BEST PADDLING TRAILS IN TEXAS — Hill Country

HIGH-TECH GAME WARDENS
April 25, 2018
CAMPING IN THE TEXAS WILD
April 25, 2018

TEXAS HAS A GROWING number of official paddling trails for kayakers and canoe enthusiasts.

These are great areas to simply get out and paddle but they also provide access to fishing in areas that would in many cases be off limits.

The following are some of the best paddling trails in the gorgeous Texas Hill Country courtesy of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD).

Lady Bird Lake Paddling Trail (Austin)

The Lady Bird Lake Paddling Trail allows for a variety of paddling opportunities with loops from 3 to 11 miles long. This location has some phenomenal bass fishing opportunites with potential for Sharelunkers according to that program’s database.

Lady Bird Lake (formerly Town Lake) is the easternmost of a chain of reservoirs on the Colorado River. This narrow lake runs through the heart of the city of Austin.

Along this trail are numerous attractions and scenic treats, including Barton Creek, Red Bud Island and Zilker Park.

Shuttles and canoe and kayak rentals are available at several locations on the lake.

Pecan Bayou Paddling Trail (Brownwood)

This 3-to-4 mile loop trail is on a peaceful stretch of Pecan Bayou, a slow moving body of water that can be paddled in either direction as a loop trail. This area has great fishing for bream and catfish. Anglers can also expect to catch largemouth and smallmouth bass as well as crappie.

A 3.2 mile loop runs upriver and back, while a 4 mile loop runs downriver to the dam and back. Combined, these two loops can be run as a 7.2 mile trail.

Main access is at the Fabis Park Boat Ramp.

Pecan Bayou serves as an overflow from Lake Brownwood, so the bayou is influenced by rainfall runoff that may create high flows and undesirable water quality conditions.

South Llano Paddling Trail (Junction)

Experience quiet pools, gentle riffles and runs along sux miles of the beautiful spring-fed South Llano River out in the Texas Hill Country. 

Look for good number of bass including Guadalupe bass. This section of the South Llano River also supports catfish and several species of sunfish.

The put-in for this paddling trail is located at the river crossing just inside the South Llano River State Park, five miles south of Interstate 10 on U.S. 377 in Junction.

Take-out is at Junction City Park on the north bank of Junction Lake just east of the bridge over the lake.

The clean waters of the South Llano river are unrestrained by flood control dams or other man-made structures. There may be natural obstructions, especially during low water periods.

Diverse plant and wildlife provide an excelent background to this paddling trail, with numerous birds including kingfishers, egrets, herons, wood ducks and migratory songbirds populating the shoreline. Paddlers may also encounter whitetail deer, rabbits, fox, beavers, bobcats and even exotic species such as axis deer and  blackbuck antelope. Rio Grande turkey winter roost in the shelter of the sycamore, pecan, elm and oak trees along the shoreline.  

In addition to the state park and city park, this trail also has access to Kimble County Park on the south bank of the river. 

Upper Guadalupe Nichol’s Landing Paddling Trail (above Canyon Lake)

This 9.9-mile reach of the Guadalupe River in Comal County is lined with an abundance of mature trees and a spectacular mix of limestone cliffs and shelves. Paddlers will enjoy a 3-6 hour ride on a variety of rapids between gentle stretches. This is another great bass fishing location with good numbers of panfish as well.

The put-in for this paddling trail is located on Old Spring Branch Road, just 3 miles west of Hwy 281 N, off Spring Branch Road. You can take-out at the FM 311 crossing, 2 miles southeast of Spring Branch. The last public access site above the Canyon Reservoir is at the Rebecca Creek crossing. Go about 3 miles east on Rebecca Creek Road off Hwy 281.

There are a number of rapids on the 10 mile stretch that demand careful inspection. Approximately 1.5 miles below FM 311 crossing a chute to the left of the island at Mueller Falls creates an exciting fast water run. About 5 miles below FM 311, a chute to the left of Rust Falls provides another exciting passageway. Hazardous areas can be portaged. Except during extreme droughts, there is always sufficient water for recreational use. This rugged Hill Country river is known for clear-flowing waters and its extremely scenic beauty.

TPWD recommends angelrs using common sense and advise not dragging out more gear than necessary for your paddle, but be prepared if you plan to paddle in an isolated area.

