Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


The Apple of Your Eye


Catfish and Bluebirds

Taking stock of Greenville and fish-friendly Lake Tawakoni State Park. 

I SPENT SNIPPETS of my youth tromping around the fields and fishing ponds of the Davis family property near Lake Tawakoni, about 60 miles from where I lived in Dallas. Longtime school chum John and I shared birthdays two days apart, and for a few years, one April weekend meant fishing and shared birthday cake.

Although we stayed so busy having fun in a rowboat on the Davis ponds that we never ventured to the 38,000-acre lake, I associate those idyllic times with Tawakoni (completed in late 1960).

As adults, we sometimes focus on going far away, forgetting the treasures in our backyard. Not this time. I decide to stay close to home and experience the popular “Catfish Capital of Texas” (also home to largemouth bass, crappie, white bass, striped and hybrid bass and gar). I reserve campsite No. 20 at Lake Tawakoni State Park, 376 acres of prairies and woodlands fronting the lake’s shore. My journey starts in Greenville, about 30 miles northwest.

On my way to my 2 p.m. campsite check-in, I wander to the Audie Murphy/American Cotton Museum in Greenville, passing an enormous statue of the local World War II hero.

The museum is divided into three parts: Hunt County history (warts included), cotton (including historical equipment displays) and a Hall of Heroes where native son Murphy’s amazing life is detailed.

By the time he was 21, Murphy had earned every U.S. Army military combat award, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism. Murphy struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder when he came home, although no such diagnosis existed then. After actor James Cagney read a Life magazine cover story depicting Murphy as the “most decorated soldier,” Cagney brought him to Hollywood. Murphy took acting, voice and dance lessons. The work helped him recover. From 1948 to 1969, Murphy made more than 40 films and one television series.  


 Chase Fountain | TPWD


From the museum, I move to the Uptown Forum Center, a multi-tenant downtown building — built in 1916 as the Perkins Brothers Department Store — that now houses a delightful assortment of businesses including a chocolatier and various boutique and gift stores. I grab lunch at the now-closed Fiddle & Fork, a farm-to-market café (the space is currently up for lease).

Mural-heavy Greenville has other points of interest, of course. For those with a sweet tooth, Luanne’s Mary of Puddin Hill downtown may be just your thing; it certainly has an interesting hometown story. On Nov. 3 and 4, check out the annual Bob Wills Fiddle Festival and Contest (a high-level competition at the wonderfully renovated Texan, a dinner theater and event venue) and a local celebration of Bob Wills’ life.

After my time in Greenville, I arrive at the state park office, greeted by the sight of eastern bluebirds.    


 Chase Fountain | TPWD


 Chase Fountain | TPWD

Big_Bend_Ranch_State_Park_2023 03_1256

 Chase Fountain | TPWD

The lake, named after the Caddo Nation Tawakoni Native Americans, has 200 miles of shoreline. More than 340 bird species have been recorded on the lake, with about 78 percent of those at the park, according to birdwatchingdaily.com. “Birding groups come every week,” Assistant Park Supervisor Jena Bailey says. “We have a birding checklist visitors can work on during their stay.”

Bailey, who grew up in Wills Point, about eight miles away, transferred here from Austin a little more than six months ago. “It’s awesome to be back home,” she says.

Heading to my campsite, I pass the small Pair-o-Trees pond that is her favorite spot here. “It provides fishing, wildlife watching and all the weird insects you see in Texas,” she says. “There are deer out there every morning. It’s very shaded. I like to have my lunch there.”

A Twilley-hatted solitary fisherman works the pond. Two nearby pocket prairies, burned and returned to a native Blackland Prairie state, are dedicated to habitat conservation. “We use it as a teaching moment during our wildlife trails, for landowners who might want to dedicate some of their properties to habitat restoration,” Bailey says.

Loyal park regulars keep activity at the White Deer Ranch and Spring Point camping loops robust. Spring Point campsites 54, 55 and 56, right on the water, are the favorite of fishermen with boats and the hardest to find available.



LOCAL GUIDE Matt Cartwright has fished Lake Tawakoni for 30 years. “My father and grandfather fished here the day it opened; it’s kind of our backyard,” he says. He picks up clients at the park and whisks them off in hunt of striped bass, sand bass or blue catfish.

