I was biking through South Austin this evening and I noticed that some of the red buds had started to bloom already. As a fisherguy that of course made me think about a year ago, near the end of the white bass run when I finally managed to get myself into some white bass fishing. Okay, it was only one white bass. Nevertheless, to prevent anyone from finding out where I was during this particular fishing victory, I have obscured all of the identifying details of the location.
There was a regular old bass too, of reasonable size. The two of them together made for a most gratifying pile of filets, which I fried up as soon as I got home.
When the weather’s right, the fishing team will head down to the old Colorado River for a little swimsuit fishing. Now that I’ve had some more experience with the Colorado, I would have to compare it to Lady Bird Lake, in that it’s convenient, but it’s also likely to give you a good fishing day just about as often as it completely shuts you out.
But if you get into the right spot, you can get into some decent largemouth bass action. The largie in the first photo here was caught on a spinner cast out into the center of the stream. There was no particular finesse to it, it was simply a matter of keeping the lure in the water for as long as possible.
One of the more interesting sites in the Colorado is the bridge which crosses down by Austin’s airport. A pile of detritus and bleached sticks lies across the upstream side. There is at least as many manufactured objects in the pile as there are natural. I tried walking across it in my aquasocks and it felt spongy, because the whole mass was floating. I didn’t stay long. I had visions of falling through and drowning, my body held underwater by rusty nails and half-crushed bottles of polyethylene terephthalate.
Third Degree and I went on a semi-epic wading trip during the heat of the summer. You can wade for a kilometer at a stretch along the Colorado, but then there’s that ten-meter section where it’s up to our neck. For those deep sections I brought along my inflatable chair, a surprisingly versatile piece of aquatic hardware.
We stood on a steel pipe which crosses the river and cast into a hole on the downstream side which was known to hold some big bass. When Third Degree caught his precious mini-Rappala on an overhanging tree on the far side of the hole, the only solution was to put him on the inflatable chair and drift him after the lure on the end of the tether.
I hope you can appreciate the level of coordination I had to exert in order to take a picture of Third Degree with one hand, hold a rope so he wouldn’t float away to Bastrop with the other hand, all while balancing on a slippery pipe while thigh deep in a swift current.
I’m not saying it was tough for me, I just want you to appreciate how other people would find that tough.
Most people know Bull Creek as the Austin park that’s constantly getting closed to swimming because of dangerous levels of fecal bacteria. But for those of us with fly rods and a penchant for urban assault fishing, it’s a collection of unsuspecting perch and largies.
Third Degree and I hiked into the creek’s green space from the parking lot and the hordes of dogs and children. The first deep pool that was reasonably free of swimmers could only be accessed from the top of a ten-foot limestone cliff. That made fly casting an interesting challenge. The trees behind us made back-casting impossible, so it was purely a roll-casting game.
The water in the pool was reasonably clear, so we could see small bass and sunfish patrolling back and forth and rising to swallow our prince nymphs. It wasn’t until after I had caught a dozen little sunfish of various species that I noticed Third Degree was perched on a thin shelf of rock that protruded a couple of meters over the water. But it didn’t break under his weight, so I call that a victory.
We also moved upstream and prospected several pools surrounded by thickets of poison ivy. The green sunfish in particular were voracious there, taking my glow in the dark San Juan gummy worm on every cast. There was even a baby largemouth who took a black woolly bugger that was barely smaller than itself. You have to respect that sort of ambition.
The fishing team got a hot tip that if one were to go to the hinterlands of Austin, to the sprawling suburbs, that behind a certain big box store there was a rainwater runoff settling pond, and that within that pond were some of the most voracious bass in town.
So of course we all got together and put our fly rods together, and piled into the Big C’s Kia for the long expedition.
You might notice that this post does not have any pictures of fish in it.
We wet our lines for an hour and a half, even going so far as to explore a nearby creek that had some promising populations of green sunfish in sporadic pools. But then it started to rain and we had to make a mad dash for the Kia’s parking spot, back by the big box store’s loading bays and dumpsters.
So the moral of the story is that sometimes you can’t believe the stories that other fishermen drop on you.
The great thing about tamales is that they’re the gift that keeps on giving. With a couple of dollars worth of low-grade pork, and pennies worth of spices, cornmeal and corn husks, you can make a pile of tamales which will keep in the freezer forever.
The trick to making a really good tamale, is you don’t throw away any of the fat. You start with some low-grade stew meat, or if you’re a traditionalist, the entire head of some unsuspecting livestock, and you crock pot it until the meat, fat, and bone, all go in their separate directions.
The fat can be skimmed off and added to the masa, the corn meal. You can make the masa from scratch or from a mix, but in non-drought times you can usually find this in the store, pre-mixed with lye and all the other tasty additives for a very reasonable price. I got a two-pound bag for a buck.
