Winter Angling At Its Best

Too cold to fish? Not when you target these finny creatures on Oklahoma's lakes and streams!

Are you one of those folks who thinks fishing is a summertime sport? If so, you might be missing out on some of the most productive and exciting fishing action of the year.

Growing up in northwestern Oklahoma, I don't believe I ever wet a line before March each spring, nor did I fish any later in the fall than the month of October.

It wasn't until I was an adult that I began learning about all the great fishing opportunities that Oklahoma waters offer during the winter.

Just about every species that swims in Oklahoma lakes and streams, with the possible exception of the smallest sunfish, can be caught in December, January and February just as easily, if not more so, than they can in the warmer months.

Oh, you might have to change your tactics a little, especially for black bass. But catfish, white bass, stripers and hybrids, walleyes and sauger, as well as rainbow and brown trout all provide lots of wintertime angling action for Sooner State fishermen these days. And even bluegills, redears and green sunfish can be caught with the right baits and techniques.

Let's look first at black bass -- largemouths, smallmouths and spotted bass.

While these large members of the sunfish family do tend to be a little less active in cold waters, they do continue to feed and move throughout the winter. You might have to fish a little deeper than you do in May or June. That's because bass tend to move a little deeper to escape the near-freezing water temperatures at the surface during winter cold spells.

But usually in Oklahoma we have short periods of milder weather and sunshine, even in the coldest months, when sun-warmed surface waters bring bass back into the shallows where they can be pretty aggressive.

Most all of Oklahoma's lakes and ponds hold populations of largemouths. Many are also populated with spotted bass. And native smallmouths can be found in many cool-water streams in the eastern third of the state. Smallmouths also have been introduced into many of our reservoirs -- smallmouths with a little different genetic history that tend to do well in reservoirs.

And any of the lakes that offer bass action in the warm months can provide wintertime action as well.

Although I've seen surprisingly good topwater action with walking baits and buzzbaits as late as mid-November, most anglers do better at this time of the year with jigs fished around deep structure, or with slow-moving crankbaits or suspending jerkbaits.

And if we're having one of those mid-winter warm spells, with several consecutive days of bright sunshine, you might find bass gathered in shallow coves, especially on the downwind side of the lakes, that will hit spinnerbaits and other lures fished around shallow cover.

Oklahoma also has two artificially warmed lakes that provide cooling water for electrical power generation plants. Both Konawa Lake near Ada and Sooner Lake south of Ponca City are owned by the Oklahoma Gas & Electric utility company, and both are open to the public for fishing.

While they are better known for their white/striped hybrid bass fishing, both hold good populations of largemouths. Konawa Lake consistently yields high numbers of largemouths when the fisheries biologists do their electro-fishing population samples.

Wintertime action for stripers, sand bass and their hatchery-produced hybrids can be good in several Oklahoma lakes and streams.

Tailrace areas below Keystone, Fort Gibson, Eufaula, Kerr, Texoma, Kaw and Webbers Falls can be excellent spots for the properly equipped angler to sack up the linesided bass when water is being released through the turbines at the dams.

Tailrace fishing usually calls for longer rods for making longer casts, especially if you plan to fish from the shorelines below the dams. At most of these areas, it's possible for boaters to launch their boats at ramps a short distance downstream and motor upstream to tie up to or anchor near the cables that are stretched below the dams. The cables are there to keep boats out of the stilling basins at the feet of the dams.

Catch sunfish like bluegills and redears in winter? It can be done, says the author. Photo by Bob Bledsoe.

Stripers, hybrids and sand bass gather in the stilling basin areas to feed on stunned or dead baitfish washed through the dams. It's possible to catch them with minnows or live shad, or with jigs and sometimes with topwaters or crankbaits.

One handy rig for this kind of fishing is a casting float or popping float -- a weighted float from which a dropper line with one or more jigs or baited hooks can be attached.

Tailrace-area boaters should be cautious. The strong currents in the spillway areas can make for hazardous conditions, especially if anglers are using small boats without a lot of freeboard.

My personal favorite wintertime spot for catching all of these species is the Lower Illinois River, from the Highway 64 bridges downstream to the confluence of the Illinois and Arkansas River.

Most of the professional guides working that stretch of stream use live shad, live trout or other live bait to catch giant stripers and hybrids. But it's also possible to catch stripers, sandies and hybrids using jigs or crankbaits.

The key to the Lower Illinois River area is water flow and temperature. Fishing can be tough when there is little water being released from the Tenkiller Ferry Dam about 10 miles upstream. But when there is sufficient flow of relatively warm water coming out of Tenkiller to keep the murkier, colder water from the Arkansas River from backing up into the Illinois channel, fishing can be very good.

The Lower Illinois is a darned good spot for catching walleyes and sauger in the wintertime. The biggest problem is that the state wildlife department, several years ago, placed an unrealistic 18-inch limit on walleyes, sauger and the hatchery-produced saugeye hybrids. The limit was put in place to protect saugeye which are stocked in waters in central and western Oklahoma waters, but not in eastern waters where sauger are native.

But 18-inch sauger are extremely rare, which means that saugeye fishing is virtually catch-and-release only in the Arkansas River and its tributaries. Still, it's not unusual to catch a few walleyes that exceed the length limit in the Lower Illinois.

Canton Lake, in northwestern Oklahoma, also offers some good wintertime walleye action. The fish can be caught by trolling, by fishing crankbaits or jigs near the rip-rapped face of the dam, and by fishing minnows along the dam where you'll probably catch a mixed bag of crappie and walleyes. That's a great combination!

