I walked across the baked dry ground to the river bank. The wind almost howled down the river channel as I waded into the water. Waves are unusual on the Brazos, but this day the wind was creating large waves, whipping their tops off into a white spray. I was fishing the deepest hole within range of the house, water up to my chest. The water was cool and pleasant even with the waves. The spray hitting the back of my neck was cold, but I liked it.
I live on the west bank of the Brazos, a few miles down from Lake Whitney. I fly fish the river year round, primarily in an area about a half mile upstream and a half mile downstream of my house. This length of river has a broad range of river ecologies that are typical of this stretch of river from Whitney dam to Waco. Generally speaking the river is limestone and gravel bottomed, crystal clear water, about waist deep, a hundred yards wide, surrounded by limestone cliffs or huge trees thickly growing along the banks, and gorgeous in more ways than I can describe.
The Brazos is an outstanding river for fly fishing. It not only has plenty of room for casting, it also has an extensive variety of fish. It has long stretches ideal for wade fishing, and long stretches ideal for boat kayak/canoe fishing. The fish in this river tend to be a little smaller than their lake and pond counterparts, but they are much stronger. These fish don’t have pot bellies; they have muscles from fighting the river current twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, their entire lives. When hooking a muscular river fish - in the current - the fight is about double the fight of the same size but weaker fish caught in still waters; making an exciting catch of almost every fish hooked.
I fished for a while, catching bass and perch. The wind was blowing my rod tip so hard that I couldn’t feel the bites, causing me to miss several fish. I had to stand with my back to the wind and cast with it, at times it was more like flying a kite than casting, but mostly I fish when I can, not just when the conditions are perfect.
In my one mile home stretch of river I have caught multiple varieties of bream, white and black crappie, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, hybrid bass, sand bass, striped bass, spotted bass, gar, channel catfish, blue catfish, yellow catfish, drum, buffalo, and carp – all on a fly rod. I caught a logger head turtle, accidentally snagging him in the foot – not much of a fight but later I thought I should have weighed him - he might have been a record snapping turtle on a fly rod. These fish are naïve, rarely getting any fishing pressure. In a busy week of good fishing conditions I might see two fishermen in my home stretch. I often go months without seeing any fisherman at all.
The Brazos, from Lake Whitney to Waco, also changes its attitude on a regular basis. It can be a low slow lazy river or turn into a deep fast river, sometimes in only a few hours. The depth and speed of the river depend mostly on the amount of water being released from Whitney Dam. One of the first lessons I learned about fishing this stretch is to be constantly alert to the water level and speed. It can sometimes change quickly and I have gotten into minor trouble when not watching – having to climb out on the bank far down river from where I wanted to exit and then hiking back across country. Rarely is it dangerous, but it can be, and it is well worth paying attention to. One fly fisherman in a kayak lost his life just below the dam this year after they let water out.
When wade fishing, I pick markers for the water level, such as a rock or limb on the edge of the water. I check periodically to see if the water level is changing. I note the amount of pressure the current is pushing against me and I watch the surface speed of the water. If the water level starts rising it is usually signaled first by an increase in current speed along with an increase in leaves and pieces of moss going by.
I caught two channel cats, both fairly large, one measuring twenty inches and weighing around five pounds. I was fixing to quit for the day when I snagged on underwater brush and lost my fly. I tied on a purple wooly bugger to fish my way back home with and cast it side arm under an overhanging tree. I waited to let it settle to the bottom and then slowly began to strip it back in to me. A sudden resistance and I thought “damn, snagged again”. Then the line took off down river like it was hooked to a runaway train. I had something big on.
I always make sure that I have an exit strategy – I don’t want to be stuck on the wrong side of the river, or way down stream or upstream of my preferred exit point. I almost always wade upstream from my entry point. The return trip with the current is much easier after a tiring day than a return trip against the current. This is especially true when I am a long way off from my exit point and the water starts rising. If I am downstream when this happens then the wade back up against the increasing current and depth can be excruciating. Current (no pun intended) information can be accessed at the following USGS/NOAA website.
Often I fish specifically for drum. They are difficult to catch, but they fight like crazed underwater tractors. The average drum I catch is six to eight pounds. The technique that I use to catch drum also works on bluegill, bass, catfish, and occasionally carp. Catching a drum is fairly rare for me, but I usually catch a lot of other fish while on the hunt for drum.
