by Brandon Powers
An enormous school of shad scattered before us as our canoes sliced into the pool. We drifted silently to a gravel bar downstream, quickly jumped ashore, and sped back upstream rods in hand. Upon reaching the head of the pool I hurriedly checked my leader and fired a cast into the churning school of baitfish. Three strips into my retrieve my leader sprang forward and I was into a strong fish. Unsure of what was happening, the fish held in the current shaking its head. Then suddenly it turned and raced downstream tearing line off my reel. I turned in pursuit as I watched my backing begin to stream through my guides. After ten minutes of powerful runs I landed the beautiful 10-pound striper. Pausing momentarily to admire the fish, I removed the clouser minnow from his jaw and watched as it darted back into the shadowy depths of the pool.
Eager for another reel screaming fight, I jogged back upstream cheering for my roommate Jeff, as he charged downstream past me following a fish of his own. Once again I tossed my clouser into the head of the pool and began an erratic retrieve. Half way across the pool I received another violent strike from a heavy fish. Instead of speeding downstream, this fish stayed in the current making short hard runs toward rocks on the far bank. Five minutes later, my arm aching from keeping constant pressure on the fish, I was still no closer to landing it . To make matters worse I still had no idea what was on the end of my line. I kept trying to visualize the shadow of a large striper as I watched my line slice back and forth through the pool. This fish acted so differently from the last however that I wondered if I hadn’t in fact foul-hooked a large carp. To my relief the fish began to tire and I slowly worked it closer to shore. When I finally managed to bring the fish close enough for a good look I grinned with surprise. Flopping at my feet was a hybrid striped bass of about 7 pounds.
After snapping a few pictures I released the fish, and watched Jeff land another hybrid which was easily the twin of the one I had just released. The pool was now completely disturbed and even the shad had disappeared - but it didn’t matter to us at all. We had miles of river still to go with large hungry fish lurking in pools all along the way! We sat down on a pile of rocks, broke open a couple of beers and toasted our good fortune.
The same scenario would play itself out over and over with almost every pool for the remainder of our trip. We were only a few miles into a two-day float trip on the Brazos River west of Fort Worth, Texas. My brother Justin, my good friends Jeff and Dave and I had floated this same 20-mile stretch of river many times before, but never quite this early in the year. Instead of the intense bass and bluegill action we had anticipated, we had stumbled onto some of the finest striped bass action we had ever experienced. Finding the fish was too easy. Every time our canoes entered a quick riffle we all began to grin with anticipation. The stripers and hybrids would have large schools of shad cornered in the head of the approaching pool. These fish were miles from the nearest road and had probably never seen a fly before. As a result they were painfully easy to hook; landing them proved to be a much greater challenge.
The Brazos River winds through some of the most beautiful country in north Texas. Tall rocky cliffs rise on all sides covered in mesquite and cactus, deer and turkey fill the woods, and bald eagles soar lazily overhead. The Brazos River flows from the base of the Possum Kingdom lake dam creating a highly productive tailwater fishery. Although water temperatures on the Brazos are not sufficiently cold year round to support trout, the river is host to many other species of game fish. Striped bass and hybrids spawn each spring as water temperatures approach 55 degrees. Just before the spawn the fish will tend to migrate upstream and begin to feed heavily on available forage fish. During this time of year the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stocks rainbow trout in the first few miles of the Brazos. The striped bass literally gorge on 8-inch hatchery trout.
While moving up-river and feeding heavily, the stripers and hybrids can be caught on any good forage fish imitation. My favorites include Clouser Minnows 2-6 in chartreuse and white and gray and white variations, Lefty’s Deceivers in white and blue and white, EHRs, Plastic Pigs, Sheep Shad, and Cypert’s minnows to name a few. A nine foot #6 rod with weight forward floating line is ideal for most fishing situations on the Brazos. Make sure that your reel has a decent drag and plenty of 20-lb. backing. Stripers in moving water can literally make line melt off your reel! Later in the season as the stripers drop back into the deeper holes a sink-tip or full sinking line can be very effective.
After the stripers and hybrids move into deeper water one can still enjoy fishing the shallows. Largemouth bass, spotted bass, sunfish, crappie, carp, drum, and gar will eagerly take a fly and make great trip savers when the stripers become hard to locate. Popping bugs, baitfish imitations and even standard nymph patterns can all be very productive. In fact one of my favorite strategies is to locate a riffle with a bit of depth and use typical trout nymphing techniques. The spotted bass and drum will line up in the current just like trout and are delightfully easy to catch.
Fly fishing season doesn’t have to come to a screeching halt once winter arrives. Our canoe trip proved to be some of the most outstanding fishing we encountered all year! The next time you find yourself stranded in Texas for the winter, grab your fly rod and head for the Brazos River. You just might be surprised at what you find.