RIB­BON OF TURQUOISE

FISHING AND DRIFT­ING THE BAD­LANDS OF SOUTH­WEST TEXAS ON THE DEVILS RIVER

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By DAN OKO

The Devils River wends through the bad­lands of south­west Texas, un­for­giv­ing ter­ri­tory and the back­drop for these pad­dlers on a four-day quest for small­mouth and large­mouth bass.

“This river eats rods. You’ll want to stow them be­fore you hit the rapids.”

That warn­ing from our shut­tle driver came to mind as soon as I heard the white­wa­ter rum­ble deep in the cac­tus- and scor­pion-rid­den bad­lands of south­west Texas. Five friends and I were about to em­bark on a four-day, 30mile ad­ven­ture down the Devils River, which crosses an un­for­giv­ing wilder­ness known as the Trans-pe­cos. The Devils wends through rolling hill coun­try, de­scends into the rugged Chi­huahuan Desert and reaches its ter­mi­nus at a reser­voir on the Rio Grande along the U.s.-mex­ico bor­der. With no help in the area should we screw up, we ap­proached the noisy boul­der field with cau­tion.

The pad­dling would get more technical down­river. Still, with decades of fishing and pad­dling ex­pe­ri­ence across our mostly mid­dle-aged crew, I fig­ured know-how and luck were in our fa­vor. Those early miles, mean­while, pre­saged just how tricky it could be to ne­go­ti­ate the Devils River in pur­suit of large­mouth and small­mouth bass.

Sy­camores, pecans and elms grow tall along the up­per reaches, where the pool-and-drop river al­ter­nates be­tween shal­low, lake-like slack wa­ter and rocky choke points. Faced with hot spring­time temps and a stiff head­wind, we didn’t mind get­ting wet — a good thing, be­cause as we lined the boats in the cur­rent, drag­ging them over rough lime­stone, there was no way to stay dry. Other pad­dlers had left red and green plas­tic scrapes, and we added our own to the nar­row chutes. Soon,

stands of river cane would ob­scure the drops, cre­at­ing buggy, spi­der-filled mazes where we en­coun­tered white-tailed deer, tur­key and sur­pris­ingly bold nu­tria, a ro­dent na­tive to South Amer­ica. Flows dur­ing our visit were at 50 cu­bic feet per se­cond, about as low as you could go and still nav­i­gate the Devils, mildly tem­per­ing our col­lec­tive ex­pec­ta­tions.

If the lo­gis­tics had not in­volved weeks of plan­ning, we would have waited for rain to raise the wa­ter level. Even with more wa­ter, it’s not an easy river to pad­dle, par­tially be­cause pri­vate landown­ers limit ac­cess. It also has a rep­u­ta­tion for vi­o­lent flash floods and boasts the largest, bad­dest wa­ter­fall in Texas. With no rain in the fore­cast, we could at least lay one fear to rest.

Seclu­sion and scenery be­lie the Devils, an un­likely rib­bon of ex­otic turquoise in a tawny land­scape, which of­fers in­trepid an­glers a shot at one of the best-pro­tected bass fish­eries in the Lone Star State. Though Devils River visi­ta­tion pales in com­par­i­son to the Madi­son in Mon­tana, the Buf­falo in Arkansas or the Catskills streams I dis­cov­ered dur­ing my Yan­kee boy­hood, the Texas wa­ter­way has come un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure as pop­u­la­tion growth booms across Hous­ton, Austin and other ur­ban cen­ters. Last year, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Depart­ment in­sti­tuted a catch-and-re­lease pol­icy for large­mouth and small­mouth bass on the 45-mile stretch above Lake Amis­tad, which sees the most ac­tion. “We want to main­tain the bass abun­dance, main­tain an­gler suc­cess and pro­tect against po­ten­tial over­har­vest as river use in­creases,” Ken Kurza­wski, in­land fish­eries direc­tor of in­for­ma­tion and reg­u­la­tions, stated in a press re­lease at the time.

