Mount Everest is the ultimate test of a mountaineer’s skills. Waimea bay is famous for pushing the edge of paddle-in surfing. For kayak anglers, the Devils River in west Texas is the litmus test of skills and gear.
A Test of Mettle on the Devils River in Texas
The Devils River in southwest Texas used to be called San Pedro. In 1657, Spanish explorers gave the river its biblical name. Two hundred years later, when Texas Ranger, Captain Jack Hays saw the cliffs and rapids for the first time, legend has it he exclaimed, “Saint Pete, hell, this is the Devil’s river.”
Isolated, rugged and unpredictable, these qualities also make the river an oasis of big bass that rarely see a hook. When Oru Kayak invited me on a 15-mile float to fish new rods by Tenkara Rod Co., I had my reservations. After all, the Devils River would intimidate the best angler using the toughest gear; I would be paddling a fold-up kayak and fishing with a glorified cane pole.
Just getting to the Devils River is an adventure. The folks at Oru gathered an eclectic group of writers, anglers, paddlers, editors and retailers on this ultimate test of their new open design Beach LT kayak.
The trip started at Amistad Reservoir near Mexico’s border. After a windy night camping under Texas starlight, we broke camp early and headed up river with Expedition Outfitters in a motorcade of trucks and kayak trailers. The dirt road to the put-in was two-and-a-half hours from the Tamaulipas shrub land into the Chihuahuan Desert.
Along the way, the bumps and curves dislodged one of the kayaks from the trailer and it bounced down the road for a quarter mile before anyone noticed. After another stop to fix a shredded tire, we arrived at the Del Norte Devils River State Natural Area where we assembled the kayaks on the bank of the Devils River.
The Devils River is a beauty and a beast
The clear, green spring-fed water of the Devils River filters through limestone before running across remote desert that is free from human pollution. This beast cuts across 90 miles of open country that is inhabited by scorpions and rattlesnakes. Class III rapids crash over razor-sharp limestone rock then disappear into a wall of stubborn reeds.
Clean water and total isolation make the Devils River an oasis for largemouth, smallmouth and a variety of brightly colored sunfish. Smallmouth bass were introduced in Amistad Reservoir in 1975. By the 1980s, the fish had spread to the cool water and rocky substrate of the Devils River. Now, the river is the species’ southernmost habitat and a famous location for trophy fish.
Our first big obstacle was Dolan Falls, a 10-foot, Class V precipice that required a quick portage. After carrying the kayaks around the drop and down a cliff, the preferred way to re-enter the water was of course feet first.
The best fishing was in the clear deep pools between sets of rapids. I worked a wooly bugger through the tail end of the rapids to find smallmouth. For largemouth, drifting the fly through deep pockets was the ticket.
Devils River fish don’t see many hooks, making them aggressive and feisty. A selection of weighted flies and cup-faced poppers will keep the bass and bluegills guessing.
To escape the mid-day sun, I moved behind a boulder or underhang to stay out of the fishs’ line of sight. The water is so clear, the fish often spot the angler first.
Past meets present in southwest Texas
The Devils River cuts through some of the world’s most formidable terrain. From the Chihuahuan Desert, Texas hill country and the South Texas brush country intersecting with the Edward Plateau to the north, the area promotes diverse flora and fauna that use prickly stubbornness to survive. From the hundreds of varieties of cactus to the porcupines, rattlesnakes and scorpions, everything along the Devils River is out to stick you. Even the flower on the thorny Ocotillo packs a beauty that will bite.
Spotting rock art painted by indigenous people thousands of years ago put the trip into perspective. I wasn’t the first to visit the Devils River and live to tell about it. The first inhabitants were Native Americans who settled along the river as far back as 11,000 years ago. The Spanish arrived in 1657 and established a mission in 1736. In 1848, Captain Jack Hays led 70 soldiers on an exploration to find a route from San Antonio to El Paso. The last Comanche were defeated in 1857.
Today, the Devils River continues in conflict. Much of the river runs through private property. Paddlers are allowed to access the river bank up to the gradient line. Don’t step over the line. Many of the locals are not friendly; they’ve been known to protect their land with firepower. After years of cleaning up after campers who trashed their land, who can blame them. Visiting campers must receive a special permit and fees apply at certain camp sites. Visitors are also required to bring firewood and pack out all waste.
After we survived the rapids, slogged through reeds and avoided gun-toting locals, the Devils River wasn’t done with us. By the afternoon, the wind kicked up and we ended the first day in a 30-knot headwind.
In the heart of the maelstrom, Brandon Morris was fishing below a set of rapids when a 20-foot tree fell on his kayak. The force flipped his boat and threw Morris in the water. Luckily, he was uninjured and able to swim to the nearest bank. We quickly fixed the boat by popping the plastic back into place and patching a seam with duct tape.
After a long day of paddling and fishing, we were anxious to arrive at the Mile 20 campsite. As the group pulled our kayaks onto the bank and prepared to set up camp, the park guard came down to meet us.
“I’m surprised you paddled the river in those kayaks,” he marveled. “I’m not,” I smirked.
Oru Beach LT Doesn’t Fold Under Pressure
Invented by designer Anton Willis, Oru Kayak combines the concept of Japanese Origami with the design of a Greenland sea kayak. The kayaks are made of sheets of stiff corrugated plastic that fold into a suitcase-sized box. Even if the boats look flimsy, they’ve been tested in some of the most challenging paddling environments from the Arctic to the tropics.
The new Beach LT survived the Devils River without complaint. One boat suffered a minor crack, which was easy to repair. Through the rapids, the boat would take on water. Paddling with a gallon of water in the cockpit was no problem, and a quick stop to tip the boat emptied the water.
The boats only weigh 26 pounds so it was easy to portage around waterfalls and rapids. An open cockpit on the Beach LT provides plenty of room for fishing and enough stability to stand and scout rapids or make a cast.
A quick tutorial from Tenkara Rod Co founder, Drew Hollenback, and I was armed and dangerous. Tenkara fishing is a cross between a cane pole and a fly rod. The angler uses a long, flexible rod with a single stretch of weighted line tied to the tip to flip and fling a small fly. Tenkara rods were perfect for the narrow river. There isn’t much gear to carry and the rod folds up in a second to store in the kayak through the many sketchy sections of water we paddled before reaching the takeout.
One hundred and sixty years after Captain Jack Hays was struck by the ominous geography and intimidating river features of this rugged waterway, we had made it down the Devils River. We encountered big bass few anglers ever lay eyes on or hook in, avoided territorial locals and did it all in folding kayaks. Devil, be gone.
Dustin Doskocil is a professional photographer and long-time contributor to Kayak Angler. Check out his work at www.doskophoto.com.
Beauty and the beast battle it out on the Devils River, one of the most famous kayak fishing test grounds in Texas. | Feature photo: Dustin Doskocil