Required safety equipment includes a personal flotation device (PFD) for each paddler (children under 13 must wear their PFDs when their boats are not beached, tied-up or anchored), an efficient sound-signaling device such as a whistle or air horn, and — if paddling after dark or in reduced visibility — a 360-degree white light. While not necessarily required equipment, you will also want to remember your keys — a great paddling trip can be spoiled when you realize that your keys to your car are in another vehicle at the put-in.

Anglers are reminded to stay on the river. 

“Respect land owners and don’t trespass onto private property. The banks are generally privately owned, and while landowners are happy to say hello, please respect their privacy. If you need to stop to rest or eat, use an island or gravel bank.”

“As part of the navigation right, one may use the bed of a navigable stream, however, climbing out onto the banks can be considered trespassing. Criminal trespass occurs when one goes onto property after receiving notice not to enter.”

“Notice includes verbal notice, a fence, sign(s), the presence of purple paint on posts or trees, or the visible presence of crops grown for human consumption. When encountering an obstruction in the riverbed, one has the right to portage around the obstruction, but take a direct path around and return to the streambed without lingering on the banks.”

Obey the laws and stay on the trails and you will have an amazing time in some of the most beautiful scenery in the state and you might just catch a few fish.

 

SIDEBAR

IF A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, WHAT LAWS APPLY?

Q: What is considered a public stream?

A: In Texas a stream is public if it is “navigable in fact,”or” navigable by statute.” There is no precise test for whether a stream is navigable in fact. The term is based on the idea of public utility. One court has observed that “[w]aters, which in their natural state are useful to the public for a considerable portion of the year are navigable.”

A stream is navigable by statute if it retains an average width of 30 feet from the mouth up. It is important to understand that the entire stream bed is to be included in the width, not just the area covered by water on a given day. A navigable stream may be dry part of the year, but does not lose its character as a navigable stream.

To complicate matters, some Texas land titles originated with Spanish or Mexican land grants, and the law of Spain and Mexico did not distinguish public and private streams on the basis of navigability. Streams were valued primarily as a source of water for household use and for irrigation, rather than a way to move people and goods. So when the sovereign granted land, perennial streams were retained for public use, regardless of navigability, so as to make as much land as possible capable of settlement. A stream is perennial if it flows most or all of the year. In determining the rights of holders of title under Mexican grants, the laws of Mexico in effect when the grants were made control. So in counties that contain Spanish or Mexican land grants, there are an unknown number of perennial streams which are public streams, even though they may not be navigable.

Q: How Do I Determine the Boundary of a Streambed?

A: The Texas Supreme Court has stated that the bed of a stream is “that portion of its soil which is alternately covered and left bare as there may be an increase or diminution in the supply of water, and which is adequate to contain it at its average and mean stage during an entire year, without reference to the extra freshets of the winter or spring or the extreme drouths of the summer or autumn.” Not clear? Again, the Texas Supreme Court: The streambed is that land between the “gradient boundary” on each bank. The gradient boundary is defined as “a gradient of the flowing water in the stream, and is located midway between the lower level of the flowing water that just reaches the cut bank and the higher level of it that just does not overtop the cut bank.” Clear as mud? Blame it on those civil judges.

Q: What if the stream is dry?

A: A navigable stream does not lose its public character during periods of low water. A stream is navigable if the bed of the stream averages 30 feet wide from the mouth up, regardless of the actual water level on a given day.

Q: What is a public lake?

A: The typical public lake in Texas was created by building a dam on a navigable stream. When a navigable stream is dammed, the resulting lake is a public lake, and the public may boat and fish on all of the lake’s waters, not just that part directly above the streambed. Therefore, a property owner may not fence off any portion of such a lake. For other lakes, the test is whether the lake is navigable. Typically, the small natural lakes in Texas are held to be non-navigable, and therefore subject to private ownership and control. Manmade stock tanks and flood control ponds are usually non-navigable as well. The public has no right to boat, fish, or hunt in or on the waters of private lakes, and hunting or fishing without landowner consent is a crime. In order to encourage outdoor recreation, the legislature has limited the liability of landowners who allow the public to use their property for recreational purposes.

Q: But doesn’t the state own the waters of ALL lakes and flowing streams, plus the fish that live there?

A: Yes, the state does own the water of every lake and natural stream, and the fish that live there. But that does not give the public the right to fish or boat in private lakes or streams.

