IF YOU’VE NEVER BEEN FLY-FISHING before, maybe the first thing that comes to mind is Brad Pitt standing in a sun-drenched Montana trout stream in A River Runs Through It. That movie, an adaptation of Norman MacLean’s classic angling novella, formed the misguided impression for most Americans that fly-fishing is a romantic pursuit exclusive to the Rocky Mountains. But what you probably don’t know is that here in Texas, we have our own world-class fly-fishing, though you’re not likely to encounter Brad Pitt. Thanks to the cold water flowing from the depths of Canyon Lake, the Guadalupe River in the Hill Country hosts the nation’s southernmost trout fishery, and from the Devils River to the Lampasas, our Texas streams are full of bass, sunfish, carp, catfish, and gar waiting to be enticed by an artfully cast fly. What’s more, the sport’s best seasons are fall through spring, before the weather gets too hot for both angler and angled.
None of this is a secret to the state’s growing number of fly-fishermen, many of whom can be found gathering on the second floor of a downtown building on Congress Avenue, where the Austin Angler has been a successful fly shop since 1981. The store was owned for a while by Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Mina, and it found brief fame in 1983 when it was featured in the first series of Visa’s “They don’t take American Express” advertisements. People still mention this commercial, says current owner Larry Sunderland, and more and more of them come from all over the world to fish the swift streams and clear waters of the Hill Country. One regular customer, he tells me when I stop by for the first time, in October, flew in from Australia for a one-day conference and spent the afternoon fishing before flying back Down Under. Like birdwatching in the Lower Valley, fly-fishing is joining the list of Texas activities for which we are internationally famous but don’t know it.
I am not a fly-fisherman, or a fisherman at all, for that matter. I’ve long thought the sport arcane and geeky—another of society’s silent subdivisions, whose members quietly signal their affiliation through shirt slogan or hat adornment. I have been fishing before; as a boy, I stood around while my dad and his shadier friends poached salmon from a muddy Welsh estuary. Maybe this sounds romantic, but it mostly meant being cold, wet, and awake at three in the morning. Still, on a recent trip to the Gulf Coast, I witnessed the drama of a happy man landing a huge redfish on a fly, and I’ve come to the Angler to join this genteel band, rather than the spin-casting, bass-roping hordes.
The store’s manager, Alvin Dedeaux, has been fly-fishing since he was a boy growing up on the outskirts of Houston. He’s one of those people who seem to have completely found their niche in life, and his friendly, impartial advice contributes a great deal to the store’s relaxed and erudite ambience. In addition to running the operation, he also takes clients—from rank beginners to angling vets—on guided trips down Hill Country streams. Dedeaux suggested that we take his raft down the Llano River to look for bass, as the Guadalupe was still too high from the recent heavy rains.
In the pre-Starbucks darkness one Friday morning in October, I follow him out to Mason County. We put the raft in at a crossing just below where the James River joins the Llano. Big red bluffs tower over the valley in the distance. It’s a perfect day for the trip—not too hot but still sunny. Ordered rows of little fluffy clouds float overhead, each as perfect and unique as a snowflake. The river is wide and brown as it makes its way across the starkly verdant Hill Country ranchland. We don’t see another soul all day until we reach the take-out point.
Dedeaux, decked out with all kinds of shamanistic fishing implements, reminds me that as he is rowing I should be casting, not taking in the scenery, so I pick up my rod and inexpertly throw the fly out over the rippling water. A few days before, Dedeaux had given me a crash course in casting. First, I practiced with a sort of pet toy, a fluffy bright orange ball at the end of a short training rod. Feeling like Harry Potter in wand class, I learned to make the ball sweep evenly from side to side, all the time intoning “thump, thump” as I tried to make my upper arm move smoothly to a quick, graceful stop at the end of each back-and-forth movement. Gratifyingly soon, Dedeaux pronounced that I was ready for the real thing.
Out on the Llano, save for one embarrassing incident involving my guide’s dreadlocked hair, I avoid accidentally hooking myself or him. We move slowly downstream from one likely looking spot to another, while Dedeaux offers well-chosen words of encouragement and advice. To entice the fish, he’s given me a largish, brown fuzzy-looking fly—a “basshopper.” He says it resembles a grasshopper to the bass—at least, we hope.
My first “catch” comes as a surprise. Taking a break, I have almost forgotten about the rod trailing over the back of the boat and don’t immediately recognize the strong tug as a fish grabbing the fly. Before long, I land a Guadalupe bass. Translucent and covered with greenish-brown stripes, the little bass has a wide, deep mouth and is slippery and muscular to the touch. Like the Hill Country cedar that is really juniper, Guadalupe bass is really a type of sunfish. (What is it about Texas and the names of things?) After a photo op that I’m sure the fish would just have soon skipped, I gently release it back into the river, and it quickly disappears, seemingly not too shook-up by the experience.
It doesn’t take me long to understand the attraction to the sport. Fly-fishing requires the same sort of esoteric technical proficiency as golf but without the distraction