Here are three can't-miss bass hotspots for spring angling, practically in the back yards of Tulsa fishermen. (April 2010)
When Nick Gilmore, my editor at Oklahoma Game & Fish magazine, asked for a story about fishing for largemouths at a few Green Country lakes in April, that word immediately popped into my mind.
That's because fishing brushpiles is one of the most dependable patterns at this time of year at lakes like Fort Gibson, Eufaula, Keystone and others across the region.
Some of the most successful local bass tournament fishermen in Green Country spend many days every year constructing brushpiles along lakeshores and on submerged mid-lake structure. Some of the best stringers of bass come from fishing jigs, worms, spinnerbaits and other offerings around those anchored-down piles of hardwood tree branches or cedar trees.
No, you don't have to have a string of brushpiles in order to catch bass in Green Country lakes. But it can sure help, especially at this time of the year when water temperatures are creeping upward and bass are either already on their nests or are searching for a place to spawn.
And as the season progresses, with water temperatures climbing higher and the sun's bright rays coming from a higher angle and penetrating the water more efficiently, bass tend to spend more and more time hugging the little blotches and bars of shade produced by brushpiles and preying on smaller fishes that tend to congregate in and around such cover.
Most Green Country lakes are 50 or more years of age, and nearly all were cleared of most of the standing timber when they were built. So, brushpiles provide attractive hangouts for all of the fishes in the sunfish family, which include all of the black bass species -- largemouths, spotted bass and smallmouths.
In northeastern Oklahoma, the native smallmouth population lies mostly east of the Neosho or Grand River. There have been smallmouths stocked in other reservoirs, but they aren't native.
Largemouth and spotted bass, though, have populated streams and impoundments throughout the state and are in virtually all reservoirs of any size, and both can be caught in the shallows in the springtime.
Spotted bass tend to spawn deeper and suspend deeper, especially in reservoirs with clearer water, but largemouths spend much of their time in shallow water throughout the warmest eight or nine months of the year -- beginning in March and April. They may move up shallow earlier in the year if we have extended periods of sunny days and bright sunshine, but they tend to move back to deeper water when weather is cold.
Come spring, though, shallow-water patterns and shallow-water cover are often the keys to catching bass in Green Country reservoirs.
And when the bass are spending a lot of time in 10 feet of water or less, fishing brushpiles can be an excellent technique.
I've built my own share of brushpiles in Keystone and Eufaula and other lakes. But I've found many productive brushpiles by going to the lakes when the water levels are low and searching for brushpiles that other anglers have built. Just about anytime a lake level falls 2 or 3 feet below normal, you can easily see parts of brushpiles poking through the surface, or visible just beneath the surface. Marking a map, marking locations on a GPS, or just taking careful note of shoreline features that can guide you back to a brushpile will help you establish a route of brushpiles to fish when lake levels are normal or higher.
How do you fish them? Well, there are lots of options.
At this time of year, when water temperatures are still below 70 degrees, I like to fish a jig dressed with plastic or pork, either by flipping or pitching or casting. Spinnerbaits and crankbaits can be productive as well, and can sometimes help you find active bass quicker than using jigs.
As April wanes and water temperatures climb higher, my favorite way to probe brushpiles is with a Texas-rigged plastic worm. I've probably caught more bass by dragging a worm through shallow-water cover than by any other method.
Technically, you need a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build brushpiles, although many anglers routinely build them without a permit; I've not met anyone who ever got a citation for doing so. The permit requirement is an attempt to make sure people don't use hazardous materials or create navigation hazards for boaters and skiers or dangerous spots for swimmers.
Most angler-built brushpiles are small and built of materials that aren't likely to cause boat or motor damage. Nor do most anglers place them in swimming areas.
But enough about brushpiles. I discussed them chiefly because they are widely used at Green Country lakes.
Another factor that can be significant when bass fishing at Keystone, Eufaula and Fort Gibson in the springtime is fluctuating water levels.
Most bass fishermen would be happy if all of our lakes remained at the same level constantly. But fish and fishing are not the highest priorities for the managers of the lakes and the agencies that regulate production of electrical power through hydroelectric dams.
When most of these lakes were built, the chartered purposes were flood control, power generation and water supply. And at all three of these prime bass lakes, a fourth factor is supplying water for navigation in the Kerr-McClellan (Arkansas-Verdigris) Navigation System that lets barges move from Tulsa and Muskogee down to the Mississippi River and back.
Keystone Lake is an impoundment on the Arkansas River. Fort Gibson is on the Grand River, which flows into the Arkansas just a couple of miles below the Fort Gibson Dam. And Eufaula, on the Canadian River, also drains into the Arkansas a few miles below the Eufaula Dam.
The lake managers have attempted to work with state fisheries biologists to stabilize lake levels during spawning season. But there are times when flood control or the need for power generation or navigation water dictates the timing and amount of water needed to pass through the dams.
I've seen Fort Gibson Lake's water level rise as much as 28 feet in only a few hours. Such radical changes are rare, but when heavy rains set in over the Grand River drainage area, and water must be released rapidly from Grand and Hudson lakes, Fort Gibson receives the deluge.
Rapid changes in lake levels defini
tely can impact bass fishing. You may be on a productive pattern one day, but the next morning the lake starts falling rapidly and the bass, which were in shallow water, pull away from shorelines and move deep.
Or the opposite can happen. You may be working a few brushpiles in 6 feet of water when the lake level starts to rise and the lake spreads out. Those fish that were hugging brushpiles on Friday may move up into freshly flooded willow thickets or brushy flats where new food sources are suddenly available.
