Texas anglers have it lucky: Few states boast as many high-quality, lunker-producing lakes where sportsmen can expect 6- and 7-pound fish on any given weekend. But sometimes a fishing boat isn’t in the cards. If you’re stuck with nothing but a kayak and some waders, covering a big lake can be tedious — if not impossible.
That’s when it pays to have a few solid river options. While faster current and lower fish density increase the level of difficulty, these five flowing-water fisheries offer great opportunities for bass and can be accessed by even the most budget-conscious angler.
The Devils River is number one on the list for a reason. Almost every expert consulted for this article — both fishing guides and Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) personnel — identified the Devils as one of the best river bass fisheries in the state.
Located in southwest Texas just north of the Amistad Reservoir, this 49-mile stretch of clear, spring-fed water is among the state’s most pristine. The rugged terrain and remote location can make accessing the fishery a challenge, but once on the water, anglers can pursue both smallmouth and largemouth bass in the midst of breathtaking scenery.
The clarity of the water (combined with the river’s shallowness) necessitates light tackle and sneaky tactics.
When it comes to tackle, “the lighter the better,” local fishing guide Shane Davies (shanedaviesguide.com) said. “In these limestone, clear-flowing rivers, light tackle is preeminent. Most people fish too heavy.”
Davies recommends 20-pound braid line with an 8- to 12-pound leader.
For lures, Clint Taylor of Texas Kayak Fisher (texaskayakfisher.com) likes to throw a Heddon Zara Spook into pockets of vegetation and near the banks of the river at dawn and dusk. He’s also found frog-pattern lures to be successful near areas of vegetation, along with Strike King’s Rage Tail Space Monkey.
The most important thing? Don’t scare the fish.
“I can’t stress how important it is for you to try and be stealthy in clear water,” Taylor said. “If a bass sees your shadow, they are much less likely to bite than if they don’t know you are there.”
Preparing for a trip on the Devils requires more planning than most Texas rivers. There are no nearby stores, cell service is limited and TPWD warns that “only experienced paddlers should embark on a Devils River trip.”
The river features a mix of slow-moving pools and brief Class I to Class II rapids. Class III rapids can also form during high water levels, and sometimes the Devils River State Natural Area closes due to flooding, as it did last October.
TPWD has two State Natural Areas for access and two leased access areas for camping on a float trip. Putting in at Baker’s Crossing offers the full, 4-day, 47.7-mile trip down to Lake Amistad.
BRAZOS RIVER BELOW LAKE WHITNEY
The longest of Texas’ rivers, the Brazos flows for 840 miles through the heart of the state. Largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass can be pursued through much of its course, but one specific location offers anglers a great chance of success.
TPWD stocks lakes much more frequently than rivers so targeting the area below Lake Whitney (and, to a lesser extent, below Possum Kingdom Reservoir) often yields excellent results.
“The Brazos River below Lake Whitney has been providing some quality bass fishing lately and recently there have been more reports of smallmouth bass being caught downstream of the Lake Whitney Dam, and there is evidence of natural reproduction,” TPWD Inland Fisheries Regional Director Brian Van Zeesays said. “In addition, this area of the Brazos River was recently stocked with smallmouth bass produced by our hatcheries to help that fishery expand.”
Fishing guide Steve Davies has been targeting the section of the Brazos between Possum Kingdom and Lake Whitney since the early 1990s, and he also recommends the area below Lake Whitney for winter striped bass.
The Brazos “kicks out great largemouth, great smallmouth,” he said. “One of my clients has the catch-and-release length record [for striped bass], 42 inches, in June of 2009. It’s definitely one of the best fisheries in the state as far as rivers go.”
Davies throws lots of weightless plastics 5 to 8 inches and larger to target bigger fish. He uses modified shallow Carolina rigs, double fluke rigs and inline buzz frogs.
“That’s not to say that a good old-fashioned Texas rig or a weightless plastic like a Brush Hog or a lizard won’t get it done,” he clarified.
He recommends throwing lizards year round. “I always kind of laugh when people say, ‘Oh, I thought lizards were a spring thing.’ Lizards are just a bigger overall profile with more lateral-line-triggering quality than a brush hog, so why not? It’s better than a worm,” he said.
Public and private access points can be found along the entire length of the river. Below Lake Whitney, Dick’s Place offers kayak and canoe rentals; Riverside Park offers put-in access for small craft.
LLANO RIVER BETWEEN JUNCTION AND CASTELL
The Llano River is a tributary of the Colorado and runs approximately 105 miles in central and west-central Texas. It’s known for its beautiful hill country scenery as well as a unique species of fish only found in the Lone Star State: the Guadalupe bass, which is also the state fish.
TPWD has been working in the Llano River to restore the state’s official fish and their efforts have turned the section between Junction and Castell into an excellent Guadalupe bass fishery, according to TPWD River Studies Program Director Stephan Magnelia.
Largemouth can also be had downstream through Castell and that stretch is especially known for bigger fish. Like the Devils River, the Llano is shallow and clear, which necessitates light craft and stealthy tactics.
Clint Taylor of Texas Kayak Fisher angles upstream of the South Llano River State Park just south of Junction, where one of his most successful plastics has been Strike King’s Rage Tail Space Monkey in green pumpkin or watermelon. In areas of vegetation, he’ll throw it with a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce bullet weight, and in more open regions, he’ll throw it weightless. Throwing without a weight is especially important in clear water, as it allows for a more natural presentation.
If he’s going after Guadalupe bass, he’ll target areas of flowing water with a 1/16-ounce Worden’s Rooster Tail in Fire Tiger.
