April fishing in Oklahoma: Check out the angling action this month at Sooner hotspots for crappie, sand bass, trout and, yes, even walleyes.
For Oklahoma anglers, the month of April is like open mic night at a karaoke club. Anyone, regardless of skill or experience, can take a respectable turn with a few of their favorite tunes.
It’s like that with fishing, too. It’s easy to catch fish in the Sooner State this month. You don’t need expensive electronic units and boats that cost as much as a house. You don’t need to be able to pitch a 3/4-ounce jig 25 feet into an opening the size of a teacup, and you don’t need a whole lot of technical prowess.
Our favorite fish species — the ones we most like to catch and eat — are in shallow water, close to the bank and fairly concentrated.
Best of all, they are aggressive and eager to take a bait. If you can cast and retrieve, if you are patient and willing to learn, then April is the month that can turn an occasional or novice angler into an enthusiast.
If you’re already an avid angler, then April is the magic month when it’s almost impossible to go wrong.
Here are a few suggestions to get you in tune.
LAKE THUNDERBIRD CRAPPIE
“Crappie are on the banks!” Those are the words every crappie fisherman loves to hear because it means the mottled panfish have moved shallow to spawn.
For crappie anglers in central Oklahoma, Lake Thunderbird is a prime destination. It contains a healthy crappie population and ample spawning habitat.
Basically, you’re looking for hard, graveled bottoms at varied depths. It’s important to know multiple areas with those features because you never know from one year to the next what the lake level will be in April. Last year’s hotspot might be high and dry this year, and so you need to have options.
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The best areas have a mixture of grassy and/or woody structure nearby. Downed trees with the crowns in the water are golden places to find crappie in April.
Once you find crappie, catching them is easy. My favorite method is to dangle a 1/16- to 1/32-ounce marabou jig under a balsa wood slip-bobber.
I tie a bobber-stop to my line that suspends the jig 6 inches to a foot above the bottom. The bobber, which rests against the jig in the air, slides up the line as the jig slowly sinks. Crappie, which almost always look up to feed, can’t resist a small white or chartreuse morsel drifting slowly toward their beds.
The bobber plunges and you lift your rod to receive the crappie on a hook. It’s as simple as that.
This technique works anywhere at this time of year, especially at lakes Arbuckle and Arcadia.
In Eastern Oklahoma, Lake Eufaula has vast amounts of crappie and vast amounts of places to catch them. And Lake Greenleaf near Muskogee is an excellent crappie spot that doesn’t get much fishing pressure.
ARKANSAS RIVER SAND BASS
Common in all of our major rivers and reservoirs, the sand bass, or white bass, is an exciting, hard-fighting game fish that tastes very good when properly handled and prepared.
Like crappie, sand bass spawn in April, but instead of moving to the banks, they migrate into the tributaries of our main lakes and upstream in our big rivers.
The dams on the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System on the Arkansas River obstruct their migration, so huge numbers of sand bass concentrate in their tailwaters. These are fantastic places to fish this time of year. That’s because you can sometimes catch fish on almost every cast.
It’s simple fishing. The most effective technique I have ever seen is to fish a tandem rig consisting of two curlytail grubs. One grub is white, the other yellow. One is on a dropper line. Attach a 1/8-ounce lead jig to each line and rig the grub like a shaky head. Cast it as far as you can, let it sink and then reel. Sandies will hit it on the rise, and you’ll often catch doubles.
The additional jig seems to be important. I always get more strikes on the tandem rig than I do with a single.
It’s also crucial for water to be churning through the dam. You won’t get nearly as many bites in slack water.
You can continue the fun by running up major tributaries like Greenleaf Creek, the Illinois River and its tributaries, and the Verdigris River and its tributaries.
In smaller tributaries you can catch sand bass while wade-fishing. In fact, some of the biggest sand bass I ever caught were among the rocks on the lower Mountain Fork River below the re-regulation dam near Beavers Bend State Park.
LOWER MOUNTAIN FORK TROUT
Speaking of the lower Mountain Fork, that’s also the best place in Oklahoma to catch trout this month, especially trophy brown trout.
The Lower Illinois River gives up a big rainbow every now and then, but the lower Mountain Fork is our premier trout fishery. Effluent from the depths of Broken Bow Reservoir provides a healthy supply of cold water that aerates as it tumbles over shoals and boulders in the park.
The narrow runs in the campground area are great places to fly-fish for stocker-sized rainbows, but it’s not unusual to hook big browns in deep pockets.
