Sooner Striper Outlook

Oklahoma anglers are lucky to have such great fishing for striped bass so close at hand. Here's how 2008's fishing should shape up at our top waters. (April 2008)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

After a cold, windy winter, you've been itching for a fight for months, and you'll find plenty of takers at a lake or river near you. You might tangle with an ornery school of striped bass at Lake Texoma, or a feisty school of striped bass/white bass hybrids at Lake Waurika.

You won't get any black eyes with these muscle-bound brawlers, but you might get sore arms fighting fish whose power is measured in horsepower and torque. If you prepare them correctly, they taste great, too.

Along with sand bass, these predators occupy the top tier of the food chain in many lakes that aren't well suited for largemouth bass. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has spent a lot of time and effort developing its striper and hybrid fisheries, and 2008 should offer excellent fishing throughout the state.

Here's a look at top prospects for your region.

STRIPED BASS
Oklahoma essentially has only two major striper waters, Lake Texoma and the Arkansas River. The latter includes its major tributaries, most notably the Lower Illinois River.

Gary Peterson, the ODWC's east-central region fisheries biologist, said the ODWC does not stock stripers anywhere in his region. The stripers in this part of the state reproduce naturally and are descendents of fish stocked in Lake Keystone many years ago.

However, the Lower Illinois attracts stripers from the Arkansas because of cold-water discharges from the Lake Tenkiller Dam. When the stripers arrive, they also find a high-protein diet of rainbow trout, so it's no surprise these stripers take up residence and grow very large.

"If you're out in the Arkansas River and it heats up to 70, 75 degrees, the water coming out of the Lower Illinois is 60 to 65 degrees," Peterson said. "It's like an air-conditioner, and it will pull them right up into it."

To catch them, timing is crucial, Peterson said. Short bursts from the dam won't have much effect, but long flushes will summon the stripers.

"They have to have long releases to pull them up," he explained. "The normal hydropower releases of 4 to 6 hours don't really pull them all the way to the dam, but if it's timed just right, a 4- to 6-hour release will turn them on in the evenings. The water is deeper below the Hwy. 64 Bridge, and that will turn them on."

Finding them is easy. Peterson recommended fishing the deep holes between the dam and the Arkansas River. If they can't make it to the dam, they'll seek refuge in the last pool of deep water they can reach. In low water, you can even catch them from a canoe.

Other prime striper waters this month are the Canadian River below Eufaula Dam and the Fort Gibson tailwater.

"Peak dates kind of depend on the water flow," Peterson said. "In the Lower Illinois, it will last through late June. In the Arkansas, with the right flows, it lasts from mid to late spring. It's usually the last of May or early June when we do our striper brood stock collections, and that's on the main stem of the Arkansas."

You'll know the stripers are biting by checking the parking lots at the major ramps along the river.

"When the stripers are really hitting in the Lower Illinois, Gore Landing will be full," Peterson said. "It's a very popular sport fish."

Lake Texoma
Without a doubt, Lake Texoma's striped bass are Oklahoma's most popular fishing attraction, and strong year classes from 2006-07 should make 2008 a big year at the big Red River impoundment.

Paul Mauck, south-central fisheries supervisor for the ODWC, said that anglers can look forward to catching a lot of "box" fish, or stripers smaller than 20 inches. "Those are the ones anglers can keep and fillet, and there'll be a lot of fish available this year in that category," he said.

One possible complication involves the extended period of high water that flowed across the state last winter. Lake Texoma got so high that the Corps of Engineers kept the floodgates at the dam open for quite awhile, and Mauck said a lot of stripers went over the dam into the tailwater. Consequently, fishing should also be good this spring below the dam.

"Fishing was good below the dam last spring," Mauck said. "We haven't had any major water discharges for three years, so it kind of refreshed that whole system. There was a lot of fishing pressure and a lot of happy anglers. We'll have good fishing down there on through this year."

After the rain came a long spell of hot weather, which, Mauck said, stressed the lake's bigger stripers. They stopped eating during that time and lost a lot of weight, so they were very thin last autumn. This month, however, they should be plump and aggressive.

