One of the best days of fishing I’ve ever had was a midwinter trip for stripers and white bass on the Lower Illinois River.
It was a couple of decades back, when a friend called me and said, “Can you take off from work tomorrow? We’re tearin’ up the big stripers down on the Lower Illinois.”
So I arranged to play hooky from the office the next day and shortly after sunrise met my friends at the boat ramp at Gore Landing. It was a blustery, cold winter’s day; cold enough that ice formed in our rod guides between casts.
But the fishing action was hot enough that we paid little attention to the frosty conditions.
By mid-afternoon we were back at the ramp and the boat was loaded with our limit (limits have since changed, with length limits added) of 45 stripers, plus 100 or more of the biggest white bass I had ever caught! Our stripers ranged from about 8 pounds up to 28 pounds each. We had several white bass that tipped good scales to more than 3 pounds each, with many more honest 2-pounders.
“Why don’t you take these fish, Bob,” one of my friends suggested.
“Well, I’ll take my share,” I answered, “but I certainly don’t need all of ’em. Let’s split ’em up.”
Both friends countered that they had been fishing for three days, catching their daily limits of stripers plus dozens of big sand bass, and that their freezers were overflowing.
I was driving a small Toyota pickup at the time, and the 45 stripers and big load of sand bass filled the bed almost level with the rim. I wore out a set of blades on an electric knife and spent most of that night cleaning fish and packaging fillets. I too had far more fish than I had room for in my freezer, so I spent another evening driving around distributing bags of fillets to friends.
I learned two things that day. One is to always make sure someone else wants to keep some fish before loading the livewells or ice chests with freshly caught fish. The other was that sometimes the coldest part of winter can offer some great fishing opportunities for striped bass, white bass and white/striped bass hybrids, or “wipers” as they’re called in some places.
There are quite a number of places in Oklahoma that offer excellent wintertime opportunities for catching these members of the true bass family. Let’s start with the Lower Illinois River, since it offers something unique that attracts lots of fish when winter conditions are at their worst.
The Lower Illinois is a trout stream — a put-and-take trout fishery, regularly stocked with rainbows — that begins at the Tenkiller Ferry Dam and continues downstream for 9 or 10 miles until the Lower Illinois flows beneath the Highway 64 bridges. Below the bridges is a little more than a mile of river before it flows into the much larger Arkansas River.
Because “cool” water — typically in the 60s — is released from the dam to keep the trout comfortable, the Lower Illinois is often much colder or warmer than other area waters, including the Arkansas River.
So when we have temperature extremes — really hot summer or really cold winter weather — fish of many species move into the Lower Illinois to enjoy the comfortable temperatures available there.
That means when there are ice floes drifting down the Arkansas, it is sometimes possible to find tons of stripers, sand bass and other fish, including “wipers” washed down from other fisheries, concentrated in that last mile or two of water on the Lower Illinois.
Guides using live bait — either live trout or big shad — frequently sack up lots of big stripers on the Lower Illinois. But my friends and I, including professional striper guide J.B. Bennett of Okmulgee, usually use light tackle and small jigs to catch Lower Illinois stripers in midwinter and late summer.
Jigs from 1/16 ounce up to 1/4 ounce or so in whites, blues and sometimes in chartreuse or red are often very effective for catching stripers and white bass in the Lower Illinois in midwinter.
The fishery is definitely affected by the schedule of water releases from the Tenkiller Dam, and by flows in the Arkansas. The ideal situation is when that temperate water from Tenkiller is flowing through that last mile or two of river. Sometimes, when flows are low, water from the Arkansas backs up into the Lower Illinois’ channel. Sometimes when flows are larger the cool water displaces the colder water (in winter) in the Arkansas for a stretch downstream from where the rivers join.
And sometimes, finding that zone where the waters mix is a key to finding numbers of fish.
The Lower Illinois has long been one of my favorite striper fisheries, but it certainly isn’t the only place that offers good striper, hybrid and sand bass action at this time of year.
Tailrace fishing can also be excellent in midwinter.
The tailrace waters below Kaw, Keystone, Webbers Falls and Robert S. Kerr Dams on the Arkansas, and below Eufaula on the Canadian, and below Texoma and Hugo on the Red and Kiamichi rivers, all offer some excellent opportunities to catch stripers and white bass.
Fisheries biologists doing electrofishing surveys last spring shocked up what would have been a state-record striper, if caught by an angler, from the Eufaula tailrace waters. It was a 51 1/2-pounder, an even 4 pounds heavier than the existing rod-and-line record taken from the Lower Illinois River a few years earlier.
The tailraces below Oologah, Hudson and Grand Lakes also produce some fierce action with hybrids at times. Many of the hybrids in those lakes are “gifts” from Kansas, which stocks hybrids in many lakes. Hybrids, like their striped bass relatives, are big travelers, and often move through the dams and travel downstream during floods and high-water flows, so many Kansas wipers wind up in our Eastern Oklahoma lakes and rivers. Good for us, bad for Kansas!
The tailrace below Fort Gibson’s Dam is also pretty good for both stripers and hybrids. And, while I prefer fishing down closer to the mouth of the river, there are those times when high flows in the Lower Illinois attract stripers that travel all the way up to the dam for some spillway action there.
Yes, tailrace fishing can be very productive. But it can also be a lot of work.
Those who fish from the shorelines, and most of those who fish from boats as well, usually use long rods, big reels, and make very long casts to deliver their baits or lures up into the roiling waters of the stilling basins.
