Deep in South Texas, near the Mexico border, searching for bass.
[story & photography by Greg Thomas]
The last time I’d paddled anything resembling a canoe or a kayak was in seventh grade, when I’d taken the Amtrak from Seattle to Salem to visit a cousin and raise teenage hell.
My cousin Gary had just moved from the Las Vegas suburbs to Philomath, Oregon, to be closer to family and to enjoy life on a farm. Unfortunately, his father was quickly diagnosed with leukemia and died one miserable year later.
Gary’s mother held on to the farm for a couple of years, and during that time, Gary and I explored to our hearts’ content. This many years later, two things stand out.
First—at the time, I was an AAU national-champion-level runner; my cousin was an awkward specimen, the result of having been in a body cast when he was young. One day, during an argument, or possibly just to see what would happen, I shot my cousin in the ass with a BB gun. I jogged away with a laugh but noticed he was keeping pace. I sped up but he kept with me. Then I was at full sprint through a hayfield, screaming, “Sorry! Sorry!” with him right at my heels. Eventually, to my relief, he faded. At that moment, I realized human limitation isn’t set in stone and that determination—in this case, an urge to pummel someone—can overcome any weakness. I’ve never aimed a gun at a person again.
The second solid memory comes from a rainy western Oregon day when Gary and I hauled an old, homemade, and super-heavy wood canoe from the barn to Beaver Creek, which lay just across the road from the farmhouse. The creek was at spring flood stage, but that did nothing to dim our enthusiasm.
We launched that unstable beast, laughed our way around a couple of bends, and then panicked when we spotted a fallen tree spanning the creek, about two inches above and parallel to the waterline. Gary paddled for the right bank. I paddled left. We hit the log sideways, capsized, and for the briefest moment, I felt the canoe pinching my leg to the bottom. Somehow I wrestled free and Gary and I waded out unscathed. A month later, Gary called and said he still couldn’t budge the canoe, even an inch, even though the creek had dropped.
I’ve thought about that moment many times, wondered how my parents and my sister might have changed if I’d drowned at 13. Having kids of my own now, I get a deeply sick feeling every time I think about it.
I felt a similar sensation when Kevin Stubbs, owner of Expedition Outfitters, greeted me near the Devils River in southwest Texas, about 150 miles west of San Antonio and just north of Del Rio. I was traveling on a sponsored trip with other media, a foray for largemouth and smallmouth bass and anything else we could catch, and was surprised to see Stubbs at a ranch near our launch point. We’ve known each other for many years, but I’d forgotten about his Texas roots, despite his purely Lone Star accent.
He looked us over, pointed at our stack of foldable Oru kayaks,and then asked me, “Is everyone here an experienced paddler?”
I shrugged and said, “I know some of them are, but I’m not. Fact is, this is pretty much my first time in a kayak.”
Stubbs shook his head and said, “Are you kidding me? This isn’t a beginner’s river. This water can kill you. And, if you get hurt out here, you’re hours away from a hospital . . . at best.”
He inquired about our first aid kits, life jackets, and other survival equipment, then handed me a sat phone and said, “Keep this with you,” adding, “There are scorpions under every rock, more rattlesnakes here than anywhere else in Texas, swarms of wasps, and,” he said with a laugh, “if you get an upstream wind, you’ll know why it’s named the Devils River.”
Finally, he said, “What do you guys have for rods and flies?”
I said, “I’ve got a nine-foot five and a bunch of leeches,streamers, and nymphs.” Then I smiled, motioned to the rest of the guys, and said, “These boys are fishing tenkara.”
Stubbs’s nose crinkled as if he’d smelled a bad oyster. He shook his head again, laughed, and said, “You guys aren’t going to catch a thing.”
The Devils River may be Texas’s most intriguing bass water. Certainly it’s the state’s most pristine and remote waterway, offering anglers and paddlers access to 40-some miles of prime fishing for smallmouth and largemouth, plus longear sunfish and a unique perchlike fish called the Rio Grande ciclid. The river rises from springs and flows south, through deep limestone canyons, to Amistad Reservoir, which is divided by the Mexico border. The trip takes two or three days, depending on where you take out, and can last four days if you paddle all the way to Amistad.
