Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine lead feature story.
Being in the water is the thing. Not near it, or beside it, or floating upon it, but standing knee-deep in the pulsing thing itself, feeling its tug on body and soul alike.
It was one of those Texas winter days that compensate for some of summer’s misery, all achingly blue and hard-etched clarity. Air still and pleasant, dazzling kicks of sunlight on water, a perfect number of crows. Bare cypress limbs threw lacy shadows across the fast water and steadfast rocks. Thankfully, a slow leak in the right foot of my waders provided just enough chill of reality to assure me I hadn’t been creamed by an eighteen-wheeler on I-35 and sent prematurely to fly-fishing Heaven. In Heaven, I presume, waders never leak.
I shuffled quietly downstream along a familiar limestone ledge. On that particular stretch of the river, I always fish the near water first, then work my way downstream. In so doing, I had already hooked and landed two respectable 14” rainbows and missed three others.
But I was anticipating a deep slot where I knew big trout usually queued up for the river’s buffet. At the upper end of the run I checked the knot on my Prince Nymph and added another tiny split-shot to the leader to put the fly well down into the deeper feeding zone.
I cast the Prince and watched the current take it. The nymph sank and drifted into the slot. The foam strike indicator jerked sideways. I lifted my rod tip and a jolting, unmistakable message came back up the line.
It’s about as unlikely as polar bears in Arkansas or sushi in Muleshoe. Just south of the 30th parallel, where cactus thrives and flip-flops are considered shoes, natural resources have been rearranged to create an actual trout river, which forces us fly anglers, normally staunch advocates of wild rivers, to admit that not all dams are bad.
In South-Central Texas, hundreds of miles and several temperature zones from the nearest indigenous trout stream, the lower Guadalupe flows as a pretty, riffles-and-rapids, limestone-ledged, cypress-shaded paradox sustained by cold water from the depths of Canyon Lake. Typically, water comes through the dam’s tailrace at a chilly 56 to 60 degrees, remaining cold enough for trout survival 10 or more miles downstream, creating a regionally unique ecosystem called a tailwater fishery. But the battles with nature and water policy to bring this stretch of river to this point have not been simple or easy.
Canyon Dam was completed in 1964. Flood control was one of its stated purposes, but considering Texas weather, a grain of salt goes with that claim. Every few years or so, torrential inflow has required the dam’s flood gates to be opened full throttle, inundating the lower river and destroying property. But in July of 2002, record rains hit the watershed and, even with the gates wide open, water surged over the emergency spillway for the first time in the lake’s history, carving a spectacular new canyon along the spill path to the lower river and altering the riverbed for miles downstream. Many riverside homes and businesses rebuilt after the previous flood of 1997 were damaged or destroyed again. And as before, the trout were lost to the intolerably warm water. (It’s remotely possible a few survived by holding near riverbed springs– not likely, but it’s a charming theory.)
Restocking began the following winter. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) stocks thousands of rainbow trout here annually, and the Guadalupe River Chapter of Trout Unlimited (GRTU) stocks many thousands more, generally larger and more mature than the state’s stockers. (Founded in the early 1970s, GRTU has grown into the largest chapter of Trout Unlimited in the country. The club’s work on behalf of this, the nation’s southernmost trout fishery, has been innovative and tireless for almost 30 years.)
Over time, however, low summer flows have far surpassed floods as the biggest threat to trout survival. But in 2001, GRTU negotiated a hard-won agreement with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA), which dramatically improves the prospects for a truly sustainable trout fishery. In its simplest terms, the agreement, effective May 2003, commits an average minimum flow of nearly 200 cubic-feet-per-second from May through September, essentially doubling past summer flows. The promised water will not only maintain the trout fishery through the summer but will also benefit the downstream bass and panfish populations, and feed additional vital freshwater to the San Antonio Bay estuary at the river’s mouth on the Gulf.
GRTU officers David Schroeder, Billy Trimble, Alan Bray and others worked long and hard to hammer out the deal with GBRA. Originator of the idea and lead negotiator Schroeder says, “Only extreme drought can suspend the agreement, but otherwise, the lake has the extra, uncommitted capacity. We (GRTU) took a lot of heat for being self-serving, but the agreement will help the multi-million dollar recreation business along the lower river, and it’ll improve the habitat all the way downstream to the Gulf.”
Trimble says plainly, “Without the agreement, a sustainable, year-round fishery wouldn’t have been possible, and without David Schroeder there wouldn’t have been an agreement.”
While increased summer flows promise to be the salvation of the fishery, summer isn’t the optimum fishing season. Not because the trout don’t bite, but summer days, except for the early morning hours, are dominated by recreational float-tubers and kayakers, the infamous rubber hatch. (Unfortunately, tubers ditch a fair amount of trash in the river, as if it’s a water park with groundskeepers, but that’s another story.) The prime fishing season here runs from late fall to early spring. When the streams of the Rockies are snowed in or mudded out, the Guadalupe shines its brightest.
Scott Graham, a fly fishing guide of 10 years, divides his time seasonally between Gulf redfish and Guadalupe trout. He served two terms as President of GRTU and, to date, four terms as the club’s VP Director of Fisheries, managing their stocking program. Graham calls himself a trout bum, but in truth, he’s a passionate gamefish activist with detailed knowledge of trout biology and habitat requirements. His research to find the best hatchery stockers for the GRTU stocking program led him to Missouri and the Emerson strain of rainbows. “More than any other strain, these fish are ideally suited for the Guadalupe. They have a higher temperature tolerance, they’re broad and hearty, they have a phenomenal growth rate and they’re great fighters,” he says with fatherly pride. (TPWD now also uses the Emerson strain for its Guadalupe stockings.) Graham adds, “With the flow agreement, and better cooperation on catch-and-release, the Guadalupe could eventually rival the San Juan (the revered New Mexico tailwater)… not in water volume, of course, but in quality of fishing.”
