“The Guadalupe bass? Well, that’s my childhood friend,” says our guide, Alex Herrera, who’s just nineteen years old and grew up fly fishing in the rivers of the Texas Hill Country. We’re near the tiny town of Martindale, about seven miles southeast of San Marcos, at a state-leased boat ramp. The aqua-green San Marcos River cuts a sandy bank through grassy farm fields and flows beneath a canopy of swaying trees. After sliding his raft down a stone dam and into the river, Alex offers his forearm for support as my father-in-law, Bob Alton, and I climb aboard. We’ve entrusted this young yet disarmingly mature man with helping us catch the state fish of Texas. I’d become fascinated with the legend of the Guadalupe bass during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet try as I might, over the past two tumultuous years I’d never managed to catch one. With each fraught cast, my obsession with our state fish had grown. To understand why it’s meaningful to catch a Guadalupe bass, you must also understand how, as Alex says, “That little bitty, fiery bass has been through hell and back and kept on kicking.”

The French botanist Auguste Trécul first identified the Guadalupe bass in 1849 (it’s named in his honor: Micropterus treculii), but for more than a century, the fish never attracted serious attention from Texans as a prized catch or good eating. Not a true bass, it’s a member of the sunfish family and rarely grows more than a foot long; the greenish fish’s modest size helps it nimbly navigate small, fast-flowing streams. A better-known game fish, the smallmouth bass, has given the Guadalupe bass a lot of grief. From 1974 to 1980, Texas Parks and Wildlife officials stocked nearly seven million non-native smallmouths in Central Texas rivers, thinking they’d make a fun catch. But all those smallmouths, as Alex explains, “incidentally fertilized Guadalupe bass eggs, too.” The two species interbred, creating a hybrid that threatened to wipe out the Guadalupe bass. In 1979, the American Fisheries Society called the Guadalupe a “species of special concern.”

Efforts to preserve the Guadalupe bass didn’t pick up steam until the late eighties, when a class of third graders in the North Texas town of Decatur took an interest in the species. The kids called on lawmakers to name the Guadalupe bass the official state fish of Texas. After all, it’s found only in this state, and a small portion at that—predominantly the northern and eastern sections of the Edwards Plateau. In 1989, the state legislature approved the designation. TPWD biologists found a pure bloodline of Guadalupe bass on the upper Nueces River and in 1992 began a program to breed the fish in captivity. Over the last three decades, the humble critter has become one of the state’s biggest comeback stories. TPWD has reintroduced more than 2.4 million Guadalupe bass to Central Texas rivers and streams while removing non-native smallmouths. Word has gotten out that the feisty creature, which is known for putting up a fight, makes for great quarry. Today, according to the agency, 42 percent of Hill Country anglers specifically target Guadalupe bass, supporting a recreational fishing industry that brings roughly $70 million in tourism dollars to Central Texas annually. 

But even those who aren’t intentionally casting for Guadalupe bass sometimes catch them—including two other fishermen in my family. My six-year-old son hooked a fingerling while bobber fishing on the Pedernales River, and my brother-in-law caught one while casting for largemouth bass in a pond off Onion Creek. Everyone had caught a Guad, it seemed, but me.

I learned the Guadalupe bass bite peaks from late April into May, as grasshoppers start to drop out of the fields and the fish begins feasting in preparation for its spawn. With Bob, a club-level tournament bass fisherman, coming into town for Easter weekend, I hatched a plan. As we floated out onto the San Marcos River, we were three men across three generations trying to catch something we believed to be special.

How To Catch a Guadalupe Bass
The San Marcos River. Ian Dille
How To Catch a Guadalupe Bass
Bob Alton chats with Alex Herrera on the raft. Ian Dille

Step 1: Think like a fish.

I’d fly-fished with Alex once before, for largemouth on Lake Dunlap, a dammed-up portion of the Guadalupe River. He couldn’t legally imbibe a beer, but he guided like a seasoned pro, carrying a conversation throughout the day while aiming his raft toward big and beautiful fish. Growing up in New Braunfels, he had been fascinated with fish since as early as he could cast. Throughout his childhood, he sat for hours along the Guadalupe riverbank, observing the fish and even jotting down notes—how the bugs and baitfish the bass hunted changed with the seasons. Once he got a kayak, he says, “it was over.” He’d spend all day fishing, returning only in time for dinner, lest he risk a tongue-lashing from his mom. Alex got to know the Guadalupe bass best when he was in high school, as he transitioned from a spinning reel to fly casting. He still rues the one that got away: a three-plus-pound, state record–size Guad that he threw back into the river without weighing. “I was fourteen,” he says. “And still fixated on catching the absolute biggest bass I could.”

After graduating from New Braunfels’s Canyon High School in 2020, Alex spent a summer working at a fly shop in Taos, New Mexico, learning to man a raft and guide on the Rio Grande. He continued guiding while studying fisheries and wildlife management at Tarleton State University, in Stephenville, ultimately leaving school without a degree to focus on fishing. Climbing aboard his boat, Alex tells us he’s one of about forty licensed fly-fishing guides in the state.  

Even he admits that there are probably easier and more efficient ways to reel in a Guadalupe bass than with a fly rod from a floating raft. Texans can catch the species in more than forty restored habitats, including but not limited to its namesake waterway, in Guadalupe River State Park; south of downtown San Antonio, on the Mission Reach section of the San Antonio River; or at 21 public access sites maintained by the state specifically for Guadalupe bass fishing. The aggressive fish certainly also bites at a variety of lures thrown on a spinning reel. The Ned rig, bouncing a rubber worm attached to a jig along the river bottom, is a popular technique. 

