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Fishing the Nueces for Guadalupe bass

By Mike Leggett

UVALDE Bent slightly at the waist, head up and fly rod held low to prevent detection, Lefty Ray Chapa advanced on the turquoise pool in full stealth mode.

Channel catfish black when viewed from above swam eel-like circuits over the white gravel of the Nueces River bottom. A couple of jumbo bream, much larger than anything around them could swallow, cut a slow arc across the tiny pool, hoping to score breakfast by gobbling up any little critters scared up by the cats.

Chapa was focused, though, on a small, brownish-bronze fish at the rear of the hole. Holding just off the gravel over a patch of waving vegetation, the fish, a Guadalupe bass, held steady in the current, scanning the clear water for any careless crayfish or skittish minnow unlucky enough to swim within range of his suction-pump jaws.

"That's the one we're looking for," Chapa said. "That's a Guadalupe." He said the word properly: "Wah-thah-loo-peh." And that was appropriate for where we were, on the historic Nueces River about 90 miles west of San Antonio. Here just north of the intersection of U.S. 90 and U.S. 83, the Nueces is different from the slow, deep, turbid river that many Texans are familiar with. Up here the river of legend and myth drops off the Edwards Plateau, running fast and clear, a flashy, splashy, dressed-in-sequins table dancer wriggling southward through the cenizo.

"We've been catching some really big Guadalupe bass down here," Chapa had said. "The river is down, really down, but the fish are holding in the deeper holes. They fight twice as big as they are. And you fish all day without seeing another angler."

Guadalupe bass are the state fish of Texas. They were given that designation by the Texas Legislature once they were identified as a separate species, found nowhere else. With coloration similar to a smallmouth bass but the striking lateral lines typical of Kentucky spotted bass, Guadalupes evolved in the clear, swift waters of the Hill Country. That means they're small by nature, seldom reaching more than 15 inches unless they live in a reservoir on a dammed river.

In the Nueces, as well as the Pedernales, San Gabriel, Guadalupe and other Central Texas rivers, Guadalupe bass live alongside largemouths and even some smallmouth hybrids left over from previous Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stockings. By nature, and their river heritage, they are often found in riffles and swift water, and they typically are eager takers of flies and small lures.

Chapa reported finding some Guadalupes that were 16 to 17 inches long in some holes on the stretch of river to which he has access. We saw those fish, but, with a whipping wind and a sulky sun that hid behind scudding clouds, we never landed one of the jumbos.

"This is all sight fishing," Chapa said. "You need the sun to be able to see the fish. Plus, the sun pushes the fish into the vegetation and under the rocks, and that makes it easier to sneak up on them."

Chapa has spent years guiding and fishing, mostly from kayaks, along the middle Texas Gulf Coast. He's accustomed to sight fishing and to working on fish in shallow clear water.

As we approached the river, we found cottonwoods growing on small uplift islands surrounded by flat rock over which sped two or three inches of water.

"The fish will be all the way over on the other side, usually over the vegetation," Chapa said in a quiet voice. "It's best to just approach the pool and look before casting. You usually only get one shot at the fish. Once they see the fly or see you, they're not going to bite."

Chapa handed me a black-over-white Clouser tied to imitate a tiny river minnow. It was almost invisible as it slid over the grass and out over the rocks. "Sometimes, they follow it out. You need to drop it into the vegetation and they'll suck it up off the bottom. Maybe just bounce it along a little bit," Chapa said.

The first three holes we tried, I managed to gum up the works, stripping too slowly or yanking the fly away just as a torpedo of a Guadalupe raced from his hiding spot to try to swallow it. In our fourth location, in a riffle over a rock that stuck out into the pool from the far edge, I felt a tiny disruption in the fly's drift. One more strip, and I had my first fish of the day, a 10-inch largemouth.

"Make the same drift again," Chapa said. "I think I saw another shadow just as that fish hit." He was right, too. The second drift through the swift water produced a second strike, this time a 12-inch Guadalupe.

We finished at Chapa's favorite spot, a deep, gravel-bottomed pool so clear it could have had mermaids swimming in it. Long fingers of waving grass swung back and forth in the current. There were big fish there, too. We caught one slightly larger Guadalupe and watched frustrating follows and rejections by several larger fish. And it was over.

We walked back up the hill to the truck just as a few raindrops began to plink on the windshield. All in all, a perfect day.

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