What'll it be -- big bass or lots of them? Whatever your pleasure might be, these Oklahoma waters can deliver.
No matter how good things are, they can always get better. So it is with Oklahoma bass fishing.
After a couple of tough years in 2001-02, Oklahoma finally got a break from the drought and torrid heat in 2003. Good spawning conditions helped put a lot of young bass into waters across the state, and recruitment of the 2003 class was good to excellent almost everywhere.
The spring and summer of 2004 constituted the cherry on the sundae, so to speak. A wet spring and summer, coupled with cool temperatures that lasted well into September, helped keep water levels high and stable at our major reservoirs. The result: one of the best year-classes in recent memory.
For 2005 and beyond, it all adds up to great news for Sooner State bass anglers, according to Gene Gilliland, fisheries biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
"From what we heard in 2004, in terms of keeper-sized fish and fish that were almost keepers, 2005 should really be first-rate," Gilliland said. "People were catching a lot of little bass. We've been hearing that from a lot of places. Given a year or two, those fish could grow up and turn into good fish."
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Gilliland isn't just hearing good news from a few lucky anglers. The ODWC has a sprawling information network that includes local and regional tournament circuits. Glowing reports have been pouring in from all over the state.
"Just glancing at the tournament report cards as they come in, 2004 was a pretty strong year," Gilliland said. "Grand Lake is going like gangbusters. People e-mail me telling me about catching 75 bass a day at Eufaula.
"Tenkiller has really bounced back. Some of the evening jackpots take 15 pounds to win, and those are only three-hour tournaments. Texoma has been good, and Hugo has been really good. The only bleak spot was Wes Watkins, and that's because we had a virus-related fish kill."
It's old news now, but Oklahoma had a little bout with the largemouth bass virus a few years ago, and a few lakes, including Wes Watkins, got hit pretty hard. Gilliland believes that one big side effect of the virus is the way it changes the behavior of some fish.
"The actual kill may not kill a lot of bass, but there's a behavioral change in those fish," he explained. "They act differently, they feed differently, and they feed less."
Except for Wes Watkins, the other Sooner lakes hit by the virus seem to have recovered. "The high water we had last year really helped out," Gilliland said. "We should have had really good recruitment from the 2004 year-class, and it sounds like we had really good recruitment from the last couple of years.
"In general it takes about three years to get a bass up to 14 inches. That means that in 2005 those fish from the 2002 year-class should be getting up there close to keeper size."
Here's a complete forecast of our top lakes, starting with those larger than 1,000 acres.
Along with compiling tournament reports, the ODWC gets its data by conducting electrofishing sampling at lakes across the state every spring.
Konawa Lake in Seminole County is once again Oklahoma's best lake in terms of the number of bass surveyed per hour. It produced 169.6 bass per hour -- down from 2003, when it produced 201 bass per hour, and 2002, when it produced 209 bass per hour. In terms of quality, it produced 43.3 bass per hour larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass in the sample weighed 5.6 pounds, same as last year. That, Gilliland said, is symptomatic of overpopulation among the lake's bass.
"It's still producing lots of fish, but we've taken the slot limit off of it because we're trying to encourage anglers to harvest more bass. The bass there are getting thin. There's an overabundance of small fish."
In other words, keep some fish and eat 'em. They're delicious!
Always one of Oklahoma's most popular bass lakes, Eufaula is rocking along nicely. During the 2004 electroshocking survey, it produced 47.2 bass per hour, compared to 38.3 per hour in 2003. Of those, 10.3 per hour were larger than 14 inches, which is down a bit from the 12.3 last year. The biggest bass sampled was 5.6 pounds. In 2003, the biggest bass was 4.6 pounds.
"If you want to catch fish, Eufaula is on fire right now," Gilliland said. "There's not a lot of big fish. You might catch 50 a day, and eight of those might be keepers. Give those little ones another year to grow, and it might really be something."
The last big lake surveyed in the Central region for 2004 was Wes Watkins. It produced a mere 14.1 bass per hour for the electrofishing crew, and 12.4 per hour were larger than 14 inches. The heavyweight of the sample was 4.4 pounds.
"In general it takes about three years to get a bass up to 14 inches. That means that in 2005 those fish from the 2002 year-class should be getting up there close to keeper size." -- Gene Gilliland, ODWC
Three lakes smaller than 1,000 acres were sampled in the central region last year: Okmulgee, Sportsman and Weleetka. Okmulgee stood out by producing 121 bass per hour. Of those, 12 were larger than 14 inches; the biggest bass in the sample weighed 6.5 pounds.
Sportsman Lake produced 60.7 bass per hour, with 14 larger than 14 inches. Its biggest bass weighed 5.2 pounds.
Lake Weleetka coughed up 56.7 bass per hour, of which 20 measured more than 14 inches. Its biggest bass in the sample weighed 8.9 pounds.
Everyone knows that you don't go to Lake Hefner to catch a lot of bass, but it's a great spot for catching a big smallmouth and a lunker largemouth or two in the middle of Oklahoma City. The 2004 electrofishing survey bears that out. It produced a lethargic 17.2 bass per hour for the electro-crew; of those fish, 8.5 per hour were larger than 14 inches. The biggest fish in the sample weighed 6 pounds. However, the lake probably experienced a good spawn last year.
"It stayed up all s
ummer because people didn't have to water their grass," Gilliland said. "Such a huge percentage of the water that comes out of there gets used for landscape irrigation. We had a cool, wet summer, so it didn't have much water come out."
Bass at Lake Thunderbird aren't plentiful, but they're healthy and mean. Good thing, because it yielded only 12.4 bass per hour during the 2004 sample, and 6.7 per hour were larger than 14 inches. The hourly yield was way down from 22.8 per hour in 2003, and even farther from 36 per hour in 2002. The biggest bass in the 2004 sample was 6.2 pounds.
"The last couple of years we've had good water levels and weed growth at Thunderbird," Gilliland said. "The vegetation plots we've put out have expanded and really turned the corner. We should see some improvement in the bass population."
Arcadia And Bell Cow
Although it wasn't sampled, Arcadia Lake, northeast of OKC, continues to be a problem child. It has good water quality, Gilliland said, but the lake is so small that water levels don't stay high for long.
"We don't get a lot of flooded vegetation out there," Gilliland explained. "The bass that do survive grow quick and get up to size pretty quick. There's enough food -- just not many bass.
"Bell Cow is another one like that. Recruitment is low, but growth rates and average fish size are good. At either of those lakes you won't get a lot of bites, but chances are the bites you get will be good ones."
Another OKC lake that wasn't sampled in 2004 is Stanley Draper. Its reputation as a bass lake has been deeply tarnished over the years, but it may be slowly coming back. Gilliland noted that anglers have been catching a lot of 10- to 12-inch bass; whether a significant number of fish will grow out of that range remains to be seen.
A trend that concerns Gilliland is the number of spotted bass coming out of Draper. Spotted bass don't get very big, and they tend to overpopulation. This could hurt the lake's complement of largemouths in the long run.
If you want to catch a lot of bass, it might be worthwhile to visit Lake Dahlgren, a small water at Lexington Wildlife Management Area. During the 2004 electrofishing survey, it produced 124.7 bass per hour. An impressive number -- but only 2.7 per hour were longer than 14 inches. However, the biggest bass sampled weighed 8 pounds.
As part of the massive Bricktown renovation in downtown Oklahoma City, the City has built a chain of small lakes on the North Canadian River. When the ODWC gets a fix on how those lakes will be managed, Gilliland reported, the Wildlife Department would like to stock bass in those. If that happens, it could create some excellent fishing opportunities.
Chouteau Pool (Arkansas River)
In northeast Oklahoma, the only lakes larger than 1,000 acres that were surveyed in 2004 were Skiatook and Chouteau. The latter, a 2,600-acre impoundment of the Arkansas River on the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System, produced 73.8 bass per hour, of which 24.4 per hour were larger than 14 inches. The biggest in the sample weighed 9.2 pounds.
Interestingly, Lake Skiatook contributed 50.7 bass per hour, but only five per hour were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass sampled there was 4 pounds.
Though it has some big smallmouth bass and some decent largemouths, Skiatook suffers from serious overpopulation by spotted bass. Anglers can improve the situation by catching a mess regularly and eating them.
Although it wasn't sampled last year, Keystone Lake remains an enigmatic bass lake. It has plenty of potential, but its unstable water levels seriously limit the amount of bass it produces.
Konawa Lake in Seminole County is once again Oklahoma's best lake in terms of the number of bass surveyed per hour.
