When it comes time to pack up the car and head out for a Texas-sized family vacation, you can be sure of one thing: Not everyone is going to be a happy camper all the time. One way to smooth out the bumps in the trail is to plan a variety of activities that will include something everyone can enjoy.
And let's be clear: All truly memorable family vacations include fishing. But not just fishing, fishing with some catching involved. Three kinds of fish are so numerous, so widespread, and so willing to be caught that they should be your target species for a family vacation that will be recalled with fondness for years.
WHAT TO FISH FOR
If you need some help with fish identification, visit tpwd.texas.gov/landwater/water/aquaticspecies/inland.phtml.
Sunfish are also called bream and, incorrectly, perch. They taste good; another name for them, "panfish," is no accident.
These pint-sized fish are ideal for turning pint-sized anglers into fishing fanatics. They can be found nearly everywhere, and they never met a worm, cricket or grasshopper they didn't like. Anything from a cane pole to a Snoopy or Barbie rod and reel will catch sunfish. Small jigs, spinnerbaits and crankbaits are effective, but worms are hard to beat. And teaching your kid to thread a worm onto a hook can be quite entertaining.
Basic gear and techniques — a pole, line, and hook baited with anything from earthworms to hot dogs — will provide you with the main ingredient for a channel catfish fry. Bank fishing for catfish can be very productive. Chasing grasshoppers to use for bait will give the kids some exercise. Some variety of stinkbait fished on a treble hook under a bobber will bend your rod often.
Texas has both white and black crappie. Crappie have very tender mouths, which leads to some people calling them "papermouths." They are fished for using live minnows or a variety of soft plastics designed for the purpose. Crappie are lots of fun to catch on ultralight gear. When you get a thump, don't set the hook, just start reeling.
Crappie like to hang out near underwater vertical structure such as bridge and dock pilings and timber, and also congregate around brushpiles or artificial fish attractors (the so-called "crappie condos") placed in lakes. For locations of fish attractors placed by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, search for "fish attractors" using the search box at the top of TPWD Web pages or visit tpwd.texas.gov/fishboat/fish/recreational/lakes/fish_attractors.phtml.
Texas has thousands of places to fish. Here are a handful of locations that offer not only good fishing, but also other activities guaranteed to make kids forget texting and video games for a time while giving adults fun things to do as well.
WHERE TO FISH: WACO
Waco is located, roughly, in the middle of the state, and Lake Brazos is located in the middle of Waco. It's actually the impounded Brazos River, and what makes it special for families are the extensive parklands located on both sides of the river and the other attractions nearby.
Lake Brazos is loaded with crappie, sunfish, and channel catfish, and they are easily accessible from the bank or fishing piers. You may also find yourself battling a largemouth bass or white bass. The latter stage spawning runs up the rivers in early spring. TPWD has placed crappie condos in the lake. From the Interstate 35 bridge west to the confluence of the Brazos and Bosque rivers, you'll find fishing piers, boat ramps, a canoe/kayak launch, and lots of bank-fishing access.
Along The Way
If there's a wannabe cowboy or cowgirl in your family, they'll want to know that the famed Chisholm Trail crossed the Brazos just about where the old Waco Suspension Bridge spans the river today. Herds of longhorns choused by real cowboys splashed across until the bridge was built, the first across the Brazos. Today you can walk across the bridge and even touch the massive cables — made by the same company that supplied the cables for the Brooklyn Bridge — and "twang" them, making them vibrate all the way to the other side.
A short distance away you'll find the Dr Pepper Museum — the national soft drink of Texas was invented in Waco — as well as the Cameron Park Zoo, the Mayborn Museum, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, and the Waco Mammoth National Monument, where a partially excavated family of mammoths can be seen. And if you brought Rover with you, there's an off-leash dog park, too.
WHERE TO FISH: ATHENS
The Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens is the place to go if you want to give family members a taste of fishing without having to invest in equipment. Fishing is included in the price of admission, you don't need a license, and all equipment and bait are furnished. Ponds are stocked with channel catfish the year around, and with rainbow trout from December through March.
There are sunfish and a few bass and blue catfish. TFFC also has 300,000 gallons of aquaria with native fish, a daily dive show, gift shop, tram tour of the hatchery, and walkable wetlands trail. It also offers fishing as part of several events during the year.
Nearby Lake Athens offers a good population of hand-sized redear, redbreast and bluegill sunfish accessible by boat or kayak. Purtis Creek State Park is a short drive away and has not only trophy bass fishing but also fishing piers where you can catch crappie and sunfish. Lakeside tent sites are good places to make s'mores and memories while catching a few fish.
Along The Way
If reeling in catfish and bluegills doesn't generate enough squeals, head for the New York Texas Zipline, which offers several lines including one touted as the longest in Texas at 1,500 feet. For a leisurely stroll through an East Texas landscape, there's the East Texas Arboretum inside the loop around Athens. On the road out to TFFC you'll pass Good Times Skate, which has "real" rollerskates for rent as well as inline skates.
