Backdoor to the Devils River

A  year ago, Texas kayak fishing guide Shane Davies offered me a one-of-a-kind trip, an assault on the Devils River from the northern arm of Lake Amistad. He described it as an exploratory paddle through a desolate piece of the lake, with unforgettable vistas and infinite fishing opportunities, all leading to the Devil’s backdoor and, potentially, the “mother of all honey holes.” His goal was to learn the route in order to offer it to his clients, and this trip would serve to explore the waterways, find suitable camp sites and test his theory about this honey hole. A few weeks later I found myself paddling north on Amistad with Shane Davies, in search of a new kayak route and an elusive honey hole. This is the story of that trip…

The paddle north from Lake Amistad to the mouth of the Devils River is known as much for its rugged desolation as for its trophy smallmouth.

A seven hour drive from DFW put us on the boat ramp at Rough Canyon Marina around 1:00 PM. We were hoping to have a southern (backing) wind as we paddled north, which is typical that time of year, but we quickly discovered we’d be paddling into a stiff northern in fully loaded kayaks. Go figure. We had planned to fish our way up to the Devil’s anyway, so we figured we could duck into coves as needed to escape the wind. And off we went.

They look deceptively light, but trust me, they’re not. Both hulls are packed and some of those dry bags are carrying heavy provisions. But the loads were evenly distributed and the ride was stable despite heavy winds throughout most of the trip. So called “Sit-on-Top” kayaks have pretty good storage areas inside the hull, but also have storage wells which can be put to good use in hauling provisions.

These would be our mode of transport for the next four days. It’s amazing how much gear and provisions you can stuff in a hull.

The plan was to fish the many coves we’d pass on our way north in order to get out of the wind, and one of the first coves produced this smallie for Shane. Smallmouth are not nearly as plentiful in Texas as their large-mouthed counterparts, and although we knew this lake had much bigger smallmouth, we took this early hook-up as a good sign.

The first smallmouth of the trip and, hopefully, an omen of things to come.

The walls of Amistad are pock marked with caves, many of which contain ancient American native petroglyphs.

This is one of numerous caves that line the walls in Lake Amistad.

I heard Shane use the term “buck bass” to describe this size fish. Had not heard that term before. There would be lots of buck bass caught on this trip, and on that light weight rod, they were a hoot.

From beginning to end, every cove we ducked into offered up its bass.

Two tired paddlers at the end of a long first day. Amistad is surrounded by a National Recreation Area, so you can pretty much camp anywhere you can pitch a tent. The problem is there aren’t many flat spots, and the spots you do find are either rocky or overgrown with briar patches, cactus and sharp thorned mesquite. We managed to carve out a little spot inside a cove the first night, and although it wasn’t the best spot for camping, we were too tired to care and the bass were feeding right out in front.

(L to R) Bert Rodriguez and Shane Davies on the first evening of the trip.

We woke up the next day refreshed and ready for the day’s paddle. Our goal was to paddle the enormous Slaughter Bend and reach the Devils River in search of Shane’s supposed honey hole. This is a view from our camp that first morning at a site I dubbed “The Three Amigos.”

Day two dawns on Lake Amistad.

As beautiful as it is large, the seemingly never ending Slaughter Bend is bounded by a series of brightly colored, steep canyon walls. The so called Indian Cliffs provided beautiful backdrops while trolling our way north, and the canyon walls were pock mocked with caves throughout its length.

This Indian Cliffs are part of the Amistad National Recreation Area, home to 4,000 year-old rock art that can be found in the rock walls surrounding Amistad Reservoir.

Shane and his kayak are dwarfed by the gigantic rock walls of the Indian Cliffs. The 200 foot cliffs made us feel insignificant, but they were pretty to look at, and best of all, we were able to troll the cliffs’ rocky ledges and drop offs on our paddle north.

Kayak fishing guide Shane Davies paddling Lake Amistad.

Cathedral like arches weathered into canyon walls make this part of the bend one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever fished. I’d seen pictures of this part of Amistad before, but those pictures didn’t do justice to the experience of paddling it in person. Neither do my pictures.

The Indian Cliffs at Slaughter Bend

As if paddling through majestic canyons with spectacular scenery weren’t enough, this place is teaming with fish. I caught this plump sandie while trolling Slaughter Bend on the way to our final destination.

