By STEVE KNIGHT
NIP ‘N’ TUCK — Sometimes good things come in small packages.
Martin Creek Lake State Park is one example. Just 286 acres in size, the park located between Henderson and Tatum in Rusk County attracts about 65,000 visitors in a good year.
Last year wasn’t a good year and the numbers dipped significantly to 48,000, all the fault of Mother Nature.
“The biggest problem last year was water. When you are a water-related park it is a problem when you don’t have water,” said Lee Roberts, park manager.
Located along the shore of 5,000-acre Martin Creek Lake, the lake is the only public access to the Luminant power plant reservoir. During the driest summer in Texas history the lake dropped to almost 11 feet low. With no water within 200 yards of what is normally the shore, both ramps and the park’s swim area were high and dry.
“We closed the ramp Easter weekend last year,” Roberts said. It only opened three weeks ago during spring break, and even though the lake was still down more than four feet and launching was dicey for the bigger boats the fishermen started showing up immediately.
It isn’t overpowering, but it is ever-present.
The park is located near the site of Trammel’s Trace, an Indian trial that became a major road for settlers moving from Texas to Arkansas. It is also adjacent to the community of Harmony Hill, a farm community that thrived during the Civil War, but began to falter when it was bypassed by a rail line that went instead to Tatum three miles away. It completely disappeared after being struck by a tornado in 1906.
Harmony Hill had the distinctive nickname of Nip ‘n’ Tuck reportedly following an incident in which either a deer or fox was chased through the town by hounds nipping at its tail.
For such a small site, the park is filled with 61 campsites, including two cabins and 21 screened shelters. With the exception of holidays, securing a site is usually possible.
“The biking trails are fairly easy. There are some challenging spots. You are going to need an off-road bike,” Roberts said.
One unique feature of the park is an island in the lake that is accessible by a bridge. Hearty campers can utilize primitive campsites on the island, but must pack all of their gear over by foot.
Like many East Texas parks, the bulk of Martin Creek’s campers come from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“People from Dallas-Fort Worth get out here in the tall pines, and it is a whole different world for them,” said Roberts, former City of Tyler parks director.
The park is also a popular spot for birders.
“It is an excellent spot for bird watchers. Even if you have just a canoe you could go to the power plant and there is a group of resident bald eagles that are here almost year-round,” Roberts said.
Wildlife including deer, bobcats, foxes and coyotes can also be found around the park.
Although the park doesn’t have a position for an interpretive ranger, the staff does volunteer to put on programs as often as possible.
Besides problems with the lake water level, the staff is just beginning to access the impact of the drought on the park’s trees. “We lost a lot of trees. A lot of pines and oaks,” Roberts said.
Because of Martin Creek Lake’s popularity with bass fishermen, day traffic can be heavy on the weekends. During the bass spawn or on weekends with tournaments, parking spaces can be at a premium.
Roberts said most of the fishermen come from the surrounding area, but the lake also has a strong following with fishermen in the Shreveport, La., area.
Martin Creek Lake is also a good catfish lake and is popular with bow fishermen primarily targeting tilapia.