Category

Fishing

Adventures with the Austin Fishing Team

Whenever I am out on Lady Bird Lake, dangling a pole in the water, or inflating the kayak before a long day of cooking in the sun and reeling in bass, there is always someone who comes up to me and asks, with a look of total amazement, “There are fish here?”

The Austin Fishing Team knows that there are fish everywhere. We have been exploring the ponds, creeks, and lakes of the Austin, TX area every week. We know which creeks have what fish. We know which Texas state parks have water this time of year.

And we would like to share our experiences with you.

Fishing

Mysterious Fish From Texas Gulf Coast

unidentified fish1

This is a post which is open pandering for a fish identification. Over the weekend I was fishing off the Caldwell Pier in Port Aransas. It was about one in the morning and just a little after high tide. I caught the fish at about the third guts, about seventy feet south of the pier. It bit on a couple of previously frozen piggy perches rigged two feet from the bottom. When I was reeling it up, I thought it was just a whiting, because it was about the size of a large one. It wasn’t until I had it on the deck of the pier before I realized how odd it looked.

The gold color is an artifact of the camera and the light conditions, in real life it seemed more silvery, like a mackerel. I don’t recall the eyes being walleye like that, but they could have been.

gulfcoastmysteryfish

After I took its picture, I decided to use the stainless steel forceps to get the circle hook out. And it’s a good thing I did, because it started biting the metal with an audible crunching sound. Its mouth wasn’t very big, but it was crowned with some Nosferatu bunny fangs and some finger-amputating strong jaws.

Any rate, I threw the thing back, and neither the guy at the bait shop and the guy at the tackle shop recognized it. So now I’m asking the internet in general.

Edit 11/11/13:
I posted this fish to the forum 2coolfishing.com and it was the general opinion of the gentlemen there that this was a smooth puffer.

foam fly lure spider
Fishing

The Foam Gaga Spider – Fly-tying recipe

The foam Gaga Spider takes all the delicious, buggy elements of sub-surface nymphs, and combines it with the fast and furious top-water action of a foam spider.

Ingredients:

  • size 14 to 18 dry fly hook
  • beige thread
  • small plastic barbell eyes (optional)
  • brown goose biots
  • yellow/chartreuse crazy legs
  • brown and yellow foam
  • yellow dubbing
  • Aqua flash” instructions

Instructions
For this fly-tying recipe, start the thread on the hook size of your choice. Tie on the barbell eyes. If you use these, they should be a light material, not the sinking barbells. At each end of the hook, tie on the goose biots to form antennas. Starting at the curve of the hook, twist on layers of the yellow dubbing until you build up a buggy nymph-like body. At the body’s midpoint, tie on three to four rubber crazy legs. Fold the flash into a bow and tie above the legs. Then fold the flash back and tie it so it angles back from the midpoint like the wings of a fly. The final layer is the foam, which is tied at the very top. Don’t go overboard with this, you only need enough foam to keep the hook floating. I would recommend a brownish layer to give a naturalistic presentation to fish observing it from below, and a yellow layer on top to make it easier to spot against the surface of the water for anglers observing from above.

Fishing

A Couple of Big Bass

whitebasspixellated
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.
white and largemouth bass
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.
whitebass and largemouth

Fishing

Day Trips Fishing the Colorado River

Largemouth Bass by 973

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.

Detritus Under 973

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 in Float Chair

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.

Third Degree at the End of His Rope

I’m not saying it was tough for me, I just want you to appreciate how other people would find that tough.

Albino bluegill on beadhead prince nymph
Fishing

Fishing Bull Creek

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.
Bluegill at Bull Creek
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.

Cliff fishing at Bull Creek

Cliff fishing at Bull Creek

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.

Fishing

Behind a Big Box Store

big box with line
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.

A promising but unproductive creek

A promising but unproductive creek


So the moral of the story is that sometimes you can’t believe the stories that other fishermen drop on you.

gar at night on Colorado River
Fishing

Fishing Overnight on the Colorado

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.
bass from kayak
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.
gar at night on Colorado River
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.
spotted gar near kayak
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.
my tent on the river
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.
largemouth on the colorado river
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.

eating bluegills from Lady Bird Lake
Fishing

Eating Perch from Lady Bird Lake

bluegill on Lady Bird Lake near Holly St Power plant
I caught a decent sized bluegill on Lady Bird Lake recently, pictured here against the backdrop of the Holly Street power plant. I caught it about an hour or two before sunset, coaxing it into rising to a hand-tied foam spider.

That success led me to promise a friend that the next time we met, I would catch fish for our dinner. Now the great thing about this friend (the Peter Gabriel of previous posts) is that he’s willing to pick fish straight off the bone, head and all, and he doesn’t complain about the size. So yesterday I took my selection of hand-tied flies and went about the grim business of catching fish not for the sport but for the meat.

