Lessons Learned on the Pecos

By Michael Issac 

All things being equal, I’d rather not learn things the hard way. As I get older, I’ve learned that taking lessons from the mistakes of others is a good thing. This is especially true when venturing into a river such as the Lower Pecos. After a recent trip with three other paddlers during a long holiday weekend, I compiled a list of my lessons learned and I’m sharing it here hoping it helps my fellow river paddlers to avoid some potential pain.

Lesson 1. Never too Early for Planning
This may be obvious, but if you’re like me, then your life is extraordinarily busy. I found it difficult to find the time needed to plan and pack for a trip like the Pecos when most of my fishing trips were impromptu weekend paddles on local rivers and lakes. My advice to you: In the months leading up to your trip, take every bit of free time you have to plan your trip, study maps, check your equipment, read stories, etc. Time has a way of creeping up on you.

Lesson 2. Make a List, Check it Twice
As I said, it’s common for me to decide to take a Saturday morning fishing trip on Friday evening. This has come back to bite me a few times. Recently, my son and I drove two hours on a Saturday morning to the Brazos. We were both excited to do some trout fishing, but after unloading and setting up my kayak in front of a packed crowd, I realized I forgot the paddles. Embarrassed, I did the walk of shame, with my son, back to my truck. Fortunately, an ice cream quickly turned my son’s disappointment around.

I decided that was the last time that was going to happen. Now I use a physical checklist. I no longer rely on the list in my head. In fact, this lesson saved me when packing for the Pecos River trip. As I triple checked my list, I realized that I almost forgot my fishing poles! Don’t judge me too harshly, it’s easy to do, and I’m making amends by writing this article.

Lesson 3. Order New Gear Early
I rely a lot on online shopping. Rarely am I able to make it to a brick and mortar store to buy my outdoors gear. But while it’s convenient, it doesn’t give you the chance to see and feel your equipment before you purchase, and that can be bad. I am also on a budget so I take my time to find sales. The less money I spend on equipment, the more my wife will let me fish. It’s a delicate balance.

I also don’t buy expensive equipment because at some point your gear is going to get wet, bent, or lost. This is especially true on the Pecos. So before the trip, I went online and researched the gear I needed, at the best prices. I ordered most of my gear from expertcity.com, a great company with great prices, but it took me several weeks to get my gear. In fact, I left for the trip without a camp stove and a water purifier. It wasn’t a big deal, because between all of us, we had several, but it’s always nice to have your own gear.

Lesson 4.  Is it essential?
Despite how durable the manufacturer says their equipment is, it can break. And even if it doesn’t break, it can certainly be lost. If you paddle the Pecos you will eventually find yourself floating in the water with your kayak upside down. It’s the law of physics on the Lower Pecos: hatches pop open, gear comes loose, poles break, water bottles get lost, hats go missing, and anything not in a waterproof bag gets wet. Don’t underestimate the power of moving water; if it’s essential gear, things like your head lamps or sunglasses, water filters, dry shoes, first aid kit, knife, then make sure it’s secure, whether that means in a waterproof case (tied to your kayak) or safely inside the hull of your kayak…you decide.

Lesson 5 . Water Filters
Water is an interesting topic on the Lower Pecos River (article) I took a couple of Life Straws on this trip for my water filter. I could use it anywhere and drink directly from the source whether that was the river itself or a much better tasting spring. The Life Straw worked in even the smallest of spring fed pools, and at $20 each, Life Straws are cheap enough that I carried a spare in my bug out bag.

The only drawback is a big one, the Life Straw doesn’t allow you to filter water into a container for cooking or making coffee. It didn’t matter much on this trip because the other paddlers all had bigger water filters. Two of them used the Katadyn Hiker which were compact, easy to use and they filtered cooking water pretty quickly.

