With less than ideal bass-fishing conditions across the state over the past couple of years, what's in store for Sooner anglers in 2003? Better fishing, say state biologists!
By Gary Lantz
Relatively poor largemouth bass fishing over the past two years in several of Oklahoma's major reservoirs has state anglers grumbling. At the same time, state wildlife department fisheries officials are a bit more positive and believe the state's fishermen could see a rebound as early as this spring.
Veteran fisheries biologist Greg Summers explains that years of accumulated data indicate that largemouth populations have experienced similar ups and downs in the past and that, generally, several years of slow fishing have been followed by a surge of much better angling.
"Forty-nine times out of 50, bass populations rebound after slow periods such as the one we've just experienced," Summers points out, "and angler success improves dramatically."
Summers said biologists already have noted better angling in Fort Gibson Reservoir (on the Grand River in Eastern Oklahoma), which is one of the lakes that suffered a decline in largemouth bass production in recent years.
"Right now I'm optimistic," Summers said. Naturally, Mother Nature can throw a monkey wrench into things at any time. "Of course, so much depends upon factors beyond our control - a hard winter, another year of extended drought in some areas, extreme fluctuations in water levels during the spawn."
The introduction of Florida-strain bass has put Oklahoma lakes in the big-bass business. A new state record could come at any time! Photo by Gary Lantz
The biologist points out that lakes currently producing an extraordinary number of 16-inch bass are a case in point. "We can look at all these 16-inch bass and know that something positive happened five years ago in this particular lake," he said. "Conversely, we've had several years of drought in the Lake Eufaula area, and this weather phenomenon has had an impact on the slowdown in a lake that traditionally fishes well.
"Several of our newer municipal lakes have been outstanding recently, and there's a reason," Summers said. "These smaller lakes aren't subject to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulations, which oftentimes result in major water level fluctuations at critical times, and we end up without bass recruitment, due to poor spawning conditions."
According to the biologist, the largemouth bass virus doesn't seem to be having that much negative impact on area lakes, even though fishermen look upon it as the plague that destroyed state angling.
"We haven't had fish kills due to the virus in over two years," Summers points out. "Actually, we've only had one confirmed virus fish kill, and that was in Lake Tenkiller more than two years ago."
Professional bass fisherman Gary Giudice of Norman is also optimistic about the 2003 bass angling season.
"It's true that our bigger lakes, including Eufaula, Tenkiller, Fort Gibson and Grand Lake, haven't fished as well in recent years as many thought they should have," Giudice said. "However, there's every sign that Grand Lake is coming back, and the fishing should be better this year in all these lakes I've mentioned, barring extreme fluctuations or conditions."
Giudice, host of the popular bass fishing radio show "Fish On," which airs on radio station KREF, Norman, said there has been much on-air speculation about the bass fishing downturn.
"Some say it's the virus, some point to instability in water levels, others blame fishing pressure," Giudice said. "Obviously the decline is due to a number of reasons, and while we wait for populations to achieve equilibrium in these troubled lakes, it just makes sense to take advantage of other lakes that are actually fishing quite well.
"Oklahoma bass anglers might want to focus on lakes like Texoma and Broken Bow this spring," Giudice said. "Both lakes fished extremely well in 2002 and both lakes continue to have excellent recruitment. Texoma has remained a good numbers lake, while Broken Bow offers the potential for some very big bass as well."
The fishing-show host mentioned that both these lakes have Florida-strain largemouths, and Broken Bow produced a state-record bass in 2002.
"I also believe that too many fishermen concentrate on our older, larger reservoirs when a number of smaller municipal lakes are offering excellent angling, both in size and in numbers of fish being caught," Giudice added.
"It might be better to think small in 2003," the Norman pro said. "Don't overlook the potential offered by impoundments like Wes Watkins and Prague City Lake. But keep in mind that each of these smaller lakes is governed by restrictions unique to just that single body of water. Be sure you have the proper permits and know all the rules before you back your boat off the trailer."
