What a difference some rain can make! Last year, our lakes were at record low water levels; now they're at record highs. So what does that mean for our bass fishing this spring. (March 2008).
Photo courtesy of Rich Owen.
Depending on how you interpret the data, 2008 could be a really good year or a really bad year for bass fishing at your favorite lakes.
On the one hand, we can celebrate the fact that our seemingly eternal drought finally ended last spring. Water levels stayed high throughout the state all summer long, creating excellent reproduction and recruitment conditions. Bass should have spawned well at most lakes, and the extended high water period provided sufficient cover to help young bass survive into the fall.
Those fish should comprise an excellent year-class, but anglers won't notice a bump for at least two or three years, when those fish finally grow to sizes that anglers want to catch.
On the other hand, the drought really hurt bass reproduction and recruitment for several years previous, so there's a big gap in high-quality year-classes. The exception is at lakes where water levels were stable, such as Lake Arbuckle. We have plenty of young bass in our lakes this year, and we have a pretty good crop of big bass from years past, but not much in between.
Gene Gilliland, bass biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said you have to look at trends to determine the quality of a bass fishery. Electrofishing data provide a snapshot of a fishery at a given time, but overall trends reflect the condition of the fishery at large.
"The total catch rate alone is not indicative of total quality of a fishery," Gilliland said. "The size of bass, the percentage of fish over 14 inches, may actually be a better indicator of what most bass anglers would consider quality fishing. If you want to take a kid fishing, lakes with extremely high catch-rates are ideal, but when somebody looks at big numbers, 180 or 200-something bass an hour, that very often can be a little misleading. They really need to read the whole story."
American Horse Lake is a perfect example. The ODWC originally managed it as a trophy bluegill lake. The bass pop-
ulation was managed for numbers so they would eat small bluegills while the remaining bluegills grew huge. Now, there are too many bass, and because they eat all the bluegills, there's virtually no bluegill recruitment.
During electro-fish sampling in the spring of 2007, ODWC personnel caught 233 bass per hour, but 99 percent weren't even 12 inches long.
"They did catch a 10-pounder there," Gilliland recalled. "They're obviously eating other bass, and that's what's keeping those fish going."
To remedy situations like that, Gilliland said, it's imperative for anglers to keep and eat little bass. And not just a few here and there, but a lot, and often.
"Nobody keeps bass anymore," he said wistfully. "We can't get anyone to keep them. On a lot of these lakes, the lack of harvest has really taken a management tool away from us to keep things in balance."
To drive home the point, Gilliland reported that the ODWC's fisheries division will propose in 2009 to remove both the length limit and bag limit on spotted bass statewide. "It's a free-for-all -- any size, as many as you want," he said. "That's over a year from now before that happens, but we're trying to send a message. There are times when we need people to keep fish."
Meanwhile, spring is here, and you want to know where to go to enjoy some good bass fishing, both for pleasure and, we hope, to catch a mess for dinner. Here's a list of prospects for your region.
Lake KonawaIn terms of numbers and quality, Lake Konawa, a power plant reservoir on the outskirts of the town of Konawa, is Oklahoma's top bass lake for 2008.
Again. That's right -- again!
It was also the only lake bigger than 1,000 acres that the ODWC surveyed in this region last year. (Continued)
During 2007 electrofishing surveys, it produced 185 bass per hour. Of those, 69, or 37 percent, were longer than 14 inches. The heaviest bass in the survey weighed 8.7 pounds. In terms of fishing, however, Konawa's quality may depend on when you visit.
"Konawa tends always to be at the top of the list numbers-wise," Gilliland said, "but it gets very difficult to fish in the summertime. In the spring, some good stringers come out of there, and the tournament results look good, but in the summertime, it gets real weedy. It gets a lot of submerged vegetation, and the water gets hot because of the power plant. It has good bass abundance and decent numbers over 14 inches, but it gets tough in summer. The vegetation really changes the character of the lake."
Among lakes smaller than 1,000 acres in this region, Lake Wetumka produced 167 bass per hour, but only 22 (13 percent) were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass weighed 6.4 pounds. Obviously, anglers could help Wetumka by keeping some bass.
