“It is likely the least-visited area of Texas, since for outsiders there’s really nothing else here—the Pecos passes through, and that’s about it. On the water there are no trails or any of the little brown signs that shepherd you around a regular park. A trip down this river is one of the last real adventures you can have in this state.“ Texas Monthly (http://www.texasmonthly.com)
My son Dan and I are planning a trip to the lower Pecos River this fall, so when we received an invitation from kayak fishing guide Shane Davies to accompany him on a boomerang trip on the Pecos–from the boat ramp at Highway 90 to the Pecos weir and back–it was a no-brainer to go. The trip would serve as a warm up paddle for the more daunting 55-mile Pandale trip later in the year and we’d be picking up some valuable pointers from the master himself on the logistics of floating a remote river. A few weeks later, we found ourselves driving south with Shane and a fourth paddler for a journey up a remote river said by some the be the most beautiful in Texas, maybe even the Southwest. This is the story of that journey…
Part I – Time Travel
The drive from Fort Worth to the Pecos River is a little bit like going back in time. You start in a construction-choked, concrete and glass Metroplex, drive south along the I-35 corridor and turn west at San Antonio. Then, after a couple of hours, you start ascending the Edwards Plateau and the populated rolling flatlands give way to lonely high desert, desiccated canyons and what Louis Aulbach called, “an endless barren landscape,” as you continue your trek westward towards the collision point between the vast plateau and the Trans-Pecos Mountains. That’s where you find the lower Pecos.
Nine hours later we were on Highway 90 nearing our put in at the National Park Service boat ramp 30 miles from Comstock. A little groggy from the overnight drive, the view from the top of the boat ramp rousted us out of our daze. The dark green river stood in stark contrast to the black and ochre painted limestone bluffs above it. If this was any indication, Dan would be getting some good photos on this trip.
In my relatively short tenure as a yak angler, I’d never seen a longer boat ramp than this one on the Pecos, but it was well maintained and made for an easy put it. We launched shortly before noon with fully loaded kayaks; we had enough provisions either stowed in the hulls or strapped to the top of our sit-on-top kayaks to keep four men going for four days. Among other things, we had four tents and the same number of bed rolls, fours cases of water, a week’s worth of food–some freeze dried, some fresh, our fishing tackle, dry bags with clothes and a bit of survival gear. Most importantly, we had a bottle of Crown. Armed with that and enough bungee cord to invade a small country, we paddled upriver, surprisingly easily, given everything we carried.
At first glance, we probably seemed like a motley crew, but we were actually a pretty experienced group of paddlers. There was me, a 53-year old desk jockey who’d just had arthroscopic knee surgery a month before the trip (which officially made me the group’s biggest liability); there was Ryan, a 29-year old bartender who was also a kayak angler and former white water rafting guide; and there was Dan, also 29-years old and an experienced paddler/photographer. Of course, the fourth paddler was Shane, who we were glad to have along. Although he’d never paddled this route before, there was no question he was the right person to lead the trip. His guided trips on the Devils River are legendary and there are many similarities between the two rivers.
Shortly after putting in, we paddled under the Highway 90 Bridge which spanned the immense river channel, and a few miles beyond that, we came across the famous Pecos High Bridge, which was built in 1944 to carry the Southern Pacific Railroad across the river. The bridge was so strategically valuable that the U.S. Army established a base camp there during WWII in order to guard the bridge against saboteurs. To this day, you can still find the remains of machine gun nests carved into the limestone near the bridge. At a height of over 320 feet from the river bed, the High Bridge also has the distinction of being the highest railroad bridge in Texas.
As I sat there taking pictures of the bridge, I suddenly heard, and felt, the rumblings of a familiar noise. Within a few seconds, a train emerged from over the bluff as we sat there below the towering steel and concrete bridge. While under the bridge, we stopped and explored the old pump house that now sat in five feet of water. The house was once part of a complex of buildings and machinery used to pump water from a nearby spring to the top of the canyon for the train’s engine boilers. Now the pump house sits submerged in the river, and so Dan fished it, throwing swim baits into the house’s open doors and windows, but he had no takers.
With the wind at our backs we continued paddling upriver and it occurred to me that we’d probably be paddling into the same stiff wind on our return. We’d briefly considered hiring someone to boat us back on the last day, but had ultimately decided to tough it out. I was hoping we wouldn’t regret that decision. I’ve read accounts of paddlers having to ride out three-foot chop in heavily loaded canoes and winds so stiff they actually prevented the paddlers from making any headway. I was hoping we’d be spared that on our egress.
