Category Archive: Texas Freshwater Fish
It started with the stag.
After writing my previous article, wherein i found myself relating with a baby deer being chased by a coyote (read it here) i set out for Barton Creek (my local haven) to try and re-discover my passion for fly fishing as well as a sense of self that has been missing for a while.
It was a glorious day punctuated with hiking, swimming, sunfish and bass. Late in the day, on one of the few uncrowded stretches, with the sun beginning to dip behind the limestone cliffs, i was switching flies when i heard what i thought was the splash of children or dogs coming downstream from around the bend. Looking up, and expecting some minor nuisance, whether two legged or four, i practically lost my breath as a giant stag, taller than me, charged energetically down the main channel of the creek, just a few feet away, sporting a rack that looked more like an elaborate chandelier than a set of horns. After passing by, it quickly stopped 20 yards downstream and glanced back at me as if noticing me for the first time, and then suddenly it bolted into the thicket.
It felt like the most dramatic, and staged signal life could throw at me. It couldn’t have been any more obvious, i needed to have the renewed confidence of that stag. No more being chased around by doubt and coyotes.
Hoisting the YOLO board onto the car i suddenly noticed that i was casually (and curiously) taking my time in my driveway. The plan was to hit the lower Colorado near Smithville, a place where i seem to be one of the only people that continually strikes out on this reportedly fertile water. Add to that the fact that i’ve had the worst luck on this stretch of water (four broken rods, one broken reel, and a broken Hobie Mirage drive) and it’s not to surprising that every bone in my body was subconsciously trying to keep me at home, far from broken rod tips and getting skunked. But recalling the Lesson of the Buck, i set off, psyching myself up the entire way and trying to convince myself that this time would be different.
In classic fashion, three quarters of the trip involved paddling against the current just to enjoy a disproportionate amount of time floating and casting into the shadows of the bank. I paddled earnestly until my arms turned to rubber and i couldn’t paddle anymore, and located a nice gravel beach that though devoid of shade, allowed me to rest.
On the paddle up i had caught nary a site of any fish other than the ubiquitous red horse, but upon launching downstream i immediately spotted drum, carp and bass working the waters around me. But with the current strong (being released at Tom Miller dam) I floated a spell before stumbling on some slack water where i immediately spotted a swarm of gar schooling around in the shadows.
As many of you know i am a long time aficionado of the gar, but it had been months since i’d had the pleasure of dancing with this scaly beast. Much like fishing in general, i’d been starting to doubt my devotion, but all of that was about to change. With the first cast a gar powered past a few others and cocked its head to sink its teeth into the fly, jerking it back and forth and quickly applying tension on my line. As the gar raced with my line and went airborne over and over, the passion for fishing sparked and emanated throughout my body for the first time in weeks.
That passion only grew as gar after gar was caught and released, with me eventually finding myself with the most foreign of thoughts, that “ten plus gar was enough” and moving onto something different. It turned out that a large white popper (seen in the title bar after hours of torture) would be the ticket to bass after bass. Any cast that involved that fly, and a little structure on the bank seemed to result in dishoveled water, a brief second of chaos, and a Guadalupe bass coming to hand full of vim and vigor.
Floating downstream and landing fish after fish surrounded by the sound of nothing but the breeze and the call of birds was unreal. It felt good to be back in a place with passion and purpose, a sphere where i felt competent, and comfortable. It also felt good to be alert and present in nature and in tune to all the glory it provided.
Mostly though, it felt good to be the stag splashing down the stream of passion with a ebullient smile on my face, and no coyotes in pursuit.
Ever since taking up a fly rod, and especially since starting this blog, i’ve been asked on a regular basis what it is about fly fishing that grabs me by the gut and keeps me so passionate and enveloped in it. The responses are usually along the lines of connecting with nature, or the tug on the line awakening the inner hunter in me while the careful release reveals the compassionate side of humanity, and so on and so on.
Yet the reason i almost never mention is the simple fact that i like to wander, probably because the word itself has so many bad connotations. Even Merriam-Webster defines “wander” as; 1) to go astray morally or 2) to lose normal mental contact, and while i might in fact lose myself mentally and enjoy it, it’s the third definition that i can relate to, 3) to move about without a fixed course, aim, or goal”.
With my family in Germany this whole month, and the store still far from opening after the flood, i’ve had a lot of options to get out and wander my heart out. The only limitations have been the incredible number of storms and the high flows they’ve brought with them, making being in the right spot at the right time something akin to shooting craps.
Waters as vast and varied as Canyon Lake, the Narrows, and Barton Creek have all been explored by foot and paddle with varying levels of success and consternation. While i don’t feel that i know them any better now than i did going in, i was hoping to share some thoughts with you in hopes of getting you on the right water at the right time.
Barton Creek: As even an occasional reader will know, Barton Creek is hands down my favorite water to fish, bar none. However, since the drought started in 2010 it’s been a fickle mistress, occasionally flowing with raging torrents of emotion, but usually dehydrated and depressed.
