Oklahoma is blessed with great bass fishing from border to border. These waters, however, may offer up the best chances for that fishing trip of your dreams. (March 2009)
After two straight years of high water, Oklahoma bass anglers can look forward to some outstanding fishing in the next few years.
This spring, however, anglers will notice the results of a couple of recent low-water years. The bass that spawned in 2005 and 2006 should be keeper-sized fish this year, but because of poor spawning and recruitment conditions during those years, there probably will be fewer of them compared to what we'll see in 2010-11. We'll probably notice the difference in the number of keeper bass we catch this year, too, but overall we can expect a productive year of bass fishing.
As always, there's a good chance of catching a state-record largemouth or smallmouth bass on certain lakes. On Feb. 28, 2008, for example, Allen Gifford set a new lake record at Lake Arbuckle by catching a 14-pound, 8-ounce largemouth on a titanium spinnerbait. March traditionally is a great time to catch monster bass in the Sooner State, so right now is the time to be on the water, provided you can get to the water. High water prevented many anglers from getting on their favorite lakes and rivers last year because access areas were flooded and boating conditions often were unsafe.
Gene Gilliland, bass biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said high water certainly provided great spawning and recruitment conditions, but the flooding made it tough to get good fisheries data. The ODWC couldn't run electrofishing surveys on some lakes, and high water also forced the cancellation of a lot of tournaments.
Ordinarily, the ODWC gleans a lot of useful data from tournaments. If anglers can't get to the fish, the fishing is not going to be very good, but that doesn't reflect the number or quality of fish in a body of water.
"So much of our quality of fishing in this state depends on water, not so much from the fishing standpoint, but from an access standpoint," Gilliland said. "You can say bass should be there in 2009, but if you don't have the conditions that allow people and fish to get together, that's something you can't control."
One thing we do know is that the future is exceptionally bright for Oklahoma bass fishing. Spawning and recruitment for bass was outstanding the last two years, and Gilliland said anglers can expect to see a lot of small bass. Also, we finally have overcome the effects of the largemouth bass virus that hit our waters a few years ago, so the adult bass we now have are healthy. Overall, the average angler probably won't notice the effects of the few lean years.
"Since bass live 10 to 12 years, if we have a couple of bad years, it doesn't hurt us too bad," Gilliland said. "It's a small hole in the population out of that 10-year span. If you have a big, long string of drought years, say four or five years, then you have a really big hole, and that really shows up in fishing quality."
Fortunately, we don't have any big holes in our bass populations. The only question now is where to go to find the best bass fishing. You won't have to go far, because chances are you can find a little taste of it somewhere close, in a lake close to home. Here's a region-by-region breakdown of our best spots.
Of all the lakes in northeastern Oklahoma, the ODWC sampled only two, Grand Lake and Chimney Rock. Both lakes are in great shape, and Chimney Rock has emerged in recent years as an excellent spot for catching trophy largemouths.
Its overall bass population isn't bad, either. In Chimney Rock's 2008 electrofishing samples, the ODWC processed 71 bass per hour, of which 19.7 per hour were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass in the sample weighed 5.6 pounds.
Although the ODWC didn't sample Skiatook Lake last year, Gilliland said it has profited greatly from high water the last two years, and its largemouth population should be in great shape in coming years.
As always, however, Grand Lake distinguished itself as an exceptional bass fishery from top to bottom. It yielded an impressive rate of 83.3 bass per hour in the spring electrofishing samples, but 29.8 of those measured 14 inches or longer. The biggest bass sampled weighed 6.2 pounds.
"Grand is almost always on our list of top lakes," Gilliland said. "It continually seems to crank out larger bass."
Grand fared well in the ODWC's 2007 Tournament Report, too. Various tournaments submitted 14 reports from the lake. Each tournament averaged fields of 48 boats and weighed in 202 bass per event. Each angler caught an average of 2.2 bass per event and reported an 80 percent success rate. The average weight per fish was 2.41 pounds, but anglers weighed in an average of 4.1 fish per event that weighed 5 pounds or more. The average big bass per tournament weighed 6.17 pounds, and it took an average of 18.13 pounds to win a Grand Lake tournament. That was the state's highest winning average.