After a few hours of paddling, the long stretches of deep river canyons began to turn into shallow, boulder strewn rapids surrounded by steep limestone bluffs. The shallows marked the beginning of the real work as we started having to walk our kayaks over the Pecos’ coarse limestone rocks and flutes. Shane fashioned some 10-foot kayak leashes from ski ropes and they proved to be critical when portaging or dragging the fully loaded kayaks up and over the rapids we encountered. It was energy sapping work, but we took our time and tried to move cautiously through the ankle breaking rock fields. The remoteness of the lower Pecos made it important that we guard against accidents, injuries or any other mishaps such as a broken kayak. If we got into trouble out here, help wasn’t coming anytime soon.
Part II – The Camp
Our first day’s goal was to get upriver far enough to find clear water, and we needed to find that piece of river before dark to avoid having to set up the tents in the dark. The late sunset meant we could still do some fishing, and we threw all kinds of plastics and plugs and crank baits at them, but we struggled to catch fish. Even hitting the usually reliable pools below the rapids didn’t produce any bites, and so we probably only caught three fish between the four of us on that first day. As the afternoon wore on, we began to feel exhaustion setting in from having driven through the previous night to get here.
Shortly before dark, we found a small spit of flat rock and called it camp. The agreement was that I would cook a fresh dinner the first night while we still had ice and Shane would prepare freeze dried dinners for the remaining nights on the river. A few days before the trip I marinated and rolled some thinly butterflied skirt steak and froze it. By the first night on the river, the roll had thawed enough to peel off slices of the thin steak and cooked them on Shane’s portable grill. Flour tortillas warmed over a campfire and some of Luisa’s homemade salsa, transported in a Ziploc bag, rounded out the first night’s dinner.
The next day we decided to leave the camp in place and explore further up river. Depending on what we found, we’d have the option to come back and gather our things or just leave everything in place and make it our base of operations from which to launch for the remaining days on the river.
Refreshed from a good night’s sleep, we were ready for whatever the river threw at us, and it didn’t take long to learn what that was. A few hundred yards upriver from camp was one of the more formidable rapids we’d have to negotiate. I called it the Gatekeeper and it consisted of several car sized boulders channeling the whitewater into two right angle chutes that whipped the water into a frenzy. The surrounding boulders made portaging difficult and so we opted to try paddling up the chutes. This required quick, powerful strokes and some hand pulling on the coarse boulders to help turn the kayaks 90 degrees, twice, all while fighting the gushing water. We’d have to pass the Gatekeeper each day of our trip; luckily going in through the out door, as it seemed to me, got a little easier each day.
Another hazard, one that worried me more than the rapids, were the smaller limestone trenches, or flutes, that we’d have to drag our yaks through. The flutes, which lay just below the surface, were carved into the riverbed by a thousand years of water-born erosion, and this section of the river was filled with them. The challenge was to drag the kayaks atop the ankle-deep flutes without inadvertently stepping into the knee-deep channels running between them, all the while working against the current which undercut our every step in the corrugated river bottom. Because of my recent knee surgery, I had to be extra careful not to roll my knee while dragging my kayak over the flutes. The lower Pecos isn’t the kind of place you want to find yourself without the use of both your legs.
It seemed like we saw more fish on the second day than the first, but we still struggled to get them to bite. We primarily used artificial baits and managed a few fish, but it wasn’t the kind of fishing we’d grown accustomed to fishing the Devils, which I used to think of as a first cousin to the Pecos. Another surprise was the absence of small mouth, which, again, are thick on the Devils. We saw just about everything else…large mouth, sand bass, catfish, perch, carp, drum and schools of long nose and spotted gar. The one thing we couldn’t find was a pattern we could exploit.
At midday, we stopped to take a break and have some lunch, which Shane prepared behind a truck-size boulder to block the wind. Always restless, Ryan decided to climb the boulder while we prepared lunch and maybe take a photo or two. Suddenly, he looked down and saw a hawg of a large mouth in the pool just below the rock, a few feet from where we sat preparing lunch. He shouted for someone to grab a pole, and the three of us jumped up and scrambled for our rods. But Shane got there first and he flipped a wacky-rigged senko right next to the chunk. We’d not been having much luck fishing, so I was surprised when the toad actually turned and hit the worm on the run. Shane quickly set the hook and the pole bent over as the largemouth pulled against the drag trying to get into the rocks, but it was like close quarters combat and Shane was able to quickly beach the pig, proving that there were trophy fish on the river and they could be caught.
Part III – The Storm
We got back into camp well before dark and set into our evening routine: securing the gear, changing into dry clothes and preparing dinner. It was Dan who first noticed that the barometer had dropped quickly, and as if on cue, 15 minutes later we looked up at the skies upriver–which during our paddle back to camp had been perfectly blue—and noticed that they were now dark and cloudy.