Austin Angler store manager and guide Alvin Dedeaux, who wears the perpetual grin of a man who makes his living in fly fishing, admits that property damage is a price nobody would’ve willingly paid to improve the river, but he thinks the 2002 flood may have done just that. “Now, you see more varied structure and currents, and more gravel beds for spawning… actually, it’s a lot more like you’d want a real trout stream to be.” That opinion is shared by Graham and others, a possible silver lining to the storm clouds. Nature giveth and she taketh away. And vice-versa.
There’s one other peculiar challenge the Guadalupe trout occasionally face–fire ants. Spring rains trigger the tiny brown demons to swarm, a mating cycle in which the winged members of the mound go looking for love and new places to terrorize. Lots of ants land on the river, the trout eat them and some die, not from internal stings, as was once thought, but from the toxin the ants carry.
But enough already with the habitat/hydrology tutorial. Let’s talk fishing.
As with all Texas rivers, public access is limited. A guided float trip offers the best shot, especially for first-timers. Several commercial campgrounds and tubing outfitters allow access for a fee, and a GRTU lease-access program reserves exclusive catch-and-release sites for its members for an annual fee.
Fishing techniques for the Guadalupe are similar to those for other tailwater trout streams, which means subsurface flies usually out-fish dries. But mayflies, caddis and other aquatic insects are gradually returning to the post-flood habitat, so naturally, if you see a hatch up and the fish are rising, tie on a reasonable facsimile of whatever’s in the air, usually sufficed by a small Adams, Blue Wing Olive, Light Cahill or Elk Hair Caddis.
Once they acclimate to the river, the Emersons seem to lose their gullible hatchery ways and revert to the native instincts of their species, making them picky feeders at times. So it’s good to have an ace up your sleeve. Alvin Dedeaux’s favorite skunk repellant is a #18 to #22 black midge larva. He says the tying recipe can be as simple as wrapping a nymph hook with larva-shaped layers of black thread. Add a couple turns of peacock herl for a thorax if you’re a stickler for detail. And if you’re inclined to fish double flies, the little black midge makes a good dropper below a slightly larger nymph like a Bead-Head Hare’s Ear, Zug Bug, Pheasant Tail or Prince, all good prospecting flies when fished in the classic dead-drift method with split shot and strike indicator.
Scott Graham agrees with the nymph strategy described above, but prefers to match the midge larvae with a #18 to #22 Brassie, which is wound with fine copper wire rather than black thread, plus a bit of peacock herl or dark dubbing for the thorax. If there’s a hint of skunk in the air, he recommends the Woolly Bugger streamer in dark colors, a reliable day-saver on almost any trout river.
In my several years of fishing the lower Guadalupe, I must admit I’ve salvaged more than one slow day with a red San Juan Worm (speaking of easy flies to tie). One fine afternoon I netted and released three stout and rowdy 18” rainbows caught on three consecutive casts with that homely fly. And, as Graham says, I’ve found that Woolly Buggers work as advertised, fished dead-drift like a nymph, or even better, stripped to mimic a darting baitfish or squirming leech. But I suggest replacing your nymph or dry fly tippet with stronger material like 3X; inevitably the fish will hammer this streamer at the end of the downstream swing, which can snap a light tippet.
When adequately supplied with water, this river has ample forage, including high-protein trout-fatteners like leeches, crayfish and baitfish. There’s no reason Guadalupe trout can’t grow fast and large, and multiply to boot. In fact, it’s happened in favorable seasons past. The state all-tackle record for rainbow trout came from the Guadalupe at a stunning 8.24 pounds, as well as the all-tackle record for brown trout at 7.12 pounds. Scott Graham holds the current state fly rod record, a Guadalupe rainbow of 5.63 pounds, and he says both he and his clients have probably beat his record but didn’t bother to file. Alvin Dedeaux and his clients have also caught plenty of fish in the 5 pound-plus class. My personal best was just shy of 4 pounds. These are fabulous trout in anybody’s book, Montana chapters included.
With the GRTU/GBRA flow agreement, the Guadalupe is now primed for great potential. Scott Graham concludes, “It’s been a long road, but definitely worth it. And hopefully, anglers will understand this isn’t a put-and-take seasonal trout fishery, like other TPWD winter-stocked sites, but is a growing, year-round asset.”
If you go, bear in mind that a section of 9.6 miles, from the eastern Highway 306 crossing downstream, is restricted to artificial lures or flies only, with a keeper limit of only one trout over 18” per day. Responsible spin anglers should cut treble hooks down to a single hook, and all anglers should crush their barbs. (Trust me, it won’t diminish your catch-rate, it only makes the release easier for you and less damaging to the fish.) If we practice careful catch-and-release and recycle those pink-and-silver beauties to grow and spawn, the best is yet to come.
On that crisp January afternoon, I let the fish run with just enough line to avoid a break-off, then I carefully reclaimed line, give and take, thrust and parry, until the rainbow was within reach of my net. My fish had materialized from hopeful theory to flashing reality in less than two minutes. I netted the fish and without lifting it from the water, slipped the barbless hook from its jaw and set it free. One powerful flex of speckled body and the beautiful 17” Guadalupe rainbow melted back into the river. Overhead, a passing kingfisher chattered and fussed, scolding me for releasing such a lavish feast.