Outdoor column by Matt Dickerson: Pursuit of trout in a surprising spot

If I had been asked a few months ago to name the state with the largest chapter of Trout Unlimited, my first few guesses would have been the classic fly-fishing and trout states of Montana, Idaho or Wyoming. If I had been reminded of the low population densities of those states, I might have instead guessed Colorado (and some river in the Denver area) or Michigan (with its famous trout streams not too far north of Detroit) or even California or Oregon. Or perhaps Maine. Or New York.
Indeed, there are many other states I would have guessed before I landed on Texas.
But the largest chapter of Trout Unlimited, with roughly 5,000 members, is the Guadalupe River chapter in Texas. This January I had the opportunity to pursue trout in the Guadalupe over two mornings with two different officers in the GRTU. Those few hours of casting flies for trout left me with considerable appreciation for the Guadalupe River, for the passion and knowledge of the anglers who pursue trout there, and for the efforts of the GRTU to produce an excellent fishery in a rather unexpected place.
The Guadalupe River carves its way through limestone out of the Texas Hill Country northwest of San Antonio. Its famous native fish are the Guadalupe bass: the Texas state fish, which can only be found in the Hill Country. Upper portions of the river still provide some excellent bass fishing. But in 1964 the Army Corps of Engineer completed the world’s largest earthen-works dam, impounding the Guadalupe and creating the roughly 8,000-acre Canyon Lake. At 125 feet deep, the dam also created a nice tailwater: a stretch of river where the water coming from the bottom of the lake remains cold year round. Cold enough that it now provides the southernmost trout fishery in the United States.
In winter months, there are more than 15 miles of trout water below the dam. In the summer, the amount of trout habitat varies depending on flows. The upper five miles consistently provides year-round habitat even in dry years when the flows are below 90 cubic feed per second, or cfs. In moderate years, when flows remain over 250 cfs, trout will summer-over for 10 or more miles downstream of the dam. And on high-flow years the entire 15 miles of river can hold trout through the summer.
Though most of the land along the rive is private, the GRTU currently has 18 leased access sites over those 15 miles. Seven are open year-round, and the rest are only open in winter fishing months. (In the summer months, the river is a popular destination for inner-tubing and the local economy revolves around non-angling forms of water recreation.) The state also has five public access sites where visiting anglers can fish. And, like in Vermont, the law allows an angler in the river to wade upstream or down, as long he or she keeps a foot in the water, or stays below the mean high water mark of March.
Over about four hours of fishing spread across two mornings I was able to enjoy three of those GRTU access points as a guest first of Rafael Torres (GRTU vice president of Chapter Affairs), and then of Jimbo Roberts (vice president of Fisheries). The river is well-stocked throughout the winter by the state, and the GRTU aids in the efforts including the use of Whitlock-Vibert boxes, which allow trout eggs to hatch in the river, protected, until they develop through their smolt stage and swim free. So there were plenty of trout to be caught. And good sized ones, too.
Fishing a pair of nymphs (patterns unique to that river), I landed a half dozen fat rainbow trout, and watched my hosts reel in a few more (when they weren’t showing me around.) The typical rainbow there measured 16 or 17 inches, and the two largest were at least 20.
It was a beautiful place to fish, also. Below the dam (which sits at an altitude of roughly 900 feet), the river cuts and winds through bluffs as it makes its way toward the small city of New Braunfels, about half an hour northeast of San Antonio. It is a picturesque southwestern landscape — perhaps the only river in which I have ever been able both to catch trout and to look up and see cactus growing on the ledges above me. Though in places the banks are lined with homes and camps, there are numerous stretches where only sycamores, water and the steep riverside bluffs were visible. At one point we saw an osprey soaring overhead.
Though we did not have the river to ourselves, it was certainly not crowded. The few anglers we met were cordial, and respectful of each others’ space. The GRTU was clearly a community of anglers who got along well with each other, and had a common bond of enjoying the fishing and protecting and improving the fishery. I’m already hoping to return there and cast again, especially when I have more time. I’d also like to get up above the lake and catch some of the native Guadalupe Bass. But on this trip, I was happy just to be able to stand in a river in January (without a winter coat or gloves), make a couple new friends, and land a few trout on a fly in a surprising place.

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