For love of the Llano

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For years, I thought there were only four rivers in Texas – the Neches, near where I lived, the Sabine that had that scary bridge crossing to Louisiana that was almost at water level and if our family drove too close we’d fall in, the Guadalupe where my grandmother lived, and Village Creek.

The Sabine and Neches were full of alligators, water moccasins and dark water. Village Creek was mysterious as it wound through the Big Thicket and had whirlpools that were said to pull you under. But the Guadalupe was different.

Its water was prettier, sorta blue-green. I caught my first fish there, had my own bamboo fishing pole and a wooden rowboat. I’ve canoed many miles of it since those days. I thought it was the finest river in Texas.

Then, one day, my mentor, outdoor writer Russell Tinsley, told me about the Llano. Life as I knew it began to change. He told me where to launch my canoe and where to take it out. He said Fred Gipson lived on the high, left bank. Mr. Gipson had written Ol’ Yeller and other books. We once got caught in a Hill Country thunderstorm and the river rapidly rose overnight. We camped under a rock ledge to stay out of the rain. The next day, I met Mr. Gipson. Shortly downstream, the swift water smashed us into a huge rock. I was painfully hurt, but my canoe mate ended up in the hospital.

In spite of that, I realized what a gem the Llano was – and is. Lacking the gaggle of young, carousing tubers, it offers solitude, scenery and a paddler’s delight of swift and still water. I can hear the river rushing through the rapids below the James River Crossing as I write. Guadalupe bass abound in its eddies.

The 10-inch October 2018 thunderstorm near Junction started the greatest flood in its recorded history. Joined by runoff from hundreds of Hill Country creeks, it raced and ravaged downstream toward Kingsland, on the Colorado, carrying trees, boats, docks, rocks, animals and untold debris. The river bed was scoured of vegetation as was the adjacent bank. What had been about a 10-foot sand and granite gravel beach along the river bank is now a razed, 30-plus-foot area devoid of the brush that once lined it. But how about the fish?

Texas Parks and Wildlife has conducted extensive surveys. According to John Botros, River Access Coordinator, the flood significantly destroyed fish habitat, but fish populations are recovering. Surprisingly, the best populations are near Junction where the heaviest rain fell.

As the flood picked up trees, structures and additional runoff winding through already saturated soil – with more rain falling – the scouring became more intense. Fish populations from Castell to the Slab (CR 103) have decreased, but fish are larger.

By fall, populations should be bolstered. The washed-out Llano River bridge at Kingsland is expected to be completed by Memorial Day.

We wish fish could be replaced that quickly.

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