Hurrah For Hugo!

Hurrah For Hugo!

After falling on hard times, one of Oklahoma's premier bass lakes is giving every indication of making a comeback.

Photo by David E. Morris

News flash: One of Oklahoma's premier bass-fishing lakes is being largely ignored by too many Oklahoma fishermen -- and has been for the past two decades and more. If you haven't fished it lately (and you probably haven't), you're missing out on some of the state's finest bass action.

Hugo Lake, down near the Texas border in Choctaw County -- at the end of what's been vilified as "the road to nowhere" -- lies just northeast of the town of Hugo, where it gathers the waters of the beautiful Kiamichi River.

When the Indian Nations Turnpike connecting Choctaw County with the rest of the state's turnpikes and expressways was constructed, critics from other parts of the state declared that building a turnpike there was a waste of money, and tagged the highway with the epithet quoted above. But for bass fishermen, the road definitely went somewhere.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, lots of anglers took the turnpike to Hugo just to fish for bass. When a couple of 10-pounders were taken there -- and this was back before the introduction of Florida-strain bass made 10-pounders more common -- even more fishermen hit the road for Hugo to try their luck. So what happened?

Lake Fork happened.

In the mid-1980s, Texas' famed lunker factory, 50 or so miles farther south, began producing double-digit bass. In no time, Hugo Lake was demoted to a blur in the rearview mirrors of Southeastern Oklahoma bass fishermen driving across the Red River in pursuit of large largemouths.

A few years later, a couple of 11-pounders were caught at Hugo -- at just about the time that Sardis Lake, near Clayton, suddenly began churning out double-digit bass by the dozens. That sudden boom was short-lived, but it crowded Hugo out of the big-bass limelight. Again.

No one, perhaps, has spent more days bass fishing at Hugo Lake than my old friend and longtime professional bass fishing guide, T.J. Switzer. T.J. operates Salt Creek Camp Resort -- (580) 317-8204 -- at Hugo. In the early years -- Switzer built the camp and started the guide service there nearly 30 years ago -- the demand for bass fishing guides was great, and Switzer was kept busy. But after Lake Fork opened, it came to seem as if Hugo Lake had been forgotten. Demand for Switzer's bass guiding expertise wasn't nearly as high as it had been, and he went back to the sign-building business and to fishing mostly just for fun, occasionally competing in a few tournaments.

He and his wife, Virginia, broadened the scope of his camp and guiding service, building a 6-acre lake and stocking it with catfish and bass for guests and their children to catch. He teamed with several local expert hunters and started offering guiding services for duck, turkey and deer hunters; you can even book a wild hog hunt. Guided fishing for crappie and catfish is available as well. Switzer also rents out cabins and site pads for RVs and mobile homes.

While the bass-fishing crowds were either passing by Hugo on their way to Texas or stopping short at Sardis, local fishermen kept right on catching creditable stringers of bass at Hugo. And the tournaments that stopped there often resulted solid catches as well.

As the new century approached, largemouth bass virus devastated the adult largemouth bass population in many of Oklahoma's large reservoirs, especially those up in the northeast quarter of the state, which holds most of the lakes. Hugo Lake, though, stayed healthy, and kept right on cranking out the lunkers.

Bass fishermen at some Oklahoma lakes complained of fishing whole days without a bite, and five-fish-limit tournaments at many lakes were being won with stringers weighing 10 or 12 pounds or less. Compare this with the situation at Hugo, where it's not uncommon for tournaments to produce 18- to 20-pound stringers.

Bass from Hugo Lake have never actually been tested for LMBV, says Gene Gilliland, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation fisheries research biologist, as there's been no cause to suspect its presence there. "There are several lakes that haven't been tested," he explained, "partially because we are limited in how many lakes we can test each year, and partially because it we haven't seen any special reason to test them. We've tried to monitor those lakes where we know the virus has been a problem."

Hugo Lake's bass population enjoyed, in Gilliland's phrase, "a big turnaround" in the late 1990s and around the new century. The impetus was in part a six-year experiment, conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in manipulating summertime water levels.