However, a fly rod provides an intimate experience, with the relatively small but mighty Guad pulling at the line held in your hand. Alex assures us that this section of the San Marcos we’re floating, east of Martindale, has seen few anglers this spring, so the Guads won’t know what hit them. The bag limit for Guadalupe bass is five per day, the same as for small- and largemouth bass, but most recreational anglers (including us) choose to catch and release, out of respect.

Alex starts us out with poppers, lures that sit on the surface of the water and, with each pull of the line, make an audible hop. Showing us how to cast toward the river’s bluff wall, he tells us to “just beat it up against the bank,” aiming for structures like downed trees and lily pads, around which an insect might land in the water. Guadalupe bass often feed in the swirling pools below currents and in what Alex calls “backwater,” calm offshoots from the main current. He tells us to trust our instinct: “If you’re thinking, ‘There might be a fish there,’ probably is. If not, keep going.”

Step 2: Cast with confidence.

“I always say ugly casters make the best bass fisherman,” Alex says, explaining that Guads aren’t delicate and sensitive like trout, a less predatory species that waits for food to wash downstream. Bass react to a lure that lands looking “mean and ugly,” he says, but it’s possible he’s just trying to make Bob and me feel better. Most of his time is spent untangling our lines from tree branches that we snag when our aim isn’t quite right. It’s embarrassing, but as he paddles the raft back up the river to unhook a fly from a floating log, Alex assures us, “This is literally my job. If you’re not getting snagged every now and then, you’re not trying hard enough.” As someone relatively new to using a fly rod, I confess to Alex and Bob that almost all of my casts are coming up at least a foot short of their intended target. They both shrug: “Welcome to fly-fishing.”

Like Alex, Bob grew up fishing—but in Iowa, not Texas, and for sustenance, not sport. He learned how to fly-fish from his dad, who climbed telephone poles and hung wires for a living. Bob followed his dad into the telephone business, got an MBA, and became the CEO of a communications company. As a retirement gift, his company’s board sent him to New Hampshire on a fly-fishing trip, run by Orvis. When Alex tells us that his grandparents immigrated to South Texas from Mexico and that his parents were the first in their families to earn college degrees, Bob nods: “They must have worked their butts off.” Then he lays a lure into a little eddy at the foot of a tall cypress, right into the mouth of a Guadalupe bass. 

Actually, two: another Guad swims parallel to Bob’s fish, trying to steal the fly right from its jaw. I throw a line in the water for the second fish, but it vanishes. The Guadalupe bass state record is just over three and a half pounds, small by bass standards, but the species’s ferocious fight belies its size. “They kind of have small-man syndrome,” Alex jokes. Holding the fish up for examination, Bob notices its red-rimmed eye, a Guadalupe bass trademark. After leaving the corporate world, Bob began wintering on the Florida coast. Most mornings, he rises early and heads out in his bass boat to cast for Florida’s legendary largemouths. He’d never fished for Guadalupe bass before—but this time, he landed the lure right where he wanted. “Cast of the day,” he smiles.

Step 3: Set the hook.

As we round the final bends in the river before our takeout point, I start to feel a bit dejected. What was it about the Guadalupe bass and its up-from-the-ashes story I’d found so captivating? Did it even matter if I caught one? The whole world is going to hell anyway, and despite its comeback, the Guadalupe bass still faces considerable challenges. The fish’s sensitive Hill Country habitat is threatened by drought, pollution, and the massive influx of new Texans that makes this region one of the fastest-growing in the nation. In Round Rock’s Brushy Creek, one of just ten places in the state where a pure bloodline of Guadalupe bass lives, raw sewage has been flushed right into the waterway. Sure, the Legislature could do something, such as pass the Pristine Streams bill, which would help protect Texas’s most cherished creeks and rivers from rampant development. Last session, the measure passed the House but died in the Senate; I’m not holding out hope. 

Not only that, but I’m feeling some midlife ennui, too. I’ve been doing this kind of work, reporting, writing, and telling stories, for almost two decades. As a teenager, I’d started down this path in part as an excuse to go on regular adventures, perhaps not so different from those Alex sought. More and more, though, I’d began contemplating my impact on the world, or at least my world. What was I leaving behind? An hour or so earlier, praying for a miracle, Alex had tied a big, fuzzy fly to my line. “This’ll get you the state record,” he’d told me. “They’re going to be very explosive when they eat. They’re not really going to give you a second to think about it, so don’t hesitate in setting that hook.” 

But I’ve pretty much given up. My fly is dragging across a rocky little beach when I feel a tug. Probably a snag, I figure. “That’s a fish,” Alex says. He grabs the net, and I pull at the line. The fish bursts from the water, its muscular white belly swinging from the end of my line. Alex makes a lacrosse-worthy save—the biggest Guad of the day. With a toothy grin, I hold my catch up for a photo: the state fish of Texas, the Guadalupe bass. Man.

Before Bob and I say goodbye to Alex, I ask him if he’s planning on going back to school to finish his fisheries and wildlife degree. He says no, that slogging through math and science requirements wore on him. He’s learning more out here on the river. Instead, he tells me, he plans on transferring to Texas State University, where he wants to study creative writing. He looks me in the eye. “I want to tell stories, kind of like you.” I blush. Well, how about that. I guess we all caught what we came here for, after all.