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Weekend Getaways

What lives at the bottom of the Brazos River?

Read on to see this amazing video

Also known as the river of arms of god, The Brazos River is a waterway in central Texas. In Spanish, the river’s name means “river of the arms of God”. Nobody knows exactly how the river got its name. One story claims that the river got its name from Spanish explorer Francisco Vazquez de Coronado. Coronado and his men traveled to Texas in search of the seven golden cities. When he and his men were dying of thirst, they led local tribes to a stream, which they named arms of god for its life-saving water. Another story tells a similar tale of a Spanish ship that got lost in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship ran out of drinking water and desperately searched for land. Luckily, they discovered the mouth of the Brazos River and after replenishing their supplies, baptized the river.

Today, most Texans refer to the river as the unofficial boundary between East and West Texas. In terms of economic importance, the river provides irrigation, power generation, and recreational opportunities for Central Texas. Popular recreational activities along the river include canoeing, camping, fishing and hunting. All in all, what kind of animals can you find in the murky waters of the Brazos River? Read on to find out!

The Brazos River is a waterway known as the unofficial boundary between East and West Texas.


Across the Brazos River

The actual Brazos River begins at the confluence of two tributaries: the Double Mountain Fork and the Salk Fork. The Salt Fork begins along the Llano Estacado, or Stake Plains, about 2 miles southwest of Cap Rock, Texas. Double Mountain’s origin is also at Llano Estacado, about 11.5 miles southeast of Tahoka, Texas. However, numerous other tributaries flow into the Brazos River. Some of its most critical tributaries are the Clear Fork Brazos River, Paluxy River, Little River, Bosque River, Nolan River, and Leon River.

The main trunk of the Brazos River runs about 840 miles southeast, making it the fourteenth longest river in the United States. However, its headwaters technically begin further upstream at the head of the Blackwater Draw, an intermittent current channel in Roosevelt County, New Mexico. If you include these bodies of water, the total length of the Brazos River is 1,280 miles. The river’s main trunk passes through several major metropolitan areas, including Waco and Houston, before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

Throughout history, the Brazos River has played an important role in the development of the region. Several Native American tribes lived in and around the Brazos River Valley, including the Comanche, Wichita, Tonkawa, and Karankawa. During the early nineteenth century, the Brazos River Valley served as the site for one of the first settlements in Texas. Texas officially declared its independence from Mexico in 1836 in Washington-on-the-Brazos, in present-day Washington County. Several naval battles took place along the river during the Texas Revolution. The river also served as an important means of navigation for troops and supplies during the American Civil War.

The Brazos River flows through several major metropolitan areas in Texas
The Brazos River flows through several major metropolitan areas in Texas, including Waco and Houston, before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.


Is the Brazos River dangerous?

The major safety issues related to the Brazos River all center on water quality. The Brazos River watershed contains high nutrient loads as well as high levels of salt and bacteria. At the same time, the watershed also has low levels of dissolved oxygen. These problems are due to the large amounts of fertilizers, chemicals, and animal waste that enter the river via groundwater runoff. This potent cocktail of toxic waste gets particularly bad the further downstream you travel. In fact, the Brazos River received nearly 33.4 million pounds of toxic chemicals in 2012 alone. Today, Texas ranks in the top two in the nation for its public water ratings.

The Brazos River is also home to one of the most notorious and dangerous bacteria in the United States. Known as the brain-eating amoeba, Naegleria fowleri can cause primary amebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM. PAM attacks the host’s central nervous system and infected individuals have a whopping 97% mortality rate. According to the CDC, 151 documented PAM cases occurred between 1962 and 2020, including 39 in Texas. Most cases occur in rivers, lakes, or streams with high levels of pollution, such as the Brazos River. Infection risk peaks in summer like Naegleria fowleri thrives in warmer water.

Houses near the Brazos River
The major safety issues related to the Brazos River all center on water quality, which is compromised by high nutrient loads, salinity, and bacterial levels.


What lives at the bottom of the Brazos River?

The Brazos River watershed supports a diverse flora and fauna. About 42 rivers and lakes lie within the watershed, which covers about 46,000 square miles. Grassland makes up most of the land within the watershed at 61%, followed by shrubland at 19.8% and forest at 11%. Animal residents along the Brazos River include lynx, foxes, white-tailed deer and wild boar. Meanwhile, the river itself supports several species including catfish, crappie and other species of fish. Let’s take a closer look at what lives at the bottom of the Brazos River.

