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 of social interaction. The cast is a lot like a swing, a source of endless frustration and soreness, as you engage and disengage the same muscles over long periods of time. But attempting to stay mindful of the basics while fully immersed in the whole experience forces you to concentrate with both body and mind. And eventually, I begin to understand the dynamics of the operation. As long as the wind is from behind and we are fishing the left bank (so I can cast with my right arm), I can get the line arcing backward in a tight loop and then flick my upper arm forward just before the loop starts to fall, letting the line unfurl lazily over the rippling water in front of me. Occasionally the fly even drops somewhere close to where I had envisioned it landing.
As the morning winds pleasantly toward lunch, I start to revel in the magic of the balance between arm, rod, line, and fly, slowly flexing the line back and forth like a lion tamer. I abandon less-than-respectable casts even if the fly lands right where it should (to Dedeaux’s murmured praise). I’m still forgetting to “strip the line,” which means to pull the fly back toward you slowly, trying to make it appear alive to the suspicious fish. Or sometimes I simply forget to leave the line on the water long enough for the fish to take it. In other words, I haven’t been skunked, but I’m not catching a whole lot of lunkers either.
Not that it matters. As I watch the pattern of the sunlight on the riffles, the flow of the river around rocks and rapids, and the shadow of a hawk as it swoops across the water, my mode switches from observing to registering and gradually to a place where the river and the sky seem to welcome me into their world, benign and supremely indifferent to anything but the perfection of the moment. Every effort goes into gleaning any little intuition that can bring a fish to the line. Most intuition is the result of long observation and experience as knowledge becomes understanding. Any regular activity is rewarded eventually by prowess. Fly-fishing, as so many writers before me have observed, also brings a little extra something into your life; call it a space for the mind to be neutral and for the spirit to expand.
You could float down this stretch of the Llano River—or any Hill Country river—every day of your life and learn something new. My companion has been down this waterway hundreds of times, and by lunch I have caught no fish in any of the spots he has pointed out, yet I have been mildly successful in the areas where he suggested that I would not catch anything. I mention this to him. A faint look of discomfort passes over his face, but he brightens immediately and lifts his finger into the air. “The weather’s changed,” he says. In fly-fishing, there is an endless set of variables that allows you to remain a student for a lifetime.
Could you stick a worm on a hook and catch more fish? Maybe. But that’s not the point. You wouldn’t be engaging your skill and expertise in the same manner, and as the old saw goes, this is about fishing, not catching. If you’re really hungry, grab some Power Bait and get up early. But if you’re interested in a full day of meditation on the river, pack a sandwich and head to the Texas Hill Country with a fly rod this winter. There are dozens of rivers just like the Llano waiting for you.
The Austin Angler is located at 312 1-2 Congress Avenue (512-472-4553).