River fishing heats up in autumn’s cool weather

By Shannon Tompkins Updated 8:04 pm, Wednesday, October 14, 2015

They hung, appropriate for the season, like some glittering sheet of Halloween confetti, a shimmer of metallic orange and black created by the hundreds – maybe thousands – of monarch butterflies clinging to the leaves on tree branches suspended just feet above a tiny creek feeding the South Llano River.
We’d poked the noses of our kayaks in the quiet water at the mouth of the little creek just after dawn on a late October day for a brief break to square fishing tackle and adjust other gear before easing back into the river’s current and getting about the business that drew us here on this crisp, cool, cloudless autumn morning: mining the rock-, riffle- and rapid-studded, aquamarine waters of the spring-fed river for piscatorial treasures.
We’d already scored several: thick-backed, deep-bodied redbreast sunfish; Rio Grande perch, lavender flanks speckled with turquoise flecks; largemouth bass, bundles of animus painted emerald, black and cream; and the most precious jewel of all, Guadalupe bass, lean, truculent, their creamy sides splotched and dotted with olive, making these fish, found only in Texas, all but invisible against the waterway’s rocky bottom.
There would be more. A lot more. There almost always is on Texas rivers during the too-brief window that is autumn – real autumn – in this state. But for the moment, we sat in our boats and marveled at the cluster of monarchs that had spent the cool October night resting in a nook of central Texas on their almost unimaginable migration from summer homes in the Midwest and beyond to wintering quarters among stands of fir trees in a patch of mountains in central Mexico.
We watched until the cluster, energized by the warming sun, shivered and shook and rose, en masse, fluttering into the sky, where a light north wind helped them along on their autumn journey. We resumed ours and within minutes were fast to more fish, enjoying what, for anglers who enjoy fishing Texas’ rivers and streams, is the finest season for such things.
“Fall is when it all comes together on the rivers; it can be the best time to be on the water,” said Chris Johnson of Living Waters Fly Fishing, a Round Rock-based fly-fishing shop and guide service that focuses on fishing central Texas’ abundant and fish-filled rivers and streams. “Most of the time, the fishing is just fantastic. But the weather’s usually so doggone comfortable and everything seems so charged because of the cooler temperatures that you’re not going to have a bad day on the water, no matter what.”
Change in behavior
Craig Bonds agrees.
“Autumn is a great time to fish rivers. The fishing can be very good, and Texas is blessed to have an abundance of great river fisheries,” Bonds said.
He would know. Bonds is an inveterate recreational angler and has spent time paddling and fishing rivers across Texas. And he has spent his professional career as a fisheries biologist, working with freshwater fisheries across Texas and now as director of the inland fisheries division of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Weather – temperature, really – is a big reason autumn holds such promise for anglers targeting river fisheries. And it’s not just because the mild conditions make a day on the water so comfortable for Texas anglers who have been sweating and sweltering in summer’s relentless heat. The change in temperature means fish become more active; they feed more often and more aggressively.
“When you get those first autumn cool fronts, it causes a change in fish behavior,” Bonds said. “They tend to become more active.”
Like humans, Texas’ freshwater fish like moderate temperatures. At temperature extremes – winter’s cold, summer’s brutal heat – fish reserve their energy. Autumn brings conditions that are just right to trigger increased activity and feeding in cold-blooded fish whose metabolism is largely driven by water temperature.
“When we get those fall days where the high temperature is in the low- to mid-80s and the nights drop into the 50s, that’s just about perfect,” Bonds said.
It’s not cold enough at night to slow down fish activity, and it’s warm enough during the day to drive their metabolism and send them on a search for energy-providing meals.
Predictable conditions
And predator fish are looking for meals, their instincts hard-wired to gobble as much high-energy food as possible during autumn, building up body condition for the tough times winter can bring.
There’s plenty to eat on most Texas rivers come autumn. The year’s crop of small forage fish, crawfish and other invertebrates, and, especially, terrestrial and aquatic insects is at or near peak.
“In the past couple of weeks, there have been some tremendous mayfly hatches on some waters I fish,” Johnson said. “The fish have been gorging on them. Fishing has been just fantastic.”
Autumn offers another great advantage that spring, the other mild season in Texas, usually doesn’t.
“During fall, water conditions are usually pretty stable and predictable,” Johnson said.
Autumn usually doesn’t see the heavy rains or extended periods of rains that often come during spring and cause big, muddy rises that last for days or weeks and shut down a river’s fishing. Autumn sees most rivers across Texas low and clear. And even if a fall rain comes, it’s usually brief and the rivers clear quickly, Johnson said.
This autumn, fishing in Texas rivers could benefit from the heavy rains that fell in late spring and early summer, causing major flooding on many Texas rivers. That flooding helped some river fisheries by sweeping away invasive aquatic vegetation, rearranging channels, and basically recharging the systems. In some rivers, it even brought new fish.
Fall transplants
Weeks of heavy releases of water from flood-swollen Canyon Lake swept some of the reservoir’s striped bass from the lake to the Guadalupe River.
The Guadalupe is just one of dozens of Texas rivers that fish well during autumn.
Central Texas rivers such as the Llano, South Llano, San Saba, Pedernales, Frio, Sabinal and San Gabriel are some of the more well known. But the upper Brazos, Nueces and, especially, the lower Colorado River below Austin are tremendous fisheries.
“The lower Colorado is a world-class fishery,” Bonds said, noting it holds some of the state’s largest Guadalupe bass as well as an outstanding largemouth fishery.
Then there are the East Texas rivers – Trinity, Sabine, Neches and their feeder streams and oxbows and sloughs – where largemouth bass, goggleye, white bass and crappie fishing can be off the hook during autumn.
“There are wonderful opportunities across the state,” Bonds said.
And like so many Texas anglers, he plans to take advantage of it. He’ll be fishing the South Llano River this weekend.
Short-lived
If autumn river fishing in Texas has a downside, it’s the season’s brevity. Fall and fall fishing last just a few short weeks, typically from mid-October to Thanksgiving or so. Best to enjoy this most ephemeral of seasons while it’s here. Soon enough it, like the monarch butterflies that pass through Texas each October, will drift away on a north wind. A cold north wind.