Fishing With a Southern Accent
South of I-10, the fish are almost as hospitable as the people.
By Larry D. Hodge
The word "Southern" tends to conjure up certain images, one of which – in my mind at least – involves a heaping platter of cornmeal-crusted catfish fillets fried golden-brown, surrounded by hush puppies and french fries, accompanied by a tub of pinto beans and a small lake of tartar sauce.
Or maybe that's heaven I'm thinking about.
In either case, Texas south of Interstate 10 can supply all the necessary ingredients and a lot more. South Texas lakes teem with catfish, true, but also with largemouth bass, white bass, striped bass, hybrid striped bass and red drum.
Red drum? Striped bass? Aren't those saltwater species?
Yes, they are, but they do quite well when stocked into lakes with the right conditions, and they furnish some of the best angling action in South Texas reservoirs.
Lakes Calaveras and Braunig just south of San Antonio are two South Texas lakes lucky enough to have healthy populations of both red drum (redfish) and hybrid striped bass along with largemouth bass, catfish, crappie and tilapia.
"We stock hybrid striped bass into these lakes every year and redfish almost every year," says Inland Fisheries biologist John Dennis. "It's a put, grow and take fishery. Hybrids are stocked instead of stripers, because hybrids can survive a wider range of temperatures – those power plant lakes get too hot in the summertime for the stripers."
On the early June day that I fish Lake Calaveras with Dennis, Ron Strait, Zoe Ann Stinchcomb, guide Manny Martinez (210-386-6695) and TPWD intern Kristy Kollaus, the surface water temperature is already a toasty 87 degrees, and before summer's end it will near 100.
"The prime time for redfish is summer," Martinez says. "The hotter the weather and the water, the better they bite. Hybrid fishing is also best during the warm months."
We begin the day anchored to a line of orange buoys that prevents boats from approaching the dam. Martinez casts silver slabs as close as he can to the base of the dam. The key to finding hybrids in summer is to find the coolest water, which is also generally the deepest. "The [hybrid] stripers hold close to the wall," Martinez explains. "Wait 15 seconds, then begin a slow retrieve." We all catch fish - the crank usually makes only a few turns before a hybrid slams it, and the fight is on.
Later in the day Martinez shows us another way to catch stripers, by trolling down-rigged baits over humps in the lake. I've fished Braunig, the sister lake to Calaveras, in the same fashion with guide Harry Lamb (210-633-2801) and brought both hybrids and redfish to the boat.
But Martinez saves the best for last. In mid-afternoon he ties up to what locals call the crappie wall, a concrete structure across the intake channel for the power plant. It extends down about 8 feet into the 30-foot water, so that pumps draw cooler water into the plant. The suction creates a powerful current that attracts baitfish and predators. Casting toward the plant and reeling in small silver slabs attracts vicious bites from big reds, and Martinez and Stinchcomb hook up with a double.
Then Martinez gives us the good news: "In September, October and the first half of November, the reds move to the dam to spawn. You can catch them on these silver slabs. It's beautiful."
Nearby Lake Braunig also produces lots of reds and hybrids, and like Calaveras, it has lots of open shoreline that makes bank fishing easy. Both lakes also offer jon-boat rentals, lighted piers, camping and fish-cleaning stations. The San Antonio River Authority, which manages the lakes, recently made improvements to the facilities that were partially funded by grants from TPWD – your user fees at work.
While I love fighting – and eating – reds and stripers, I am a true Southerner, and catfish still rank at the top of my list for both catching and eating. Several lakes south of I-10 have furnished me with some of my most memorable fishing trips.
For sheer tonnage of fish caught, Lake Braunig tops the rest. A few years ago, while fishing near the Braunig dam with the late Bob Fincher, four of us boated 28 channel catfish. Those 28 fish filled a 100-quart ice chest to the point we could not close the lid. Fincher believed, and others agree, that Braunig produces bigger cats, but that Calaveras is better for numbers of fish.
We caught those big Braunig cats by anchoring as close as allowed to the dam, then casting alongside the concrete wing wall that extends out at an angle. Use no bobber and an egg weight to make the bait sink. This is not the place to cast and then put your rod down while you contemplate the sorry state of world affairs. When these bruisers bite, they take off for deep South Texas, and they'll take your rod with them.