Crappie fishing is probably the most popular type of wintertime angling for many Oklahoma anglers.

Crappie, mostly white crappie, are abundant in virtually all of Oklahoma's large reservoirs, and many of the medium-sized and smaller lakes as well.

Living in Tulsa, I fish for crappie most often at lakes Eufaula, Keystone and Grand, but all of the other Green Country lakes are excellent prospects for anchoring over a submerged brushpile or channel edge to probe for winter slabs.

I've had some good mid-winter crappie outings in northeastern Oklahoma rivers, where small creeks join larger streams. That kind of fishing gets even better toward the end of winter, when crappie seem to gather in even larger numbers in the deeper holes of water near the mouths of the creeks, but I've found good numbers of crappie in such places in December and January as well.

While catching crappie has been the most popular wintertime fishing for Okie anglers for many years, the growth of blue catfish populations in state reservoirs has created an ever-growing wintertime catfish fishery.

Many of our large lakes have seen the channel catfish population taken over by blue cats. At some lakes, local anglers call blues "Mississipi Whites," probably because many blues are very pale gray in color.

Oklahoma's winter striper fisheries are some of the best in the country. Texoma is a real hotspot! Photo by Bob Bledsoe.

My old friend and former state wildlife commissioner, the late Jack Frisbie, who owned a tackle and bait shop and guided on Lake Eufaula, was so convinced that "Mississippi Whites" were a separate species, state fisheries biologists even did a laboratory tissue analysis for him to show him that blues and "whites" were one and the same.

But whatever you call them, blue cats are very willing to bite even during the coldest months of winter. I sometimes think winter is even better than summer if you want to sack up a limit of blues to fill your skillet.

Texoma and Eufaula were, I believe, the first large Oklahoma lakes to develop bountiful blue cat populations. But in the last 20 years, more and more large lakes have done the same. Grand, Kaw, Keystone, Fort Gibson, Hugo and many others now hold tons of big blue cats.

One popular method of catching them is to drift across flats, dragging minnows, live shad or cut fresh shad. But another, which seems even more effective in mid-winter, is to anchor near dropoffs where submerged river channels meander along the lake bottom.

I've caught limits of big blues, ranging from 2 or 3 pounds up to 20 pounds and more, at Grand and Eufaula by anchoring near bluff-like channel edges and fishing vertically beneath the boat. Some days the blues are hanging suspended over the edge of the dropoffs. Other days they seem to be gathered on the top of the dropoffs, but never far from the edge. And then there are days when most bites come from the bottom of the channels beneath the dropoffs. But finding those distinct depth-change features seems to be the key to finding concentrations of blues.

I've had my best luck by far with fresh shad, which I catch by throwing a cast net for a while. Smaller shad -- 5 inches or less -- can be used whole. Large shad can be cut into chunks or strips. Both are effective.

You may catch a few channel cats among the blues, either when drifting or anchored.

I can recall, back in the 1970s and '80s, when we would drift for catfish at Eufaula and catch dozens of channel cats and maybe one or two blues. But by the 1990s, it was just the opposite. We might catch two or three limits of blues before catching a single channel cat.

Tailrace fishing below major dams can also produce lots of wintertime catfish action. Blues also have come to dominate those areas, but I do seem to catch more channels in the tailrace areas than in the lakes.

When I was a youth in Oklahoma, trout were something we rarely saw unless we went to Colorado or northern New Mexico, or over to the White River in Arkansas. But these days, especially in the winter months from November to March, Oklahomans have several places where they can catch stocked rainbow trout in ponds, small lakes and streams. There are a couple of year-round trout fisheries in the Lower Illinois River below Lake Tenkiller and in the lower Mountain Fork River below Broken Bow Lake.

But the wintertime, put-and-take trout fisheries that have been developed at several state parks and municipal lakes and at the Blue River offer many trout-fishing opportunities at this time of year.

Most of the trout areas are open from Nov. 1 to March 31, but the Quartz Mountain and Robbers Cave trout areas close March 15. And, out in the Panhandle where the elevation is higher and temperatures remain cold a little later in the spring, the trout area at Lake Carl Etling remains open through the end of April.

Besides the state-managed trout areas, there are some urban trout-fishing waters, operated by cities or sponsored by private organizations.

To catch trout in the state-managed areas, anglers must have a current Oklahoma trout fishing permit as well as a current fishing license. Even lifetime fishing license holders must purchase a trout permit in order to fish those areas.

To be sure, usually the most effective method of catching these hatchery-produced trout is to fish with bait -- worms, corn, salmon eggs or other such offerings. But small spinners, jigs and crankbaits can also be effective at times. Fly fishing is another possibility, but there are virtually no insect hatches at this time of year, so fishing nymphs, streamers and other sinking flies is probably a better option than trying dry flies.

On the Lower Illinois River and in the lower Mountain Fork, where stocking continues year 'round and the cold-water releases from the dams keep trout alive in the streams, fly fishing options are more versatile. The rainbows -- and a few browns -- that populate those areas learn to feed on natural foods and are more likely to

respond to a variety of fly offerings.

As you can see, there are many opportunities for catching a variety of fish in Oklahoma waters at this time of the year.

Wintertime anglers and boaters should be cautious, for hypothermia is always a threat in winter. But with the proper clothing and equipment, and a safely equipped boat, there are lots of options for having a productive day on the water.

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