May 13, 2011
If you're searching for good fishing in Oklahoma this month, here's where you're sure to find it!
May can be a great time for catching stripers on a number of Oklahoma's lakes, including Texoma and Keystone. The author boated this hefty striped bass after it slammed the live shad he was using for bait. Photo by Bob Bledsoe.
The next few weeks are among the best of the year for catching fish in Oklahoma.
Not only are black bass, stripers, sand bass and crappie cooperative in May and June, but those two months offer some of the easiest opportunities to catch all three popular species of catfish close to our shorelines. And sunfish -- bluegills, redears, green sunfish and their cousins -- are bunched up and spawning, especially around the full-moon periods. And so they too are easier than usual to catch.
The weather is usually mild and, although rains are frequent during this season, there are usually lots of sunny days for nice outings at your favorite lake or stream.
Let's look first at catfishing possibilities. Channel cats, blue cats and flatheads all spawn in late spring and early summer here in Oklahoma. The blues and channels typically begin spawning first, and the flatheads move to their favorite shoreline caves and crevices soon after.
During the colder winter months and hotter, late-summer months, it is often necessary to have a boat to get to the best catfishing spots around mid-lake structure or on big, mid-lake flats. But in May and June, and sometimes into early July, lots of catfish move toward shorelines, especially rocky shorelines, like riprapped areas around roads and bridges or along the faces of dams, or naturally rocky shorelines with jumbles of boulders and small natural cavities. Those are great places for catfish to spawn.
Catfish are usually cavity nesters and deposit their eggs in the cavities and hang around while the eggs develop and hatch. That means that for several weeks beginning in May there are often lots of catfish prowling the shorelines searching both for mates and for nesting spots.
It is perhaps the best time of the year for boatless anglers to have access to big numbers of catfish. That's because many favored spawning areas can be fished from the shore with rod and reel, with banklines, trotlines, yo-yos or other methods.
My friends and I have put a lot of catfish filets in the freezer over the years by fishing riprapped shorelines, either with rods and reels or with banklines tied to overhanging tree branches or with bank poles fashioned from young, limber willow poles.
If you're fishing for channel cats, a wide variety of baits can produce results. Cut-shad, shad gizzards, minnows, stinkbait, crawfish and small sunfishes seined from nearby creeks can be good offerings for channel cats. Nightcrawlers too.
For blue cats, I've had more luck with either small live shad or fresh-cut shad than with other baits.
For flatheads, live minnows or live small sunfish are usually the best choices. I won't say it's impossible to catch a flathead on cut bait, but it's rare. They definitely show a preference for live baits.
I've also known successful trotliners who used many other strange baits -- leeches, dough baits, persimmons (They're hard to keep on the hook, but they get results.) and a variety of concoctions made from meat, flour, cornmeal, blood and other ingredients.
But then, I used to have a friend who had a cabin at Lake Eufaula who regularly harvested several catfish from his trotlines that had no bait at all on them. He put the lines out with nice, shiny hooks on them and said the channel cats hit the bare hooks, but only if they were shiny.
I challenged him that he was probably just snagging fish, but he countered that, no, they were almost always caught in their mouths. I ran lines with him one weekend just to see. Sure enough, from three lines with about two dozen hooks on each, we boated seven nice channel cats from about a pound up to about 6 pounds.
Although there are many more big lakes in the eastern half of Oklahoma, good catfishing waters can be found in all parts of the state. Although I live in the northeast and do most of my fishing in those lakes within 100 miles or so of Tulsa, I've had many good days of catfishing at Salt Plains and Canton in the northwest, Altus-Lugert and the lakes around Lawton in the southwest. And, of course, Southeastern Oklahoma is full of good catfishing holes from Texoma and Hugo and Pine Creek up to Eufaula and Kerr and Wister.
And many of those lakes have either long stretches of riprapped areas on their dams, or are crossed by highways where the roadside shorelines are faced with riprap for miles. Many of the Eastern Oklahoma lakes also have lots of bluff-like, rocky shorelines that draw spawning cats into the shallows as well.
One reason I look forward to May and June each year is because it's the time I like to fill my freezer with a few bags of tasty filets of small sunfish. Good sunfishing opportunities can be found at major reservoirs, but I've had most of my best luck at smaller lakes -- municipal water supply lakes and private watershed lakes. Those smaller impoundments, which often have clearer water than the more turbid big lakes, often hold abundant populations of bluegills. And those lakes that are clear enough to have lots of water willow and smartweed and cattails or other, similar emergent vegetation growing in the shallows often have abundant populations of redear sunfish as well.
Redears are known as "crackers" or "shellcrackers" in some Southern states. That's because one of their favorite foods, if available, is freshwater snails. Many clearwater Oklahoma lakes have good numbers of freshwater snails that like to attach themselves to the stalks of water willow and other emergent vegetation. Redears often prowl those weedbeds or cruise the edges of them looking for snails. Baits -- worms, crickets and grasshoppers, to name a few -- fished along the edges of or in pockets among those emergent weeds can often produce a stringer full of redears big enough to fillet.
