THE GUADALUPE RIVER RISES in the Texas Hill Country west of Kerrville, fed by cool, clear limestone springs that spring from the Edwards Aquifer. From there it grows, gathers speed, and runs through Kerrville, New Braunfels, Seguin, and on to its mouth where in empties into the Gulf of Mexico at San Antonio Bay. Our state fish, the Guadalupe bass, was named for this river where it was, I assume, first identified.
Just outside New Braunfels the Guadalupe runs into Canyon Lake, a deep, rocky impoundment. Canyon Dam is a bottom draw dam and by some unknown to me physical oddity, the water that flows out of the dam is much cooler than the water that flows into the reservoir above. In fact, the water that flows into the Guadalupe below the dam is cold; cold enough to support trout for several miles down from the dam. This is a godsend for Texas fly-fishers who love trout and would otherwise have to travel
to Northern New Mexico or Colorado to practice their chosen sport.
Strangely enough, the Guadalupe River chapter of Trout Unlimited (GRTU) is the largest chapter of that august organization in the world, with over 5000 members.
Each winter the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and GRTU stock thousands of rainbow trout into the river below Canyon Dam. This, along with the resident trout that survive the hot Texas summers, make the Guadalupe, I recently read, one of the top 50 trout streams in the United States!
All the stocking takes place in the winter. Even with the effects of the bottom draw dam, the river gets hot enough in the summer so that many trout die and the survivors are sometimes hanging on by their finger nails. Fishing for them in the summer months is all but impossible, and any trout caught during the hot part of the year would probably die when released. The months of January, February, and March are best.
I am a gun writer by profession, but for more than 30 years I have been, as my old friend and former editor-in-chief of Texas Fish & Game magazine, the late Don Zaidle, once said, “a closet fly-fisherman.” The truth is I love fly-fishing every bit as much as I do shooting and hunting, and as I get older, and hunting gets more and more expensive, I think more and more about casting flies to rainbow, brown, cutthroat, and brook trout. In fact, I generally manage to take a long trip to the mountains of Colorado, Montana, Idaho, or Washington every summer for a few weeks to sate my passion.
My fishing buddy, Todd Tate, and I, met our fishing guide, Greg Smith, at a small campground on the Guadalupe. I’m sorry I can’t tell you where it was. It isn’t that I don’t want to, I just can’t. You see, I was lost most of the time. The river road winds and twists and I am unfamiliar with it. We launched the raft and ferried his truck and trailer to another spot, then drove my SUV back to the raft.
It was a cool, gray, cloudy, wet day. It rained, lightly most of the time, but hard enough that a raincoat became a necessity. A perfect day to be fishing for trout.
Greg pushed the raft into the water and immediately began rigging our fly rods with his own leaders and flies. No guide trusts the client’s knots, and I certainly didn’t have any of the flies he tied to my line. He used an artificial egg and worm rig that I had never seen before. It was rigged below a strike indicator and fished like a weighted nymph. That is all I can tell you about it because he swore me to secrecy. He told us the fishing might be a bit slow, and I guess it was, but the size of the fish far outweighed the time between strikes. I was expecting trout between 12 and, maybe, 14 inches. I was to be surprised.
It was long enough before the first strike that I was beginning to think this was going to be a nice float on a pretty river. The giant cypress trees along the banks were scarred and broken for what seemed like an unbelievable distance above the water, a remembrance of the big flood that cut a new canyon below the dam and washed away boats, cars, RVs, houses, and sadly, a few people. We saw a couple of bald eagles, an osprey, a kingfisher, and numerous other birds. Then Todd set up on a solid trout.
Todd is a novice fly fisherman, having been on only one trip to Colorado, but he fought the trout like an old pro. Greg was helpful, telling him to keep the rod up, let the trout run when it wanted to, and to reel in when the fish would let him. The old hands say: “When the trout does nothing, you do something. When the trout does something, you do nothing.” At times it seemed that the trout was destined to win the battle. Todd’s rod would bend into a tight arc and the drag on his reel would sing, but pretty soon the fish tired and Todd led it to Greg’s net. I was amazed when I saw it in the net. I guessed it at 20 inches. Greg said it was 19. Who cares? What mattered to Todd was that it was the largest trout he had ever landed and would have been a trophy in any river.
We had fished on a fair distance when my indicator barely bobbled. I set the hook and was fast to a good trout. How good? I don’t know. I did something wrong and it broke a 5X leader like it was sewing thread. Greg got a good laugh out of that. Shortly before he had asked me if I had ever broken a 5X tippet playing a fish. I thought for a moment and told him truthfully that I couldn’t remember doing so. After that fish cleaned my clock I heard him snicker and say under his breath: “Yeah. Never broke a 5x.” Well, there is a first time for everything.
These fish were biting so softly that the little white bobber would just barely jiggle on the water, sort of a nervous jitter. I missed a few strikes before I figured it out, but I finally got it, I think. Greg wasn’t so sure.
The next trout bit, I set the hook, and was amazed at the power of the fish. It took off and I let the rod fight it until I could strip in a few feet of line. Then little by little I got the big rainbow close enough for Greg to net it. I am going to claim it was at least 20 inches. Since I caught it on a size 20 hook, I am claiming membership in the late Arnold Gringrich’s 20/20 Club — a 20-inch trout caught on a size 20 fly. This was, also, at least as large as the biggest rainbow trout I ever caught and I have fished in some of the best water in the country.
Soon Todd was into another trout. This one fought just as well as the others, but again, Todd played it well and got it to the net. This one was “only” about 18 inches. Wow!
My next trout was a brown about 15 inches. Greg says that for some reason the brown trout on the Guadalupe are not as large as the rainbows. This may be because of the extensive rainbow-stocking program. But I’ll bet that somewhere on the river is an old brown, probably a nocturnal old cannibal, cuddled up in a deep run or in a cutbank under a cypress root that is big enough to scare the pants off a fly fisherman.
My last hookup was the most exciting of the day. I set the hook and the trout took off in a blistering run. The drag on my reel sang as the trout took line until I began to worry that he was going to take it all. Then something happened and the line parted. I reeled in and sat there sadly staring at a gnarled, naked leader blowing in the wind under a white strike indicator the size of a marble. I really would like to have seen that fish. It felt much stronger than any of the others we landed, but those we lose are always the biggest. Right?
That was the end. We had numerous strikes, several hookups that we couldn’t land, and landed 4 large trout that would have been good in any of the gold medal water that I have fished. Not once in 30 years have I had a day where the smallest trout caught was 15 inches and the average closer to twenty. I was well satisfied. I have travelled a lot farther and spent a lot more money for much poorer fishing. And all of this took place in Texas, a place known for its big lakes and bass fishing.
If you would like to book a trip to the Guadalupe or maybe the North Platte with Greg Smith, you can reach him at one of these addresses:
River Hills Outfitters 512-577-9592, [email protected]
The Reef Fly Shop, Northplatteflyfishing.com 307-232-9128
—story by STEVE LAMASCUS