West Texas is known to be the driest of all the regions of the state. Though this may not be the place that you would first consider to go boating, there are some excellent opportunities if you know where to look. This includes a major river that serves as an international border, the Rio Grande, which comprises almost the entire Western border of Texas, and separates it from Mexico, as well as a series of smaller (but still quite large) rivers like the San Antonio and the Guadalupe. Along the Rio Grande is a long wilderness stretch that serves as a beautiful and remote national park, Big Bend. If you can look past the desert, you will find a number of unique and spectacular boating opportunities in West Texas and the South Texas Plains.
Types of Boats Found in West Texas
Most of the boats in this region are small, and as the last few very hot years have lowered the water level in the Rio Grande, this is even truer today. There are a few flat-bottomed riverboats that still spend time in the larger portions of the river, but most of the boats in this region are small fishing boats or whitewater kayaks, canoes and rafts designed for the rapids. All boats here need shallow drafts, typically flat bottoms and outboard motors that lift so that they can be beached.
Preparing to Boat in West Texas
West Texas is dry and hot. If you plan to boat here, you will need to have layered clothing, sunscreen, some form of a sun hat (ideally) and plenty of water to deal with 100+ degree weather. If you are camping and boating, the nights can be as cold as the days are hot, so come prepared. Mosquitoes are rarely an issue here, but it is good to bring a first-aid kit with a snakebite kit in case you startle a rattlesnake. Most rattlesnakes will not hurt you unless you corner them, so just be wary of kicking over shady rocks on a hot day. Finally, be certain your boat has the necessary safety equipment, like life jackets that are approved for the water type, and the weight and age of the boater.
Weather plays a huge role in your boating opportunities here. Rivers can be too high and cause dangerous flood conditions, storms can bring flash flood conditions, and droughts can lower water levels to an unsafe boating level. It is important to check water level conditions whenever you go out here, and to keep an eye on the weather. Rain is not incredibly common, but it can come hard and fast in a storm and cause flash flood danger.
A Few Tips on Border Boating
As the Rio Grande is an international border, you want to be aware of the issues that you may encounter when boating here. Always bring ID with you, at least a drivers license, though a passport (which verifies citizenship) will make your life a lot easier if a border patrol boat decides to search your vessel. Yes, they can do that without cause, and so can the US Coast Guard, based on maritime law. Keep your VHF radio on and be prompt in responding to any call on the radio to avoid complications. Finally, remember that if you do decide to cross the border, you must do so in a location with a customs site, and you must follow customs procedure.
Wildlife of West Texas
The deserts of West Texas offer a number of beautiful wildlife viewing opportunities. Big cats, like mountain lions and ocelots can be found here. On rare occasions, jaguars, jaguarundi and margays may also be found. Wild pigs called javelinas are common, as are the famed roadrunner and coyote. Rattlesnakes and a host of lizards are common reptiles here, as well as a number of toads. West Texas has some of the best opportunities to see Central American birds in the US, like Mexican Jays and Trogons. Other common birds include Montezuma quail, turkey buzzards, Western screech owl, cactus wren and many more.
Fishing in West Texas
There are two main ways to fish in West Texas. First, there are a few stocked lakes (many of them private) that offer bass, sunfish, bluegill, crappie and walleye. Second, the Rio Grande and its tributaries like the San Antonio River offer bigger river fish in the larger sections, like catfish and gar, as well as high-mountain fish like trout in its headwaters. There are enough fish in this river that there are some commercial boats from both the US and Mexico that do some fishing here, as well as permits available for recreational fishing.
As always, be certain that you have the correct permits needed for fishing. A Texas freshwater fishing permit is usually required, and if your waterway goes into New Mexico or Mexico you will also need to make certain that you have the right permits for the fishing trip.
Paddling the South Texas Plains
Texas parks offer some excellent paddling trails if you enjoy kayaking, canoeing or stand-up paddleboarding. Here is a look at three of the more popular trails in the South Texas Plains region of West Texas:
- Goliad: This six and a half mile trail can be paddled in two to four hours. It hits the San Antonio river near Goliad.
- Saspamco: This twelve-mile trail near San Antonio offers several put-ins to break up the journey into smaller segments, and a number of pools and riffles to discover.
- Seguin: This trail along the Guadalupe River offers trails beginning in three different lakes, Seguin, Nolte and Meadow, and the opportunity to create personalized lengths of trail between 2 and 9 miles depending on where you choose to put in and put out.
Wilderness rafting is a popular activity for those who visit Big Bend National Park, but it takes some planning and permission to go. There are some charter services around that can help you by ensuring that all rules are followed and that you have all of the equipment that you need to boat safely and legally in the area. The advantages of using a charter service include going with someone who knows the area and can safely navigate you away from the hazardous whitewater routes, and the chance to try whitewater kayaking and/or rafting without investing in a lot of expensive gear.
If you do decide to take a group paddling by yourself, then there are some very specific rules that the park service will have you follow. You must get a Backcountry Use Permit from the park, and show them the required items that are needed to take a boating trip here. This includes:
- A Coast-Guard approved PFD for every boater that must be worn.
- An extra PFD for each group
- An extra paddle for each boat
- Proof that each boat is only carrying their weight load
- Patch kits for rafts
- A waste containment system for human sewage
- A fire pan to avoid burning on the ground
- An agreement to avoid firearms, not collect or disturb historic features, not use generators or bring pets, pack out all trash, camp in approved areas, use approved boat types, observe group number limits, and follow all other regulations for the water body where you are going.
Boating Near El Paso
There are limited opportunities to boat in El Paso. Some sources suggest around 50 fishing lakes within 100 miles, but many of these are either privately owned lakes on someone’s estate or cattle ponds. Ascarate Lake is typically the best choice for boating here, unless you want to head into New Mexico, where a few more can be found in areas like Elephant Butte.
In San Antonio, the river of the same name is a popular place to boat. You can use motorized boats, jet skis (personal watercrafts) or fishing boats on the river, as well as smaller paddling vessels. Camping/boating is available at nearby Canyon Lake, or it is also a great place for a fishing/boating trip with access to picnic areas and hiking trails.
Boating near Midland/Odessa
This region offers a number of smaller fishing/boating/camping lakes, including Red Bluff Lake. There are a number of rivers to discover here as well, including Beals Creek, the Colorado River, Deep Creek, Lone Wolf Creek, North Concho River and the Pecos River. Paddling, some faster motorized boating on personal watercrafts and ski boats, and lots of fishing opportunities are available. Water levels change quickly here, so there are a lot of places to check lake conditions online.
Though the desert climate of West Texas may not be the first place you think of for boating, there are always excellent opportunities to be had. It also offers some opportunities to try a different, smaller scale form of boating for those more used to big bodies of water. The sunny days, exquisite landscapes and friendly people also offer many more reasons to discover the water.