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The Pease River Fly-fishing Club

It may not be in the big time, but its members are passionately devoted.

By Russell A. Graves

Norman MacLean, author of the book, A River Runs through It, invades my thoughts.

It is October, and standing in the middle of a beaver pond in the middle of the Pease River near the south end of the Panhandle, I find myself thinking of Norman Maclean, author of the classic book on Montana fly-fishing, A River Runs Through It. One passage in particular sticks in my mind: “Until man finds his eternal salvation, he will continue to go too far back on his cast … ”

As a newcomer to fly-fishing, my ability to delicately lay a fly where I want does not come as naturally as I would like. Instead, I must visualize each part of my cast and try to mimic those I have watched. As in golf, concentrating too much on technique is a bad thing. The mind can interrupt the flow of the fore and backcast to the point that it becomes mechanical instead of instinctive. Consequently, the fly ends up well short of where I would like and I quickly strip the line back and cast again.

Twenty yards downriver, John Wilson is busy sight-casting to a largemouth bass suspended in two feet of water. During the day, John — or Mr. Wilson as I call him — is the superintendent of the Childress Independent School District, and my boss. After school and on weekends, he is a fly-fishing junkie, often traveling statewide in search of fish. Right now, he’s only 20 miles from Childress, and he has his sights set on the largemouth.

With a last, fateful cast, Wilson puts the fly beside the largemouth and lets it settle. The dancing bait is too much for the bass to resist. But unlike a bass hitting a topwater plug with an explosive strike, the fish takes the lure with amazing delicacy and turns to swim away.

With his forefinger gripping the fly line, Wilson stops the fish’s leisurely retreat. When he raises the rod tip, the line comes quickly out of the water and looks as if it were unzipping the river. For about three minutes, Wilson fights the bass, but not by the yank-and-crank method I have used so many times with bait-casting tackle. He understands the delicate nature of an ultralight leader and finesses the fish ashore. Wilson bends down and cradles the 1-pound bass under its belly. He quickly unhooks the bass and releases it to fight another day and then moves upstream to coach me on my casting technique.

I have yet to catch a fish on this, our first day on this river, but that’s OK. The October air is light and the cottonwood trees hint at turning gold — it is a classic Indian summer day.

While Wilson diagnoses my cast, we start to talk and wonder if anyone has ever fly-fished this river before. Figuring that no one has, we decide that Wilson now holds the river record for largemouth on a fly rod. At this point, I turn to him and declare that we are the inaugural members of the Pease River Fly-fishing Club, established October 2002. This is such an exclusive club, its founding members plan never to hold a membership drive, and will keep this piece of river to themselves, at least for now.

A Fishing Paradise?

When you think of the great fly-fishing waters of Texas, the Guadalupe River or the shallow bays of the Gulf Coast immediately come to mind. No one — save for the members of our club — thinks of the Pease River as a great destination. I am not saying that the fishing here rivals Texas hot spots pound-for-pound, but for a seasoned fly angler and one who wants to be, the Middle Pease River is as good as it gets in our part of Texas.

Headwatered along the caprock escarpment that separates the Rolling from the High Plains, the Pease River begins as three branches (the North, Middle and South) before heading east through the mesquite and prickly pear flats of northwest Texas. South of Childress the three rivers join as one and eventually flow into the Red River near Vernon.

For hundreds of years, the immense southern bison herd roamed the banks of the river. Deep soils and sub irrigated grassland flats provided ample forage for the buffalo, and a high bluff on the northern side of the river offered protection from the north wind.

Named for Elisha Pease, twice governor of Texas in the 19th century, the river cuts through the heart of the old Comanche homeland. The region’s ample game and sheltering deep canyons suited the Comanche well, and they thrived for generations in this sometimes inhospitable environment. As the Texas frontier expanded west, conflicts inevitably arose between settlers and the Comanche. The U.S. Army and the Texas Rangers waged separate assaults to push the Comanche onto reservations in southwestern Oklahoma.

Once the land adjacent to the 100th meridian was opened for settlement, investors established huge cattle grazing outfits in the region, such as the Matador Ranch. Like the Comanche and the bison, ranchers found ample grass along the river. Most importantly, they found water.

In this part of Texas, water is precious. Averaging less than 2 feet of rainfall a year, the left side of the Texas Midwest is perennially dry. The Pease is one of the few rivers in this part of the state and, most of the time, only a shallow stream meanders back and forth across its sandy bottom. Unless an upstream deluge dumps water onto the broken badlands of the watershed, the river is seldom more than a couple of inches deep.