Our crew com­prised sev­eral na­tive Tex­ans and a cou­ple of trans­plants, in­clud­ing my­self — al­most all vet­er­ans of red­fish cam­paigns on the Texas coast. We used sit-on-top kayaks plus one canoe and packed light, plan­ning to share tents and eat de­hy­drated meals. That left each man with space for a small quiver of rods, and

as­sorted swim baits and top­wa­ters. Fore­warned that cell ser­vice was slim to nonex­is­tent, I also car­ried a satel­lite emer­gency bea­con.

For the first day or two, we had the river to our­selves. Pad­dling re­quires a TPWD per­mit, and only 12 launches are as­signed daily, lim­it­ing campers to a sin­gle night at each sanc­tioned site. None­the­less, our crew mostly planned on im­pro­vised sites amid the rocky is­lands and low ledges where we could stretch out un­der fab­u­lous night skies. On our first night, stars splashed across the heav­ens, a ster­ling re­minder that West Texas still has some of the dark­est skies in the nation. We faced a bat­ter­ing up­stream wind with gusts to nearly 25 mph on day one, but we still man­aged steady progress. The kayak­ers took turns work­ing first wa­ter, while Tom and I kept pace in the canoe. We picked up perch and passed-by bass as we ex­plored chan­nels, work­ing weed beds and deep holes. Hav­ing con­quered eight miles, we dined on freeze-dried beef stroganoff, rested our weary mus­cles, passed some sip­ping whiskey and watched the con­stel­la­tions over­head.

Dur­ing our se­cond day, we spent nearly as much time walk­ing as pad­dling for the first few miles, fac­ing more wind, which pushed our craft around on flat-wa­ter pools as we leapfrogged over one an­other for the best shot at the big­gest bass. The sav­ing grace was that the Devils, un­like some desert rivers, in­clud­ing the Pe­cos some 50 miles west, re­tains a brushy, wood­land char­ac­ter. Its shady canyons shel­tered us from the sun, as noon­time heat crested at 90 de­grees. By the time we ap­proached famed Dolan Falls, a com­i­cally mis­placed cast from the canoe hooked up my best large­mouth of the trip, which I gauged to be roughly 2 pounds. Truth be told, the canoe was nei­ther as stealthy nor as ag­ile as the kayaks, and I had mis­cal­cu­lated, trust­ing that my fly-fishing kit would suf­fice.

With the stout head­winds, the oth­ers had packed away their wooly bug­gers and froggy flies. I reached for Tom’s spin­ning rod — not the first time — and sailed a Texas-rigged worm (what else?) over a high branch, leav­ing the lure sus­pended al­most ex­actly where I wanted it. Be­fore I could free the line, the bass struck, leav­ing me to awk­wardly land the hung fish from the canoe. “That must be the stu­pid­est bass in the history of the Devils,” a friend crowed. We all laughed.

By late af­ter­noon, we had reached the Del Norte unit of the Devils River State Nat­u­ral Area, one of two pub­lic pre­serves on the river, en­com­pass­ing 19,000 acres. Its clear­run­ning springs flow from sheer lime­stone cliffs, nearly dou­bling the vol­ume of wa­ter in the river. I was tempted to take a mouth­ful di­rectly from the bur­bling streambeds, but de­spite the fact that the Devils is re­garded as some as the clean­est wa­ter in Texas — in the en­tire lower 48 states, ac­cord­ing to some claims — I didn’t need a case of gi­a­r­dia that far from my medicine cab­i­net. I’d suf­fered a bout of ro­tavirus years ago on an ex­pe­di­tion

down the mid­dle fork of the Sal­mon River in Idaho and cau­tioned my com­pa­tri­ots that we still needed to em­ploy our fil­ters.