"Their condition will improve as the water cools, as it does every year," Mauck said. "Their poorest condition is in September, especially for larger stripers because of poor water quality and warm water. As the lake de-stratifies, their condition improves. Texoma doesn't have a thermal refuge that those fish would like to have during the hot summer months.

"As far as next year, we should have real good fishing," he added. "Last year was what I'd call a bummer rather than banner year. It was 'Code Dead' rather than Code Red."

Code Red is what happens when the stripers get aggressive and start schooling.

Sooner Lake
This is one of only a few lakes where the ODWC stocks stripers. Bill Wentroth, north-central region fisheries supervisor for the ODWC, said the agency used to give Sooner Lake 54,000 hybrids per year, but recently changed the formula to 27,000 hybrids and 27,000 stripers in an attempt to create a more exciting fishery for anglers.

"We're trying to build a trophy striper fishery here," Wentroth said. "We have seen some fish in the 20-pound range, not a lot, but we see them in the heated discharge area."

Threadfin shad drive the sport fishing in this relatively small lake, so the stripers go as the threadfins go. In the heated discharge area, the combined daily limit for sand bass, hybrids and stripers is five.

HYBRIDS
Anglers often use hybrids and str

ipers interchangeably, which can be confusing to newcomers to Oklahoma and visitors who don't know which specie of fish lives where. Basically, the hybrid striper is king of most waters west of Lake Eufaula, and although they don't have the same following that largemouth bass have at Grand Lake or stripers at Texoma, the anglers who live near the western lakes revere them.

For them as well, 2008 should be an excellent year.

East-Central
The ODWC doesn't stock hybrids in this part of the state, Peterson said, but hybrids do wash downstream into the Verdigris, Neosho and Arkansas rivers. Although there are no established hybrid hotspots, Peterson said hybrids do gather in good numbers beneath any dam during the spring. He recommended Kerr, W.D. Mayo, Ft. Gibson and Eufaula dams.

"The biggest problem in our region is that people don't know the difference between sand bass and hybrids," Peterson said. "Every year, somebody will call up and say they have a state-record sand bass. I'll ask them how much it weighs, and they'll say something like 8 pounds, 3 ounces. Well, that's not only a state record, but a world record. So we have to tell them the difference -- and sometimes they get a little upset."

North-Central
Carl Blackwell

Bill Wentroth said that his area has four good lakes for hybrid fishing; Carl Blackwell, Sooner, Birch and Skiatook.

If you're looking for trophy hybrids, Wentroth recommended visit to Carl Blackwell, near Stillwater. It should be good this year because baitfish are plentiful, he said. Another reason this lake has relatively big fish is because light fishing pressure.

"In the past, it has not had extremely high fishing pressure," Wentroth said. "That enabled quite a few fish to remain in the system, and flow-through rates are not as high as other reservoirs, so we don't lose too many over the dam. This spring, Oklahoma was inundated with heavy rainfall, there are now quite a few hybrids in the creeks below the dam."

Fishing should be good through May, but in June, hybrids will be deep, in or above the anoxic layer. If you catch hybrids in the summer, Wentroth recommends keeping them because they probably won't survive if released.

Lake Skiatook
This giant reservoir northeast of Tulsa has a lot of hybrids, but not many big ones, Wentroth said. If you just want to catch a lot of fish without expecting a giant, this should be a great place to go this year.

"There's not a lot of size over 8 pounds, but it has a lot of fish, probably 4-pounders," Wentroth said. "It's close to Tulsa, so it gets a lot of angling pressure, a lot of fish on stringers, but it seems to sustain itself."

Clear water, resulting from low nutrients, limits the amount of baitfish in the lake, which is why Skiatook's hybrids grow slowly.

Birch Lake
At only 1,000 acres, Birch Lake plays host to a striper fishery very limited in extent, and, Wentroth noted, anglers catch and keep the big ones. Therefore, he rated it as a marginal hybrid fishery.

Southwest Lake Waurika
John Stahl, the ODWC's northwest fisheries biologist, once said that Larry Cofer, his compatriot at the Lawton office, would stock fish in a soda bottle if he finds it holding water on the side of the road. Cofer is big on providing fishing opportunities in this arid part of the state, and stocking hybrids is a major part of his efforts. His top lakes are Waurika, Fort Cobb, Altus-Lugert and Tom Steed.