I use a 9’6” 6-wt rod with sinking line, a furled leader, and 8 lb tippet. The long rod is helpful to get a decent cast when wading in water up to my elbows. The 6-wt is a good compromise in size. I have caught and enjoyed everything from small bluegill to carp over twenty pounds on this setup. The sinking line is necessary for this fishing style because the fly needs to settle onto the bottom. It is then stripped back in short sharp jerks, moving the fly about an inch at a time. I space the strips far enough apart that the fly has time to settle back to the bottom after each movement. This causes the bait to drag along the bottom, kicking up small puffs of silt with each jerk. The puffs of silt clue in nearby fish that food is moving. The sinking line has the added advantage of being easier to cast in windy conditions, and it is often windy on this river. I have successfully used floating line with a sinking leader – and that gives me more flexibility in selecting flies and fishing techniques; but I prefer to fish with either sinking or floating lines, depending on what I am after that day. Compromise always seems to leave something lacking.
My line tore off the reel as the drag gave way to the pull. I palmed the spool. I thought I might have a big drum on. This had to be the fish that had broken my leader the last two times out. The fight brought to mind a thunderstorm. Sudden hard pulls reminded me of the quick booming of close thunder, slow hard pulls seemed like distant thunder rumbling down the river bottom. Flashes of white as the big fish came near to the surface appeared as flashes of lightning. Obviously the drought was heavily on my mind.
This technique is an adaptation of saltwater fishing for red fish that I stumbled on when reading about red fishing techniques, and the fact that drum are their fresh water cousins. The technique works. It works best when I can sight cast, but that generally isn’t the case. This also attracts bream, bass (especially small mouth), catfish, and the occasional carp. I use mostly wooly buggers and hellgrammites for this method. I vary the size as well as the color to try to find what they like that day.
Drum (also known as sheepshead and gasper gou) prefer deeper water with gravel bottoms. There are three deep holes in my one mile stretch of river; two of them have gravel bottoms. The third one has a muddier bottom and I almost never find drum in it.
Except in the coldest part of the winter I wear shorts, sandals, tee-shirt, fly vest, and a hat. A brimmed hat that shades the top of the ears is best, but on really windy days I wear a baseball cap. I also have a pith helmet for blazing days; it allows air to circulate across the top of my head. I guess I look like a lost postman when I wear it, and I do get some looks, but it works great. I clip a pair of flip down magnifiers on my hat for use in tying knots; at my age this is one of the handiest gadgets there is. Only in the coldest times will I wear waders. Over the past forty years of wading in the Brazos I have tried every kind of wading foot wear imaginable, even a variety of golf shoes. The best I have found are sandals made of synthetic materials with Velcro fasteners.
There are sometimes small leeches in the river. I have found them trying to attach to me in muddy areas where the water is very slow moving and the mud comes up to my ankles – areas I avoid anyway. These leeches are small. They don’t bother me, but if they did I would consider wearing waders. I find a leech about once in every hundred trips or so, but have yet found one actually attached to me.
I carefully guided the fish to the center channel, away from the brush snag where it could tangle and break my line. I played out line, and then when it turned and ran my direction I quickly brought in line. I kept the rod up high to keep the pressure on, or lowered the rod tip and held it to the side when it was surging away from me. We fought up and down the river, mostly down, for a half hour. I wouldn't lose this one by being impatient.
River fishing is considerably different from still water fishing. In still water, structure plays the important role. In the Brazos, there isn’t much structure, other than bottom contours. The river sweeps itself clean periodically. There are some logs here and there, usually near the banks on the inside bend where the water is slower, and those can be excellent places to fish – but they are generally few and far between.
The best spots to fish are deep holes with clean bottoms that have some downed trees or limbs in the bottom and tree limbs hanging over them. There are a few, and they are honey holes. When you find one, fish it hard.
The river fish are always alert to what is above the water because the water is clear and they face a determined and lethal barrage from birds that survive by eating fish. There are herons, egrets, hawks, occasional bald eagles, king-fishers, loons, cormorants, grebes, cranes, ospreys, and Lord only knows what other kinds of birds trying to catch and eat fish, all day long. As a result the fish constantly watch for threats from above. This is key information.
If a fish sees movement above the water, it spooks. I watch where I stand, wear clothes that fit into the background, cast as far as I can, and stay low as much as possible. There are two good reasons to fish deeper water when wading. The fish prefer deeper water as it protects them from the raptors, and it gives me a lower profile. When I am elbow deep I am not as visible as when I am standing in shallow water.
Slowly it tired and I gained line. When it finally broke the surface I could see it was a channel cat, a decent one for a fly rod. The six weight rod was straining but holding. The channel cat had a spring time belly full of eggs. She was an old survivor, her head scarred from many battles in the survival wars in the depths of the dark waters, battles that we can only imagine.
I take advantage of weather conditions that disturb the surface of the water when I can. I catch more fish when the wind is blowing enough to keep the surface heavily rippled, or when it is lightly raining.