Hugo Lake has a huge floodwater storage capacity -- huge, at least, in comparison to its level at normal or conservation pool. Some lakes hold twice as much water in the flood pools as in their conservation pools; some, three times as much. Hugo's is five times as much. At normal level (406.5 feet above sea level), Hugo holds 185,780 acre-feet of water; at the top of the flood pool, it holds nearly 955,183 acre-feet. The lake spreads out into vast wooded bottomlands and prairie, expanding from 13,250 surface-acres to about 34,500 when it reaches flood pool.

The fisheries managers experimented with holding the water level at 4 feet above normal during one summer and about 9 feet above normal during another, the idea having been to supply lots of shallow cover in which young bass fry and fingerlings could hide.

"The really young bass need heavy cover," said Gilliland. "And Hugo, at normal levels or below, had virtually no cover in the water to protect the young fish. So we tried the summertime water-level manipulation."

Gilliland described Hugo Lake bass fishing as having been "really good the last two or three years." Since the six-year program ended, he says, the Corps has gone back to business as usual, keeping summertime water levels back around normal. "Even within the Wildlife Department there is disagreement on how to manage the water levels," he said.

The managers of the waterfowl refuge on Hugo's upper end like to see summertime water levels at normal, or even a little below, so that they can seed the shorelines with millet and let shoreline vegetation grow. Then, when the ducks are moving through Oklahoma the fall, they'd like them raised.

At the time we spoke, Gilliland wasn't aware of any specific plans to revive the summertime water manipulation program. But the lake is still benefiting from the experiment.

Statistics from bass tournaments at Hugo can serve as an indication of the quality of the fishing. In 2003, the most recent year for which statistics have been compiled, Hugo Lake placed first among 49 bass tournament lakes in the state in a ranking based on four categories: the percentage of successful anglers -- coming in first in this category with 88 percent; the number both of bass caught per angler-day and of hours spent to take each bass weighing more than 5 pounds; and the average weight both of bass caught and of winning stringers -- first in this category, too, at 14.56 pounds.

Let's compare that last figure to results at some of the more popular tournament lakes farther north in Oklahoma: Eufaula, 13.14 pounds; Grand, 12.49 pounds; Tenkiller, 10.38 pounds; and Skiatook, 8.78 pounds.

Even though it yields more bass than do most Oklahoma lakes, the lake still isn't overrun with tournaments; in the 2003 survey, only 11 contests reported results from Hugo. Compare that with 88 at Tenkiller, 35 at Skiatook, 32 at Eufaula, 77 at Grand, 50 at Keystone and 19 each at nearby Broken Bow and McGee Creek lakes.

I've wondered at times if the lack of bass-fishing traffic at Hugo is related to the amount of timber left standing in the lake. Many bass fishermen do a lot of their fishing within casting distance of a shoreline, but as offshore cover has always abounded at Hugo, fishing its shorelines has never been the best way to score there.

Hugo was built by the Corps as an experiment of sorts. Before Hugo, most Corps lakes were pretty much scoured of all standing timber before they were filled; all the trees were cut and disposed of or burned, leaving boaters a mostly obstacle-free environment. Anglers eventually got around to lobbying for more trees to be left in the lake for fish habitat, and as leaving timber could have the related benefit of reducing the cost of lake construction, the Corps decided to try it out at Hugo.

The lower portion of the lake, from just above Salt Creek down to the dam, was cleared of timber (except for a wee bit in the coves), but in the upper two-thirds or so of the lake, thousands of acres of timber were left standing as the lake filled. A grid of boat lanes was cut at intervals through the timber, so there were "roads" along which anglers in the upper lake could travel without hitting trees.

The flooded forest baffled many fishermen. On first visiting Hugo back in those days, the whole timbered area would look like a great place to fish. But locals and regular visitors alike soon learned that trees alone don't make a place great for fishing. There were indeed thousands of acres of standing trees in the lake, but at any given time, most of those trees had very few bass around them.

