Caddo Lake Caddo Country
My wife, Gail, and I chose not to take our annual two-week vacation this year. We did so not so much by choice, but necessity. Our decision was based upon one major economic obstacle: the price of gasoline. I am sure we are not alone in curbing our plans for summer fun in favor of balancing the family budget. So, what to do? Like a lot of Americans this year, we decided to not abandon getting away from the daily rigors but look for adventure and relaxation close to home. And that, as we found out, is not a bad thing at all. Northeast Texas is blessed with beautiful scenery, many of the largest lakes in the state, and a wide variety of historic sites begging to be explored. Did I mention fishing? If piscatorial pleasures are important to the success of an adventure in your family, as they say, “Nowhere but Texas” can provide the vicarious thrills of catching a mess of sunny-side-up sunfish, a lunker largemouth bass or catfish large enough to slap a saddle on and go for a ride.
Deciding which direction to go for our mini-vacation this year was easy. We had always wanted to explore the legendary Caddo Lake area in East Texas. Caddo Lake is only about a two and a half hour drive east of our home in Athens, and yet we had never taken the initiative to visit the lake and surrounding region. The lake is in a category of its own as it has the distinction of being the only natural, large body of water in Texas. It was also once part of the steamboat era of transportation and home to one of the most advanced Native American tribes in the United States, the Caddo’s. The geographical region, of which the lake is a part, contains the largest cypress tree forest in the world. And on a whimsical note is reported to be the home of the legendary humanoid known as Bigfoot. If those attributes were not enough to pique our interest, word was the fishing and wildlife viewing was excellent too.
Caddo Lake lies on the Texas and Louisiana border just east of Jefferson, Texas, and northwest of Shreveport, Louisiana. The histories of the two states are intertwined in many ways. This region was the last stronghold for the Caddo Indian culture which thrived for a few thousand years. The lake also played a major role in making the city of Jefferson the second largest port in Texas during the 1800’s. Only Galveston shipped more goods and supplies from Texas during that period. Steamboats made their way up the Mississippi River, into the Red River and accessed Jefferson through Caddo Lake and Big Cypress Bayou. For about 40 years, this route moved a large percentage of the commodities, particularly cotton, down to New Orleans and from there to destinations around the world.
So, in lieu of lining the pockets of oil executives, we decided to take a few days to explore the Caddo area, soak in the past, enjoy the present and maybe catch a fish or two.
We started our adventure in Caddo Land by booking a lake tour with Carl Allen. Carl has spent 50 years living and playing in the area and is a master tour and fishing guide on Caddo. He spent many years as an educator and coach in Texas and now plies his skills by providing very colorful and knowledgeable barge tours for people from all over the world who come to Caddo for its unique blend of culture, scenery and history. Carl told me he moved to the lake, after retiring from the educational system, for its quiet beauty and excellent fishing, but missed interacting with people and now is busier showing folks around than he was when he was coaching and teaching!
Carl filled our minds with stories of the lake and its history as we slowly motored around the shoreline on the Louisiana side of the lake. We saw six bald eagles riding the thermals, a rare treat to see so many at one time according to Carl. Apparently, they are year-round residents and many people come to Caddo to see them and the more than 200 species of birds that spend part of their lives living in or migrating through the Caddo ecosystem. About half of Caddo Lake lies inside the Louisiana border and Carl showed us a beaver lodge that was built on the watery boundary between the two states. It appeared the beavers were blissfully unaware of the imaginary demarcation or could not make up their minds as to which state they claimed residency.
Caddo looks primeval. The islands and shorelines are lined with Cypress trees draped with Spanish moss. They reminded me of old warriors with long beards hunkered down, anchored by time. Many of the trees are 400-500 years old Carl told us. If only trees could talk, what stories they could tell. The lake is relatively shallow which allows a large amount of surface vegetation to thrive. Once out of the open water areas on the Louisiana side, the lake closes down to sloughs, bayous and channels thick with vegetated sides. It appears that at any moment some pre-historic leviathan will surface draped in vegetation. Caddo does have a remnant population of the dinosaur era. American alligators are prevalent in the ideal habitat Caddo Lake provides. We did not see any on this trip but they are there and some of them are “mighty big” Carl informed us.
Carl also guides anglers who come to Caddo just to sample the fishing. Caddo supports an excellent fishery for sunfish, largemouth bass, crappie and catfish. His personal best bass weighed 13.5 pounds and he has caught five largemouths that weighed 10 pounds. Guides are highly recommended on Caddo because the entire lake looks like a bass haven. Carl knows the seasonal habits of the fish in Caddo having spent many years pursuing them. Hiring a guide is the quickest way to “get on the fish” for anglers unfamiliar with the area, Carl informed us.
All too soon our tour of this special lake was over and we motored back to Carl’s place and headed to a local eatery for lunch. The Relay Station, located just up the road a few miles in Vivian, Louisiana, provided us with an excellent home-style buffet and we stuffed ourselves with good food. Next stop was a tour of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Museum in Oil City just a few miles down the road on Highway LA 1.
