Southwest Fly Fishing

New Friends and New Fish
By John E. Wood

I pulled the buzzing phone from my pocket and glanced at it to confirm the caller. It was Besnik “Nick” Haxhijaj (hi-gee-eye) calling to confirm our plans for the next morning. He wanted to know if I was still up for the original plan. He informed me that flows continued to be above recommended wading stage, so we would be confined in our wading or we could hit the Llano
River instead.
   I didn’t budge. I’d been looking forward to this outing for several weeks, my appetite whetted by photographs of recently taken fish on the Canyon Lake tailwater of the Guadalupe River. I had also received a message that local angler Robert Matthews would be joining us.
   We anglers are by nature an optimistic lot, and maybe a little stubborn once a certain fish catches our attention. My resolve was to catch a striped bass. It had been years since I felt the tug of a big striper and recent photos of large specimens gave me hope. Nick suggested I bring a 4- or 5-weight rod in case of a “trout emergency,” but chances were a bit slim because the first of multiple stockings for the year hadn’t happened yet.

 

Chasing Ghosts
We met the next morning just after daylight at Rio Guadalupe Resort in Sattler, one of a number of public access points on a patchwork of almost entirely private land flanking the river. From here, we had the opportunity to fish the area upstream of the fourth crossing. Heavy mist formed a fog coming off the water in the cold, still morning, obscuring views of a monolithic limestone cliff and giving the scene a primal feel.
   We fished diligently, casting large gray/white Clouser Minnows and Woolly Buggers, patterns recommended by Brent Hodges and Russell Moore of Reel Fly Fishing Adventures, located a half mile away. After two hours without a solid strike, we decided to move on, hopeful that the tailrace below Canyon Dam would be the ticket.
   Matthews pulled into the Guadalupe Park parking area just behind us to fish the tailrace. Though we had been cyber friends—a term used by Matthews’s wife—for years through various fly-fishing-related Facebook pages, this was our first face-to-face meeting. Haxhijaj knew Matthews from a local fly shop and Guadalupe River Trout Unlimited (GRTU) gatherings, but they had never fished together. Greetings exchanged, fish or no fish, it was going to be a good day. The three of us then spent the rest of the day fishing hard at other locations with little to show for it other than great camaraderie. Matthews managed to catch a respectable largemouth bass under the West 306 Bridge. We stopped by the fly shop and chatted with Hodges, the owner, about our day. He said that for weeks his guides had been catching stripers, but with the last flush of floodwater, the fish had disappeared like ghosts.
   A conversation with Jimbo Roberts, fisheries vice president for GRTU, confirmed the presence of the behemoth stripers. In 2002, heavy downpours brought floodwaters over the spillway and with it came stripers. Most of them weigh less than 10 pounds and are often taken by anglers fishing for other species. Much bigger fish in the system are more than mere legend; a fly angler caught a 36.5-pound striper in 2006, a fish that earned a spot on the Texas Top-50 stripers list. Moreover, in 2010, TPWD, in search of fish for the hatchery program, electroshocked numerous stripers ranging from 25 to 47 pounds just downstream of the West 306 Bridge.
   I returned to the tailrace alone a few days later, determined to catch one of those ghosts. The flow had dropped considerably and, surprisingly, I had the place all to myself. Eventually, I did land a striper using a gray/white Clouser. It wasn’t the behemoth I’d been looking for but it was a striper!

 

