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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Fishing in
Navarro County

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

The eastern half of Texas had become pretty tame by the late 1870s, even downright civilized, compared with the more sparsely settled border country.

While ranchers in the southwestern part of the state still worried about cattle thieves and occasional forays by hostile Indians crossing the Rio Grande into Texas from Mexico or raiding from their reservations in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), some residents of Corsicana organized a fishing club they called the Navarro Fish Association. A joint stock company, its investors bought and fenced a 40-acre tract five miles from town and then paid to have what one guest called a "fish tank" built.

Recently widowed Mrs. C.W. Winkler, a native of Virginia whose late husband had been an officer in the Confederate Army, visited the man-made fishing hole in the summer of 1883. To help assuage her grief, she had started a monthly literary magazine, The Texas Prairie Flower. An educated feminist ahead of her time, Mrs. Winkler had a good eye for detail and tended to write about much of what she saw. After visiting the Navarro County private resort on the invitation of a friend married to one of the members, she wrote a story about it for the July issue of her magazine.

The lake, created by a Bermuda grass-covered "levee" (read "dam") on an often-dry creek had been excavated from 30 to 40 feet deep and covered 10 acres, she reported.

"From the United States Fish Commission," she wrote, "they procured fish of different kinds -- trout, perch, black bass and carp, all of which do well except carp, which latter serves as prey for other fish if put together."

Wisely, she continued, the club gave the fish four or so years to grow and reproduce. She did not say when the lake was made, but it must have been around 1878 or 1879.

Finally, in the fall of 1882, club members began fishing their lake.

"Several boats are kept on hand capable of holding six or eight persons," Mrs. Winkler wrote. "A trusty man is kept on the ground all the while to take care of the place and prevent depredations [trespassing] on the tank."

In addition to the small lake, members of the group put up a two-story frame structure that today would be called a fishing lodge. The downstairs area featured a long table and benches for group meals. Upstairs had been furnished with bedsteads and mattresses. Behind the building stood a kitchen, where, Mrs. Winkler explained, "the fish can be cooked and coffee made."

While even in the 19th century some women enjoyed fishing, the majority viewed it as a male pursuit. As the lady publisher pointed out: "The gentlemen usually go out at night, and when they tire of piscatorial sport, sleep in the upper apartment [and the] next morning the ladies carry out baskets of provisions, ice, etc., and remain during the day."

Who did the cooking went unexplained in her article, but fried catfish and hush puppies are not gender-specific dishes. No matter who donned the aprons that day, Mrs. Winkler and the other ladies who visited the private lake clearly enjoyed themselves. And some of them fished.

"To stand upon the levee of this tank," she rhapsodized, "and watch the boats freighted with gentlemen and ladies, engaged in the healthful exercise of rowing and fishing, with their long poles dangling in the water, listen to the merry laughter borne by the passing breeze, and watch the calm ripple of the waves, we forget the years which have stretched between..."

Mrs. Winkler clearly understood what research in the 20th and 21st centuries would verify: Spending time in nature is good for your body and your mind. She wrote:

"We [she's using the old editorial "we"] are firmly convinced of the fact, that as a general thing, the business men of the country allow themselves too little time for recreation, and we believe these sensible pleasures occasionally, will refresh and invigorate the mind, rendering life and its cares more pleasurable."

What became of the man-made fishing hole -- surely one of the first if not THE first impoundments built for recreational purposes -- has not been determined, but sooner or later an earthen dam is going to be overwhelmed by flood waters during a particularly heavy rain. The words "Navarro Fish Association" typed into Google bring up no mention of the 1880s organization, but these days, Navarro County residents and visitors have ample fishing choices.

Since 1921, 603-acre Lake Halbert, operated by the City of Corsicana, has been a place to wet a line. Navarro Mills Lake, a much larger impoundment at 5,070 acres, filled in 1963. Finally, 41,356-acre Richland Chambers Lake is the third-largest man-made body of water in the state. With more than 300 miles of shoreline, it is an excellent fishing lake.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - March 25, 2016 Column

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