Although the ODWC didn't sample Skiatook Lake last year, Gilliland said it has profited greatly from high water the last two years, and its largemouth population should be in great shape in coming years. Of course, it has had a solid smallmouth population for years, so we can look forward to it becoming a more complete fishery.
"The high water we had is some of the first Skiatook has experienced," Gilliland said. "It just didn't catch the water for some reason. This year, it finally got over conservation pool for the first time in a long while. Tournament weights have come up from what they've historically been. It's certainly nothing like what it was in the 1980s, but it has rebounded. It's gotten some decent reviews."
Skiatook got five tournament reports in 2007, and they averaged just 17 boats per event. The total bag per tournament averaged 43 fish, and each participant caught an average of 2.4 fish per event, which is comparable to catch rates at Grand Lake. Anglers experienced a 78 percent success rate, but the average weight per fish was just 1.59 pounds. Hardly any weighed 5 pounds or more, and the average big bass weighed 3.86 pounds. The winning weight was only 10.11 pounds.
The big success stories in northeast Oklahoma are Fort Gibson and Tenkiller. Populations are good, and big bass are thriving.
"All of those lakes have been improving," Gilliland said. "Go back to 2000-2002 -- that's when the largemouth bass virus hit. We had a significant downturn in the qu
ality of fishing, especially for larger bass in a lot of our lakes. That's kind of a distant memory now. Those lakes have come back so strong in the past six or seven years that people aren't thinking much about what they were like back then. Fort Gibson, they were calling it the Dead Sea, but in 2007 it was our top lake in tournament results. Some of them are as good as they were before or better."
Fort Gibson hosted 14 reported events last year, and the fields averaged 31 boats. The average catch per event was 87 bass, and each participant averaged 2.2 bass per event. The success rate per angler was 74 percent, and the average weight per fish was 2.48 pounds. The average number of bass caught over 5 pounds was 1.9, and the average big bass was 5.66 pounds. The average winning weight was 14.71 pounds.
Tenkiller hosted a lot more tournaments last year, 66, and it averaged 22 boats. The average catch per event was 43 bass, with each angler averaging 2.5 bass. The average success rate was only 56 percent, and the average weight per fish was 2.27 pounds. Again, very few, 0.8, weighed 5 pounds or more, and the average big bass weighed 4.51 pounds. The average winning weight was 11.98 pounds.
Two other popular lakes in this region are Eucha and Spavinaw. Lake Eucha has long been known as a great place to catch a lot of bass, and Spavinaw traditionally is a better place to catch big bass. Gilliland said the ODWC doesn't sample those lakes, but anglers have reported good fishing.
"I talked to some guys from Tulsa, and they said they had a tournament on Spavinaw that was one of the best in the state," Gilliland said. "Eucha has always been a numbers game. Something has gone right up there as far as some of those fish at Spavinaw growing up. Eucha is one of only two major lakes in the state with no length limit on black bass. Lake Murray is the other one."
The mid-state region presents a mixed picture. The big lakes the ODWC sampled last year were Arcadia, Stanley Draper, Eufaula, Thunderbird and Wes Watkins. Only Eufaula is trending upward. In 2008 electrofishing samples, the ODWC sampled 88.1 bass per hour, of which 14.9 per hour were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass in that sample weighed 5.6 pounds.
Ranked eighth in the 2007 Tournament Report, Eufaula hosted 24 events, which averaged 55 boats. The average total catch per event was 155 bass, and each angler averaged 2.2 bass, with a success rate of 73 percent. The average weight per fish was 2.29 pounds, and each event yielded 3.3 bass that weighed 5 pounds or more. The average big bass per event weighed 5.71 pounds, and the average winning weight was 17.20 pounds.
Lake Arcadia is a continuing source of frustration for central Oklahoma bass anglers. Chronic low water levels limit reproduction and recruitment, so bass numbers are low. In the 2008 electrofishing surveys, the ODWC shocked up about 21 bass per hour, of which 12.5 per hour were larger than 14 inches. The heaviest fish weighed 7.2 pounds. The picture there is a small bass population with relatively few small fish.
Lake Thunderbird was even worse. It yielded just 16.2 bass per hour, of which 9.3 per hour were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass weighed 9 pounds.