For a high-quality fishing experience, Bell Cow may be the place to go. Last spring it produced only 21 bass per hour, but 16 (76 percent) were longer than 14 inches. The biggest weighed 8.8 pounds.
"Bell Cow has low fish abundance, but it still produces good quality fish," Gilliland said. "I know fishermen that go there who only get five or six bites a day, but they're nice ones. They consider that a good day. They don't have to catch 20 to 30 a day to feel like they've had a quality experience."
The ODWC sampled only three Oklahoma City-area lakes in 2007, Stanley Draper, Purcell and Thunderbird. All three are pathetic, but Gilliland said that Thunderbird had a good spawn in 2007 and might provide some decent fishing in a couple of years.
"Thunderbird was dismal," he said. "The water level was so low for so long that there's just no cover, and so the survival of young bass was just really, really poor. It should have had a bumper crop this year. It was down so low for so long that it had so much terrestrial vegetation in the basin. All that got flooded, so its bass should have had tremendous survival, but that won't translate to better fishing for two or three years.
For the record, Thunderbird produced eight bass per hour, and fi
ve were longer than 14 inches. The biggest weighed 7.8 pounds.
"The shocking results you see here are a result of what happened two, three, four years ago," Gilliland said. "Low water plus low cover equals poor recruitment."
Lake Draper is on life support, with 6 bass per hour and only two larger than 14 inches. The biggest weighed 4 pounds.
For overall quality of both fishing and the fishing experience, the lakes in south-central Oklahoma may be our best, and Lake Arbuckle is arguably the best lake in the state. Aside from its stunning beauty, it also supports healthy populations of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass.
During the 2007 surveys, Arbuckle produced 130 bass per
hour, of which 57 (44 percent) were longer than 14 inches. The biggest bass weighed 10.5 pounds. That reflects both good numbers and size.
"Arbuckle was one that they made a big deal out of this year," Gilliland reported. "They had a 10-pounder, a 9-pounder and a couple of 8s. Paul Mauck (south-central fisheries supervisor) said it was one of the best electrofishing results he'd ever seen at Arbuckle."
Again, its quality is the result of many strong year-classes, as evidenced by the big fish. The secret is perennially stable water levels and its abundance of aquatic vegetation. They go hand-in-hand.
"It's far enough south that it typically has strong threadfin shad populations," Gilliland said. "There's not much winter kill, and it doesn't fluctuate drastically. That's a real stable environment for bass production."
High water enables healthy spawns. Aquatic vegetation and ample forage enable high recruitment, year after year.
"Ten-pounders don't grow up overnight," Gilliland said. "Those fish were there and had been there for years. The planets lined up just right, and they were able to sample those fish. They've been there for years in that kind of number and quality, and this year's survey proved it. Tournament results kind of bore that out, too."
Not far from Arbuckle is Lake Longmire, an excellent if overlooked ODWC lake near Davis. In last year's electrofishing surveys, it produced 58 bass per hour, of which 43 (74 percent) were larger than 14 inches. The biggest weighed 9.3 pounds. It's a good place to go for consistent numbers of big bass, with an excellent chance to catch a monster.
This lake graded out similar to Longmire. It produced 55 bass per hour, of which 33 (60 percent) were longer than 14 inches. The biggest bass weighed 9 pounds. This is a lake definitely worth looking into!
Of the six lakes in this region surveyed in 2007, only Pine Creek Reservoir was larger than 1,000 acres. It drains a fairly sterile watershed in the Kiamichi Mountains, and although it produced respectable numbers of bass last spring, it produced few big fish.
Specifically, it produced 82 bass per hour, but only 15 (18 percent) were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass weighed 5.1 pounds.
The best lake in this region was Cedar Lake, a tiny lake in the Ouachita National Forest. Last spring it produced 123 bass per hour, of which 70 exceeded 14 inches. The biggest bass in the sample weighed 8.3 pounds.
Because of its small size, however, Gilliland said that Cedar Lake is very vulnerable to over-harvest. A heavy influx of skillful anglers could clean it quickly.
"Cedar Lake is another one that jumps out," Gilliland said. "Its electrofishing surveys looked really good. It has big fish, and we got quite a few reports of 10-pound bass being caught off beds. It was drawn down years ago and restocked with Florida bass. Ten years later, it's cranking out some nice fish.
