Springtime Striper Hotspots

Want to catch big, tough stripers this month? Then these Oklahoma locations just might be able to accommodate your wish!

Master striper angler and veteran fishing guide Delmer Shoults shows a 20-pounder he caught on live bait in the Lower Illinois River last spring after timely rains set the fish on a feeding spree. The Lower Illinois may be the state's absolute best place to catch a giant striper. Photo by Mike Lambeth.

Each spring Ed Godfrey and I go on a fishing pilgrimage of sorts. We conspire, amid busy schedules, to head east on I-40 for a Lower Illinois River striper trip. This annual outing has always proved to be an exciting time; on one occasion, we even had a tornado pass within a few miles of our fishing spot. However, the real excitement occurs when a double-digit-sized striper nails one of our rainbow trout swimming nervously at the end of our lines.

Ah, springtime striper fishing, there's nothing like it!

Last spring, Godfrey and I spent a spectacular day on that Eastern Oklahoma tributary under the tutelage of veteran fishing guide Delmer Shoults. Shoults plies his trade on the Lower Illinois, and due to his reputation and expertise, the guide stays booked nearly year 'round.

Spring rains had left the river's elevation much higher than normal, and the resulting dingy water proved to be teeming with big stripers seeking refuge in the cool, oxygenated water.Godfrey and I caught stripers all day, releasing all fish under 14 pounds. Our creel was highlighted by a pair of 16-pounders, a 17-pounder, an 18-pounder, and a giant that tipped the scales at more than 25 pounds. The weather was hot, but so was the fishing!

Read on below as I highlight some of the Sooner State's best striper and hybrid waters.

LAKE TEXOMA
Sitting on the state's southern border with Texas is a prolific recreational hotspot -- Lake Texoma. Each spring, Texoma is besieged by anglers and boaters from all over the nation, with the resulting influx of tourists an economic windfall for both states.

The real allure at Lake Texoma is the fabulous striper fishing -- and it's no wonder, as the lake is called the "Striped Bass Capitol." Lake Texoma anglers are coming in with bigger stringers lately, and the resurgence of the once nationally recognized striper factory is making its presence known. The lake's guides once again are staying booked almost full-time.

Though the average catch is 2 to 5 pounds, guides are daily toting in stripers that approach 20 pounds, just as they used to in the 1980s. The lake's striper catches are now larger, on average, and when guides pull in to the docks, curious onlookers are on hand to inspect their catch.

"April is a prime month on Texoma as the fish begin to form definite patterns," said guide Lloyd Jennings. "The stripers are fat and ready to spawn and will likely move into favorable areas and stack, while consuming huge amounts of the shad population."

Jennings, who has been guiding on Texoma for several years, said that the bite gets intense before the spawn -- which usually occurs the first or second week of April -- when the fish move up the Red and Washita rivers. As water temperatures near 56 degrees, huge schools of fish move toward the mouths of the rivers. However, not all stripers spawn at the same time, and so the lake always has hungry stripers available for anglers' hooks.

Fellow guide Shane Clutter said that most of the time his bait of choice is live shad. He has learned the best areas for catching stripers by being on the lake nearly 200 days each year. Clutter's average catch is nearing 5 pounds, and he is boating more big stripers than in years past. In fact, he had a client pull in a 22-pounder. He's heard reports of stripers caught weighing 25 pounds.

So are the big stripers actually returning? According to Clutter, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation did some electroshocking in some areas and sampled stripers weighing more than 30 pounds.

Clutter said that some of the best fishing spots in April are the Table Top area, Two Rivers and Platter Flats. He also encourages anglers with sonar equipment to look for ledges and humps -- places where stripers love to congregate. The magic depth, he thinks, is 20 to 35 feet. He added that because of the sometimes-crowded conditions on warm weekends, weekdays are the best times for fishing Texoma.

Clutter offered this final advice: "You have a good chance of catching a big fish in April. In fact, the guides are getting their lines broke more often now by big fish that can't be landed due to their size."

When you combine the return of the big stripers with the abundance of stripers already present, it's easy to see that Texoma is sure to be prominent again soon, and on into the future.

WAURIKA LAKE
Waurika Lake is a 10,100-acre fishery located 20 miles south of the town of Duncan in south-central Oklahoma. The lake, featuring both open-water areas and heavy timber, was opened in the late 1970s for flood control and as a water supply lake for the city of Duncan.

