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Tripping the Trinity

The most beautiful stretch of this hard-working waterway is where you’d least expect it.

By Larry D. Hodge

As the kayakers paddle lazily by the lush green island in the middle of the Trinity River, four wild turkeys in succession blast off and fly right over their heads, flapping mightily, heading for the dense forest on the other side. The kayakers stop paddling, stunned, and drift a bit before one looks at the other and says, in awe-struck tones, “Did you see that?”

Even more amazing that this happened at all is where it happened — on the edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, not far north of DFW Airport and the urban sprawl gobbling up a large amount of North Texas, along a stretch of river little known even to most DFW residents, just below Lewisville Lake Dam.

Zoe Ann Stinchcomb and I are here to float and fish this almost-secret stretch of the Trinity with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologists Tom Hungerford and Rafe Brock. Flowing as it does through the two most populated areas of Texas — Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston — the Trinity is perhaps the most used and abused river in the state. For much of its length, urban runoff and sewage effluent form the bulk of its flow. Yet where it issues from Lewisville Lake, the Elm Fork of the Trinity is clear, clean and inviting.

Much of the credit for this goes to the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning and Wildlife Management Area, nearly 2,000 acres of land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that lies on either side of the Elm Fork immediately below the dam. The area includes bottomland forests as well as upland areas and is home to reintroduced Rio Grande turkeys, white-tailed deer and a host of other species — 27 mammal, 275 bird, 36 reptile, 13 amphibian, 17 arthropod and 28 fish, in fact.

It’s fish that we’re here for, partly to help Hungerford and Brock sample the stream and partly for the sheer fun of fishing a small, fast-flowing stream with light tackle.

We scrub a planned trip when welcome rains arrive with a cool front, but an intrepid group of volunteers bent on cleaning up the river cast off anyway. It’s citizen involvement that helps preserve the charm of this little bit of natural North Texas (see sidebar, “De-Trashing the Trinity”).

The next morning dawns clear and cool, a perfect day to be out on the river. We pack our canoes with fishing gear and picnic supplies and put in just as the sun climbs high enough to reach the west bank. We’re off on a six-mile float to the take-out at the West Hebron Parkway bridge. Along the way, we’ll pass under a railroad trestle and Texas 121 and alongside two huge landfills whose towers of trash — covered with earth — peek through a narrow strip of forest that contains some of the biggest cottonwood trees I’ve ever seen, giants it would take three people to reach around, wonders of nature whose tops seem to tickle the sky’s belly. We’ll see mallards and blue-winged teal, American white pelicans, great blue herons, wood storks, vultures, red-tailed hawks, belted kingfishers, northern cardinals, red-eared turtles, American rubyspot damselflies, green darner dragonflies, monarch and tiger swallowtail butterflies.

And fish. The best fishing places come in the first mile or so of river, from the put-in to the railroad trestle. Actually, Brock and Hungerford explain, this isn’t the river channel at all, but a constructed conduit for water released from the dam. But you’d never know by looking. Winding and rock-bottomed, its banks covered in sycamore and willow and partridge pea and poison ivy, the channel looks like a wild river.

And fishes like one. We haul out just a hundred yards or so below the put-in, where a bend in the river spins an eddy against the east bank. Tom uses a soft plastic crayfish-imitating bait while Rafe threads a nightcrawler on below a quarter-ounce bullet weight, and they edge cast to the bank and to the edge where the current meets the eddy. Rafe loses a few worms, probably to sunfish; Tom hooks several rocks.

“There should be white bass, spotted bass, largemouth bass and lots of bluegills,” Tom says. “And there may be some hybrid striped bass mixed in with the white bass, since we stock those in Lewisville Lake every year. Fish for the bluegills with red wrigglers. For bass, use small spinnerbaits, small jigs, small crawfish-imitating baits.”

“Ultralight or fly-fishing tackle will work, but do use 14- to 17-pound line when fishing for bass, because farther down the river you’ll be fishing around logs and laydowns,” Rafe adds.

Back in the canoes, we paddle by the island where the wild turkeys were the day before, but they’re elsewhere. Past an S-curve in the river, we pull out on a gravel bank, and Rafe and Tom start working a sheer clay bank on the outside of a bend while Zoe Ann wades to a small island. Release from the dam is 126 cubic feet per second today, and while the current is moving at a pretty good clip, keeping our footing is not a problem. Because water coming from Lewisville Lake is part of the water supply for Dallas, releases can be 300 CFS or more, and under those conditions, you should take precautions against falling and wear your life preserver even when you’re out of the boat.

