Caddo Lake holds the distinction of being Texas' only natural lake, all the others being man-made, though a dam was constructed in the early 1900's when oil was discovered there, and later in 1914 for flood control, the latter of which was replaced by a new dam in 1971. The Caddo Indians were the first known inhabitants of the area. There are questions about the lake's origins, but scientific data seems to suggest that the lake was formed over several hundred years as a result of flooding and erosion in the Piney Woods of East Texas and West Louisiana. The lake sits half in Texas and half in Louisiana, though it is only a few miles south of Arkansas. It is basically a bald cypress swamp of immense beauty at any time of the year. While the Texas side of the lake is a cypress swamp, the Louisiana side has more open water, so the lake offers something for everybody to enjoy.
Giant trees hung with Spanish moss give Caddo Lake and its land masses, which include shores and islands, an eerie, haunting appearance. It is home to Caddo Lake State Park and Caddo Lake Wildlife Management Area just outside Marshall, Texas. The lake offers superior hunting and fishing over 70 species of fish including white, black and largemouth bass, crappie, catfish, eels, gar and other game fish, as well as some 225 species of birds. Also found there are snakes, alligators, raccoons, skunks, minks, nutria, white-tail deer, squirrels, beavers, armadillos, waterfowl, rabbits, hares, feral hogs, frogs, turtles and an abundance of trees, lily pads, water hyacinth and the dreaded Giant Salvinia, a Brazilian invasive species that chokes off sunlight and oxygen killing fish, birds and animals, and making passage by boat difficult to impossible. It is a violation of law to transport Giant Salvinia, and all visitors to Caddo Lake are strongly urged to carefully wash everything that touches the lake in hot, soapy water before leaving the area to prevent its further spread.
Caddo Lake generally ranges from 8 to 20 feet deep and has an area of about 26,810 acres that can grow to over 35,000 acres in flood conditions. It is fed by several major waterways including Big Cypress Bayou, Little Cypress Bayou, Jeems Bayou, Black Cypress Bayou, Harrison Bayou and Kitchen Creek, as well as many smaller creeks and bayous in both Texas and Louisiana. While most of Caddo Lake land mass is islands, Goat Island being the largest, the remainder of the land area is uplands covered with pine, hickory and oak trees and an abundance of foliage including American lotus.
While Big Cypress Bayou runs through the middle of the lake it from west to east, it has many wide boat "streets" with names like C-3, A-4, etc., that designate exactly where you are on the lake for the benefit of boaters who want to explore the backwaters of the cypress swamp and find their way back to their stating point. A GPS is a handy piece of equipment to have along for navigation purposes. The Texas side, especially, begs to be explored by those who prize seeing Mother Nature at her finest. If you saw movies like "Southern Comfort", "Universal Soldier", "Gator Bait" or any of several other lesser known films, then you say Caddo Lake. Not much has changed - it is still a remote and arcane throwback to centuries gone by. It is a place to be explored and experienced.
Marion and Harrison Counties in northeast Texas along the Louisiana state line to the east and just about 20 miles west of the Arkansas state line. The Oklahoma state line is just about the same distance to the north. Karnack and Marshall are the two closest Texas cities or towns, and Jefferson is nearby. Shreveport, Louisiana is about 30 minutes to the east. Dallas is about 3 hours to the west.
Dallas 168 miles; Austin 297 miles; San Antonio 376 miles; Houston 241 miles; Oklahoma City 346 miles; Little Rock 202 miles; Kansas City 529 miles; Albuquerque 815 miles; Phoenix 1,235 miles; Denver 965 miles; Salt Lake City 1,433 miles (all distances are approximate, and depend upon starting point, destination point to the put-in on the river and route taken - mileage is calculated to Caddo Lake State Park.)
The water quality at Caddo Lake is generally good to very good due to a dirth of industrialization, commercialization or real estate development around the area. The lake has no "flow" per se, since it is a swampy lake. The surface is covered with a mat of light green plant debris and pollen that looks like green grits throughout the swampy parts of the lake and the water on the open lake has a tannic acid brown color owing to the decaying trees that tint the water. In some places, especially in the swampy areas, hydrilla, water hyacinth and Giant Salvinia clog the waters and slow boat navigation when the material thickens. Caddo Lake almost always has a sufficient amount of water for paddling or motorboating though its size drops during severe drought conditions.