While Shane made dinner, the rest of us starting preparing for the rain, which consisted of breaking out our rain gear (not sure about everyone else, but my rain gear was at the very bottom of the last dry bag I looked in) and pulling the kayaks up a small hill near the camp in order to tie them to a small tree. We discussed two plans depending on what the storm threw at us. If the river rose on us slowly, we would grab the kayaks, load as much as would could and then paddle to the wider channels down river. In case of a flash flood, we’d abandon the yaks, grab our ‘go-bags’ which had food, water and other essentials, and try to get to high ground as quickly as possible.
I stowed some gear in the relative dryness of my kayak hull and then put together my go-bag, which I put in my tent. I looked up and noticed the clouds that fifteen minutes ago had been well upriver from the camp were now rolling in above us.
Just as we finished dinner, the first rain drops started falling and we cleaned up quickly, stowing the cooking gear, and then we donned our rain suits. About that time we heard the first slow roll of thunder echoing down the canyon walls from upriver. I suddenly remembered reading about the 1954 flood caused by the remnants of Hurricane Alice. The resulting rain inundated the lower Pecos watershed, which resulted in an 80-foot surge of water that took out the old Highway 90 Bridge and killed four fishermen from Odessa. Within a few minutes, the sporadic drops turned into a steady rainfall.
It was a warm and muggy evening and the cool rain felt good, but I didn’t want to get wet again, so with the gear safely stowed and the yaks tied, I retreated to my tent. It felt like a sauna in there, so I peeled off my rain gear and just laid there trying not to think about the oppressive heat. Unbeknownst to me, Dan and Ryan decided to vacate their tents and took shelter under a rocky overhang near the camp. They sat there and watched the storm overtake us while I lay in my tent, sweating and thinking about the day’s events.
Suddenly, a crash of thunder exploded above us, echoing loudly off the canyon walls. It took a minute for my heart to resume a normal beat, but soon the temperature started dropping which felt good and took the edge off the night. I forced myself to relax as we’d done everything we could to prepare for a rising river, and there was nothing more to do but wait it out. I lay in the tent, thinking of the day’s paddle and the beauty of the river. I wondered what tomorrow would bring. The staccato beat of the rain drops against the tent was comforting, and I found myself dozing off as the air in the river valley cooled down. Still, the rain, and the possibility of a flash flood stayed in the back of my mind. My last thoughts as I dozed off were of rushing creeks and a rising wall of water.
The next morning we awoke and found the river had only risen a few inches, and though the camp was soggy, we were no worse for the wear. Today’s plan was to push our way upriver to the weir, or low water dam, in search of better fishing. By this time, we’d thrown just about every lure we had in our arsenal but we didn’t have many fish to show for it. We even tried soaking some native bait without much success. But today was a new day, so we loaded up our yaks and once again negotiated the Gatekeeper for another push upriver.
The weir was constructed across the Pecos in the 1930’s to power a generator that supplied electricity for a nearby ranch. But a flood in 1953 took out most of the dam and generating equipment leaving only a section of the concreted dam. It now serves as a water gauging station, and Shane believed the pool above the low water dam could potentially be holding lots of fish. Sounded good to me, and so we loaded up and paddled upriver again.
Part IV – The Hook
Up until now, we’d been fortunate and not had any injuries, but that was about to change. We were dragging the yaks up one of the rapids when Dan, who was directly in front of me, tugged on his ski rope to horse his kayak over some shallow flutes and into a large eddy. After cresting the rocks, his kayak surged forward from the sudden lack of current, and as Dan looked up river, I saw the front of his kayak plow into the back of his leg, and he let out a yell. At first I thought the kayak had given him a charlie horse or maybe rolled his knee, but as he turned, I noticed that the tip of the fishing rod that had been laying atop his kayak was now somehow attached to his leg. Then I realized that the collision of the kayak with Dan had somehow embedded his swimbait’s hook into his leg.
We cut the swimbait off the hook and removed Dan’s pant leg for a closer look, which confirmed that the hook had indeed penetrated deep into Dan’s leg, well beyond the barb, exactly the kind of situation we were hoping to avoid due to the river’s remoteness. But every dark cloud has a silver lining, and I was excited because I’d been studying a hook removal technique that involved using a strand of stout fishing line to yank the hook out.
Some anglers believe the best method to remove an embedded hook is to cut off the hook eye and push the point through new flesh to get it out, but that method is painful and causes more tissue damage. The technique I proposed, which looks harsh at first, actually worked well in several videos I’ve seen. Of course, I’d never actually done it before, but on this lonely stretch of river, we didn’t have many options.
