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Just wanted to share this beautiful fish my brother sent me. He lives in Portland and scours the countryside looking for these instead of bass. The bass are lucky because i’ve never eaten one, so the thought of keeping one has never crossed my mind. On the other hand, even though i practice catch and release, i know that these guys are incredibly tasty. I’d have a hard time tossing one of these back.pa260034-1

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So of course like everything in life, or at least mine, once you stop trying to force something you’re in the right place for it to happen on its own. That’s exactly what happened on day three of my trip into the Hill Country. I woke up at sunrise and laid in my hammock relaxing with a fresh cup of coffee, thank you Jetboil, and simply watched the sun come up over the rough and weathered hills. After a breakfast of leftovers i packed camp and started heading back towards Austin. The Garmin (GPS) advised me that a right turn out of the KOA would be the fastest way home but i couldn’t help but be drawn to the thin blue line that represented the Llano river. A left turn would mean a longer trip home but it also meant two things that would save the trip:

1) I could skirt a fish able river almost the whole way home.

2) I wouldn’t be retracing my steps, after all i am the person that will drive hours out of my way just to avoid a previously driven route. Always forward, never backwards, to bad i can’t apply this to other parts of my life…working on it though.

So i made the left turn, crossed the bridge and entered the right state of mind. Suddenly it was scenic back roads and low water crossings galore. And unlike the water crossings on the Sabinal and the Frio these had ample area on the side of the road so that i could park and p3190015stroll a few feet to the bridge and lower myself into the translucent waters. This sounds so easy, and in fact is, but up until then all i could see were signs warning me i would be shot on site, strangled with barbed wire etc. This is after all Texas country and it took me days to get up the courage to do what i knew was perfectly legal to do. I mean for all the scare tactics and intimidation it is legal for you to be there. Of course stories and rumors abound of crazy ranchers that don’t care about your rights and will fill you full of salt rock or worse. But as i stood there just outside of Yates on the low water crossing i finally had the realization “If they really were killing fly fishers out here don’t you think you might have seen something on the news?”. It seems to be the world i live in now that fear keeps people paralyzed. I know that i feel like a victim, but a lot of time you’re a victim by choice and it just takes the ability to see past the scare tactics and maybe throw a little caution to the wind. I know that when i stepped in the water i felt a sudden confidence, after all i was fishing, being a part of the river as it undulated all around me. I was a participant and not just an observer, it just felt right to be there.

Suddenly i was playing my first fish of the trip, a small but feisty Guadalupe Bass that put up an amazing fight for it’s size. Or maybe it was just that it was any fish on my fly. It was an incredibly beautiful bass, it was silvery and blue, almost a frosty transparent much like the water it came from. The fish brought me the renewed energy that i needed to continue to explore so off i drove to further points downstream.

A little further down the road and south of Mason i came upon James’ Crossing. It’s a rather large island of rock just below the juncture of the Llano and James’ Creek. It was the Holy Grail of my trip. On the upstream side i waded for a few hundred yards in water that never got above chest level. Along the banks i caught countless Sunfish, Largemouth and Guadalupe Bass. The wind was fairly calm so i was using the 2WT which turned every fish into a dramatic game of give and take. Along the way i wrestled with my conscience as i noticed fishing lines suspended from branches arching over the banks. On one there was a catfish the size of my leg struggling for freedom, splashing violently on the surface of the water. I REALLY wanted to cut the line and set it free, after all where is the sport or participation in hanging a line and letting a fish suffer for hours or possibly days before killing it? But the closer i got the more i thought, these aren’t my stomping grounds and these aren’t my people, i have no right to do this, plus the thought of a pissed off rancher filling chasing me down the banks wasn’t very appealing. Writing this i’m still not sure that i did the right thing.

That night i camped up hill at the Dos Rios RV park which was nice enough to let me set up camp for $14 which seemed more than fair considering i was miles away fromp3190024 traffic and sitting there cooking with a glass of wine while admiring the sun setting over the limestone cliffs that abounded in this stretch of the river. Even my neighbor cranking his “Country” music from his dually couldn’t entirely shake me from my relaxed state. I eventually ended up sprawled on the grass, a little inspired by the red wine, staring at thousands of stars trying to find the few constellations i could remember and thinking how great the day had been.

The last day i took the kayak down off the car and decided to explore as far downstream as i could before turning back. The quick current took my towering limestone cliffs that seemed on the verge of toppling into dark, deep pools at their bases. The river was magnificent down there, it had some sense of remoteness to it that was lacking on the upstream area. Cow skulls were lying on the bank, whether the dead cow or man had put them there was tough to say. A few sunfish were caught down this way, but the highlight was again a Guadalupe Bass in the 16″ range. These fish in my mind are the true trout of  Texas. Like trout they spent most of their time in clear fast moving currents, are more similar in appearance to trout than the Large-mouth they are related to, and they fight like crazy, usually heading for swift current to make their escape. As the sun arched above the wind kicked up and practically blew me back to my starting point with little effort.