Another small lake that Giudice likes is famed Mountain Lake, near Ardmore. "It's small, and it has a lot of restrictions, but the lake also has the potential for some very big bass," he said.
"McGee Creek Lake, in Southeastern Oklahoma, is another lake that generally fishes good throughout the summer," Giudice added. "And for some excellent early-spring action, never underestimate the potential of Lake Konawa. This lake always has good numbers of bass, and because it is a warmwater lake used to cool generators, fish become active earlier. I wouldn't overlook Konawa in March and April."
Giudice's recipe for catching bass in lakes ranging from Wes Watkins to giant Texoma begins with a perennial favorite, the spinnerbait.
"Early in the spring, when the water is rising, I fish for bass that have moved to the bank with a 5/8-ounce chartreuse and white spinnerbait, double-willow blades. Or, if the water is murky, I'll switch to a Colorado blade," the bass fishing commentator pointed out.
Giudice said another spring bass weapon he utilizes is a black-and-blue or black-and-yellow half-ounce jig, fished with a black trailer. "Once again, you fish this bait right down the bank. In clear water I'll go to a tube bait, either pumpkin or watermelon, always with rattles. And the lighter the better, because you get better action," he explained.
Another good spring weapon, according to Giudice, is a diving crankbait in either a crawfish color or any other color that includes chartreuse.
"I like the Berkley Frenzy Medium Pro Diver," the Okie pro fisherman sai
d. "This bait runs around 8 to 10 feet deep and has excellent wobble and rattle. I retrieve it down the bank in maybe 6 feet of water and just let it bang off the debris and obstructions. It's a good tool for combing spawning water. However, if the cover is exceptionally dense, I stick with the jig. And if the water is really clear, I'm sold on the tube."
For bass holding on secondary points, Giudice prefers a Frenzy Minnow, usually in a shad color.
"You can jerk this bait down to 10 feet if you need to," he explains. "When I'm fishing points, I generally work it slow. I'll jerk it three times and it let it sit while I count to 10. This is a good technique for clear water with a temperature somewhere in the 50-degree range. When the temperature starts to climb, I'll switch to something else."
Giudice likes a 5 1/2-foot rod when he's fishing points, and he cautions that the jerking action needs to be down rather than sideways. "You want to get the bait in front of fish holding out there on these points, waiting for the water temperature to climb so they can move into the shallows. The key to success is finding fish, and if you'll employ all these techniques as tools in your search, you'll find something that works and be onto some good spring bass fishing."
As for hardware, he likes low-profile reels, mainly because they're comfortable. His rod choices include limber 7-footers for crankbaits and spinnerbaits, a heavy 7 1/2-foot rod for flipping jigs, and a 5 1/2-foot light-action model for jerkbaits.
Line preferences depend upon water clarity and lure action. "I generally try to use line as heavy as I can get away with," Giudice admitted. "I maybe drop to 10- or 12-pound-test for jerkbaits and go as stout as 25-pound-test for jigs.
"But when the water is really cold, the fish are lethargic or the lake is under tremendous fishing pressure, I may switch to light tackle and do some drop-shotting or mojoing with 8- or even 6-pound-test line," he added. "It's all a matter of adjusting your tackle and technique to what the fish will give you on any given day."
The veteran bass fisherman is quick to add that there are plenty of other ways to catch fish in the spring. "These are mainly my favorite ways, and they've been proven to work. After years of experimenting, you'll have your own preferences."
Although largemouth bass fishing has slowed in recent years, state wildlife officials are still excited about the growth of smallmouth bass angling opportunities across the state.
Biologists first attempted to stock smallmouth bass in a number of new lakes during the 1960s and '70s, but the genetic type available at that time simply couldn't get a toehold and the experiment failed.
