Giant Coldwater Stripers

Don't let the cold keep you indoors. Right now is the time to catch trophy-sized stripers in Oklahoma, especially on these great waters. (December 2009)

Brad Hendricks, the author's brother, shows the kind of hefty stripers Oklahoma anglers can tangle with in the Lower Illinois, South Canadian or Arkansas River systems this month.
Photo by Bryan Hendricks.

Several years ago, my friend, Bob Borgwat, took a little trip to the Lower Illinois River to fly-fish for rainbow trout.

Standing at the tail of a riffle, he saw fish breaking, but didn't have any flies heavy enough to reach them. That probably was a blessing because he would have found that his tackle wasn't heavy enough to handle those fish. They weren't just dimpling the surface sipping for scuds and small crustaceans. They were slashing the surface, sucking down more substantial prey.

Had Borgwat managed to hook one, he would have faced the wrath of a striped bass that might have pushed 30 pounds. Trout? Those stripers eat trout for breakfast, which is precisely what they were doing at that moment.

Months later, Borgwat returned with more substantial gear.

While the Lower Illinois is one of Oklahoma's prized trout fisheries, it is best known for the giant striped bass that come up out of Kerr Reservoir on the Arkansas River. Many local anglers like to fish for trout from the bank of the Lower Illinois below Tenkiller Dam, but if you talk to those folks, you'll hear tales of giant stripers taking their bait and tearing their Zebco 33 rigs to shreds. They talk about it in tones of disgust, but you can tell they're proud of it, too. They know they haven't a prayer of landing a big striper with those rigs, but the humiliation was fun while it lasted.

While the Lower Illinois is Oklahoma's most famous trophy striper fishery, several other places in the eastern part of our state harbor big stripers as well. Namely, they are the South Canadian River below Lake Eufaula, and the Arkansas River below Keystone Dam.

Lake Texoma, in southern Oklahoma, is best known as a place to catch a lot of small stripers, but in the wintertime, you can catch some big ones. Here's a quick look at those great waters, along with some special insight on how to find and catch giant stripers in cold weather.

LOWER ILLINOIS
Most anglers believe trout are the key to finding and catching stripers below Lake Tenkiller -- but that's not entirely true. Stripers do love to eat trout, but current flow and water temperature are the two main factors that determine striper movements in the Tenkiller tailwater. Gary Peterson, district fisheries biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said the last two years have been phenomenal for striper fishing in the Lower Illinois, and current from Lake Tenkiller is the secret.

"The last two years we've had the water flows that have drawn stripers into the Lower Illinois, all the way to the dam at certain times," Peterson said.

Those stripers that come to the dam are the ones that confiscate the Zebco 33 rigs from the trout fishermen. "It happens," Peterson said. "We hear about it from time to time."

Peterson added that stripers ranging from 28 to 30 pounds are fairly common in the Lower Illinois. They spend periods of low water flow in the Arkansas River watershed in Kerr Reservoir, he said, but when the generators start running at Tenkiller Dam, the current pulls them into the Lower Illinois.

"In the early to mid-1990s, we put transmitters in stripers," Peterson said. "The lower 2 to 3 miles of the Lower Illinois held a fair number of stripers year 'round. They were always there, but the rest of them moved in and out of Kerr. Stripers travel all over the place, and once they're in the (Arkansas) river system, they can theoretically travel all the way to Keystone, in Tulsa."

Which is why they also go into the South Canadian at the same time they go into the Lower Illinois, even though the quality of the food supply is probably a lot better in the Lower Illinois. Peterson said this strongly suggests that stripers are not conditioned to follow trout, but current.

"Some will say that food has an influence, but stripers are so opportunistic, they'll eat whatever comes before them," Peterson said. "If a striper in Kerr is feeling the influence of fresh water, he's going to feel the Canadian first," Peterson said. "He'll respond a little later with the Lower Illinois."

