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Trout for All Seasons

The cold, reservoir-fed waters of the Guadalupe River sustain rainbows and the people who fish for them.

By Jim Anderson

Being in the river is the thing, not near it, or beside it, or floating upon it, but standing knee-deep in the pulsing thing itself, feeling its tug on body and soul alike.

It's one of those Texas winter days that compensate for the summer's misery: the air still and pleasant, the sky achingly blue with a hard-etched clarity, dazzling kicks of sunlight on the water, a perfect number of crows. Bare cypress limbs throw lacy shadows across the fast water and steadfast rocks. A slow leak in the right foot of my waders provides just enough chill of reality to assure me I haven't been creamed by an 18-wheeler on I-35 and sent prematurely to fly fishing heaven. In heaven, I presume, waders never leak.

I shuffle quietly along a familiar limestone ledge. On this stretch I always fish the near water first, then work my way downstream. I have already hooked and landed two respectable 14-inch rainbow trout and missed three others. I am anticipating a deep slot where I know big trout usually queue up for the river's buffet. At the upper end of the run I check the knot on my prince nymph and add another tiny split-shot to the leader so the fly will sink well down into the deeper feeding zone.

I cast the prince and watch the current take it. The nymph drifts into the slot and sinks. The foam strike-indicator jerks sideways. I lift my rod tip and a jolting, unmistakable message comes back up the line.

It's about as unlikely as polar bears in Aransas or sushi in Muleshoe, but I'm fishing a classic trout stream that is not in Montana or Wyoming, but in the heart of Texas in the Guadalupe River. Just below the Canyon Lake reservoir, where cactus thrives and flip-flops are considered shoes, fisheries managers have created an actual trout river, which forces us fly anglers, normally staunch advocates of wild rivers, to admit that not all dams are bad.

Hundreds of miles and several temperature zones from the nearest indigenous trout stream, trout lurk in the limestone-ledged, cypress-shaded lower Guadalupe, sustained by cold water from the depths of Canyon Lake. Typically, water comes through the dam's tailrace at a chilly 56 to 60 degrees, remaining cold enough for trout to survive 10 or more miles downstream. The result is a regionally unique ecosystem called a tailwater fishery. The battles with nature and water policy to bring this stretch of river to this point have not been simple or easy.

Canyon Dam was completed in 1964. Flood control was one of its stated purposes, but every few years or so torrential rains have forced the dam's floodgates to be opened, inundating the lower river and destroying property. In July 2002, record rains hit the watershed and, even with the gates wide open, for the first time in the lake's history, water surged over the emergency spillway The torrent carved a spectacular new canyon along the spill path to the lower river and altered the riverbed for miles downstream. Many riverside homes and businesses that had been rebuilt after the flood of 1997 were damaged or destroyed again. And as before, the trout were lost to the intolerably warm water. (It's remotely possible a few survived by holding near riverbed springs — not likely, but it's a charming theory.)

Restocking began the following winter. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) stocks thousands of rainbow trout here annually, and the Guadalupe River chapter of Trout Unlimited (GRTU) stocks many thousands more, generally larger and more mature than the state's stockers. Founded in the early 1970s, GRTU has grown into the largest chapter of Trout Unlimited in the country. The club's work on behalf of this, the nation's southernmost trout fishery, has been innovative and tireless for almost 30 years.

While GRTU can't do anything about floods, it has done something about the biggest threat to trout survival: low summer flows. In 2001, GRTU negotiated a hard-won agreement with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) that dramatically improved the prospects for a truly sustainable trout fishery.

In its simplest terms, the agreement, effective May 2003, commits the authority to releasing an average minimum flow of nearly 200 cubic feet per second from May through September, essentially doubling past summer flows. The promised water will not only sustain the trout fishery through the summer, it also will benefit the downstream bass and panfish populations, and feed additional fresh water vital to the nursery areas near the river's mouth in San Antonio Bay.

