By Ken Kurzawski
Not lucky enough to own your own private fish camp? Here are 12 state parks that offer the next best thing.
Access to fresh water abounds throughout the state park system, so whatever your angling skills may be, you can find a fishing experience to match. Bank fishing spots, either near your campsite or on a fishing pier, are plentiful and most waterside parks have boat ramps. If you don't have a boat and want to get out on the water, some even have watercraft rentals such as canoes or kayaks.
Bass, catfish, crappie and sunfish, those staples of Texas freshwater fishing, are found in almost every park that has water. State parks also provide opportunities to fish for something out of the ordinary. In Hill Country parks such as Guadalupe River, Inks Lake, Lost Maples and South Llano River, you can catch Guadalupe bass, the official state fish, which are found only in Texas. Want to catch a chain pickerel? Head to Caddo Lake to tangle with this toothy relative of northern pike. Can't make it to the coast to hook a redfish? Fairfield Lake State Park is one of a half-dozen inland lakes that TPWD stocks with red drum. Prefer trout fishing? Each winter, rainbow trout are stocked in about 10 parks among the 90 or so sites stocked statewide.
The variety of fish and fishing experiences in state parks is matched by the range of camping facilities. Have a small tent and want to camp a few steps from the water? Have an RV pulling a 20-foot boat? Prefer to bed down in a screened shelter or cabin? Texas state parks have nearly as much variety in types of camping facilities as they do in types of fish. Once you find a park with a fishing/camping combo that suits your style, see what else that park offers, as many of these parks sport other recreational activities ranging from swimming, hiking and birding to mountain biking and golfing.
Big Bend Country
Devils River State Natural Area: This remote park north of Del Rio combines primitive camping with river fishing for smallmouth bass. No one knows exactly how smallmouth bass got into the Devils River, says Jimmy Dean, who has overseen fisheries in South Texas for TPWD for a quarter-century. Whatever the source, anglers who make the rugged float from Bakers' Crossing (State Highway 163 bridge) are rewarded with outstanding smallmouth bass fishing. Dolan Falls within the park prevents floating farther downstream without portaging. Primitive campsites near the river are accessible only by canoe; seven others and a 10-bed bunkhouse are available for those arriving by road. Special harvest regulations for smallmouth bass (18-inch minimum length limit and three-fish daily bag) are in place for the Devils River from Bakers Crossing to Dolan Falls to help protect the quality of the fishery.
Inks Lake State Park: Fishing in one of the most scenic and popular state parks in Texas has improved over the last few years, reports fisheries biologist Craig Bonds of TPWD. Largemouth bass and sunfish are the primary targets. Inks Lake also has a population of the Texas state fish, Guadalupe bass. Catfish and white bass are available and occasionally, big stripers can be caught on the upper end of the lake below Buchanan Dam. Two lighted fishing piers are popular with campers, and the only public boat ramp on the lake is within the park.
Colorado Bend State Park: If you could take a boat from Inks Lake up the Colorado River through Lake Buchanan (Buchanan Dam prevents that), your trip would end at the rocky shoals in this park. White bass pile up at these shoals on their spring spawning run, making this one of the best-known spring fishing spots in Central Texas. The river can be fished from a boat or from the shore. Catfishing is also good in the spring and fall. Under normal water levels, you can put in at the park's boat ramp and travel downstream through canyons and past waterfalls into Lake Buchanan. Camping facilities at Colorado Bend are less developed than at many parks, mirroring the "wild" nature of the area.
Lake Brownwood State Park: Drought and fish kills caused by golden algae have been hard on many lakes in the western half of Texas. Lake Brownwood has been an exception to those scourges. Sufficient water level has been maintained in the reservoir, which has contributed to good largemouth bass, catfish and white bass fishing. The park's lighted fishing pier is a favorite of catfish anglers. Many camping spots are right on the water. The park also contains Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) buildings.
Atlanta State Park: Located on the shores of Wright Patman Lake, this park is nestled in the Pineywoods near Texarkana. Mike Ryan, TPWD fisheries biologist for this area, modestly proclaims Wright Patman "one of the best fisheries in the state." With great fishing for all three species of catfish (channels, blues and flatheads), crappie and white and hybrid striped bass, it's hard to argue with that. Throw in some decent bass fishing and a campground with all the amenities and you have a great destination.
