The author of “Fly Fishing Houston” takes us on a tour around Houston

Like a snake, Robert McConnell quickly slides down a steep embankment and slides into Beech Creek. After being several feet behind me, I managed to land with the exaggerated strides of the photographed stork and run at high speed. Only after this manic stork has plunged into the creek does McConnell hand him a seven-and-a-half-foot rod.

Knee-deep in water, holding this tool for the first time in 50 years, I begin my morning flight with the author of “Fly Fishing Houston & Southeastern Texas.”

“Have you done much fishing before?” McConnell asks.

When I was five or six years old, my kid’s Zebco fishing line accidentally crossed a stingray off the coast of South Carolina. My grandfather wrapped her up, cut off her tail, and threw her back into the water. This was my first time fishing. When I was a teenager in Kentucky, I assumed that fishing was the perfect way to practice non-parental drinking. I’m not sure my friends and I used bait because catching a fish would only distract us from the task at hand. I also played a fishing video game at the bar.

“A little,” I answer.

Cover image for “Fly Fishing Houston & Southeastern Texas” by Robert H. McConnellImprefix Books

After being immersed in Houston arts and entertainment for two decades, I tried to spread my wings a little during the pandemic with some birding trips. McConnell’s book arrived on my desk in the spring. He sure looked happy in various pictures in the book. So hunting seemed like the next logical pursuit for someone who likes to work indoors and has to get outdoors. In late June, weeks before a notable drought, he checked water levels in a few places and decided that the Roman Forest valley described in the book would be suitable for beginners.

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McConnell acknowledges the appeal of destination fishing in places like Colorado. It’s hard to imagine a body of water in Colorado with the two abandoned television sets we encountered along the banks of Beech Creek, which we entered through Roman Forest Park about a mile east of Interstate 59. But the point of McConnell’s book is to show how many spaces in Houston are available For fishermen. His book represents the years he spent on the water as family and work allowed. McConnell provides information on various streams, lakes, bayous, ponds, and rivers.

McConnell didn’t grow up fishing Houston’s waterways. He was born in western Pennsylvania. His father was passionate about the outdoors, hunting and trapping. His love of fishing would come after he left coal country.

“We grew up in the coal country of Pennsylvania,” he says. “A lot of creeks have been damaged by acid mine drainage. The creek behind our house was orange.

McConnell studied geology in college, specifically because it was the major that offered the greatest opportunity to be outdoors rather than inside the classroom. He got a job in oil and gas after college, and the work took him to northern Pennsylvania where the creeks were attractive, not orange.

Robert H.  McConnell is the author of a book "Fly Fishing in Houston and Southeast Texas."
Robert H. McConnell is the author of “Fly Fishing Houston & Southeastern Texas.”Courtesy Robert H. McConnell wrote Imbrifex

There, McConnell began fishing for native trout in local streams. “Every weekend, I try to explore a different schedule,” he says. He says he enjoyed exploring as much as the activity itself. Reading McConnell’s book reveals his deep attunement to the waterways he frequented, with detailed descriptions, from the geological makeup of the spaces to the plants that provide the backdrop.

His job brought him to the Houston area nearly a decade ago. The exploratory spirit remained intact, despite the different types of fish. Years of diving the waters in and around Houston – the West Fork River, East Fork San Jacinto, Spring Creek, Lake Shelton, Cypress Creek, Breeze Bayou and all sorts of other waterways – have yielded “fly fishing in Houston and Southeast Texas.” In addition to detailed reports from these places, McConnell provides a primer on access laws, “the ethics of fly fishing,” and a safety chapter that addresses water moccasins, fire ants, and the occasional stray dog.

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McConnell will be the keynote speaker at the 2nd Annual Fly Fishing Tour

When: 9 a.m. Sept. 30 (McConnell speaks at 1 p.m.)

Where: Millikan Preserve, 3792 High Prairie Road, College Station

Details: Free with $10 parking fee, registration required;

The event is open to the public and costs $10 per car to enter.

McConnell is quick to turn attention to friends and mentors who have been in these waters longer than he has. He cites titles by Phil Schock, Kevin Hutchinson, and Danny Hicks as important guides to major Texas waterways. McConnell’s book is in the same Local Angler series as Aaron Reid’s “Fly Fishing Austin & Central Texas.” McConnell’s hope with “Fly Fishing Houston & Southeast Texas” is to highlight this region’s lesser-known freshwater fisheries. As he points out in his introduction, McConnell has plenty of company among those who have moved to Houston over the past decade.

“The Houston area is largely urban, but interwoven between all the cement and steel are ecosystems teeming with life,” he writes.

His book does a tremendous job involving the Houston extension. It also brings its text closer to the paved city center, with a section dedicated to “Concrete Surfaces and Other Urban Waters.”

“I just wanted to document and show people, especially those who might be new to Houston, that there are fish even in those concrete ditches,” he says. “Sometimes pretty big fish. The concrete keeps things nice and warm. There’s carp there, and tilapia… and some weird stuff. As you go north to Piney Woods, you’ll find more of the native fish species… spotted bass, that The kind of thing that reminds me of my trout hunting days in Pennsylvania, where I would pick a little stream and hike down it and maybe there would be fish in it and maybe not. Here, year-round water, there’s a good chance there would be fish.

Minutes after we waded into the water, McConnell caught a long sunfish, a small, radioactive orange and turquoise creature, placed it in his hand, unhooked it and put it back in the water.

Where Peach Creek leaves me engaged in a constant sway as we wade downstream, McConnell moves downstream in a clean line as if propelled. The rest is Norman Maclean stuff: The rod becomes an extension of his arm, which spins in beautiful circular patterns, sending the nymph—an artificial lure designed to resemble a small, seemingly biteable aquatic entity—exactly where he intends to go. . For this wader, McConnell chose a shorter rod than the 9-foot rig he often uses.

“You want a shorter rod in and between trees on these narrow waterways,” he says.

As if to prove him wrong, I immediately tied up an eight-foot tree branch.

Robert H.  McConnell is the author of a book "Fly Fishing in Houston and Southeast Texas."
Robert H. McConnell is the author of “Fly Fishing Houston & Southeastern Texas.”Courtesy Robert H. McConnell wrote Imbrifex

McConnell proves to be a sick teacher. He slows his downstroke, explaining the way the water creates tension on the line a moment before he hits the rod away. His educational program eventually sinks in with his student. On a few occasions, I’ve been able to land the nymph almost in the vicinity where I think some fish might be swimming. After a few minutes, I finally caught a long sunfish of my own. And another. And a third. While this barely constitutes dinner for my family of three, the fish adds up to 12 inches of inedible fish. It also marked my first catch in over 40 years.

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I made an attempt to imitate McConnell’s bow-and-arrow crew, which looks a lot like this: pulling the nymph back and letting it free toward a certain point in the water. This produced the biggest catch of the day, a 180-pounder (15 lb. wt). Fortunately, the fork didn’t sink too far into my thumb.

On a sweltering day, I still found some joy in getting away from the desk, away from the couch, and standing on my knees in the waters of Beech Creek where the televisions were decoration rather than distraction. Our valley matched what McConnell wrote about in the book, marking small pools and spots along the way where fishing line could get tangled by bites.

I could not have written a more appropriate entry to return to the point from which we started.

McConnell directed me to cast toward a small pond. My nymph danced in the water and moments later the line shook. The fish had barely broken the surface, but it was clearly no longer an ancient sunfish. McConnell is my witness. Although his back was turned, he told me that he thought the splash was something greater than the fish we had seen in these waters.

So I say, honestly this time, that the biggest event of the day is the one that got away.

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