Stripes Across Soonerland

If you're looking for action with hard-fighting striped bass and hybrids this spring, don't make the mistake of overlooking these hotspots. (April 2006)

Long ago, the Lower Illinois River was known among anglers as a good place to catch rainbow trout. Nowadays, however, it's known as a great place to catch monster striped bass.

Why? Well, one reason is that the Lower Illinois still gets stocked regularly with rainbow trout -- and stripers love to eat them. Hatchery-raised rainbows are a high-protein treat, and a relatively stupid one: They don't have enough sense to get out of the way when stripers come for dinner.

However, the main reason for the Lower Illinois being such a good striper fishery is that stripers reproduce naturally in the Arkansas River and its tributaries, such as the Lower Illinois and South Canadian rivers benefit. The only other place in Oklahoma where that natural reproduction happens is in Lake Texoma.

Of course, Lake Texoma is world famous for stripers. It may not be the place to go if you want a fish to put on the wall, but if you want to catch a lot of stripers, Texoma still is and always has been hard to beat.

Other than Kaw Lake, which is another Arkansas River impoundment, those are the only places you'll find stripers in the Sooner State. However, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation stocks many other lakes with white bass/striped bass hybrids, and those are very popular sportfish, especially in southwest Oklahoma.

Except for the tidal rivers of the East Coast, the Arkansas River may be one of the nation's most productive self-sustaining striper fisheries. Gene Gilliland, fisheries research biologist for the ODWC, said that stripers make annual spawning runs up the Arkansas to Zink Dam in Tulsa. If the water is high enough, they'll actually go over Zink Dam into Lake Keystone, all the way to Keystone Dam. Concentrations of stripers are so dense below Zink Dam that the ODWC collects brood stock for its hybrid striper program there.

"The Arkansas River from Webbers Falls Lock and Dam to Tulsa is unimpeded water, and Zink Dam is the first obstruction they come to going upstream," Gilliland said. "It's a low-water dam, and when they're releasing a lot of water out of Keystone, fish can get over it and go upstream. Our guys get in there to collect them because of concentrated numbers, and it's a little safer getting in below a small dam than electro-fishing below a large dam."

In terms of the overall striper fishery, Gilliland said striper populations in the Arkansas River are stable, but they could be better.

"They've never developed a strong striper fishery in Kerr or Webbers Falls or Keystone because that part of the Arkansas has always suffered from water quality problems," Gilliland said. "Even though we have natural reproduction below Zink Dam, the fish don't have an opportunity to get very big because they don't get very old.

"It's an oxygen and temperature problem," he added. "As stripers get older, they get very finicky about the temperatures they prefer. A lot of times in Keystone, to find those temperatures, there isn't enough oxygen that meets their needs, and they have periodic die-offs of these fish before they have the chance to get very old and very big. It has good numbers, but not the deep, cold water that has enough oxygen for those fish to survive through the summer and be healthy."

A striper guide from Morris, Larry Burchfield -- (918) 758-9139 -- has been plying his trade on the Lower Illinois and South Canadian for about three years now, but before that, he spent about a quarter-century fishing these waters sheerly for the love of it. He says that the best fishing starts in early spring and approaches its peak in April, the prime time on the Lower Illinois, he said, is during high water.

On the South Canadian River below Eufaula Dam, the fishing is better in low water. Burchfield's favorite section of the Lower Illinois is from the Interstate 40 Bridge to its confluence with the Arkansas.

"Basically, it's better if you can catch the (Lower Illinois) river when it's really running," Burchfield said. "After the water gets high, they open the flood gates and raise the river level up. We just fish around the islands, around the eddies and along the banks. Sometimes we go in the middle of the river."

When fishing the bank, Burchfield said he fishes eddies because stripers like to congregate in them.

"There might be a log laying there, a pile of rocks, or an indention in the bank. Anytime you find stuff like that, you'll find pockets where the water will circle around," Burchfield said. "It's about the same thing with islands. We also fish the deep holes."

Unlike many striper anglers, Burchfield almost always uses artificial lures on light line. His favorite lures are 1/4-ounce and 1/8-ounce hair jigs that a friend makes. His favorite colors are white, chartreuse/white, yellow/chartreuse and straight chartreuse.