The river and the lands around it remain mostly primitive and guarded by massive private ranches. However, the Devils River State Natural Area, which is located 22 nasty, tire-ripping miles from U.S. Highway 277, offers anglers access to the water, as long as they have a state-issued permit to launch and fish the river. However, you need to hire an outfitter to transport you from the highway, over private lands, to the put-in at Bakers Crossing. Once on the water, you’re pretty much on your own— cell service is nonexistent and you can’t resupply. That means you must have everything you need before hitting the water.
Speaking of the water, its spring-fed nature gives it an odd but beautiful light-blue coloration, like a glacial runoff river. The difference is that the Devils may run perfectly clear. Interestingly, the Devils is part of the Rio Grande basin and runs along the edges of three ecotones—the Chihuahuan Desert to the west, the Tamaulipan brushlands to the south and east, and the Edwards Plateau to the north. Prickly pear cactus and sagebrush dominate the hillsides. Oaks and sycamores cover the riverbanks. Ferns, mosses, and vines are found where springs enter the river. Javelina, mountain lion, black bear, whitetail deer, coyote, and other wildlife prowl the canyons.
I was struck by the landscape while driving to the river. I’m a Northwest guy who’s spent scads of time in remote Alaska and in the high alpine country of Montana, Idaho, and Washington. I’ve always glared at other parts of the country and called them tame. But here, in Texas, I discovered a hidden landscape where flash floods, demanding terrain, remoteness, and difficult access offer all the challenges and consequences I find in the “Upper Left.” You could die here, I decided, and that only made me more
fond of the place. Not that I was looking for a way out.
After Stubbs dropped us at the access site, we set up our hard plastic origami-inspired Oru kayaks, which fold into a box for transport and storage, and unfold into sturdy kayaks that snap together quickly. We got a quick lesson on paddling from the Oru crew, then pushed off into the Devils for a two-day float.
We were a mix of hard-core anglers and dedicated paddlers, which is always problematic. I understood that some of the water I wanted to fish would be spoiled by so many boats going over the fish’s heads. But it was a fun crew that mostly stayed together, with the anglers allowed to push ahead and get first crack at that water.
I would describe the Devils River as a series of lakes divided by narrow slots, rapids, and pools. We found fish at the bottom of the slots and rapids, where the river carved deep holes around the bases of rocks. We could drop a nymph or streamer into the flow, let it sink and curl around a boulder, and often come up with a nice smallmouth.
The smallmouth averaged about a pound, but four- to five-pounders aren’t uncommon (though we didn’t catch any close to that size) and there are rumors of state-record-size fish—meaning eight-pounders—being caught-and-released here. The river’s largemouth run to similar size.
I worked a Sculpzilla around the boulders while the other guys slung their tenkara rods and drifted nymphs in the riffles. Surprisingly, they caught as many fish as I did, maybe more, because there was no need to cast far. They could simply drop a nymph or a bugger straight down from their rod tips and let it swirl through a riffle or around a boulder.
The fishing wasn’t red-hot by any stretch, and a lot of good water simply didn’t produce. I fished deep in the lakelike sections, punched poppers into the lily pads, fished streamers on the outer edges of weedy areas, and sank nymphs into deep holes between limestone slabs. I was sure I’d get bit in most places, but my success rate was slim.
We were only an hour or two into our float, pushing through one of the lakelike sections when I noticed something on my face—an upstream wind. How many miles did we need to paddle before camping? I wondered. I felt the muscles in my back straining and remembered Stubbs’s warning.
And he was right. We spent the rest of the day pushing through the lake sections with whitecaps rolling upstream, crashing into our bows. Relief came at the end of these sections, when the water narrowed and quickened as it squeezed between islands and through limestone slots.