The Devils is a wildlife cor­ri­dor for bears and moun­tain lions on their way into cen­tral Texas from the wilds sur­round­ing Big Bend Na­tional Park. We’d al­ready seen enough an­i­mals, in­clud­ing a wide ar­ray of birds and bats, as well as one very bold rac­coon, to com­pre­hend that the wa­ter might not be safe to drink.

The wildlife here has al­ways been note­wor­thy; pre­his­toric artists along the Lower Pe­cos left more than 300 pic­tographs in area caves. These hunter-gath­er­ers roamed Texas some 4,000 years ago, pre­dat­ing the Co­manche and Apache, who raised hell on horse­back among An­glo set­tlers in the 18th cen­tury.

Dolan Falls, named for Texas Ranger Pat Dolan of the 1800s, is fed by myr­iad springs as well as Dolan Creek, which crosses con­ser­va­tion land. Even at low wa­ter, the noted falls de­mand a portage — and at more than 500 cu­bic feet per se­cond, I sus­pect the drop is deadly. We took some time to ex­plore along the edges of the pre­serve while a cou­ple of our bud­dies waded back up­stream to try their luck. Oth­ers swam, notic­ing bass sus­pended in the crys­tal-clear wa­ter be­low the 10-foot falls. I re­strung my fly rod and landed a cou­ple of feisty small­ies on a craw­dad pat­tern.

Day three ar­rived, and we low­ered the boats over Dolan Falls. The big­gest chal­lenge was un­load­ing and reload­ing the canoe, which held, among other items, our waste buck­ets (a state re­quire­ment to keep the river pris­tine). Pick­ing up our pad­dles again, we spent more time in the boats with the in­creased cur­rent, and ev­ery­body fell into an easy rhythm as we leapfrogged down­stream. Aqua­ma­rine pools ap­peared like small lakes, formed by nat­u­ral weirs, with sub­merged lime­stone ledges pro­duc­ing bass wor­thy of the ef­fort to reach this far-flung spot. Pete, a part-time mu­si­cian from Austin who works as a real es­tate bro­ker, caught a large­mouth that looked like it might go to 6 pounds — a per­sonal record, he ex­claimed, smil­ing.

By the time our crew reached the in­con­gru­ous river­side home sites of the Blue Sage sub­di­vi­sion, where in the 1970s a de­vel­oper built a bunch of coun­try houses, we had man­aged to swamp the canoe twice. We didn’t lose any­thing, but it was clear that the white­wa­ter on the lower Devils could be hellish. Tom still had his spin­ning rod but had busted an old Orvis, and our pal Robert had man­aged to snap the tip off his spin­ning rod, which put a damper on his fi­nal day of fishing.

Then, high on the bank above the river to­ward the south­ern bound­ary of Blue Sage, we spot­ted cel­e­brated Tur­key Bluff, eas­ily iden­ti­fied be­cause of the large, red paint­ing of a tur­key ap­par­ently be­ing chased by a coy­ote. Some­where be­yond, on marked pri­vate land, was an ad­di­tional pic­to­graph site known as Mys­tic Cave, where a nearly 60-foot shel­ter was painted with totemic images of an­i­mals and shamans.

We’d faced more than our share of chal­lenges on the Devils. That much was for sure. And yet as we en­tered the fi­nal stretch down­river to the take­out, I thought about how cruel it was that Tex­ans had cho­sen such a harsh name for this stream.

Some sources re­port that Span­ish ex­plor­ers called the river San Pe­dro, for St. Peter. De­spite the scrapes and bruises, sun­burns and bro­ken rods, it felt like a heav­enly place to me.

The river is a chal­lenge in high or low wa­ter. (Right) Portag­ing Dolan Falls.

Sub­merged lime­stone ledges bor­der a promis­ing stretch of wa­ter.

A spir­ited large­mouth tears up an aqua­ma­rine pool.

The pad­dlers trav­eled light: tackle, de­hy­drated food and a lit­tle sip­ping whiskey.

The Devils is de­fined by seclu­sion, scenery and good large­mouth and smallie fishing.

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