Fish know they are more exposed to birds of prey when they swim out into direct sunlight or when the surface is smooth. When I fish in the middle of the day I pay attention to shadowed areas. Anyplace that is fairly deep, in shadow, and preferably covered by overhanging trees is going to hold more fish than open water will. The edges of shadows are good places to fish as the hunting fish will be in the shadow watching the un-shadowed water for food.
Overcast days are far better than sunny days. Sunny days, oddly, are better than partly cloudy days. When the sun is coming and going behind clouds, the fishing tends to be poor. I think this is because the changing light levels confuse the fish, making them suspicious and withdrawn. There are also the rare days when the water is warm, a cold front moves in, and fog develops on the surface of the water, when this happens I catch fish. This is a magical time to fish, and doesn't happen often enough or last long enough when it does happen.
In a light rain, I catch fish, but in heavy rain I don’t seem to catch them, it could be because I don’t much like being out in heavy rain and don’t concentrate as well, or it could be the fish don’t like it – I don’t know which. If I can hear distant thunder I am catching fish, especially when it is not raining where I am. If there is lighting in my vicinity I get out.
Other places to look for fish are abrupt drops in the river’s bottom; fish hang out below the drop off out of the stronger current waiting for food to come by. I drift a fly down with the current and let it drop down into the hole. Strike indicators are especially helpful here. I fish behind any obstruction in the current that gives a fish a place to wait out of the current – behind logs or rocks or bridge piers can be good places. I cast upstream and let the current carry the fly down.
Hellgrammites are a favorite food of all river fish. Hellgrammite eggs are laid on objects that overhang the water. When they come out of the egg they fall into the water. They live for two or three years clinging to the undersides of rocks. When it is time for them to morph into Dobson Flies they wait for a heavy thunderstorm. During the storm they crawl out onto the bank and begin their out of water life cycle. Bridges and overhanging tree limbs are where they fall into the water, and these are good places to use hellgrammite patterns. Hellgrammites are not just in these places of course, and the hellgrammite fly can work quite well any place in the river. Smallmouth bass especially love hellgrammites.
She was too big to get the hook out of while standing in waist deep water. She had large barbed fins and I wasn’t anxious to get stabbed. I have had that pleasure before, and it stings for hours after. I waded to the bank, keeping her on the line and leading her up to the shallow water.
Often there are “current seams” due to the river’s contours where a faster current will butt up alongside a slower current. These are visible on the surface, generally as a smooth stretch of water next to a choppy stretch of water, with a distinct line between them. River fish cruise these “seams” looking for food, and as a result they are good places to catch fish. Sometimes these seams are marked by leaves or other small floating debris – easily seen and always worth fishing. I wade around the seams and cast to them from all angles.
During the warmer months aquatic weed beds will develop. These provide cover for fish of all sizes and make good places to fish. The fish will hide and hunt in these weed beds. They are difficult to fish without getting moss hanging on your fly, and I don't recall ever catching a fish on a fly with any moss on it. My favorite way to fish weed beds is to sight cast to the various “holes” in the weed beds, using a floating line and floating fly. These are good places to catch bass and bream.
I fish for bream with a 3-wt rod, 8’ 6” with floating line, a furled leader, and 2 lb test tippet. My favorite bream fly is a “bully spider”. Of course almost anything will work when they are nesting in the spring. The rest of the year I use a variety of terrestrials and dry flies. Catching a ten inch bream in the river is not uncommon, and these hellions put up a fight that just can’t be described. Often I will put two flies on, one on a drop leader and the other on the end of the leader. This doubles the presentation and definitely increases the number of fish caught. In the spring it isn't unusual to catch two bream at the same time this way - and when I have two large bream trying to go two separate directions, I have a fight that makes me grin from ear to ear.
I primarily catch and release, but when I do occasionally want to fry up some fish, I keep bream – because they are the best eating fish in the river, including crappie which are almost as good. Crappie are bigger and easy to fillet, which makes them popular, but as far as taste and texture goes, bream are better. Sometimes I will keep channel cat as they are also excellent, not as good as bream, but still worth eating.
I don’t fillet bream; I scale them, cut the head and fins (except the tail fin) off. I soak them in a light salt water in the refrigerator for a couple of hours, then roll them in yellow mustard, then yellow cornmeal, and fry them in a couple of inches of smoking hot lard. That is the best possible way to eat them, fresh and hot; cooked old school.
There are several varieties of bream (aka sunfish) in the Brazos. The ones I see the most often are bluegills, longears, and green sunfish. All are top notch fighting and eating fish. The largest I have caught so far was eleven inches long. When they get upwards of eight inches or longer, they put up a fantastic fight. They turn sideways and use the current to full advantage.
