Rivers of Bliss
Whether we realize it or not, we all need a piece of river to call our own.
By Larry D. Hodge
“The Brazos belonged to me that afternoon, all of it. It really did. The autumn-blue sky . . . the yellow-white air, the cedars and oaks green and gold and red, the rocks the size of buildings, the sun on my back, the steady, comfortable stroke of the paddling . . . It was mine.” — from Goodbye to a River, by John Graves.
John Graves was in his eighties before I had the good fortune to meet him and edit the Texas Parks & Wildlife Press edition of his book Texas Rivers. Ironically, I’d used a quote from Goodbye to a River in the very first book I’d edited years before in another life, a high school Texas history textbook.
At that time I don’t think I’d ever been in a boat, much less a canoe, and certainly I’d not floated the Brazos Graves loved and wrote about so well. But the things he had to say not just about the river but about life and people and history and all manner of disparate yet interconnected subjects shone a light into some previously dark corners of my mind.
And so when I was preparing to write this article, the first thing I did was read through Goodbye to a River again.
And the second thing was to get on the river. Not just any part of the river, but the very part where Graves began his journey, at the picturesque, sandstone, multi-arched bridge across the Brazos where Texas 16 crosses it just below Possum Kingdom Dam, where signs now proclaim it to be the John Graves Scenic Riverway.
I wanted to make a piece of the river mine. That’s one of the magical things about rivers. They can belong to John Graves, and to you, and to me and to hosts past, present and future and not be diminished — as long as we all care for them.
There was a time when people who roamed rivers were called river rats. Today the term river angels is more appropriate, for river paddlers and anglers are among the fiercest protectors of Texas’ flowing waters.
Hello to a river
“Usually, fall is the good time to go to the Brazos, and when you can choose, October is the best month. . . . Most autumns, the water is low from the long dry summer . . .”
Early October found me standing beside the Texas 16 bridge with TPWD fisheries biologists Mark Howell, Gerald Kurten and Dale Lyons, looking at a river so low that even a canoe would have to be dragged much of the time. Graves was right. The weather was perfect, but the river was low.
However, Howell had a plan, and so we put in below the mouth of Ioni (EYE-on-EYE) Creek, near the spot where Graves made his first night’s camp and scribbled in his notebook, “The hard thing is to get slowed down.” The thick, tough, oily green weeds and willow trees Graves described were still there. And so were fish, as my three companions soon demonstrated and I learned first-hand. Largemouth bass, white bass, channel catfish (yes, they will bite artificial lures) freshwater drum and sunfish all took our offerings, but most fun of all were the hard-fighting spotted bass. I dragged a plastic cicada-imitating lure through the swift water just below the last rapid, and one little bass after another smashed it as it reached the edge of the riffle. They were as beautiful and athletic as any Colorado mountain-stream trout, and best of all, they were in my piece of the river.
Much of the time I spent with camera in hand watching the others fish. Twice I was rewarded when a flight of no fewer than 50 blue-winged teal buzzed Howell as he fished the rapids. Being here was definitely better than reading about it. And unlike Graves, I had no trouble slowing down and savoring the solitude.
The magic of rivers
“The aloneness of it was good. . . . Few people are willing to believe that a piece of country, hunted and fished and roamed over, felt and remembered, can be company enough . . .”
Every single person I interviewed for this story said they love rivers for the same reasons. “What I like about [the Brazos] is the thing that may be in jeopardy after you write about it — there aren’t many people out there,” Kenny Whittenburg tells me.
“Relaxation,” Natalie Wiest says when describing why she likes canoeing on the Trinity and the Colorado. “Being outside, alone on the river, with the sounds of nature all around.”
“The sense of being in the wilderness is quite an appeal,” says Louis Aulbach about the Pecos.
Ed Lowe has paddled many Texas rivers, and he particularly loves the Rio Grande, the Pecos and the Devils. “I love the fact they’ve been there thousands of years, and the surroundings are in many cases unchanged since the Comanches roamed up and down,” he says. “It seems to me that people these days are so connected to cell phones and video games and computers, and we all have a need to connect back to the earth, and rivers let us get away from all that stuff and see what’s out there.”
It’s difficult to put a price tag on the intrinsic value of rivers, but Lloyd McCoy came close. McCoy owns a few acres on the Brazos below Possum Kingdom Dam, and his children and grandchildren have begged him not to sell. He turned down an offer of 10 times what the land was worth. “I’m worth $22 billion,” the would-be buyer huffed. “Well, that’s not near enough to buy this place,” McCoy responded.
For some people, rivers are priceless.
Finding your own piece of river
There’s no substitute for being on a river yourself. Fortunately, no Texan lives more than a few hours’ drive from a stream that will float a kayak or canoe, and the state has no shortage of river angels willing to share information about the waters they love. Here are some recommendations to get you started, but finding your own piece of river — well, that’s up to you, and that’s a good thing.