On the other hand, things have improved at Wes Watkins since the largemouth bass virus laid it low. It yielded about 41 fish per hour to the electroshock boat, of which only 15.3 per hour were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass sampled weighed 5.8 pounds.
"Arcadia has had chronically low bass recruitment because the habitat is not there," Gilliland said. "Thunderbird is that way. Bell Cow is that way. You get some nice quality-sized fish, but you don't get a lot of them. Bell Cow has produced quite a number of bass in the 8- to 10-pound range in the last five or six years, but the habitat necessary for the survival of young bass is just not there. A lot of those smaller lakes are city water supplies, and they get real nervous when you start talking about manipulating water levels."
Wes Watkins ranked third in the 2007 Tournament Report. It hosted 26 tournaments, but they were small events that averaged just nine boats. The average total catch was just 17 bass, but that translated to 2.9 bass per angler and a 47 percent success rate. The average weight per fish was 3.14 pounds, and each event yielded one fish that was bigger than 5 pounds. The average big bass weighed 4.95 pounds, and the average winning weight was 8.77 pounds.
There's some good news from northwest Oklahoma. American Horse Lake is undergoing a bit of a resurgence, and Gilliland said it could re-establish itself as a good bass lake in the near future. It got so high in 2007 that water flowed over the dam, eroding the back of the dam. The access road washed out and nobody could get a boat to it, so virtually nobody fished it last year. The ODWC lowered the water level about 8 feet to repair the dam, allowing vegetation to grow beneath the normal water line. When it floods again, it'll be like a new lake.
"The drawdown concentrated a lot of the bass and the forage, so there has probably been some increased growth rates on bass," Gilliland said. "John Stahl (the ODWC's northwest region fisheries supervisor) has been removing bass by the thousands and restocking them in other places just to thin them out. For bass over 14 inches, it's the highest it's ever been. The lake is still way down, but you can still launch a boat. Plus, it's still got a lot of nice bluegills in it."
In the 2008 electrofishing samples, American Horse yielded a whopping 88.7 bass per hour, of which 42 per hour were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass sampled weighed 6.7 pounds.
High water has been a friend to this part of the state, too. Sardis Lake, famous in the past for trophy largemouths, yielded 36.8 bass per hour in last year's electrofishing samples, of which 6.7 were larger than 14 inches. The biggest bass sampled weighed 8.8 pounds.Ranked 16th for tournaments, it hosted 11 events that averaged 20 boats. The average total catch per event was 52 bass, but each angler averaged just 1.4 bass per event. The success rate was 74 percent, and the average weight per fish was 2.18 pounds. Each tournament averaged one fish that exceeded 5 pounds. The average big bass weighed 5.69 pounds, and the average winning weight was 12.92 pounds.
The ODWC didn't sample Sooner Lake in 2008, but Gilliland spoke highly of it as a quality fishing destination.
"We've seen a lot of good-sized fish, 3- to 5-pound fish," Gilliland said. "Over the past three to five years, Sooner has probably produced more 10-pound-and-over bass than any other lake in the state. Rolling through my mind in tournament reports and Internet reports about tournament results, we haven't seen a lot of 10- to 13-pound fish this last year, but Sooner sticks in my mind where we traditionally see those."
Something new this year for Oklahoma bass anglers is the fact that there
will be no length limit or creel limit for spotted bass except for a few streams in Southeastern Oklahoma. It's open season on "spots," Gilliland said.
"In most of our lakes, they're almost like weeds," he explained. "They're multiplying, but they rarely get over 14 inches. In such numbers, they're taking up space and eating food that could be better utilized by largemouth bass."
By removing all protection from spotted bass, Gilliland said, he wants to encourage anglers to keep and eat spotted bass. Harvesting bass, he explained, is a necessary management tool.
"It's OK to keep fish, especially spotted bass," Gilliland said. "I envision putting a sign at the ramp that says 'Eat More Bass,' or something. If we can thin them out enough, we think it could improve the largemouth and smallmouth bass fisheries. Catch-and-release has been so oversold that it's taken harvest away from managers as a tool. We don't have that anymore because essentially there isn't any harvest."