Caddo Lake State Park: Caddo is often touted as the only "natural" lake in Texas (others are considered man-made reservoirs). However, a flood-control dam added in the early 1900s somewhat muddies that claim. Whatever its designation, Caddo provides a unique experience for those who camp and fish among its cypress-lined sloughs and bayous. Caddo earned a reputation as a big bass lake in the 1990s. Species such as crappie, sunfish and white bass also merit attention. Some people come to Caddo just to chunk spinnerbaits with the hope of catching a chain pickerel. A boat ramp in the park offers access to the upper end of the lake.
Huntsville State Park: Lake Raven is a 210-acre jewel in this park near Huntsville. The lake offers great fishing for bass and sunfish in a serene setting surrounded by pines. Shore access is excellent, with piers and bank fishing available. Attractive camping and picnicking areas are located around the lake.
Prairies & Lakes
Fairfield Lake State Park: A power plant on this reservoir southeast of Corsicana provides warm water that allows stocked red drum to survive during the winter. While a "slot" length limit is used on the coast, red drum in stocked freshwater lakes may be kept if 20 inches or longer; a three-fish daily bag applies. The warm water also allows tilapia to thrive in Fairfield. This fish, native to Africa and the Middle East, was introduced as bait by anglers. Tilapia are difficult to catch on hook and line but are great table fare. Jeff Geer, of the state park staff, says anglers come from all over Texas and other states to bowfish for tilapia. Anglers also have good success fishing for bass, catfish and hybrid stripers.
Ray Roberts Lake State Park: If I lived in the DFW Metroplex or even north of Waco, I'd wear out the road going to this park near Denton. Two units, Isle du Bois and Johnson Branch, are located on the shores of 29,350-acre Lake Ray Roberts. Both units offer great camping and fishing with lots of shore access for angling or parking your boat near your campsite. Chris True, who oversees the operation of both units for TPWD, says the parks were designed to be angler and camper friendly. Each unit has a fish-cleaning station, multi-lane boat ramps with courtesy docks, and kids' fishing ponds that are stocked annually. Isle du Bois has the added attraction of a lighted fishing pier. Ray Roberts Lake has built a reputation as a top-notch largemouth bass lake. It also has excellent fishing for white bass (people call them sand bass around there), crappie and catfish, all species that can be caught by novice and expert anglers alike.
Lake Somerville State Park: The Birch Creek and Nails Creek units of this park are on opposite sides of the upper end of this 11,400-acre lake near Caldwell and Giddings. Both units offer access to a wide variety of fishes. Crappie, catfish and white and hybrid striped bass attract the most attention, but TPWD fisheries biologist Jeff Henson says largemouth bass fishing has picked up recently due to favorable water levels and increased aquatic vegetation. Birch Creek has a fishing pier and jetty. The Lake Somerville Trailway links the two parks and provides access to good white bass fishing on Yegua Creek during spring spawning runs.
Purtis Creek State Park: This park's 354-acre lake, set among the hardwoods just northeast of Athens, was designed with one purpose in mind: to produce big largemouth bass. Amenities such as lighted fishing piers, fish-cleaning shelters, boat ramps and courtesy docks help complete the angling experience. To ensure good fishing into the future, the lake has some special regulations such as a no-wake restriction, a limit of 50 boats on the lake at any one time and catch-and-release only fishing for bass. However, if you do catch a bass 21 inches or larger, you can weigh it at a lakeside scale, provided you release it alive back into the lake. If you're more interested in catching supper than trophies, you can fish for crappie, catfish and sunfish.
South Texas Plains
Choke Canyon State Park: At the opposite end of Texas from Ray Roberts Lake, there's a park that can rival its extensive fishing and recreational opportunities. Like Ray Roberts, Choke Canyon has two units, Calliham and South Shore. The Calliham Unit has a rock jetty and a small lake for bank anglers. The South Shore unit has lots of lakefront access and places to fish below Choke Canyon Dam, where white bass and crappie are plentiful in spring. Both units provide boat access to the main reservoir for anglers to pursue bass, crappie and catfish.
Fishing is one of the most popular activities in Texas state parks. Youngsters dangling earthworms in front of bluegills share park waters with bass anglers twitching plastic worms along the bottom. All can snuggle into sleeping bags at night to dream of the big one that tomorrow might not get away.