Frankie Phelps is a part-time hybrid and crappie guide on Waurika Lake, and believes hybrid fishing there is "as good as it gets." Waurika, said Phelps, "is the best lake in Oklahoma for crappie and hybrids."

Waurika has a combination limit of 20 hybrids and white bass daily, of which only five can be over 20 inches in length. The lake has a good food base of both threadfin and gizzard shad. Phelps said his clients catch fish in the 5- to 12-pound range and he has taken a 16-pounder there.

Phelps suggests the main body of the lake down to the lower end as a good place to find hybrids. He recommends using "bass-fishing equipment" with 15-pound-test line. Phelps is not a fan of using live shad because he believes the hybrids will inhale the bait and be hooked too deeply to be released. Instead, the expert angler opts for plastic baits with his favorite bait, a 4-inch Sassy Shad in pearl and chartreuse colors.

LOWER ILLINOIS RIVER
Serious striper enthusiasts have known for a long time that the Lower Illinois holds the largest stripers found in Oklahoma. In fact, the Lower Illinois River is also home to our current state-record striper -- a 47-pound, 8-ounce fish caught by Louis Parker on June 10, 1996.

So, what makes the Lower Illinois so special for stripers? Gary Peterson, a fisheries biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, believes it's the water temperature. "Stripers like to congregate in these waters due to the water being 20 degrees

cooler in the late-summer months," he said. "The flowing water triggers their feeding instincts."

According to Peterson, stripers were originally introduced to Oklahoma reservoirs like Texoma, Keystone, Eufaula and Tenkiller in the early 1960s, but most have gone over the dams and through the floodgates since. Those fish now populate Eastern Oklahoma rivers like the Arkansas, the Canadian and the Lower Illinois. The fish tend to populate rapidly and have adapted well to Oklahoma waters. As a result, stripers can be caught virtually anywhere in these river systems.

In the 1980s, Peterson said, Oklahoma State University graduate students tagged some stripers, caught below the dam at Keystone Reservoir near Tulsa. Amazingly, just six weeks later one of those fish was caught and identified in the Gulf of Mexico, nearly 1,000 miles away.

"Stripers are opportunistic feeders, and will eat virtually anything, including small catfish," he said. "I even received a report one time of a fisherman finding a baby possum in a striper's belly."

Trout are caught and used widely by bait-fishermen, Peterson reports, adding the cautionary note that anyone using or catching trout in the designated trout area, which comprises the stretch below Tenkiller dam to the Highway 64 bridge, must purchase a $7.75 trout stamp.

Though the river produces stripers from the Tenkiller Dam to the confluence of the Arkansas River, Shoults believes the best fishing is found between the Highway 64 bridge and the mouth of the Arkansas River. Shoults said that the river has deep holes, easily located with sonar equipment, in which you can find some of the biggest stripers around.

When water levels are high at Lake Tenkiller, the hydroelectric turbines run 24 hours a day, pumping water into the Lower Illinois. Large schools of shad, herring, and the trout, which are released weekly, congregate in the river and attract large schools of stripers.

Unlike Lake Texoma, the river generally does not yield large numbers of stripers daily; however, the average fish caught will be much larger. The chance for an angler to catch a striper over 30 pounds is realistic, though not an everyday occurrence.

FOSS LAKE
When the top hybrid lakes are discussed, 8,000-acre Foss seldom comes up, but according to guide Dale Eagon, it's a worthy venue for hybrid fishing. Eagon guides anglers almost daily to limits of the hard-fighting hybrids. "April is traditionally a good month to catch a big hybrid," Eagon said.

Like other lakes, Foss has a solid shad base on which hybrids forage daily. Most anglers enjoy the best success by drifting large shad in any of the lake's deeper waters.

Foss anglers looking for likely hybrid spots can employ a tactic that weekend anglers use on Lake Texoma: watching for concentrations of seagulls circling low over the lake and then diving down. The birds are feeding on schools of shad driven to the surface by fish feeding below. This works equally well on Foss, and can guide novice anglers to potential hybrid-fishing areas.

The prime sites for fishing on Foss are the areas between the Pitch Creek and Lakeview Recreation areas, as well as the dam area, where schools of hybrids will herd wads of baitfish into the shallows to feed.

The daily limit is 20 hybrids, no more than five of which may be 20 inches or longer.