To employ his or other guides’ services, plan far ahead. “By January or February, my whole summer is usually booked,” he says. “I have so much repeat business, mostly from the DFW and Tyler-Longview areas, or closer.”

Fishing here is prolific year-round. During late June, Cartwright’s clients “were catching 30 to 40 stripers in the first hour, and we’ll have a hundred sand bass in the box by 9. We are catching them on live bait, which is fun for customers because it’s a lot of action. But it means I’m out at three in the morning cast-netting for shad most every day of my life,” he says, laughing.

Once catch limits are reached, he returns to the park for client photos, then cleans and fillets the haul at the cleaning table and bags it up in freezer bags for clients to take home.

November’s unpredictable weather dictates its fishing adventures. “Usually, the fish are in a good fall pattern, chasing bait,” he says. “We use nothing but artificials. I sleep a little later.”

Cartwright notes that bank fishers can find success in the cove, toward the park pump station. “People catch a lot of catfish on cheese bait or cut shad thrown out there,” he says. “If you want to really do well, buy a bag of cattle cubes [feed pellets]. Broadcast them where you are fishing, and the catfish will react to their smell. Cast your line out in the middle of them.”

Bailey cites ample opportunity for catfish, gar or small bluegill along the park’s five miles of fishable shoreline. A state license is required on the lake but not for park bank fishing. 


 Chase Fountain | TPWD


 Chase Fountain | TPWD


I PITCH my tent and arrange site No. 20 to my liking. The lake is about 60 feet away on a sandy path through the trees.

After some exploring, I turn in early, falling asleep to a dude playing a guitar and singing a few campsites away.

I rise early and head to the park amphitheater, where on some Saturday mornings the staff conducts interpretive programs (check Tawakoni park news on the TPWD website).

On Saturday Nov. 18, the park is hosting its Texas State Parks Centennial celebration — a Dutch oven cook-off (details also on the park website), where campers will compete for prizes in five different categories.

No activities today, so I proceed past the amphitheater to the short Farkleberry Trail, where a northern cardinal, Carolina wren, white-eyed vireo and tufted titmouse serenade me. (My Cornell University Merlin Bird ID phone app is beneficial — knowing the song helps me look for and identify the bird.)  

At the end of the .51-mile Farkleberry section, I follow the 1.54-mile Blackjack Trail (named for the oaks that line it). A blue-gray gnatcatcher and red-eyed vireo join the feathered symphony. Sandy boot prints and trail bike tracks testify to Blackjack’s popularity, and I work up a decent lather on this humid day — and a good hunger — traipsing through the woods.

I clean up at a camp shower and drive to the brick-laid streets of downtown Wills Point, population less than 4,000. I chow down among the locals from the varied menu at Nana and Papa’s Blue Bird Café.

After the annual Audubon bird count found that Wills Point was host to more bluebirds than any other area in Texas for 11 consecutive years, then-Gov. George W. Bush designated the town the “Bluebird Capital of Texas” and the Texas Legislature followed suit in February 1995.

Upon my return, I enjoy the luxury of an afternoon tent nap serenaded by my fan’s hum. Later, as the day stretches long, I ply various banks with my ancient fishing gear.  


 Chase Fountain | TPWD

Pan-fried catfish and tortillas heated on my camping stove make for one satisfying evening meal. A curious fire-red male northern cardinal flits from one tree limb to another, a bonus floor show.

I sleep a bit later the next morning, and read a little as I enjoy the smell of coffee brewing on my camp stove.

I stretch my legs on the short Spring Point Trail before striking camp, washing up and driving out past all the RV, trailer and tent dwellers slowly emerging. I turn toward Greenville once again.

On a quiet Sunday early afternoon in downtown Greenville, the Landon Winery great hall is empty. A large, diversely attired group of late 20- and early 30-somethings, many with shocks of color in their hair, gather around at three tables in a side room, emoting a healthy energy.

On the covered patio outside, a mix of older patrons and a couple of families enjoy an open-air afternoon. I choose a table by the front window for that little transitional step back from camping into the buzz of normal life.

The cool hall and a wonderful grilled cheese sandwich with pickles and peppadews, washed down with glass of Tempranillo, are an excellent break
before re-entry.

As I head home, I’m happy to better know the Lake Tawakoni I’ve felt connected to for so many years. 

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