It's no different than what happens with sea-run stripers, which follow fresh water out of the oceans into major tributaries to spawn. Landlocked stripers respond to the same urges.

"They just turn into the current," Peterson said. "Even hatchery fish do it. It's something that's just inherent. Some go as far as they can, and some just go to a point where they feel comfortable. In the springtime, you get the double-whammy. You've got flow and the spawning urge, and wham! They're gone!"

Even though fish may follow current in midwinter, they might not have a big appetite. Their metabolism is slow in really cold water. They'll eat, but they might not chase a lure as far as they do in the spring. Peterson said stripers actually orient more to particular types of cover and structure in cold weather, which means you often have to put lures or bait into tight spaces.

Delmer Shoults (918-775-0733) is a guide who has a lot of experience catching monster stripers from the Lower Illinois and the South Canadian rivers. He said late winter is a great time to catch a giant on the Lower Illinois, especially if the weather is nasty.

"Stripers come all the way up the river when the weather is cold, on those rainy days when the river is rising and the river is kind of dingy," Shoults said. "You don't want muddy water, but murky. I watch the moon phase, too. If you have a real dark night, the fishing can be pretty good for the next few days in the daytime."

For bait, Shoults uses live rainbow trout. He's used other bait, but big stripers like live trout more than anything else. The years have proved it. He buys his trout from a fish hatchery in Missouri and keeps his receipts and paperwork handy in case a game warden wants to see them. Depending on water conditions, Shoults might tightline his trout, he might freeline them, or troll them under balloons.

"If the water is up, I hit some holes up north," Shoults said. "They'll be up to the U.S. 64 bridge all the way down. I'll go above the Mar-Vel Trout Camp, but most of the time I stay below there. This year in the ea

rly spring, I caught lots of big fish above Mar-Vel at that little powerhouse. We had those spring rains and it was all backed up because the Arkansas River was real high. If the water is like that, you're fishing sloughs and eddy holes. You just tie up to a limb and have a ball."

Tying off to a tree means tightlining a trout off the bottom in an eddy. For that, Shoults said, he hooks a trout through the nose and pinches a No. 3 or No. 4 split shot above the hook. He lets the trout drift in the current and occasionally twitches the rod to make the trout flip.

"If a striper comes through there, he'll get it," Shoults said. "Leave your spool loose to get it down his throat and hang on."

If it's a really big striper, Shoults said, you'd better be handy with the rope. If you don't get your boat off the tree quickly, a striper will either spool you or break you off before you can recover.

"You'll have to go get him because you can't pull him through that fast water," Shoults said. "They'll run 100 yards before you can catch up to them."

If the water is slow or idle, Shoults said he trolls slowly with his trout under balloons.

Shoults acknowledged that the Lower Illinois usually turns on later, from April to June. If you want to catch big stripers early in the year, you have to go to the South Canadian.

"That's the early striper fishing fever right there," Shoults said.

I tried that trip once on my own fishing from a kayak. I put in at Eufaula dam, but the current was so swift that I blew past all the cover before I could fish it. That's one reason why so few anglers fish that section of water, and one reason why the stripers are so big.

"When they open the gates at Eufaula, you have to find eddy pockets and logjams," Shoults said. "If it's not real swift, you can tie off to a log or drop anchor. Two years ago I had a lot of memorable days in the South Canadian. I never caught anything real big, but I caught a lot of 10-, 12- to 15-pound fish."

To fish the South Canadian, Shoults recommended using live shad on a Carolina rig or thin minnow plugs. His favorite color is gold with a red head.

"I like a shallow-running Rogue because they'll be right under the surface."

The challenge when hooking a big striper in tight cover is getting the fish out of the cover.

"You lose a lot of fish," Shoults said. "If they run under a log, I leave the bail loose and get on the other side. They'll swim on through and take a lot of line, and when they get to the other side, I pick them back up."

