high school, Gary had developed into an extremely competitive young man with a desire to be the best at whatever he put his mind to. His father was ill much of the time and Gary says, “I saw my father work hard and never have anything, and vowed that wouldn’t happen to me.” He found two classic Southern outlets for this drive to win—motorcycle racing and bass fishing—and he enjoyed a fair amount of success in both. His prowess on the track resulted in full sponsorship and trips to race in places such as Daytona Motor Speedway and the Astrodome. . .places far from Slidell.
He had always competed with his friends on the water, so the next logical step was to join his local bass club. Soon he was the club’s “Angler of the Year” and represented them at the Top 6 tournament on Toledo Bend Reservoir, on the border between Texas and Louisiana.
By his mid-20’s, Gary was representing his home state at the National Bass Fishing Championship an event in which he was skunked on the first day—something that had never happened to him before. “That really fired me up,” he says, and he worked even harder to get better.
Eventually, he started fishing professional events on the B.A.S.S tour, rubbing elbows with the likes of Roland Martin and Jimmy Houston. While he enjoyed the competition, the expense of travel and the time away from his family took their toll, so Gary settled down in Slidell and worked for St. Tammany Parish Mosquito Control—a government job that allowed time off to pursue his love of the outdoors.
Birth of a Guide
His prowess with a rod and reel had resulted in a certain amount of local celebrity, and folks were always asking Gary to take them fishing, so he had started guiding for bass part-time in the late 70s. However, he didn’t have enough clients to really make a living at it, so in 1980, he started taking saltwater trips for speckled trout, as well. In 1989, at the age of 40, Gary finally quit his day job and began guiding full time.
“I guided everything and anything,” he says, “Speckled trout, flounder, redfish. Hell, I even did swamp tours.”
But after a few years, the ethos of his clients began to wear on him. Rather than fishing for sport, they were out for meat, and a successful trip was measured in pounds of fish brought to the dock. “It got to be pretty boring,” Gary says, “and I was ready to quit.”
Then one of Gary’s best clients called and asked if Gary would take out a visiting business associate who was a fly fisherman. As far as the locals were concerned, fly rods were for Yankees and trout, and most Louisiana guides wouldn’t even let a fly rod on the boat. But Gary wanted to keep his client happy, so he said, “Yeah, I’ll take him, but I don’t know anything about it.”
The fly fisherman turned out to be a great guy and a good angler, and Gary was mesmerized by the technique. They even caught a few fish. The pair went out to the marsh several more times, and they even discussed ways that Gary could modify his boat to make it more fly-fisher-friendly. At home, Gary talked so much about this “fly fishing thing,” that his wife, Viki, finally bought him a Cabela’s outfit for Christmas. Soon, he was teaching himself to cast in the backyard.
“I couldn’t make that damn thing work right,” he says. “And, of course, I was this great fisherman, so it had to be the rod’s fault. I went out and got a more expensive rod, but I still couldn’t cast.”
In 1993, in a leap of faith, he bought a Hewes skiff and quit taking rod-and-reel anglers, making him just the second fly-fishing-only guide in Louisiana, after Capt. Bubby Rodriguez, who guided south of New Orleans. (Rodriguez retired in 2001.) In a stroke of genius, Gary customized a 31-foot Lafitte Skiff to cradle the flats boat, which allowed him to cross the open water of Lake Borgne in comfort and then lower the skiff in the water when he got to the marsh—another unique part of the experience he offered that clients appreciated.
Gary also established himself as catch-and-release only, something that astonished his fellow guides in the area, who told him he was crazy; they said he’d never get anyone to pay for a fishing trip where they didn’t get to come back with a few coolers full. But Gary had a plan: he would not target local business; instead, he’d become a “destination guide.”
Gary tells a great story about an event that happened soon after he declared his guide service catch-and-release only:
One day, I got back to the dock after a good day, and as I unloaded the boat, a bunch of local fishermen hanging around started to laugh at me.
“Where’s y’all’s fish? Didn’t you catch any?”