LAKE KEYSTONE
One of the first lakes in the state to be stocked with stripers in the 1960s, Keystone, west of Tulsa near Sand Springs, hosts a prominent striper fishery. Its fishing appears to have peaked in the late 1980s, but still yields decent catches of stripers from time to time. Catching big numbers of fish there can be tough, though.

Experts say the average catch is 4 to 6 pounds, and that morning fishing is the way to go for best results.

The two preferred spots to fish are generally the area near the Highway 64 bridge and the Salt Creek area, which has some of the clearest water in the lake. Possibly the top area for catching a trophy striper is below Keystone Dam -- more on that later.

Recommended baits are live shad and large shad-colored lures, along with large Sassy Shads in white, yellow, and chartreuse colors.

CANTON LAKE
Canton Lake is located in the northwest part of Oklahoma, 25 miles northwest of Watonga. Canton consists of 7,900 acres and yearly features a fishing contest called the Canton Walleye Rodeo. Walleye numbers are good in Canton, but so are those for hybrids.

Good numbers of hybrids can be found by fishing around islands and rocky points. "Basically, find the shad and you will find the fish," said Donnie Jinkens, a fishing guide who operates the Canton Motel. He suggested that anglers try fishing the river channels entering the lake from the north and south.

Bank-fishermen can enjoy success fishing rocky and windy points. Because of heavy deep-water predation on them, shad like to congregate in these areas because they feel safer.

Lake limit on hybrids is 20 fish with no more than five measuring over 20 inches.

SOONER LAKE
Sooner Lake, a 5,000-acre warm-water lake owned and operated by Oklahoma Gas & Electric Company, is in the northern part of the state near Perry.

Sooner is smaller than most hybrid lakes, but don't let the size fool you. Actually, Sooner was the original stocking point for hybrids in our state and has produced several state records in the past.

The northeast corner of the lake can be very productive when the generators are pumping water. The lake contains numerous points and islands that can yield very serviceable fishing.

Bank-fishermen can enjoy success by fishing the warmwater discharge area at the northwest end of the lake. To reach this coveted area, anglers should park in a special parking area beside Highway 177 near the lake. Anglers can reach the discharge area only by making a mile-and-a-quarter trek -- but they'll find fantastic fishing at the end of that well-worn path.

TAILRACE AREAS
The water discharged below Eufaula Dam, which runs to meet both the Arkansas and Canadian rivers, harbors substantial numbers of stripers and hybrids. I've fished beneath the dam when the turbines weren't running, and though the fishing was supposed to be dismal, we still caught plenty of both stripers and hybrids.

The area can be accessed by bank-anglers or by boat. For safety reasons, a buoy-marked area is off-limits to boat anglers.

The baits of choice here will be large shad, herring, and artificial baits ranging from large spoons to large plastic baits in shad colors.

Striper expert David Mitchell prefers to fish below Lake Eufaula, where the Canadian a

nd Arkansas rivers meet. He's found that large stripers congregate in that area in January. His primary bait: live shad. His best cold-weather striper: a brute that weighed nearly 44 pounds, caught from the wall below Eufaula dam.

Keystone Lake striper fishing can be rugged -- but fishing beneath Keystone Dam is a different story. The discharge flows into the Arkansas River, a favorite spawning area for stripers. When water's released through the giant turbines, it's filled with shad minced or mortally wounded from having been sucked through. The resulting "chum" triggers a feeding response in stripers swimming the cooler, highly oxygenated waters.

Bank-anglers working this area should be prepared to use heavy tackle and to make long casts. The cold-weather lures you want to use include large spoons and shad-colored plastic baits. As for live-bait anglers, those using live shad will score big.

Another area downriver near Tulsa is the Zink Dam, near 31st Street and Riverside Drive. This low-water dam area on the Arkansas River sometimes holds incredible numbers of stripers, and much of the fishing there can be accessed from shoreline.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
For information on fishing Lake Texoma, call Lloyd Jennings at (405) 793-9197, or Shane Clutter at (877) 246-2759; for information on fishing Waurika Lake, contact Frankie Phelps (580) 512-7779; for information on fishing the Lower Illinois River, contact Delmer Shoults at (918) 775-0733; for information on fishing Foss Lake, contact Dale Eagon at (580) 729-1009; for information on fishing Canton Lake, contact Donnie Jinkens at (580) 886-2271.

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