American alligator

The American alligator, also known simply as an alligator or common alligator, is the second largest reptile native to the United States. Adult alligators range in length from 8.5 to 15.1 feet, with males generally being longer than females. Although most specimens weigh up to 999 pounds, some reports claim alligators have been found weighing over 2,000 pounds. American alligators possess dark scales, broad snouts, and large, overlapping jaws. These apex predators eat a variety of prey including birds, fish, mammals, and other reptiles. Overhunting led to the near-extinction of American alligators in much of the United States by the mid-20th century. Thanks to aggressive conservation efforts, the species slowly recovered from an endangered species to a species of least concern.

American alligators can be found along the Brazos River.
American alligators can be found along the Brazos River.

© Larson

Blue catfish

the blue catfish, Ictalurus furcatus, belongs to the catfish family Ictaluridae. These massive fish rank among the largest catfish species in North America. Exceptionally large specimens can grow to 150 pounds and 65 inches long. As the name suggests, blue catfish have a bluish-gray, heavy body and a prominent dorsal hump. Blue catfish are opportunistic carnivores that will eat anything they can catch, including clams, frogs, crabs, and other fish. Anglers appreciate blue catfish because of their size. As a result, they have spread or been introduced into many waterways in the United States. In some regions, people consider them invasive pests because they can outperform or eat native fish.

Blue catfish is the largest in North America
blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) is the largest species of catfish in North America.

©Billy Ogle/Flickr – License

Brazos water snake

the Brazos Water Serpent, nerodia mapper, also known as Harter’s water snake. The snake’s specific name honors Phillip Harter, an amateur herpetologist who first identified the snake in 1936. This non-venomous, primarily aquatic snake is endemic to Texas and is found almost exclusively along the Brazos River. Most specimens measure between 16 and 32 inches long. They come in a variety of colors; The dorsal side ranges from olive green to brown while the underside looks orange or pink. Regardless of base color, each Brazos water snake has two rows of darker spots on its back and underside. Brazos water snakes hunt small fish, salamanders, crabs and frogs. Due to its small population and habitat, the IUCN lists the Brazos water snake as a near threatened species.

Largemouth Bass

The largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) belongs to the sunfish family Centrarchidae. Although native to central and eastern North America, this immensely popular game fish has been introduced to many waters around the world. As a result, many places consider largemouth bass an invasive species as it can outcompete native species. Largemouth bass have greenish-grey to olive green scales and black spots on each side. They have a distinctive underbite, hence the name bigmouth. The largest largemouth bass of all time was 29.5 inches long and weighed 25 pounds, 1 ounce. These predatory fish eat a variety of prey including insects, shrimp, frogs, salamanders, snakes, bats and other fish. Anglers love fishing for largemouth bass due to their impressive size and tendency to ‘fight’.

Largemouth bass underwater
Largemouth bass have greenish-grey to olive green scales and black spots on each side.


Alligator Snapping Turtle

Macrochelys temminckii is better known as the alligator snapping turtle. The alligator snapping turtle is a member of the Chelydridae family and is believed to be one of the largest freshwater turtles in the world. Specimens typically range in length from 12.8 to 31.8 inches and weigh from 19 to 176 pounds, with males generally being larger than females. However, particularly large specimens can exceed 200 pounds. Alligator snapping turtles possess large, powerful jaws that can generate pressures of up to 1,000 psi. These opportunistic carnivores eat both live prey and carrion. While they primarily eat fish, they can also feed on birds, other turtles, and even small alligators. In captivity, they typically live between 20 and 70 years, but their potential lifespan could reach 120 years. Alligator snapping turtles face numerous threats, including habitat loss, hunting, and the pet trade. The IUCN lists them as an endangered species.

Alligator snapping turtle Macrochelys temminckii
Alligator snapping turtles possess large, powerful jaws that can generate pressures of up to 1,000 psi.

© Vongjintanaruks

Interesting facts

  • The Brazos River is the fourteenth longest river in the United States.
  • There are three dams and nineteen major reservoirs along the main trunk of the Brazos River.
  • In Spanish, the name of the Brazos River means “River of the Arms of God”.
  • One of the first English-speaking colonies in Texas was established on the Brazos River and founded by Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas” and his fourth secretary of state.
  • Popular activities along the Brazos River include canoeing, camping and fishing.


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