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A Woman's Place


For guide extraordinaire Jane Gallenbach, the Sabine River is where it's at

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

Water stained the color of tea by tannin of the leaves and logs of the Sabine River's rich bottomland forest gurgled around the bow of the aluminum flat-bottom as Jane Gallenbach deftly idled the boat along a narrow channel off the main river. "We'll anchor here. They should be right there," she said, pointing to a piece of water that looked no different from most of the rest of the flooded, winter-bare forest. It took Steve Lightfoot perhaps three or four casts to prove Gallenbach's pronouncement. He pitched a small Road Runner jig along the submerged edge of the tiny creek channel, let it fall and sweep deep with the current, then felt the "thunk!" of a strike. His ultra-light spinning rod arced, and bronze water weltered with a flash of silver. The fight was spirited but brief, and the fish soon wallowed at the gunwales. With smooth movement born of near infinite practice, Gallenbach slipped a net into the brown current and lifted a potbellied, 2 1/2-pound white bass aboard.

Her eyes twinkling even in the gray light of the drizzly February morning, Gallenbach plucked the little jig from the thick-shouldered white and eased it into the boat's live well. "You know," she said, gazing through the bottomland forest where a couple of redbud trees showed the first blushes of pink, "any day now, we should hear turkeys start gobbling."

The Sabine River and its riverine forest run through Jane Gallenbach's life, and her spirit runs through them. Born and raised in Panola County, hard against the Louisiana border, Gallenbach grew up within a rifle shot or so of the Sabine and spent much time on and around the waterway with her family. "I was grown before I found out that everybody didn't spend their weekends at the river," she said. Except for a months-long exile in Houston more than 20 years ago ("I couldn't wait to get out of there," she said.), Gallenbach has spent her fifty-something years within reach of the Sabine River upstream from where Toledo Bend Reservoir sits.

The neat modern log home she shares with husband Tom Gallenbach, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game warden, sits on the lip of the Sabine River bottom south of Carthage. The bottomland forest is their back yard, literally. " I live about three miles from where I grew up," Gallenbach said. "This is where I belong." Jane wears a lot of hats. She's a bookkeeper for businesses and does tax returns for local folks. She traps otter and beaver and coons and such during the winter, when she's not sharing the woods with Tom as they hunt ducks and deer. She has done quite a bit of taxidermy, a skill she taught herself. She paints and took up carving hummingbirds after watching Tom carve duck decoys. She and Tom also have a chicken business, raising tens of thousands of chicks to fryer-size and shipping them to a local poultry processor.

Then there is River Ridge, the rustic retreat they have developed on their tract along the Sabine. The place holds campsites and cabins, fish cleaning tables and a boat ramp that has to be continually maintained to keep it clear of sand washed down the Sabine. About three years ago, Jane added another hat to her considerable collection. This one says "fishing guide." Each winter, visitors came to River Ridge to pursue white bass. The abundant, sporty and tasty fish leave Toledo Bend Reservoir and move up the river beginning in December. They move upstream, against the current, searching for places they will spawn, their fertilized eggs tumbling downstream until they hatch into the next generation of white bass. After spawning, the schools begin drifting back downstream, aiming for the huge reservoir where they will spend the rest of the year. Finding these migrating white bass can be like trying to hit an unseen moving target.

Jane, who has boated and fished this isolated, undeveloped reach of river her whole life, was the natural source to which visiting anglers turned for advice. "I spent a lot of time telling and even showing people where to catch fish," she said. She watched other fishing guides launch at River Ridge squiring their clients to the river's tremendous white bass action. "One day it hit me. I said `Duh!' I can take people fishing. I can be a guide. I'm already doing it, just not getting paid for it,' " she said. She's getting paid for it now.

When white bass season rolls around, Jane Gallenbach is perhaps the most sought-after fishing guide on the upper Sabine River. Her calendar fills quickly, and with good reason. She consistently puts her clients on world-class, fish-after-fish-after-fish action. This is an amazing feat, considering that winter white bass fishing in East Texas rivers is so notoriously unpredictable. Slight changes in water level, current, water clarity, temperature and cloud cover trigger changes in white bass behavior. If the river rises and murks from rain runoff, migrating white bass will abandon an area en masse, sometimes moving miles to find a spot they like. A piece of water that held tremendous numbers of white bass one day can be empty the next.

"The key is knowing where to find fish at different water levels and weather and stage of the run," Gallenbach said. "Then you have to know how to fish for them, and what they'll bite at different times" Her lifetime of fishing on the river and her connections with local anglers allows the gregarious Gallenbach to stay "on" fish throughout the run. Her knowledge of the behavior of the fish gives her an edge in getting those fish to bite.

A good example rested in a bucket in the bottom of her beamy Weld Craft flatbottom boat on that trip a couple of weeks ago. The bucket held dozens of small -- 2-3-inch -- crawfish. White bass entering the Sabine on their annual spawning run have to eat. And they'll eat just about anything that's available. While they feed almost exclusively on shad and other forage fish when in reservoirs, the Sabine River during winter holds few shad, and certainly not the huge clouds of threadfins they are used to preying up in the open lake. But the flooded river bottom produced a wealth of crawfish during late winter and early spring. And the spawn-bound white bass take to them. If whites seem reluctant to hit the small Road Runner jigs with which Gallenbach almost exclusively fishes, she grabs a crawfish, breaks it in half, then threads either the tail or head onto the jig's single hook. That little appetizer does the trick. During that recent fishing trip, the fish would ignore a bare Road Runner. But tip it with a piece of crawfish, and strikes were nearly certain. That kind of knowledge, gained from years of experience, is part of what makes Jane Gallenbach so good at putting her clients on fish.

A check of the photos on River Ridge's Web site (www.riverridgetx.com) confirms that skill. Gallenbach posts photos of many of her fishing groups' catches. It's hard to argue with photo after photo of grinning anglers kneeling beside their 25-fish limits of white bass weighing 2-3 pounds. "I'm not that good at catching fish myself," she says with genuine modesty. (This despite her holding the Sabine River water body record for a 1.84-pound white crappie.) "But I am pretty good at showing other people how to catch them."

The other part of what makes her so successful as a fishing guide is her obvious love and respect for the river and the jungle-like forest that wraps it. "I can't imagine being anywhere else," she said. "This is home. I love this river." It shows.

Shannon Tompkins covers the outdoors for the Chronicle. His column appears on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.