Once back on the island i ran into a fellow that was fly fishing the wrong spot of water with flies that were for trout up north. I ended up showing him a nice pool that was tucked away on one side of the island and giving him a Wooly Bugger so he stood a better chance. It was anp3190022area that was practically impossible to fish without catching something. He had only been on the water a few times so he asked if i could give him a few pointers. I helped him with his knots and gave  him enough advice to get him close to the fish. Then i pointed to a deep area near a fallen tree, “Look for places for them to hide, like that over there.” i told him. Then with a subtle cast landed my popper next to the wood…BAM, 14″ Guadalupe on the first cast. I held my astonishment in check and reeled it in to show him a Guadalupe. Two casts later it was a Largemouth, then the next casts was a Red Breast. The mans eyes widened in amazement. I just laughed on the inside, knowing that nothing like this would probably ever happen again. I thought i better quit while ahead so i said i had to be going. As i started off he initiated the formal Texas “My name is…” while extending a large Texan hand. It turns out it was 60th birthday, and he thanked me for the gifts, the fly and the tips. I mentioned that it was perfect timing, i came out here and managed to not have any sort of discussion with people for four days and here it was right before heading him that i met him and appreciated the conversation and company. It was the perfect end to my trip. Feeling like a competent fisher and a decent human being.

Well i made it. I managed to get away from work for a few days and headed west to explore the depths of the Texas Hill Country. My whole reason to head out that way was to escape the throngs of people coming to SXSW here in Austin during spring break. My wife and son were ditching one crowd of spring breakers here while heading right into another group of them in South Padre. I just couldn’t do it, i wanted to escape the crowds so i figured i would head off to the wilderness and spend some time far from the masses…yeah right.

p3180009To make a long story short, there are no secluded public lands in Texas especially during spring break. This is mostly because land in Texas is over 94% privately owned. Most of the remaining percent is owned by the Federal Government and most of that is composed of Big Bend National Park and land along the Rio Grande. So unless your heading to Big Bend your pretty much restricted to the State Parks. It wouldn’t be so bad except that there are A LOT of people in Texas. If there was enough public space maybe it wouldn’t be a big deal, unfortunately these parks are so small it’s almost impossible to get lost or experience any sort of isolation. Exploring, fishing and camping on land without fear of being shot by a zealous land owner simply isn’t something you can experience down here. The only advantage is that Texas law states that any navigable body of water is public property. That means as long as you don’t step on to the banks of a river your free to explore. Of course getting ON to the water is a huge issue since you would be trespassing getting to the water. This is the reason that i, along with many other fisherman own a sit on top kayak. That kayak turned out to be my saving grace on this trip.

p31700042The first day of my trip was a mess, 12 hours of driving looking for a 9’x9′ area of terra firma to set up my tent and crash for the night. The only  thing that really went right that day was finally finding The Country Fly-fisher a quirky fly shop outside of Fredericksburg. Martin Pursch has a shop there that is more or less a renovated garage packed to the hilt with a vast array of fly fishing items. My favorite part was the selection of books going back decades. The shop is quintessential hill country, quaint, extravagant and unexpected all at the same time. If your in that neck of the woods check it out, you won’t be disappointed…unless of course you like the Orvis shop approach to retail.

The next day i was able to spend a good half of the day exploring and fishing at the South Llano State Park. The water was simply amazing. The water looked like gin and felt comfortably cool in a set of waders while the sun pounded away at my sunscreen. The rivers floor was blanketed in fist sized stones rounded by eons of hydraulics making it feel like parts of southern Colorado, but it was only March and already the air was comfortable in a short sleeve shirt. The only drawback here was that the fishing is so easily accessible, parking lots are yards away from all the best spots,  so of course the fishing was awful. I only managed to get one bite all day, and by then  i was so used to fish spurning my presentations that i tried to set the hook far to late. Luckily it was so beautiful that i didn’t mind just wading around and checking out the local wildlife.

Later that evening the need to find some place, any place, to find a camp site kicked in again. One of my biggest faults on this trip was relying on two out of date guidebooks to the region and a strangely inaccurate car navigation unit (GPS). A couple of months ago i posted the following

“…i finally received B.L. Priddy’s “Fly Fishing the Texas Hill Counrty” in the mail today. I decided to go with the old school original instead of the new version with all the GPS sites and up to date information because, well, it’s the old school version. Coordinates and all would be nice, don’t get me wrong, but i hope with the older version to spend many hours circling around trying to find that elusive spot that coordinates with my written directions. It will make finding that spot just that much more special.”

p3180006What a hopeless romantic. Because of that decision i spent endless hours driving to places that didn’t exist while trying to call phone numbers that had long since been disconnected. Of course that’s what i wanted, it even says so right there. Somehow i’m continually suprised to get exactly what i expected.

So i found a KOA in junction willing to let me camp for a mere $25. What a crime. At this point i had spent about 6 out of 48 hours actually in the water fishing with the rest being wasted time behind the wheel. Everything was booked, people were everywhere i wanted to be and the fish weren’t biting. That night i was so frustrated that i decided to call it a bust and head back to Austin the next day.

Of course that’s when the trip got good.

Received a wonderful email the other day from my father, a snapshot of fly fishing at higher altitudes this time of year.

“This is kinda interesting. Notice the 24 inch rainbows just off the end of my rod. What pigs they were!getattachmentaspx2 Just setting there in the current and not feeding. From that vantage point I stopped counting them when I hit 12. CJ caught and landed 3 rainbows all about 12 inches. I caught 2 rainbows but only landed one. Nice day considering the air temp was about 35 degrees (this is 9000ft), but it felt warmer with the sun shining. The water was 34 degrees coming out of the 11 Mile dam just about a mile above this fishing spot.

Saw about a dozen other fishermen over the entire 11 miles of road. They were a few other hearty souls likely also out for the first time in 2009.”

It’s hard to believe that it’s still this cold just one state to the north, while my father is bundled up and nymphing for trout i’m wandering through bath water in flip flops looking for the mystical Bass.