The Best Plan B When Fishing Goes South
A closer look at your surroundings can make all the difference
This is the second time I’ve washed off the WAG bag’s outer surface, but it hasn’t helped the funk. I dunk it in the river, look for a pinhole tear but can’t find one, and scrub it with reeds yanked from an island. It still stinks. Two days of wilderness poop, baking in the hot Texas sun, right behind my kayak seat. There’s only so much you can do with a sack of crap.
And my aromatic seatmate is only one challenge to making a rejuvenating river float. The wind isn’t helping things, either. It’s been 30 mph sustained, with stronger gusts. And it’s coming from everywhere. Locals call them “rotors”—winds rushing through the Devils River canyon that twist and spin as they ricochet from cliff to cliff. Just when you catch a faint tailwind, the blow turns and smacks you in the face.
On the drive in, my buddy, F&S digital director Nate Matthews, and I fretted about the forecast for a big blow and getting our flies down deep enough for smallmouth bass, so we split a cheap pack of Walmart crappie jigs. That explains the redneck mash-up tied to my fly leader, a curly-tailed jig with a Woolly Bugger dropper. Izaak Walton would spin in his grave. On a soft-tipped Tenkara rod, the rig makes me feel as if I’m casting a wet cat. Poop, wind, soaked felines—sometimes, things don’t work out like you’d imagined.
Change of Plans
The idea was rock solid: The Devils River flows through one of the wildest, most remote desert canyons of south Texas. Spring-fed, the water is a cool Caribbean blue, a sapphire slash through jagged limestone cliffs with long, frothy rapids and one Class IV fall that we would have to portage. The river holds largemouth and smallmouth bass, giant carp, catfish, and an oddball panfish species or two. During the three-day trip, we’d also get to test some cool gear. We’d be paddling Oru Kayaks, sleek craft that fold down into a backpackable bundle, and Tenkara USA supplied quivers of delicate 13- and 15-foot collapsible rods. It looked so good on paper. I just wish someone had told Texas.
We had kept the rods stowed past the Dolan Falls portage, where the river pours over a 10-foot-tall limestone ledge, but then we fanned out to fish. It didn’t take long to understand that we were undergunned. The gusts were so strong they ripped the lines, leaders, and flies right out of the water. Drop the paddle to cast, and in seconds I was blown 20 feet from my target.
There were moments of glory. At one spot the river braided into a wall of scrub brush. We lined the boats down bony chutes not 2 feet wide, and where the braids gathered back together I fished a slot of emerald water tucked out of the wind. Four smallmouth bass fell to my Wally World rig, the second a solid 15-inch fish that bent the Tenkara rod so deeply that I felt as though I held fish and river and wind in the palm of my hand.
Later, I beached the kayak at a massive ledge of karst limestone that forced the entire river through a pair of twin falls. I crawled through deep, water-carved slots and beat the wind by flipping the fly while stretched out flat as a gator. Another nice smallie fell to the rig, slashing copper in the green below. But every fish came hard. It was all hard—the paddling, the portaging, the casting. It wasn’t the dream trip we’d expected. And that burden of expectation, as much as the wind, was the problem.
Midway through the trip, the breakthrough came. I wish I could say that I figured out the bass bite or that I cracked the code on how to get a Tenkara rod to function like a wind-worthy spinning rig. But what really happened was that a narrow chute of water entered the canyon from river right, and I thought it might be the outflow from a spring, so I turned the kayak into the cove and paddled far up what turned into a dead end. Another frustration. So I stowed the paddle and lay back on the kayak, drifting under a soaring 80-foot cliff.
The cliff walls were carved with garish corrugations. At the top, towering over the canyon, stood an enormous prickly pear cactus, with armlike branches extending to each side as if in supplication, and the kayak slid into a perfect position so that the cactus was silhouetted in front of the sun, with shafts of brilliant light radiating all around. With deft little paddle motions I could slip in and out of the eclipse, and shape the sun’s rays into long swords of dazzling light or crown the cactus with a halo so bright I could only look at it from the corner of my eye. And in that moment I realized that I needed to shift my focus. I knew I could catch a few more smallmouths, but the dreamed-of crazy fishing simply wasn’t going to happen.
So with half the trip left, I quit assessing each stretch of river by how many fish it gave up. I noticed rock paintings on the cliffs—an ocher coyote stalked a smoky-black wild turkey 100 feet above the water, a canvas unchanged over the centuries. A golden eagle carved the sky. I watched a nearly translucent scorpion scurry across a ledge. A real wild turkey clattered across the canyon 100 yards distant. I powered the kayak as hard as I could, and cut the distance to 30 yards as a second and then a third big bird soared nearly overhead.
I fished hard to the end, and caught a few more bass. I’d go back to the Devils River in a minute, but next time I’ll measure success differently. I won’t wait till half the river is behind me before I learn to give up the things I came for so I can experience the gifts that only a wild river can give.
GEAR TIP: Small Craft Advisory
We paddled Oru’s 12-foot Beach LT kayaks, made by hand in the U.S.A. of a custom polypropylene as rigid and tough as a fiberglass boat. With bulkheads and an adjustable footrest and seat, they still weigh a wispy 26 pounds, and bounced and slid over rough karst limestone with no problem.
Written by T. Edward Nickens for Field & Stream. Featured image provided by Field & Stream