Once on the brink of extinction, the Guadalupe bass — Texas’ state fish — is making a comeback in its Central Texas home, which includes the Llano, Colorado, and Pedernales rivers.
A feisty fish beloved of anglers, purebred populations of Guadalupe bass can once again be found in 14 Central Texas rivers and streams, driving a Hill Country economic engine as fly fishermen from across the United States travel to do battle with the bass.
“People come from all over the country to catch a Guadalupe,” said Aaron Reed, author of “The Local Angler: Fly Fishing Austin & Central Texas,” a Texas fishing guide published in 2020 by Imbrifex Books. “There’s becoming this thing among fly anglers to catch a grand slam of river-run bass, and there’s only one place in the world you can catch a Guadalupe bass: (in Central Texas).”
A grand slam refers to catching a bass of each species endemic to rivers.
Anglers fishing in the streams and rivers of the Hill Country and Edwards Plateau spend about $72 million annually in the area, according to a 2015 study by Texas Tech University and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. About 40 percent of those fishermen come to catch a Guadalupe bass.
For anglers, the Guadalupe bass rates among the toughest fighters and worthiest adversaries.
“I think they pack a punch well above their weights for a great fight,” Reed continued. “I’d rather catch a 3-pound Guadalupe on a 3-weight (fairly light) fly rod than a 10-pound largemouth on a 6-weight (heavier fly rod).”
The Guadalupe bass rarely tops the scale at more than 3½ pounds, but it’s a hard-charging fighter that thrives in the free-running, clear streams and rivers of the Texas Hill Country. More than a target of anglers, the fish is an indicator species, its own health a salubrious measure of its habitat.
“They do very well in naturally healthy stream systems,” said Tim Birdsong, inland fisheries chief of habitat conservation for Texas Parks and Wildlife. Altering habitat through dams, dredging, or pollution harms the fish. “The Guadalupe bass gives us a good idea of what’s going on in the stream.”
A combination of habitat destruction and hybridization almost led to the fish’s demise. The trouble began in 1974 when thestate started stocking smallmouth bass in many of the same waters as the native fish, Birdsong said. Smallmouth have similar characteristics as the Guadalupe in that they do well in streams and rivers, but they grow a little larger than the native species.
As fish go, the smallmouth was more well-known to anglers at the time, and the state stocked them as a way to expand angling opportunities. From 1974 to 1980, Texas Parks and Wildlife stocked about 6.8 million smallmouth in Central Texas and Edwards Plateau rivers and streams.
“There was a lot of hybridization,” Birdsong said. “To the point you couldn’t find any pure Guadalupes in some of the rivers.”
The smallmouth was basically breeding the Guadalupe out of existence. The state curtailed stocking smallmouth bass in Central Texas rivers and streams in the early 1980s. It wasn’t enough, however, to inspire a species comeback. In 1988, Texas Parks and Wildlife biologist Gary Garrett began monitoring the status of the Guadalupe, looking for other solutions.
At the same time, a Decatur Intermediate School third-grade class decided their state needed an official fish to go with its official bird and flower. After a study of Texas fish, they landed on the Guadalupe bass and began to lobby the Texas Legislature. During the 1989 legislative session, the Guadalupe bass became the official state fish.
The honor shined a spotlight on the troubled fish as Garrett waded into its plight with hopes of helping it recover. In 1991, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department adopted a restoration plan for the Guadalupe bass. Since then, the state has stocked more than 2.4 million fingerlings in 24 different streams and rivers.
The task was a challenge. Finding purebred Guadalupe bass to establish a brood stock was the first major problem, according to Birdsong.
Biologists found a pure line of the fish in the upper Nueces River, a place outside their normal range, which had been stocked by Texas Parks and Wildlife in 1973. Researchers used those fish to establish populations in the Sabine River at Lost Maples State Natural Area. They became the source of brood stock for hatcheries.
Texas Parks and Wildlife also worked alongside Central Texas landowners to repair riparian areas and manage springs, rebuilding a healthy habitat where the fish could thrive.
Landowners were glad to help, according to Birdsong.
“We’ve been promoting conservation efforts like this for decades, but it can be tough,” he said. “But with Guadalupe bass, people are pretty proud to have the state fish in their backyard.”
While Texas Parks and Wildlife officials, the department’s partners, and other Guadalupe bass enthusiasts have made strides in the species’ restoration, the work and the challenges have just begun.
“The (Guadalupe bass) lives in one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, and that puts a huge demand on the resources,” Birdsong said. “There’s an increased demand for water and competing interests for it. The human population growth is definitely going to challenge the habitat of this fish. I think it’s a fish worth preserving. It’s something that is found just in the clear-flowing streams of the Hill Country. That’s pretty special if you ask me.”
“It’s a tough fish, and it makes a living in a tough part of the world,” he said. “It’s a symbol of Texas. We should do what we can to make sure it sticks around.”