The bluegills weren’t as enthusiastic about the top water flies on Monday. Maybe it’s because I was using patterns that were too experimental, or maybe there was too much of a wind so they couldn’t cue in on the ripples as well, or maybe the cold front put them off. Whatever the reason, I eventually switched to sinking flies and did much better. In particular, the glow in the dark gummy San Juan worms got a solid hit on every cast. The fish actually chewed the worms apart. If I had more time to dial in the pattern and had more flies on hand, I could have caught a bigger meal, but I was able to bring in four fish with enough flesh on their bones to make the time spent scaling and gutting them worthwhile.

eating bluegills from Lady Bird Lake
I’m not going to include a sense of scale to the frying pan photo because I don’t want you to think worse of me for being a baby killer.

We fried up the Texas perch with salt and cornmeal, taking them out of the pan when they were on the edge of falling apart into meat flakes and ribs. Bulked up as they were with the cornmeal, they provided as much food as you might reasonably expect for the entrees for two people. The taste was even more fishy than I remember it, but tasty all the same. My friend agreed that they were delicious.

Then when I came in that evening, I found this pamphlet in my mailbox:
Lady Bird Lake toxin advisory
What are the odds that on the very day that I ate a couple of bluegills that the city watershed department would send me a picture of a bluegill on a plate with arrows pointing to it with deliberately unappetizing captions? I mean, it’s not even a prestige fish. Hardly anyone bothers to eat them. And Lady Bird Lake has about six different varieties of sunfish, several of which are typically larger than bluegills (and several of the other species are prettier too).

I bet some contract graphic designer chose a bluegill image for the pamphlet just because it was the fish that fit the plate graphic the best.

Bull cichlid out of Shoal Creek
Fishing

Five Days of Austin Fishing Redux

I think I’ve finally glutted my appetite for spring fishing. At least I’ve slightly dulled the hunger. This Friday marked the second week of continuous after-work fishing.

I tried covering new ground from last week, although I was limited by fishing holes that were more or less on my bike ride home.

Lying very much directly on my ride home is Blunn Creek, the drainage that runs through Big and Little Stacy Parks in the Travis Heights neighborhood. I’d never attempted to fish there before, and I can tell you that the best fishing always has an element of exploring.

Blunn creek pool

Blunn creek pool


But I was surprised to find that the creek appears to be entirely devoid of fauna for most of its length. I’d never seen that before. Even a shallow and seasonal pool would have a fair number of minnows, or at least whirligigs and tadpoles. But there was nothing, a certainly not fishable-sized targets. There was just a thick and sickly mat of algae.

I had to go almost all the way down to lake level before I found a pool filled with fish. But once I did, they displayed a challenging wariness that was extremely satisfying to overcome. I had to back up to the point were I was out of their line of sight, and then pitch the fly down a narrow lane of tangling bushes.

Warmouth at Blunn Creek

Warmouth at Blunn Creek


But once I found the pattern, the warmouth eagerly took the hand-tied prince nymph and hare’s ear flies that I stripped centimeter-by-centimeter through their little pool.

Have I mentioned yet that I’ve been tying my own flies? More on that later I suppose.

The best fishing of the week came at the same pool where last year I had caught a snake (or to be more precise, a snake attempted to catch the fish that I had already caught). The pool lies not far from the flagship Whole Foods, sandwiched between luxury condos. On my back cast the fly sometimes smacked against the windows of people no doubt far more important than me.

Even though there are warmouths as well as cichlids in these pools, they didn’t take the foam spiders I teased across the surface. I had to once again stand over the fish horizon and toss in the sinking nymphs. But that unlocked the best cichlid fishing I’ve ever encountered.

Bull cichlid out of Shoal Creek

Bull cichlid out of Shoal Creek


On every cast I dragged in a fish. I could see the Rio Grande cichlids dart out of hiding and chew on the flies with the edges of their toothy lips. From the perspective of the angler it’s a very distinctive hit. If you’re lucky, and the line is taut, you can see the leader floating on the surface make a quick vibration like a strummed guitar string.

The Rio Grande cichlids are probably the most beautiful fish you can catch in Texas. When you see them in the water, the smaller juveniles look like they have white heads and three vertical stripes between the dorsal fins and the tails. But when you get them up close you can hardly see those verticle bands. That macro-coloring melts away into beautiful peacock spotting.

Some other notable catches at that pool included the first Mexican tetra of the season, and a medium-sized warmouth that fought with such strength that I had to play out some line. Playing a fish is not something you expect to do when you’re in a creek narrow enough that you can touch the far bank with the tip of your rod.