When the water spreads out and floods normally dry areas full of trees, bushes and grasses, it can be a great time to give the flippin' stick a workout, dropping jigs in and around flooded buttonbush, willow thickets, hardwood trees or similar cover.
Let's look at the bass fishing on these three lakes a little more closely.
At 102,000 acres, the "gentle giant" is Oklahoma's largest reservoir. It is so spread out over the map of Eastern Oklahoma, and has such different characteristics in different parts of the lake, that it can fish like multiple lakes on any given day.
The Canadian River drains a huge portion of Oklahoma and even part of the Texas Panhandle. It has three large branches -- the North Canadian, South Canadian and the Deep Fork (of the Canadian) rivers.
The North Canadian and South Canadian are broad, shallow rivers that normally are small streams in huge riverbeds. Both carry significant silt loads and so contribute to turbidity in the lake. The Deep Fork, which originates in northwest Oklahoma City and flows through red-dirt country where the soils have a lot of colloidal clay. The Deep Fork arm of the lake usually is red and more turbid than the other portions of the lake.
After a good local rain, one of my fishing buddies commented, fishing in the Deep Fork arm "is like fishing in ketchup."
The red-stained water discourages some fishermen, but there are plenty of fish in the Deep Fork arm of Lake Eufaula. And, in fact, the murky water sometimes is an advantage. It allows you to fish much closer, making shorter casts and more subtle presentations, than if you were fishing in the lower end of the lake where the water usually is much clearer.
On busy weekends, I actually prefer the Deep Fork arm because it tends to have less traffic than the main lake or lower lake. But all parts of Eufaula can be productive.
FORT GIBSON LAKE
Fort Gibson Lake is slightly less than 20,000 acres, but, like Eufaula, it can fish like different lakes on any given day, depending on what part of the lake you're fishing.
The main lake, from, say, Flat Rock Creek down, spreads out and has plenty of shallow, sandy coves and lots of rocky shorelines.
When the water is high, many acres of flooded brush and ditches and small creeks draw bass off the main lake. So, when Fort Gibson is a couple of feet above normal, I'd recommend spending most of your time probing those areas with lots of recently flooded cover.
When the level is below normal, though, the ol' brushpile pattern is hard to beat in the lower three-fourths of the lake.
I like fishing the upper end of the lake, where it narrows down to basically the river channel and a few creeks flowing in. At normal levels, there are numerous laydown logs and fallen trees embedded in the shoreline mud. Shoreline fishing can be pretty simple then -- just slinging a worm, jig or spinner around visible cover.
When lots of water is coming down the river from Lake Hudson, fishing the upper river channel can be more like fishing a free-flowing river. That is, bass sometimes seem to gather on sandbars or points that cause eddies and swirls in the current. When bass are holding in the main-river channel, Carolina-rigged plastics and crankbaits may be your best bets.
And if the lake is muddied by local rains, try the Spring Creek arm of the lake. It isn't large, and if there are a few boats in it already, then it might pay to go elsewhere. But the gin-clear Spring Creek, which actually has a small, private dam on it just above where it enters the lake, creates a beautiful little part of this reservoir where I've caught many largemouths and spotted bass and even a couple of smallmouths.
I also caught my biggest Oklahoma walleye ever, which weighed about 12 pounds, by accident there once while fishing a crankbait for bass in an evening jackpot tournament. Walleyes aren't abundant in the Grand River system, but you can find one now and then.
When I moved to Eastern Oklahoma 31 years ago to write about hunting and fishing for a Tulsa newspaper, hardly anyone fished Lake Keystone for black bass. Stripers were all the rage then, and Keystone was one of the best inland striper fisheries in the country.
Over the years since then, though, the Keystone striper fishery has waned. Yes, you can still catch stripers there, although big ones are rare. And yes, the stripers still spawn naturally in the Arkansas River above the lake. But eventually, black bass fishermen started paying more attention to Keystone.
I don't know why, but the ODWC has not included Lake Keystone in its annual springtime electrofishing surveys of black bass populations for the pas six years or more. The most recent survey results I could find were from 2003, even though some other Green Country lakes have been surveyed multiple times since then.
So, I can't tell you what the Wildlife Department's assessment of Keystone's largemouth or spotted bass population is these days. But I have friends who live on or near the lake and fish it often. They still tell me it's a better bass lake than most anglers think, even though they urge me not to publicize that fact.
The biggest problem with fishing for largemouths at Keystone, I believe, is that there isn't much cover in shallow water. The lake was mostly stripped of trees when it was built in the 1960s, and even those areas where trees remained have since lost most of that timber.
A couple of friends and I fish Keystone often for crappie; we began building small brushpiles there many years ago. I found that when I'd go back later in the year to fish for bass, my brushpiles often held bass too.
But when I fish Keystone for bass, I usually avoid most of the main lake and head up one of the smaller creeks on the upper Arkansas River arm of the lake, or in the House Creek area off the Cimarron arm.
Keystone catches a lot of prairie wind, but tucking your boat back into one of the smaller creeks makes for less troublesome fishing; there seems to be more shoreline cover in those little creeks than on the main lake.
Although I'm not an avid crankbait fisherman, I am at Keystone. If you ask me my favorite lure for catching bass on most G
reen Country lakes, I'd have to say a Texas-rigged plastic worm. But for some reason, I've had much more luck fishing shad-colored and crawfish-colored crankbaits at Keystone, except in the hotter summer months when I start most days with a plastic worm.
Green Country is loaded with lakes both big and small, most of which hold fair numbers of bass. But Keystone, Fort Gibson and Eufaula are likely spots to enjoy a good day of April bass fishing. Now is the best time of the year to hook into a big, egg-laden female that will weigh more than at other times!