LET’S GO FISHING!
TPWD’s leased river sites open opportunities to fish and paddle
After launching our kayaks on the Colorado River near Smithville, it didn’t take long for the fish to start biting. This stretch of river is known for quality largemouth bass fishing. Channel catfish are popular, too, and the world-record Guadalupe bass was caught upstream from here. We didn’t know what we’d catch.
My heartbeat quickened when I felt a fish on the line, but the excitement was short-lived, unfortunately, when the fish made other plans and slipped away.
Meanwhile, on the other bank of the river, my colleague John Botros was having better luck. After just a few casts, he reeled in the first fish of the day. He brought the fish into the boat, and we realized that, lo and behold, it was a beautiful Guadalupe bass.
This species is found only in Texas, primarily in Hill Country streams, and is prized by anglers. This portion of the Colorado River offers an opportunity to land the state fish close to the capital.
SHARING PRIVATE LAND
OUR ACCESS TO THIS PART of the river, about an hour east of Austin, was made possible by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s growing program of leased private-land sites along rivers for paddlers and anglers. It’s giving river recreationalists more opportunities than they’ve ever had before.
Texas has over 40,000 miles of perennially flowing rivers and streams, which belong to the people of Texas. The trouble is getting to them. Because more than 95 percent of the state’s land is privately owned, access to these beautiful waterways is limited. TPWD’s River Access and Conservation Area (RACA) program partners with landowners and cooperating organizations through lease agreements to give Texans increased access to rivers across the state. Anglers and paddlers may use these leased private lands for fishing and for launching kayaks, canoes or other nonmotorized boats.
Some of the state’s best fishing destinations and most sought-after game fish are available to the public through this program. Texans can access nine popular rivers — the Blanco, Brazos, Colorado, Devils, Guadalupe, Llano, Neches, Sabine and San Marcos — through RACA’s 21 sites across the state. Most of these rivers are home to largemouth bass and catfish, the two most popular sportfish in Texas.
The Neches is a personal favorite of mine during the white bass run, when vast numbers of white bass swim upstream to spawn, and the Colorado, Devils, Guadalupe, Llano and San Marcos provide opportunities to catch those popular Guadalupe bass. The Guadalupe River site at Camp Huaco Springs offers a prime location for rainbow trout fishing during the cold weather stocking season.
I reached out to John, TPWD’s RACA program director, to see if he could give me a firsthand experience paddling and fishing the Lower Colorado River.
READY TO LAUNCH
JOHN AND I MEET TPWD photographer Maegan Lanham at the Smithville boat ramp. We consolidate our kayaks and head out to the WJF River Access site a few miles upstream to begin our trip.
John had made reservations with the landowner through email, and everything is set when we arrive. Reservation requirements, regulations and access fees vary from site to site, so river users are highly encouraged to visit a specific site’s webpage for put-in and take-out information and other details.
After entering the gate, we drive to the designated parking area, unload our kayaks and carry everything down the hill to the staging area.
This access site is primitive (there are no facilities), which adds to our feelings of adventure and solitude. The entry point is through a small stream that empties into the river — having good water shoes means we don’t mind getting our feet wet. Although this stretch of the river is relatively slow, there are some small rapids to navigate, including one at the entry point.
Once we walk through the stream, enter the river and navigate our kayaks through the rapids, the fishing begins. I realize during the first few minutes on the water that this excursion is going to be slower paced than my annual white bass trip on the Neches River above Lake Palestine, an outing that also makes use of a RACA site. That section of the Neches is narrow and fast, requiring a significant amount of maneuverability and upstream paddling.
That’s an exciting aspect of the RACA program: You can experience a river like the Colorado one day and the Neches another. Each water body presents a different personality and challenge.
I point out a spot up ahead that looks like a great place to fish. John agrees and we started casting as we float to it. I stay toward the middle of the river and begin tossing my line into the water, using a basic jig head with a crawfish tail to provide some motion. It isn’t long before I get a bite — hoping for one of those Guadalupe bass — but the fish gets away until next time.
Guadalupe bass aren’t the only fish that call the Colorado River home. Largemouth bass and channel catfish are also popular targets.