Q: Some landowners in my county have deeds to the riverbed. Can they exclude the public from their part of the river?

A: Not if the river is navigable. The policy of the government of Texas, expressed in statute since the days of the Republic, has been to retain the beds of navigable streams as public property. However, the state surveyors did not always adhere to this law, and some land grants purported to include the beds of navigable streams. To remedy this situation, in a 1929 law known as the Small Bill, the state relinquished to the adjoining landowners certain property rights in the beds of some navigable streams. However, this statute declared that it did not impair the rights of the general public and the state in the waters of the streams. So even if a landowner’s deed includes the bed of a navigable stream, and taxes are being paid on the bed, the public retains its right to use it as a navigable stream.

It is a fairly common myth that a person boating along a “Small Bill” stream may not set foot on the streambed if the landowner forbids it. This is based on the notion that a person who steps into the streambed has entered onto private property within the meaning of the criminal trespass law. This may have some applicability when the waters of a stream leave its banks and a boater navigates out of the streambed and steps onto the adjacent private lands, or on coastal land when tide waters cover private property. But the general public has the right to walk within the boundaries of any navigable streambed, even if there are private ownership rights under the Small Bill.

Q: What is it legal to do in a public lake/stream?

A: Texas courts have recognized that a member of the public may engage in a variety of activities in, on, and along a public lake or stream. Besides boating, persons may swim, float, walk, wade, picnic, camp, and (with a license) fish. These activities must be confined to the waters of the lake or stream and the streambed. The public does not have the right to cross private property to get to or from public water. In fact, that can constitute criminal trespass, if the other elements of the offense are present. With some exceptions, driving a motor vehicle in the bed of a navigable stream is prohibited, other than the Canadian River and the Prairie Dog Town Fork of Red River.

Q: Is it lawful to hunt or target shoot in or on a public lake or stream?

A: Hunting or shooting is prohibited on numerous rivers and lakes by local ordinance or by statute. Shooting and hunting on lakes and rivers presents practical challenges even where not prohibited by law. For example, it is a crime to discharge a firearm projectile across a property line, such as shooting from a state-owned streambed onto or over the adjacent private property. Additionally, if the animal or bird escapes to or falls on private property adjacent to the water, the hunter is faced with a dilemma: Retrieve the animal and risk committing the offense of trespass, or stay within the area open to the public and risk committing the offense of waste of game or failure to retrieve. It is not lawful to hunt on or over private land that is flooded by a public stream, if the submerged private land is properly posted.

Q: May a boater on a navigable stream lawfully go onto private land to check out or portage around an obstruction or hazard?

A: Navigable streams will sometimes have obstructions or hazards such as dams or log jams. For safety’s sake, a boater must get out and scout to see if there is a safe route through. And sometimes it is necessary to portage the hazard or obstruction – carry the boat and gear around it on a reasonable, safe route. Navigation of the state’s inland and coastal waters is one of several “public rights and duties” declared by the Texas Constitution. A right of portage has been recognized as a necessary part of the right of navigation in some other states, but there is no clear authority in Texas. The portage issue implicates the criminal trespass statute, and possibly the defense of necessity.

Q: How can I tell whether a stream/lake is public or private?

A: Texas courts have the final say over this question, and there have been several cases recognizing particular streams as navigable or perennial, and therefore public. But there is no master list. Somewhere in the courthouse there’s probably a map showing the original surveys of your county. From this map you should be able to tell which if any land grants were made by Spain or Mexico. Within these grants, remember that all perennial streams are public, regardless of navigability. Also, if a survey stops at a stream’s bank and does not cross it, this means the original surveyor believed that the stream was to remain public, as a navigable or perennial stream. The reverse is not true, however, since as mentioned above in many cases the surveyor failed to stop at the bank of a navigable stream even though the law directed him to do so. In regards to statutory navigability, for some streams it may be fairly straightforward to look in the vicinity of several stream crossings and estimate whether the streambed averages 30 feet or more in width. The sheriff, landowners, one of your predecessors, or a local game warden may know whether the body of water has historically been treated as public or private. You could also check with prosecutors upstream and downstream. Sometimes a state agency (like TCEQ, the General Land Office, or Parks and Wildlife) will have made some kind of determination of navigability as part of its responsibility to administer some law or program. Sometimes it’s helpful to do a word search in the cases and A.G. opinions for the name of the stream. Although this is a state issue, the federal courts occasionally issue an opinion containing helpful information about a stream, so take a look at the federal cases too.

