The Red River

by Gene Kirkley

The big "Red" flows from west to east along much of the northern border of the state ultimately joining the Mississippi River. Made famous by history, legend and even music, the Red River has played a very important part in the lives of many people.

From the time when it was the boundary line between Texas and the Indian Nations, cattle drovers recognized it as one of the major milestones on the long route to the railroad and trail's end. Its 1,360 miles makes it second only to the Rio Grande in length among Texas rivers. Originating in New Mexico, the Red River's tributaries travel some 200 miles across the Panhandle with the Prairie Dog Town Fork flowing through spectacular Palo Duro Canyon. After becoming the common boundary with Oklahoma, the Salt Fork joins to form the main channel. After another 440 miles, it then separates Texas and Arkansas for 40 miles before leaving Texas to unite with the Mississippi in Louisiana.

The river takes its name from the color of the current, so pronounced that every early explorer, regardless of his language, called it "Red"; Rio Rojo or Rio Roxo in Spanish, Riviere Rouge in French, or Red River in English.

Even though the river was dangerous and sometimes a real menace to the early traveler because of its variable current and quicksand bottom, several important gateways developed along its length. One of the more famous of these is Doan's Crossing in Wilbarger County, named as the exit point for many of the north-bound cattle drives.

Lake Texoma, the largest water conservation project on the river, plays a big role in the recreational use of the river. Even though the river is the state boundary, the river itself is considered to belong wholly to Oklahoma. An Oklahoma fishing license is required, or for the lake itself, a special Lake Texoma license is available.

Recreational use of the river above Lake Texoma is seasonal depending on water flow. However, below the junction with the Wichita River northeast of Wichita Falls, year-round activities are usually possible, but be very careful of quicksand. Three access points are reported for this section: the crossings of SH 79, US 81 and IH 35.

The most popular section of the river lies just below the lake and Denison Dam, especially when the dam is generating. Fortunately during the summer months, this is on the weekends. If the crest of the water release is caught, there is good floating all the way to the Arkansas line. There are access points at the  highway crossings as the river flows through rather remote and rugged country. The first 30-mile section from the dam to the Highway 78 crossing makes an ideal weekend float trip, but there is a takeout at Carpenter's Bluff after an 11-mile float. Limited camping areas are available at the points, but if you choose to camp on the bars, be sure that you're above the high water generating level. And don't forget about the quicksand!

One of Texas' rarest and most unusual fish, the paddlefish or spoonbill as it's sometimes called, is found in the river, and it is illegal to possess them. They cannot be caught using lures or bait since they live solely on zooplankton they strain from the water. Some are still caught by "snagging," a fishing method that is also illegal in Texas. The fish resemble sharks except for their broad, flat snouts, which are about half their total body length.

Probably the greatest recreational offering of it all lies in the fishing for striped bass in the tailrace waters of the dam during periods of generation.

When the stripers really "turn on," outdoor writer John Clift has described it as "carnival time" for the stout-hearted floodgate fishermen. For many, the river fishing is much better than that found in the lake itself. It can be kind of rugged, but the results are more than worth it!