What is the Texas “Hill Country” and Why It is a Fly Angler’s Paradise

Texas is full of surprises. When I went off to college and met lots of people from other places for the first time in my life, I sometimes would—at the sound of a Busch Light beer can opening—happily launch into a soliloquy on Texas geography.

It’s not all like Dallas, that artificial city on the prairie, I would say. Texas has more than 90 mountains over a mile high*, a pine forest the size of New England, more inland waters than any state in the lower 48, and more than 3,000 miles of tidal coastline. And somewhere out there in the south-central part of the state is the “Hill Country.” You really oughta go see it.

McKinney Falls, on Onion Creek in southeast Austin, is a rare example of typical Hill Country features pushing east of I-35.
Photo by Aaron Reed

Go to Kerrville, or Leakey, or Fredericksburg, or Junction, or Llano, I would encourage my new friends. Check out the Frio, and Pedernales, and Llano Rivers. Because water, bubbling up in artesian springs and flowing clear over limestone and granite through verdant valleys is somehow inextricably linked to the words “Hill Country” for most Texans.

Thirty years later, I would add: drive a little more than an hour south and west of Big D and you can see the same limestone and water over near Glen Rose. On that road trip to Austin, be sure to stop by the Dry Dock tavern on Mount Bonnell Road. Don’t forget the northwestern side of San Antonio, or the rock-rimmed courses of the Bosque branches west of Waco.

Various authorities offer an array of definitions of where, exactly, the Hill Country is. TPWD includes all or parts of 25 counties in its Hill Country Wildlife District. It includes Bell and Coryell Counties near Fort Hood and Val Verde County down on the Rio Grande.

Historians and ethnographers will tell you that the Texas Hill Country is where German, Spanish and Appalachian immigrant cultures collide and mix in unique and delightful ways, and that the region neatly separates the American Southeast from the American Southwest. The unique, blended cultures of the small towns in the area make for some interesting weekend explorations.

It’s no accident that I-35 follows the Balcones Fault. The springs that issue from the base of the escarpment charted both settlement and travel northward across Texas in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Geologists refer to the 37,000-square mile (about the size of the state of Maine) Edwards Plateau: uplifted in several places, downfaulted along the Balcones (“balconies”) Fault zone along the southern and eastern edge, deeply dissected by numerous rivers and creeks throughout, and merging with the High Plains to the north and west. Elevations range from 600 feet above sea level to around 3,000 feet above sea level at the top of the plateau, with hill tops rising 300 to 800 feet above the valleys and canyons that thread between them.**

A geologist may also tell you that the porous, easily-eroded limestone (known as “karst”) over the last 5-20 million years captured rainfall that dissolved crevices and channels and vast underground reservoirs of water that percolate to the surface in thousands of springs.

Those springs and the rivers they form dictated the course of exploration, missions, and settlement from New Spain northward. They are, verifiably, why San Antonio, San Marcos, New Braunfels, Austin, and Waco were planted in their current locations. They are the reason I-35 follows the escarpment from the Rio Grande to the Dallas-Forth Worth Metroplex on its way to the Canadian border.

The Texas Hill Country is home to three American Viticultural Area (AVA) designations, and for a fair number of folks who have come of age in the past 20 years, wine is probably the first association they make when thinking of the area. For others, floating the clear, clean Frio, Guadalupe, and San Marcos Rivers was the stuff of legendary childhood summer vacations, and even more legendary college shenanigans.

For anglers, the Texas Hill Country’s spring creeks and rivers are a bonanza of warmwater species. In addition to native northern largemouth bass, half a dozen species of sunfish flourish in the region’s clear, fast water. The endemic, riffle-loving Guadalupe bass (state fish of Texas) is the star attraction here, but populations of Rio Grande cichlids—a spangled, humpy-headed subtropical outlier of its order—were transplanted to thermally stable Central Texas streams from its native Rio Grande River habitat during the Great Depression. Common carp, widely introduced in the late 1800s, flourish everywhere and seem to have found a stable niche in Central Texas streams. Stalking these fish in clear, shallow water is a hoot.

Nearly half of the stream anglers surveyed in a recent Texas Tech University/TPWD study said they were specifically targeting Guadalupe bass, a Texas native found only in and around the Texas Hill Country.
Photo by Aaron Reed

Spotted gar, redhorse suckers, freshwater drum, and three common catfish add to the possibilities.

In the dozen miles of the Guadalupe River that comprise the Canyon Lake tailwaters, frigid, bottom-of-the-dam releases support a year-round rainbow and brown trout fishery. It is possible here to catch a 20-inch rainbow in the shade of a towering bald cypress tree while looking at a sprawl of prickly pear cactus on the hillside above you.

Canyon, and other reservoirs throughout the region, support introduced white bass, striped bass, and hybrid striped bass populations, as well as both black and white crappie. Those fish make their way into the rivers where they delight anglers.

A 2016 study by Texas Tech University and Texas Parks & Wildlife Department found that stream anglers contributed $71 million to the Texas Hill Country economy over a 16-month period. Nearly half of those anglers were specifically targeting Guadalupe bass, most (we can assume) on the fly.

Fly Fishing Austin & Central Texas doesn’t tackle the entire Texas Hill Country; just the parts within 60 miles or so of downtown Austin. The Hill Country streams that spill out onto the blackland prairie east of I-35 maintain their charm long enough on that side of town to earn some ink, too.

New to Texas or considering a visit? After more than three decades and visits to some of the most beautiful places on three continents, I can still heartily recommend the Texas Hill Country. I would add just one thing to my long-ago speech: bring a fly rod.

*An aside: this sentence is an excellent example of the difference between the prepositional “more than” (number) and “over” (positional, “above”). Upon further investigation, just now, I see that this was an AP Style convention that was dropped in 2014; in fact, it never had any sound basis in grammar. So … never mind. I feel free.

**If you’ve never visited and wonder what our Hill Country looks like, roughly, consider that the Catskills, Alleghanies, and Ozarks also are eroded plateaus (as opposed to “orogenic” mountains created by tectonic plate buckling or vulcanism). It’s sort of like that, just a lot drier, with thinner, rockier soils.

The Texas Hill Country is a vast region roughly the size of Maine. Dry, rocky, and scrubby on the remaining high points of the plateau, steep canyons and lush valleys conceal water. And fish.
Photo by Cody Ely
Aaron Reed

Aaron Reed

Aaron Reed is an award-winning outdoor writer and Army veteran. He currently splits his time between his native Texas Gulf coast, where he drives a tugboat, and his home near the San Gabriel River in Georgetown, Texas. When he is not working, chances are you can find him knee-deep in a stream somewhere around Austin, often with his wife and one or more of his three boys, trying like heck to become a better fly fisherman. His stories and photos have appeared in Southwest Fly Fishing, This is Fly, Kayak Angler, Texas Outdoors Journal, Texas Sporting Journal, Texas Fish & Game, Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, Lone Star Outdoor News, Austin American-Statesman, Austin Business Journal, the Taylor Press, Soldiers magazine, Leatherneck magazine, Liguorian magazine, The Washington Times, and elsewhere.

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