When my editor at this magazine asked for a story on “the best May angling opportunities” in Oklahoma, my first thought was: “How much space have you got for that story?”
That’s because good fishing options are almost unlimited in late spring in the Sooner State.
Oh, the striper and sand bass spawning runs are usually about finished by then, but the catfish spawning periods are beginning, the bluegill and redear spawns are getting into high gear, black bass are winding down their spawn and feeding aggressively to recover from the spawn, and the spotted bass in prairie streams and smallmouths in highland streams are ripe for the picking. Stripers, hybrids and sand bass are transitioning into their summer patterns and are available too.
It’s a good time to be a fisherman in Oklahoma.
When May rolls around, you’ll find me in my garage rigging up a couple of lightweight spincast rigs with slip-bobbers, split shot and small hooks, as well as maybe a 5-weight flyrod.
That’s because the big bluegills are nesting for the next few weeks and it can be the easiest time of the year to pack my freezer with a few bags of delicious sunfish filets.
I used to regard catching sunfish as a kind of fishing for rank beginners, but that was before I met George Edwards from Oklahoma City who taught me a few things about serious sunfishing.
After a couple of outings with George, back in the 1980s, I was soon hooked and began looking forward to my annual sunfish trips with enthusiasm.
Anglers commonly argue about whether crappie or walleyes are the tastiest freshwater North American fish. But as for me, I’ll take filets of bluegills or redears or green sunfish over either of them.
I still enjoy an occasional meal of scaled and gutted sunfish, fried until the tails are crispy like potato chips, but when I can catch sunnies large enough to fillet, I really love those delicious, boneless morsels.
Not only are they great fried, they make wonderful ceviche — “cooked” in lime juice without the aid of fire, and mixed with a little fresh tomato and chopped jalapeno and spices. I’ve turned many of my friends into ceviche eaters — most of them guys who previously turned up their noses at the thought of eating “raw” fish.
You can catch bluegills and other sunfish on any and all of our large Oklahoma lakes, but I’ve had my best sunfish outings by far on smaller lakes that provide municipal water supplies. The key, in my opinion, to finding a good sunfish lake is to look for a lake with comparatively clear water and lots of emergent shoreline vegetation such as water willow or cattails.
The Wildlife Department’s American Horse Lake, Stillwell’s city lake, and Tulsa’s Lake Eucha are among the lakes where I’ve had very productive days catching bigger-than-average sunfish.
Sunfish seem to prosper in clearer water. Maybe it’s because the young feed on algae and plankton, and sunlight penetrating the water spurs the growth of microscopic life. But whatever the reason, many of Oklahoma’s small water supply lakes hold excellent populations of sunfish.
When bluegills are nesting, you can often spot the nesting areas by seeing those little fanned-out bare spots on the bottom in shallow water. Plopping a line baited with a cricket or a bit of nightcrawler among the nests will often produce results.
The most effective rig for fishing such areas consists of a well-balanced combination of bobber and weight, which makes it easy to detect those subtle little bites that you might miss if you’re using too large a bobber. I prefer using a slip-bobber also, so I can reel up my line for easy casting, but a regular bobber can work just fine.
Sometimes the bluegills nest in water that’s too deep for the nests to be seen from the surface. When I’m fishing those deeper areas, I don’t use a bobber. Instead I’ll use a bell sinker with a bobber-stop below it, that allows the line to pass through the sinker eye without resistance. That also allows the user to detect subtle bites without letting the fish feel the weight of the sinker.
If you’re after redears, fish the edges of the lakes near the cattails, water willow or other shoreline weeds. The redears prowl those areas looking for freshwater snails that often attach themselves to the weed stems.
I used to fish Sapulpa’s Pretty Water Lake regularly for sunfish in the spring. When I was anchored in the shallow upper end catching bedding bluegills, I’d catch far more bluegills than redears. But when I’d ease along the shorelines fishing the weedbed edges, I’d catch far more redears than bluegills. That pattern repeated itself at many other sunfish lakes I fished.
You might find sunfish nesting any time in April, May or June. Some continue to nest on throughout the summer. But this time of the year, and especially those periods around the full moons each month, I consider the best times to fill an ice chest with sunfish.
All three of Oklahoma’s most popular catfish species will be spawning soon. First the channel cats move to the shallows. Usually before the channel cat spawn is finished, the blues have moved in too. And before the blues are finished, the flatheads move in to spawn in shoreline caves, crevices and cracks.
Boaters can have access to lots of catfish all year long, but May, June and early July are the times when boatless anglers usually can get lots of catfish action by fishing the appropriate stretches of shoreline.
Riprapped shorelines on big lakes and rivers are great places to find spawning catfish of all three species. The many holes and crevices around the boulders draw catfish searching for nesting spots.
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