If you pick your time, the hunting and the fishing are all right, but they too are work, and the Brazos is treacherous for the sort of puttering around on water that most people like… so that generally visitors go to the predictable impounded lakes, leaving the river to the hard-bitten yeomanry who live along it, and to their kinsmen who gravitate back to it on weekends away from the aircraft factories and automobile assembly plants of Dallas and Fort Worth, and to those others of us for whom, in one way or another, it has meaning which makes it worth the trouble. ~ John Graves in Goodbye to a River
If I had to pick a favorite time of the year to fish the upper Brazos River, I’d have to say it’s wintertime. I guess at least part of that is selfishness; I like having the river to myself, and with the Metroplex an hour and a half away, the odds of being alone on the river are much better during the cold, shorter days of winter. But when a busy December turned into a busy January, one thing after another kept me from spending the day on the Brazos, and as the end of the month approached, I started to worry that I might not make it back out there before it started warming up. But then a few weeks ago, luck shined down on me, and I was presented a rare opportunity to go alone. This is the story of that trip.
As it turns out, I wasn’t exactly alone the whole trip. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stocks trout in the Brazos at the Hwy 16 bridge every winter and that brings out the trout guys. They were thick at the ramp next to the bridge and for several hundred feet downriver from there, but as I started putting some distance between me and the bridge, the troutmen started to thin out. The anglers in this photo were the last of about 40 folks fishing near the bridge. Some with fly rods, others with light spinning tackle, all stalking taxpayer raised rainbow trout. The early intel, gathered from some of the troutmen as I paddled past them, indicated that it would be a slow bite kind of a day.
This trip didn’t reveal anything that I hadn’t already seen, and you’d think I’d get tired of coming here as often as I do–but you’d be wrong. I’ll save most of my thoughts about this river for another write up, but suffice it to say that every trip into Los Brazos de Dios is a celebration of life and should be cherished as so. I’m lucky to have such a special river close by.
This day was cool and mostly sunny, and there was very little wind, at least in the morning, but I drove through fog to get there and I was really hoping for an overcast day. The water on this stretch of the river is pretty clear and I personally find it easier to hook up with the big fish on cloudy days. Of course, the fog burned off just before I got to the bridge, and as if to confirm my pessimism, once on the water, the bite was non-existent.
I thought I’d left all humanity behind me, but when I rounded Flint Bend, I found this gentleman fishing from his tube. The water on the upper Brazos is always cold, but in January, it’s especially cold, so a part of my anatomy shrunk in sympathy for the gentleman’s southern hemisphere. The man seemed comfortable, I guess, despite the bone chilling water, and the whole thing reminded me that I once came close to buying a fishing tube. Then I got smart–or maybe lucky is a better description–because I discovered kayak fishing instead.
I stopped and chatted with him for a bit, and he said he’d not had much luck that morning. He asked me about my kayak and about the river beyond Flint Bend, so I shared a little intel with him before bidding him farewell and floated on. I looked backed and nodded to the guy as I paddled away, and I thought about how much more river I could cover in a kayak over a tube. Lucky, indeed.
My tactics on the upper Brazos usually involve throwing a variety of plastics and crank baits. I call it my scorched Earth tactic, but the big fish here are notoriously hard to catch on artificials. So far, this day looked to be no different.
I threw ’em flukes, Biffle Bugs, Senkos and even Sassy Shads (I got desperate), and for all my efforts, by mid-afternoon, the only thing I had to show for it was a dink channel cat. My theory has always been that there’s so much native bait fish in the river, it takes a better angler than me to fool these Brazos River bucket mouths.
Still, it was slower than I’d seen here in a long time. At least on other days, I got bites. Mind you, I can’t set a hook to save my life, but at least I got bites. Today, I wasn’t getting so much as a nibble. Plan A wasn’t working, so I launched into Plan B.I once heard someone say that anyone can catch fish on the Brazos as long as you can catch shad. And therein lies the rub. Some days the shad are as thick as the troutmen near the bridge. But other days, they’re nowhere to be found, at least not without a lot of work and some risks (for those of us who haven’t mastered the art throwing a cast net while standing on our yaks).
