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Camp Fish

It's summertime, and the living is easy in state parks - the fishing isn't bad, either.

By Larry D. Hodge

The earliest camping trip I can remember revolved around fishing. The white bass run was on in the Pedernales River, and some relatives took me along for an overnight expedition. Details of all that happened are fuzzy, but I still remember two things: sleeping in the car (not fun) and having a riverbank breakfast of fish and potatoes fried over an open fire (very tasty).

Many Texas state parks offer camping, fishing and the opportunity to relive some childhood moments and make some new (and maybe better) memories. I chose South Llano River State Park near Junction to reacquaint myself with the pleasures of camping where I fish – or fishing where I camp, depending on how you look at it.

Look at a map of the Texas Hill Country, and you'll notice something unusual about the South Llano.

Give up?

Two things can be said of this river that apply to few others in Texas: It has not been dammed, and there are no cities or towns of any consequence along its upper reaches. The South Llano is still wild and mostly unspoiled. It rages in flood times but almost sleeps most of the year, and its waters run clear and clean over limestone bedrock rimmed by huge pecan and cedar elm trees.

South Llano River State Park fringes the river in one of its most scenic stretches, and convenient put-in and take-out points within the park and 10 miles upstream make it a favorite of anglers who like to canoe or kayak with fishing rod in hand.

The park also contains a hidden jewel: Buck Lake, a former river channel lined with huge trees and teeming with sunfish, channel catfish and largemouth bass. The 1.5-acre lake is a short hike from the shady campground, and while bass fishing there is catch-and-release, you can procure the main ingredients for a fish fry with a can of worms and a cane pole.

I can testify to the fish in Buck Lake. Though I didn't have any worms, I had some salami in my ice chest, and grasshoppers abounded around the lake. Both caught channel catfish and bass when fished under a bobber in the shade of trees that overhang the water. "I hooked a huge largemouth bass on a sunfish under a bobber, but it broke me off," says park ranger Monty Terral. "Later I came back by, and a boy had caught it and was showing it off. It still had my hook in its mouth."

Guadalupe bass draw anglers to the river, and I was pleased to find the water holding Rio Grande cichlids as well. These brilliant-blue native fish are fun to catch on ultralight or fly tackle. "I usually use a white rooster tail on Guadalupes and the Rio Grande cichlids. The cichlids are always a thrill to catch," Terral says. "They have a big, wide body and feel like a whale when you get one on."

The high banks of the South Llano within the park hinder access for fishing, but they do make it possible to scout before fishing. You can look down into the clear water and see fish, then cross the river and fish from a gravel bar or the far bank.

For my money, though, kayak fishing is the way to go. Put in at the low-water crossing at the entrance to the park and float and fish all the way to the next low-water crossing, about four river miles downstream. Guadalupes like to hang out in the shade near the bank. "Where wide, calm water feeds into faster water is good for Guadalupes," Terral says. "The tubing takeout point is a good place to fish – a deep hole starts there, and it has some shallow areas as well." A kayak or canoe will let you get away from the tubers and swimmers.

Whether you keep and cook fish or not, spend some time in the campground, especially in early morning and evening, when you should be cooking over the campfire instead of slaving over a fishing rod anyway. (Chill! You're on vacation!) White-tailed deer and wild turkeys are plentiful in the park, and a water trough near the park host campsite attracts both. Photo blinds with water and feeders are a short walk from the park road, and summer birders can expect to see painted buntings, summer tanagers and vermilion flycatchers.

The park adjoins the Walter Buck Wildlife Management Area, which is a great place for hiking, though it may be closed at times for public hunts. Check at park headquarters before heading off into the WMA.

Perhaps the best thing about South Llano River State Park is that it's not one of a kind. Many state parks offer quality camping and fishing. What follows is a list of my favorites, and I admit I'm partial toward parks for lazy people, where it's possible to fish within a few steps of your campsite.

Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls fits that description perfectly and offers a bonus: a largemouth bass fishery that is developing into one of the best in Texas. "I've been a management biologist for Arrowhead for more than 15 years now, and currently it undoubtedly has the best bass population and fishing it has ever had during that time," says Mark Howell.

Big stockings of Florida largemouth bass in 2001, 2005 and 2006, combined with elevated water conditions during the spring spawns of 2005, 2006 and 2007, have all contributed to some very large year classes of bass. More and more big fish are being caught. A new bass record of 12.73 pounds was caught in March 2008, but may be eclipsed by a pending lake record blue catfish (66.95 pounds) caught a few weeks later. "In early July 2007, the lake completely filled to over the spillway, the first time in more than 10 years. We should have great habitat and bass fishing for years to come," Howell says.

