The Devils River

The Devils River

A smallmouth adventure in the West Texas desert

  • By: Phil Shook
Ambrose Taylor watches in fascination as a chunky desert smallmouth rises slowly to take a Puglisi sunfish pattern suspended in the deep limestone pool. Before the day is over Taylor finds several dozen more Devils River bronzebacks holding along submerged cliff faces, in plunge pools below scenic falls and along fluted channels lined with river cane. Located north of Del Rio, the Devils River is a sparkling oasis of life in the dry, rocky ranch country of West Texas. It was named in the 1840's by a Texas Ranger who looked down at its steep-sided gorge and thought it fit only for demons.In recent years, tales of its population of smallmouths have reached folkloric status in Texas. One of the big reasons for this is that there are lots of fish and not many fishermen on the Devils. These smallmouths thrive in one of the most enchantingly beautiful, yet maddeningly inaccessible rivers in the Southwest, and its stewards are determined to keep it that way. Taylor, along with his partners, Larry Sunderland and J.T. VanZandt, are a group of intrepid anglers willing to pay the Devils its due as a world-class smallmouth river. In more than a dozen float trips down the river, the Austin trio has endured burns and bruises from dragging canoes over rocky bottoms, camped out in the middle of the river on rocks the size of picnic tables and even surrendered a canoe on one outing. For their efforts, they have enjoyed 50-fish days, enticed the occasional six- or seven-pound smallmouth off submerged cliff faces, and enjoyed sight-casting to fish cruising in water the color of a Yucatán flat. With 11 miles of river to cover on the first day of a three-day float, the trick is to know how much fishing can be mixed with the paddling. "You are playing the river like a pinball machine on the first day, going quickly from rock to rock, looking for prime cover," Taylor says. "The water is so pretty and there are so many good spots to fish." Newcomers who dally too long the first day might not make it to the island campsite before nightfall, and that spells trouble. The river is bordered by large, private ranches with owners as grumpy as Trans-Pecos copperheads about trespassers stumbling onto their property. And in a land where the local landmarks come with names like Deadman's Creek, Satan Canyon and Slaughter Bend, this is no place to offend the neighbors. Part of Devils River lore is the story about a party of anglers on a float trip who had just settled in for the night at a riverside campsite. A rancher approached and asked, "Do you fellows love this river?" When they voiced an enthusiastic yes, the landowner barked, "Then get back on it now!" Despite these challenges on a remote waterway whose upper reach is the only free-running river in the state, those who have made the trip say the setting alone is worth the effort. A float on the Devils River is like taking a journey on several different waters, says Craig Kautsch, operator of two fly shops in Fort Worth and another Devils advocate. "It feels like the Cimarron in Colorado when you first put in because it is shallow and narrow and brushy, then it gets wider and greener with rapids and later it becomes a big, broad river." Other prime smallmouth water on the Devils can be found by driving into the Devils River State Natural Area, a 20,500-acre wilderness park that fronts about a mile of the river. With spring-fed creeks, thick submerged vegetation and limestone ledges dropping off into deep pools, the state park offers some of the best smallmouth habitat on the Devils. John Karges, a conservation biologist with the Texas Nature Conservancy, which maintains a preserve across from the state park on the west side of the river, raves about the topwater action for smallmouth on this stretch of the river. Karges says a float tube is the ideal way to fish the tail end of the big, broad pool that lies downstream from the main landing at the state park. He lets a popper swing in the slow current in the big pool and then starts stripping it back. "I twitch it vigorously much like I do for specks and reds on the coast," Karges says. "It is almost a cadence, then I stop it completely and then start it up again and that's when the hit usually comes." Karges says he has had a number of days with smallmouth in the four-pound class. "I am talking 22- to 26-inch smallmouths," he says. "They are almost black when they get to be that size, with that big, red eye." Karges discovered how good the fishing was in this pool 10 years ago and it has remained consistent ever since. Although the action tapers off during the hottest days of summer, he says the pool will produce good fish from April through November. Downstream from the big pool is a series of chutes filled with flood-deposited gravel and water-willow vegetation where largemouths are known to hang out. Back upstream along the park property are inviting creek mouths, submerged boulder fields and overgrown cane-thicket banks where anglers in float tubes can prospect for both bass species. Located just below the State Natural Area's southern boundary and accessible on float trips is Dolan Falls, another productive area for smallmouth. In the white water below the falls, Karges recommends weighted crayfish patterns or Woolly Buggers that will mimic crayfish or hellgrammites that have gotten dislodged upstream and fallen over the edge. On one summer visit to the Devils, I stood on the rocks about 12 feet above the falls and spotted a gang of smallmouth in the clear water on the far side of the pool. They had herded a school of minnows up against the rocks. With the roar of the falls in the background, I watched the long loop of fly line turn over and