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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Go Fishing Day

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
When Lake Kemp filled in 1924, unless they'd been to the ocean, West Texans had never seen so much water in one place.

Formed by damming the Wichita River in 1923, the lake covered 15,357 square feet with a capacity of 268,811 acre feet of water. Located roughly 40 miles west of Wichita Falls, not only was Lake Kemp the largest lake in Texas, at the time it was the seventh-largest man-made lake in the world.

Naturally, normally water-craving folks stampeded to the new lake like a runaway herd of thirsty Longhorns.

"Lake Kemp is becoming one of the most popular places in this section for people to spend their Sundays...," the Vernon Record said on May 24, 1924. "Hundreds of people...leave here early Sunday morning and spend the day at the lake, having their lunch, picnic style, on the banks...and spending the day enjoying the great outdoors."
Seymour TX - Hotel at Lake Kemp
Hotel at Lake Kemp
Courtesy Lauren Bush, Economic Development Director, City of Seymour
The article went on to say that the road between Vernon and the lake "on Sundays has the appearance of an important highway with its continuous line of cars carrying the pleasure seekers to and from the new lake."

But all the people going to Lake Kemp were simply out for an al fresco meal. The lake had been stocked with fish. As it turned out, the fishing was too good.

A year after the lake opened, the Vernon newspaper reported that the North Texas Game and Fish Association had persuaded the governor to sign a bill making it illegal to take any fish from the lake during March and April. That two-month piscatorial prohibition, an officer of the association explained, would give the fish time to multiply "before they were taken in great numbers."

For anyone who liked to fish, the new law had the effect of making May 1 opening day of fishing season. (A lot of states have fishing seasons, but this was only a local bill. Texas has never had a statewide fishing season.)

hile Vernon residents obviously enjoyed the lake, the impoundment lay even closer to another county seat, Seymour. Lake Kemp being only nine miles from town, people there began to see Kemp as their lake.

The lake's proximity to Seymour, the implementation of a fishing season, and the propensity of Baylor County residents to fish its waters set the hook on what was either one of the most benevolent acts ever on the part of a city official or one of the cleverest public relations stunts in Texas history.

Observing the number of locally owned businesses closing on May 1 so that their owner could go fishing, in 1925 Seymour's mayor made it official: Henceforth, on May 1 the town would shut down for Go Fishing Day. The move spawned nationwide publicity.

"The only news conducive of calmness," wrote New York Sun front page columnist Dave Boone, "is that the town of Seymour, Texas closed all courts, schools, banks, and business houses to observe an official fishing holiday. Now there is an idea. Nothing would bring us back to a calm, peaceful attitude than a day's fishing. If all of Europe, for instance, would go fishing for 24 hours, it would just about restore order, common sense, and a proper sense of right and wrong."

Seymour's "gone fishing" holiday continued through the Great Depression, the violent run-up to World War Two and even during the war when then mayor C.M. Randal said the May 1 holiday was "a gesture of defiance to dictators who would allow no more fish days."

On May 1, 1953 a nationally syndicated newspaper cartoon called "Strange as it Seems," noted beneath a drawing of two fishermen in a boat that "May Day is 'Fishing Day' in Seymour, Texas! By proclamation of the mayor, it has been declared a holiday for the past 28 years...Except for Christmas, it is the most observed holiday of the year…."

Unfortunately for West Texas anglers, while the go fishing holiday endured, the robust Lake Kemp fishery did not. Sedimentation, periodic droughts and toxic golden alga blooms made the lake much less fish friendly.

Seymour's current favorite fishing hole is Miller Creek Reservoir, impounded in 1974. Only 32 miles from Seymour, the newer lake offers excellent catfish angling, good crappie or hybrid bass fishing and fair fishing for largemouth bass. By contrast, the Texas Parks and Wildlife website labels fishing in Lake Kemp "poor to fair."

These days, the modern version of Go Fishing Day happens on the first Saturday of May, when there's a First Day Bass Tournament on Miller Creek Reservoir. But Seymour no longer shuts down every May 1.
1940s map showing Lake Kemp N of Seymour in Baylor County,
Vernon (Wilbarger County) and Wichta Falls (Wichita County)
From Texas state map #4335
Courtesy Texas General Land Office
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" July 19, 2019

Mike Cox's "Texas Tales" :

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    Mike Cox's "Texas Tales" :

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  • Dust Storms 6-24-19
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