I stayed quiet for a little bit, but I got too much competitive blood to take that kind of crap for very long. So I pointed at my clients and said, “See those people over there? They’re smiling, aren’t they? That’s all I care about.”
But they kept at it, joking that we obviously didn’t catch anything if we didn’t have the coolers-full to prove it. So finally I walked over to where they were sitting around a table and slapped a hundred-dollar bill down.
“Let’s go right now,” I said. “You get in your boat and we’ll get back in mine, and we’ll go back out and see who catches more.”
They looked at me kid of confused, so I said, “That not enough? How about a thousand?”
That shut ’em up right quick, and they never bothered me again.
Gary admits that building his new business took a long time, but he carefully watched his new clients and tried to emulate their techniques. He is a fly-fishing guide who literally learned how to fly fish from his clients. But what he lacked in casting ability, he more than compensated for with his intimate knowledge of the marsh and the habits of the fish. When clients went out with Gary, they had a complete experience, featuring stories about the marsh and its history and great fishing.
One of the keys to Gary’s success was his relationship with Jimbo Meador, the Orvis sales representative for the region (and, coincidentally, one of the two people to whom the novel Forrest Gump is dedicated), which eventually led to Gary becoming an Orvis-endorsed guide—the first in the state. And as more and more fly fishermen made the trip to Slidell, Gary’s reputation grew. He became friends with Lefty Kreh after they fished together. Magazines articles describing his unique fishery brought more clients, and appearances on Flip Pallot’s Walker’s Cay Chronicles and Jose Wejebe’s Spanish Fly established him as the preeminent guide in the region.
Pallot, in particular, is effusive in his praise of Gary’s guiding:
If ever there was a great American waterman it’s Gary Taylor. Barely beneath the quiet, self-effacing exterior there lurks the wild heart of a man, completely connected to the natural world and the marsh that calls to him daily. He is, truly, Louisiana’s ambassador to redfishermen everywhere.
Gary has achieved a level of status that can only come from being accepted into an exclusive club: his friends and fishing partners include Florida legend Steve Huff and Jackson Hole guru Paul Bruun. The combination of his lifelong love of fishing and the marsh, his easygoing personality, and his ability to put clients on fish have made him the kind of guide that other guides love to fish with. He still lives on the property he was raised on, but his life could not be more different.
The Heart of the Marsh
However, everything is not rosy on the Louisiana Marsh, and Gary worries about its future. In his lifetime, he has seen erosion and storms wipe out huge portions of the grasslands. Many islands, especially those on the Gulf side, are simply gone, and he sees a troubling opening up of the bayous elsewhere.
“Places I used to barely be able to get the boat through, at eight feet wide, are now a quarter mile wide,” he says.
Part of the problem is that the marsh was formed by the ever-shifting mouth of the Mississippi River, which distributed the sediment that forms the base of any marsh. Since the river is now held in place by levees, that source of replenishment is gone. And, as Gary says, it’s not going to get any better: “I keep telling folks that the ‘Good Old Days’ are right now.”
He remembers seeing the effects of hurricanes Betsy (1965) and Camille (1969) on the marsh, but nothing prepared him for what Katrina did to it. That storm nearly destroyed Gary’s home, which took eight feet of water, and it “pounded the hell out of the marsh.” Whereas he had witnessed a certain amount of revegetation after previous storms, it did not happen after Katrina.
Because the marsh is now so open, there’s been a big change in water quality, as the wind and tide now have a much bigger effect. Water clarity has deteriorated significantly, as a result, as the muddy bottom is stirred up much more frequently. One big tide can make finding clear water for sight-fishing a real problem.
Gary also believes that the BP oil spill of 2011 has had a greater impact than many people understand. Although not much oil actually made it into the marsh, he argues that there’s much more oil still in the Gulf than has been acknowledged publicly. Local watermen have witnessed a major decline in the population of blue crabs, a vital food source for many game fish.