Bigger browns inhabit the sections farther downstream, especially in Zone 2 between State Park Dam and the re-regulation dam. The river is wider and deeper there, providing trout a lot more refuge and cover.
Anglers fishing in Zone 2 may not use barbed hooks or bait, and the minimum length limit for any trout is 20 inches.
You can use barbed hooks and bait In Zone 3, from the re-regulation dam to the US-70 Bridge. Again, I like to fish the boulder garden directly below the re-regulation dam when water is flowing. Presbyterian Falls is another great place.
My favorite fly is a Flashback nymph with an ultralight split sinker about 8 to 12 inches up the leader. Cast into seams in the current and let it go to the bottom. Fish usually will bite the fly on the rise.
In swift water, jerkbaits are very effective for big browns. The best times to fish are at dawn and dusk.
JEAN NEUSTADT SAUGEYES
Although they look similar, walleyes and saugeyes are distinct species that occupy different niches in Oklahoma waters.
They do have one thing in common, though. They are delicious to eat!
A cross between a female walleye and a male sauger, the saugeye is stocked in certain waters by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to control overpopulations of stunted crappie.
One of those waters is Lake Jean Neustadt, just off I-35 near Ardmore. It’s only about 460 acres, which is probably why it gets so little fishing pressure. It is, however, an outstanding place to catch big saugeyes 18 inches and larger.
Saugeyes aren’t hard to catch. In Lake Jean Neustadt, you’ll find them at dawn, dusk and at night prowling the shoreline as they hunt for crappie and other prey. You can catch them by swimming or bouncing curlytail grubs on light jigheads, or on crankbaits like the Wally Diver.
With a good electronic graph you can find submerged structure where crappie stage before moving up to spawn. Saugeyes usually are nearby, and you can catch them by working a small swimbait or a crankbait near the structure.
For the same reasons, lakes Thunderbird and Lawtonka are also premier places to fish for saugeyes. Lake Thunderbird, with its well-defined creek channels, is a good place to troll for saugeyes with stickbaits.
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GRAND LAKE WALLEYES
When you mention Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees, you usually think about the world-renowned bass fishing that brought two Bassmasters Classics to its waters. Many anglers are surprised to learn that it also supports a grand walleye fishery.
March and April are the best times to catch them because that’s when walleyes migrate as far as they can up the tributaries to spawn.
The fishing is easy; getting to the fish is the hard part. That’s because they spawn in water that is not hospitable to propeller-driven outboard motors.
My favorite way to fish is to drive a jet-powered flatbottom into the headwaters where walleyes spawn. You’ll find them in low-light conditions at the tails of shoals, where you can catch them by trolling stickbaits.
For that you need a long spinning rod with a light action and a spinning reel wound with 6-pound-test line. My most productive stickbait is a Long A Bomber in rainbow trout pattern, but I catch a lot of walleyes trolling small Rapala Shad Raps, too.
Cast the stickbait behind the boat and let it trail about 25 to 30 yards behind. The boat should move just fast enough to dive the lure and make it wobble. It shouldn’t dig into the bottom, but it should be in regular contact with the bottom.
A walleye doesn’t strike a stickbait hard. You’ll feel a few taps, followed by a mushy weight. Set the hook by gently sweeping the rod forward. If you jerk the rod, you’ll lose the fish.
You can use this same method in the tributaries feeding lakes Skiatook, Broken Bow and Fort Gibson. Lake Hefner also is a great place to catch walleyes, but your best bet there is to fish small crankbaits or stickbaits over the riprap areas at the breakwater and by the restaurants.
Q&A with AOY Brandon Palaniuk
Speaking of Lake Hefner, this water supply reservoir in the northwest corner of Oklahoma is an excellent place to catch hybrids in a major metropolitan area. It’s a low-density population, but it contains some big fish. The lake record, caught by Clidell Woody of Oklahoma City in 2016, weighed 16.1 pounds. The previous record weighed 14.8 pounds.
Hybrids, a cross between a female striped bass and male white bass, are sterile, but they still make false spawning runs up the tributaries of our big reservoirs. You’ll find them in the same areas as walleyes, often at the same time.
Hybrids bite trolled stickbaits, too, and that’s a thrill. A 4- to 5-pound walleye is manageable on 6-pound-test line. A 5- to 10-pound hybrid is quite a bit more challenging.
Set your drag light and let a big hybrid run himself out. It can’t really go anywhere in skinny water, and so the trick is to stay with the fish and manage your drag so that the fish doesn’t snap your line when it surges.
When you get into a mess of hybrids on light line, it can be some of the best fun you’ll ever experience. And landing a big one on light tackle is a feat of which you can be proud!