For an underwater adventure, the Athens Scuba Park dive area in an old clay pit offers crystal-clear water dotted with interesting structures to explore, including an airplane and a bus. The next town north of Athens on Texas 19 is Canton, world-famous for its First Monday Trade Days, the granddaddy, grandmother, father, mother, and entire family of all flea markets. If you can't find it in Canton — and it might take you several days — you don't need it.
By act of the Texas Legislature, Athens is recognized as the official birthplace of the all-American food, the hamburger. A local resident first concocted and sold the meat-based sandwich by that name at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904. While local restaurants and fast-food places offer the usual versions of the hamburger, a local favorite can be had only at the Burger Barn, a tiny stand a few miles west of Athens in the hamlet of Shady Oaks, on Texas 59. You can eat at the one picnic table under the trees or take it with you.
WHERE TO FISH: SAN ANGELO AND CHRISTOVAL
The South Concho joins the North Concho in San Angelo, and the river downtown is a Neighborhood Fishin' Lake. This TPWD program (neighborhoodfishin.org) stocks channel catfish every two weeks, except in August, and rainbow trout from December through March.
Called Oakes Street Lake, the downtown fishing hole is close to restaurants, hotels, and other amenities. No fishing gear? No problem. You can check out fishing gear from the City Parks and Recreation Department just like you would a book from the library — and you don't need a library card. Call 325-657-4450, ext. 0 for details.
For a rustic experience, try the South Concho River at Christoval, south of San Angelo. Amenities are few in Pugh Park there, but the redbreast sunfish are big and feisty. Fishing is best from June through August. Redbreast sunfish usually go for live bait, but they can be caught using small lures or flies.
Most anglers use light spinning tackle, but fly-fishers like the area because the river is shallow, easily waded, and wide enough to allow casting without hanging up your backcast. Poppers, hoppers, and Woolly Buggers work best.
Other Neighborhood Fishin' sites are located around the state in major metropolitan areas in parks close to where people live, so you can have a family fishing trip without leaving your neighborhood.
Along The Way
Overnight camping is not recommended in Pugh Park, but Christoval has an alternative with a bonus: The Hummer House. Hummingbirds are the big attraction; thousands nest and rear their young around the cabins, lodge, and viewing room during the warm months.
You can watch hummers feed, bathe and chase each other from just feet away. Camping is available at San Angelo State Park, with the added feature of a prairie dog town to entertain you with their antics. You can drive through the town; stay in your car and the prairie dogs will pop right back out.
San Angelo is the art center of West Texas, with the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts and the Chicken Farm Art Center. Art at the former is fine and at the latter funky. Some 15 artists live and/or work at the Chicken Farm.
The first Saturday of each month is a great time for families to visit; the resident artists' studios are open, the Chicken Pickers gather to make music, blacksmiths and metal artists set up shop in the forge, and kids get free clay. Painters, potters, stone and wood carvers, jewelry makers, and other artists do their thing and The Silo House Restaurant serves lunch. There's also a B&B on site.
Fort Worth may be Where the West Begins, but San Angelo is the Town that Won the West. Buffalo Soldiers stationed at Fort Concho and elsewhere carried out the bulk of the Indian wars that took control of West Texas. If your kids don't know that black soldiers defeated the Comanches and Apaches, it's time they learned.
WHERE TO FISH: CORPUS CHRISTI
Corpus Christi offers both saltwater and freshwater fishing. Both can be done from piers and parks open to the public. Lake Corpus Christi State Park recently extended its fishing pier and installed more than 50 crappie condos under it. Lake Corpus Christi is also one of Texas' prime catfishing destinations.
If you have a boat, fish Lagarto Creek, RamireÃ±a Creek, the F.M. 534 bridge crossing, the Abbey, Carmel Hills, the Castle near Lake Corpus Christi State Park, and the submerged timber field south of and across the lake from Lake Corpus Christi State Park.
Fish for red drum and speckled trout on Copano Bay or the Upper Laguna Madre. Launch a kayak from the JFK Causeway and fish the old oilfield canals in the Upper Laguna Madre or fish from the bank or surf at one of the city beachfront parks or the cuts on Mustang Island. Rent a floating cabin on the Laguna Madre and fish all night under the lights.
Along The Way
What kid (young or old) wouldn't like to explore an aircraft carrier? The U.S.S. Lexington anchors the Corpus Christi shoreline. Buy fresh shrimp off one of the boats at the T-head. Swim, fish, camp, hike, or drive 70 miles of undeveloped beach (four-wheel drive and common sense are highly recommended) at the Padre Island National Seashore. Educational programs take place every half-hour at the Texas State Aquarium, where you can touch and feed stingrays. The Dolphin Connection in nearby Ingleside lets you interact with wild dolphins.
These should be enough locations to keep any vacationing Texas family happy. But they are by no means our only vacation getaways. There are dozens more right in the region where you live. All you have to do is look around and do a little exploring. But by all means, don't forget to have fun!