GRTU officers David Schroeder, Billy Trimble, Alan Bray and others worked long and hard to hammer out the deal with GBRA. "Only extreme drought can suspend the agreement, but otherwise the lake has the extra, uncommitted capacity," says Schroeder, the originator of the idea and lead negotiator for GRTU. "We took a lot of heat for being self-serving, but the agreement will help the multi-million-dollar recreation business along the lower river, and it'll improve the habitat all the way downstream to the Gulf."

While increased summer flows promise to be the salvation of the fishery, summer isn't the optimum fishing season; not because the trout don't bite, but because summer days, except for the early morning hours, are dominated by recreational float-tubers and kayakers, the infamous rubber hatch. (Unfortunately, tubers also ditch a fair amount of trash in the river, as if it's a water park with groundskeepers.) The prime fishing season on the Guadalupe runs from late fall to early spring. When the streams of the Rockies are snowed in or mudded out, the Guadalupe shines its brightest.

The key to the Guadalupe's success has been stocking the right trout in the river and the man chiefly responsible for that is fly fishing guide Scott Graham. Graham, who divides his time seasonally between Gulf redfish and Guadalupe trout, has managed GRTU's stocking program for four years. Graham calls himself a trout bum but in truth, he's a passionate game-fish activist with detailed knowledge of trout biology and habitat requirements. His research to find the best hatchery stockers for the GRTU stocking program led him to Missouri and the Emerson strain of rainbows.

"More than any other strain, these fish are ideally suited for the Guadalupe," he says with fatherly pride. "They have a higher temperature tolerance, they're broad and hearty, they have a phenomenal growth rate and they're great fighters." (TPWD now also uses the Emerson strain for its Guadalupe stockings.)

"With the flow agreement and better cooperation on catch-and-release," Graham adds, "the Guadalupe eventually could rival the San Juan (the revered New Mexico tailwater stream) not in water volume, of course, but in quality of fishing."

Austin Angler store manager and guide Alvin Dedeaux, who wears the perpetual grin of a man who makes his living in fly fishing, admits that property damage is a price nobody would have willingly paid to improve the river, but he thinks the 2002 flood may have done just that. "Now, you see more varied structure and currents, and more gravel beds for spawning. Actually, it's a lot more like you'd want a real trout stream to be."

There's one other peculiar challenge the Guadalupe trout occasionally face: fire ants. Spring rains trigger the tiny brown demons to swarm in a mating cycle in which the winged members of the mound go looking for love and new places to terrorize. Lots of ants land on the river, the trout eat them and some die, not from internal stings, as was once supposed, but from the toxin the ants carry.

But enough already with the habitat/hydrology tutorial. Let's talk fishing.

As with all Texas rivers, public access is limited. A guided float trip offers the best shot, especially for first-timers. Several commercial campgrounds and tubing outfitters allow access for a fee, and a GRTU lease-access program reserves exclusive catch-and-release sites for its members for an annual fee.

Fishing techniques for the Guadalupe are similar to those for other tailwater trout streams, which means subsurface flies usually out-fish dries. But mayflies, caddis and other aquatic insects are gradually returning to the post-flood habitat, so naturally, if you see a hatch up and the fish are rising, tie on a reasonable facsimile of whatever's in the air, usually sufficed by a small Adams, blue-wing olive, light Cahill or elk-hair caddis.

Once they acclimate to the river, the Emersons seem to lose their gullible hatchery ways and revert to the native instincts of their species, making them picky feeders at times. So it's good to have an ace up your sleeve. Alvin Dedeaux's favorite skunk repellent is a No. 18 to No. 22 black midge larva. He says the tying recipe can be as simple as wrapping a nymph hook with larva-shaped layers of black thread. Add a couple of turns of peacock herl for a thorax, if you're a stickler for detail. And if you're inclined to fish double flies, the little black midge makes a good dropper below a slightly larger nymph like a bead-head hare's ear, zug bug, pheasant tail or prince, all good prospecting flies when fished in the classic dead-drift method with split shot and a strike indicator.