"The strain we stocked was from the Tishomingo Federal Fish Hatchery, and the origin of those fish was from natural lakes throughout the country," said fisheries biologist Gene Gilliland. "Only one stocking, Lake Murray near Ardmore, proved successful. In fact, Lake Murray still contains that old smallmouth strain, the one we call the 'Tishomingo house brand.' "
In the years that followed, reservoir smallmouth experimentation in Oklahoma remained on the back burner until 1980, when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department began stocking Tennessee-strain smallmouths in Lake Texoma.
The smallmouth success story in Texoma prompted Oklahoma biologists to import Tennessee-strain smallmouths for stocking in other lakes with suitable habitat. "The Tennessee Valley Authority reservoirs originally were stocked with a variety of smallmouth bass from all over the country and varying types of habitat," Gilliland points out. "Over the years the offspring of these TVA originals have shown remarkable genetic adaptability, evidenced in how well they've done in Oklahoma reservoirs."
The Tennessee imports mixed with the old lake smallmouth strain from the federal hatchery at Tishomingo to provide fish for a statewide stocking program that even the most conservative biologists have termed a "smashing success."
Two and a half years after initial introductions, smallmouths 14 inches or more were being weighed at local bass tournaments. "We saw fish 2 to 2 1/2 pounds," Gilliland said. "The growth rate was greater than that of largemouth bass sharing the same environment."
While the smallmouths grew at an amazing rate and began to achieve natural reproduction, Sooner State biologists launched a research project on smallmouth habitat requirements, food habits and reproduction in Oklahoma reservoirs.
"We found that the fish required relatively clear water, rocky habitat and a strong forage base," Gilliland said. "In the case of Oklahoma lakes, prime forage proved to be an abundance of shad. Crawfish constituted only 25 percent of the overall diet. At the same time, we found these smallmouths to be opportunistic feeders. There were instances when 3- and 4-pound fish were full of mayflies."
Rocky habitat provided cover for young fish, Gilliland added. In Texoma, smallmouths showed a preference for rocks approximately the size of bowling balls, and assortments of small chunk rock and even riprap provided excellent smallmouth cover.
After experimental stockings in several small lakes, Oklahoma biologists - armed with the results of the comprehensive smallmouth study - began to select larger reservoirs for smallmouth introductions. If the lake met habitat requirements and offered a sizable forage base, the smallmouths found a new home. Reservoirs with high concentrations of largemouth and spotted bass were crossed off the list, because the fisheries teams felt these would offer too much competition for fledgling smallmouth populations.
Initial stockings of 3-inch fish were continued for three years. Then the biologists called a halt and began to search for signs of natural reproduction.
"Fortunately, we've had reproduction in all the lakes we've stocked," Gilliland said. "Keystone Reservoir, on the Arkansas River near Tulsa, took a little longer than the rest, but even so the growth rate there has been excellent. Even Lake Hefner, in Oklahoma City, has evidence of nest building from fish stocked several years ago."
To date, most smallmouth stocking has been limited to reservoirs in the western two-thirds of the state, even though lakes with excellent smallmouth potential exist in the Ozark hill country of Eastern Oklahoma.
"We've maintained a moratorium on stocking smallmouths in the eastern Oklahoma reservoirs simply because the streams that feed these lakes have native smallmouth species and we don't want to risk tampering with the unique genetics of the fish that already reside there," Gilliland said.
Today, all the major reservoirs with smallmouth bass populations contain fish in the 5- to 6-pound class and have natural reproduction. These reservoirs include Texoma, Eufaula, Skiatook, Keystone and Lawtonka. The current state record is a 7-pound, 8-ounce fish
from Lake Texoma, but there's room for improvement on that record weight.
Gilliland pointed out that smallmouth introductions have provided a sport-fishing boost for Oklahoma's aging reservoir system. "As the largemouth habitat degrades, we've been left with large lakes containing clear water, lots of rocky cover and plenty of shad," the biologist said. "Smallmouth bass filled a gap created by natural aging."
And considering that "natural aging" process that all our lakes go through, Oklahoma bass fishing is pretty darned dependable these days. Let's hope it stays that way for years to come!
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