It was a cold January evening. I stood in the garage, examining the tags on two sleeping bags. One sleeping bag was rated for zero weather, the other for twenty degrees. As I pondered these options, my bare feet began to ache from the cold seeping into my toes. Hearing my phone ring on the kitchen table, I gratefully walked into the house, my feet tingling as they warmed up.
After answering the phone, I heard the voice of my fishing partner, Nick, “I just talked to the campground host at Lazy L&L Campground,” he said, “The host said we won’t have any trouble finding a campsite. It looks like like we’ll be the only idiots camping this weekend. The temperature is supposed to drop into the low twenties.”
After hanging up, I went back to the garage and threw both sleeping bags in the truck. For eight years I have lived in the Lone Star State, and during that time, my Yankee blood has been diluted considerably. Cold weather affects me more than it used to, but putting the twenty-degree bag inside the heavier, zero-degree bag, I’d probably be as toasty as a cookie fresh out of the oven.
My camping gear and fly rods were packed. Now, all I had to do was wait for the early morning when our party of three, Nick, Travis and I, would be heading west. Our destination was the nation’s southernmost trout stream, the Guadalupe River.
Guad, as it is known locally, is a popular trout fishery. Talk to any Trout Unlimited member and they’ll likely know about it. Guad’s reputation is largely due to the Guadalupe River Chapter of Unlimited Trout (GRTU).
GRTU boasts an impressive number of fishermen. With 5,500 members, it is the largest TU chapter in the country. GRTU independently raises the beautiful (and large) rainbow trout it releases into the Guad. This stand-alone stocking with large bows is in addition to the already robust stocking program run by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Not only has the GRTU been instrumental in developing the Guadalupe River as the nation’s southernmost trout fishery, but it has also provided valuable financial assistance to other coldwater fisheries throughout the West. GRTU has been involved in mushroom restoration efforts in several states, including a study that examined the restoration potential of the native Rio Grande cut in McKittrick Creek in the Guadalupe Mountains of west Texas.
Every February, GRTU organizes an annual festival called Troutfest. This event typically draws over 3,000 anglers to the Guadalupe River. Prominent fly fishermen such as Tom Rosenbauer, Flip Pallot and Kirk Deeter have made appearances at Troutfest.
Photo: Rob McConnell
Our trip to the Guad preceded Toutfest by a full month, but because this river is so popular, we fully expected to share the water with other anglers. This was despite our efforts to arrive on Friday, before the official start of the weekend.
By the time we pulled into the Lazy L&L Campground, it was close to 9:00 am. We quickly unloaded some of our camping gear and then got back into our vehicles and headed for the water. We pulled into the Rio Guadalupe Resort campground and after paying the entrance fee, headed down the bank to the clear waters of the Guad.
Finding the river entrance to Guad can be a bit tricky. The only place with public access is at the backwaters of Canyon Lake Dam. In addition, access can be gained by paying a fee to the camps located near the river, or by becoming a member of the GRTU and gaining access to areas that are leased from them.
Due to the limited number of access areas, some sections of the Guad can be side by side with both fly anglers and anglers. It is the definition of “combat fishing”. Fortunately, anglers willing to put in some effort can walk (or paddle) and escape the crowds. Because of Texas’ lenient river law, once anglers are on the water, they have the opportunity (and the right) to explore for many miles. Anglers who want to fish Guad should check out the book, Fly Fishing Austin and Central Texas. Readers can find several access sites below Canyon Lake Dam.
Photo: Rob McConnell
As we waded into the clear, cool water, several guides prepared their clients, and a lone angler with a spinning rod kayaked. Once in the water, we immediately began moving upstream, putting distance between us and the popular access area.
At last we came to a wonderful hole scattered in the rock that dropped into a deep pool. After a few casts to the head of the pool, Nick hooked the first trout of the trip. It was a small fish, but we were glad to see it. We then nimbly moved upstream, fishing along the flowing water. Travis found a beautiful rainbow hidden behind a large rock in a patch of pocket water. After landing that fish, Travis managed to catch some smaller trout on a copper. After a few hours, our empty stomachs started growling too loudly to ignore. We fished our way to the access site and drove back to Lazy L&L for a quick meal.
We fished the rest of the day and into the next morning, managing a few more fish, including a slim rainbow eating an articulated striper. There were times when the fishing was slow and we talked to each other, thinking about the cold winter weather and low water conditions. Every time we started to get discouraged, someone would feel a tug on their line and our enthusiasm would be revived.
Needless to say, the trout fishing below Canyon Lake Dam is entirely artificial, made possible by the cold water released from Canyon Lake. Interestingly, some of the trout are holdovers from previous years. Although these fish were once rich, each passing day makes them more and more wild. The presence of these crafty overlords adds a fun and strategic dimension to Guad. Anglers can still beat stockers during the winter, especially on release days, but there are still chances to find bigger fish equipped with GRTUs, or even “wild” holders.
Most of the trout fishing on the Guad is done with nymph rigs suspended under an indicator. We used caddy patterns, copper jigs and wet flies ranging from size 14 to 18. Fishing tape is another popular option for anglers. There isn’t much of a high water bite, or so we were told. It happens occasionally, but it’s a rare ordeal.
In Aaron Reed’s book, Fly Fishing Austin and Central Texas, Reed makes the following statement about the Guadalupe River, “My relationship with the Guadalupe is complicated. I’m a local fish guy, mostly, and when it comes to salmonids, I prefer to hunt wild trout in the streams they were designed for.
Since I’ve cut my chops on native brook trout in the Appalachians, it’s a sentiment I share with Reed, and as I stood in the crystal waters of the Guad, I couldn’t help but think about the implications of Canyon Lake Dam and her. Coldwater Artificial Fishing: What if the dam was never built and the tailwater didn’t exist? What was fishing like in its natural state? Would the state of Texas fish Guadalupe bass (Micropterus treculii), flourishes in the waters that bore her name? Will fly fishermen still flock to this area and book guided trips? Would the economy around Canyon Lake still be supported by fishermen? The obsession that fly anglers have with salmonids leads me to believe that if it weren’t for Canyon Lake Dam, this river wouldn’t have the same popularity with anglers as it does today, but that’s just a guess.
As I stood in the cold waters of the Guad, casting my line at the head of a pool in the hope that an alien trout would devour my fly, I realize that my thoughts on a damless Guad and the restoration of a warm water fishery they were vacuous reveries. In a way, I was like a kid eating a slice of cake, and a big fat brownie, but throwing a tantrum because I wasn’t getting any ice cream. The Guadalupe River is America’s southernmost trout river, and it’s just another reason why fishing in the Lone Star State is so unique. Additionally, it’s important to remember that while our trout-fishing Yankee brethren are shoveling snow off their driveways and dreaming of the spring thaw, Texans are still battling it out with salmonids in relatively mild conditions.
Just because the Guadalupe is a fabricated cold water fishery does not make it bad. In fact, it’s just another tailwater in a long list of productive trout fisheries. One might even say, were it not for the alien trout swimming in the Guad, TU would not enjoy the additional 5,500 members on its roster, all of whom contribute funds to efforts to restore native trout in parts of other parts of the country. where they really belong. In fact, it is the presence of this southernmost, albeit artificial, trout fishery that helps support the continued presence of the native fishery.
But what is perhaps the most important aspect of Guad, is that fishing is just plain fun. Seeing the clear river flowing between banks lined with tall cypress trees is worth the trip alone. But landing some gorgeous rainbows definitely adds to the experience.