Then you can add the usual chili powders and salt to the meat. The broth left in the crock pot should be turned into a gravy and added to the meat.
Then it’s just a matter of rolling up the tamales in corn husks and steaming them. Even without really trying you will probably end up with way more than you bargained for. That two-pound bag of masa will swell in the steam.
Leftovers should either be frozen or given away to friends, family, and coworkers.
It had been a little while since I had visited the lunch counter at the back of the convenience store on Cedar Avenue and 14th Street. The ownership had changed, so they now offered more soul food and barbecue than they had before, but they still had gizzards. The proprietress fried me up a pile, and they were everything that gizzards ought to be, crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and greasy through and through.
About mid-summer here in Austin, the prickly pear get ripe. They bloat purple in the punishing sun, sprouting with tantalizing juiciness from the middle of daunting thickets of thorns. I pass by a lot of these prickly pear groves on my daily bike commute, the nopalito cactus flourishes in the poor soil and neglect of Austin’s interstitial spaces.
So with the help of gardening gloves and my cargo bicycle bucket, I picked about a gallon of the suckers. Unfortunately, my gardening gloves are only about 90% effective in warding the thorns of the mother cactus, or even the hair-like spines of the prickly pear itself. For weeks afterward I was plagued with the raspy feeling of raspy thorn heads buried just beneath my skin.
I managed to re-stick myself with more thorns as I prepared the prickly pear for consumption. If you soak the fruit in cold water and then briskly rub the skin, scraping off the patches of sharpness that spot the rind like measles, you can remove most of the near-invisible thorns.
But not all.
With a lemon juicer, I turned the pile of mostly de-fanged fruit into a bowl of viscous, purple juice, and another pile of pulp and seeds. A lot of seeds made it into the juice, but I don’t consider the prickly pear seeds a bad thing. They add texture and no doubt have significant nutritional value in their own right.
The juice retained a little of that slimey consistency that you might know from nopalito tacos. In a sorbet this is a good thing, it makes the finished product smoother and softer than what you would get from a simple fruit puree.
Getting the juice was the hard part. To that, I just added some sugar, lime juice, and rum to taste, and popped the slurry in the ice cream maker. The final result was not only eye-poppingly purple, but tasty as well.
I’ve been saving some seeds and cactus pads from particularly well-producing examples of the prickly pear fruit. Now all I need is some unkempt interstitial space to grow them in.
I haven’t stopped exploring the menus of the fruit cup stands down on Riverside. One of the standard options on the non-fruit side of their menus is chicharrones preparados. Reading the name, I initially thought that this food would be a pile of fried pork skins topped with beans, cream, and other delicious garnishes. But it turned out to be the other meaning of chicharrones, the general sort of crispy thing usage. In this case the chicharrones preparados was a sheet of crispy-fried flour, not unlike duros, the fried crispy wheels. And on top of that sheet of chicharrones was piled all the beans, lettuce and cream that I was expecting.
The surprise addition to this meal was the pickled pork skins. My old housemate had bought me a jar of pickled pork skins several years ago, but this was the first time I’d seen them implemented in the wild.
The other recent experiment with the fruit cup stand was the bionico. This was a pile of fruit, strawberries, bananas, and apples, served in a mash of yogurt, honey, and granola. When you order it in the 32-oz size, it comes in a heaping trough. On a hot Texas day it’s surprisingly refreshing.
For a while now I’ve been fascinated with the stretch of the Colorado River downstream from Lady Bird Lake. At one point, my friend Peter Gabriel and I planned on taking a float trip down the river from the Montopolis bridge to the 973 bridge near the airport. It was a genius idea because the 973 bridge is still within the Austin city bus system. We figured we could spend a couple of hours sitting in inflatable pool chairs, drinking Lonestar tallboys, and then we could just take the #350 bus back to our bikes.
It was a genius idea except that the stretch of the river in question is about ten miles without public access points or a reliable current, as this resource page will prove. Luckily, when Mr. Gabriel and myself set out to do this, the dam at Pleasant Valley was letting out a mere trickle of water, something in the 80cfs range. So instead of being washed away on a twelve-hour marathon of floating with only beer to feed us, we barely made it a quarter of a mile before giving up and heading back.
So the next time I attempted this trip, it was with my inflatable kayak, a flimsy contraption of vinyl bladders and slow leaks. This made the travel time a lot faster, but I had still under-estimated the amount of time it would take to paddle that stretch (and this from a guy who paddled the Mississippi River in its entirety). I started out at around 2pm, and I didn’t get out of the water until after 9pm. I stopped to do quite a lot of fishing, I wasn’t paddling the whole time, but it still meant that I had to paddle by the light of the full moon for miles, before calling the Yellow Cab company with my dying cellphone and having them fail to pick me up for an hour, despite being right next to the airport where there were at least a hundred cabs. But that’s a gripe for another day.