A very fat sand bass

Shane managed a few of these too. The sand bass here were some of the fattest I’ve seen. If this was any indication of things to come, then the honey hole we sought was going to be one spectacular place to fish.

Another Amistad sand bass.

The Amistad National Recreational Area boasts an abundance of wildlife, including deer, foxes, beavers, wild turkeys and all manner of mountain goats. We saw numerous goats and rams throughout our trip, a testament to their ability to thrive in this harsh and rugged environment.

While we didn’t see many humans on this trip, we ran into many rams and mountain goats as we traveled north. One made its way into our camp the night before, and this guy just looked at us curiously as we paddled by.

Around the middle of the second day, as we continued our paddle north, we noticed that the lake started to transition from a deep canyon waterway to something more like the Devils River. We seemed to be closing in on our objective and the new landscape reflected this.

This part of the river owes its clarity and turquoise colors to the limestone deposits that line the channel as well as spring fed waters.

Besides the changes we saw in the main channel’s topography, the further north we got, the smaller the creeks got. I fish lots of North Texas creeks, and I was amazed at the water’s clarity down here, even in the feeder creeks like this one.

This reminded me a little of North Texas creeks, except much clearer.

…and some of those creeks gave up some pretty fish…like this one.

Devils River Micropterus Salmoides, AKA, the large mouth bass.

The buck bass in this part of the river were were plentiful and a good sign of things to come. The lake is home to several species of fish including largemouth, smallmouth, white bass, stripers, catfish, sunfish, and gar.  Eight pound bass are routinely caught during fishing tournaments in Amistad, and a 15 pound LMB was pulled from the lake in 2006. Although obviously not in that league, Shane’s a happy man none-the-less because he knows what lies ahead.

Shane’s a happy camper, literally…he knows what fishing adventures lie ahead.

Here Shane is scouting out a potential camp site for our second night on the water. Although not yet at the place he believed the honey hole to be, he felt we were now within striking distance. In the end, this camp site would prove to be centrally located to a couple of good fishing spots.

This reed bed, built atop a rock shelf by previous floods, would be our second camp site.

By being within striking distance of the suspected honey hole, we were able to launch the final assault in unloaded kayaks, and it felt good not having to haul 40 lbs of provisions in the yak. All the fishing up to this point had been done with a variety of artificial baits, but early this morning, Shane cast netted some native bait fish, and then we launched. The only question that remained: would the hole produce as Shane had predicted? And if it did, could I achieve the Devils River grand slam: large mouth, small mouth and striper?

Without the provisions, the kayaks were much easier to maneuver.

It didn’t take long to answer the first question. Within 15 minutes of arriving at the hole, my bait clicker started sounding off, at first just a few nervous clicks, and then it exploded as line quickly peeled from the reel. I grabbed the rod, pulled back and set the hook; and thus begins my first Devils River sleigh ride. The battle was on, and she put up a good fight, but in the end she relented, and I boated her.  One species down…two more to go.

The striper measured at just shy of 27 inches. A worthy opponent caught, photographed and released.

This honey hole was a large one, bigger in my opinion, than the famous Striper Alley on the upper Brazos. I was bump trolling some native bait along the length of the hole when it happened again, in the same spot. Another staccato blast of the bait clicker, a set, and another sleigh ride. Only this time what emerged from the depths was a 24 inch LMB. High fives all around, and I may have kissed the fish once or twice. Two species down…one to go.

Two species down for my trifecta…one to go.

We continued to pull the occasional fish out of the hole, but I couldn’t seem to hook onto a smallie. With the exception of a dink caught on the upper Brazos a couple of years ago, small mouth bass have always eluded me, and since we had to start our paddle back down South again soon, it was beginning to look like I’d miss the slam by one fish. But once again, Shane’s fishing intuition paid off for me. The bait clicker screamed to life, and I again found myself holding on for the ride, only this time, Shane was close enough to snap this picture. Due to the strength of the fish, I figured it was another trophy bucket mouth. I was wrong.

Going for a Devils River sleigh ride.

The fish on the end of my line seemed to pull from all directions, and although I initially suspected it was a LMB, I actually wasn’t sure what I had until it came near enough to the surface for me to see the telltale tiger stripes. Small mouth! Smallies are notorious for their energetic fight, and this 17 inch specimen certainly lived up to that reputation. But in the end, I got her into the boat, and I had my slam!