"In the Illinois River, we only use light tackle, 6-pound-test line," Burchfield said. "Even if we catch one that weighs 5 to 8 pounds, that's a lot of fun on ultralight tackle."

An ultralight rodeo produced one of Burchfield's most memorable trips on the Lower Illinois.

"I took some people down there, and we had a really hard day fishing," he recalled. "It was a cold, nasty day in April, and the fish weren't biting. One of the guys ended up catching a 25-pound striper on ultralight tackle. We just backed down on him with the trolling motor to keep him in the middle of the river, but that was a memorable trip."

Striper fishing is also excellent in the South Canadian River below Eufaula Dam this month, Burchfield said. Fishing techniques depend on water flow, but you can catch fish all the way to the Arkansas River.

"The only thing to remember is that the South Canadian is very shallow, and you really have to know where you're going to get a boat up the river, but there's some awesome fishing up there," Burchfield said. "I like to go up there when the water is off because that puts the fish in the deep holes. In April, the stripers are just starting to come out of the Arkansas, so we're usually fishing farther downriver."

If current is hard, Burchfield drifts for stripers close to the dam, but you can find them almost anywhere. If the water is low, he fishes jigs in the deep holes. His best trip was an early-April outing near Eufaula Dam.

"We caught as many as 13 stripers," he said. "The smallest was 18 pounds, and the biggest

one was about 35 pounds. That was on a weekday. It was sunny, and the fish just happened to be biting. It was the first part of April, and there was nobody at the dam. That was right below the dam, and we were using shad, about 5 feet deep."

Waurika still has a lot of big hybrids, and is considered one of the best places for catching a trophy. Nan Reese of Waurika Lake Marina says that while the best time to catch them is between late February and early March, good fishing continues throughout the spring.

That was several years ago, but Burchfield said the rivers are still full of big stripers.

"Last year was the best I've ever seen it," he said. "We caught more big fish than we normally catch. Stripers follow the water flow, and they didn't get washed out of the state last year."

LAKE TEXOMA

While Lake Texoma doesn't produce as many big fish, or fish as big as those in the Arkansas River system, it's still a great place to go to catch a lot of fish. A Texoma experience is also much tamer than a river trip. The Lower Illinois and South Canadian are wild when they're up. Texoma can get choppy, but it's fairly mellow in comparison.

Bill Bannister of Pottsboro, Texas, (903-786-8400) has been guiding for stripers on Texoma for 20 years, and he says he usually knows where to find fish on any day and under any conditions.

"You have to look around for them, but I've got my favorite spots," Bannister said. "I always try to fish some kind of dropoff or ledges in the middle part of the lake."

Bannister alternates between live and artificial bait. The fish generally dictate what they prefer.

"You can catch them on artificials or live shad," Bannister said. "We catch our own baits, and sometimes we're able to get good-sized shad, and sometimes we don't."

When using live bait, Bannister rigs a 1-ounce egg weight and a 3-foot leader tied to a barrel swivel. At the end is a 3/0 Eagle Claw Octopus hook. Depending on where the fish are, he may drop his shad from 30 to 50 feet.

"If I use live bait, I'll drop the line straight down," Bannister said. "If I'm using artificials, we'll cast out and crank them back to the boat."

One famous technique on Texoma is "slabbing," but that doesn't come into play until late June. For that, Bannister uses a 1 1/2-ounce lead slab. It's essentially a big spoon with a treble hook on the end.

In April, Bannister likes to fish humps, ledges and dropoffs with a 1-ounce Sassy Shad or a 1-ounce Coho minnow. He said he likes heavy lures because they're easy for customers to cast.

"A lot of our customers don't have a lot of experience casting level-wind reels," Bannister said. "With a lure that's heavier, they have less trouble with backlashes. Experienced fishermen can use lighter lures."

Bannister's favorite colors for Sassy Shads are glow-in-the-dark and chartreuse. Sometimes he casts and retrieves as soon as the lure hits the water. Other times he lets it hit the bottom before reeling. The retrieve is slow and steady, without bouncing or hopping.

The best conditions for striper fishing at Texoma, Bannister said, include clouds and wind. The stripers feed early and stop about noon. They feed again about two hours before sunset.