Another great place to catch big stripers is in Tulsa, below Keystone Dam. Actually, the best fishing is a little farther downstream, below Zink Dam. But oddly, few people take advantage of the opportunity, said Brent Gordon, district fisheries biologist for the ODWC.

"We stocked stripers in Keystone Lake for years, and it turned into a real good striper fishery," Gordon said.

As at the other striper waters, the fishing at Keystone depends on current, in this case, hydroelectric releases from Keystone Dam. If you know the generation schedule, Gordon said, you could have a banner day.

"Generation is the key," he said. "If they're generating water, those fish will be feeding. You can go to the buoy line and cast up. There is bank-fishing, but there's limited access."

There's nothing fancy about catching stripers there. Gordon said most anglers use live shad, and others use plugs.

Gordon got his first glimpse of Keystone's striper potential in 1991, when he was looking for a closer place to get brood stripers. Nobody had electrofished that water before, so Gordon rigged up a boat for that purpose.

"I stepped on the pedal, and I swear I've never seen so many big stripers come up at one time," he said.

The biggest weighed 32 pounds. However, Gordon said the biggest striper he's ever seen in Oklahoma was in the South Canadian River.

"We were looking for broodstock over there, and we shocked up one," Gordon recalled. "We didn't have a scale, but according to its length and girth, it was above the state record."

He said they caught that fish about half a mile downstream from Eufaula Dam, right up against a log lying in the main channel by the bank.

TEXOMA SURPRISE
Fishing for stripers in Lake Texoma is a citizenship requirement for Oklahomans, but most of us usually take our tests in the spring and summer. Fishing pressure is a lot lighter in the winter, but it can be a good time to catch a fish that's a little bigger than average. That's according to Matt Mauck, district fisheries biologist for the ODWC.

"Right now, stripers are within their normal range, but fish over 20 inches are slightly higher," Mauck said. "As far as trophy potential goes, there have been quite a few fish in the teens that have been caught this year. We even had one in the mid-20 range. I like to push the numbers game at Texoma instead of trophy potential. It's set up to produce a lot of fish, but it has the potential to produce true trophy striped bass."

In the winter, most of the stripers will be in the upper third of the lake, in the major tributaries. The Red River is good, but Mauck said he prefers the Washita River.

"I'm personally partial to the Washita because that's where I've always fished," Mauck explained. "Anglers should focus their efforts above the Frisco Bridge, or even the Roosevelt Bridge. On the Red River, go above the 377 Bridge, southwest of Madill."

Look for fish along dropoffs, he advised. You often can find them stacked up in depths of 30 to 50 feet in areas where the depth changes rapidly.

Most guides prefer to fish for stripers with live shad, but a lot of people also enjoy a technique called "dead sticking." This involves holding a shad-shaped bait in the strike zone and jigging it slightly to trigger a strike. The key is to fish slowly, even if you're using crankbaits or stick baits.

"Let it sink down and retrieve it slowly, or troll it slowly," Mauck said.

You don't always need to fish slowly in winter, however. One of the best striper fishing trips I ever had was three years ago, when a warm spell settled in around Christmas. I was fishing with a friend named Ep Fletcher. He marked a lot of big stripers chasing shad on his graph, and we caught the daylights out of them on 1-ounce Heddon spoons. One fish hit so hard that it straightened out the heavy-duty snap swivel that held my spoon. Fish hit one of two ways. Either they hit the spoon on the fall, or they slam it on a tight line ju

st a few inches off the bottom. Smaller fish hit on the fall. Big ones hit off the bottom.

That's almost always an early-morning bite, but if you can find a good concentration of fish and bait, it's a dependable way to catch a lot of fish, with the ever-present potential to hook one in the 30-pound range.

Always be careful when fishing high, swift water. You're moving faster than you perceive, and if you're not careful, heavy current can throw you into a jam. Make sure all your propulsion equipment is in good working order and keep your batteries charged. If you don't wear your life vest at all times, make sure it's no farther than an arm's length away.

With that, get set for some of the year's best striper fishing!

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