Choke Canyon Reservoir enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a good catfish lake as well as an outstanding bass lake. Blues and flatheads are the main catfish here, though there are plenty of channel cats as well. This lake fluctuates considerably, and when the lake refills after an extended dry period, it floods thousands of acres of vegetation that grew up while the water was down. Fish move into the shallows and flooded vegetation to feed, and you can catch catfish off the bank in a few feet of water as easily as you can under cormorant roosts, another favored target of catfishers. Trotlines and jug-lines baited with live bait catch larger blues and flatheads in the creek channels and up the Frio River. Use heavy line and be ready to drag fish out of the brush.
A local guide invented and popularized a dip bait, Catfish JuJu, that catches lots of channels and blues in five to 15 feet of water under a bobber. I love fishing with a bobber, because I find nothing else is as good at clearing my mind of all other thoughts and concerns as concentrating on that little piece of plastic, waiting for it to go under. On an expedition to Choke Canyon in June, I found that cheese-based stink or punch bait works well under a bobber in about 8 feet of water, but the real show was along the shore, where dozens of carp were threshing the water as they spawned.
As for those Choke Canyon largemouth bass, we found them to be fond of spinnerbaits reeled fast early in the morning along the edges of the hydrilla. There must be something in the water in this lake – those fish are strong.
In certain areas, the surface of Amistad Reservoir is dotted with plastic jugs. Those jugs didn't get there by accident. They mark fishing holes that have proved productive over the years. The jugs are anchored to the bottom with rope strong enough that you can tie onto it and fish straight down on the bottom. In places there are white plastic jugs dotting the lake as far as you can see.
A productive technique is to bait several areas with soured grain, and then go back to the first one and fish them in rotation. If you don't get a bite in 10 minutes, move to the next spot. It takes a while for fish to find the grain, but when they do, you'll probably catch several. Fishing under a bobber in 6 to 8 feet of water with stink bait will work when fish are shallow; a slight wind to ripple the surface helps. In colder months when fish are holding near the bottom, just drop a blob of stink bait on a treble hook to the bottom and then crank it up one or two turns. Sometimes the bite is very light; I find I catch more fish holding my rod and setting the hook at the faintest hint of a movement of the rod tip. Fishing this way I've caught twice as many fish as others in the boat using two rods and waiting for the tip to drop before grabbing the rod. Catfish can mouth the bait and spit it back out before you can set the hook unless you are already holding the rod.
Amistad is a lake of many faces. Look for smallmouth bass up the Pecos and Devils River arms. Look for white bass schooling under birds during what passes for winter in South Texas; in the spring they'll make a spawning run up the rivers – the Pecos is the best bet. Amistad also has striped bass, though not many people target them. As with white bass, the key is to look for schooling fish in open water. When they're feeding on the surface, they'll hit whatever you throw at them.
The same is true of young largemouth bass in early summer, and Amistad has a huge population of one- to three-year-old fish. On a cloudy day with a little wind, you can catch bass on top-waters and drop-shotted plastic worms until your arms are tired.
Amistad has big largemouths – the lake record is 15 pounds plus – and they will start to spawn when the water reaches 58 to 59 degrees in the spring. Remember that spring comes early way down south. "In February you will be targeting pre-spawn fish," says guide Ray Hanselman Jr. (830-774-1857). "Try to find staging areas like the center of drains that lead to deeper water. Use big swim baits and deep-running crank baits. When the fish move up and start spawning, you can sight-fish with soft plastic jerk baits."
After the spawn is over, Hanselman targets big bass hiding in flooded brush. One such area is east of the U.S. 277 bridge. Hanselman throws a humongous, jointed, bluegill-imitating topwater bait that attracts spectacular strikes. "I like to see them hit it," he says of the quarter-pound bait that looks like a steak when he casts. "You don't catch as many fish, but if a fish does hit it, it's usually a good one."
On both Amistad and its sister Rio Grande reservoir, Falcon International Reservoir, Mexican fishing licenses are required if crossing into Mexican waters with fishing gear in the boat. Everyone in the boat must have a Mexican fishing license regardless of age, whether fishing or not. The licenses can be purchased from Robert's Fish N' Tackle (2425 S. Highway 83, 956-765-1442) and from Falcon Lake Tackle (2195 S. Highway 83, 956-765-4866).
Falcon is an excellent fishery for both largemouth bass and channel catfish, though it's best known as a big bass lake. Relatively shallow, the lake is subject to draw-downs, especially during drought, but the fish are still there. Look for them in submerged structure, including the ruins of buildings in towns inundated by the lake. If your idea of heaven is catching fish in a church, you can literally do it on Falcon.