"We've limited out within the first two hours in April before and caught fish up to 10 pounds," Bannister said.

Another famous Texoma technique is "thrashing" the water with a fishing rod to simulate a feeding frenzy. Bannister said he uses it, and it works.

"I just take a stiff rod and thrash it back and forth several times until my arm gets tired," he said.

TEXOMA REPRISE

Roy Carney of Mead is a friendly, jovial sort, and he sounds convincing when he says catching stripers in April on Lake Texoma is the easiest thing you'll ever do.

"It's like, easy pickings," Carney said. "In April, the rivers get full, and we go pick them off like chickens in a hen house. If we're marking fish in an area, we'll set up as close as we can and whip the water until our arm is about to fall off. That'll draw those fish to you, and then it's lights out."

There's a little more to it than that, actually. Carney gets up at 1:30 a.m. to catch shad, preferably big yellowtails. He already has a pretty good idea where the stripers are, but he watches his electronic graph closely to be sure.

"I start up north at the edge of the river channels, and I'm looking for them in large groups," Carney said. "The electronics give them away."

To start the day, Carney instructs his customers to drop their baits to the bottom and then turn the reel handle 3 to 10 cranks.

"It depends where the fish are laying," he explained. "For instance, if I'm in 35 feet and the fish are on the bottom to 20 feet, it's easier and faster to drop it to the bottom and reel the handle three times around. That's about 2 feet a pull. I want all the baits at the same depth because I want it to look like a school of shad."

Like Bannister, Carney said he goes mostly for numbers in April, but a big striper is always possible.

"It's mostly 8- to 9-pounders," he said. "The people who go up in the Washita River do better on big fish."

WAURIKA LAKE HYBRIDS

Hybrid stripers are highly favored among many Oklahoma anglers, and Waurika Lake is one of the best places to catch a big one.

Nan Reese, owner of Waurika Lake Marina, didn't know much about hybrids when she bought the place in 2000, but she quickly learned how to catch them, and now she's pretty good at it.

"My best trip was probably in the spring of 2001," Reese said. "I went out with some friends. There were five of us, and when we came in we had 19 hybrids. I caught one that weighed 12 pounds. We were drifting with live bait in about 23 feet of water. You go all the way to the bottom and let your weight hop on the bottom, with the live bait swimming behind it."

Waurika still has a lot of big hybrids, and is considered one of the best places for catching a trophy. Reese says that while the best time to catch them is between late February and early March, good fishing continues throughout the spring and well into summer.

"They'll be biting off windy points, and a lot of people throw Sassy Shads during that time," she said. "When the weather gets warmer, they start trolling with deep divers (crankbaits) or Rat-L-Traps.

From mid-April through early May, Reese says, you can usually find hybrids suspended under bluffs, and you can catch them by

drifting across them with live shad.

"Most of the time, if you know where they are and the barometer is right, you can limit on the large ones within 20 to 30 minutes, if everything is just right," Reese said. "If you fish this lake and know where to go, 9 times out of 10 you're going to catch them. They're kind of like crappie. They follow the barometer. As long as the barometer is 29 to 30 and climbing, it's fine."

According to Reese, hybrids went into a bit of a slump for a couple of years, but they seem to have rebounded nicely. She also noted that stable water levels have helped. Reese said there are a lot of ways to catch hybrids, but trolling crankbaits is still her favorite method.

"At first we went out and tried to drift, but for that you almost have to have GPS and know where certain spots are, so we went to just trolling with deep divers," she explained. She prefers a crankbait that dives to about 12 feet. Her favorite color is what she calls the "LSU color" -- purple and yellow. White with an orange belly is good, too.

"We've got an area out here called 'the Flats,' and a lot of people tie up out there and fish for catfish," Reese said. "The water is 15 to 26 feet right there, and you catch them there and by the dam. Our dam is 2 miles long, and you'll see 35 to 40 people standing on that dam casting, from February to the end of May."

Bank-anglers clean up on hybrids using live crawdads, Reese said.

Other great hybrid lakes are Fort Cobb Reservoir, Lake Konawa, Lake Skiatook and Sooner Lake.

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