The dog days of summer: we’re there now, in Central Texas, with hot, often still days, and only the faintest memory of rain.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Central Texas counties range from abnormally dry to extreme drought at the moment. Lake levels are low and stream flows are slow. On some reaches of some area rivers they have stopped entirely.
That’s the case on a favorite stretch of the Pedernales (we say “purr-DIN-alice” because that’s how LBJ pronounced it) west of Austin.
Back in June, flows were low, or maybe “low-normal,” but most pools were connected and there were some beautiful riffles and chutes. By late July, there was zero water flowing between most pools and short reaches of the river bed were completely dry.
Sounds dire, doesn’t it?
Well, it’s not all bad. We need rain, for sure; a week-long rain event that dumps 10 inches on us would be great, but there are springs or seeps at the bottoms of some of the pools, and even in August they remain cool, clear and full of fish. Surprisingly fat and happy fish.
Texas has always been a boom or bust kind of place, and its rivers are no exception.
On a recent trip to the “Perd,” my friend John Erskine and I were fishing downstream of a public road crossing when an elderly gentleman in a pickup truck rolled to a stop on the dirt track on the river bank. He unfolded himself from the cab, planted his Stetson on his head and strolled down to the water’s edge.
We stopped casting and waded over to the bank to introduce ourselves. And I’ll admit, we weren’t thrilled about it. Long experience has taught us to expect, in about three-fourths of such situations, a tense encounter in which we must assert our rights to use the river bed.
So, I was pleasantly surprised when Levi Deike, the semi-legendary local rancher who owns the north bank for as far as we could see, was nothing less than a gentleman and just wanted to shoot the breeze for a spell.
“How you boys doin’?” he asked. “Catchin’ anything?”
In truth, he was probably also checking us out, satisfying himself we weren’t up to any sort of nonsense.
Deike remarked on how low the water was, but averred that it wasn’t nearly as bad as the drought of record, from 1950-1957. That dry spell had just set in good when, in September of 1952, a 20-inch rainfall upstream pushed the river’s flow from zero to a record 441,000 cubic feet per second in less than a day. Water rose more than 40 feet.
There’s nothing much good to say about an event like that – it turned century-old cypress trees into matchsticks, washed out the US 281 bridge in Johnson City and decimated fields and pecan groves. The extensive shoals of pinkish sand (it derives from the pink granite of the Llano Uplift) that can be found along many parts of the river below Johnson City today are remnants of the flood of ’52.
The drought picked up right where it left off once the waters receded, and that made for some pretty good catfishing, Deike told us.
“Water gets low like this, the fish just stack up in those pools,” he said.
It’s one of the reasons John and I were having such a fine time. It’s not just catfish that get concentrated in the available water, but largemouth and Guadalupe bass, carp, Rio Grande cichlids, and sunfish. We could see – and reach — most of them.
Some Central Texas streams will flow in any season and climate (at least so far); the San Marcos River rises from more than 200 springs with an average flow of 152 cfs. The Comal River, the shortest navigable stream in Texas, lies entirely within the city limits of New Braunfels and its average discharge of 312 cfs refreshes the Guadalupe, which itself receives legally-mandated minimum environmental flows from Canyon Lake.
In dry periods, others go underground for some distance, or dry up altogether in some reaches. Some of the fish will get trapped in shrinking pools and become easy prey for herons and egrets and raccoons; most native species, though, are well-adapted to our boom-bust cycle and move with the water.
The walking can be considerably easier when the water is low, too, especially if you’re not keen on wading some of the deeper pools. That doesn’t mean we don’t get wet; most local anglers take at least one cooling dip when fishing a creek or river under the August sun.
Fly fishing is a year-round endeavor around here, and like the fish, we’ve learned to adapt to the conditions.