Caddo Lake is accessible any time of the year, weather permitting. The January average low temperature is 48°, and the July average high temperature is 88°. Temperature extremes can vary by several degrees between the open water and swamp portions of the lake. If going between late-April and early-October, then take along insect repellant.
The biggest hazard to navigation on Caddo Lake is getting lost in the cypress swamp - all those trees look the same unless you have been there a few times. Occasionally, you may hit a partially or completely submerged tree trunk that will probably be hidden by the green surface cover, though this is primarily an occurrence when boating in the swampy part of the lake. With no perceptable current boat speed is controlled by its driver(s), so running into submerged trees is not rally a problem for canoeists and kayakers, though some could pose problems for motorboaters if you hit them running at high speed.
The Caddo Lake Wildlife Management area requires permits for use. Hunters must have either a Regular/Daily Hunting Permit ($20.00) or an Annual Hunting Permit ($48.00) that is valid on all Texas public lands. Texas resident fishermen must have either a 1-day Freshwater fishing license ($11.00) or an Annual Freshwater Fishing License ($30.00). Non-resident fishermen must have either a 1-day Non-resident Freshwater Fishing License ($16.00) or an Annual Non-resident Freshwater fishing License ($58.00). Visitors who wish to camp in the WMA, but who do not intend to hunt or fish, must have a Limited Public Use permit ($12.00). All permits are good for a period of one year beginning September 1, and expiring on August 31. The fine for not having a permit is very steep, and far exceeds the cost of the permit. Game wardens do patrol and check for permits in the WMA. Permits are not required for other portions of Caddo Lake. Hunting, fishing and Limited Public Use permits can be obtained on-line for Texas Parks and Wildlife Depart, at any state park headquarters office or at most sporting goods stores, bait and tackle shops and similar commercial establishments that cater to outdoors recreation activities.
Please visit Caddo Lake WMA for additional information.
There are numerous access points including at Caddo Lake State Park, Pine Needle Lodge off FM 805 going east from SH 43, at the TPWD Public Boat Ramp off SH 43 north of Big Cypress Bayou, at several locations off FM 2198 and many other places along Big Cypress bayou and on the lake. Several outfitters, guide services and accommodations providers have access on the bayou and/or the lake.
Caddo Lake State Park offers tent, pop-up, trailer and motorhome campsites with water, electric and/or sewer hook-ups, screen shelters, cabins and a group recreation hall (descriptions and rates available on the TPWD Caddo Lake website), restrooms with adn without showers, picnic areas, playground, hiking trails, nature trails, interpretive center, boat ramp, canoe rentals and a trailer dump station. Entrance fees apply in addition to facility use fees. Other accommodations are offered by cocmmercial entities in and near Caddo Lake State Park.
Caddo Lake is served by at least three canoe rental outfitters, as well as guide services offering guided sightseeing or fishing tours and jon boat rentals.
Over many years I have visited Caddo Lake, usually in late-October for an annual outing where we camp on Goat Island for up to a week and explore various parts of the lake and swamp. It is always a magical place because of the other worldly atmosphere created by Spanish moss dripping from the huge Cypress canopy that largely obscures the sun in the swamp. We always canoe the bayous and swamp, occasionally venturing out onto the open lake, and we always go armed - with cameras! There are alligators on Caddo Lake, but I have never actually seen one. When canoeing at night I have seen the red glow of their eyes when my headlamp illuminated them, and I have felt them drag their tails under my canoe as I paddled over them, but they are well fed and happy, so they never cause a problem.
While whitewater rivers are my preference, Caddo Lake is always a special place to go because of its biodiversity and unusual character. You won't see many people there, but the ones we have encountered have always been very friendly and courteous. The place is a perfect Halloween setting because of its naturally eerie atmosphere. It takes you back in time to an undeveloped place where life moved at a slower pace and with a lot less distractions. Caddo Lake is ideally suited for almost everybody because of its placid nature, but if you are going on your own, then a GPS or map and compass, as well as the skills to use those tools effectively, are recommended navigation aids, especially in the swamps. Once you visit Caddo Lake you will probably look forward to returning.