Trout Time
During the day we spent striper fishing, Haxhijaj kept telling me how excited he was about the upcoming trout stockings. Repeatedly, he insisted I should make the drive from Kerrville after stockings began, and Williams concurred. So I did. The Sunday following Thanksgiving, I found myself at the Rio parking area gearing up with both of them, plus Joe Novy, another cyber friend, preparing to target trout. We bundled up against near-freezing temperatures and light drizzle, and the buzz of excitement between my fishing partners, later dubbed the “Guad Hit Squad” by Haxhijaj, was palpable. The fellows informed me that since flows had dropped, we’d be able to wade upstream to a favorite run near Weir #3. 
   As a native Texan, before relocating to Colorado, I spent many hours trout fishing on a number of the waters stocked annually by the TPWD across North Texas. Having caught more than my fair share of standard-issue 8- to 10-inch put-and-take trout, I admit that, while the other guys seemed genuinely excited, my own enthusiasm wasn’t exactly bubbling over; I was there for the fellowship—catching a few small trout would be a bonus.
   Cryptically, however, Haxhijaj kept telling me, “Just wait for it.” For the most part, my ever-present angler’s optimism still had me holding out hope that I might hook one of the Guadalupe’s big stripers. That same optimism had me out on a cold drizzly morning in late November, spurred on by the enthusiasm of friends. So, while the others rigged light trout rods, I stuck with my 8-weight outfit and Clouser Minnows.
   Once on the water, we spread out. Matthews waded to the head of the run to check in with Hodges, who was floating the river with a client—the tailwater fishery is a place for anglers who enjoy one another’s company, the kind of place where fellow anglers take the time to be social. Matthews reported that Hodges and his client had already caught a pair of trout on nymphs in a fast slot, but he suggested streamers should do well in slower sections.
   I settled into a long run upstream of Nick and started casting, quartering upstream and retrieving the fly quickly. I didn’t have to wait long to see what they were all so excited about and thoughts of stripers quickly slipped away: during the next few hours, we all caught trout, many trout, and they weren’t small stocked trout. These rainbows averaged 18 inches, with one well over the 20-inch mark!
   These big, meat-eating bruisers slammed my oversize Clouser as eagerly as if they were the size 10 Woolly Buggers employed by my cohorts. All this thanks to GRTU and TPWD, but more on that later.
   After lunch, we headed to a GRTU lease location, my access allowed via a lease guest pass. Once again the trout were plentiful, eager, and large. Matthews and I stuck with Woolly Buggers and Clousers, while Haxhijaj changed to a favorite nymph rig. Fishing water that many anglers wade right past, he proceeded to pluck fish from the swiftest current seam in that stretch. He told me effectively fishing nymphs through such water on the Guadalupe is very productive, and especially so as the season wears on and fishing pressure makes fish skittish. By the time dusk arrived, we had caught many trout, shared lots of stories, and become fast friends.

 

Bragging Rights
There are few things Texans enjoy as much as bragging rights; it’s a contagious behavior. Give a Texan the slightest reason to brag about something and you can bet you will hear about it. So it comes as no surprise that local anglers like to brag about Guadalupe River fishing below Canyon Lake. Why not? What began as an afterthought in the 1960s now exceeds expectations, but not without considerable work. That work paid off brilliantly, giving GRTU and TPWD true bragging rights.
   Shortly after the Canyon Dam Project was completed in 1964, TPWD realized the warm water habitat immediately downstream was being displaced. Water exiting the lake bottom enters the river at an average temperature of 54 degrees, too cold for native warm-water species, but ideal for cold-water fishes. Executives at Lone Star Brewery got wind of the burgeoning conditions in the mid-1960s and supplied trout for the first stockings, thus creating the southernmost trout fishery in the
United States.
   About the same time, a small group of Texans who enjoyed trout fishing formed GRTU. Since then, the organization has grown to become the largest TU chapter in the country with more than 5,000 members. It funds scientific studies of the fishery, supports a number of youth-oriented educational programs, and contributes to river conservation efforts nationwide. GRTU also contributes to national programs, like Project Healing Waters, Casting for Recovery, and Reel Recovery.
   In the early years of the tailwater fishery, TPWD stocked different species, including rainbow, cutthroat, and brown trout. Eventually, it settled on rainbows as being both best suited to the habitat and most economically feasible. Over the years, periodic stockings of brown trout brought mixed results. In 2016, to the delight of its membership, GRTU stocked brown trout for the first time since 2006.
   But this is only a small part of the overall stocking efforts by GRTU and TPWD. Annually, GRTU stocks the river three times with rainbows, totaling 12,000 pounds of trout. Stockings cover a 10-mile stretch, reaching 13 miles below the dam. Not coincidentally, this same area encompasses the Trophy Trout Regulation Zone.
   Approximately 75 percent of the GRTU-stocked trout are 14 to 18 inches long; the remaining 25 percent are 18 inches and more. Stockings are done with little fanfare in order to give the trout time to acclimate before the word gets out. In contrast, TPWD stocked 17,662 catchable-size rainbow trout on a highly-publicized schedule during the 2015/16 season.
   It was first thought that the fishery would be a put-and-take affair in which trout would be stocked in the winter and eventually be caught or die as summer brought high water temperatures. Not content with this idea, GRTU eventually negotiated a flow agreement with Guadalupe–Blanco River Authority (GBRA). Since then, the GBRA maintains a minimum flow of 200 cubic feet per second (cfs) during August, protecting the cold-water habitat from the brutal Texas heat. This flow ensures that a substantial number of stocked trout survive for more than a single season. These efforts have resulted in the Guadalupe repeatedly being listed as one of Trout Unlimited’s “Top 100” trout streams in the country.

