Al Fresco Kitchen

Tips for Great Camping Meals

Camping is a terrific way to experience Texas’ natural wonders. Whether you are putting up a tent or staying in a cabin, food must be provided for the hungry hordes after a busy day outdoors. After many trips, my family has compiled a list of equipment needed to pull off those al fresco meals.

A camp stove and fuel are first on our list. We use an inexpensive two-burner propane stove that’s compact and easily set up on a picnic table. These can be purchased at any outdoor store ($40 and up). Unless you can twirl a stick to get a spark, you will need a lighter for the stove. We take a barbecue lighter, with plastic-bagged matches for backup.

Must you have fresh coffee in the morning? Then purchase a camp coffee pot ($20 and up).

Most families own an ice chest. Choose the smallest necessary to hold your cold stuff. Freeze water in gallon and half-gallon plastic jugs to cool your chest. These last longer than bagged ice and keep food from getting soggy.

Almost all other equipment can come out of your kitchen.

Several basic pans can handle most menu needs. You can fry up the bacon or fish in a black cast-iron skillet. We also take two pots — one large and one medium with lids — for heating food and water. For food prep, throw in a small cutting board, a paring knife and a chopping knife. Add a large stirring spoon or two, a spatula and perhaps a pair of tongs. Don’t forget a can opener (as we have many times!) and a handful of quart zip-close bags for leftovers.

For a special treat that truly evokes the great outdoors, bring along a cast iron Dutch oven and make delicious fruit cobbler or biscuits or cornbread or stew. Here's a Texas Parks and Wildlife video to help you get started.

For dining, you can go two ways. We camp enough that we have invested in a plastic box loaded with plastic plates, bowls, cups and utensils. If you aren’t sure about this camping thing yet, use disposable dishes.

After cooking comes dishwashing. We use two fair-sized plastic containers, one for washing and one for rinsing. These can hold dirty dishes until you’re ready to wash. The pots can also work as dishpans, albeit small ones. Of course, you need dish soap, a rag and towels.

Bring an inexpensive plastic tablecloth to cover the picnic table and a large roll of paper towels. Toss in trash bags. I like the small bathroom-size bags or plastic grocery bags, as I prefer to dispose of trash frequently. For packing trash out, you’ll need larger bags.

Hands can get really dirty out there. My aunt used to hang a water jug next to some pantyhose holding bar soap. That was creative, but we just bring a hand soap dispenser.

We pack cooking gear in a large plastic container with a lid and put nonperishable food in another. Cardboard boxes would work but are not waterproof. This innovation occurred to us after years of rooting through collapsed grocery sacks in the back of the car.

Be sure to bring some gallon jugs for water. Many campgrounds — but not all — have potable water at each site or at a centrally located place. Another recent addition to our list is a five-gallon water cooler. On a hot day, we really appreciate having a ready supply of cold water (we add ice). Don’t travel with it full, as it may slosh. Of course, this is a convenience, not a necessity.

Two final, intangible, very important items are required on camping trips: ingenuity and flexibility. You are camp cooking in the great outdoors, after all. Things can and will go wrong. Prepare as best you can, make do when needed — and have fun!

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Last Blast of Summer

Uncrowded Lake Parks for a Labor Day Getaway

Three days off from work and school — the perfect time to load up the car and head to a state park to enjoy the last bit of summer fun before fall scheduling keeps us too busy. The getaway's even more fun when you can cool off or fish in the lake. 

But it's Labor Day weekend. Won't every place be too crowded? It’s not much fun to wait in a long line, and even less fun to find the park’s already full for the day. 

Not every park gets as crowded as Garner or Enchanted Rock, so why not stretch your horizons to find someplace less well-known that still scratches your get-away-from-it-all itch. Here’s a trio of our favorite hidden gems. Do you have a “secret” getaway park where you can find some privacy for your adventure?

A scenic 3-mile roadway winds around the serene, spring-fed, 116-acre lake with a beautiful 1930s-era stone masonry dam and bridge. Close to Fort Worth, Dinosaur Valley State Park and Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, the park offers geocaching and 5.5 miles of mountain biking.

Connect with the pioneer lifestyle by attending Dutch oven cooking classes or visiting the graves of Fort Sherman’s settlers. The lighted pier is a nighttime hot spot for crappie and bass. Bald eagles winter on the lake; every fall, watch the changing colors of dogwood, redbud and maple trees.

