By STEVE KNIGHT
EUSTACE — The saying goes that if you build it they will come.
In the case of Purtis Creek State Park the it is a 355-acre, fisherman-friendly lake surrounded by 1,200 acres of park lands.
Last year, one of the worst years ever to be outdoors in Texas, the park that stretches across portions of Henderson and Van Zandt counties attracted 67,000 visitors last year.
Needless to say, they came.
“Our visitation was up 17 percent until July and August,” said second-year park manager Mendy Davis. Hot, dry weather or not, park admissions were still up about 5 percent at the end of the year.
Ironically it wasn’t the lack of water that chased visitors away, even though the lake was down to a point that fishing from its three piers was nearly impossible. Instead it was the lack of enough electrical power at the 59 campsites with water and electricity.
First opened to the public in 1988, the original focus of the park was the lake. Opened as a catch-and-release bass fishery, it was anticipated by some that the lake would become a trophy bass lake.
It does have four ShareLunkers to its credit and a lake record of 13.6, but is better known for its quality bass fishery, even for shoreline fishermen.
“The lake continues to provide a quality largemouth bass fishery, and quite frankly it is one of the few reservoirs in East Texas where an angler has a good expectation of catching 3- to 5-pound bass consistently from the bank or from fishing piers,” said Richard Ott, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department district fisheries biolo-gist. “There may be flashier places to fish, but few that have produced so well over the long term.”
A few years ago hydrilla became a problem at the lake, covering about 200 acres. To keep areas open for swimming and bank fishing access, the department attempted to control the vegetation with chemicals. When that became too expensive, grass carp were stocked in the lake, and within a few years the grass was completely gone.
Davis said with the disappearance of the hydrilla that daily bass angler numbers have dropped significantly. The lake still has its fans, but the 50-boat limit is rarely tested anymore.
“The lake has a very good crappie fishery,” Ott said. “It produces a very good put-grow-and-take channel catfish fishery, and recently white bass have showed up and are producing another fishery. Although we experimented with a minimum size limit on sunfish we were never able to document a benefit, however, fly-fishermen come to Purtis specifically for the bluegill, redear, and redbreast sunfish.”
The park also attracts a hardcore group of catfish fishermen.
“We have a high number of overnight fishermen. They have to call before 5 so we know they are coming and they can get the combination to the gate,” Davis said.
The catfish fishermen, regulars who come from as far away as Fort Worth, like the park because of the easy access to deep water off the dam. They don’t even seem to mind the five-fish daily bag limit at the lake, which is managed under TPWD’s Community Fishing Lakes program because of its size.
Pier fishing is available on two sides of the lake. That fishery was enhanced last winter by the donation of 60 leftover Christmas trees from Walmart.
“The regular visitors know that from March to November you have to book three weeks in advance to get a campsite,” she said.
Beyond fishing, the lake has more than four miles of hiking and biking trails and another almost two miles of trails limited to hiking.
There is also a playground, sand volleyball court, swim area and rental for paddleboats, canoes and kayaks.
Along with the back-in camping sites there are 14 primitive campsites that are available only by packing in. However, some campers have found a more novel approach to avoid the half-mile walk.
“We have a lot of people who will rent boats and carry everything over across the lake instead of hiking in,” Davis said. She added the remote area is popular with scouting groups.
Last year the park set a revenue record bringing in more than $250,000. After a strong start to the camping season in March, Davis would like to see the year’s revenue increased to $350,000. An increase in the entrance fee to $4 should help. So would a full vacation season.
The park would also benefit if its original master plan was completed. In the original design the primitive camping area was to be developed into camp sites with electricity, water and sewer service, along with a handful of cabins and shelters. An upgrade to 50 amp electrical service throughout the park is also needed.
The cost of boat launching is included in the daily entrance fee.
Campsite fees range from $8 to $18 per night.