Q: Is it lawful to fence a stream?

A: That probably depends on whether the stream is public or private. Since the public has a general right to walk and boat in a public stream, a landowner has no right to erect or maintain a fence that interferes with those lawful activities. Additionally, it is a crime to restrict, obstruct, interfere with or limit public recreational use of a navigable stream. It is a more serious crime to obstruct a waterway to which the public has access so as to make passage impossible or unreasonably inconvenient or hazardous. It is easy to imagine situations where a fence in or across a public stream would do just that. But do these statutes prohibit a landowner from putting a fence in or across a private stream? That sounds unlikely, since the public has no lawful access to a private stream without the consent of the owner of the streambed. So it seems to be lawful for a landowner to erect a fence in a non-public streambed.

Q: Is it legal to fish from a highway bridge, or in the highway right of way?

A: It is an offense to fish from the deck or road surface of any bridge or causeway on a road maintained by the Texas Dept. of Transportation. However, no law prohibits fishing in public water from a highway right of way, or underneath a highway bridge. Keep in mind that, in private bodies of water, the owner of the bed controls the right to fish above his portion of the bed. But in some cases the state or county owns the right of way, which indicates that the public may lawfully wade and fish in the portion of the stream which lies over the publicly-owned right of way. In other cases, the entity which built the road has only acquired an easement for road construction and maintenance, leaving the fishing rights with the landowner.

Q: Can a marina operator or lakeside landowner keep boaters away from his docks?

A: Not on public water. If a lake is public water, the public has the right to boat the entire lake, and to fish from a boat (subject to regulation by government entities). A person who interferes with a lawful boater may be committing the crime of obstructing a waterway and/or harassment. Both are Class B misdemeanors. By the same token, a boater who unreasonably obstructs access to or from a dock or boat slip may be guilty of obstructing a waterway.

Q: What agency/agencies have regulatory authority over activities that take place in and on the public streams of this state?

A: The legislature has retained much of this regulatory power for itself, and delegated out some functions in a piecemeal fashion. TCEQ regulates water pollution, the building of dams, and diversion of water. Local river authorities may own water rights and exercise other specific powers granted by statute. The General Land Office regulates crossing easements and mineral development in public streambeds, and has some authority to remove unauthorized or dangerous structures from state-owned land. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department regulates fishing and hunting, as well as the removal of sand and gravel from public streambeds. Placement of dredged or fill material into the waters of the United States is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Construction or other work in the 100-year floodplain may require approval by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose authority is usually delegated to the county or other local Floodplain Administrator. Local government entities have some authority to regulate boating on public waters.

Q: What are the rules on the coast?

A: The seaward boundary of the State of Texas extends three marine leagues into the Gulf of Mexico from the coastline. This is a distance equal to nine nautical miles, or 10.359 statute miles. Within this boundary, the state owns the water and the beds and shores of the Gulf of Mexico and the arms of the gulf, including all land which is covered by the gulf and the arms of the gulf either at low tide or high tide. It is well-settled that the public has a general right to boat and fish in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico within Texas, including all of its bays and arms.

Due to a variety of manmade causes (including subsidence, dredging, and the construction of levees and canals), some private land along the coast is covered intermittently or continuously by tide waters. The general rule in tidal waters is “if you can float it you can boat it,” even though the land beneath the waters may be privately owned. It is not settled whether a fisherman who wades in tidal waters on private land submerged by artificial means may be guilty of criminal trespass. It is not lawful to hunt in or over privately owned submerged land that is above the mean high tide line of the Gulf of Mexico and its bays and estuaries.

Conclusion

It is often difficult to determine whether a given body of water is public water, and if so, where the boundary lies between it and the adjacent private property. These issues are sometimes argued by landowners and outdoorsmen, and the potential for violence is very real. Hopefully, this will give you some of the basic concepts to begin analyzing these questions and helps you guide your local law officers and settle constituent confrontations. Next, bone up on the real estate laws of 19th century Spain and pick up some advanced land surveying techniques, and you will be on your way to becoming an expert.

—TEXAS PARKS & WILDLIFE DEPT.

 

— TF&G Staff Report

 

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