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The Blue Elbow

At this bend of the Sabine River, there is magic in the swamp.

By Chester Moore Jr.

Forty feet up in a decaying baldcypress, a pileated woodpecker emerges from a softball-sized cavity. With the early morning light highlighting its bright red crest, the bird looks east and west and then takes flight, vanishing into the moss-draped canopy. Its loud, cackling call opens a new day in the densely wooded bottoms of the Tony Houseman State Park and Wildlife Management Area at Blue Elbow Swamp.

The swamp takes its name from a sharp bend of the Sabine River where the water runs as deep as 60 feet. Although called a park, Tony Houseman has no park facilities; it functions as a wildlife management area. The Texas Department of Transportation purchased it in 1997 to mitigate the loss of wetlands incurred during various highway construction and roadway improvement projects in East Texas. TxDOT transferred the tract, more than 3,300 acres, to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Tony Houseman SP/WMA runs from the western bank of the Sabine River just north of the community of Echo down to the confluence of Little Cypress Bayou and the Sabine River south of I-10 at Orange. Today this forest is threatened by invasive exotic plants, including Chinese tallow trees and salvinia minima. Although it stands on the edge of an industrial city and has been logged and cut with channels, this forested wetland remains a magical place for wildlife.

On the day I spy the woodpecker, I have come to hunt wood ducks. While managing to bag my limit of woodies, I have a close encounter with a feisty feral hog, see a coyote swim one of the logging cuts and gaze at an osprey. Not too bad for a WMA that is a two-minute drive from a Pizza Hut. The locals like the area because it is so close to the city of Orange. They can leave their houses, launch a boat and be out there in short order to hunt, fish or view the wildlife. The area also offers a bounty of resources for those interested in many facets of nature and history.

A History of Logging and Cannibals

More than 80 percent of the WMA consists of cypress-tupelo forest, which in the past was a valuable commodity. Limited logging of large baldcypress in the area began in the early 1800s.

"The durable wood was used in construction and for roofing shingles," says Derrick Wolter, TPWD wildlife biologist. "During the 1800s and early 1900s, baldcypress was harvested from the river banks and from the swamp interior during floods, when the trees could be floated to the river."

Loggers first girdled (cut through the bark around the trunk) large baldcypress to kill the tree and allow the dense wood to dry. This would allow the tree to float when the loggers returned the following winter during floods. The trees then were cut and floated to the river, assembled into log rafts and sent to sawmills downstream.

Because cypress resists rot, it was extremely desirable for construction in humid climates. "Cypress planks and shingles were shipped from Orange to locations all over the world," Wolter says. "Most of the great houses of the South were built using cypress, and many still have the original cypress shingle roofs."

During the late 1940s, loggers used heavy machinery to cut the water tupelo trees, causing extensive damage to the swamp that is still evident today. "Even after the initial logging of cypress," Wolter says, "the interior of Blue Elbow Swamp was largely left untouched. However, after World War II, diesel-powered draglines and winch boats were used to dig logging channels and pull timber."

Workers used large draglines mounted on barges to dig canals into the interior of the swamp. They bundled as many as six tupelo logs together and dragged them to the canals using winch boats. "This process resulted in the radial patterns of ditches throughout the swamp," Wolter says. "The canals and drag ditches have changed the natural patterns of water flow in the swamp."

Before European settlers logged the region, another group of people made their living in the swamp by hunting, fishing and gathering. From about 500 AD to the early 1800s, the primary group of native Americans in this region were the Atakapans, a tribe inhabiting southwestern Louisiana to the Trinity River and from the Gulf of Mexico north to the Caddo country of East Texas.

The Atakapans were feared because of the harsh way they treated members of rival tribes. Simply put: they ate them. The name Atakapan means "cannibal" in the Choctaw language.

Local schoolchildren like to embellish the group’s cannibalistic tendencies and often spin yarns of Spanish explorers killed and eaten by the tribe. Some even claim the swamp is haunted by the ghosts of cannibals wishing to scare away whites who tread on their former hunting grounds.

