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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Weekend on Caddo Lake

The mysterious tall trees Caddo Lake is known for remain hidden in the early morning darkness. Our fishing guide, Billy Carter, is supposed to meet us at 7 a.m., but the sun has yet to rise. The tired family gathers around the breakfast table grabbing Marie Calendar’s cinnamon rolls and Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits discussing our potential catches for the day.

As the sun peeks through the cypress forrest, I remember how uniquely beautiful it is here. Rumored to be five hundred years old, bald cypress trees grow 60 feet out of the water. The angelic Spanish moss delicately hangs from the trees’ limbs — it doesn’t rustle in the wind like leaves do, rather it quietly dances and floats like individual notes in a harmonious composition. In the dark when the wind is still, they look like stalagmites in a cave.

Legendary Billy Carter
Billy pulls up a little after 7, and six of us pile into the boat. Billy’s roots run as deep as the ring-dated 400-year-old bald cypress trees that tower all around. He’s been a licensed fishing guide for more than 35 years, and according to one article that hangs in his house, he was the youngest guide on the lake at one time.

"My first paid trip was at 12 years old and I made $5; however I became 'licensed' at 24," Billy said in an email.

The lake and town are his life. He was born a few miles away in Marshall and started fishing Caddo when he was 4 years old. He now owns the more than 100-year-old Johnson's Ranch Marina with his wife, Dottie. According to the website, it's the oldest inland marina still operating in Texas opening in 1908. Even the creatures on the lake are family — Billy and his wife have a pet raccoon named Beady Bear (for his beady eyes) that is house-broken. He said that his life and the lake "are one." An old article in Outdoor Life called him the product of the swamp. Another article called him the unofficial garbage collector of Caddo Lake. "I resemble both," Billy wrote in an email. It is apparent when you spend time with him and watch him fish.

We speed into the rising sun through hundreds of small, black duck-like critters called coots that bob on the water like bath toys. Billy points to an eagle overhead, not a hawk or buzzard, but the real deal. I'm in awe. He probably knows almost all 240 species of birds and the 71 species of fish that populate the lake. The coots fly off into their never never land and the sun peaks through statuesque pillar-like trees as we fly to Billy’s secret destination where the fish bite like mosquitoes on a humid night. Six of us throw our lines in the water and four of us get watch our neon orange corks sink within minutes. Fish on!

For three hours we pull dozens of yellow bass, crappie and brim from the water. Dinner is served. We have planned a fish fry with two methods of frying — panko-crusted and beer-battered filets. We will also have hush puppies and sweet potato fries, oven-baked waffle fries and a green salad with pears and blue cheese.

After a full morning of fishing, I decide to take a break and sit on the back porch by myself while the rest of the crew went fishing for the afternoon shift. A cool breeze, a view of the lake, a glass of wine and my journal made the afternoon complete. Soon we will have a fish fry.

But just before dinner, my husband and I decide to jump in a canoe and explore the eerie shallow water. Being this low to the water and this close to the trees is a much different experience than riding on a motorized boat with seven people. In the silence our senses pick up more around us. The Spanish moss is backlit by the setting sun, which looks like a witch’s glowing garments hanging off of her bony limbs. The trees seem even taller and somehow more magnanimous. They become characters in the story of Uncertain, Texas bringing hundreds of years of history back to life. I want to know what they’ve seen. I wondered at these mystical giants for almost an hour before it was time for dinner.

After the family set off the smoke detector three times, our fried feast was finished! We added Cajun hot sauce, lots of salt and garlic to the beer batter. This experiment made the meal. There was a 50/50 opinion on which breading was better. I personally loved both the panko and beer batter. After dinner we sat on the porch and talked about the fishing and outdoors at Caddo. Some of us were transfixed on the large, golden moon that night. It was the closest it has been to Earth since 1993, which made it appear 30 percent larger than usual. It was the perfect ending to a simple, quick and wonderful family trip.

I recommend a trip to Uncertain, Texas for a weekend getaway with friends or family, because it’s only three hours away and there isn’t much else to do but enjoy loved one’s company against the unique backdrop of Caddo Lake.

Fishing at Dawn

A Perfect Cast
A Road Through Caddo

Billy Carter
P.S. A great place to stay is Spatterdock, but if you're going there for spring break you need to book way in advance. If they're booked we stay at the Hodge Podge cabins. And there aren't really any good places to eat breakfast that we've found, so I recommend bringing your own groceries.