It’s easy to tell when the white bass are making their annual spring run up the Neches River above Lake Palestine: cars and trucks line both sides of the highway where Texas 31 crosses the river just east of Chandler, and tackle-laden anglers scramble across the busy four-lane divided highway.
“It’s a dangerous situation. Someone could get killed out there,” said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Inland Fisheries biologist Richard Ott.
The problem is the property adjacent to the river north of the Texas 31 bridge is privately owned. This has caused a dilemma for anglers wanting to cash in on the white bass run. Do they trespass to not miss the run, or find a boat to fish in the river, which is public?
But help is on the way, thanks to TPWD, the City of Chandler, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), Henderson County and the East Texas Woods and Waters Foundation.
“Fortunately, the property owner has been a very good sport and has allowed anglers to access the riparian zone,” Ott said. “He has even provided a low spot in the fence for them to cross. The real fly in the ointment has been parking, which has traditionally been limited to highway right-of-way.”
That problem is in the process of being solved. Work will soon begin on a new public access area north of the highway that could eventually connect with the existing parking lot, boat ramp and park on the south side. Included in the new area will be a nearly one-acre parking lot, an information kiosk and a canoe and kayak launch.
“Although we were able to get grant money for infrastructure, the conditions of the grant only allowed for a one-year lease,” Ott said. “We did not feel comfortable about developing the area without a long-term lease to insure that the property would continue to be accessible by anglers.”
The project was rescued by the East Texas Woods and Waters Foundation, which funded a 20-year lease with option to renew on 12.5 acres of land along the northwest shore of the Neches River north of Texas 31 extending from the bridge about half a mile upstream.
According to the terms of the lease, the existing fence north of the highway will be moved to demarcate the new area.
Major funding for the project, some $25,000, comes from federal funds distributed through the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program.
TPWD has been working for several years to bring the project to fruition, and doing so required enlisting the help of a number of partners. “The Upper Neches River Authority has a memorandum of understanding with the City of Chandler to provide the park land on the south side of the highway,” Ott said. “That allows us to tie the north and south sides of the park together. The City of Chandler will operate the property as an extension of the park south of the bridge and will be able to provide police protection and trash collection. TxDOT provided the engineering for the new parking lot and will also contribute recycled asphalt paving for base material. Grant funds will pay for moving the fences, topping the base and building the drive off the highway. Henderson County Precinct 3 Commissioner Ronny Lawrence will provide the equipment and labor to actually build the parking lot.”
The one missing piece of the puzzle is an elevated walkway under the bridge so that anglers can cross safely from one side of the highway to the other. Ott is hoping to find a project partner to fund it.
“This section of the river has always been a diamond in the rough for the City of Chandler,” said John Taylor, assistant city administrator. “This project will not only improve angler and boater access to this very scenic stretch of the Neches River, it will bring more visibility and awareness to this great natural asset. It will also mean that people entering and leaving Chandler will pass through a natural gateway with a park on both sides of the highway.”
Work is expected to begin on the project by the end of September and be completed in time for the white bass run next spring.
Logo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife