Sooner Bass Outlook

Sooner Bass Outlook

At these lakes, you're sure to find plenty of the kind of bass fishing that the Sooner State has become famous for.

By Bryan Hendricks

In March 2000, when I was working for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, I accompanied a pair of ODWC fisheries technicians to Konawa Lake. The purpose of the trip was to conduct an electro-shocking survey to evaluate the lake's bass population.

I knew I was in for a treat when I passed a sign at the entrance to the Lake's access ramp that proclaimed Konawa as being Oklahoma's top trophy bass lake. If the local folks were proud enough of it to put it in writing for the world to see, it had to be true!

The day was warm and clear, with a slight breeze chopping the water. That was the first time I'd seen Konawa, and I was impressed by the big clumps of aquatic grass that extended out from the banks. We ran the equipment in 15-minute intervals, scooping up whatever fish came to the surface and putting them in a livewell. Then, the techs weighed and measured them before releasing them.

A number of factors influence these surveys, particularly timing. For example, the shock boat works the shoreline. If bass are in deep water, the shocker isn't going to bring them up. That appeared to be the case that day, because the fisheries guys said it was a small sample. I, however, have never seen so many bass, especially big bass, at one time before or since. What I saw that day convinced me the sign at the lake entrance was true. It also convinced me that the electroshock surveys do indeed produce an accurate representation of a lake's bass population.

Based on those numbers, anglers can determine which lakes have the best bass populations in terms of both numbers and size of bass, and can thus plan their trips accordingly.

More than half of the bass sampled at Taylor Creek, just southeast of Rush Springs, measured 14 inches or more in length! The biggest weighed 7.9 pounds. Photo by Bob Bledsoe

Most of Oklahoma's lakes have excellent bass habitat, at least when there's enough water to cover it. Unfortunately, most of the state has been mired in a drought spanning several years and that has left critical spawning and nursery habitat high and dry at critical times. That, in turn, has severely and adversely affected spawning and recruitment for both largemouth and smallmouth bass throughout the state, according to Gene Gilliland, research biologist for the ODWC.

"Water levels are the deciding factor for bass reproduction," Gilliland said. "We've been in a drought situation off and on since 1998. In the spring, we have plenty of water, and in some cases, lakes may actually be in a flooded state. Then, you get into June and August, and those same lakes will be down to normal pool, or even several feet below normal. That could be due to lack of rainfall, releasing water for power generation, or for municipal water supplies."

For anglers, the effects of drought may not be evident for several years. Adult bass may be plentiful in some lakes for a long time, so anglers may not notice a lack of small bass. When a year class or two is absent from the population, however, anglers will eventually notice the gap.

"Anglers don't recognize it for two or three years," Gilliland said. "A poor year-class doesn't make itself known until the fish should have grown to keeper size - but they're not there, or are there in low numbers.

"It's hard for anglers to think backwards - when the fishing is poor in a given year - to think back to what was going on in the environment two, three or four years ago," he added. "They may think that 2003 was a great bass-fishing year, but the good fishing that year was a result of good year-classes produced in 1999 or 2000."

One lake that has suffered an exaggerated yo-yo effect has been Eufaula, but Grand Lake, Keystone and Fort Gibson have also been affected, Gilliland said. Lake Altus-Lugert was reduced to about 7 percent of its total capacity.

"We just haven't been able to string multiple years of good water levels together," he mused.

When low water levels affect fish reproduction, it's always easy to blame the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for mismanaging water levels, or for overall negligence. However, such blame is misplaced, Gilliland said.

"We have water management plans with the Corps to regulate water levels to benefit fisheries," he explained, "but if we don't get the rain, it doesn't matter what kind of plan you have."

It's not just hydropower generation that diminishes lake levels. In the tailwaters of lakes Keystone, Eufaula and Texoma, the Corps is required to maintain a certain minimum flow in the tailwaters to provide nesting habitat for the least tern, a shorebird that nests on riparian islands. Lake Hefner, an important fishery in central Oklahoma, donates a huge portion of its water to the lush, green lawns of Oklahoma City.

Eventually, anglers will notice the result, but bass populations seem to be at least holding the line.