Public access is available at the South Llano River State Park as well as at road crossings such as Ranch Road 385 near London and Ranch Road 1871 south of Mason, Texas.
COLORADO RIVER BETWEEN AUSTIN AND COLUMBUS
The Llano River isn’t the only option for pursuing Texas’ state fish. The Colorado River between Austin and Columbus offers anglers a chance to catch the biggest Guadalupe in the state.
“The number one draw for the Colorado River is the Guadalupe bass,” local fishing guide Chris Johnson (livingwatersflyfishing.com) said. “The state record Guadalupe has been caught on the Colorado. It’s your best shot for a large specimen of the state fish.”
The state record is just under 4 pounds, but Johnson says 2-pound fish are common. Magnelia said that anglers often report catching Guadalupe bass that exceed 15 inches. He also noted that nice largemouth can be had in the stretches of the river near Austin.
While pursuing Guadalupe bass, Johnson says it’s important to pay attention to current and fish location. Like trout, the Texas state fish tends to hunt in flowing water, so anglers will want to target visible cover that provides some sort of current break. Rockpiles and downed logs allow bass to spend less energy as they wait for prey to swim past.
The Colorado gives anglers both a blessing and a curse when it comes to fish location.
“Everything looks fishy,” Johnson said. “Sometimes it’s not about where you do fish, but where you don’t fish.”
Flukes, Senkos and other large baitfish imitations work well, Johnson said, but topwater baits are especially fun for feisty river bass.
“They hit it so hard it sounds like it hurts,” he added. “They get really aggressive fishing topwater baits.”
Whatever you throw, a day on the Colorado can yield the fish of a lifetime.
“You’re kind of swinging for the fences when you’re fishing the Colorado,” Johnson said.
While true of all Texas rivers, Johnson noted it’s especially important to pay attention to the amount of water being released into the river by the dams. Narrow sections can become more dangerous to navigate and the quality of fishing decreases in too much water. Anglers can log on to the LCRA Hydromet website (hydromet.lcra.org) to check streamflow, river stage and rainfall totals.
Public and leased fishing access is available all along the river, especially between Austin and Smithville.
NECHES RIVER NEAR BEAUMONT
The Neches River forms in Van Zandt County in East Texas and runs approximately 416 miles south until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It features two major reservoirs, Lake Palestine and B. A. Steinhagen Reservoir, but much of the river is still in its natural state.
For bass anglers, Magnelia recommended the area in southeast Texas near Beaumont. This portion of the river is deep and wide and features beautiful cypress swamps and hardwood forests.
“The main river when conditions are right has a good largemouth bass population as do the tidally influenced creeks and oxbows that connect with it,” Magnelia said. “The fish aren’t big, but numbers are outstanding. In the lower river, you are just as likely to catch a big redfish while bass fishing.”
For spotted bass, Magnelia also recommended a tributary of the Neches called Village Creek, which connects with the river about 15 miles north of Beaumont. Village Creek State Park provides access just west of the Neches.
Fishing the slow current of the Neches resembles reservoir fishing more than the other rivers on our list. Still, anglers should look for areas of cover and shade, targeting fallen trees, rocks, stumps and other objects that break the current and attract fish. Texas-rigged worms, jigs and other snagless baits can be used to explore the bottom for underwater cover like logs and stumps.
Depending on proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, anglers should also be mindful of how the tide influences fish behavior. Bass might position themselves on one side of cover as the tide rises and the other as the tide falls.
River access can be had all along this portion of the river, and anglers can also use the large, white sandbars for camping and day use.
Whatever river you choose for your next adventure, remember that Texas waterways are rarely stocked and the survival of the bass depends in large part on responsible angling.
“The rivers are pretty special,” said fishing guide Shane Davies. “And they’re more fragile than the lakes. They have to be treated with the utmost respect and judgement.”
Davies encourages anglers to practice catch and release and, of course, avoid littering to ensure our rivers stay beautiful, challenging and full of big, feisty bass.
Honorable Mentions: South Concho River in San Angelo, Sabine River near Orange, San Marcos River between San Marcos and Martindale, Bosque River in Waco, especially the area below Lake Waco Dam.
RIO GRANDE PERCH: A TEXAS TREASURE
The Guadalupe Bass is one unique, native species found on several Texas rivers. Another is the Rio Grande Cichlid, or Texas Cichlid (Herichthys cyanoguttatus), commonly called the Rio Grande Perch.
This fish is definitely not a perch, however, belonging instead to the Cichlid family of fishes, which includes exotic fish such as the tilapia, Oscar and peacock bass. Like most Cichlids, the Rio Grande is highly sensitive to cold, generally not surviving in water temperatures around or below 50 degrees. It prefers water temps around 80 and spawns in spring as water warms to about 70 degrees.
The fish occurs naturally in southern Texas, originally limited to lower reaches of the Rio Grande. However, according to TPWD, populations are also established in other Hill Country river drainages such as the San Marcos, Guadalupe, San Antonio and Colorado rivers.
While the Rio Grande Perch doesn’t get all that big, it can grow to lengths over 10 inches and attain weights of about 2 pounds, with a maximum of perhaps 3 pounds. The current Texas state record weighed 2.02 pounds and was caught in 2011 on Lake Dunlap, part of the Guadalupe River.
What they lack in size, they make up for in beauty and feistiness. Their distinctive speckled coloring makes them fairly easy to identify in hand, and mature males even develop a steeply humped, “domed” forehead. Fights are spirited on light tackle. Good baits include small live insects, crayfish, worms and minnows. Small panfish lures can produce for the lure crowd, and fly-fishers can find success with small nymphs and streamers.