It is impossible to talk about East Texas and North Louisiana without mentioning the impact the discovery of oil and natural gas has had on the area, the United States and the world. The first major discovery of oil in Texas at the Spindle top well in East Texas set off a series of events that changed history. The Caddo area became a large part of it when the first big well in Louisiana was brought into production in Oil City in 1906. All of those exciting times and the progression of the industry are well represented at the Oil and Gas Museum in Oil City, LA.
The museum also has many interesting displays and artifacts from the Caddo Indian period. Director Coe Haygood was happy to show us around and supply interesting tidbits of information about the people and events the museum highlights. My favorite exhibit was the diorama of the great log jam that made navigation up the Red River impossible and formed Caddo Lake. The huge accumulation of down timber extended 180 miles until it was removed by a company that used dynamite to blow it to pieces in the 1800’s. The exhibit has a wall-sized mural of the jam fronted by real logs that “blow up” when a handle on a detonating device is pushed by visitors. Kids and adults cannot resist it. Entrance to the museum is free making this very well-done facility even more attractive to budget minded families on vacation.
Gail and I left the museum and headed back to Texas. One thing was certain; we had to spend the night in the tiny town of Uncertain, Texas. This hamlet is nestled among the cypress trees and bayous that make up most of the Texas side of Caddo. Eclectic, laid-back and pleasantly isolated from the pressure of rapid growth, Uncertain thrives on tourists who come from near and far to enjoy the Caddo experience.
We stayed at the Hodgepodge Cottages. Our cottage was located on the waterfront and was clean and comfortable with its own fishing pier and boat dock perched on the edge of a bayou. After unpacking and resting from the day’s adventures, we went to dinner at the Uncertain Inn. Dinner was excellent and I can recommend the catfish.
After dinner, we took a night tour of the lake with Terry and Nancy Coleman. We loaded up on a barge and set off into the inky blackness. I hoped Terry knew where he was going because it is easy enough to get lost on Caddo during the day, much less at night.
This little adventure turned out to be the highlight of the trip. We cruised up and around the bayous and listened to the myriad of sound coming from insects, birds and frogs that is Caddo at night. Periodically, Terry would turn off the outboard motor and the lights and let us drift silently through the night. Fireflies would blink off and then on in the woods and over the bayous as if to direct us on our way. Owls would hoot and we clumsily tried to imitate them for a return response. It was a great experience.
The next morning, Gail decided to sleep in while I had a fishing appointment with Paul Keith, a local guide and photographer. Paul is an excellent guide and fishes Caddo about 150 days a year. The rest of the time he is either taking photographs or putting out fires and saving lives as he is full-time firefighter too.
We frothed the surface with top water lures and fished the edges of the weed lines with plastic worms while the sun slowly turned the day golden. But, the bass decided to not have any of it. Despite our best efforts, they refused to bite, but I got a good lesson on how to fish Caddo for bass. I should have been there last week. Paul assured me there were plenty of bass in Caddo and I believe him.
We ended the morning by picking up my wife in Paul’s boat at the dock in front of our cottage and cruising down the bayou to breakfast at the Shady Glade Cafe in Uncertain. After a bounteous meal, we packed up and headed down the road to make a quick tour through Caddo Lake State Park. This is undoubtedly one of the most scenic parks in Texas and is located right on Big Cypress Bayou which feeds Caddo Lake on the west end. We snapped a few photos of visitors enjoying a day of canoeing on one of the many aquatic trails in the park and then left for a quick tour of the city of Jefferson located just few miles to the west.
Jefferson is full of historic buildings, houses, museums and shops. My wife and I spent several hours just walking around enjoying the atmosphere and architecture of a by-gone era. My favorite place was the Jefferson General Store located at 113 East Austin St. The threshold to this historic building is like a time portal to the past. Step inside and it is 1953 all over again. The wooden floors creak like happy crickets and the walls are decorated with original product metal and neon signs, animal and fish mounts and lots of other memorabilia from decades ago. All sorts of goodies line the shelves including toys that I played with when a child. I was wide-eyed with delight in that store that seemed to be a museum of my past. The ice cream sodas my wife and I enjoyed were delicious too. This place is a must stop for adults and kids when visiting Jefferson.
Two hours, two days and too much to see and do in that short amount of time, but what fun we had on our adventure.
For more information about visiting Caddo Lake and the surrounding area contact Uncertain Chamber, www.cityofuncertain.com; Kelly Wells, Bossier City/Shreveport Convention and Visitors Bureau, 318.429.0632, www.shreveport-bossier.org; Marion County Chamber of Commerce, 903.665.2672, www.jefferson-texas.com; Caddo Lake Tour and Fishing Guide Carl Allen, 318.375.5847, www.caddolake.com/carlallen.htm; Oil & Gas Museum, 200 S. Land Ave. Oil City, LA, 318.995.6845, www.sos.louisiana.gov/tabid/242/Default.aspx; Hodgepodge Cottages, 724 Cypress Drive, Uncertain, TX, 903.789.3901, www.hodgepodgecottages.com; Caddo Lake Day and Night Tours and Lodging, Terry and Nancy Coleman, Uncertain, 903.736.4340, 903.789.2215. Fishing Guide Paul Keith, 318.309.3474, www.caddolakefishing.com.