Others use radio-controlled boats, balloon floats, kites or other methods of carrying baited lines out into the areas where stripers and other predators feed on fishes that were killed or injured or stunned when being sucked through the hydroelectric turbines and spit out into the stilling basins.
Sometimes topwater plugs or crankbaits can also draw strikes from stripers or hybrids feeding in the tailrace waters. But fishing with live bait, or with jigs suspended beneath a casting float, are generally the preferred techniques.
One versatile rig for fishing tailrace waters uses a three-way swivel with a baited line tied to one swivel eye and the weighted casting float tied on another. By controlling tension on the line, an angler can fish jigs as deep as the total length of both lines, or fish them shallower by putting more tension on the line to raise the three-way swivel closer to the surface.
At most of the Sooner State’s large dams there are boat ramps downstream where anglers can launch boats and then motor upstream to tie on to the buoyed cables stretched across the spillways. Boaters should use caution when heavy flows are coming out of the dams, for currents can be strong.
Oklahoma has two lakes widely known for striper fishing — Texoma and Keystone. A few other lakes, like Webbers Falls and Kerr, on the Arkansas River, also offer some good opportunities, although they are less known for their stripers.
In lakes like Keystone, stripers are often caught in a squeeze play during warmer months of the year. That is, they move lower in the lake seeking more comfortable water temperatures as the surface waters grow warmer. But the lack of oxygen at extended depths prevents them from moving too far below the surface. There have been times in the past when we’ve had striper fish-kills at Texoma and elsewhere because of the stress created by the fish being forced into a narrower and narrower band of water that provides both comfort and oxygen.
But in the winter, as water temperatures grow cooler near the surface and where there is more oxygen in the water, stripers might feed aggressively in shallow water. Or perhaps I should say they might feed aggressively near the surface, no matter how deep the water in any given spot.
I’ve had winter striper trips on Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas lakes where we caught stripers on topwater plugs over 40- and 50-foot depths.
At both Keystone and Texoma, anglers troll with crankbaits, or troll slowly or drift using live shad, to catch stripers at this time of year.
And back when I first began to fish Lake Keystone, when it was still a fairly young lake, I had several very good midwinter fishing trips. I remember catching stripers on jigging spoons around submerged timber in both the Salt Creek arm of the lake and up in the northern part of the lake near Walnut Creek State Park.
While stripers tend to keep moving and not just rest beside cover like black bass do, they sometimes prowl around flooded timber or vertical structure looking for food, and can be caught either with live bait or with jigging spoons.
I first learned about catching stripers on jigging spoons more than 30 years ago when television fishing show host and professional fisherman Roland Martin lived in Oklahoma and filmed many episodes of his TV show on Oklahoma lakes. At the time I was outdoor editor of a Tulsa newspaper and I accompanied Martin and his cameraman on a few striper trips to lake Keystone where we jigged up numerous big stripers on Hopkins spoons.
At that time there was still quite a bit of standing timber in parts of Lake Keystone, and Martin looked for areas where the timber was near channel dropoffs into deeper water — the same sorts of places you might look for crappie in midwinter. Probing those timbered areas with those silver-colored spoons often produced impressive results.
For some reason, in the wintertime, the stripers seemed to prefer those elongated, Hopkins-style spoons, while in the summertime we could get good results with the shorter, heavier, painted spoons. One other difference between summer and winter fishing seemed to be that during the summer months we could find stripers roaming the big, wide flats in open areas of the lake, but in the colder months the stripers seemed to stay closer to the deeper channels and channel edges.
I should also mention trolling as an effective striper technique, in lakes like Keystone, Kerr, Webbers Falls and Texoma.
Back when stripers were first introduced in Oklahoma lakes in the late 1960s or early ’70s, most Oklahoma anglers didn’t know much about how to catch them. Being open-water roamers, stripers didn’t behave like black bass or crappie, hugging brushpiles and hanging around the shorelines.
But we discovered that trolling the open water with crankbaits, or with crankbaits and jigs, was an effective technique. I remember several local striper tournaments at Keystone Lake that were won by trollers.
The most popular lures back then were the giant Hellbender plugs from Whopper Stopper and the big Bomber crankbaits with flat metal lips. Both of those lures dove deep when trolled, traveling down to the depths where the stripers prowled.
These days there are many other deep-running crankbaits that will probe the depths, but back then our choices were limited.
Many anglers at Keystone and Texoma also used to tie a white or yellow jig, either a bucktail jig or a leadhead with a soft-plastic grub body, on an 18- to 24-inch dropper line. That dropper line was either tied to a swivel just above the deep-running crankbait, or tied to the crankbait itself.
Sometimes the stripers would hit the crankbait. Sometimes they would hit the jig.
I remember fishing at Keystone and listening to CB radio conversations among striper fishermen on the lake as they traded information. Many of them told whether the stripers they caught were hitting the jigs or the crankbaits that day, or whether they were having better luck with the jigs tied above or below the crankbaits.
Oklahoma curtailed its striper-stocking program many years ago, largely because of objections from bass fishermen who believed stripers competed too aggressively with largemouths for food and habitat. So most of the striper fishing in Oklahoma is in the Arkansas and Red River systems, both of which have very good natural reproduction of stripers.
But the wildlife department continues to stock wipers — the white/striped bass hybrids — in many lakes throughout the state. And most techniques that work for stripers also work well for hybrids.
The colder winter months offer some excellent opportunities for catching stripers and wipers in Oklahoma lakes, rivers and tailrace areas. So bundle up in some warm, winter clothing and give it a try.