"That's a tricky deal there," he added. "It's such a small lake, with clear water, it could be over-exploited fairly easily."
Another small lake, Crooked Branch, had electrofishing results similar to those at Bell Cow. It produced 29 bass per hour, of which 12 (41 percent) were longer than 14 inches. The biggest bass in the sample weighed 8 pounds.
Lakes Hudson & Onapa
In the Ozark Plateau, the ODWC sampled only two lakes larger than 1,000 acres, Hudson and Onapa. Lake Hudson's electrofishing data looked decent, producing 106 fish per hour, of which 41 (39 percent) exceeded 14 inches. The biggest bass in that sample weighed 7.8 pounds.
Lake Onapa, in comparison, produced 73 bass per hour, of which 17 (23 percent) exceeded 14 inches. The largest weighed 10 pounds.
Of lakes smaller than 1,000 acres, Lake Greenleaf, near Muskogee, was one of the best. It produced 82 bass per hour last spring, of which 36 were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass in that sample was 7.3 pounds.
Good candidates for a fish fry run are lakes Westville and Stigler, which have tons of bass, but very few big ones. Last spring, for example, Vian City Lake produced 181 bass per hour, of which only 13 (7 percent) exceeded 14 inches. The largest weighed 5.7 pounds.
The ODWC's Gene Gilliland said that it's imperative for anglers to keep and eat little bass. And not just a few here and there, but a lot, and often.
Westville Lake produced 132 bass per hour, of which 34 (26 percent) exceeded 14 inches. That's not too bad, really, until you notice that the biggest bass in the sample weighed only 4 pounds. That might indicate an overabundance of big bass.
Or, how about Stigler City Lake? It produced 80 bass per hour, which isn't great, but only one of those was longer than 14 inches, and it weighed 1.2 pounds.
BEST OF THE REST
Although the ODWC didn't sample many big reservoirs, Gilliland said they were probably fairly strong and consistent. Those lakes are so large and contain so many potential spawning areas that they always produce a lot of fish. Naturally, a certain percentage will live to maturity.
"A lot of big name lakes aren't there, but that's because of high water," Gilliland said. "If you have flooding issues at the time they might have been doing electrofishing, you get poor results, something that's not comparable to previous years, and that's what we look at."
Even though it wasn't sampled, Grand Lake is probably the best in the region, Gilliland said. Fort Gibson and Tenkiller are also pretty solid.
"They typically don't have bad water problems from drought and related things," Gilliland said. "Eufaula has its ups an
d downs. It's a great lake, and it's certainly on my list of the top few, but it is another one that is very much a product of water level fluctuation from year to year.
"Texoma is that way, too. People don't think of it as a bass lake, but it does have pretty strong populations of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. Tenkiller is a perennial performer. It doesn't fluctuate as drastically as other northeastern lakes, and it has a better smallmouth population than those other lakes up there."
Other lakes that received honorable mention from Gilliland were McGee Creek and Sardis, both well-known trophy-bass lakes.
"McGee Creek is a perennial favorite in terms of fish production, and it has fairly good size distribution," Gilliland said. "Sardis has produced some good quality stringers in recent years in tournaments. Its electrofishing results haven't been stellar, kind of middle of the pack, but its fishing quality has been pretty good."
Two sleepers are lakes Elmer and Bixhoma. Lake Elmer is an ODWC lake near Kingfisher.
"For a while, John Stahl (northwest region fisheries supervisor) tried to keep it quiet because it has such a good bass population," Gilliland said. Bixhoma is one that gets a little press. It's got decent numbers, and it gets some fairly big fish caught out of there. Lake Watonga (at Roman Nose State Park) is kind of a sleeper. It has trout-fed bass and has produced some big fish. It's a small lake, 55 acres, but the potential is there for some big fish."
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Sometimes you can get so wrapped up in numbers that it can take the fun out of just going fishing. If you hit the right place at the right time, you can have a great experience catching a lot of fish, or a few big fish, or a lot of fish with a big one in the mix. The key is to figure out that magic combination and have fun doing it.
For that, any of the lakes in this article and all of the ones not mentioned will provide enough excitement to make the trip worthwhile.