The kayaks proved stable, and shooting the gaps was fun— but at times the flow was so thin that our paddles touched shore on either side and you couldn’t prepare for what might be around the next turn. I was shooting one of those gaps when the kayak in front of me became wedged, broadside, between two rocks. I had nowhere to go and thought about that tree blocking Beaver Creek years ago. I hit the kayak with my bow, which turned my Oru broadside to the flow. When the current took down my right gunnel, I fell out of the kayak. I felt my right shin starting to wedge between two highly abrasive rocks and feared the worst—was my leg about to snap? Fortunately, my leg came free and I popped up just downstream from both kayaks. I retrieved the kayak, pulled it out of the river and onto a rock, stood it on end to drain, and was off again just a couple of minutes later. My shin was bleeding, but otherwise I was fine.
Because the river splits into so many channels, it wasn’t always clear which one was the correct choice. Once, I took a channel to the right, which sliced between islands with heavy brush and trees and obscured my view of the surrounding area. When the channel opened back to the river, nobody else was around. Had they gone left, to another significant channel? Or was there just one main channel? Or was I the first one to have gone through? I couldn’t remember. I didn’t know whether to look upstream or race down. I pulled to the side of the river and decided to wait. A half hour passed and still nobody. After 45 minutes, I wondered if I’d accidentally paddled past our predetermined campsite and now was downstream of my cohorts.. And if so, I wondered, how could I possibly find them? The lands surrounding the river are highly private (a sign on one bank says, Paddle Faster! Banjos Are Tuning), and there were all those warnings in my head—rattlesnakes, scorpions, wasps, mountain lions. I didn’t even have a tent in my boat. This, too: I didn’t have any food. Worse, I only had a little water.
I fished a deep backwater with towering limestone walls overhead and missed two smallmouth that may have weighed three or four pounds. Then I spooked a group of carp sunning themselves in the shallows. I was starting to think the worst, and was looking for a vantage where I might look upstream and down, when Eddie Nickens’s kayak parted the brush. Moments later, the rest of the crew arrived. I felt a weight lift, and silently promised to stay close to the group from there on.
We portaged our boats around a couple of Class II rapids, and soon pulled into a paddler overnight camp, which we’d reserved. I’ll give paddlers a nod over anglers in the cooking department—we feasted on tacos and fresh avocado and tipped back a couple of cold ones while admiring the stars. Then I wedged my way into a tent with Nickens and Nate Matthews, a fellow editor, and fell fast asleep.
The following day offered better fishing, although not necessarily the type I expected. In several places, I found schools of eager longear sunfish in mid-depth water. They pounced on buggers, leeches, and nymphs. These weren’t the largest fish I’d ever caught, but they bent the 5-weight, and the tenkara boys hammered them, too.
Late in the day, I pulled my kayak to shore, stood on a limestone ledge, and cast a Sculpzilla over a broad and deep section of water. I swung the fly as I might for steelhead, and the bass were on it. In 15 minutes, I’d landed four smallmouth ranging to three pounds or so, which gave me an idea of what the Devils could do on a good day. Who knows how many fish I may have come up with if I’d stayed at that spot, but my fellow paddlers were already out of sight, and I didn’t want a repeat performance from the day prior. Still, just before the takeout, I worked away from the group again and cast into a shallow slackwater bay. It was full of lily pads, and on cue, a three-pound largemouth crushed my fly. I released that fish, figured that’s good enough, and paddled on with frosty beverages on my mind.
I know we could have caught more fish on the Devils if we’d built in three days instead of two. That way, we could have thoroughly covered the water and avoided the sensation of being in a track meet. And we could have started earlier each day, and fished until dark. But paddling is different from pure fishing, and I would have missed those big breakfasts and dinners. That’s just the trade-off for being mobile and eating well.
The Devils River is a true fly fishing treasure, and my eyes are open to what else Texas might offer. I’ve already talked with Stubbs about a return, and he assures me there’s plenty to learn about this fishery, including a run of big striped bass that move out of Amistad and into the Devils. Next time, I’ll likely fish with Stubbs, out of a small raft, probing the deep water around all those boulders, looking for a record smallmouth that Stubbs believes to live here. And I’ll take my sinktips and weighted streamers and work the deep pools below the falls, where 20- to 30-pound stripers are believed to swim. Who knows if I’ll get those fish, but I know I’ll get the rush I like best—being out there, in a rugged and vast landscape, mostly on my own, with all possibilities dead ahead.