This park near the Oklahoma border features a no-wake lake and hand-built local limestone and eastern red cedar structures: a dance terrace, picnic tables, water fountains and barbecue pits. Nearby attractions include Eisenhower State Park and Sam Bell Maxey House State Historic Site.

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Secrets of a big bass hunter

Nowhere in Texas are more ShareLunker bass caught than in Lake Fork. So far 261 Lake Fork fish broke the 13-pound barrier that admits largemouth into the Toyota ShareLunker program. True trophy bass are really rare and catching them requires either sheer dumb luck or a special person using the right techniques.

Today we revisit secrets Richard McCarty shared with the magazine readers previously. As a big-fish hunter with three entries in the program, we can learn some tips from him.

McCarty eases his boat into a sheltered cove among numerous stumps and tree trunks, and smiles. “This place has some big ones,” he says quietly. McCarty stares intently at Lake Fork’s surface before casting a Pop-R topwater lure among the stumps. “There’s a big fish there. I saw it.”

In a cove along the main lakeshore, red-winged blackbirds call for a mate from atop cattails along the bank; just beyond, golf carts purr toward a green on the point of land protecting the cove from south winds. Black-bellied whistling ducks and scissor-tailed flycatchers decorate tree trunks jutting from the water.

Far to the northwest, dark clouds ahead of a cold front emit occasional rumbles of thunder. Hopefully, the lightning keeps its distance, but the clouds and wind-rippled water are welcome. Fish bite better under those conditions, McCarty says.

McCarty switches to a green plastic lizard and begins fishing a spot the size of a bathtub. He bounces the lizard across the bottom by jiggling the rod tip, rapidly moving it up and down a couple of inches. Often fishing no more than 4 feet from the boat, he studies the water, trying to see the fish he knows is there.

It’s a big female on her spawning bed, and she just won’t bite.

After half an hour he shakes his head, picks up the rod with the Pop-R and casts. “I’m amazed at how these things can be so stubborn on a day like today,” he says. “They should be biting. If I could draw a day to catch a big bass, today would be the day. And I haven’t had a single roll.”

McCarty makes a third cast, and suddenly lightning strikes — fish lightning. The lure disappears in a boil of water, and the rod instantly horseshoes. “It’s a big one,” McCarty says. Moments later the scale proves he knows his fish: It weighs in at a fraction more than 9 pounds.

Most people would be thrilled to catch a 9-pound bass, but in McCarty’s world, it’s a dink. 

McCarty slips the bass gently back into the lake and takes a moment to explain what just happened, and why. “The water is about 4 feet deep here, and you can see the fish on occasion,” McCarty says. “I saw a lot of these fish several days ago, so I know about where they are.” The fish are where they are due to an ancient imperative: the urge to spawn. “In spring the shallow water warms up, and the fish seek it out,” McCarty continues. “They have to get into warm water so the eggs they are carrying will mature enough to spawn. As they migrate to the shallows, they get into a zone where we can catch them.”

Sometimes, that is.

Class continues. “In early morning I throw a topwater bait,” McCarty lectures. “I keep a rod rigged with a plastic lizard close at hand in case a big fish blows up on the topwater. Lots of times a bass will slam a moving bait out of anger and show itself, but it’s not aggressive enough to eat it. I go right back in there with a lizard, and 30 to 40 percent of the time, I’ll catch that fish.”

McCarty switches to an orange-highlighted jerkbait, a Bomber Long A, and continues to work the cattails near the bank. “Fish will bed in 3 to 4 feet of water commonly, and as deep as 6 feet, but it’s rare a fish will come out of 6-foot water on this lake and bust a topwater,” McCarty says. “I’m trying to get one to come out of that shallower water. There are a lot more fish in here than what I’m catching.”

As if to prove his words, two 5-pound males take his lure off the same bed. A larger female follows the lure but won’t bite. McCarty kicks it up a notch and ties on his best big bass bait, a Zoom Super Salt Plus 8-inch magnum lizard in watermelon candy color. He keeps dropping the bait in front of her nose for half an hour before he gives up. “If I get one bite every hour doing this, I’m more than satisfied, because I know the fish will be a big one,” he explains.

Thunder rolls across the lake, and we head for the ramp.

Two days later we’re back on the lake. A three-quarter moon hangs low in a cloudless sky. “It’s going to be a tough day,” McCarty announces. “The good news is it will force me to fish places where if I do get a bite, it will probably be a big fish.”

