Gotta Get Away? Caddo Lake

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Story and Photos By Mike Yawn

Over the course of six months, SHSU Professor Mike Yawn took students on three separate trips to Caddo Lake, where they learned about the area’s history, environment, wildlife, and photographic virtues.

Caddo Lake is one of the most beautiful spots in Texas, but it is also a study in contradictions. The lake is expansive, spanning 25,000-plus acres and crossing two states; the nearest town, however, is the appropriately named “Uncertain,” home to only 94 citizens. While residents may be scarce, the Lake hosts one of the most diverse ecological systems in the state, a feature that attracts fishermen, birders, and wildlife watchers. And although the Lake lacks the amenities of some of Texas’s resort lakes, its reflective waters, beautiful trees, and vivid fall colors make it a haven for photographers and others who, like us, are attracted to beautiful and intriguing locations.

The History

No one knows with certainty the lake’s origins. According to the Caddo Indians—for whom the lake is named—the body of water was formed by the New Madrid Earthquake in 1811-1812. According to Caddo lore, one of the tribal chiefs failed to obey the “Great Spirit,” and the earthquake followed, filling the area with water. Scientists, on the other hand, believe the lake was formed by log jams circa 1800 that backed up water flow, creating what is now Caddo Lake.

Prior to either of these origin stories, smaller bodies existed in this area, and the area’s bald cypress trees were already a landscape feature. Ring studies show that the trees on Caddo Lake are 400-600 years old, and since their seeds germinate in wet regions, it is clear that water has long been a feature of the Caddo region.

The Caddo Indians, who had inhabited the land for centuries, were moved off the land in 1835, prompted by treaty and payment. In their place, men of dubious character occasionally filtered in, often after evading authorities.

In the documentary “Uncertain,” which focuses on Caddo Lake, Harrison County Sheriff Tom McCool described the region aptly: “Being located on the Louisiana-Texas border, [Caddo] tends to be an area where persons with criminal histories will tend to migrate…to get away from other jurisdictions.”

That verdict may reflect 19th-century settlement patterns in the area, but locals today—whom we found to be hospitable and friendly—take objection to Sheriff McCool’s characterization, and the documentary, which won its directors the “Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award”—remains a local controversy.

“I didn’t participate in the film, and I didn’t watch it,” notes local resident (and former tour guide) Wes Holland. “They characterize the locals as questionable characters, and that’s not true. The people here are nice, hard-working, and welcoming, and they work hard to keep this a destination for others.”

Caddo Lake as a Destination

There is much to do in Caddo Lake, as long as you enjoy boating, fishing, hunting, or just enjoying nature’s beauty. A half-dozen tour guides in the area provide lake tours, and in our various sojourns to the Lake, we have taken a dozen or so tours from three different tour guides. Most often, we contacted Wes Holland, who proved to be an entertaining, informative, and accommodating tour guide (he has since sold his business, but remains in the area).

But all our tour guides were knowledgeable, and they worked hard to highlight the virtues of the region. The tours, which typically take 60-90 minutes, are the best introduction to the history, ecology, and the physical space of the lake.

With a deep knowledge of the Lake, guides can take you straight to the oxbow, speed along the water highway lanes, or navigate you to secluded spots, where the water’s stillness promotes reflection. The guides are also versed in the history of the region. Did you know, for example, that Japanese immigrant George Murato discovered pearl-bearing mussels in 1909, a discovery that prompted a “pearl rush” in the area? That “rush” was dampened in 1914, when a dam produced deeper waters and less profitable mussel hunting.

The dam also marked the end of the Lake’s designation as Texas’s only natural lake, although it is still often described as such.

Whether we label it natural or man-made, it is a great place for fishing. Spring is the best time for fishing, and the most common species are Largemouth Bass, Crappie, Catfish, Chain Pickerel, and Sunfish. The record for Largemouth Bass at the Lake is just over 16 pounds, and the record for the largest Catfish is 60 pounds.

