In this post, I’d like to delve into some tools and tricks to help anglers find new waterways to fish. This material might be old hat for some, but to those who are new to Texas, or to the sport of fishing in general, this topic could help you find a new secret honey hole. Finding a new waterway to explore is one of the best parts of fishing.
Before we get started on this subject, it is important to be familiar with Texas River Law. At the very least, you should have a basic understanding of the State’s rules regarding access to our shared waterways. Much has been written about this subject, and I won’t reinvent the wheel in this post, but if you aren’t familiar with Texas River Law, checkout Aaron Reed’s post titled, “You’re from Texas, Aren’t you?” on the Local Angler – Fly Fishing Austin Blog. I also dedicate a whole chapter to this subject in my forthcoming book, Fly Fishing Houston & Southeastern Texas. In short, if you can float a watercraft on a river or stream, it is “navigable by fact” and you have a right to be there. Additionally, if the average width of the stream channel is 30 feet across, then it is “navigable by statute” and you also have a right to be within the channel.
There are a number of companies that provide digital mapping software on subscription-based platforms that most outdoor enthusiasts use. Two of them are onXmaps and Huntstand. I have used onXmaps for many years and I’m more familiar with their product. I have used Huntstand in the past, but I no longer have an active subscription with them. This is nothing against the company, they have a great mapping platform, but most of my friends use onXmaps and it’s easier to share waypoints when everyone is using the same mapping software. Note: I am not affiliated with either Huntstand or onXmaps in any way.
A subscription-based mapping software is an invaluable tool when trying to find new waters to fish. Companies like onXmaps do a fantastic job at showing users where the public land is located. OnXmaps accomplishes this by uploading all the plat map data for a particular state. Plat map data contains property boundaries of all parcels of land within a state. Historically, this public information was stored in county courthouses across America, but in this day and age, most of this data has become digitized. Onxmaps did the dirty work of gathering all of this plat map data and overlaying it onto aerial images that can be viewed on our smartphones. Onxmaps takes it a step further by figuring out what parcels of land are open to the public (park lands, national forest lands, greenspaces, etc), and highlighting these parcels for the user.
As a user of onXmaps, you’ll simply pay the subscription fee ($29.99 for a yearly subscription for one state, or $99.99 for a yearly subscription for the whole country), download the app, and turn on the various map layers that depict the property boundaries. The chunks of land that can be accessed by the general public, most of the time, is land owned by local governments, like a city or town, and land that is owned by state or federal governments, like a state park or national forest.
Once you obtain the software, you can begin the digital scouting process. When I begin looking for new areas to explore, I usually have two tabs open on my internet browser, one tab is for onXmaps and the other is for Google Maps. The aerial images on Google Maps are updated more frequently than onXmaps, and using Google Street View is very helpful for getting the lay of the land from the ground-level, especially if a road or bridge exists near the waterway in question.
In general, I find most publicly accessible lands near medium-to-large-sized rivers. Often, local governments buy tracts of land for flood mitigation purposes, especially around Houston. Use onXmaps and scroll around some of the local waterways until you see tracts of land that are highlighted. These tracts are usually open to the public. Use your mouse and click on the tract of land in question to see if it is owned by the city, county, state, or federal government. If so, you likely can access it. Also, if there is a roadway nearby, use Google Street View and see what the land looks like from the ground level. Keep in mind that most roadways that cross rivers and large streams offer access locations to waterways, even if a boat ramp isn’t present.
As you digitally scout around reservoirs and large rivers, remember to check out the smaller feeder creeks that flow into them. These smaller waters can offer great stream fishing opportunities. Again, use onXmaps and determine whether these smaller streams (or a portion of them) exist on private or public land. In many cases, the lands that lie within the floodplain of a reservoir or within the riparian corridor of a river, are owned by local or federal governments.
Another resource that Texans can use to find public waters is through the Public Hunting Lands Map Booklet that is released annually by TPWD. As the title suggests, most of the lands outlined in the booklet are for hunting, but in many cases, if the public land abuts a public waterway, anglers can access the water through the parcel of public land. I have found some great backwater fishing spots by using this booklet. In order to obtain a copy, you need to buy an Annual Public Hunting Permit (or a Limited Public Use Permit) through TPWD. It will cost you about $48.00, or $12.00 if you just buy the Limited Public Use Permit).
If you are lucky enough to own a kayak or canoe, then your ability to scout new water is nearly endless. If you are attempting to explore smaller streams via paddlecraft, I suggest you start by locating a major river or lake that the smaller waterway, in question, flows into. Many major watercourses have publicly accessible parks or boat ramps. These areas can either serve as a launching spot or a take-out spot. Next, find any roads that cross the smaller waterway. You can get a better look at the surrounding area by using Google Street View and determining whether the smaller waterway is accessible via the road right-of-way, or even if the waterway is capable of floating a paddlecraft. Once it is determined that you can access the smaller waterway via the road, you can begin to piece together your paddle trip.
Obviously, when planning your trip, you’ll need to have two vehicles and shuttle one of them to the takeout spot. Once you drive back to the put-in, use the road right-of-way, to access the smaller waterbody. If this is your first time undertaking an exploratory paddling adventure, please don’t have any illusions about the effort these sorts of trips require. They can be a lot of hard work, but are usually very rewarding. Just remember that the harder a waterway is to access, the less fishing pressure it gets.
The next step is to actually get in your vehicle and drive out to the location in question and see if it is actually accessible. This is where most people get hung up, but remember that until this point, all the time spent in front of the computer has been purely academic. You need to put boots on the ground in order to see if a particular waterway can be accessed.
Before wrapping this up, please know that although Texas has lenient river access laws, under no circumstances should you trespass on someone’s land. Hopping fences and disregarding “No Trespassing” signs is not only disrespectful to landowners, but it could get you in a heap of trouble. In some cases, landowners may view a public waterway as their own person stream. Even though they are wrong in their thinking, it is generally never a wise decision to confront them over this. If a hairy situation arises with a landowner, it is best to get a Texas Game Warden involved. These men and women know and understand Texas River Law much better than the local police department. A list of game wardens for each county can be found here.
Texas is a unique state that has relatively lenient access laws to its myriad of waterways. Do your homework, read up on Texas River Law, and start looking for new waterways to explore.