It was a cold January afternoon. I stood in the garage, examining the tags on two sleeping bags. One sleeping bag was rated for zero degree weather, the other for twenty degrees. As I contemplated 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 entered the house, my feet tingling as they warmed up.
Answering the phone, I heard the voice of my fishing buddy, Nick, “I just talked to the host at the Lazy L&L Campground,” he said, “The host said we’ll have no problem finding a camping. Looks like we’ll be the only camping idiots 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 considerably diluted. The cold affects me more than it used to, but by stuffing the twenty-degree bag inside the heavier, zero-degree bag, I would surely be as toasty as a fresh-from-the-oven kolache.
My camping gear and fly rods were packed. Now all I had to do was wait for the early morning when our group of three, Nick, Travis, and I, headed west. Our destination was the southernmost trout river in the country, the Guadalupe River.
El Guad, as it is known locally, is a renowned trout fishery. Talk to any Trout Unlimited member and they’ll probably know. The Guadupe’s reputation is due, in large part, to The Guadalupe River Chapter of Trout Unlimited (GRTU).
GRTU has an impressive number of fishermen. With 5,500 members, it is the largest TU chapter in the country. GRTU independently raises beautiful (and large) rainbow trout that it releases into the Ford. This freestanding stocking with large ties adds to the already robust stocking program operated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
GRTU has not only been instrumental in developing the Guadalupe River as the nation’s southernmost trout fishery, but has also provided valuable financial assistance to other coldwater fisheries throughout the West. GRTU has participated in gorge restoration efforts in several states, including a study that examined the potential to restore native Rio Grande gorge at McKittrick Creek in the Guadalupe Mountains of West Texas.
Every February, GRTU hosts an annual festival called Troutfest. This event usually attracts over 3,000 anglers to the Guadalupe River. Notable fly fishermen such as Tom Rosenbauer, Flip Pallot and Kirk Deeter have made appearances at Troutfest.
Our trip to the Ford preceded the Toutfest by a full month, but since this river is so popular, we expected to share the water with other anglers. This was despite our attempts to arrive on Friday, before the official start of the weekend.
By the time we pulled into the Lazy L&L camp, 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 campsite and, after paying the entrance fee, headed along the shore to the clear waters of the Guad.
Finding the river access to the Guad can be a bit tricky. The only public access site is in the backwaters of Canyon Lake Dam. Apart from this, you can access the campsites adjacent to the river by paying a fee, or by becoming a member of the GRTU and accessing the areas ceded by them.
Due to the finite number of access areas, some sections of the Ford can be shoulder to shoulder with fly and conventional anglers. It is the definition of “combat fishing”. Fortunately, anglers willing to make the 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 scout for many miles. Anglers who want to fish the Guad should consult the book, Fly Fishing Austin and Central Texas. Readers can find several access points below Canyon Lake Dam.
As we waded into the clear, cold water, a couple of guides prepared their clients and a lone angler with a spinning rod paddled in a kayak. Once in the water, we immediately began moving upstream, putting distance between us and the popular access point.
Finally we came to a magnificent rock strewn slide that emptied into a deep pool. After several casts to the head of the pool, Nick hooked the first trout of the trip. It was a small fish, but we enjoyed seeing it. We then moved nimbly upstream, fishing along the fast water. Travis found a beautiful rainbow hidden behind a large rock in a section of pocket water. After landing that fish, Travis managed to catch several smaller trout on a copper john. After several hours, our empty stomachs began growling too loudly to ignore. We fished our way back to the access site and headed back to Lazy L&L for a quick bite to eat.
We fished the rest of the day and into the next morning, managing several more fish, including a fine rainbow that ate a knuckle streamer. There were times when the fishing was slow, and we chatted amongst ourselves, reflecting on 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 reignite.
It goes without saying that 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 leftovers from previous years. Although these fish used to be stocked, each passing day makes them more and more wild. The presence of these crafty wastes adds a fun and strategic dimension to the Ford. Anglers can still hit restockers during the winter, especially on fish release days, but there is still a chance of finding larger GRTU fish or even “wild” scraps.
Most of the trout fishing in the Wad is done with nymph rigs suspended below an indicator. We used caddis patterns, copper johns and wet flies, ranging from size 14 to 18. Fishing streamers are another popular choice for anglers. Not much top bite, or so we were told. It happens from time to time, but it is a rare test.
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 native fish guy, mostly, and when it comes to salmon, I prefer to hunt wild trout in the headwater streams they were made for.”
Having harvested native brook trout in the Appalachians, this is a sentiment I share with Reed, and as I stood in the crystal clear waters of the Ford, I couldn’t help but reflect on the implications of the Canyon Lake dam and his 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 Texas’ state fish, the Guadalupe bass (Micropterus treculii), thrive in the waters that bore its name? Do fly fishers still flock to this area and book guided cart trips? Will the economy around Canyon Lake still be driven by fishermen? The obsession that fly anglers have with salmonids leads me to believe that if it weren’t for the Canyon Lake dam, this river would not be as popular with anglers as it is today, but that’s just a guess.
As I stood in the cold waters of the Wad, casting my line into the head of a pool in the hope that an alien trout would devour my fly, I realized that my thoughts about a damless Wad and the restoration of ‘a fishery of warm waters were empty dreams. In a way, I was like a kid eating a slice of cake and a big, fat brownie, but throwing a tantrum because I didn’t get 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. Also, 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 salmonids in relatively pleasant conditions.
That the Guadalupe is a manufactured cold water fishery does not make it bad. In fact, it’s just another tailwater in a long list of manufactured trout fisheries. You could even say that if it weren’t for the alien trout swimming in the Ford, TU wouldn’t be enjoying the additional 5,500 members on its list, all of whom contribute funds to native trout restoration efforts in other parts of the country. where they really belong. In fact, it is the presence of this southernmost trout fishery, albeit an artificial one, that helps maintain the continued presence of native fisheries.
But what is perhaps the most important aspect of the Guad is that it is fun to fish. It’s worth it just to see the clear river that flows between banks surrounded by tall cypress trees. But landing some beautiful rainbows certainly adds to the experience.