"The numbers of older year-classes seem to be fair," Gilliland said. "Fish that are 14 inches and longer are 3- to 4-year old fish. In 2002 and 2003, what we didn't have were the 5- and 6-pound fish, but that may be the result of weak year-classes from five to eight years ago. There may not be as many of those bass out there anyway, and natural mortality reduced those fish to lower levels."

Anglers also blame the largemouth bass virus for wrecking bass populations in many lakes. While the virus certainly has killed bass across the state, it appears to be on the wane, Gilliland said. Better yet, bass in affected lakes appear to be developing a form of immunity to the virus.

"After we had the fish kills, the percentage of fish carrying the virus went down considerably," he explained. "Bass in those lakes seem to be building antibodies to combat the virus, and they're getting back to their old selves. We've seen it at Tenkiller, Grand and Eufaula; they've really bounced back after a poor year before. Elsewhere in the country, the kills have been a one-time event."

While dry weather has played havoc with bass recruitment, bass populations as a whole are in fairly good shape across the state. The fishing is still good at our favorite lakes, and we've got the numbers to prove it. See how your home water measures up.

The Top Five
For comparative purposes, the ODWC categorizes lakes as those larger than 1,000 acres and those less than 1,0

00 acres. Among lakes larger than 1,000 acres, Konawa Lake is again the champion. Covering 1,300 acres in Seminole County, Konawa produced 201 bass per hour of electro-fishing during last year's surveys. In 2002, it produced 209 bass per hour, compared to 199 bass per hour in 1999. That demonstrates amazing consistency.

"Konawa is traditionally one of best lakes in the state - year in, year out - in terms of number of bass. It's also one of the best in terms of big bass" said Kim Erickson, fisheries chief for the ODWC.

In terms of big fish, Konawa produced 54.7 bass larger than 14 inches per hour, compared to 32 in 2002. The biggest bass in last year's sample was 5.6 pounds.

Right behind Konawa was Grand Lake, which may be an unfair comparison because Grand covers nearly 60,000 acres. Nevertheless, it produced roughly 169 bass per hour in 2003, which was a huge improvement over 2002, when it produced a mere 114 bass per hour. Of last year's sample, nearly 46 bass shocked up per hour were longer than 14 inches. That's almost identical to 2002, when 49 bass per hour were longer than 14 inches. The biggest bass in last year's sample was 6 pounds.

"Historically, it takes a five-fish stringer over 20 pounds to win any tournament at Grand," Gilliland said. "In 2002, it took 12 to 13 pounds, but last year we started seeing those 20-pound stringers come back. Given time, those smaller fish that made up a big part of that 169 per hour will grow up and turn into 3-, 4- and 5-pound fish."

Ranking third was Dripping Springs Lake, a traditional big-bass hotspot that recently has been overshadowed by McGee Creek and Wes Watkins reservoirs. Last year, it produced 130.4 bass per hour, with about 15 per hour measuring greater than 14 inches. The biggest bass in the sample weighed a very impressive 9.2 pounds.

In fourth place was Hudson Lake, an 11,000-acre impoundment of the Neosho River in northeast Oklahoma. It produced 101 bass per hour, compared to 117 in 2002. Of those, 43.3 fish per hour were longer than 14 inches, down a bit from 58 per hour in 2002. Its biggest bass sampled last year weighed 7 pounds.

Tenkiller Lake, one of my all-time favorites, placed fifth with a lethargic 77 bass per hour. That's up from 64 per hour in 2002. For size, 21 fish per hour were longer than 14 inches, which was slightly down from the 27 per hour in 2002. The biggest bass in last year's sample weighed 4.9 pounds.

Samples from the Oklahoma City lakes, Hefner and Thunderbird, were unimpressive. Hefner produced an anemic 18.8 bass per hour, but nearly half (8.9) were larger than 14 inches. A 6-pounder topped that sample.

Thunderbird produced only 22.8 bass per hour, down from 36 per hour in 2002. Of last year's haul, 7.3 were larger than 14 inches. In 2002, that number was 10. The biggest bass in last year's sample weighed 5.2 pounds.