McCarty points the nose of the boat at the moon and spurs the herd of gasoline-drinking horses to stampede. As the boat leaps onto plane, his hair streams back and he laughs, “I still enjoy the ride.”
Our route takes us up Little Caney Creek, past the spot where Barry St.Clair caught the current state record largemouth bass in 1992, an 18.18-pound brute he called Marie, the middle name of both his wife and daughter. McCarty throttles down and lowers the trolling motor into the water. “We’re coming up on one of the best big fish places I know of,” he says softly. “We need to be quiet in the boat.”

McCarty admits he is a fanatic about noise in the boat. “You need to be really sneaky to catch big fish,” he explains. “You have to avoid not only noise in the boat but also in lure presentation. If you are hanging up on stuff in the water, you’re spooking fish. You have to mentally position fish on the cover and figure out how to get the lure in there without spooking it.”

In contrast to the first day, when he anchored in one spot and threw a lure to the exact same spot 20 or 30 times, McCarty prospects around submerged timber, always on the move. “We had a cold front come through, and we have really high barometric pressure,” he says. “The fish we fished for on Tuesday are not going to bite. Don’t ask me why, they just won’t. So I’ve backed out into 8 to 15 feet of water trying to catch a different group of fish, ones that have not moved up to spawn or have spawned and moved back out of the shallows. A lot of times the fish in this heavier cover will suspend near the top, which makes them hard to catch, but sometimes they will bite if you drop the bait right on top of them.”

A 3-pounder nails the lizard as it falls through a tree, and I wonder if McCarty is clairvoyant. “The lizard is a bulky bait,” McCarty says, as if reading my mind. “It displaces lots of water, and the fish can find it easily. I get a few more bites on lizards than on jigs, and my success rate on boating fish is better on a lizard. A bass will eat anything it wants to eat, and if it comes down on top of him, he bites. I think most of my bites in this kind of fishing are reflex bites.”

When fishing in heavy cover, McCarty puts on a new plastic bait after every bite. “I don’t want to risk a bait being torn and my hook being exposed and hanging up,” McCarty reasons. He also uses 30-pound test line when fishing a lizard. “Big fish will get wrapped around stuff. I expect a big fish on a lizard and am already down in the cover with my lure.”

We work the fencerow up one side and down the other, catching only small males. McCarty believes catching a lot of fish keeps many anglers from succeeding at catching really big fish. “If someone has bass patterned on a spinnerbait and is catching a fish out of a bush every third or fourth cast, they don’t want to leave that. You may have to do something a little different to catch a big bass. So many people pass up the chance at a big bass to keep catching small ones. I’ve gone through areas and not seen anything but small bass, turned the boat around and kept quiet, and seen big bass cruise back to their beds.”

The day ends with one more lesson in bassology. McCarty takes us into a shallow cove with numerous cleared circles of gravel in 3 feet of water. Each is a bass spawning bed, and we are no longer fishing for bass, we’re stalking them.

McCarty peers intently into the water as the trolling motor pulls us slowly among tree trunks. He pitches the lizard, reels it in, and says softly, “She’s caught and doesn’t even know it yet.” On the next cast the rod bows, and a 4-pound bass tailwalks to the boat.

McCarty explains what just happened. “I saw the fish and kept searching to find where its bed was,” he replies. “Once I did and pitched the lure on that spot, she turned on it real fast. When they do that, I know I’ll catch them.”

So what’s the secret of catching big bass? “The difference between guys who catch big bass and guys who don’t is in their proficiencies with individual lures and how many effective casts they make in a day as opposed to just flailing the water,” McCarty says. “The guys who make the most proficient casts in a day will catch more fish.”

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Kayak Fishing Freedom

There’s never been a better time to get into kayak fishing

Increasingly, anglers are discovering the joys — not to mention the cost-effectiveness — of trading a souped-up bass boat for a stable sit-on-top kayak. 

Whether the focus is lakes, rivers or smaller streams, kayaks provide excellent access to shallow structure and shoreline brush likely to hold feisty fish. Because kayaks are so versatile, they also make excellent craft to pursue deep-water quarry like stripers and crappie on reservoirs.

“Kayaking gives you freedom over the medium of water,” says Michael Banks, a retired dentist from Jacksonville, who landed a 13.6-pound largemouth bass on Purtis Creek a few years ago. “If I can catch a fish like that from a kayak, why do I need a bass boat?”

The growth of the Texas Paddling Trails program and new angler leases on private property are offering more opportunity for freshwater kayak fishing than ever before.

Where to Go
Chase largemouth bass on this no-wake East Texas reservoir with limited motorboat traffic.

