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Lake Life

From big-bass mecca to houseboat heaven, each lake in Texas has a unique personality to call its own.

By Carol Flake Chapman

“This is my happiness place,” says Paul Kisel, park superintendent at Eisenhower State Park. We’re standing on a wooded bluff jutting out on the southeastern edge of Lake Texoma, with the park’s boulder-lined swimming area to the right and a triple-winged fishing inlet called Butterfly Cove to the left. Oklahoma, with whom Texas shares the lake, lies across the way. A major bass tournament has just been completed, and the fancy bass boats are headed for home. The lake’s permanent armadas of sailboats, powerboats and yachts have put in for the day at the park’s Eisenhower Marina and the dozens of other marinas nestled in coves around the lake.

Owners of small aluminum flat- bottomed boats have hoisted them onto trailers, dumped the water from the ice chests and headed for the tents and RVs dotting the park campgrounds, ready to twist the cap on a cold drink and spin yarns about the day’s catch. Texas lakes have been providing happiness places for generations of Texans, and this windy point on the northern edge of the state’s Prairies and Lakes region is a good place to begin a plunge into Texas lake culture. Lake, of course, is a term we use loosely in Texas. When we refer to lakes, we’re usually talking about rivers that have been harnessed into reservoirs for flood control, water supplies or power generation. There are close to 200 major man-made reservoirs in Texas, and only one major “naturally” formed lake, though even that one, Caddo, only dates back a couple of centuries or so. And yet our “lakes” have become so much a part of our landscape and our history — and our way of life — that you could swear they’ve always been here. Who can imagine a time before you could catch lunkers in Lake Fork, tack across Texoma or party hearty on Lake Travis?

Stripers and clear sailing on Lake Texoma

Texoma is one of the state’s many “border” lakes — since rivers often define borders, it’s not surprising that Texas has so many lakes that straddle boundaries. The dividing line between Texas and Oklahoma runs right through Lake Texoma, along the original course of the Red River. The Texas side has bluffs (making it less vulnerable to fluctuating river levels) and reddish sand, while the Oklahoma shores tend to be flatter. Although there are no blinking markers in the middle of the lake telling you when you’ve left Texas, you’ll need an Oklahoma fishing license once you hit Oklahoma water — a remnant of old border wars, observes Paul Kisel. Texoma, at more than 89,000 acres, is big enough to support several different kinds of lake people, from Dallas socialites and celebrities enjoying the scenic backdrop for their decorator yachts to professional anglers looking to hook a record striper and locals plying the coves to check their trotlines for blue cats.

Texoma, in fact, is famous for the size of its blue cats, including the late former world record-holder Splash, caught from a bank, which wowed the visitors at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens. What’s more, Texoma is the only Texas lake where striped bass spawn, and according to Kisel, the water can sometimes appear to be boiling with them. If you stop at a gas station or convenience store near the lake, you’ll probably find T-shirts sporting the motto “Hook ’em” (not referring to the University of Texas football team) and vats full of live bait swimming around, including waterdogs, which are good to “hit the bass on the head,” as one store owner told me, when they’re distracted by spawning.

You can almost always catch a breeze at Texoma, and the strong winds that roar down from the north, which can turn the lake’s waters into ocean-like chop, are a boon to the lake’s many sailing aficionados. Texoma sailboaters form perhaps the most tight-knit sporting community on the lake. The Texoma Sailing Club, which sails out of the Grandpappy Point Marina, just down the shore from Eisenhower Park, has more than a hundred member families. Many of them are from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, with associate memberships for people who crew for the boats. The club holds countless races, and according to club commodore Vicki Maxcy, it’s built around the racing program. “Sailboat people tend to be fairly competitive people,” says Maxcy, who lives in McKinney and runs a hair salon as her day job. The club also holds plenty of social events, including a Jimmy Buffett night, and helps put on the annual LakeFest Regatta that attracts boats and sailors from around the country.

Lunker haven at Lake Fork

Just two hours’ drive southeast of Texoma, on the edge of the Pineywoods, is Lake Fork, which feels a world away from Texoma. With treetops poking out of the water, fishing camps lining the banks, and bass boats maneuvering in nearly every cove, Lake Fork appears to be all business — bass business, that is, though catfish and crappies have come on strong, too. According to one study, the fishing business brings in between $27 to $28 million a year to the area. Instead of yacht captains or sailing skippers in topsiders, the big wheels here are the bass guides, with decal ads for their boat and motor sponsors emblazoned on their hats, vests and boats. The marinas and motels here tend to be on the basic side, though owners of the bigger bass boats on the lake seem to spare no expense on equipment, with fishing platforms so big and sturdy it’s like casting from an oil rig.

TPWD biologist Kevin Storey says that there are a number of factors that have made Lake Fork the mother lode for trophy largemouth bass. One is the “structure” provided by the trees that were left on the lake bottom when the lake was first filled. Another is the strict slot system (only bass less than 16 or more than 24 inches can be kept) that has evolved into a “catch-and-release mentality,” says Storey.

There’s a kind of lake etiquette, he says, that has been established on the lake by years of trial and error. “There are dos and don’ts,” he says, including not keeping your bass for bragging rights and not dousing folks in small boats with your wake as you zoom by in your 21-foot Triton. There is potential conflict between different resource users, he says, “particularly with new users who didn’t grow up on the resource, living and breathing it, and learning from their parents and grandparents.”

When I stop for lunch at the Bass Lantern Cafe, which anchors the Minnow Bucket Marina, pickup trucks and bass-boat trailers are everywhere. I’m meeting bass guide Rick Loomis, who has brought in a group from the Midwest for lunch and a respite from the 30 mph winds that have kicked up. He says that in 13 years of guiding, he’s never had a client ask to keep a fish. “Lake Fork has a mystique,” he says, and part of the mystique is “knowing that the 10-pound bass you caught one year will still be there the next, but even bigger.” Fork, he says, is a “bass fishing jewel that has been protected and taken care of.” He admits that there is considerable competition for trophy bass on the lake, although there are fewer tournaments here because of the slot rules. It’s difficult to keep secrets about bait and location — not only from anglers but from the fish. “With 375,000 people coming here every year, and every one of them throwing bait, it doesn’t take long to educate the fish,” he says.

Jewel of the Highland Lakes

I live a stone’s throw from one of the six Highland Lakes, Lake Austin. With a visible current, my lake still feels more like a river than a lake. If the Colorado were a snake, the Highland Lakes would constitute the series of bulges along its Central Texas coils, as though the Colorado had eaten a seven-course banquet. Each lake, from Lake Buchanan, the top bulge, to Town Lake (the unofficial seventh Highland Lake), the slender segment at the bottom that runs through downtown Austin, feels remarkably different, though the shoreline surrounding the lakes has been changing rapidly, filling up with luxury houses and resorts.

The eagles still fly over big, blustery Lake Buchanan, and you can kayak your way up a fairly wild tributary to watch them and then relax at the comfortable Canyon of the Eagles resort. Lake Marble Falls is still full of fast speedboats, and Lake Travis still attracts gawkers to clothing-optional Hippie Hollow like sailors to the Lorelei. However, the lake now seems to be surrounded by residents sunning themselves on their docks as boatloads of frolicking college students zoom by, trailed by show-offs on wake boards. Fortunately, there are still plenty of rocky coves at Pace Bend Park where you can swim and splash around in peace, and you can even camp there with your horses and dogs.

Inks Lake, a tiny jewel of a lake that lies just below Lake Buchanan, seems the most impervious to change of all the Central Texas lakes, partly because so much of its shoreline is owned by TPWD and by the legendary Camp Longhorn, where many a Texan learned how to paddle. Inks Lake State Park, the only state park on the Highland Lakes, is the second most popular camping site among state parks (after Garner), and it’s usually completely booked from March through Thanksgiving. Like Garner, it’s a place where families come for generation after generation. The park’s interpretive ranger, Rob Smith, says that his parents first brought him here as a “diapered baby.”

When I visited this year during spring break, the park was packed. And yet it still felt like the peaceable kingdom, with families and church groups camped next to retirees in RVs, and picnickers spreading out goodies next to impromptu volleyball games. I could hear several different languages being spoken, partly the result of a diversity outreach effort by TPWD. An extended family from India was singing Hindi songs as they loaded into rented canoes at the launch site next to the park store. Kayakers were heading out toward the heron rookery across the lake and up to the Devil’s Waterhole and its perfect tiny waterfall, with clear water tumbling over pink granite rocks.

I could see determined anglers chugging toward the Lake Buchanan dam, where folks have been pulling up huge striped bass for years now. Paul Kisel, who served here prior to going to Lake Texoma, says that his mother still owns the record for the largest hybrid bass caught at the lake.

Meanwhile, city dwellers who had never been fishing before were signing up for angler education classes with Janet Bohanan, volunteer fishing event coordinator for the park. “People like having such easy access to the lake and having so much to do when they’re here,” she says. “It’s so relaxed here, but it’s also more structured than a lot of lakes, with so many scheduled activities.”

Pursuing bass and a giant panther at Amistad

Perhaps the most unexpected lake in Texas is Amistad, which comes on like a mirage as you drive across the arid Southwest Texas landscape toward the Mexico border. “It can take you aback, this large body of water in the desert,” says Greg Garetz, park ranger for the Amistad National Recreation Area. The reservoir is fed by the Pecos, Rio Grande and Devils rivers, three of the most scenic rivers in the state. “The Pecos is our most majestic area,” says Garetz.

“It’s like going into Yosemite, with these awe-inspiring vistas of hundred-foot cliffs on either side,” says Garetz. “We have three different ecosystems coming together here,” with elements of the Big Bend and the Chihuahuan Desert to the west, bits of the coastal plains to the east, and remnants of the Edwards Plateau to the north.

The winter Texans, who flock here along with waterfowl, wild turkeys, migratory birds and butterflies, can get the best of three worlds.

The lake only dates back to 1969, when the Amistad Dam was built, creating the 65,000-acre international reservoir. But people have been living and fishing along these waters for some 12,000 years, making Amistad’s lake culture among the oldest in the state. When you camp out at Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site, you’re in good company. For some 300 generations, Native Americans inhabited rock shelters hidden in these canyons, cooking fires that blackened the ceiling of the caves and painting images of shamans and stylized animals racing across smooth rock faces. Seminole and Amistad National Recreation Area actually share the area’s most dramatic archaeological site, Panther Cave, with its giant painted panther, which draws visitors by water as well as by land.

Among the newer cultures at the lake is the growing houseboat culture, with visitors coming from around the country to stay at the floating homes away from home that can be rented at the Forever Resort Marina in the Amistad Recreation Area. “We get families that rent more than one boat to fit everybody. We get a lot of business people, too, who come here to relax and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets we have here,” says Susan Lively, a manager at Forever.

But an even newer culture has been threatening to dominate the waters, at least during tournament time. As plentiful rainfall has raised the level of the lake, big largemouth bass have become bountiful, and the secret is out. When professional anglers began coming to Amistad for tournaments last year, “they were flabbergasted,” says Greg Garetz. “They had never seen so many big fish.” Some even decided to buy or build houses near Amistad. The ranchland surrounding the lake is rapidly giving way to subdivisions. Perhaps someday the bass-bedazzled anglers will begin painting their own kind of pictographs for the benefit of succeeding generations, complete with hand gestures indicating the size of the ones that got away.

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