Fishing and drifting the badlands of southwest Texas on the Devils River

Photos by Tom Suhler

“This river eats rods. You’ll want to stow them before you hit the rapids.”

That warning from our shuttle driver came to mind as soon as I heard the whitewater rumble deep in the cactus- and scorpion-ridden badlands of southwest Texas. Five friends and I were about to embark on a four-day, 30-mile adventure down the Devils River, which crosses an unforgiving wilderness known as the Trans-Pecos. The Devils wends through rolling hill country, descends into the rugged Chihuahuan Desert and reaches its terminus at a reservoir on the Rio Grande along the U.S.-Mexico border. With no help in the area should we screw up, we approached the noisy boulder field with caution.

The river is a challenge in high or low water.

The river is a challenge in high or low water.

The paddling would get more technical downriver. Still, with decades of fishing and paddling experience across our mostly middle-aged crew, I figured know-how and luck were in our favor. Those early miles, meanwhile, presaged just how tricky it could be to negotiate the Devils River in pursuit of largemouth and smallmouth bass.

Sycamores, pecans and elms grow tall along the upper reaches, where the pool-and-drop river alternates between shallow, lake-like slack water and rocky choke points. Faced with hot springtime temps and a stiff headwind, we didn’t mind getting wet — a good thing, because as we lined the boats in the current, dragging them over rough limestone, there was no way to stay dry. Other paddlers had left red and green plastic scrapes, and we added our own to the narrow chutes. Soon, stands of river cane would obscure the drops, creating buggy, spider-filled mazes where we encountered white-tailed deer, turkey and surprisingly bold nutria, a rodent native to South America. Flows during our visit were at 50 cubic feet per second, about as low as you could go and still navigate the Devils, mildly tempering our collective expectations.

If the logistics had not involved weeks of planning, we would have waited for rain to raise the water level. Even with more water, it’s not an easy river to paddle, partially because private landowners limit access. It also has a reputation for violent flash floods and boasts the largest, baddest waterfall in Texas. With no rain in the forecast, we could at least lay one fear to rest.

Portaging Dolan Falls.

Portaging Dolan Falls.

Seclusion and scenery belie the Devils, an unlikely ribbon of exotic turquoise in a tawny landscape, which offers intrepid anglers a shot at one of the best-protected bass fisheries in the Lone Star State. Though Devils River visitation pales in comparison to the Madison in Montana, the Buffalo in Arkansas or the Catskills streams I discovered during my Yankee boyhood, the Texas waterway has come under increasing pressure as population growth booms across Houston, Austin and other urban centers. Last year, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department instituted a catch-and-release policy for largemouth and smallmouth bass on the 45-mile stretch above Lake Amistad, which sees the most action. “We want to maintain the bass abundance, maintain angler success and protect against potential overharvest as river use increases,” Ken Kurzawski, inland fisheries director of information and regulations, stated in a press release at the time.

A spirited largemouth tears up an aquamarine pool.

A spirited largemouth tears up an aquamarine pool.

Our crew comprised several native Texans and a couple of transplants, including myself — almost all veterans of redfish campaigns on the Texas coast. We used sit-on-top kayaks plus one canoe and packed light, planning to share tents and eat dehydrated meals. That left each man with space for a small quiver of rods, and assorted swim baits and topwaters. Forewarned that cell service was slim to nonexistent, I also carried a satellite emergency beacon.

For the first day or two, we had the river to ourselves. Paddling requires a TPWD permit, and only 12 launches are assigned daily, limiting campers to a single night at each sanctioned site. Nonetheless, our crew mostly planned on improvised sites amid the rocky islands and low ledges where we could stretch out under fabulous night skies. On our first night, stars splashed across the heavens, a sterling reminder that West Texas still has some of the darkest skies in the nation.

We faced a battering upstream wind with gusts to nearly 25 mph on day one, but we still managed steady progress. The kayakers took turns working first water, while Tom and I kept pace in the canoe. We picked up perch and passed-by bass as we explored channels, working weed beds and deep holes. Having conquered eight miles, we dined on freeze-dried beef stroganoff, rested our weary muscles, passed some sipping whiskey and watched the constellations overhead.

Submerged limestone ledges border a promising stretch of water.

Submerged limestone ledges border a promising stretch of water.

