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Rainbows over Texas

In a state with no native freshwater trout species, one of the most popular fish to catch is the rainbow trout.

By Larry D. Hodge

Rainbow trout are as beautiful as the natural phenomenon for which they are named. Fittingly, the first place they were stocked in Texas was McKittrick Creek in the Guadalupe Mountains, one of the most beautiful natural areas in the state. Judge J.C. Hunter, who owned land in the Guadalupes, stocked rainbows into the creek in 1930, and their descendants live there today. (The rainbows may have eliminated a native population of Rio Grande cutthroat trout, if they existed, but that’s another story.)

Rainbows for the rest of us came in 1966. San Antonian Harry Jersig was president of the Lone Star Brewing Company and also a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department commissioner, and at his behest the brewery financed a three-year stocking program in the Guadalupe River below Canyon Dam.

Although its proximity to Jersig’s home may have had something to do with the choice of location, the main reason lay in the way Canyon Dam was constructed. Many dams use floodgates located at the top of the dam to release water. Canyon Dam is different — it releases water from near the bottom of the lake. Water from this deep level is cold, and rainbow trout, which are native to frigid mountain streams in western North America, thrive in cold water. The Guadalupe River below Canyon Dam normally remains below 70 degrees Fahrenheit year-round for up to 10 miles below the dam, allowing rainbows to survive most of the year.

Allen Forshage, director of the Edwin L. Cox Jr. Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, was one of the TPWD fisheries biologists involved in the early trout stocking program. The program actually began as mitigation for destruction of the native fishery below the dam caused by the cold-water releases. “We were trying to improve fishing in the Guadalupe River following the construction of Canyon Dam in the early 1960s,” he recalls. “Following the first year’s stocking, I did a cost-benefit analysis that showed every dollar we spent stocking trout returned $9 in harvest and recreational value. It was such a success that we started looking at other places that had cold-water discharges.”

The two sites chosen for further experimentation were both in the Panhandle — the Lake Meredith tailrace and Lake Rita Blanca, a 150-acre lake near Dalhart located in what was at the time the northernmost state park in Texas. Both received rainbow trout in 1973. The list of sites stocked grew slowly through the remainder of the 1970s and early 1980s, including such diverse locations as Inks Lake, Barton Creek, the Neches River, Boykin Springs, the Lake Possum Kingdom tailrace and Spring Creek.

The popularity of the rainbow trout fishery prompted an expansion of stockings beginning in 1983 to include ponds in state parks such as Buescher, Meridian, Tyler, Bonham, Cleburne and Daingerfield. The program really took off in 1987, when 25 bodies of water welcomed rainbows. The list grew year by year, and in 2007 a total of 162,124 rainbow trout were stocked into 92 sites, including a number of community fishing lakes in urban areas.

“TPWD got more into angler education and providing urban angling opportunities,” Forshage explains. “Even though rainbow trout are a put-and-take fishery, because of the high cost-benefit ratio, they can be put into urban ponds to provide winter fishing for city dwellers.” Rainbow trout fishing became so popular with urban anglers that many cities now provide money for additional trout to keep stocking rates and angling success high. Rainbow trout are fun to catch and fun to eat, and many people appreciate being able to catch trout a few blocks from their home and serve them up for dinner that same day.

Rainbow trout cannot survive in water temperatures above 74 degrees Fahrenheit, making fishing for them strictly a winter activity except in the Guadalupe River below Canyon Dam. Trout sometimes live year-round there and even reproduce, though not in numbers sufficient to support the fishery. TPWD stocks an average of about 20,000 adult rainbows eight to 12 inches long into the river annually as well as fingerlings from time to time. Guadalupe River Trout Unlimited, the only TU chapter in Texas and the largest in the nation, stocks 14- to 24-inch fish into the river as well.

TPWD fisheries biologist Stephan Magnelia oversees the trout fishery in the Guadalupe, and he has the pleasure of working with happy anglers. The Guadalupe was listed as one of the top 100 trout fishing destinations in the United States in 2005. Angler satisfaction rates run as high as 90 percent for some fishing locations along the river, and 62 percent of anglers travel an average of 122 miles one way to fish there, according to a study Magnelia did during the winter of 2004-2005.

Guadalupe River Trout Unlimited plays a major role in keeping happy anglers wearing out the highways to the Guadalupe. GRTU has a contract with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, which controls the lake, that calls for at least 200 cubic feet per second of water to be released from the dam from May until October any time the lake is at conservation pool or above after January 1. “That keeps the water cold enough for trout to survive for five to 10 miles downstream,” says Mick McCorcle, a former president of GRTU. “In the summer of 2005, when the minimum flow agreement was in force all summer, one of our chapter members caught a 23-inch rainbow below a weir 15 miles downstream.”

Oddly, even though rainbow trout survival depends on a steady release of water from the lake, unusually wet years pose more of a threat to the fishery than dry ones. “When the reservoir catches a lot of rain in late spring, releases to get the lake down to conservation pool drains the cold water from the lake,” Magnelia explains. “During a drought, cold-water habitat can be maintained as far downstream as four miles from the dam, but when we have rains like those that fell in June of 2007, the water may be at near-lethal temperatures right at the dam.”