After convincing Dan to let me try it on him, we took some stout mono-filament that Shane used for making leaders and looped it twice around the embedded hook shank and pushed the loop down carefully as close as we could get it to where the hook entered Dan’s leg. We then positioned the exposed section of hook shank at just the right angle so as to minimize the barb’s contact with flesh. I wrapped the tag ends of the line around my hand a couple of times and looked at Dan. I counted to three and then quickly, but firmly, jerked on the line. We all heard a distinct pop as the hook shot out of Dan’s leg. When I looked down at the line in my hand, the hook was still there, wrapped in the loops.
High fives all around and you’d of thought that we’d just landed a hawg largemouth or something. But I gotta tell you, for me it was a high point in the trip. Not only were we glad to have removed the hook from Dan’s leg which meant we could continue upriver, but more importantly, I was happy to know the hook removal line method worked, and it worked well. We had all just added a valuable new skill to our fishing repertoire, and it was a good skill to have because if you fish as much as we do, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ you will ever have to pull out a hook, it’s a matter of ‘when’ you will have to do it.
After several more rapids, we finally made it to the weir and found that indeed it did hold lots of fish. But they too proved to be shy, perhaps because of the water’s visibility or maybe due to a case of post-front lockjaw. Don’t know for sure, but the funny thing is that I didn’t really mind not catching lots of fish. I was on the lower Pecos River, with its majestic painted canyons, cathedral boulders and crystal clear rapids, easily the most scenic river I’ve ever paddled. I realized how blessed I was to be able to share the trip with my son and our good friends. It was more than I could ask for even if we didn’t catch lots of fish.
Part V – The Return
One of the best things about this trip was that for every mile of paddling and yak dragging upriver we got to enjoy a mile of paddling and riding the rapids downriver which was usually fun. We obviously had to be careful when going down the rapids, including some class III rapids, but the deep pools before each set of rapids allowed us to scout them for the best routes which we quickly learned helped us to avoid the coarse, pitted rocks found in the Pecos. Most rivers in Texas have relatively smooth rocks because they’re continually blasted by the water born grit and sand knocked loose by years of erosion. But according to Pecos River Guide author Louis Aulbach, because of the Pecos’ limestone bottom, the water dissolves the limestone sand that would normally wear on the rocks. The results are alkaline water that’s unhealthy to drink (hence four cases of water) and kayak-eating boulders and flutes that feel more like lava rock than river rock.
The jagged rock in the Pecos left my new Ride 135 kayak with so many deep scratches and gouges that Dan and I are now thinking of buying used ‘throw away’ kayaks for the 55-mile paddle from Pandale to Highway 90. On the second day of this trip, we ran into a group of paddlers coming downriver from Pandale. As they approached us, we noticed that they pulled one of the kayaks off the river and seemed to be draining water from inside the yak. When they reached us, they said it had sprung a leak earlier in the trip, and since then, they had to stop every couple of hundred yards to drain the kayak.
We awoke on the last morning of the trip and broke camp. After cleaning the small spit of land we’d called home for the last four days, we loaded up the yaks and started the 12-mile paddle to Highway 90. We wanted to get an early start in order to minimize the threat of a strong wind, but as luck would have it, the wind wasn’t too bad, and so we got to do a little more fishing on the way out. We also stopped and briefly explored a cave in which we found some 4,500 year old rock art that this region is famous for.
Without a lot of wind, the paddling on the last stretch of the river was actually relaxing and I managed to boat a few sand bass trolling in the shadow of the High Bridge. Looking back up river, I couldn’t help but think back on the last four days, satisfied with our little adventure and feeling fortunate to have been a small part of it. We learned lot about the river, both good and bad, and I felt like we now were better prepared for the Pandale trip later in the year.
Soon we were paddling up to the boat ramp, hot, tired, and dirty from four days on the river…but to a man, we all had huge smiles. Contented for now, and feeling the need for a cold beer, we loaded up, climbed back into our time machines and started the long drive back to the land of concrete and glass.
The lower Pecos isn’t an easy paddle by anybody’s standards and if the logistics of the trip doesn’t give you pause, then the hazards should. I personally wouldn’t do the trip with less than four paddlers, and I probably wouldn’t bring a newbie to this stretch of the river. Hiring Shane Davies minimizes many of those risks. I think Southwest Paddler (http://southwestpaddler.com) put it best:
“If you are looking for a laid back, leisurely place to paddle your canoe, kayak or raft, then the Pecos River is NOT it! The river is a remote wilderness excursion …that will test your skills as a boater and a camper.”
After spending four days on the river, I have to agree…and can’t wait to go back.
Lone Star Chronicles – Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Fish