Being a lifelong Oklahoma Sooners fan, I was never too excited about going to Austin, Texas, until I was asked to do a series of seminars at the Austin Angler Fly Shop. There I met Joe Robinson, one of the finest fly-fishing gentlemen and teachers in Texas. Joe found out that I loved kick boats, and that I dearly wanted to catch Guadalupe bass and big yellowbelly sunfish, so he invited me to join him on a float.
At daybreak we put in on the Guadalupe River, about 8 or 10 miles below the managed trout fishery of the Canyon Dam tailwater. The minute I saw the Guadalupe, I could hardly believe my eyes. I asked myself why I had waited a lifetime to float this beautiful, cool, turquoise river. You'll likely ask yourself the same thing when you first wade or float down one of the astonishing Hill Country spring rivers.
Looks were not deceiving that day, and I've never enjoyed a day of fly fishing any more than floating and wading the Guadalupe's riffles, runs, and rushing over the many foot-high waterfalls in our kick boats. The river is forested with mammoth cypress, and giant white-bark sycamores,creating deeply shaded pools. Each section is landscaped with blooming Texas wildflowers, vines of lavender wisteria, and floating gardens of white lilies and giant lotus pads.
The trees teemed with colorful songbirds, wild turkey, deer, birds of prey, and waterfowl. We saw shy wood ducks and mysterious Mexican tree ducks, herons, egrets, raccoons, muskrats, and squirrels all day. The river habitat we floated was loaded with eager and aggressive Guadalupe, spotted, and largemouth bass as well as strong, oversize, exotically colored yellowbelly, bluegill, redear, long-ear, and green sunfish.
It seemed as though every run, riffle, rock, rootwad, lily pad, clump, or tree root along the shady banks had fish holding there, and nearly every cast of our hairbugs, poppers, or spiders brought on an instant water explosion. All the fish we caught that day were native, wild, and thoroughly tested our tackle and skills.
Kick boats allowed us to access all the water, and made it easy to quietly approach close to fish without spooking them. These one-man boats allowed us to fish nearly every minute, either together or separated, and to fish both sides of the stream, explore cutoffs and sloughs, or leap-frog down the shady side of the river through midday.
Much to my surprise and delight, we never encountered another fisherman that day. Joe said this was not uncommon, and that the only crowded water was in the trout section below the dam.
Since that day, Emily and I have floated the Hill Country rivers often, and have seldom encountered other fishermen, let alone fly fishers.
There are probably several reasons such remarkable fishing streams are not pressured by anglers. Outside of Texas, they are relatively unknown. They are difficult to access with power boats, most fish average under a pound, and most of these streams run long miles through private ranches. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department seldom promotes Hill Country streams or funds access improvements. Texas water conditions in the Hill Country can be extremely dry, wet and overflowing, or can change quickly. Last year was an extremely dry year—who knows what 2012 will bring?
With a good guide or a friend like Joe, these access obstacles are easy to overcome. Emily and I book our Hill Country floats with Texas guides Johnny Quiroz and Marcus Rodriguez. They specialize in skillfully accessing the most remote sections of these beautiful streams in separate canoes, paddling precisely to waters that are difficult to reach on foot or in larger rafts or boats. Kayaks, rafts, small boats, and kick boats are also popular Hill Country craft, especially for physically fit and experienced fly fishers who know the rivers, or can independently navigate by map or GPS, and don't require a guide.
If you plan to fish independently I recommend these books, which thoroughly cover streams and their access points: Fly Fishing the Texas Hill Country by Kevin Hutchison, and Fly Fisher's Guide to Texas by Phil H. Shook (Wilderness Adventures Press, 2001). The former deals only with local Hill Country streams and has more detailed information, but is out of print and hard to locate. Texas strictly enforces trespassing laws so observe posted signs and know the law. Always ask permission if you want to gain access.
Hill Country Seasons
These streams are open all year to fishing because the major water sources for most of these streams are 70 degree F. springs, so you can catch fish on flies nearly every day, even in winter. The best months, especially for surface fishing, are March through June, and again in September through October.
In midsummer it's often too hot to comfortably fish unless you constantly wade in the cool water. If you can tolerate the heat, the biggest Hill Country bass go berserk inhaling the hordes of big grasshoppers that cluster like over-ripened grapes on the streamside grasses.
One day in September, we launched our canoe and I paddled Emily upstream on the Guadalupe near Kerr-ville for a couple of miles. She started off casting a #4 Bass-Hopper and didn't change patterns all afternoon. Nearly every grassy shoreline presentation she made with the big hopper was eaten by a fine bass or giant sunfish, and many intercepted the hopper before it hit the water.
Tackle & Flies
Leaders. Short, accurate presentations with snagproof, size 4 to 10 flies—worked slowly—seem to attract the opportunistic Hill Country bass and sunfish the best. I recommend using 7- to 8½-foot, medium-fast, 5- and 6-weight rods with floating bass-bug tapers or short 5-foot sinking tips. Ideal leaders are 1X to 3X, with a fluorocarbon tippet. Leaders should be 7 to 9 feet long for floating lines, and 5 to 6 feet for sinking tips.
Rods. Two years ago I helped G.Loomis design a series of lightweight fly rods for warmwater fishing. They are for short-to-medium distance, and smooth casting that is required when casting to shoreline structures where fish love to ambush their prey. The resulting 8-foot, 5-weight model of the ShoreStalker rod series had its genesis mainly from my experiences fishing these wonderful Hill Country streams. Today it's my favorite rod for fishing these streams, and has accounted for lots of 3- to 5-pound Texas stream bass.
Lines. Since bass-taper fly lines usually start in the 6-weight range, I line this rod with a 5-weight Scientific Anglers Headstart fly line, which makes the rod perform like a precision instrument. The weight, length, and action bring out the best in these Texas champions.
Flies. There is a staggering variety of fish in these Hill Country streams. The bass include Guadalupe, smallmouth, hybrid, spotted, Kentucky, and largemouth, and there are at least eight sunfish species and various hybrids along with crappie, Rio Grande perch, white bass, drum, channel catfish, monster carp, and spotted and longnose gar. These fish feed mainly on minnows, crayfish, each other's fry, darters, leeches, frogs, and larger terrestrial insects like grasshoppers, crickets, cicadas, and wolf spiders.
The most effective subsurface flies are Clousers, Woolly Buggers, my snag-proof NearNuff Crayfish, sculpins, and Red Fox Squirrel Rubber-leg Nymphs.
For surface flies, an assortment of snag-resistant divers, hairbugs, pencil poppers, and sliders let you easily fish structure and provide you with near constant surface strikes as long as you have the energy to cast them. A selection of big grasshoppers, crickets, rubber-leg spiders, and cicada imitations in sizes 4 to 8 also comes in handy.
Stay for the Barbecue
The Hill Country is landscaped with beautiful hills and is the birthplace of some of the loveliest streams you'll ever see. They emerge as large, clear, turquoise springs and combine with annual rainfall to form streams with hypnotic beauty and cool, abundant flows that host rich ecosystems of native fish, birds, animals, and plants.
I cannot imagine any fly fisher not being captivated by the beauty, serenity, and the wild and colorful fish that inhabit these uncrowded waters. And, as a bonus, when you are not fly fishing you can savor some of the best barbecue on earth!
Contributing editors Dave and Emily Whitlock live near Tahlequah, Oklahoma where they operate the web site davewhitlock.com and offer private fly-fishing instruction. Dave's most recent book is Trout and Their Food: A Compact Guide for Fly Fishers (Skyhorse Publishing, 2010).