There is evidence that the Atakapan lived in the Sabine Lake area just south of Tony Houseman, where they subsisted by seasonal hunting and fishing. Over the course of hundreds of years, Wolter says, the Atakapans created numerous middens of discarded shells in the area’s marshes as they foraged for clams. Archaeologists have learned a great deal about the Atakapan culture from examining artifacts and the vertical development of the middens.

Warblers and Otters and Bears

Wildlife abounds in Tony Houseman SP/WMA. Creatures of all shapes, sizes, colors and species roam this swamp.

The avian community includes both resident and migrant species. Residents common in the swamp include wood ducks, great blue herons, cattle egrets, prothonotary warblers, woodpeckers, kingfishers and red-shouldered hawks.

Neotropical migrants use the area heavily during the spring for feeding and nesting. "The prothonotary warbler shows a special affinity for nesting in cypress-tupelo stands," Wolter says. "The WMA also is used to some extent as a staging area for warblers preparing to fly across the Gulf of Mexico to Central and South America. It also may be a resting area for the birds when they return."

Other migrants include ospreys and bald eagles, which occasionally take up residence on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River. Just across the Sabine River on the Louisiana side of I-10, a huge eagle’s nest is visible in a tall cypress tree less than 100 yards from the bridge.

Birds are not the only wildlife common in the swamp. As many as 30 snake species live there. "Most of the snakes are very secretive and active only at night," says Wolter. "The most common species of snakes seen in the swamp are the harmless western ribbon snake; the aggressive but non-venomous broad-banded water snake and the venomous western cottonmouth." Western cottonmouths, southern copperheads, coral snakes and timber and western pygmy rattlesnakes are the venomous snakes inhabiting Blue Elbow Swamp.

Turtles, including the threatened alligator snapping turtle, red-eared sliders and even box turtles, live there along with alligators. Mammals are in no short supply, either. An enormous and troublesome population of non-indigenous feral hogs lives in the area. They root up the soil and out-compete native species such as white-tailed deer for food. Another exotic, the nutria, is common, and although they are nocturnal, wildlife-watchers can see them on bright winter days, sunning themselves along shorelines. The nutria’s cousin, the beaver, is repopulating the swamp, and evidence of its work is common on trees in the logging cuts.

Otters charm visitors with their playful nature. The best places to see otters are in the first and second logging cuts above I-10 and in the long canal that runs from Bluebird Fishing Camp to the Sabine.

White-tailed deer roam the area’s high grounds, although visitors see them infrequently. The same goes for coyotes, bobcats and gray foxes.

Local residents occasionally report seeing black bears in the swamp, but those reports are unverified. These alleged sightings do bring up the point that black bears are native to the region, and Tony Houseman would be as likely a spot as any to encounter one in the eastern part of Texas.

"There aren’t a lot of reports, but people in East Texas say they’re seeing bears from time to time," says TPWD biologist Gary Calkins of Jasper. "And the number of reports seems to be on the rise."

Bears spotted in Southeast Texas most likely are drifters from Louisiana. That state has an estimated 500 of the endangered Louisiana black bear subspecies, says Paul Davidson of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Davidson, who also serves on the multi-state Black Bear Conservation Committee, says bears from Louisiana like to wander. "Young male black bears will leave their mothers and start looking around for a mate and territory of their own. Most of the bears seen after crossing into Texas are young males," Davidson says.

"Where there are good numbers of bears," he continues, "a male would find more of its kind, but in Texas and parts of Louisiana where there are no bears, it doesn’t work that way. They probably just visit Texas and make their way back into Louisiana."

Fishing and Hunting Opportunities

Fishing is the most popular sport at Tony Houseman SP/WMA. Gerald Burleigh of Orange likes to fish the logging cuts just north of I-10 for crappie. "There is some great crappie fishing in that swamp," he says. "With all of the structure in there, anglers can find plenty of places to catch them, but some of the best are in the deeper holes and around the mouth of the river."