EXPERIENCED ONLY NEED APPLY
A trio of West Texas Rivers — the Rio Grande, the Pecos and the Devils — offer the most solitude and some of the finest fishing. However, they are remote and can be dangerous. “There are parts of the Rio Grande a complete novice could do; others you should not attempt unless you are experienced and well-equipped,” says Marc McCord, whose Web site <www.canoeman.com> offers reams of information.
“For me, the Pecos is the best fishing river in West Texas,” says river guidebook author Louis Aulbach. “It has spectacular scenery, but when you are in the canyon, there are places you can’t get to by land. Once you begin, you are committed.”
The Devils River provides some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in Texas, but access is limited, and there are few places to camp unless you have landowner permission. “The river doubles in flow where Dolan Creek comes in,” points out river guide Joey Lin. “There are Class III rapids on the Devils, and it’s very remote, so inexperienced paddlers need to be careful.”
RIVERS FOR THE REST OF US
Fortunately, there are many paddler-friendly Texas rivers. Near the top of everyone’s list is the San Marcos. “For a great river experience, I tell people to try the San Marcos,” says McCord. “It’s not that challenging for people who know what they’re doing. It’s the most reliable river in Texas in terms of flow, and it’s drop-dead gorgeous.” Lin points out that the San Marcos can be dangerous for novices — there are numerous small dams that must be portaged — but it has plenty of sunfish, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and Guadalupe bass. Summer angling can be awesome, with channel catfish biting topwater flies and bass chasing vibrating lures or grasshoppers.
The South Llano also has a reliable flow and runs through country without a lot of development. “This river has a lot of smallmouths,” advises David Thomason, who guides fishing trips on Hill Country rivers. “Fishing is best in the stretch above South Llano River State Park. There are a lot of riffles and rapids and tailwater below rapids. Throw a pheasant-tail fly for Guadalupe bass, smallmouths and sunfish. With ultralight equipment, use a crawdad pattern. Small lures work best.” The Colorado River between Austin and Webberville has some stretches that can be run as day trips, and you can catch channel catfish, Guadalupe bass and carp — all on flies, if you like. Using heavy conventional gear, you can catch freshwater drum up to 30 pounds on live crayfish.
The Houston area has more paddling opportunities than most people realize, says Wiest, who is writing a book on Southeast Texas canoeing for novices. “Buffalo Bayou, Clear Creek, Oyster Bayou, Chocolate Bayou, Armand Bayou, Lake Charlotte, Sheldon Lake State Park — we have this incredibly benign resource for paddling 12 months of the year so close to Houston, and people don’t know about it. People ask me where I go to canoe, and I say, ‘Right in your backyard.’” Wiest doesn’t fish, but she says the birding is phenomenal.
“In East Texas, the Sabine below Toledo Bend Reservoir is great,” McCord says. “It’s very remote and forested on both sides, flows pretty consistently, and you can take it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.”
Texas has 15 major rivers, and we've touched on fewer than half of them.
Life is short — paddle hard
Serious canoe- and kayak-heads navigate the Web as expertly as they do the rapids on their favorite rivers, so there’s a wealth of information for paddlers out there just waiting to be clicked on. Paddlers are a friendly bunch who like to share, so visiting one site will uncover links to others, which will lead to others, until you feel you need to wear a PFD while surfing the Web to keep from drowning in information. The sites below will get you started; how you find a way to stop is your problem.
- Information on Texas navigation law, legal access points and river flow gauges. Especially valuable is the “Analysis of Texas Waterways,” which includes maps and descriptions of significant features (including hazards) by stream segment. <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/riverguide>
- Includes link to “Canoeing and Kayaking 101,” which lists paddling clubs and river conservation associations. <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/boat/paddlingtrails/>
- Reviews of Houston-area paddling locations. <www.tamug.edu/paddler> and <www.bayoupreservation.org>
- A monumental labor of love by river guide Marc McCord. Trip reports, photos, water quality, access points, camping, outfitters and shuttles — this site has it all. <www.canoeman.com/crgs>
- Covers paddling in eight states. <www.southwestpaddler.com>
- Site covering multiple states with coverage of a number of East Texas streams. Allows you to post your own trip reports. <www.kayakguide.com>
- River-related links including a list of retailers of Louis Aulbach’s guidebooks. <www.hal-pc.org/~lfa>
- Dallas Down-River Club site. <www.down-river.com>
- Central Texas Fly Fishers site. <www.ctff.org>
- Joey Lin’s guide service. <www.faroutfishingtrips.com>
- Ed Lowe’s guide service. <www.texaswatertrails.com>
- Instructional guided trips statewide. <www.cutteraquatics.com>
And the list goes on: <www.texaskayakfishermen.com>, <www.alamocityrivermen.org>, <www.houstoncanoeclub.org>, <www.canoetexas.com>, <www.txrivers.org>, <www.gopaddle.com>, <www.austinflyfishers.com>, <www.austinpaddling.org>