Read these next few sentences, then close your eyes and try to picture where you are. Imagine you are standing in crystal clear water, so green-blue it’s Caribbean-like. This water is running through a landscape of pure white bedrock with shoots, pools, and waterfalls. Trophy-sized sport fish swim everywhere- often close enough to see the color of their eyes. Now, where do you think you are? If you guessed the fish tank at your local mega-outdoor store, you weren’t too far off. Welcome to the Devils River of far South Texas. Yes, I said Texas.
The written history of the Devils River is long and storied. You can find the hillsides riddled with petroglyphs of indigenous peoples. Spanish explorers have traversed the harsh landscapes in search of fortune and national glory. Epic battles between regiments of The Republic of Texas and the combined forces of the Comanche and Apache have been waged from its banks. The Texas Rangers have pursued infamous outlaws in the caves that dot the cliffs. And today, the largest inclusive society of mega-ranch owners wages war, both political and literal, against many an adventure seeking paddler. And through this diverse and rich history… perhaps the most vexing secret the Devils holds is how the heck did it lose its apostrophe?
But let’s put aside landscapes and history- you’re here for the fishing. And trust me, on the Devils River there is no shortage of fish. These waters hold vast quantities of smallmouth, largemouth, gar, panfish, grass carp, and catfish. This October, a handful of my compadres and I set out on a three-day dance with the Devils in search of this fishing paradise. We put in at a popular put in spot off Texas Highway 163 called Bakers Crossing- 32 river miles away from our take out. Now, I’ve done this trip a couple of times before, and I’m no stranger to long river expeditions. It never ceases to amaze me how much I think I can fit into my water vessel. We attempted to pile an ungodly amount of fly fishing gear, camping equipment, and coolers packed to the brim with ice cold beverages into our fifteen-foot canoes while leaving enough room for two people to sit and paddle. With some ingenuity and mad Tetris skills, we set off downstream in our overloaded canoes.
The Devils River holds a variety of fishing opportunities, but when the weather is nice in Texas and you’re fishing for bass, nothing is more fun than top-water action on the fly. We threw foam poppers into the canopies of underwater forests and produced slam after slam of hungry, under-pressured bass. We probably hadn’t been coasting through our first big pool for longer than five minutes when the shouts of “BENDO!” went ringing through the valley. Three-pound largie, hooked and landed. Out here, sight fishing is a regular occurrence, but when you’re fishing in what can most accurately be described as an aquarium, more often than not they see you first. Like I said, you can see their eyeballs. Thus was the theme of day one.
Now nighttime is a different story here… After we made camp and settled in, I blew up my trusty Bōte paddleboard and set off into prime fishing waters. Through the glare of the sunset, the water became alive with rise after rise of hungry bass and panfish. There’s something special about fly fishing from a paddleboard. It offers the stealth, maneuverability, and vantage a canoe cannot, and on seemingly every other cast for the next 45 minutes I landed pounder smallmouth and largemouth. After the last sliver of light was gone, I blind casted into the darkness and set the hook (more accurately failed to set the hook) on sound and slight tugs alone. There’s something very surreal about being completely engulfed in the wild, at the mercy of the river, and putting flies in front of hungry fish. I hear it’s a gateway drug? Exhaustion set in, and the sound of bass busting the water serenaded me through the darkness back to camp. For the rest of the night, I watched the axis of the Milky Way makes its way across the sky.
Dawn broke, and through the scattered remnants of the previous night’s drinks, a couple of us hurried our way to the water for some dawn patrol fishing. And when fish are busting, who has time to properly dress? Caught a couple really good fish in my skivvies- I can successfully cross that off my bucket list. We pushed on, and that day I took on the mission to teach my buddy Mark how to fly fish. And I mention this story, to highlight how wild and underpressured these fish are… Around the first bend of whitewater, we nested into a deep pool with some great weed banks and rock shelves. No sooner had Mark stripped out 20 feet of line, a stout bronzeback took his fly right at the boat and took off (his eyes were a mysterious red if you were wondering). Mark turned and gave me the “what now” look, and I screamed “Set the hook! Hold the line and pull your rod back!” The line went tight, the rod bent, and the fish did a little dance for him. Having no idea how to manage a working fish, the line eventually went slack, but he had the taste! I kid you not, that same thing happened two more times. Fish took his popper right at the boat, so close I should have just grabbed them. The rest of that day, every 30 minutes or so, we would see our pals posted up in the shallows holding a bucketmouth for a photo op. Day 2 and 3 were rinse and repeat.
Now, the Devils has earned its name for a reason. The landscape is harsh, rugged, and unforgiving. Quiet pools transition into labyrinths of small channels with grass forests twice your height. Any step could drop you in a hidden pool over your chest. And this float is not for the faint of whitewater- especially in canoes that move like floating sofas. Class II and even Class III rapids break up long stretches of riffles and pools. There’s an 8-foot waterfall, Dolan Falls, that’s a perfect spot for some afternoon fun, but be prepared to portage this bad boy (unless you want to risk losing all those cold beverages, which no one in their right mind would do). That’s actually the only rapid I’ve ever portaged on the Devils… even though I might not recommend running the others. We bounced down a three-tiered waterfall, ping-ponged through boulder fields with 90-degree turns, and shot crazy swift flumes just wide enough to squeeze through. And believe it or not, we only snapped two fly rods! Lastly, before I wrap this piece up, remember the inclusive, unfriendly ranch owners? They are a very real thing. In Texas, any stream is public if it is “navigable in fact, or by statute.” That applies to the Devils River, but fair game is only up to the high-water mark or isolated islands. With all this in mind, if you decide to do the Dance with the Devils, ask yourself… are you ready? And then think about all those trophy bass and get the heck down there!