Hugo anglers soon figured out that creek channels, humps and other changes in contour and structure were keys to locating fish in the timber, just as they were elsewhere. Anglers had to learn not to wander through the timber casting at random, as most of the bass were usually concentrated around structure.


Even though it yields more bass than do most Oklahoma lakes, Hugo Lake still isn't overrun with tournaments; in the 2003 survey, only 11 contests reported results from there.
 

I've found that fishing isolated cover in the lower end of the lake -- the portion from which the timber was removed -- often works out pretty well. In the lower lake, finding a hump or point with cover on it can be like hitting the mother lode, as no other cover may be present within hundreds of yards. Sometimes several bass can come from one such spot.

The trouble with this approach is that, on a busy Saturday afternoon, or during a tournament that draws 100 boats, everybody on the water wants to fish those same few spots in the lower lake. So an angler who gets acquainted with the upper portion of the lake and the timber in the water there has a pronounced advantage over a fisherman who only knows a few scattered spots in the lower lake.

According to Switzer, many anglers fish either the lower, open portion of the lake or the river channel west of Highway 93, ignoring the timbered portion of the lake. He noted that anglers can at times catch large numbers of bass up in the Kiamichi River all the way up to Rattan Landing. "But if there's much boat traffic up there," he added, "it will shut the fish off in a hurry.

"Guys come down here to pre-fish for a tournament. They'll go up in the river and catch a dozen or more bass in a few hours, and think to themselves that they've got the tournament won. Then the tournament starts, and you get about 20 boats running up and down that river, muddying up the water, and the bass just quit biting."

When the water's clear in the river, a white tube bait or something similar will get the job done. For summertime fishing, Switzer's first three choices of lure would be a fire tiger crankbait (usually some combination of fluorescent orange, green, chartreuse and black), a plastic worm and, for up in the river, a tube bait.

Switzer believes that an angler interested more in catching bigger bass than in hooking up with large numbers of fish would do well to fish the lower end of the lake. "If I were going out just to try to catch a big bass, I'd probably use a 10-inch Power Worm," the guide advised. "I'd fish it around humps with old stumpbeds on them in the main lake.

"And I would try to fish on a sunny day. At Hugo, the sun is a big factor. If the sun is shining, the fish will be close to cover. If it's cloudy, it can be hard to find bass, because they'll spread out on you."

Hugo Lake's water level often dictates where and how you fish there, Switzer says. When the water level is normal or higher, and stable, fish can be found on many shorelines and around shallow cover. But when the water is below normal or falling, the guide observes, bass pull out to points or the edges of sloping flats, where access to deep water is close at hand, taking up stations around submerged stumps in those areas in the lower lake or in the holes and channels up in the timbered area. In either case, he thinks, the fishing's generally easier under a bright sun.

Bass fishermen at many Oklahoma lakes have complained in recent seasons about a chronic lack of bass in their favored venues, the impact of largemouth bass virus and the tough time they have getting a hit from any kind of bass these days.

Yet down near the end of the Indian Nations Turnpike in Choctaw County, bass fishing at Hugo Lake continues to be pretty darned good. And T.J. Switzer's camp at Hugo is an excellent base for fishing other lakes besides Hugo. Both Pine Creek and McGee Creek can be reached in less than an hour's drive from there.

Both Switzer and his wife fish regularly at Hugo and other nearby lakes, and Switzer talks daily with guests and local friends who fish for bass, so at any given time he usually has a handle on what kinds of baits and patterns are yielding results.

The baits and techniques described earlier, he says, are likely to be safe bets from now right on through September, when autumn cold fronts start moving through the area and water temperatures start to fall. Then it may be time to switch back to the old fall and winter standbys -- spinnerbaits and jigs. Most experienced bass fishermen agree that a jig is perhaps the best bait for catching really big bass. But at Hugo, spinnerbaits have accounted for most of the double-digit bass reeled in there.

Keep all this advice in mind the next time you take that road to nowhere with the neglected bass lake at the end. And don't be too surprised if you find that road a little more heavily traveled in the months ahead!

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