After about an hour of tossing the six-foot net–which by the way is a butt kicking workout–I only managed to net a paltry five gizzard shad, one perch and a snagged-fin haul of carp, because of which I now need a new cast net (I didn’t like that net anyway). It wasn’t much bait fish, but it provided a glimmer of hope, and perhaps I could still hook up with something big.
There’s a stretch of the river we call Striper Alley where the bank widens and the water gets deep. The large fishing hole was shown to me by kayak fishing guide Shane Davies, and my personal best striper as well as largemouth bass were both caught there. After catching bait fish, I made it my destination, but I was in no hurry because, after all, I had the entire river to myself except for maybe a blue crane that I’m pretty sure was stalking me.
This time of year, the river seems slower, and lonely, without as much much greenery as you’d see in the spring, but make no mistake, it is easily one of Texas’ most beautiful rivers. And even after several trips, I still find the upper Brazos majestic and magical in its ability to restore my sanity and if I’m lucky, a little bit of my swagger.
When I arrived at the hole, I bump-trolled the few shad I had netted hoping for a big payoff, but unfortunately, I got the same results as upriver: not a bite. By now it was getting late and the blue skies were becoming overcast (too little, too late). For a bit it actually looked like I was going to get rained on. So I packed everything away and headed back to the bridge. Of course I was disappointed but there’s never a bad day to be on Brazos River.
Gizzard shad are notoriously hard to keep alive, but when I stowed all my fishing gear for the paddle back, I kept one last shad, even though it was half dead by then. I wanted to fly-line it in a hole on the way back to the bridge, and though the area was usually productive, on the way down river I’d drawn a blank. But now that I had a solid cloud layer over me, I figured it’d be worth a shot, especially since I was going to paddle past the hole anyway.
The last gizzard shad was in pretty rough shape having put it in a flooded foot well during the paddle back. When I got to the hole, I hooked the half-dead shad with a circle hook and cast it over near some rocks. The bait fish swam briefly and then started to roll on its side. But suddenly the shad came to life again and darted off quickly.
I sat there on my yak wondering what had just occurred when…BAM! The water exploded where the shad had just been and my line went taut. A hawg of a largemouth pounced on the shad and before I could even set the hook, I was being pulled by the fish, kayak and all. It seemed like I fought the fish for an hour but it was really only a few minutes. The bass was strong enough to turn my kayak 360 degrees, and at one point, I was also pulled into some rocks. I was using a medium weight rod with 20-pound braid, and in the midst of the fight, I remembered Shane once telling me that braid does weird things on the Brazos—all I could do, as the bass ripped off some drag, was hope the braid wouldn’t do anything weird now.
After another minute or so, the fish began to tire and I was able to lip him into the yak. For a split second, I couldn’t do anything but just sit there and look at it. I was shaking a little and breathing hard (I videotaped her release a few minutes later and you can still hear me breathing hard). The whole thing had been so unexpected, so unreal…and so invigorating.
Having used that last of my bait fish, and worried that it might rain on me, I continued my paddle back to the bridge. I stopped along the way and snapped some photos, including one of my lone kayak up on a gravel bank near some rapids. My day on the Brazos was coming to an end.
As I approached the bridge, I saw that the many troutmen from this morning had long since gone back to their other lives, and all that remained was a lone angler who looked at me oddly as I paddled nearer to him. He nodded politely and asked how’d I done as I got closer. I replied, “It was a really, really slow day, but it ended with a bang.”
And then I laughed a little, maybe more than a little. He looked at me, puzzled and cocked his head. The yak skid to a stop on the gravel bar and I stepped off, asking the man if he’d be so kind as to snap my picture, for which he obliged. He snapped the photo and handed me back the camera, without making eye contact. I chuckled and looked up at the overcast sky and thought to myself that I needed to get out there more often.