During our second day, we spent nearly as much time walking as paddling for the first few miles, facing more wind, which pushed our craft around on flat-water pools as we leapfrogged over one another for the best shot at the biggest bass. The saving grace was that the Devils, unlike some desert rivers, including the Pecos some 50 miles west, retains a brushy, woodland character. Its shady canyons sheltered us from the sun, as noontime heat crested at 90 degrees. By the time we approached famed Dolan Falls, a comically misplaced cast from the canoe hooked up my best largemouth of the trip, which I gauged to be roughly 2 pounds. Truth be told, the canoe was neither as stealthy nor as agile as the kayaks, and I had miscalculated, trusting that my fly-fishing kit would suffice.

With the stout headwinds, the others had packed away their wooly buggers and froggy flies. I reached for Tom’s spinning rod — not the first time — and sailed a Texas-rigged worm (what else?) over a high branch, leaving the lure suspended almost exactly where I wanted it. Before I could free the line, the bass struck, leaving me to awkwardly land the hung fish from the canoe. “That must be the stupidest bass in the history of the Devils,” a friend crowed. We all laughed.

By late afternoon, we had reached the Del Norte unit of the Devils River State Natural Area, one of two public preserves on the river, encompassing 19,000 acres. Its clear-running springs flow from sheer limestone cliffs, nearly doubling the volume of water in the river. I was tempted to take a mouthful directly from the burbling streambeds, but despite the fact that the Devils is regarded as some as the cleanest water in Texas — in the entire lower 48 states, according to some claims — I didn’t need a case of giardia that far from my medicine cabinet. I’d suffered a bout of rotavirus years ago on an expedition down the middle fork of the Salmon River in Idaho and cautioned my compatriots that we still needed to employ our filters.

The paddlers traveled light: tackle, dehydrated food and a little sipping whiskey.

The paddlers traveled light: tackle, dehydrated food and a little sipping whiskey.

The Devils is a wildlife corridor for bears and mountain lions on their way into central Texas from the wilds surrounding Big Bend National Park. We’d already seen enough animals, including a wide array of birds and bats, as well as one very bold raccoon, to comprehend that the water might not be safe to drink.

The wildlife here has always been noteworthy; prehistoric artists along the Lower Pecos left more than 300 pictographs in area caves. These hunter-gatherers roamed Texas some 4,000 years ago, predating the Comanche and Apache, who raised hell on horseback among Anglo settlers in the 18th century.

Dolan Falls, named for Texas Ranger Pat Dolan of the 1800s, is fed by myriad springs as well as Dolan Creek, which crosses conservation land. Even at low water, the noted falls demand a portage — and at more than 500 cubic feet per second, I suspect the drop is deadly. We took some time to explore along the edges of the preserve while a couple of our buddies waded back upstream to try their luck. Others swam, noticing bass suspended in the crystal-clear water below the 10-foot falls. I restrung my fly rod and landed a couple of feisty smallies on a crawdad pattern.

Day three arrived, and we lowered the boats over Dolan Falls. The biggest challenge was unloading and reloading the canoe, which held, among other items, our waste buckets (a state requirement to keep the river pristine). Picking up our paddles again, we spent more time in the boats with the increased current, and everybody fell into an easy rhythm as we leapfrogged downstream. Aquamarine pools appeared like small lakes, formed by natural weirs, with submerged limestone ledges producing bass worthy of the effort to reach this far-flung spot. Pete, a part-time musician from Austin who works as a real estate broker, caught a largemouth that looked like it might go to 6 pounds — a personal record, he exclaimed, smiling.

The Devils is defined by seclusion, scenery and good largemouth and smallie fishing.

The Devils is defined by seclusion, scenery and good largemouth and smallie fishing.

By the time our crew reached the incongruous riverside home sites of the Blue Sage subdivision, where in the 1970s a developer built a bunch of country houses, we had managed to swamp the canoe twice. We didn’t lose anything, but it was clear that the whitewater on the lower Devils could be hellish. Tom still had his spinning rod but had busted an old Orvis, and our pal Robert had managed to snap the tip off his spinning rod, which put a damper on his final day of fishing.

Then, high on the bank above the river toward the southern boundary of Blue Sage, we spotted celebrated Turkey Bluff, easily identified because of the large, red painting of a turkey apparently being chased by a coyote. Somewhere beyond, on marked private land, was an additional pictograph site known as Mystic Cave, where a nearly 60-foot shelter was painted with totemic images of animals and shamans.

We’d faced more than our share of challenges on the Devils. That much was for sure. And yet as we entered the final stretch downriver to the takeout, I thought about how cruel it was that Texans had chosen such a harsh name for this stream.

Some sources report that Spanish explorers called the river San Pedro, for St. Peter. Despite the scrapes and bruises, sunburns and broken rods, it felt like a heavenly place to me.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Anglers Journal magazine.

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