The Year of State Parks: Ray Roberts Lake State Park
Big Fish in a Big Pond
Just an hour away from the Metroplex, Ray Roberts Lake lures lunker lovers.
By Melissa Gaskill
A few clusters of people scatter along the grassy bank of a pond, some enjoying the shade of a sizable pecan tree, others soaking up warm sun. Several youngsters stand at the water’s edge, fishing poles in hand, earnest expressions on their faces. When one gets a tug on the line, excitement erupts.
The kid fishing pond at the Johnson Branch Unit of Ray Roberts Lake State Park contains stocked rainbow trout, channel catfish and sunfish. Given last year’s extensive flooding, though, which lifted Ray Roberts Lake well over the berm between it and this pond, park rangers have no idea what could currently be swimming around here. Not that these kids care. Like countless hopeful anglers before them, they just want to catch something.
Catching a fish represents a rite of passage, an accomplishment harkening back to our hunter-gatherer days and one often passed down through generations. Most people clearly remember their first — mine was a tiny panfish, caught from a dock with guidance from my grandfather — and many spend countless hours and more than a few dollars trying to recreate that thrill. Ray Roberts Lake’s 29,000 acres offer great chances for both.
One of 22 reservoirs on the Trinity River, this one provides water to Dallas and Denton and helps contain floods, something it did admirably in 2015. It bears the name of a former Denton congressman known for his work on water issues.
More importantly for anglers and outdoor enthusiasts, the lake provides habitat for fish and wildlife and a venue for fishing, swimming and boating. Folks can catch largemouth and white bass, crappie and catfish here. According to park ranger Ricardo Torres, an angler pulled a lake-record 15.18-pound largemouth bass out of the lake last year on a jerk bait. The lake’s record blue catfish weighed 53.09 pounds, and its record flathead catfish, 62.60 pounds.
The park provides everything anglers need, including boat ramps, a marina, a fishing pier, shore-fishing areas and fish-cleaning stations. As in any state park, casting from the shore or a pier requires no fishing license. Two kid fishing ponds provide great places for kids and families to learn the ropes, with easy-to-catch species such as sunfish and catfish. Plenty of spots cater to the more experienced anglers as well.
Park ranger Danielle Bradley points people to rocky areas along the shoreline, particularly when the weather is chilly. She reports that people find success catching largemouth bass from shore using soft plastics, spinner baits and jerk baits. Many also land catfish from the shore, fishing the bottom with catfish bait.
This park includes two developed units on opposite sides of the water, Isle du Bois on the south and Johnson Branch on the north. At Isle du Bois, cast for crappie, bass and catfish from the fishing pier and for sand bass along the rocks between the pier and beach. A small cove off the Hawthorn walk-in campsite area is good for crappie and sand bass, which hit jigs, belly spinners, slabs, minnows and, when the fish are surfacing, small topwaters.
Those fishing from a boat are likely to hook crappie around brush piles, standing dead trees and bridge piers, especially bridges at Buck Creek (north of Pilot Point) and on FM 922 across the north side of the lake. Sand bass surface in open water south of Wolf Island, north of Hawthorn Island and off the park’s Culp Branch, which is just west of the dam. These fish, Bradley says, like jigs and minnows. Black bass lurk along cliff faces on the east side of the dam, as well as in coves and around underwater structure. Catfish tend to hang out under trees where egrets and cormorants roost.
Since 1987, when the lake was dammed, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has stocked these waters with hundreds of thousands of Florida largemouth bass as well as channel catfish and shad. The Trinity River also naturally contained some species, including gar.
Ray Roberts Lake became a state park in 1993 and, in addition to its two main units, has six satellite units with boat ramps. A full-service marina at the Sanger Unit sells boats, bait, fishing licenses, groceries and fuel. It also rents boats and motors and offers boat storage, slips and boat repair. Lodging is available at Lantana Resort in the Jordan Unit.
Fishing may be a main attraction here, but it’s certainly not the only one. A 20-mile, multi-use Greenbelt Corridor runs from the dam to Lake Lewisville, following the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. Horse riders can use 12 miles of this trail, with the rest for hike and bike use only.
Isle du Bois has day-use areas with 196 picnic sites, volleyball nets, playgrounds, restrooms and a swim beach. This unit offers tent and RV campsites, including an equestrian-friendly campground at Bluestem Grove, and trails. Torres’ favorite, the half-mile Lost Pines Nature Trail, has numbered markers and a corresponding guide identifying plants along the way. The Randy Bell Trail, a 2.2-mile paved loop around the campgrounds, also has a printed guide and crosses pocket prairies and dense woodlands. Mountain bikers enjoy nearly 10 miles of trails looping and twisting through the woods, created by the Dallas Off-Road Bicycle Association.
Johnson Branch has a 2.6-mile primitive hike and bike trail, a 2.8-mile paved loop and several miles of mountain biking trails, as well as camping, picnic areas, a swim beach, boat ramps and fish-cleaning stations.
Whether you fish, hike, bike, swim or just hang out here, you become one of a long line of visitors stretching far into the past. Clovis artifacts indicate that some of the first humans in North America camped nearby some 11,500 years ago. Beginning in the 1600s, Comanche, Kiowa and Tonkawa peoples frequented the area, and Spanish and French explorers first began passing through. The name Isle du Bois, French for “island of the trees,” reflects this history. Settlers arrived in the 1840s, many from Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee. They planted gardens, raised livestock, hunted wild game and gathered seasonal fruits and vegetables.
No doubt, many of these previous residents also fished. Today, the park makes it easy for us modern-day humans, whether it’s our first catch or our 50th.
Ray Roberts Lake State Park
Isle du Bois Unit -100 PW 4137
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