What’s frustrating for those who love the marsh is that there are no realistic fixes for these problems. By altering the natural hydrology of the region for our own devices, we have cut off the source of the marsh, and we have no way to find and clean up any plumes of oil that may still exist in the Gulf.
Reducing Our Impact
But there are things we can do to help the fishery, Gary argues. When I asked him what the single biggest difference in the marsh is from his childhood to today, he responded with a single word: “People.”
“You used to have to know what you were doing to go into the marsh,” he argues. “You had to be a boatman, a mechanic, a navigator, so there simply weren’t that many people out there. But technology changed all that.”
The advent of more-reliable outboard motors, navigational systems (first Loran, then GPS), and cell phones have allowed many more people to access the marsh, which has resulted in a huge increase in fishing pressure. When Florida’s redfishery was in trouble, many Sunshine States guides started taking trips to Louisiana, putting even more rods on the water. According to Gary too many guides and anglers hit the same spots over and over, rather than resting water and finding new fish to target.
To make things worse, Louisiana continues to allow liberal creel limits, allowing each angler to keep five redfish per day and to have ten in possession—although, says Gary, “I’ve never even heard of someone being checked for his possession limit,” which encourages cheating. The same meat-fishing mentality that he sought to escape by catering to fly fishers continues to plague the marsh.
Gary points to Florida and Texas as good examples of states that have restored their struggling redfisheries by limiting their kill, but he says Louisiana game managers refuse to buck tradition. Limits in Florida are as low as one per day, and Texas has a limit of three, as well as a slot limit.
One of the sad results of all the above problems has been a marked decline in bigger fish.
“We used to catch twenty to twenty-five fish over twenty pounds in one day,” he says, “and that wouldn’t even be our best day. But those fish are no longer there.”
Gary believes that those larger fish now stay offshore, never venturing into the bayous where anglers could get a shot at them. Whether it’s the changes in the marsh itself, the reduced water quality, or the increase in pressure that has caused this change in behavior is difficult to gauge, but Gary suggests that it’s a combination of the three.
One of the things that attracted him to the fly-fishing community in the first place was its prevailing conservation agenda, and he says that the way his fly-fishing clients view the resource has had a profound effect on him. Having been brought up as a meat fisherman who would kill fish for bragging rights back at the dock, Gary was forced to reassess his own relationship to the fishery and what he wanted to get out of it. He is now dedicated to ensuring its survival at almost all cost.
I fished with Gary in October 2012 and had an amazing experience. On the trip across Lake Borgne, with the skiff riding piggyback on the Mr. Champ, he told wonderful stories about his wild life and about his experiences as a guide. Once he was on the poling platform, he transformed into a naturalist and teacher. He has an amazingly calm presence, which helped me to relax on the bow. My first fish was what he called a “crawler,” moving right along the bank with its dorsal fin out of the water. Later on, he taught me the fine art of “doodlesockin,’” which is effectively dapping for a fish only a rod’s length away. I could not have had a better teacher for my first experience chasing redfish.
That evening, as we sat back after a delicious gumbo whipped up by Gary’s wife, Viki, he talked about the many twists and turns he’d taken on his way to becoming a guide.
“I’ve had a hell of a life,” he said, “and I owe a lot of it to fly fishing.”
Sidebar: Gary’s Favorite Flies
When I asked Gary about his go-to patterns for redfish, his response was, “Before we talk about flies, let me say presentation, presentation, presentation. That’s what catches fish.” That said, he offered these suggestions:
- Clouser Minnow—“You can’t go wrong with a Clouser in most saltwater situations.”
- Weber’s Rattle Shrimp—Created by South Carolina tier Chris Weber, this adds fish-attracting sound to a great shrimp profile.
- Merkin— The marsh is full of crabs, and they make up a huge part of the redfish diet.
- Spoon Fly—Gary admits that he doesn’t like to throw Spoon Flies, but he also admits that they really work. Especially in muddy water, these flies create enough of a ruckus to alert fish.
This story originally appeared in American Angler magazine.