I’m happy to say that at least for now (and hopefully all this year) that is not the case. Barton Creek is back in form, flowing and fishing better than it has in a long time. In addition, because of all the rain, it’s now bordered and framed in trees and plants that seem to be glowing in Technicolor.
While you can undoubtedly wade many of its most productive stretches (between the Hill of Life and Sculpture Falls), the ideal way to find the fish and avoid the crowds is to float her. Having done so numerous times over the last few weeks i can tell you this:
1) You’ll catch a lot of fish, maybe not huge fish, but a lot of them.
2) You don’t need anything fancy, even $20 raft will do.
3) You will experience one of the most amazing experiences you will ever have in Austin.
Note: While the Creek can safely be floated and fished while running up to 250CFS, beyond that you really need to be armed with the proper gear, experience and advice. Get more information on floating Barton Creek at Southwest Paddler.
The Narrows: In all the years i’ve fished this spot near Spicewood Springs, where the Colorado meanders into Lake Travis, it was so narrow you could easily skip a rock across it, and at one point could wade across without even wetting your knees. Suffice to say, that is not the case anymore, the river is “gone” and the Narrows has returned to being an extension of Lake Travis again.
Of all my favorite spots, this is the one that has changed the most. The boulders that once indicated deep pools have been submerged along with the riffles and runs that i knew so well. Two of the most prolific gar fishing spots i’ve ever discovered are now indistinguishable from the rest of the water, buried under untold feet of rainwater. The gars are still there, i spotted many of them hitting the surface, but with so much room to maneuver they always seemed to be out of casting range, something that wasn’t a problem when the water was so low even a novice could cast from one bank to the other.
Adding to the frustration of being in the process of getting skunked was the fact that speed boats, and jet skis were constantly speeding up and down the waters directly over my shoulder sending wakes my way that had me feeling like i’d been dumped into a washing machine to be agitated. Still, i did have an ultralight buzz me which was a first, and actually pretty cool.
Note: This place can be amazing, but i definitely recommend taking deep sinking lines and hitting it up on a weekday, not a weekend (like i did).
Canyon Lake: While others have had incredible luck on this flooded lake working the submerged grasses, my luck has been anything but, at least as far as fishing goes. On the other hand, having an immense island to yourself (Canyon Park peninsula, now cut off from the mainland by the risen water level) and setting up camp at submerged picnic spots without a single soul around is a pretty good way to spend a fish-less day. Just the simple fact that you can stalk the shallow waters amidst oaks and submerged buildings and signs, feeling like some avant-garde fly fisherman wading and casting through the set of Waterworld is more than enough to return at least a time or two.
While i’ve enjoyed the aimlessness of the last few weeks, traveling from spot to spot on nothing more than a whim, i look forward to being rejoined with my family and hopefully soon being back in the store and having some parameters placed on my days off. Maybe it’s just my incredible love for my family and the need for the routine of work, but i do know this, it’s hard to appreciate being able to color outside of the lines if you’re looking at a blank page.
Well, now that the report on the three week Colorado trip has come to an end i can finally report on what i’ve been doing since then, unfortunately it’s not pretty. Well Colorado was an endless menagerie of water and fish (even if only trout species) my return to fishing in Texas has been marred by incredibly uncooperative conditions. With temperatures soaring into the 100+ degrees and creeks and rivers drying up, i’ve regrettably spent more time holed up in my air-conditioned den banging away on the computer reliving heavenly days of wanderlust and trout than i have on local waters. Fortunately, despite the setbacks, the little amount of time i’ve spent on the water has provided me with some unique experiences that while sporadic and barren, have still continued to motivate me to get out and about.
The first experience i had after returning from Colorado state, was heading out to The Narrows on the Colorado river where i spent more time dragging my paddle board through the shallow sand and gravel bars than i did fishing. It was while fishing there with a sinking line in a deeper than average pool that i hooked into a fish that started to tear my line up and down the pool causing me to think i had hooked into a three pound bass. Shockingly it turned out to be a small white bass, a real brute for sure, but a fish that i only would expect to find in this stretch of the Colorado river during spawning season (March). It was an amazing find, but after weeks of multi-fish days in Colorado state, i paddled away feeling depressed that one fish, ONE FISH, was all that i had managed after hours of work.
A few weeks later my family and i headed to a local sunday hotspot to grab some breakfast tacos and made our way down to the Barton Creek greenbelt to wander around and get some exercise. Lazily exploring the dry as a bone stream bed we crested a berm and were immediately thrust into an amazing display of artistic fortitude. Ahead of us were hundreds of cairns blanketing the creek bed, causing it to look like some Frankenstein cross between a natural phenomenon and an art gallery. Rock upon rock, upon rock…the only word i could utter over and over was “magical”.