Scott Graham agrees with the nymph strategy described above, but prefers to match the midge larvae with a No. 18 to No. 22 brassie, which is wound with fine copper wire rather than black thread, plus a bit of peacock herl or dark dubbing for the thorax. If there's a hint of skunk in the air, he recommends the woolly bugger streamer in dark colors, a reliable day-saver on almost any trout river.

In my several years of fishing the lower Guadalupe, I've salvaged more than one slow day with a red San Juan worm (speaking of easy flies to tie). One fine afternoon I netted and released three stout and rowdy 18-inch rainbows caught on three consecutive casts with that homely fly. And, as Graham says, I've found that woolly buggers work as advertised, fished dead-drift like a nymph or, even better, stripped to mimic a darting baitfish or a squirming leech. But I suggest replacing your nymph or dry fly tippet with stronger material such as 3X; inevitably the fish will hammer this streamer at the end of the downstream swing, which can snap a light tippet.

When adequately supplied with water, the Guadalupe River has ample forage, including aquatic insects, baitfish and other nutrient-rich organisms. There's no reason Guadalupe trout can't grow fast and large, and multiply to boot. In fact, it's happened in favorable seasons past. The state all-tackle record for rainbow trout came from the Guadalupe at a stunning 8.24 pounds, as well as the all-tackle record for brown trout at 7.12 pounds. Scott Graham holds the current state fly rod record, a Guadalupe rainbow of 5.63 pounds, but he says both he and his clients have probably beaten his record and didn't bother to file. Alvin Dedeaux and his clients have also caught plenty of fish in the 5-pound-plus class. My personal best was just shy of 4 pounds. These are fabulous trout in anybody's book, Montana chapters included.

With the GRTU/GBRA flow agreement, the Guadalupe is now primed for great potential. Scott Graham concludes: "It's been a long road, but definitely worth it. And hopefully, anglers will understand this isn't a put-and-take seasonal trout fishery, like other TPWD winter-stocked sites, but is a growing, year-round asset."

If you go, bear in mind that a section of 9.6 miles, from the eastern Highway 306 crossing downstream, is restricted to artificial lures or flies only, with a keeper limit of only one trout over 18 inches per day. Responsible spin anglers should cut treble hooks down to a single hook, and all anglers should crush their barbs. (Trust me, it won't diminish your catch rate; it only makes the release easier for you and less damaging to the fish.) If we practice careful catch-and-release and recycle those pink-and-silver beauties to grow and spawn, the best is yet to come.

On that crisp January afternoon, I let the fish run with just enough line to avoid a break-off, then I carefully reclaim line, give and take, thrust and parry, until the rainbow is within reach of my net. In less than two minutes, my fish has materialized from hopeful theory to flashing reality. I net the fish and, without lifting it from the water, slip the barbless hook from its jaw and set it free. One powerful flex of speckled body and the beautiful 17-inch Guadalupe rainbow melts back into the river. Overhead, a passing kingfisher chatters and fusses, scolding me for releasing such a lavish feast.

Jim Anderson is an Austin writer and occasional contributor to this magazine.

Additional Resources

  • Book: Fly Fishing the Texas Hill Country by B. L. "Bud" Priddy
  • Guide Scott Graham: www.flyfishingtexas.com< or (866) FLY CAST
  • Guide Alvin Dedeaux: alvin@austinangler.com or (512) 472-4553
  • Guide Harry Lane sjtroutfitters@zianet.com or (515) 324-8149
  • Guadalupe River Chapter of Trout Unlimited: www.grtu.org
  • Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority: www.gbra.org
  • For daily flow rates call the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers information line at (830) 964-3342. (For wading, flow rates above 300 CFS are considered risky and above 400 CFS are considered dangerous.)

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