This Devils River smallmouth had very pronounced tiger stripes.

Within a few hours of catching the slam, we left the honey hole and started our 20-mile paddle back south. You really need a week or more to fully explore the web of waterways that make up this part of the river/lake. But due to my work schedule, I only had four days, and so our trip was much shorter than it should have been.

Every fishing trip must come to an end….sucks.

Because we wanted to fish our way back, we knew we wouldn’t make Rough Canyon before dark. So we paddled south knowing we’d need to find one more camp site for the last night there. We found this great camp site shortly after starting our return, but passed on it because we needed to end our day much further south than this if we were going to get to Rough Canyon by the end of the next day. I will, however, be using this site next time I’m down this way.

One of the prettiest camp sites we ran across. But the timing wasn’t right, and so we snapped some pics and continued on our way.

The bad news: the wind blew against us most of the rest of the day, and so we had to continue the trend of ducking into coves for relief from the wind and for some fishing. The good news: all the coves on this lake were fishy, and we continued to catch fish.

The postcard scenery near the mouth of the Devils is as varied as it is beautiful.

At one point on the return trip, we were on the west side of the lake arm getting pounded by head winds when we noticed the other side of the lake was getting less wind. We were at Slaughter Bend and so we should have known better, but we decided to paddle to the other side of the lake, about 300 yards. After paddling three-quarters of the way there, the wind shifted and we suddenly found ourselves  in the middle of a wind tunnel whipping up lots of chop. When the waves started breaking over the bows of our fully loaded kayaks, we had to duck into a cove–the first one we came to–and wait out the gale.

Shane Davies sits out a wind storm that threatened to turtle our heavily loaded kayaks.

It had been a long but fishy day, and as the sun began its descent, we discovered a large creek that served as a perfect location for our last camp site of the trip. The site was also near a small feeder creek that was loaded with native live bait (which Shane quickly gathered for the evening fish).

We happened upon this ready made camp site while fishing the back of a cove.

After three days of head winds, we were pleased to wake up on the last day and find a perfectly calm day to end the trip on. We fully expected the wind to pick up at any minute, but it never did, and our paddle to the take out was in glass-like water such as this.

The last day’s objective was Rough Canyon, but we had all day long to get there, and we were intent on exploring (and fishing) as much of the lake as possible on the way there. Caves such as this one are plentiful on the west side of the lake arm…

Bert Rodriguez on Lake Amistad in Southwestern Texas.

… and they all have fish…

Texas kayak fishing guide Shane Davies.

…and more fish….

Another Amistad bass.

And beside fish there were other forms of wildlife…

Wild turkeys on Lake Amistad

We made it to Rough Canyon just before dark and were greeted by a beautiful sunset for our efforts. I can’t describe the joy and satisfaction I felt as we paddled the last few hundred yards of the trip, and I realized just how much we had accomplished in four days. I looked over to Shane, and I suspected that he felt an even greater sense of accomplishment for having gotten the us both there and back.

With the sun setting, Shane Davies paddles into Rough Canyon after four days on the water.

I have had the privilege of fishing with Shane Davies several times over the last three years, ever since he introduced me to kayak fishing. I consider him a friend and a top shelf guide, but above all, he is a true fishing master who we’ve seen do some incredible things on the river. We stand in awe of Shane’s fishing prowess, and there is even a standing joke between my son and I that Shane is so good at catching fish because he can actually talk to them (if you’ve ever seen Shane stalk bass in river rapids, then you know exactly what I mean).

So it was a no-brainer for me to accept his invitation on this trip. I knew that if I went with him to find the mouth of the Devils River, I stood a good chance of achieving the slam, but more importantly, by going with Shane, he imparted in me a knowledge of this river that I will always have, and I am grateful.

I plan to use that knowledge to go back there–with my family and my friends—to further explore the river, to dodge the wind, to chase another slam, and maybe even to talk to the fish.

Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish 

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  1 comment for “Backdoor to the Devils River

  1. January 15, 2013 at 8:09 PM

    Bert, it was truly a trip to remember my friend. Great write up on what turned out to be a epic trip for us. Blessings to you and your family in 2013.

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