"It's all hybrids out this way, north and west of Texoma," Cofer said. "I have just a short list of lakes, but of those, Waurika is a real standout."

The reason? Threadfin shad, and a lot of them.

"Threadfins were put in there about 15 years ago, and somehow they've sustained, even through some very harsh winters. We've tried them in other lakes in the southwest, but we haven't been able to get them to stay very long."

Bill Wentroth, north-central region fisheries supervisor for the ODWC, said the agency used to give Sooner Lake 54,000 hybrids per year, but recently changed the formula to 27,000 hybrids and 27,000 stripers in an attempt to create a more exciting fishery for anglers.

Despite its high-quality fishing, Waurika's hybrids don't get a tremendous amount of fishing pressure, Cofer said. Finding hybrids isn't all that hard on Waurika, either, but many anglers simply haven't found the lake to fish it.

"There are hotspots that a lot of people know about, but the lake as a whole, I wouldn't call it heavily fished, at least not like Texoma," Cofer said. "It's got the right habitat for hybrids, a lot of long points, a lot of wind.

"Waurika is also a fairly fertile lake that drains a fairly fertile watershed," he added. "That's why the shad do so well."

Water levels are consistent and stable, too, so Waurika's hybrids don't often go over the dam.

Waurika, once under Paul Mauck's supervision, was transferred to Cofer's region several years ago during one of the ODWC's frequent reorganizations. Mauck sounds almost wistful about the loss, but Cofer considers it a welcome windfall.

"I didn't go there until I started working it a few years ago, but now it's one of my favorites," Cofer said.

He recalled a recent trip with a friend, Frankie Phelps, when they both caught 12-pound hybrids.

"I'd put a 12-pound hybrid against any striper," Cofer said. "It reminds me of a red drum on the coast. You get him up to the boat and it sees you, and it runs again and again and again on those drag-burning runs. Trying to get him into the boat is a chore, especially if you don't have a net."

Fort Cobb
Situated near Binger, hometown of Johnny Bench, the Hall of Fame catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, Fort Cobb should be an all-star performer, but it's not. Cofer is still trying to figure out why.

"It's full of gizzard shad, just full of them," Cofer said. "We stock it every year with hybrids, but we don't have consistent year classes there, and we don't know what the reason is.

"We had a sand bass die-off there a few years ago that got just about every one of them," he added. "It was some kind of virus, we think. We tried to supplement that situation with hybrids. We stock them every year, but survival hasn't been consistent every year."

Like Skiatook, Fort Cobb is a pretty good place to catch a lot of fish in the 3- to 4-pound range. Occasionally you'll get a few in the 8- to 10-pound class, Cofer said.

Northwest
Fishing in the northwestern part of the state is basically limited to two lakes, Canton and Foss. Stahl manages Canton for its high-quality walley

e fishery, but it's also a good place to catch monster hybrids. Hybrids don't get as big in Foss, but it has a lot more of them.

He returned it to the lake, and if it's still alive, that hybrid might be very close to the world record of 27 pounds, 5 ounces.

The reason is shad. Canton is a fertile lake with ideal water quality, so it has an excellent forage base. Foss is comparatively infertile, so it doesn't have the baitfish to promote rapid growth rates. Stahl said that's the place to go to fill the livewell, but he recommended Canton for a wall mount.

"I have held an 18-pounder in my hands below Canton Dam," Stahl said.

That fish washed over the dam in the late 1990s, and Stahl shocked it up during an electrofishing session. He returned it to the lake, and if it's still alive, that hybrid might be very close to the world record of 27 pounds, 5 ounces, which came from Greers Ferry Lake in Arkansas in 1997.

Another good place to catch hybrids this month, Stahl added, is in the creek below Great Salt Plains Lake.

* * *

We've got a little of everything in the way of hybrids here in Oklahoma, from high-volume fishing to potential trophy quality fishing. No matter which path you pursue, you'll be sure to have a lot of fun catching a fish that eats as good as it fights.

Hybrid fishing is always good in Oklahoma, and this year could be one of our best.

Find more about Oklahoma fishing and hunting at: OklahomaGameandFish.com

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