It’s said to be New Mexico’s biggest and best fishing derby drawing thousands of visitors from neighboring states to Clayton Lake State Park where the top prize of a fully equipped bass fishing boat is a big draw.
“It’s just a good, ole fashioned, family affair,” says Charles Jordan, longtime manager of the park for New Mexico State Parks. ”Everyone loves it and it just seems to get better every year.”
The park outside of Clayton has played host to the event for going on 15 years now.
Many of the event’s guests camp out at the park and turn the weekend into a real family friendly holiday with lots kids running around and people visiting each other at their campsites, Jordan says.
“We show folks some real down-home New Mexico-style hospitality here,” Jordan says.
Camping reservations go quick as the event draws near but park staff make every effort to accommodate folks and there’s also a KOA campground and several hotels including the historic Eklund to stay at in town.
This year’s annual derby is scheduled for the weekend of June 13 and 14 and will feature up to $10,000 in prizes including a fully equipped bass boat and top cash prizes of $1,500 and $1,000, says Leroy Montoya, town trustee and fishing derby committee board member.
Anglers can also earn cash prizes for catching the best trout, catfish, bass or walleye.
Four state record walleyes have been caught at Clayton Lake since 1981 with the current record of a 32-inch, 16 pounds 9 ounces caught by G.L. Peppers back in 1989.
The lake is heavily stocked by the state Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) which owns also the property and built the dam back in 1954 to benefit migratory waterfowl.
State Parks’ leases the lake from NMDGF under an agreement which allows licensed anglers to fish there without having to pay a State Park day use fee.
Registration for the derby and prizes is $15 per person.
In addition to the big awards, over a hundred door prizes including sporting goods and other merchandise, much of it donated by local businesses, will be awarded on an hourly basis to ticket holders during the two-day event.
Visitors will find free coffee and donuts available each morning and free hot dogs, soda and chips at lunch both days, Montoya says.
For kids there’s the dinosaur egg hunt where children can root through a big pile of sand each morning in search of plastic Easter eggs packed with coins.
Kids can also enjoy riding around the park in a toy train towed by an ATV while others can participate in the horse shoe-pitching tournament, hot dog-eating contest or attend the star party on Saturday night.
Clayton Lake State Park features a fully equipped observatory to view the cosmos under some of the best star-gazing conditions in the country. It is one of only four sites worldwide officially recognized by the International Dark Sky Association for its incredibly dark skies.
The Association bestowed its top honor upon the park in June 2010 for efforts by the state, county and town to preserve the area’s dark skies, reduce surrounding light pollution and provide educational programs.
The park’s $75,000 Star Point Observatory opened in June 2006 and features a 12×16-foot building with a retractable roof that houses a 12-inch, computer operated telescope and remote television monitor which allows for group viewing.
The telescope and monitor is powered by a solar charged battery system.
Volunteers from the local astronomy club play a big role in supporting the observatory, Jordan says.
They host regularly scheduled star parties each month on the first Friday of the new moon cycle while also providing impromptu parties for visitors when the park has plenty of overnight visitors.
Hundreds of local school children, scouting groups, astronomy clubs and park visitors have all enjoyed the benefits of the observatory at Clayton Lake State Park.
The park also enjoys a good reputation among bird and wildlife watchers and those interested in paleontology as a large set of dinosaur tracks were found and are now preserved in the earth that forms the dam’s spillway.
The park also features a new visitors’ center constructed of straw bale and recycled steel beams while utilizing the latest in green energy techniques.
The visitor center also features an interpretive display inside which highlights the park and surrounding area’s history and other interesting information.
The park boasts over 30 campsites equipped with shelters, picnic table and fire rings.
There are seven sites with electric and water hookups and two large group shelters.
Showers are available inside the main restroom while numerous vault toilets are located throughout the park.
The annual fishing derby is just one of several successful events that the town of Clayton hosts throughout the year, says Judy Steen, Executive Director Clayton-Union County Chamber of Commerce & Tourism.
The town’s annual Fourth of July celebration including a parade, pancake breakfast, rodeo, barbeque, street dance, softball tournament and fireworks show draws thousands every year, she says.
The town also pulls in a big crowd for its Viva New Mexico music festival in mid July featuring street dancing in front of the historic Eklund Hotel to the tunes of performers such as Al Hurricane Jr., Roberto Griego and Tobias Rene.
Then there’s the annual Union County Rodeo in August spanning the course of four days which also brings in plenty of folks from the surrounding countryside, Steen said.
The town’s well attended annual arts festival takes place in October featuring up to 40 arts and crafts booths on display in the Clayton Civic Center.
And in March up to 120 runners compete in the Dust Bowl Marathon, an event spanning four neighboring states, that ends in Clayton and has become another great event for the town, Steen says.
Clayton’s approach to keeping its rural economic engine humming could serve as a model to other agricultural communities seeking to in tap into the state’s booming tourism trade, Steen suggested.
“We do everything we can to keep our small rural community thriving and these kinds of events are an important part of that effort,” she said.
For more info about the derby check out Clayton Lake State Park’s web page at http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/SPD/claytonlakestatepark.html.
And for a nicely done take on the 2011 derby see the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hf6NezRUMEo .