Lake Arrowhead State Park has fishing tackle to loan, so all you have to remember to pack is your camping gear.

Most of Lake Tawakoni State Park's campsites are on a peninsula jutting into the lake, so it's possible to do some bank fishing for largemouth bass or crappie, and boaters can chase striped bass, hybrid striped bass and white bass on the lake, following the birds. But Tawakoni's forte is catfish - a happy circumstance, since fried catfish is one of my favorite foods. This lake pumps out huge numbers of channel catfish, and it has some blues and flatheads as well. Think summer evenings, smelly stinkbait, hungry kids, a sack of cornmeal and hot grease.

The Johnson Branch Unit of Ray Roberts Lake State Park is especially well-suited to the camper/angler, with camping loops strung down a peninsula like weights on a trotline. The Isle du Bois Unit has a fishing pier; try for largemouth bass, crappie, sand bass and sunfish among the rocks.

Eisenhower State Park on the southern shore of Lake Texoma has several fishing piers, but for me the camping is the thing here. I like the campsites on Elm Point, where waves lash the cliffs on both sides. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Texoma is one of the best striped bass fisheries in the state. Here's a tip: fire up the camp grill and fillet your striped bass, leaving the skin and scales on. Put the fillet on heavy aluminum foil, season to taste, dot with butter and squeeze lemon or lime juice over it, then seal the foil. Cook over the open fire until steam escapes from the foil. Eat it directly off the foil and you have the best of all possible camp cooking worlds: excellent eating with no dirty dishes.

Bonham State Park surrounds a 65-acre lake with a fishing pier and a trail all the way around the lake that lets you bank fish for catfish, sunfish and carp. There aren't many campsites, but the setting is peaceful and the scenery lush.

Lake Bob Sandlin State Park also has campsites along a heavily wooded shoreline, and the 9,400-acre lake holds catfish, largemouth bass, white bass and crappie. If you are thinking that any of those would taste particularly good when eaten beside a campfire while a cool breeze blows through the pines, you're getting my message.

The list of good camping/fishing or fishing/camping state parks in East Texas could go on and on, but there's just not room. Lake Livingston State Park, Tyler State Park, Huntsville State Park – all have much to offer in both departments, but summer is short and the list of parks is long, so let's move on.

Colorado Bend State Park: Whether you pitch your tent in the riverbank primitive camping area just feet from the river or use one of the more developed sites, you'll be a short cast from the water. Huge pecan trees and rocky cliffs surround the camping area. Fishing is best during the spring white bass run, but Lake Buchanan also has plenty of blue, channel and flathead catfish as well as hybrid striped bass.

Choke Canyon State Park comes close to being a camping catfisher's dream. Campsites and screened shelters sit so near the shore that, when the lake is overfull (which is rare), some are actually in the water. Bass fishing is great here, and last summer I saw unbelievable carp spawning activity around the lake, but it's catfish that Choke Canyon is known for. You can fish for them from your lawn chair at many campsites. Wildlife viewing is also outstanding here, with white-tailed deer, javelina and birds abundant; vermilion flycatchers nest in the park. Alligators live here, too, so beware.

Further south is Lake Corpus Christi State Park, a 14,000-acre park located on an even bigger reservoir that holds crappie, striped bass, white bass, largemouth bass and three flavors of catfish (all tasty). Not many campsites front the water, but this is a pretty lake, and the surrounding brush is a good place to see birds not commonly seen further north, such as pyrrhuloxia, pauraque and long-billed thrasher. Swimming, boating and water skiing are popular here, so there's something for everyone to do.

Falcon State Park has pull-through campsites as well as air-conditioned shelters, and frankly, if you go there in the summer, you'll need a cool place to hang out. But the heat won't deter serious largemouth bass anglers, who know that Falcon Reservoir produces some of the biggest bass in the state. 'Nuff said.

And one more: Lake Casa Blanca International State Park near Laredo sits beside a 1,650-acre lake that produced two 13-pound-plus largemouth bass in the same year – both caught by the same angler just days apart. This is a heavily developed park, with sports courts and fields across the lake from the camping area. Blue and channel catfish share the lake with those huge largemouth bass and hybrid striped bass. Eating fish is a favorite activity in this community, so fire up the cooker and look like a local.

I know. I haven't mentioned your favorite state park fishing lake. Send me an e-mail or letter explaining in 25 words or less why I'm clueless, and I'll check it out for next year's story.

It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

Details

For a complete list of state parks that offer quality camping and fishing, visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/programs/familyfish/stateparks.

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