 

River Access
Creating a trout fishery is only part of the equation. Without access to the river, it would be of little value to all but those who own riverside property. With this in mind, GRTU and TPWD have continually worked to provide access to the river and its trout. Collective efforts have paid off in a big way. A recent study conducted by TPWD showed that the trout fishery injects an estimated $1.9 million annually into the local economy.
   Annually, TPWD works to secure free trout angling access to the river through local recreational inner-tubing outfitters. The Guadalupe is a recreational tubing paradise through the hot summer months. In fact, by the end of March, anglers should hit the water at the crack of dawn and plan on being off for the day by 9:30 a.m. to avoid the overwhelming crowd of tubers. During colder months, TPWD has negotiated access via the tube rental outfitters that find their parking lots empty through prime trout fishing season. Participating locations offer free river access for trout anglers (see Notebook). At the foot of Canyon Dam, Guadalupe Park, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, offers year-round access. 
   In addition, GRTU has worked diligently to provide access to its members through an annual lease program. Members pay a yearly fee that allows them river access. Through the program, private landowners allow GRTU members displaying a lease tag to park a designated number of vehicles in designated areas within easy walking distance of the river. There are 17 private access sites for the 2015/16 season at a cost of $120 for the pass (both figures are subject to change annually). In addition to river access, lease fees help purchase the large trout that GRTU stocks near the various access sites.
   Once in the water, whether through GRTU or TPWD access sites, anglers are free to wade the entire river according to Texas waterway laws. This opens up almost the entire 13-mile stretch below the dam for trout fishing to wading anglers. A few prime stretches, however, are difficult or impossible to wade when flows exceed 150 cfs, and some areas present extremely difficult wading because of unpredictable fissures in the limestone bottom. This being the case, the best way to see the entire trout fishery is by floating
the river.

 

The Full View
After getting a feel for the river from the wade-fishing access points, I decided a float trip was in order to explore more secluded stretches. It didn’t take long to get the Hit Squad together for a half-day float with Hodges and Moore. Matthews, Novy, Haxhijaj, and I eagerly congregated at the shop. Our two enthusiastic guides had us on the water before the morning sun had cleared the trees that line the river. 
   Few things are more enjoyable in angling than fishing with a competent guide or two on a picturesque river. The early-February morning air was cool and still, the river surface reflecting the scenery like an emerald mirror. Cypress knees lining the river punctuated a surreal morning landscape. The morning started slowly as anticipated by our guides, who told us trout are more apt to feed once direct sunlight hits the water.
   True to that prediction, the day’s first trout came at the tail of the first long run as the lead boat drifted into direct sunlight. From that point, our indicators dipped below the surface with ever-increasing frequency.
   Already, the winter evenings were beginning to witness hatching caddisflies—action that picks up speed as February progresses. Hodges told us the river also produces hatches of Slate-Winged Drakes and big yellow Hexagenia mayflies that bring trout and other species to the surface to feed
with abandon.
   We finished the morning 3 miles downstream, a collective grin across all our faces. The Guadalupe is known for its variety of cold-water and warm-water fish, but for me, it will always be known for friends made—it’s that kind of river. If you’re looking for seclusion and solitude you may not find it here, but what you may find are lifelong
fishing friends.

 

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