I’m knee-deep in Brushy Creek, cold water swirling around my legs and a fly rod in hand.
Fisherman Aaron Reed points at a couple of shadows, each about the size of a slice of slightly squashed Wonder Bread, hovering along the far side of a boulder in the center of the stream.
I raise my arm and attempt a rolling cast. The line unspools, falls a little short, and flops on the water’s surface. I thread it back in while Reed watches the fish. One takes a feeble nip at my hand-tied fly, but the hook doesn’t set.
But maybe, if I cast just once more. …
If you’ve always thought of fly-fishing as a hobby for wealthy folks who wade through Montana streams loaded with expensive gear, Reed would like to set you straight. A tugboat driver and former Texas Parks and Wildlife employee who started fly-fishing 30 years ago, he says anybody can learn to fly-fish without spending a ton of money, and they can do it in rivers and streams all around Central Texas.
Reed, 50, drove more than 2,500 miles and explored more than 150 miles of waterways to research his new book, "Fly Fishing Austin & Central Texas" (Imbrifex, $24.95). The guidebook, packed with photos, maps and tips, includes directions to more than 100 legal access points and more than four dozen wade and paddle routes within an hour’s drive of Austin. It also includes gear recommendations, tips on how to get started, information about the history and wildlife of the highlighted destinations, and suggestions on where to grab a bite and a beer when you’re done casting.
"I wanted to do what I could to demystify fly-fishing," Reed says. "There’s still a widespread perception that it’s an elitist sport that’s expensive and hard to do. We certainly at one time deserved that reputation, but hopefully not so much now."
Frankly, I don’t care much about actually catching a fish, but I love nature and water, and something about sloshing through this creek, surrounded by the green, blue and brown hues of nature, is calming my frayed nerves.
"It’s exploding statewide," says Chris Johnson, who opened Living Waters Fly Fishing in Round Rock in 2008. The shop sells fly-tying equipment, rods, reels and line, and offers guiding services.
Texas has emerged as a hot spot, because anglers have realized that fly-fishing isn’t just for cold-water fish such as trout. Locals try for warm-water fish like largemouth bass, sunfish, Guadalupe bass, Rio Grande cichlids and even carp using fly rods.
Living Waters is one of three fly-fishing shops in the Austin area, with three more along the nearby Guadalupe River. Five fly-fishing clubs have popped up between Waco and New Braunfels alone — as many as are based in the entire state of Colorado.
Among the best nearby places to cast a line? The Blanco River, the Colorado River, Onion Creek, the Lampasas River, Salado Creek, the San Gabriel River, the Pedernales River, the San Marcos River and the Guadalupe River.
"These type of opportunities are available all around Austin," Reed says, as we splash along Brushy Creek, a 69-mile tributary of the Brazos River, flushing a blue heron from the thick grass along the bank. He catches a few sunfish and tosses them back.
In western states like Utah, Montana and Colorado, experts carefully select their flies based on which insects are hatching at the moment. That’s less important in Texas, Reed says.
"Here our fish aren’t waiting for particular hatch to ring the dinner bell, they’re opportunistic feeders," he says.
He also tells me you don’t have to spend $1,000 for a handmade fly rod. A good, entry-level rod will set you back about $100, and many shops offer base kits that come with a rod, reel and line for just over $200. That’s not bad for a hobby that gets you outdoors and away from what sometimes feels like a nonstop barrage of bad news.
Fly-fishing "can be contemplative and independent, but also community-based. You can do your own, quiet time adventure, but you can also do it with others," says Melody Herron, manager of Living Waters Fly Fishing.
In normal times, people would gather at the shop to make their own flies from 7 to 9 p.m. every Wednesday. The shop also offered free rotating classes on Saturdays, covering everything from introductory fly-fishing to fly-tying and snake identification. (Right now, the shop is offering mail orders and curbside pickup from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday.)
When you’re down on the water someday, you can stop by your local fly-fishing shop to tell your fellow fishermen and women about the whopper you almost caught. At Living Waters, regulars typically visit to drink coffee, eat donuts and swap fish stories, fulfilling a traditional function of similar shops around the country.
"It’s like a fishing version of ‘Cheers,’" says Johnson, the shop’s owner.
As we pack up and head home, we’ve got a fish tail of our own. We spotted a big bass, bigger than any you’ve ever seen, bigger than any that’s ever been caught, lurking behind a half-submerged fence in the creek, waving its dark tail at us.
Hopefully, I’ll be back soon to match wits with it.