By B.D. Ramsey
After a windy, icy winter, spring has finally come to the Sooner State, and that's got us dreaming about turkey hunting and fishing.
Not just any fishing, but Oklahoma bass fishing, which you can find on almost any lake and river within our borders.
Thankfully, our bass fisheries are amid a major boom cycle that started last in 2014 when rain returned to drought-stricken parts of the Sooner State. Lakes that had gone almost dry and whose fisheries collapsed grew thick with weeds and brush.
It was a sad, sorry sight when it was dry, but when rains refilled our lakes — especially those in Western Oklahoma — its effect was marvelous. When water inundated all that green vegetation, it released nutrients into the water that precipitated a massive phytoplankton bloom, which fed a young crop of baitfish.
Newly flooded areas created excellent spawning habitat, and flooded vegetation provided cover for newly hatched fry and fingerlings.
Wet weather continued in 2016, which took us from a blip to a trend. From Aug. 3 to Sept. 3, 2016, according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, rainfall across the state was 109 percent above normal, as measured from 1981-2010.
North-central Oklahoma got 3.72 inches of rainfall from Aug. 6 to Sept. 6 (121 percent above normal), and west-central Oklahoma got 4.35 inches (149 percent above normal). Southwest Oklahoma was 104 percent above normal, and southeastern Oklahoma was a whopping 240 percent above normal. That includes some of our most popular lakes, including Broken Bow.
On the other hand, northeast Oklahoma received only 74 percent of normal rainfall in that period, and south-central Oklahoma got 88 percent. Most of our most popular bass fisheries are concentrated in those two areas, but the good news for them is that those are the 33rd and 36th driest years since 1921, which means they are still in good shape.
"That's a fascinating rainfall summary, Ramsey," you say, "but what's that got to do with fishing?
So glad you asked! We are now in the second year of that cycle, which means we've got two solid year-classes of bass in our inventory. We're still a year away from seeing those classes develop into the size fish we desire to catch, but this is the year we're really going to notice an uptick in the quality of bass fishing around the state.
This year we'll catch numbers. Next year we'll catch better quality.
Cliff Sager, senior fisheries biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said that the bass from the 2016 year-class will be 8 to 10 inches and smaller this spring. They won't figure into tournament weights and overall catches until 2018, when they grow into the 14- to 17-inch range, he said.
Southern Oklahoma also is the epicenter of the ODWC's Florida bass program. Sager said the future is bright in that part of the state, but the present looks pretty good, too.
"I think anglers will see improved conditions because for so long they fished in lakes that were so low," Sager said. "Angling success will be improved because habitat is improved."
Rainfall certainly improved conditions for the ODWC's Florida bass program. The ODWC annually stocks an average of about 1 million Florida-strain largemouths in 27 lakes. That number was nearly double — 1.8 million — in 2014-15.
Stocking bass fingerlings has a negligible impact on a lake's bass fishery in terms of numbers, but that's not the goal, Sager said. The first objective is to replace a northern-strain largemouth with a Florida-strain largemouth. That might produce several desirable outcomes, the first being an opportunity to improve a lake's largemouth bass genetics by promoting interbreeding between a northern and a Florida-strain bass.
The best outcome would be for Florida bass to breed with each other.
"Our Florida bass program is based on a long-term investment," Sager said. "The goal of our program is to produce trophy bass for anglers. We're not trying to increase numbers of bass. We're trying to affect the genetics of our bass populations and allow trophies to grow."
From recent results, the program appears to be successful. Anglers broke the state record for largemouth bass twice in 2012-13. Benny Williams broke Bill Cross's 1999 state record of 14 pounds, 11 ounces in 2012 with one that weighed 14 pounds, 12.3 ounces. Almost one year later, Dale Miller of Panama topped that mark by more than 1 ounce by catching a bass that weighed 14 pounds, 13.7 ounces.
Both of those fish were caught in Cedar Lake in Le Flore County. It's one of the Florida bass program lakes.
Even more interesting is the fact that both fish were caught in March. Miller caught his fish on March 13, and Williams caught his on March 23. Cross caught his fish on March 14, 1999.
If that's not enough to convince you that March is the time to catch giant largemouths in Oklahoma, consider that 15 of Oklahoma's all-time Top 20 largemouths were caught in March. Three others were caught in the last three days of February, which is close enough to March to count.
"Fat reserves in female bass are the highest they will be for the year," Sager said. "As water temperatures begin to rise into the mid-50s, these fish will gorge on available food sources to ripen their eggs in preparation for the spawning season."
The ODWC has stocked Florida bass since the 1970s, but it increased productivity in 2000 when its fisheries division began maintaining Florida bass brood stock in its hatcheries.
The ODWC stocks Florida bass at different rates depending on the size of a lake. A small lake gets 15,000 Florida fingerlings. An intermediate-sized lake gets about 60,000 fingerlings, and a large lake gets about 100,000.
