A Grand Slam in Texas Hill Country

By Dale Martens

If a family member ever suggests an escape-the-cold trip to Texas Hill Country, which surrounds San Antonio, jump on that bandwagon.  Immediately.  Better yet, suggest it yourself…

I used to think that inland Texas was just a great plain dotted with cattle and oil rigs.  Not true!  Texas Hill Country offers out-of-the ordinary fly fishing opportunities – from fast water Guadalupe bass to spring creek sunfish to southern tailwater rainbows.  For non-fishing family members, Hill Country has cute towns, scenic hikes, epic river floats, roadside wineries, and Texas barbecues.  San Antonio, with its River Walk and the Alamo, is both an urban and historic oasis.

This past March, my partner Deb and I fled the freezing temperatures in Manitoba and flew to San Antonio.   Spring was solidly underway in Hill Country, with temperatures hitting the 70’s and trees sporting new leaves.  More importantly though, fishing reports had the bass revving up and the trout going strong.  Here are the highlights…

Llano River

The Llano River might be THE place to add a Guadalupe bass to your species list.  Just outside of Mason, we used a rental canoe to float the river. The cliffs alongside it and the boulder gardens running through it were simply jaw-dropping.  Lake-like pools up alternated with bumpy, class II whitewater… Great fun in a canoe.

My pre-trip research told me that Guadalupe bass like current so I stripped a small Clouser wherever one lake section spilled into another.  It was a hot day and wading wet a great way to experience the river in between bouts of paddling.  The bass kept up their part of the bargain and made it even more pleasant.  Every second or third fishing spot produced a bass or two.  My hardest strike resulted in the immediate disappearance of my fly – likely the victim of a gar’s teeth.

Unfortunately, Guadalupe bass are not behemoths; the Texas state record is only 4 pounds or so and my catches ranged from 6 to 8 inches.  Nevertheless, what they lacked in size, they made up for in sheer uniqueness.

Pedernales River

We spent an afternoon at the Pedernales Falls State Park – mostly hiking up and down this amazing series of falls.  Most falls are spectacular because of their verticalness; these ones are cool because of the way they spread out horizontally along the length and width of the riverbed.

I have to admit that the best part of the afternoon may have been dragging a crayfish pattern through the deep, swirling runs upstream of the swimming area.  (There is no fishing, wading, or swimming allowed near the falls themselves.)   I was serious about trying for a bigger fish and resorted to a sinking line but all I could manage was a six inch bass.

It was super easy to spend an hour or so fishing this spot because fishing licenses are not required in Texas state parks.

Cypress Creek

We spent a few nights in a cabin just outside of Wimberley and Cypress Creek flows right behind the town’s quaint Main Street. Its deep, clear, spring-fed water slides past the roots of huge cypress trees.  While web-surfing in the town coffee shop, I read that it held large sunfish and starting thinking about a Hill Country grand slam.

At 6 AM the next morning, I was by myself alongside the creek.  It was too deep and cold for wading – even with waders.  I worked a small marabou leech slowly alongside the cypress roots and before breakfast a couple of handsome sunfish smacked my offerings.  Both of them bent my rod in a way appropriate to something shaped like a dinner plate.  They were redbreast sunfish with dark backs, long ear flaps, and yellow bellies. (Not sure who named these things!  Read this:  tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/redbreastsunfish/)

Guadalupe River

After the sunfish, I was fired up to complete my self-concocted Hill Country slam – a Guadalupe bass, a sunfish (that wasn’t a bluegill), and a rainbow trout.  Below Canyon Lake, the Guadalupe River is a true tailwater that runs cold all year.  It is one of the sourthernmost blue ribbon trout fisheries in the country. Although prime time for its rainbows is during the Texas winter, when it receives regular stockings, there are holdover fish available year round, and many consider the end of March to still be prime.

As with many streams in Texas, public access to the Guadalupe River is very limited.  However, there are many establishments that offer day access for a very reasonable fee.  We stopped in at the L and L Campground on a very hot day and for $10 each, Deb and I were free to roam their mile or so of river shoreline.  Deb carried a book and looked for a nice grassy patch in the shade.  I carried my fly rod and strode directly to the nearest riffle.

For the most part, the Guadalupe River was a beautiful turquoise color and very smooth flowing.  The water was slightly high and it dropped off immediately at the bank.  Although the wading was challenging, there were at least two promising riffles bordering the L and L property.  One was just upstream of the campground and I fished it thoroughly, trying at least three different small nymphs.  From what I had read, small nymphs were the way to go but the trout had different ideas.  Naturally, they weren’t sharing their ideas with me…

I then hiked to the Devil’s Playground, a long section of whitewater just below the campground.  I fished all through the runs and pockets in the fast water.  It looked like Montana’s Madison River but with huge cypress trees.  Below the fast water, there was a deep run where the current ran alongside tangles of cypress roots.   Naturally, I gave several different nymphs several different rides through that neighborhood.  Although it screamed trout, none were biting.  It was tough to do but I had to give up without completing my grand slam… To make matters worse, a raft came along and hooked two trout right where I had been fishing.  Sheesh!

Realistically, though, I had nothing to complain about.  I had just spent a couple hours drifting flies through trout-filled water that wasn’t frozen.  Back at home I would have been staring at a tip-up on the ice.

Non-Fishing Spots

(I know that you can fish 24/7 but what about the others?)

If double-hauling is automatic and no longer a test for your coordination, how about some Texas Two Step lessons at the Broken Spoke in Austin?  For $8, their filterless instructor will get you and your partner laughing, perhaps slightly embarrassed, and ready to whirl (shuffle?) around the dance floor in less than an hour.

Fredericksburg’s Main Street is a continuous photo-op.  You can pretend to be enamored with the limestone buildings while actually searching out the excellent microbrewery.

Enchanted Rock is a bit of Yosemite in the middle of Texas.  A huge granite dome pokes skyward and begs to be hiked up.

Gruene is a collection of historic buildings and cute shops.  Even if you are allergic to cute shops, stop here because one of them is Gruene Outfitters, an outdoor clothing store that is well-stocked with fly tackle in the rear.  They run guided trips down the Guadalupe River and give good advice.  Don’t be like me; I stopped in after I got skunked.

The Hamilton Pool Preserve is a jungle pool that someone misplaced in Texas.  It comes complete with a yawning cavern and a spring-fed waterfall you can hike behind.

The Salt Lick is a massive barbecue joint.  The barbecue itself is a spectacle.  Try the brisket!

San Antonio has the world famous River Walk and also the Alamo.  Not to be missed are the missions just south of San Antonio.  They are incredibly well preserved and much less crowded than the Alamo.

If you miss the microbrewery in Fredericksburg, there are dozen of roadside wineries.   Did I mention all the roadside wildflowers?