Over the next couple of weeks i managed to explore varied waters, but due to high heat and low flows the nibbles and bites were so few and far between that the three fish in this post were the only fish that i caught in a month of sporadic fishing (although each one of them was truly a pleasure to catch and land.) And still the thoughts of all those high water trout lingered.
The carp (below) was by far the most rewarding fish of the last month if only because it was the most difficult. With flows at Pedernales registering at .5 CFS it’s been incredibly difficult to sneak up on fish submerged in water not much deeper than their shoulders. After a couple of hours of casting and spooking some fish i managed to spot a carp trying improbably to work his way up the weak flows into a pocket of deeper water just a few feet upstream of him.
Casting a brown Wooly Bugger upstream to meander down through the meager flows i was shocked to see the carp go for the fly with a brash confidence as i gawked and set the hook quickly. What followed was an incredible fight on a 3WT that repeatedly had me feeling like i might loose the carp before remembering that thanks to my last few days in Colorado i was sporting 2X tippet that could easily handle a 10 pound fish.
Many days later, after all these fish were caught, the water started to fall from the sky in an unnerving way. On what should have been a day off for fishing i was bummed to find that not only did the store where i manage flood, but muddy and murky waters in all the local creeks and rivers meant that fishing would be out of the question for the foreseeable future.
Three days after the torrent of rain, i returned to the special spot on the Greenbelt that had housed the aforementioned Hall of Cairn. Standing on the bank gawking at the still flowing torrent (photo below) i observed that the garden at the peak of the flash flood would have been below ten feet of water, without a doubt it was no more. At first it seemed sad to lose something so creative and wonderful, but then it dawned on me that this was a white sheet of paper, a clean slate for all those rock art pioneers that took part to start anew, including me. This was the in your face opportunity i needed to close a chapter on Colorado and stop comparing that adventure with the one that laid at my doorstep.
Sometimes we’re capable of hitting the “reset” button ourselves, other times we need the universe to strike us so violently and suddenly that we end up standing on muddy banks staring at muddy whitewater and suddenly thinking “Aha…”
As for now? I’m done chasing the demons of the past. Now I’m focused on the ghost fish of the future tense.
Okay, as a human being that has suffered through over a decade of mind melting summers here in central Texas, i am surely not going to complain about the cool weather that we are STILL experiencing in mid April. However, while i appreciate the cool air and the opportunity it provides to make use of most of my wardrobe, this hot / cold dynamic is making for sporadic fishing at best. Still, it has been a relief just to get back out onto some seldom walked trails, framed in splashes of color, courtesy of the wildflowers and budding bald cypress.
Unfortunately, as you’ve surely heard, the water situation is much the same as it has been the last few years around central Texas, low and dry. Unless we get some consistent heavy rains things are not looking good for this summer, with both Barton Creek and the Pedernales River are currently looking anything but confident as the imminent heat looms. Still, there are fish to be had, it’s just a matter of waiting to see if they all wake up and start dancing when the weather finally stops swaying back and forth between the extremes which have been the norm lately.
Before you head out to wander around with a rod in hand, know that what fish are still around in these clear shallow waters are sharp as tacks. I was reminded of this recently when i spent a good part of my day on Barton Creek. After hooking and losing a three pound specimen below the trickling falls at the top of the run, i proceeded to have him hover near me for the next couple of hours. Sitting just a few feet ahead and to the left of me, he would linger there, staring with contempt as i cast for his fellow neighbors. As soon as one of his fellow fish showed interest in my fly, he would dart over like the Flash and chase them off, likely informing them that there was an angler of ill repute in the water, and that it would be best if they holed up under a log somewhere. Much to my chagrin, this game went on for hours as i methodically worked my way hundreds of yards down the pool, “annoying” is a word that comes to mind.
A week later, an outing at Pedernales proved that the “tricky” factor isn’t limited to the waters of central Austin. Water levels on the Pedernales are some of the lowest i’ve ever seen in years, at least this early in the season. What fish were there were flighty as could be, hauling ass at the faintest sight of a straw hats brim.
They are there for sure, you’re just going to have to work extra hard to make sure that they don’t know that you are there. If you must hit this stretch of wonder (i often feel compelled to myself), i offer the following tips; sparsely tied flies, a sinking leader, the lightest tippet you can get away with and the stalking patience of a great blue heron.
So, they’re tricky, it’s tough, and the odds seemed stacked against us. But then again, if we didn’t enjoy betting against the house, we’d probably be fishing with bait on a lake. I for one would rather wear myself out while trying to work a handful of magic out of these familiar waters, then spend my time trolling hardware behind an Evinrude. I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you can likely relate.
Anyway, they’re starting to move, so get out there now and reacquaint yourself with those overgrown forks in the trail, follow them until the greenery seems to swallow the trail whole. Pause and make sure nobody is behind you, then plow into the thick of it, and continue until you spill out on to your favorite spot.
Oh, and don’t forget, stay low my friend.