Daniel Ortiz, 53, packs worms, chicken livers, and whole wheat bread whenever he sets out to go fishing, which is more often lately, given the shutdowns caused by coronavirus. Ortiz typically sets up somewhere along the San Antonio River, preferring the stretch between the Nueva Street bridge and Blue Star.

“This is where I fish all the time in the city,” said the retired tow truck driver, sitting on the grassy bank just south of the Arsenal Street bridge in the King William district. “It’s real clean, and you don’t have to walk across rocks,” he said, assessing the tautness of three fishing pole lines cast in the clear water.

Ortiz is just one of many urban anglers finding more time and solace fishing in San Antonio waters with most of the city shut down.

“I’ve seen a noticeable uptick in fishing lately in every riparian park I’ve visited – Southside Lions Park especially, but also Brackenridge and the [San Antonio] River,” said Brad Weir, an irrigation specialist at San Antonio Water System (SAWS) and avid birder who frequents San Antonio’s parks and river areas.

Kirk Moravits, a natural resource management specialist for the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), said he’s also noticed an increase in fishing along the Mission Reach lately, an observation confirmed by Randy Myers, a district fisheries biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

A walk along the river almost any evening with inviting weather tells the same story.

Three fishing buddies joined Ortiz at the Arsenal bridge this week. Alfred Covarrubias, 21, works at a fire alarm company, but joined the work night outing from his home near SeaWorld. Covarrubias likes to use a special carp bait recipe concocted by Ortiz: tortilla, bread, and peanut butter rolled into half-inch-diameter balls.

“Most people use bread by itself or tortilla. It’s really just the smell the fish go after,” he said, adding that the whole hook should be covered with the bait. “Once they swallow the whole thing, they get hooked.”

Brothers Frank and Marc Yebra drove down from the San Antonio’s Northwest Side to join Oritz’s fishing group.

“I fish every time I have the chance to go,” said the older Yebra, 23, adding that “it’s a way to kill time, relax and have fun.” He said he’s fished his whole life and just recruited his 13-year-old brother Marc to join the fun. “It gets him outside away from the video games,” he said. Yebra’s biggest catch to date: a 5-pound catfish.

Jim Campbell, 65, a government relations and communications specialist who serves on the San Antonio River Authority board, only has to walk a few blocks from his home in the King William district to cast his line in the San Antonio River.

“I usually don’t mess with stinkbaits like liver,” said Campbell of his bait choices. “I’ll use any number of artificials,” he said, referring to lures. “Because my goal is to catch a fish.”

Campbell explained that fishing in an urban environment is different than in the wild because rivers in cities generally have “no structure.”

“Fish like places to hide, they like ‘structure’ like dead trees, fallen limbs, rocks,” he said. That’s why he uses artificial bait, because it’s the most effective for him in unnatural settings.

Campbell knows a bit about fishing in cities. He’s cast his line in the shadow of the Pentagon in the Potomac River, in downtown Austin, and at Lake Ray Hubbard in Dallas. He fishes whenever it’s convenient – morning, evening, or middle of the day – and has upped his fishing outings from a couple times a month to at least once a week during the coronavirus shutdown.

Recreational fishing offers health and well-being benefits. Relaxation, bonding with friends, learning about the outdoors, a chance to boost self-reliance and cardiovascular health – even gain access to free protein – all draw anglers outside in pursuit of catfish, bass, and other edible species. Those $6-per-pound tilapia filets at H-E-B can be had for free, if you can land them. But are they safe to eat?

“The fish are edible,” said Melissa Bryant, director of technical services for SARA. “There are no issues in that area.”

According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, the only water source in Bexar County from which it is unsafe to consume fish is Lower Leon Creek starting at the Old U.S. Highway 90 bridge downstream to the Loop 410 bridge. The water there contains PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, which have been found to cause cancer in animals.

Declaring fish from the San Antonio River safe to eat when swimming in the river is prohibited for health reasons seems a bit of a disconnect, but Bryant explained the reasoning.

“Fish have a different makeup than humans,” she said. “If you’re swimming and ingest the water, it can effect your digestive system and get you sick with diarrhea. We don’t recommend people get in the water.”

Catfish and bass are the most popular catches for fish fries, Bryant said.

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SARA and TPW officials encourage anglers to play by the rules when fishing in town or elsewhere. That means getting a fishing license and not releasing invasive species like tilapia or carp back into the water. It’s also important to retrieve and properly dispose of monofilament fishing line, which creates a hazard for wildlife and doesn’t break down in the environment.

Right now, the water in the San Antonio River water is clearer because tourist barges aren’t running, stirring up the water and inflating its turbidity. Turbidity indicates the level of clay, silt, inorganic, and organic matter in the water. The higher the turbidity, the murkier and unhealthier the water. Also, fewer people on the River Walk means less trash and traffic.

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While catfish, tilapia, and bass dominate the waters in downtown, once you get south of Alamo Street into the riparian restoration of the Mission Reach, an estimated 30 species of fish flourish.

Bluegill; green sunfish; longear sunfish; red, blacktail, and mimic shiner; bullhead minnow; central stoneroller; Texas logperch; gray redhorse; spotted gar; and others occupy the river. SARA began a successful restoration of the native Guadalupe River bass on the Mission Reach in 2015 with an initial introduction of 60,000 of the species.

Since then, another 84,000 Guadalupe bass have been stocked across four sites on the river. According to SARA staff, Guadalupe bass have been spotted as far north as South Alamo Streeet, and genetic testing from sample fish verify the species is spawning once again in the river.

This article has been updated to correctly identify Jim Campbell as a member of the San Antonio River Authority’s board of directors.

Monika Maeckle

Monika Maeckle

Rivard Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of the Monarch...