But it’s an amazing stretch of water that river. You’re essentially right at the edge of the Austin city limits, still well within the Austin metropolitan area, but you can’t see signs of human life or hear traffic for long stretches. Other stretches are right under the flight path, but a lot of it is wild, filled with osprey and water fowl.
When the sun set over the Colorado River and the wind calmed, it took the aura of a fairyland, a place where people were rare observers of a wild tableau. I could see fish splashing across the glassy surface of the water, disturbing the orange mirror of the sky. Most of the splashes were no doubt gar, but I did see bass as well, some of them splashing in the shallows, half their backs out of the water as they chased their prey.
The next time I visited that stretch, it was with the explicit intention of staying overnight, so as not to hurry too hard to get from the put-in to the take-out. I took a Car2go straight from work to the river, stopping only briefly at the supermarket to pick up sandwich meat, american cheese, tortillas, and water. This was essentially the same diet that I had perfected while motorcycling around the country. It’s food that cannot spoil, get squashed, or require preparation. You just roll it all up and you have yourself a meal. For water I had two one-gallon jugs of fifty-nine cent spring water. I’ve learned that there’s nothing worse than being in the middle of nowhere and running out of water.
Even though this trip was all about giving myself plenty of time to fish, I didn’t make it as far as I would have hoped before dark, because I had to prospect every piece of structure and every little eddy I passed with my ultralight and spinner.
Around sunset I caught a very nice bass, one of the largest I’ve ever had. It caught the spinner and dove like a submarine in ten feet of crystal clear water. Later on, as I was cleaning the fish, I found in its stomach a half-digested sunfish and several twigs. If she had been striking at twigs, then my presentation might have looked pretty good in comparison.
Like one would expect, night fell and there was no good place to stop for the night. But there was a full moon, and its light was virtually blinding. It was bright enough that I could undo tangles in my fluorocarbon line and I spot every ripple of submerged logs and boulders. There was only the sound of my paddles, and the deafening screaming of millions of frogs.
I made camp on an island far short of where I had intended. Instead of making it half-way, I had only gone about a third of the route. And even though I had found a place to stop for the night, I couldn’t stop fishing. I continued to wade and cast by the light of the moon. That’s when I caught my first gar.
The trick with gar is they have a bony beak and they are finicky about swallowing a bait. It’s rare for a hook to set. It’s common to have them strike at a lure and then drop it at the first tug of the line. It feels a little like the lure getting caught in weeds and breaking free in an instant.
By sheer luck, my inline spinner hooked a gar. It wasn’t a very big one, but I had to play it as I pulled it into shore. I couldn’t tell what it was until I had actually landed it. There’s few things quite as disconcerting as standing knee-deep in water and cranking something snake-like and as long as your arm closer to you.
I took a long look at it before I worked it free of the hook with my Leatherman needlenose pliers. It had big glassy eyes that reflected the light of my headlamp like a cat’s. The head and snout had a definite reptilian aspect, and its thick scales gave it a particularly unappetizing trash-fish look.
The following morning I slept late and took my time making camp. When I waded through some stagnant water I got attacked by leeches for the first time in Texas. Each leech was about three millimeters long and colored a dirty brown. A swarm of them covered my feet and did a stadium-style “The Wave.” I doubt if any of them were large enough to chew through my skin, which is why they didn’t trigger my squicky leech terror.
A kayak livery had recently set up on that stretch of the river, so the Saturday morning didn’t give me as much privacy as I would have liked. A few fisherman in river-sized bass boats also passed by me.
As I made myself a breakfast of tortillas and processed sandwich meat, I watched as bass launched themselves three feet into the air in an attempt to eat the swarms of hovering magenta dragonflies. I couldn’t tell if the bass were particularly successful. It looked a little like the reverse of an osprey’s dive.
By the time I got the tent packed up, the dam had opened upstream and the river’s flow had raised a foot and doubled in speed. This meant that I didn’t have to paddle as much for the remainder of the trip, but it also meant that the river was choked with algae and weeds that were swept up in the increased current. It was impossible to use a spinner for more than a few feet before it became hopelessly fouled in gunk. I had some luck with a giant crazy-leg foam ant, catching another decent-sized bass off the surface, but that would have been a good time to use the rubber worms which I’ve never been proficient with.
A short walk from the 973 river access took me to the bus stop, where I became that weird guy with a giant dry sack with some fishing rods poking out the top. I took the 350 bus back to Hyde Park, and then took a tiny car the rest of the way home, finally validating my original plan for a public transportation river adventure.