Mexican Tetra from Shoal Creek

Mexican Tetra from Shoal Creek


I also returned to Waller Creek last week. In the North Campus area there’s a stretch of creek that has a stinky and gray sewage leak in one direction:
Sewage leak in Waller Creek

Sewage leak in Waller Creek


And a pristine pool that’s a play area for neighborhood children just a hundred feet upstream:
Waller Creek and child's bucket

Waller Creek and child's bucket

This was a very shallow pool, but it was deep enough to catch a hand-sized pumpkinseed in its full breeding coloration. Or at least what I’d been calling a pumpkinseed. The a visit to the freshwater fish identification page at Texas State completely failed to mention pumpkinseeds or clear up my confusion. But these sunfish are frequently hybrids, so I’m not being a stickler about taxonomy. The important thing is that the fish fought like a fist-sized hellion, and he’s probably still there for any brave souls who want to catch it on their line.

Pumpkinseed sunfish from Waller Creek

Pumpkinseed sunfish from Waller Creek

On Thursday, Third Degree and I met to re-enact one of our first and greatest urban assault fishing outings.

The Waller Creek riverwalk, Austin’s lame alternative to the San Antonio Riverwalk, is a great avenue for fishing. The best places to drop a fly were the heads of pools where schools of warmouth cluster around the inlets waiting for bits of Doritos to wash down to them. I was able to stand just a little over their horizon and toss a nymph down to them and enjoy the sight of dozens of fish rushing to take the bait. At least until they got spooked.

Let’s take just a moment here to enjoy the picture of a man with three hundred dollars worth of fly rod holding a three-inch sunfish:

Third Degree catches a warmouth in Waller

Third Degree catches a warmouth in Waller


And I’m sure it’s worth every penny.

Friday was the shortest fishing trip of the week, but it had it’s moments. While I was stringing up my line before jumping down into Shoal creek, a couple of college kids on bikes came up to me, and I was just about to break out the standard nondescript answers to civilian questions, “a few fish” and “no, I don’t eat them,” when I realized that they were there fishing too. I gave them some advice, but stopped short of telling them about my favorite fishing spot that I was headed to later, the spot that Third Degree and I have taken to calling “The Cichlid Hole.”

Sunset at The Cichlid Hole was a quiet and pleasant moment. The surface of the pool was littered with red blossoms. At first I thought they were lost fishing bobbers and I was a little angry at the thought that somebody else had the nerve to fish there, but they were simply nature’s way of decorating the end of an already beautiful week.
Bridge by secret cichlid hole

fly fishing lost creek
Fishing

Austin Fishing Team Explores Lost Creek

fly fishing lost creek

I’ve been in Austin for ten years, but I hadn’t known that if you went far enough up the Barton Creek green belt, you’ll find a permanent stretch of water. It’s essentially in Westlake, just a ways up Capital of Texas Highway, and it’s called Lost Creek. My editing colleague Steve is the one who showed me the area. In the heat of the summer he would go out there with his kids to cool off in what must be one of the least known swimming holes in the Austin area.

And of course where there’s standing water, there’s always fish. The creek was filled with cichlids spawning in the shallows, and sunfish basking near rock outcroppings that seem intentionally designed for swimming.

So I pressured the full fishing team into spending a Saturday during the peak of the summer heat and drought in an exploratory fly fishing expedition.
lost creek fly fishing

The plan was to park one vehicle at the green belt trail head near MoPac and 71. Then we would drive the other vehicle out to Lost Creek, and hike down the green belt to the first car. Unfortunately, despite all my planning and perusing of Google Maps, I failed to realize that the trail was about five miles long, and that we would run out of water for both drinking and fishing within the first mile.

But that first mile has been often cited by The Big C and Third Degree as the best of our outings. Despite the unusually gonzo physical excursion.

Because this is Texas, we reversed the usual fly fishing modality, and instead of wearing waders to escape the cold of the stream, we wore crocs and swim shorts to take full advantage of the stream’s refreshing coolness. There’s nothing quite like back-casting with your arms above your head because you’re up to your chin water, with only the top of your head exposed to the 100 degree heat. I caught a puppy bass on a muddler minnow while doing that.
fly fishing lost creek

The best part of the fishing was exploring each new pool we came across. Every one was filled with fish. We caught cichlids and the usual variety of sunfish on prince nymphs, copper Johns, and hare’s ears. I was surprised to catch a black tailed shiner minnow on a prince nymph. I was so excited by the catch that I took its picture with my phone’s camera, and then when I tossed the shiner back into the creek, I actually tossed my phone in with it. So that’s the last photo you’re getting of this trip.

There were some surpisingly large pools of water along the creek, but as we ran out of time and hurried to where we parked the car, the creek completely dried out. From the public swimming pool to about eight miles upstream, Barton Creek was bone dry. The limestone creek bed was bleached a blinding white in the sun. It makes you wonder how all those fish ended so far upstream. It must have been an epic journey for them in a wetter time.

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