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A Watery Way of Life

This Hill Country tourist village struggles to preserve its natural allure.

By Michael Berryhill

Destination: Wimberley

Travel time from:

AMARILLO - 10 hours / AUSTIN - 1 hour / BROWNSVILLE - 6 hours / DALLAS - 4.5 hours / EL PASO - 10 hours / HOUSTON - 3.5 hours / SAN ANTONIO - 1.5 hours

On the Blanco River just outside of the Village of Wimberley, I am sitting in the bow of a canoe while my fishing guide, Kelly Watson, is doing something that, in summer camp, they taught us never to do. He is standing up in the stern of the 14-foot canoe, occasionally pushing us ahead with a kayak paddle and looking for fish.

I am casting with one of his limber, short, ultra-light spinning rods loaded with braided, 2-pound test line. We are stalking bass, the native Guadalupe bass and the smallmouth bass, which have been stocked in Hill Country rivers since the early ’70s, and hybrids of the two. Although the sky is overcast, we’re wearing polarized sunglasses, essential for sight casting in the clear green water of the Blanco. It is January, and the water is cold, and the fish are typically lethargic this time of year and not inclined to strike. The odds are against us for catching anything, and if we do, we’re going to release the fish anyway.

We are matching the hatch this afternoon, with a pale plastic juvenile crawfish weighted with a split shot to add distance to the cast and help the lure sink quickly. Although we can see the fish, they can see us, too, so we keep our distance. Soon I’m learning to tell the difference between the bass and the other fish — smallmouth buffalo, a type of sucker — that swim by.

Watson points out a fish at 11 o’clock and for a change, I lay the plastic crawfish perfectly before it. Because he is standing up, Watson sees the strike coming before I feel it: The fish gapes and flares white. “Stick him!” he shouts, and I do. Then comes that peculiar moment in fishing when time seems to slow down. Because it has struck so hard, I’m sure I have this fish. How could I miss? And then Watson is urging, “Stick him again!” and I think, “Why?” I’m sure this fish is on, but I jerk the rod up again. There is a splash of water, and then the fish is gone, the fastest catch-and-release I’ve ever done.

The problem is that the crawfish is “Texas-rigged,” with the point of the hook barely poking through the soft body of the lure. And then there is the limber rod, to which I am not accustomed. I might think I’m exerting 8 pounds of pressure when I’m only putting out two, Watson explains. Setting the hook has to be done emphatically.

We float the river a while, and then stalk the shallow rapids and rocks near a dam at the edge of the village. Fish will hide in the pools. Here you are sight-casting to habitat rather than fish, with the advantage that the fish can’t hear you or see you. Watson is disappointed that we don’t take a fish, but I am delighted to have made the acquaintance of several. A line of Thoreau’s ripples through my mind: “Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” I’m just happy to be out on the river, learning something new. What could be better than this?

That night I stay in one of Wimberley’s many bed and breakfasts, the Lodge at Creekside, run by Merry and Ashley Gibson and their daughter Sally. The word lodge is a little deceptive. Actually, the Gibsons have a series of small houses along Mill Race Lane on Cypress Creek. I particularly like one done in the frontier style of two log cabins with a breezeway between them, and a rustic willow bench on which to relax and admire the flowers blooming even in winter.

Mill Race Lane is not a fanciful name invented by a real estate developer. Remnants of a 19th-century mill race run along the side of the road. Hill Country river towns almost always got their economic starts from water. And water is still the economic engine that drives Wimberley. Situated in fast-growing Hays County between Austin and San Antonio, Wimberley faces a difficult problem: how to deal with a rapidly growing population and yet retain the water and slow pace of life that makes the area attractive.

On Saturday morning I meet with Malcolm Harris, a lawyer and civic leader who grew up at his parents’ summer camp on the banks of Cypress Creek. Harris is chairman of the Wimberley Parks and Recreation Board, part of the Village of Wimberley, which was incorporated only 4 years ago. We take a walk along the recently created Cypress Creek Nature Trail, situated on 7.24 acres of floodplain along Cypress Creek, beginning at the bridge near Highway 12 and a couple of blocks from the visitors center. Local birders have been feeding, and I spot a male cardinal, a tufted titmouse and a kinglet. The only structure is a small rainwater catchment system using a corrugated metal roof and small tank. Such catchment systems may become common sights in the Hill Country. Brush barriers have also been built to slow the sheet flow of water from a supermarket parking lot and allow the rain to soak into the ground.

We walk upstream on the floodplain to one of the most famous swimming holes in Texas, the Blue Hole. It is one of those idyllic spots in the Hill Country, walled by a rocky bluff with overhanging trees, tall cypresses and deep pools in the creek for swimming. It’s the kind of place where you want to picnic and swim and sit in the shade and do nothing all day.

But it was in danger of getting lost within a large residential subdivision of 380 homes and a hotel or condominium on the bluff. Thanks to the efforts of Wimberley civic leaders, the Blue Hole and 126 acres around it have been bought by a private landowner who is holding the land until the city can raise about $2.75 million to buy it back in the next 2 years.

As we walk around the proposed park site, Harris talks about the village’s vision of the future. Playing fields on the highest part of the park will be watered by efficient underground drip systems using sewage effluent from a badly needed new treatment facility. Through brush management, perhaps a dry creek bed running through the park will have water again. As we walk around the grounds, I spot a roadrunner hunting by the edge of a clearing. Five deer watch us carefully and then bolt into the woods.

The next day I drive 5 miles upstream from the Blue Hole to Jacob’s Well, a deep rock cave fed by a spring. No one knows exactly how the underground rivers of the Wimberley Valley feed Jacob’s Well, but we do know that the well stopped running in 2000, and local conservationists fear that could happen again if the growing population of western Hays County continues to drill 200 to 400 wells a year. The self-appointed caretaker of Jacob’s Well is David Baker, an artist turned conservationist who has gathered investors to preserve 170 acres around Jacob’s Well. He also operates a small bed and breakfast near the spring called Dancing Waters Inn, a favored site for watching migratory neotropical birds, nesting golden-cheeked warblers and big hawk migrations.

The problem is that no one definitively understands how underground rivers in the area work, Baker says. He hopes to raise money to conduct dye studies of the water flows. The spring that emanates from Jacob’s Well feeds Cypress Creek, which in turn feeds into the Blanco River, and from there affects Barton Creek in Austin. So what happens to Jacob’s Well can affect people far from the source.

When I leave Wimberley that Sunday for the short drive to Austin, I take away memories of a charging fish in green water, tall cypresses on the banks of the streams and a sense of a Hill Country town that is being led by conservationists. I have a bottle of olive oil and another of good white wine from the Bella Vista Ranch outside of town, billed as “a little taste of Tuscany.” But what lingers the longest is the thought of all that precious water that keeps the fish and the charming tourist village alive. Can people love it, live in it and preserve it, all at the same time? I hope so.

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