Bream, spotted bass and perch also are abundant, giving fly fishers something to catch, especially during the spring when the fish are in shallow water. Small red poppers are popular with locals, as are sinking flies in a bee pattern.

On the main body of the river, anglers frequently catch blue and flathead catfish exceeding 25 pounds. They also encounter gigantic alligator gar ancient, armored giants that are a popular food fish with residents of Southeast Texas and Louisiana.

During winter months, striped bass come downstream from below Toledo Bend Reservoir and thrill anglers with their aggressive strikes. The fast water around the I-10 bridge is a popular place to catch them as they feed on baitfish around the bridge supports.

Frogging is another popular pastime, and one that is productive in these swamps, which harbor a fair population of bullfrogs. My father grew up frogging the area, but decided he had had enough after a particular night out. "We went up one of the little sloughs," he says, "and there were snakes hanging from the limbs. I mean there were snakes everywhere, and a couple of them fell in the boat. That was enough for me. I just wasn’t mad at the frogs any more." The most popular method of frogging in this area is by grabbing them by hand instead of using a gig. In fact, some froggers consider gigs to be less than sporting.

During winter, the area is open to duck hunting, with the predominant species being wood ducks. Hunters typically scout the birds’ flight patterns and pass shoot them on their way back to their roosts.

Accessing the Blue Elbow

The easiest way to approach the Blue Elbow Swamp is to visit the TxDOT travel information center on I-10 at the Sabine River. At the center visitors can obtain statewide TPWD opportunity maps; visit a multimedia room and view a display of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Blue Elbow Swamp is the trail’s eastern starting point. The center also has a 600-foot-long interpretive boardwalk that is wheelchair accessible. Visitors can expect to see a variety of bird life, broad-banded water snakes, red-eared sliders and other turtles, nutria and bullfrogs.

A large portion of the WMA is open to public hunting with the purchase of an Annual Public Hunting Permit ($48). Portions of the WMA within the Orange city limits (south of I-10 and approximately 1,000 feet north of the highway) are closed to hunting because of city ordinances. Boat access is the best way to see the swamp from the Sabine River. A public boat launch is available at Bluebird Fishing Camp, just south of I-10 on Highway 90 in Orange.

Bird watching, primitive camping, canoeing and other non-consumptive activities are permitted with the purchase of a Limited Public Use permit ($12).

Tony Houseman State Park/Wildlife Management Area may be out of the way to anywhere but Orange, but it is well worth driving to extreme eastern Texas to experience. Whether you’re a wildlife watcher or an angler, this ecosystem has something to offer: a wet slice of Texas with a hint of Louisiana to spice things up.

Getting There

Tony Houseman State Park and Wildlife Management Area is located in Orange County where I-10 crosses the Sabine River. It is open year around. Activities include hunting, camping, fishing, hiking and wildlife viewing. There are no facilities, and visitors must bring their own drinking water. For more information call (409) 886-4742.


Wondering about Woodies

Two populations of wood ducks inhabit Tony Houseman State Park and Wildlife Management Area at Blue Elbow Swamp: migratory birds and residents.

"From spending a lot of time on the WMA, I can tell you that wood duck numbers fluctuate between seasons and between years," says TPWD biologist Derrick Wolter. "Obviously, winter numbers tend to be higher than other times of the year because of migratory birds, but the number of birds using the WMA during the winter varies with the temperature.

"My research also shows water levels determine wood duck numbers and use of the area throughout all seasons of the year," Wolter continues. "During the winter, when migrants are here, higher-than-average water levels usually mean the WMA will hold more ducks. This is because mixed hardwood areas flood, allowing wood ducks easy access to acorns and other seeds."

Unfortunately for hunters, this also means the ducks will be spread out. When the water is low, the WMA will not have as many birds, but they may be more concentrated.

"I estimate the number of wood ducks using the area on any given day during the winter varies from 200 to 800," Wolter says. The numbers throughout the remainder of the year probably range from 50 to 100.

"Wood ducks are very difficult to survey because of the areas they inhabit," he says. "This issue has been a problem as long as people have been trying to estimate populations of wood ducks."

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