Given the shallowness of Caddo Lake, you will see many fish during a boat tour, and this is particularly true while canoeing or kayaking. Several local businesses rent kayaks and canoes, and we took advantage of this opportunity during one of our Caddo Lake field trips. The average depth of the Lake is 8-10 feet, although many parts of the Lake are as shallow as 2-3 feet. “If you capsize,” our tour guides told us, “don’t swim, stand up.”

That did not work well for three members in our party who managed to capsize within 15 minutes of embarking on a canoe crossing. Having capsized in a deeper part of the Lake, the three fumbled with the capsized canoe until friendly locals lent a helping hand.

The canoe catastrophe occurred not far from “Dick and Charlie’s Tea House” which, according to guides, was a speakeasy during Prohibition. In the 1920s, customers would arrive via water taxis or their own boats and enjoy a drink at Dick and Charlie’s. The surrounding waters provided a police buffer, and an outdoor sign established house rules: (1) There Ain’t None; (2) There Never Was None; (3) There Ain’t Never Gona (sic) Be None.

The unusual house—and the Lake—is used in the opening credits of True Blood. Indeed, the Lake’s sloughs and Spanish-moss laden trees make it a natural for low-budget horror films, and it was used as the setting for the appropriately titled Soggy Bottom, USA; Boggy Creek; Gator Bait, and the “documentary” Southern Fried Bigfoot. But Denzel Washington also set parts of The Great Debaters at Caddo Lake, and locals still speak proudly of his visit to the lake for filming.

The most famous of Caddo Lake’s celebrities, however, is Don Henley, who owns an unassuming house on shorefront property. Henley caught his first fish on Caddo Lake, and he established the “Caddo Lake Institute” in 1992 to help protect the area.

The Institute’s efforts helped prompt the Convention on Wetlands to designate Caddo Lake as a “Wetland of Historical Importance” in 1993. It is one of only 29 such sites in the United States, and the designation protects some 20,000 acres.

In designating Caddo Lake, the Convention described the region as “one of the best examples of a mature flooded bald cypress forest in the U.S.,” while also citing the area’s support for numerous and diverse animal species.

There are approximately 900 species of birds in the United States, and the Caddo Lake region is home to more than 200 of them. There are 71 species of fish, including almost 20 game fish; approximately 50 mammals; and some 90 reptiles.

Thankfully, we saw no reptiles, but we did see a deer, Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, Kingfishers, and a beaver.

The “Lake-Eating Monster”

The region’s richness in life-forms extends to flora, with some 500-plus species—including several not found elsewhere in Texas. Unfortunately, a recent addition to the list of species is Salvinia (aka, “Watermoss”), which the New York Times called a “lake-eating monster.”

Native to Brazil, this invasive species mysteriously found its way to Caddo Lake in 2006. It has since crowded out many existing plants, threatening wildlife that depend on those sources, while also blocking sunlight from the water, which in turn produces oxygen deficiencies that harm fish. Unfortunately, it is also prolific: it can double in a week. When it is thick, it impedes boat access to some of the more interesting recesses of the lake, and two or three of our tours were modified because of the pestilential plant.

Several efforts are ongoing to control the growth of Salvinia, but the State of Texas is relying most heavily on herbicides and, intriguingly, the introduction of a weevil that, under the right conditions, kills the Salvinia. While neither tactic has fully eradicated the species, the effort has managed to contain the Salvania invasion, and all recreational options were open to us on each of our visits.

Lodging and Dining

Caddo Lake encompasses Caddo Lake State Park, which offers 46 campsites and several historic cabins. Nearby towns such as Marshall (17 miles) or Jefferson (13 miles) are your best bet for hotels. There are 2-3 restaurants in Uncertain, with Shady Glade and River Bend Restaurants leading the way, and numerous options in surrounding towns.

Generally, though, people do not travel to Caddo Lake for the amenities or food. They come for the recreation, the Lake’s austere beauty, or the chance to see flora and fauna that exist nowhere else in the state of Texas.

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