A Hill Country Doubleheader
By Dan Oko
Destination: Camp Wood
Travel time from:
AUSTIN - 3.5 hours / BROWNSVILLE - 6.75 hours / DALLAS - 6.75 hours / EL PASO - 7 hours / HOUSTON - 5.5 hours / SAN ANTONIO - 2.25 hours / LUBBOCK - 6.5 hours
Following in Bud Priddy’s footsteps on the Nueces and Frio rivers
Standing waist deep in the crystal headwaters of the Nueces River, you have to watch your step. Simply put, the water is just that clear, like tap water in a glass, and what looks like a drop of a foot or two can leave you soaked up to your neck. That’s the lesson my guide, Aaron Riggins, is trying to impart as I move slowly upstream, casting back towards the shore, sinking a modified clauser into the current, hoping that yet another bass will take my fly. I’m feeling with my feet for the edge of the shelf, not really trusting my eyes, and not wanting to break my rhythm. Breathing in the surprisingly crisp August morning air, I strip the streamer towards me in short yanks that I’ve been assured will make the lure dance like an injured minnow.
Everything else Riggins, a lanky 30-year-old from Uvalde who hung out his outfitting shingle last year, has told me is true. From the fly I use to the proper presentation to the likely spots where hard-fighting black bass lie, I’m trying to soak up as much knowledge as Riggins is willing to proffer. We’re just outside of Camp Wood, the small town where the late, legendary guidebook author and physician Bud Priddy grew up. Even though I’ve never been here before, it feels like a bit of a Hill Country homecoming. It doesn’t hurt that the fish are biting, especially the “Guads,” as the Texas natives are known locally, the Lone Star’s best answer to the feisty brook trout prized by transplanted Yankees like me. We’re fishing catch-and-release, and I couldn’t agree more that sight casting to fish and bringing them to hand is the epitome of success. “To me, this is what fishing is all about,” Riggins says in his distinct South Texas drawl.
Glancing upstream, I notice some likely bass-hiding structure, including submerged gray boulders close to shore and overhanging branches of a few pecan trees, so I begin to shuffle against the current. But before I make it even a yard, I begin to slide down the rocky bottom of the Nueces and water soaks my cotton T-shirt up to my chest. The cool water and gentle flow isn’t a genuine nuisance in the midday heat, but I’m not convinced that I’ll be able to cast if I’m standing up to my armpits in the river. So I backtrack and look for a shallow tongue to carry me where I want to go. When I get there, the bass strike over and over. After weeks of catching about a dozen panfish for every bass I summon, I’m casting to a new tune.
Now on my second day on the Nueces, the perch-bass ratio is running one to one. When the breeze ceases ruffling the water’s surface, I can see them coming – black bass and largemouth – one after the other. When hooked, the sleek green torpedoes dive, then in desperation, break the water’s surface. I try to work them efficiently, pulling them swiftly into my orbit and letting them go no worse for the wear, I hope. I can see how Priddy, whose Fly-Fishing the Hill Country remains an invaluable resource, got bit by the fishing bug, and why Riggins believes there might be money to be made guiding here. When we finish pounding water in Edwards County, we visit Priddy’s grave outside Camp Wood. I’m tickled to see the same poppers that adorn the pages of his book are etched into his tombstone. After paying our respects, we follow Highway 55 south along the river into Uvalde county, where we continue wading in Priddy’s footsteps.
Casting into Camp Wood’s Past
Located on a bend in the Nueces, Camp Wood may not exist strictly because of fishing. But it’s one of the reasons that the town and surrounding communities along the river are reaping Texas’ tourism benefits. The area’s earliest inhabitants, obviously, were Native Americans, while the first European settlers were Franciscan clergymen who established the short-lived San Lorenzo de la Santa Cruz Mission nearby with the help of Lipan Apache. The missionaries lasted from 1762 until 1769, and were replaced eventually by federal troops, who didn’t last long either. In 1857, the U.S. Army established Camp Wood, a fort to protect the early San Antonio-El Paso road from Indian raids. When federal troops left Texas in 1861, most Camp Wood soldiers also departed. Across from my river-front accommodation, a marker commemorates 29-year-old Confederate hero Private Frank Marshall, who died that same year after a battle in New Mexico.
For two nights, I stay at the Mill Wheel, on the Nueces on the edge of Camp Wood. The owner, Sue Pryce, grew up in the town; her older siblings went to school with Bud Priddy, who she remembers only dimly, but ever so fondly. She brings an old elementary school annual so Riggins and I can see a photo of Priddy, his sister and her brothers. Pryce also shows off a photo of her mother standing by the old mill near the slough that enters the Nueces adjoining her property. The wheel is gone now, but her 12 acres above the river remain enchanting. There’s a sprawling oak in front of the yellow cottage where I stay, and it’s just a 10-minute walk and five-minute bushwhack to the water’s edge. An old-timer on a four-wheeler riding the gravel track on the opposite bank tells me that there are big bass lurking near the mouth of the slough, but warns that the last “rise” — when the river flooded in July — might have pushed them out.
On my first day in Camp Wood, I spot some fish patrolling the bend near the channel, but my retrieve is off and the biggest fish I catch is a 13-inch channel cat, who does me the unlikely service of rising to my black woolly bugger. The bass pass uninterested, however, and I vow that when I connect with Riggins the following day, I will get him to solve the mystery of how to entice bass to strike a fly. Riggins is well qualified for the job, as earlier this year he was one of the winners in the San Antonio-based Alamo Fly Fishers’ annual one-fly contest, named for Bud Priddy. The memorial contest has gone on for five years, and when it earns money, the group uses any extra cash to pay for stocking more bass in the Nueces River. Using the same streamer he loaned me, the modified clauser I’m now using, Riggins caught nearly 193 fish in a 12-hour stretch.
Hot on the Frio
My hook-up rate never approaches what Riggins achieved during the Bud Priddy One Fly Contest, but my guide does help me improve my retrieve, and the success that follows leaves me brimming with confidence. By the time Riggins and I make our way over the hills to Garner State Park, the most visited park in the Texas system and reportedly the most popular state park in the nation, I’m reluctant to leave the Nueces. A hatch of midges is coming off the Rio Frio when we arrive, but between tubers and anglers, the stretch of water running through Garner is too hammered to yield anything but a couple of undersized panfish to a fly.
The following morning, my third and final day of fishing, I have to reckon with discerning the nature of yet another river. In the parlance of anglers, the broad, clear-watered Nueces is known as a freestone river due to its loose gravel bottom; the Frio has more limestone, and the pecan bottoms compete with cypress along the banks. The fish, apparently, are more selective on the Frio as well, and Riggins, sensing my frustration, makes an executive call: He drives us to a private access reserved for paying clients, where I catch my fill.
Heading home, I’m as ebullient as any angler who has finished while daylight still shines. As I chase the Hill Country Wildlife Trail back home, I reflect on my days fishing these unspoiled streams. You can peer into their depths, but they still hold surprises – and as long as we respect them, they’ll yield fish by the dozen.