Unfortunately, the turbidity of the water works against us in our efforts to land more Guadalupe bass or largemouth bass. Some much-needed rain fell in the area a couple of days before our trip, clouding the water and obscuring our bait from fish that feed primarily by sight.
We continue leisurely floating and casting, allowing the current to gently carry us down the stream. At one point I use my paddle to maneuver toward an area closer to the bank with some promising habitat, similar to the area where John found his Guadalupe bass.
I cast toward the area and slowly begin to reel in my line. Suddenly, I feel a huge tug and the end of my pole bends down toward the water. The fight is on!
“I’ve got one!”
It has the makings of a good-sized fish. We speculate on what it could be as I battle. Could it be a largemouth bass? In some ways, it feels like a white bass, but bigger and stronger.
I manage to get it closer to the kayak, where it bolts back and forth from one side to the other. I let the fish run a little bit, hoping my line won’t snap and my pole will stay intact.
The fight is slowly turning in my favor. I feel the fish getting close to the surface as I reel in my line. The head of the fish, followed by maybe half the body, emerge from the water.
The line breaks and the fish is gone. My mistake was not bringing a small net to aid in the catch; it cost me a fish. Chalk this one up to a lesson learned the hard way.
Fortunately, I got a decent look at the silvery fish and it wasn't a Guadalupe bass, largemouth bass or catfish. I describe it to John, but we can’t immediately pinpoint the species.
A short time later, John has a similar experience. He hooks a large fish, battles it mightily and is rewarded with a snapped line for his efforts.
John gets a decent look at his fish and concludes it was a freshwater drum. A freshwater drum was not on my radar going into the trip, but, wow, it got the adrenaline flowing!
What, exactly, are freshwater drum? In Texas, freshwater drum inhabit most of the state except the Panhandle. Their saltwater relative is the much-sought-after red drum. Drum aren’t always prized for their flavor and flakiness — they can be more fun (in size and tenacity) to catch than eat. The state record for freshwater drum (using a rod and reel) is 44 pounds.
WE APPROACH ANOTHER RACA location on the Colorado River. Stopping gives us a chance to stretch our legs and speak with the owner of the property. Karrie McKeown, the owner of Hidden Shores, meets us on the shore to share her experience with the RACA program. One of the first landowners to partner with the program, she’s been on board since 2016.
“I knew the previous owner of this property, and literally every time I saw him, I would ask, ‘When are you going to sell me that river place?’” McKeown says. “There isn’t access from here to Austin unless you have a motorized boat, and I wanted to create a place where kayakers or people who just wanted to get in the water could enjoy this beautiful river. One day he called me up and said, ‘Are you ready to buy this place?’ And I said, ‘I am!’”
McKeown loves spending time on the water with her family of avid anglers and kayakers. It’s her favorite place in the world, and the RACA program allows her to share it with others.
“If you want to use the location, simply give me a call and I’ll give you the gate code for the access site,” McKeown says. “I’ll explain how to get here, and it’s as simple as that. It’s so easy working with TPWD, and I feel like they give me a gift.”
When asked about the cost, McKeown says she always gives the same answer.
“Why would I charge you? This is provided to you from TPWD, and I’m happy to share it.”
With our visit complete, we board our kayaks and resume the trip. We try our luck fishing on the far bank at Hidden Shores, which features a cliff and is considered to be a hot spot for fishing. Unfortunately, nothing is biting for us, so we paddle ahead toward our final destination..
THE STRETCH OF THE RIVER just past Hidden Shores requires more aggressive paddling against a strong headwind. We stop now and then to fish some riffles and rapids in hopes of landing a Guadalupe bass or two, but our lack of luck doesn’t spoil a wonderful day on the water.
In my book, any day spent fishing and paddling the river is a great day, no matter what is caught or not caught.
We paddle hard against the wind and arrive back at the takeout location. John, Maegan and I talk about the day and the many parts that went well — John’s Guadalupe bass, the welcoming RACA landowners and, yes, even the fish that got away.
We make some informal plans to visit other RACA sites to enjoy some paddling on the San Marcos River or fishing on the South Llano. I’m already looking forward to the new experiences that TPWD’s RACA program can provide, and the anticipation of what I might catch when I toss out my line.
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