Colorado River, Bastrop
Choose between the 14.3-mile Wilbarger Paddling Trail and the 6-mile El Camino Real Paddling Trail. Abundant game fish include Guadalupe bass, sunfish and largemouth bass.

West Fork, Trinity River
The beginner-friendly Bridgeport Falls Paddling Trail is a 5.8-mile up-and-back stretch of river about an hour west of Dallas-Fort Worth offering a chance to cast light tackle for a variety of fish, including bass and crappie.

Upper Sabine River
Try the 12-mile Mineola Bigfoot Paddling Trail; camp overnight at the Mineola Nature Preserve.

Gear Up
·      Boat & paddle: Every kayak manufacturer produces at least one model especially designed for anglers (with pole mounts and ports for fish finders and other electronics). Many have a rudder to help steer. Hobie markets a kayak that uses a foot pedal-drive system so your hands are always free. Most kayaks sold in Texas are sit-on-top, which are stable and don’t overheat you in the summer sun. Before you buy, rent one or attend one of the demo days at retailers.

·      Life jacket

·      Tethers: to protect your gear in case the kayak flips.

·      Small anchor: to hold the boat steady over a hole in a mild current.

·      Fishing gear

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Take Rover Out Roving


It’s International Dog Day! We go a little crazy whenever we get to publish articles about sporting dogs or taking your dog to a state park, because we know we’ll get to choose from lots of adorable dog photos. Who doesn’t love dogs, especially the one who wags her tail so happily when we get the leash or open the car door?

Not every outdoor location welcomes dogs, so check out park policy before you leave. Make sure your dog has some “manners” and can socialize well. Blazing hot August surfaces can burn tender dog paw pads, so be vigilant. Bring plenty of water for both pets and people.

A great resource is frequent contributor Melissa Gaskill’s book, Best Hikes with Dogs Texas Hill Country and Coast, which includes details on specific parks as well as the Ten Canine Essentials and the Doggy First-Aid Kit. 

What could be better than sharing your love of Texas state parks with your favorite pup? Here are three that welcome man’s best friend. Let us know what parks your dog loves best!

The 1,100-acre nature park has more than 15 miles of trails and contains elements of four regions: Post Oak Savannah, Blackland Prairie, East Texas Pineywoods and Central Texas Plateau. With that much variety, there’s plenty to see and sniff.

If you are planning on taking your pooch on an overnight camping trip, this park is known for being among the best. There’s plenty of shoreline here, and plenty of shade. The terrain is mostly gentle, and your dog’s paws will appreciate the loose-dirt trails.

Nothing gets a tail wagging like offering your dog an entire mountain range to explore, especially in the largest urban wilderness park in the country. Your dog will love the rugged trails, with a variety of bird songs echoing throughout the area.

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Stay Safe Around Rattlesnakes

Don’t Get Rattled

Of all the critters that skitter in Texas, nothing makes the heart race faster than the slithering kind. Believe it or not, the snakes you spot are likely more afraid of you than you are of them.

Snakes fear humans. To them, we probably appear to be large, noisy animals that may harm them or try to eat them. When a snake is confronted by a large animal, it usually tries to hide or escape.

It’s when snakes can’t hide or escape that their behavior can seem threatening. When cornered, they may stand their ground hissing, rattling their tail (rattles or not) and generally trying to look dangerous and unpalatable.

This acting job has worked wonders considering how many people are afraid of them. However, the reality is that most Texas snakes aren’t dangerous; of 105 kinds (species and subspecies) statewide, 15 are venomous to humans. But, whether the snakes are harmless or not, most folks don’t welcome the sight of one and aren’t quite sure what they should do if they see one.

It’s more a matter of what you shouldn’t do: Don’t let yourself get rattled. 

The best way to keep a snake from overreacting is not to overreact yourself. Instead, step back slowly until a space at least the length of its body is between the two of you. Then, tiptoe away. If you hear a rattlesnake rattling, make sure you know where the snake is before you move.

Venomous snakes in Texas, with the exception of the coral snake (Micrurus spp.), are pit vipers: cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus), rattlesnakes (Crotalus spp. and Sistrurus spp.) and copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix)

These snakes locate prey with one of the most sensitive and sophisticated infrared [heat] receptor systems on earth. A slow-motion response is particularly important around them. 

Wear boots and long pants and walk slowly, steadily and methodically when in snake country. Watch your step and don’t put your hands or feet where you can’t see them.

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