"At Lake Hefner, we've been battling water levels with the smallmouth bass population," Gilliland said. "We stocked them there for several years, and we've got adult smallmouths that are spawning successfully in the spring. But with the heavy water use in Oklahoma City, water levels at Hefner have dropped 8 feet in the summer, which leaves all the nursery habitat for those little smallmouths high and dry.

"We haven't documented any survival for those little smallmouths, so we've had to go in with supplemental stockings to make up for those missing year-classes," he added. "The success of those stockings will be limited because the habitat for the little fish is not there naturally."

Fortunately, Hefner got a little bit of a break last year, when water levels remained high all summer.

"When we did our fall sampling in October (2003), we saw some little smallmouths," Gilliland said. "We've had nursery cover that we haven't had there in years."

Another interesting story for anglers in "The City" is Wes Watkins Lake. It wasn't sampled in 2003, but Gilliland said it suffered a documented fish kill from the largemouth bass virus in 2003. It also suffered a massive bloom of Eurasian milfoil, which caused some significant problems.

"Wes Watkins went down 8 feet and stayed down all year," Gilliland said. "That left an awful lot of shallow water cover high and dry, which made a huge difference in fishable habitat.

"The vegetation went ballistic on us over there," he added. "If the water was less than 3 feet deep, it was solid weeds, and that's bad. We saw lots of little bass in the fall, but they were the same size they were when they spawned out. They're staying in that vegetation all summer and eating whatever is in the weeds, and they're not making a shift to fish in their diet. When those weeds die back in November and December, those little bass are just another minnow, and they don't have enough fat to get them through the winter, anyway."

Gilliland said he didn't know what effect the virus had. Catch rates have gone down, but he said he didn't know whether that was attributable to loss of fish or just the normal, if temporary, change in behavior the virus seems to cause.

The rest of the big lakes sampled last year were equally weak. Lake Eufaula, for example, produced just 38.3 bass per hour, with about a third (12.3) clocking in larger than 14 inches. That's about the same as 2002, when the haul was 34 bass per hour with 11 over 14 inches. Last years' big bass was 4.6 pounds.

Pine Creek Reservoir, a 3,800-acre impoundment of the Little River in McCurtain County, produced 45.3 bass per hour, with only 5.3 measuring over 14 inches. Its biggest bass sampled weighed 5.2 pounds.

Lake Hugo produced 31.4 bass per hour, with only 4.3 measuring more than 14 inches. Its biggest bass weighed an even 4 pounds.

The Top 5
Many Oklahomans prefer fishing small lakes, and judging by the numbers, we've got some dandies. Lake Bixhoma was tops in that category with 134 bass per hour. Of those, 32.7 were longer than 14 inches, and one was a 10-pounder.

Runner-up was Taylor Lake, a 227-acre jewel just southeast of Rush Springs. It yielded 131.3 bass per hour with, get this, 68 longer than 14 inches. That's more than half! The biggest of that lot weighed 7.9 pounds.

In third place was Greenleaf Lake. This 920-acre centerpiece of Greenleaf State Park is where I first caught a bass on a buzzbait. It surrendered 112.7 bass per hour, of which 23 were longer than 14 inches. The biggest weighed 5.8 pounds.

Lake Holdenville, my favorite bluegill lake in Oklahoma, was fourth with 104 bass per hour. Only about six per hour measured longer than 14 inches, however, but the biggest was worth the trip. It weighed 8.2 pounds.

The fifth-place finisher was Ga

rrison Creek Lake, a 65-acre reservoir near Roland. Only 3 years old, it produced 93.3 bass per hour. Only 8.7 per hour were larger than 14 inches, and the biggest weighed 5.9 pounds.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention my favorite small lake in Oklahoma, and that's Longmire. It produced only 56 bass per hour, but almost all of them, 48.3 per hour, exceeded 14 inches. The biggest weighed 7.8 pounds.

"That's not a place where you can go and catch 30 to 50 bass per day," Gilliland said. "You may only get 10 bites, but they'll all be good fish. Arcadia, Thunderbird and Bell Cow are all that way. They all have low-density populations, but they've got plenty of groceries, and their bass get good growth rates."

No matter where you fish this year, you should find plenty of excitement. That's what keeps us going, even through the tough times.

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