Lesson 6. – Bug out bag
A bug out bag on the river? Absolutely. If you read Dan and Bert’s account of being flooded off the Pecos, you know the river can change quickly. We were reminded of this while being mother-shipped in during our trip. The boat driver recounted how several paddlers were flooded off the river just two weeks prior to our trip. Unlike Dan and Bert’s experience, it wasn’t even raining on the Lower Pecos where the paddlers found themselves that day. Instead, it was raining a hundred miles upriver. We could still see mud and debri from that flood two weeks prior, sitting on top of rocks twenty feet above the water line. There was also a lot of man-made debris lining the banks of the river, and broken kayak/camping gear still embedded in the river cane.

If forced from a rising river, in theory you grab your bug out bag and get out. My bag consisted of an old tactical backpack double lined with trash bags so it will float (an old military trick). Inside my bag I kept a knife, several days’ worth of food, a first aid kit, sunscreen, dry clothes, a headlamp, paracord, whistle, and a fire-starting kit. I strapped the bag to the front of my kayak and it stayed put. You may not think such a bag is necessary, but it brought me peace of mind.

Lesson 7. Go with Experience
On my trip, we were fortunate enough to go with two experienced paddlers who understood the importance of planning for a river like the Pecos. One of them created a private Facebook group which we used for the bulk of the planning and a text message thread we used in the week leading up to the trip for those critical last minute comms. We planned everything from river entry and exit points to potential camp sites to things like my share of the sat phone costs and the logistics of getting “mother-shipped” in–and out of–the Lower Pecos River.  If it wasn’t for their experience, I probably would not have been as comfortable undertaking this trip.

Lesson 8. – Rapids (Part 1)
I have a love-hate relationship with the Pecos River rapids. I love how beautiful they are and how much fun they can be, but hate it when they flip my kayak. It’s exhilarating to navigate a set of rapids in a heavily loaded kayak but frustrating to pick what you think are the right lines and still lose it. I also gained a new appreciation for taking the time to scout the rapids before running them. There were times where Dan might take 15 minutes to scout a set of rapids, and I’d become anxious and just go for it. I quickly regretted my decision and ended up on the losing end of the rapid. The mid-run conversation usually went something like this: “I am not going to let this river beat me…okay, maybe I am.”

Lesson 9. Rapids (Part 2)
I also learned the importance of ensuring your kayak is balance properly, putting as much gear in the hull as possible to keep the center of gravity low. Fishing rods should be laid down and their tips protected. Take your paddle leash off to prevent from becoming tangled in case you flip. Also, don’t try to hold onto your kayak or try to flip it back over while still in the rapid. Just let it go. Initially this was hard for me to do but I quickly learned it was dangerous to try remounting my kayak in the rapids, which can cut you, bruise you and even break bones. I gained a lot of respect for the rapids on this trip, and will likely take a helmet on my next trip. Have fun, be careful and always wear your life preserver.

Lesson 10. Plan for the worst, Hope for the Best
The Pecos is desolate; that’s what makes it so appealing. It’s the classic contest, man against nature…set in a remote and scenic river, an opportunity to test yourself against one of the last remaining wild places left in Texas. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that even the smallest of mishaps have a way of being magnified on the Lower Pecos. Fortunately, on our trip we were all former active duty Marines and one guy is a firefighter/EMT, which meant that between the four of us, we probably carried ten medical kits.

And to further mitigate our risks, we took a satellite phone, which cost us about $200 to rent and for usage fees. Split four ways, it didn’t make sense not to bring one. We used it every night for weather checks and to inform our families that we were okay. We knew there was a chance for rain at the end of our trip, and in fact, we ended up paddling out to meet the mother-ship a day early due to anticipated heavy rains that night going into the next day. In the end, we ended up driving back to Fort Worth from Comstock in a pouring rain, and if we hadn’t brought along the satellite phone, we’d likely still be on the river instead of safely heading home.

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

About the AuthorAn avid fisherman, Michael took to exploring the beauty of Texas’ rivers when he started kayak fishing in 2010. He is an active duty Marine stationed in Fort Worth, where he lives with his wife and two young children. Like most of us, he’s always looking to find more time when he can fish.

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