Rafe picks up a rod baited with a Texas-rigged crayfish-imitating lure and tosses it within inches of the far bank. Bam! A fish takes it before the swirling current moves it more than a couple of feet. The fish puts a hefty bend in the ultralight rod and tail-walks several times before coming to hand. It’s a spotted bass, and Rafe shows us the tell-tale lines of spots on its side and the sandpaper-like tooth patch before releasing it.

A few casts later, using a tiny diving crankbait, Rafe pulls another spotted bass from the river. This one is all of three inches long, but it tried to eat a bait suitable for a much larger fish. We laugh at its amibition while admiring another of its trademark body features, a tri-colored tail — then send it home to grow up and fight again another day.

Both Tom and Rafe catch spotted gar on artificial lures, and the changing angle of the sun tells us it’s time to move on down the river. At a leisurely pace we’re still two hours from takeout. Below the railroad trestle to the 121 bridge, it’s easy to imagine you are deep in the wilds of East Texas, if you can ignore the low-flying jets taking off from DFW. The twisting channel is a slalom course of downed trees, stick-ups and gravel bars. At this low flow, it’s not a challenge even though the paddler in the front of the boat — me — is inexperienced. At 300 CFS, only experienced paddlers should attempt this stretch of river.

Below the 121 bridge the number of snags and laydowns lessens, and the river flows leisurely, giving time for your attention to wander to the huge cottonwoods and flowers and flittering butterflies. The westering sun slants through the trees — over the tops of those huge landfills, alas — and showers sparkles on the river; reflections dance off leaves drooping low over the water. It’s altogether a relaxing, quiet way to spend an afternoon just a mile or so from the constant clang and clatter of the city.

And while the Trinity is a working river for much of its length, carrying water to cities and disposing of their wastes, here it more resembles a mountain stream in its carefree youth, out to have a good time carving its banks and frolicking with its fish.

It’s a good place to be, and all you need to enjoy it is a canoe or kayak and a few hours during which you can slip the bonds of city, freeways and responsibilities — so near, and yet so far.

Before You Go

Check out the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area (LLELA) Web site at <www.ias.unt.edu /llela> for hours, regulations and fees. The dam area has primitive camping as well as a canoe and kayak put-in and is open for public use only on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Information on running the river, canoe and kayak rentals, shuttle service and guided trips can be found on several Web sites: <www.southwestpaddler.com>; <www.kayakpower.com>, <www.down-river.com> and <www.canoedallas.com.> Streamflow data and other Trinity River information can be found at <www.trinityra.org>. For information on City of Dallas plans to improve recreational opportunities along the river within that city, go to <www.trinityrivercorridor.org>.

While put-in facilities at LLELA are excellent, taking out on the upper stretch of the Elm Fork is, frankly, a pain. You can take out at the Texas 121 bridge, but your float will be only about two miles, and the bank there is very steep and parking is very limited. The take-out at West Hebron Parkway is a little better, but you have to jump a curb and negotiate a 70-percent grade to get down to the parking and takeout, and if the ground is wet, forget it. You’ll never make it back up the hill, even with four-wheel drive. A better plan would be to take a guided trip with one of the companies above or arrange for them to shuttle you and your gear back to your put-in.

Another alternative is to put in at McInnish Park, west of I-35 on Sandy Lake Road. Turn into the park, then take the first right to go under the McInnish Drive bridge to the parking area and boat ramp. You can paddle upstream and then back down. (You can, of course, do the whole 12 miles from LLELA, an all-day trip.) Do not go downstream; just under the bridge is an uncontrolled spillway that drops 20 or so feet into a boiling cauldron below. People have drowned here; make sure you don’t.

De-Trashing the Trinity

Dallas area canoers and kayakers love the Elm Fork of the Trinity with a passion, so much so that they go to great lengths to improve and maintain it. The Saturday cleanup we witnessed was co-sponsored by LLELA, the City of Lewisville, Kayakpower.com, REI–Dallas and REI–Plano. Mike Swope of Kayakpower.com showed up with a pickup truck and trailer loaded with kayaks and PFDs.

Mike Williams, outreach specialist with REI– Dallas, explained why the Elm Fork arouses such loyalty. “LLELA is a wonderful place to camp and paddle. It’s wild enough to give you the feeling you are a hundred miles away from the big city.” So far REI has given LLELA $13,000 in grants for improvements and organized several volunteer work days to build a kayak launch, expand the primitive camping area, and construct nature trails. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact LLELA director Ken Steigman (steigman@unt.edu, 972-822-0320) or REI at 972-985-2241 in Plano or 972-490-5989 in Dallas.

Volunteers on the projects get dirt under their fingernails, the satisfaction of knowing they’ve done something to improve their little part of the world and T-shirts that say “Get Dirty.”

Ironically, getting dirty may be the best way to help the Elm Fork come clean.

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