drop my Clouser right in the middle of the pack. A couple of short strips and I was tight to a spunky smallmouth that powered straight down into the deep pool. Striped bass are also present under the falls, and Karges says he has seen a few monsters boil up in the white water behind noisy topwater casting plugs. A fly fisher working a crease in the white water has a chance at drawing a strike from one of these brutes. Just below the falls is another extremely productive stretch of river with deep pools and overhanging vegetation along the shorelines. Karges suggests casting poppers up against the banks here. "One day in my float tube, I caught a smallmouth, a longnose gar, a largemouth and a channel cat up against that bank," he says. The number of anglers at the park is kept down due to the Spartan accommodations--primitive campsites and an old barracks building--and the fact that it is such a long drive to get there from just about anyplace. From San Antonio, for example, one travels due west on US 90 for 127 miles through the towns of Hondo, Uvalde and Bracketville in counties the size of small states. At Del Rio, the angler then travels due north on US 377 for another 42 miles past Lake Amistad to the Loma Alta community where a convenience store and gas station mark the last contact with civilization. The last leg of the trip is over a bumpy, dusty road through dry arroyos and drab, brushy hills to the park headquarters. By this point, anticipation for the first time visitor is at its peak, making the first sighting of the river--a ribbon of turquoise the color of a Caribbean flat running below stark, brushy hills--all the more dramatic. On my first visit, which featured over two days of wading and canoeing the stretch of river at the state park, my partner and I caught dozens of smallmouth each day. I used intermediate sinking lines to drop Clousers and Bendback patterns into deep holes and along limestone ledges. We had no trouble landing and releasing fish in the 8- to 12-inch class, but hooking one of the larger fish proved much more difficult. On one occasion I spotted the dark profile of a hefty smallmouth gliding slowly off a shallow ledge into a deep pool. I thought I had a sure thing, but failed to entice a strike with repeated casts. Although we were satisfied with the action from the smaller fish, it was not until later that I learned that the larger smallmouths can be enticed into hitting hard-body poppers or deerhair bugs that are stripped nosily on the surface. Kautsch says another proven approach on the Devils is to go as deep as possible with the fly. "The three-pounders are very catchable for the fly fisher who has a sinking line and a Whitlock Near Enuf," Kautsch says. "Get it deep and you will catch fish." The non-native smallmouths took hold in the Devils River in the 1970's following stockings downstream in Amistad Reservoir. One theory is that heavy flooding on the river allowed them to move upstream, where they found ideal habitat in the spring-fed river's long, deep, rock-bottomed pools interspersed with shallow riffles, weedbeds and mossy flats. "You would think that a flood would be a fish-cleansing and -scouring event that would knock all the fish back down to Amistad," Karges says. "But in a flood, all fish with river adaptations try to swim upstream." The Devils River also offers fly fishers a chance to catch redbreast sunfish and Rio Grande perch. A Texas native and northernmost member of the cichlid family, the Rio Grande perch has a black ocellus on its tail like its cousin, the peacock bass of South America. They are tough fighters and will aggressively take a fly. Texas Parks and Wildlife research scientist Gary Garrett, who frequently measures the health of the fishery with minnow-seine surveys, calls the Devils River a "biologist's dream." He says the forage fish in the river, including the common blacktail shiner, Mexican tetra, proserpine shiner and manantial (spring run) minnow, reflect the aquatic diversity of the region. Although the obstacles are considerable and the journey arduous on float trips down the Devils River, more and more adventure-seeking fly fishers are gladly trading a few bruises and rock rashes from boulder-strewn portages for a chance at its famous smallmouths. The bonus is a trip down one of the most scenic and unspoiled rivers in the Southwest. If you (dare to) go: The floatable stretch of the river runs from Baker's Crossing (on Texas 163) to the Rough Canyon Recreation Area where the river meets Amistad Reservoir, a distance of nearly 48 miles. For the most complete tour of the river, canoeists can put in at a private riverside campground at Baker's Crossing and proceed down the river about 15 miles to the State Natural Area. A second night's stop is available at Dandridge Falls in the Blue Sage Subdivision at the 25-mile point, leaving the option of paddling the final lengthy stretch to the Rough Canyon Marina and Recreational Area on Amistad Reservoir. Gerald Bailey of Devils River Outfitters (830-395-2266) provides guided float trips and shuttle service on the river. At the Devils River State Natural Area located north of Del Rio off US 377, fly fishers can camp at one of seven primitive campsites near the river and fish about a mile of prime riverfront. Visitors should not expect a lot of comforts and services at the state park. There are no fixed camping or canoe-rental services on the river. Once day-use visitors obtain a permit, they can drive the 3.5 miles to a parking area and gate, then walk 1.5 miles down a gravel road to the river. Float tubes or other light watercraft are allowed on the river, but they must be carried in, and carried out at the end of the day. For further information, contact the state park at 512-389-8900 or 800-792-1112.