Have you ever heard the term “sunfishing” as a description of a certain type of horse bucking? It comes from the way that bream fight a fishing line. Normally bream do not jump out of the water, but occasionally when the direction of their run and the pull of the line coincide just right they will come out of the water, shaking and spraying water like something out of a movie. These guys are pugnacious fighters and will flip water in your face after being released as they swim away, a parting insult – they are feisty all the way.
Of all the fish in the river, bream are the most colorful. They have colors that can only be described as “neon”, and are prettier than many aquarium fish. The colors start fading as soon as they are caught and if you keep them to eat they will be dull in color by the time you get them home. The best time to admire them is when you first get them up to you.
Creek mouths are good fish holding spots, especially for bream. They also tend to be water moccasin holding spots. Cottonmouths inhabit the Brazos in significant numbers. I have been “chased” out of the water on more than one occasion by a cottonmouth that kept coming right at me. I don’t know if it is because they are curious or if it is because they are aggressive, and I don’t care. I don’t want to be within striking distance of them, and they can move through the water faster than I can.
There are a lot of water snakes in the Brazos that are not poisonous. The quickest way to determine the difference between a cottonmouth and a nonpoisonous water snake is the cottonmouth's body will be on top of the water, and the other snake’s bodies will be mostly submerged. A cottonmouth looks like it is crawling across the top of the water, as though it was full of air. That is a certain give away – if you see that, be careful. Nonpoisonous snake’s bodies will be at least partly submerged. If you see only the snakes head then the odds are very good that it is not a cottonmouth – although I don’t take any chances as cottonmouths can swim under water too.
If you are close enough to see the pupils of their eyes, you are too close – but just so you know - the cottonmouth and the other North American poisonous snakes all have pupils with vertical slits, like a cat. Nonpoisonous snakes have eyes with round pupils.
Access to this stretch of the Brazos River is easy for kayakers and canoers. If you have your own boat you can put in just below Whitney Dam. There are also a couple of places down the river that you can put in for a fee. There is a canoe/kayak rental place at the FM 2114 bridge. You can park there and rent a boat. They will take you and the boat to the Whitney Dam and you can float back down. That is about an eight mile river trip that generally takes six to eight hours. They also have a boat rental that allows you to take the boat on down river below the bridge, so that it can be turned into a two day trip with a night of camping. Boats can be taken out in a couple of different places in Waco.
The 2114 bridge is a one and a half hour drive from downtown Fort Worth, about two hours from downtown Dallas. Simply take I-35 south to below Hillsboro to FM 1304. Take FM 1304 west about twenty miles. FM 1304 will be joined by FM 2114 a couple of miles before the bridge. FM 1304 will split off again just before the bridge. Stay on FM 2114 and you will cross the bridge in another mile or so. It is a simple and direct drive. To go to Whitney Dam, turn onto Hwy 22 in the middle of Hillsboro – at the outlet mall – and drive west about twenty miles. Hwy 22 crosses the dam.
When I got home I showed her off, weighed her - eight pounds and twenty-six inches - and then carried her back to the river. If I could resuscitate her I would let her go to lay those eggs and maybe populate the river with more of her beautiful kith and kin. When I laid her in the water she rolled belly up, so I grabbed her tail and slowly moved her back and forth, forcing water through her gills. After a couple of minutes of this she swam off to deep water. If she hadn’t survived I would have had a fine fish dinner, so either way I was ahead. I went to bed that night well satisfied that she was back in her dark lair, waiting for the right moment to release her eggs.
The Southwest Paddlers website has an excellent description of this section of river for canoers and kayakers, and lists six access points.
The stretch of river between Lake Whitney and the 2114 bridge is for the most part primitive. There are only a few houses to be seen in a few isolated spots. The vast majority of this stretch is as wild looking as it was a thousand years ago. As you drift along, you only hear the sounds of nature. There are thousands of birds to watch as you drift past beautiful limestone cliffs. Within a couple of miles you start watching the banks half believing that you will spot a Comanche war party coming down for a drink. Down by Spivey's crossing are some caves where Indian artifacts dating back some 15,000 years were found. The area must look the same as it did back then.
You can have a fantastic day of clear water river fishing in near primitive wilds, and yet be home in your own bed that night. How can you beat that?
Lloyd fishing his backyard
Just before dawn the next morning I was awakened by thunder. A great thunderstorm was roiling overhead bringing sweet rain to the parched ground - reminding me of the catfish fight and that she was holed up in a deep dark place waiting to release her eggs. The drought didn't end, but it was a good storm.