"Water levels just kill us over there," Gilliland said. "There's all sorts of brush if the water level stays up, but it fluctuates 25 feet a year. It floods in the spring, followed by drought. It's a very harsh environment, and it's difficult to get any nursery cover. We get a year when it's good, then two or three when it's poor. The bass population is unpredictable from a long-term perspective."
Smallmouth bass have done well at Keystone in terms of growth, but relatively few young fish rotate into the population. According to Gilliland, the ODWC is considering stocking smallmouths there to boost numbers.
A lot of small lakes were sampled in northeast Oklahoma last year. Lake Bixhoma was a good one, with 95.3 bass per hour, including 17.3 per hour longer than 14 inches. Its biggest bass sampled weighed 7.6 pounds.
Garrison Creek gave up 93.6 bass per hour; on a per-hour basis, 12.8 were longer than 14 inches. The biggest there was 7.7 pounds. Lakes Muldrow, Onapa, Stigler, Stilwell and Taft produced impressive numbers, but not much in the way of size. The exception was Taft Lake, which yielded 145 bass per hour. Of those, 25 were longer than 14 inches; the biggest weighed 8.2 pounds.
In the northwest region, the best lake larger than 1,000 acres sampled in 2005 is Sooner Lake, a 5,400-acre hydropower reservoir south of Ponca City. (See last month's issue of Oklahoma Game & Fish for a profile.) It produced 92 bass per hour, of which 29.5 were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass weighed 7.9 pounds.
Another northeast Oklahoma lake that's managed by northwest region staff is Lake McMurtry, a 1,155-acre reservoir near Stillwater, just north of Carl Blackwell Lake. It produced 85.7 bass per hour, but only 14.7 per hour were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass in that sample weighed 6.9 pounds.
One of my favorite waters in the northwest is American Horse Lake. In 2004, it produced 101.3 bass per hour, but only 4.7 per hour were longer than 14 inches. The biggest weighed 4.3 pounds. "A great place to catch a lot of bass," Gilliland observed, "but there aren't many big ones." If anglers would harvest some of the smaller bass, that might improve.
The only lake larger than 1,000 acres sampled in southwest Oklahoma in 2004 was one of my favorite smallmouth bass lakes. Lake Lawtonka, which lies on the outskirts of Medicine Park, produced 65.3 bass per hour for the electro-crew. Of those, 17.8 per hour were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass in the sample weighed 6.6 pounds.
Once known as one of Oklahoma's top trophy bass lakes, Sardis doesn't produce the numbers or sizes it once did, but it still has a pulse. In 2004, it yielded
an anemic 40.5 bass per hour, of which 11.5 were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass sampled weighed 7.1 pounds.
Of the three small lakes sampled in southeast Oklahoma last year, Schooler Lake was tops. It produced 190.7 bass per hour, of which 37.3 were larger than 14 inches. Its biggest bass sampled weighed 6.9 pounds. Cedar Lake produced 114.4 bass per hour, of which 13.6 were larger than 14 inches. The biggest fish sampled weighed 10.3 pounds. Clayton Lake yielded 103 bass per hour, with 30 longer than 14 inches. Its biggest bass weighed 3.7 pounds.
Everyone knows that you don't go to Lake Hefner to catch a lot of bass, but it's a great spot for catching a big smallmouth and a lunker largemouth or two in the middle of Oklahoma City.
Another one of my favorite smallmouth lakes, Arbuckle was the only lake larger than 1,000 acres sampled in the southeast region last year. It produced 87.6 bass per hour during the survey, of which 25.3 were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass sampled weighed 6.6 pounds.
Although it has an overabundance of spotted bass, Arbuckle is known statewide as a great place for smallmouth fishing. That kind of reputation pleases Gene Gilliland.
"People are catching 3- to 5-pound smallmouth bass on a regular basis there," he elaborated. "That's what they fish for. To me, that's what defines success, if a population is such that people go somewhere specifically to fish for that species. Arbuckle, Lawtonka and Texoma are all like that."
It wasn't electrosampled in 2004, but Lake Longmire, near Pauls Valley might be on the mend after a few years of unfavorable water levels.
"It hasn't produced a lot of fish lately, but a lot of the Florida bass we stocked when the lake was new started producing some 8- to 11-pound bass," Gilliland said. "The weeds were coming back this year and provided some nursery habitat."
After looking at the numbers, I conclude that 2005 should be an outstanding year for bass fishing. I intend to enjoy it -- and I hope you do, too.