In addition to the fingerlings, the ODWC releases its adult brooder giant Florida bass into lakes as well, creating opportunities to catch double-digit bass immediately.
Southern Oklahoma has a long list of great bass fisheries, and all are associated with the Florida bass program. Lake of the Arbuckles consistently gets rave reviews for the number of big largemouths it produces. The ODWC stocked 101,065 Floridas there in 2015.
From tournament performances, Oklahoma had three lakes in Bassmaster's top 100 for 2016. Departing from its usual format, Bassmaster ranked lakes by region. Grand Lake O' the Cherokees, which hosted the 2016 Bassmaster Classic, ranked No. 8 in the central region.
Lake Hudson ranked No. 20 in the Region, and Lake Texoma ranked 23.
Lake Texoma is famous for striped bass fishing, but it has been a solid trophy-bass fishing destination for years. It produced seven consecutive state-record smallmouths, including two caught by Carl Gayle of Denison, Texas, in the late 1990s.
Aaron Fridrich broke Gayle's second record in 2003 with a 7-12 smallmouth.
This is such a catchy little song that I'm going to sing another verse. Fridrich caught his state-record smallie on March 22. Gayle caught his last state record on Feb. 24, 1996, which again is near enough to March to count.
While these big smallmouths get most of the attention, Texoma has been quietly coming on as a place to catch big largemouths, too, Sager said.
There are other places, which we'll look at on a regional basis.
As mentioned earlier, Lake of the Arbuckles is one of our top bass fishing destinations, according to tournament data and due to the fact that it is part of the state's Florida bass program.
While it doesn't support large numbers of smallmouths, the lake is one of my favorite places to catch a big one.
After a season in the sun in the late 1990s, McGee Creek Reservoir drifted out of the limelight, but it's still one of our best bass lakes. It gets a regular infusion of Florida bass, and its long growing season encourages their rapid growth.
Despite its small size, about 6,000 acres, Lake Murray is a top destination for anglers that like catching largemouths and smallmouths.
An average Lake Murray smallmouth weighs less than 2 pounds, but it's possible to catch 5- and 6-pounders.
Murray's largemouths tend to run a bit bigger. About twice as big. On Feb. 25, 2015, Charles Jewell of Ardmore set the lake record with a 12-4 largemouth. Again, that's close enough to March to count.
While 18 years have passed since it coughed up its state-record largemouth, Broken Bow still supports a healthy bass population that includes a respectable percentage of big fish.
What more is left to say about Cedar Lake? It produced state records in consecutive years, and it probably contains at least one more if an angler is lucky enough to catch it.
Sardis Lake is another one that doesn't get mentioned much anymore. McGee Creek stole its thunder in the mid-1990s, and the spotlight has never returned, but Sardis is still an excellent destination for those who want to catch a lot of fun-sized fish, and for those who are satisfied with one or two big bites a day.
We run short on superlatives to describe bass fishing at Grand Lake O' the Cherokees, but this lake deserves all of its hype. It shone brightly last year in the Bassmaster Classic, and it remains our best overall lake for quantity and overall quality of bass per acre.
Lake Eucha has long been one of our best for numbers, but lately it has surged in the quality of its bass. It consistently produces a lot of 7- to 8-pound largemouths, and in time it will crank out a few double-digit bass.
Sooner Lake has an excellent largemouth fishery that is even more excellent in late February and early March because of warm effluent from the power plant.
Don't overlook nearby Kaw Lake. It's a lot bigger than Sooner, and the quality of its bass fishing gets a little better every year.
Lake Tenkiller gets most of the attention for overall excellence, but lakes Gibson, Hudson and Oologah have provided excellent largemouth bass fishing for years. For largemouths, they are hard to beat.
While smallmouth bass are the main draw at Lake Lawtonka, this small reservoir near Lawton supports a good largemouth fishery.
Lakes Ellsworth and Waurika have been bass fishing afterthoughts for years, but the "new lake effect" rejuvenated them after years of drought. It's still a little early for them, but they'll start to pop next year. Keep 'em in mind.
BIG BAITS CATCH BIG BASS
If you want to catch Oklahoma's giant largemouths and smallmouths in late February and March, throw big swimbaits or wakebaits away from the shore.
Swimbaits are what we used to call "Sassy Shads." They are soft-plastic baits with paddle tails. They come in many different sizes to mimic all manner of prey. You can fish them solitary or in multiples on an umbrella rig.
Wakebaits are hard, jointed lures. They earned a cult following in the 1990s among anglers chasing giant largemouths in the small lakes near San Diego, Calif. They have gone national recently as tournament anglers learned how effective they are for catching giant largemouths in the spring.
The reason they work so well is a simple cost-to-benefit ratio. A big bass can get all the nutrition it needs for at least a day from eating one big prey item, as opposed to expending more energy chasing larger quantities of smaller prey.
A big wakebait or swimbait looking slow and vulnerable often is irresistible.