Where the South and Middle Pease rivers run together, the flow is decidedly different from the main river channel of the North Pease. Here the river slows and is often dry except for a few spots. Those few precious spots of standing water are a lucky break for the Pease River Fly-fishing Club. The land is open to the public.

Purchased in the late 1950s by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Matador Wildlife Management Area lies in an area that is one of the last strongholds for wild bobwhite quail. Originally purchased as a place to manage and study quail, the area also serves a variety of outdoor interests including horseback riding and hiking. Most people visiting the area come to chase quail; a few hunt deer. My guess is that most who venture to the Matador don’t see its value as a fly-fishing destination. For my club, maybe that’s best.

Room to Cast

For adventurous anglers, the Matador Wildlife Management Area does offer a few places to cast a fly. The WMA is long and narrow, because its purchasers intended to take in as much riparian area as possible. In all, 28,183 acres lie within the boundary fence. Purchased from the Matador Land and Cattle Company in 1959, this WMA maintains the appearance of a working ranch, with windmills, working pens and cattle still dotting the range.

The Middle Pease River is the dominant — albeit low-keyed — water feature running from the area’s western border near the Motley County line and stretching nearly 10 miles to its northeast corner.

What makes this river fishable are the ultimate water utilitarians: beavers. By building dams on the river they create small ponds that hold fish. Lacking large numbers of big trees, beavers use mesquite and salt cedar limbs mucked together with river mud to form their impoundments. Instead of lodges, the beavers tunnel in the soft sand and build burrows. Depending on the season, the ponds are typically 2 feet deep, 30 feet wide and about 150 feet long. Living in the clear water are largemouth bass, bluegill, other sunfish and carp.

The river bottom is a maze of salt cedars interlaced with junipers and mesquite. The sandy soil makes walking difficult in places but provides an adequate growing medium for grass species such as little and big bluestem, sand dropseed and switchgrass. Closer to the water, Bermuda grass grows a carpet-thick layer of sod while cattails and foxtail take advantage of elevated soil moisture around the pond’s margins. The riparian habitat creates an ideal haunt for white-tailed and mule deer, feral pigs, bobwhites and many songbirds. These animals attract predators such as bobcats, coyotes and an occasional mountain lion.

At first, Wilson and I know only a pair of ponds, one immediately upstream from the other. We fish them earnestly several times, adhering to a strict catch-and-release ethic. But as our enthusiasm grows, we are convinced that more ponds exist — we simply have to find them.

We decide that walking the river to find more ponds would be a monumental task. So on a cloudy, cold November afternoon, we take to the sky. From the Childress Municipal Airport, the cross-country flight takes only a few minutes to reach the Matador WMA.

Once we entered the management area’s airspace, we spotted pools of water along the river’s floor. Making note of their locations, Wilson and I are excited to learn of the extra places to fish. A few days later, we decide that it is time to convene a meeting of the club, and we head for the river.

Walking through the brush, we make note of a big hackberry tree growing close to the truck. The only prominent landmark, the tree will guide us back after sunset. Traipsing at a steady pace, we make quick work of the mile hike and arrive at the beaver pond. Once we spot the water, we immediately slow our pace and stalk the last few yards to the water’s edge.

Even so, we spook a few fish and watch as their wakes speed quickly away from the bank. On this trip, I am more interested in catching moments with my camera than catching bass. But until the light gets good enough for pictures, I take advantage of Wilson’s offer to let me cast a few times with his kit.

For the most part, the vegetation around the beaver ponds allows for a smooth back-and-forth cast. But the hole we have chosen to fish today is cluttered with mesquite and does not permit a big backcast. I must deliver my fly using the roll cast technique. With the fly in the water behind my rod tip, I prepare to cast. Rotating the rod’s tip counterclockwise from the six o’clock position, I draw an imaginary circle out to my right side and let the tip come to rest back where I start. The momentum of the rod tip picks up the line, the leader and the fly and places them 30 feet from me. With short, quick jerks, I bring the woolly booger to life and it darts through the skinny water. The fly is wet for less than a minute when a fish that I do not see takes the lure and turns away.

With a smooth and poetic motion, I raise the rod tip to set the hook. Fish on! I can feel that this fish has some heft. I try to bring the fish closer but realize I must play him before I have a chance to land. For a couple of minutes I do just that. The thrill of the fight is exhilarating: It is like a present on Christmas day, a kiss from a new girlfriend and the first hill on a big rollercoaster all rolled into one. I am only 10 feet and a few seconds away from my chance to break the Pease River fly-rod bass record.

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