And then it rained … and rained

Back in August, I wrote about the dog days of summer and low-water conditions across Central Texas. Many local streams weren’t looking their best, but the fish sure were easy to find.

The Lower Falls on Onion Creek at McKinney Falls State Park show-off
after six weeks of rain.
Photo by Aaron Reed

My, how things can change.

In September and October, Georgetown received nearly 17 inches of rain – more than twice the average for those months. According to the National Weather Service, it rained 25 of those 61 days. Parts of the Hill Country farther to the west got even more precipitation, some of it in torrential downpours.

The repeated, heavy drenchings caused catastrophic flooding in the Brazos and Colorado River basins, with some streams cresting on three separate occasions. Lake Travis, a long, sinuous impoundment that covers more than 18,000 acres, rose 40 feet in 24 hours.

The Ranch Road 2900 bridge over the Llano River in Kingsland, Texas, was swept away in the flooding. The venerable, 3-day Oktoberfisch fly fishing festival hosted by Fredericksburg Fly Fishers in Junction, Texas, was cancelled after the streamside event headquarters was carried downstream.

In the early days of November, streams were still running fast and high, and many local anglers had not wet a line in weeks.

In many cases, those streams were running clearer than they have in years. Floods of the magnitude we experienced this fall breathe new life into streams by sweeping away silt and debris, scouring algae from gravel and cobble, and depositing new structure – whether rocks and gravel bars or fallen trees – into the waters.

Fishing is tough after a flood. It’s not that the fish aren’t there – they are, mostly – it’s just they are not right there, where they were two months ago. The furniture has been rearranged and they might be hanging out in some other room.

Native fish, like this colorful longear sunfish, are well-adapted to survive the flood-drought cycle in Central Texas.
Photo by Aaron Reed

Some fish do get swept downstream in high water; others find eddies and structure to hunker behind; still others will take the opportunity to move upstream in the slack water at the edge of the current, getting around low-head dams and other obstacles that may have blocked their progress when the water was lower.

Native species, like Guadalupe bass and longear sunfish, are well-adapted to the drought-flood cycle typical of Central Texas, and we could even see increased spawning success in the spring, thanks to all of that new, clean gravel.

One of the challenges of writing a guide to fishing rivers and creeks is that while the contours of a stream may be relatively stable, the bottom is anything but.

For that reason, in the detailed descriptions of wades and paddles I’ve tried to focus on permanent, or at least persistent, features. Gravel bars can shift with even a modest rise in water level and velocity. Boulders and rock falls and places where downed trees tend to accumulate, not as much.

In early September, this reach of the North Fork San Gabriel River was choked with algae and the sluggish flow had deposited a layer of sediment over the gravel. By early November it was swimming pool clear and appeared just as inviting.
Photo by Aaron Reed

On some streams I’ve revisited recently, leaves and even bark have been stripped from trees to a level well above what I can reach with the tip of my fly rod. Much of that vegetation will return, healthier than ever, in the spring.

While a single, heavy rain event will fill reservoirs and result in flash flooding, much of that water never makes it into the aquifers that feed the springs that feed the streams. A multi-week, persistent precipitation pattern – the kind we experienced this fall – recharges aquifers. Aquifer levels are monitored by government agencies at 15-minute intervals, and one index well shows that between mid-August and early November, levels rose more than 40 feet and by the end of October stood at 20 feet higher than the historical monthly average.

What does that mean for anglers? Simple: the late fall and winter months are shaping-up to be nothing short of epic for Central Texas waters.

3 thoughts to “And then it rained … and rained”

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