Life is precarious for rainbows in the Guadalupe. Floods can wash them downstream or bring water too warm to live in. Droughts can result in low lake levels and little or no releases of water. Even fire ants have been blamed for fish kills in the river. Rainbows gorged on floating masses of swarming fire ants one recent summer and died not from stings, as you might expect, but from massive doses of toxins the ants produce.

“Even under ideal conditions, summer mortality will be high,” observes Magnelia. “However, we restock the river annually, so there will be plenty of fish in the river from January through August. Numbers decline about September, but we start stocking again in December, so there are good numbers of fish available for nearly nine months of the year.”

Most people fish for rainbows at a public access point immediately below Canyon Dam, where a pool tends to concentrate large numbers of fish. “A small treble hook baited with Velveeta cheese flavored with garlic seems to be really effective,” Magnelia says. “The ideal rig is 4- to 6-pound test line with a small split shot to hold the bait on the bottom. Some people use Berkeley Trout Nuggets, and I’ve seen a few people using salmon eggs. But cheese is the number one bait.”

Among catch-and-keep anglers, that is. In the trophy trout zone that starts about four miles below the dam and runs to 14 miles below, anglers may keep only one fish a day, it must be at least 18 inches long and it must be caught on an artificial lure. Elsewhere the daily limit is five rainbows with no minimum length and no restrictions on type of bait.

TPWD provides leased river access outside the trophy trout zone, and GRTU leases from 15 to 20 access points within the zone. “In a given year we have 500 to 600 people pay $105 each to use the leases, and the revenue is used to pay landowners for the leases and to buy trout to stock,” McCorcle says. “One of the appeals of the Guadalupe is that it is one of the top five winter trout fisheries in the country. In most of the rest of the country you can catch them from June through October, but here the prime season is November to April, so people come down here to fish for them. We have people from the Northeast who join our chapter so they can come fish in our trophy zone.”

GRTU’s involvement goes far beyond simply providing angling opportunity, however. “We consider ourselves stewards of the river, and our primary concern is to make the river hospitable for cold-water species so it can be a year-round fishery for the economic benefit of area businesses and guides,” McCorcle says. “The neat thing is that Steve Magnelia has a vision for the river and understands what we are trying to accomplish. We keep him informed on what we are doing, and he does the same. We are funding a study of bug life in the river to see how it changed after the flood of 2002, and Steve is coordinating and giving good advice to the person doing the work. We probably would have headed in the wrong direction if not for Steve. That partnership is what makes it work.”

Fly-fishing for rainbows is possible almost everywhere the fish are stocked, and wet flies such as Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail, Prince, Soft Hackles and Dave’s Red Squirrel work well. Effective streamers include olive or black Wooly Buggers, Zonkers, Marabou Muddlers and Black-Nosed Dace patterns. Dry flies such as Parachute Adams, Blue-Wing Olive, Crystal Comparadun and Elk Hair Caddis can produce exciting top-water action very early in the morning. Slate Drake flies sometimes “match the hatch” on the Guadalupe during midday from November through March.

However and wherever you fish for them, rainbow trout in Texas are valued as much for the quality of food they provide as for the thrill of reeling in a hard-fighting, high-jumping kaleidoscope of color. Harry Jersig’s bright idea still brings joy to thousands of Texas anglers every year.

Tips for Trout

Prepare for your trip by visiting the TPWD Web site to review regulations, public access points and river conditions. Wading the Guadalupe is not safe when flows are above 500 cfs; ideal fishing conditions are between 150 and 250 cfs. The GRTU Web site (www.grtu.org) has all the above information and more, including a forum on trout fishing.

Raising Rainbows

TPWD and GRTU buy rainbow trout they stock from Crystal Lakes Fisheries, a private hatchery near Ava, Missouri, run by the Emerson family. “My father, Dwight Emerson, started the hatchery with my grandfather,” says Marvin Emerson. “In 1950 he bought property with a spring that flows about 10 million gallons a day. It never went dry even during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. The water comes out of the ground at about 58 degrees, which is ideal for raising rainbow trout.”

Emerson raises most trout in concrete raceways. “We are a closed hatchery — we bring in no outside fish for spawning,” he says. “Our brood stock is known as the Emerson strain rainbow trout.” Fish are delivered to Texas fish hatcheries in large tank trucks and held in hatchery raceways until TPWD crews stock them into public waters.

Delivery dates are posted on the TPWD Web site (www.tpwd.state.tx.us/troutstocking) and trucks are always met by an eager crowd of anglers with rods and reels in hand. Some of the fish spurting out of the pipe don’t look like rainbow trout. A fair number will be bright yellow, and once in a while one will be blue. “In the late 1980s we had a male rainbow that was a tiger-striped golden trout,” Emerson says. “We mixed him in with some females, so we now have several generations. People like to catch them, because you don’t see them much in the wild — they are so visible that predators get them. Blue ones are rare, because in 50 years we have never found any that are fertile, so we can’t raise them intentionally.”

Appropriately, however, once in a while a Texas angler finds there is indeed gold at the end of a rainbow fishing trip. And if your rainbow turns out to be all blue — that’s even better than gold.

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