Bluegills inhabit similar areas, but at this time of year they fan out their spawning beds and cluster around those spawning areas. In clear water, especially with the aid of polarized sunglasses, it's often possible to spot those circular beds, fanned clean of silt and algae, in shallow water and to target your fishing around the beds. But even if the beds are too deep to be visible, it's often possible to locate them by trial-and-error fishing.
If I'm fishing around beds that are in shallow water, I like to use
a very small bobber on a slip-bobber rig. That allows the bobber to slide down near the bait for casting, but then rise up to the stopping device when making a presentation.
You can buy various types of bobber stops, but my favorite has always been a spool of elastic thread, purchased in the sewing department of the local big-box store or some similar store. I snip off a few inches of the elastic thread and tie several half hitches of the thread tightly around my monofilament line.
The bobber can slide up to that point, but then stops. The knotted thread holds in place fairly well, but can also be moved up or down the line whenever you need to change fishing depths.
These sunfish can also be caught on small jigs and spinners, but if you want to take home a big mess of sunfish quickly, live crickets or pieces of nightcrawlers or earthworms are tough baits to beat.
Tulsa's Lake Eucha is a good bluegill lake. Stillwell's municipal lake is another good spot. American Horse Lake in Western Oklahoma is another good one. There are many small lakes in all parts of the state where bluegills and redears are plentiful. Many ponds and lakes also hold lots of green sunfish, but I've caught more and bigger green sunfish, or "goggle-eyes" as they call them in Southeastern Oklahoma, in our state's streams than in our impoundments.
When I fish Southeastern Oklahoma streams for smallmouth bass, I'm always reluctant to keep and kill any of the slow-growing smallmouths. But in a typical day of floating one of those Southeastern creeks or rivers, it's usually easy to catch enough green sunfish to fry up a nice mess of fish for supper, while turning the smallmouths back to catch again.
There's another method for catching sunfish, especially bluegills, that can be a lot of fun on a late-spring weekend. That is using a fly rod to probe the shallows with small popping bugs or with small nymphs or streamers.
Years ago when I lived in Stillwater I had access to a couple of large farm ponds that were loaded with bluegills. I'd launch my float-tube and use a little 4-weight fly rod to catch bluegills and it wasn't uncommon to catch several dozen colorful bluegills in a few hours.
When the 'gills aren't nesting, popping bugs can stir up a lot of action, but I found that when they were gathered on the nests, nymphs and small streamers produced many more strikes.
This time of year is also great for catching black bass. Eastern Oklahoma smallmouth streams typically have good flows of water in May and June and can be easily navigated in a canoe or johnboat. Similar action for spotted and largemouth bass can be found on many prairie streams in central and western parts of the state.
And in our farm ponds, lakes and big reservoirs, this time of the year offers perhaps the most versatile assortment of opportunities for catching largemouths. Bass are active and feeding after the rigors of spawning, and so on any given day, just about any pattern you can think of might be effective. No matter whether you like to fish jigs or plastic worms or similar "falling baits," or whether you like burning spinnerbaits or buzzbaits over shallow cover, fishing crankbaits or topwaters or fishing finesse baits around deep structure, you have a good chance of getting results in Oklahoma this month.
Sometimes in colder or hotter months, bass are more finicky about which baits and techniques they will respond to. But in late spring and early summer they may go for just about any given pattern.
There are striped bass, white bass and hybrids on the menu as well. Those springtime spawners also are trying to fatten up after their trips up rivers and creeks to spawn. The biggest challenge this season is locating the bass. All three of these true-bass species are open-water roamers that like to chase shad or other baitfish. They are schoolers that roam in packs and chase baitfish to the surface or trap them against shorelines.
As summer progresses, it is more and more likely that you'll see surface-feeding activity as stripers, hybrids or sand bass chase schools of shad to the surface. Noisy splashing can alert anglers to the presence of a school of marauding linesiders. Watching for gulls diving toward the water can lead anglers to areas where bass are feeding.
But in May, it's more likely that anglers will have to troll or cruise the lakes while watching their sonar displays to find schools of bass cruising below. Crankbaits can be great tools for catching all three species. White, silver or shad-colored baits are often the best choices.
Tailrace fishing can also be very good at this time of year. Springtime rains often fill our reservoirs to above-normal levels, providing plenty of water to operate the power-generating turbines in the dams at most of our large reservoirs. And by May, many homes and businesses are firing up their air conditioners, increasing the demand for power generated at the dams.
That means there are often many hours of generation, with lots of water being drained through the turbines, and with lots of small baitfish being killed or stunned as they are sucked through the dams. Stripers, hybrids and sand bass, as well as catfish and other predators, move up from the rivers into the spillway basins when the turbines are running to feed on the stunned or injured baitfish. That creates an opportunity for tailrace anglers to catch a lot of fish.
Tailrace fishing is a specialized environment. For shoreline anglers, it usually means using long rods with which to make very long casts in order to reach the areas where the active fish are feeding.
At most dams, boaters can tie their craft to the cables stretched below the stilling basins, giving them a little closer access to the best fishing areas. But even then, it is often necessary to use long rods with which casts of a couple hundred feet can be made.
Topwater plugs can be effective at times when fishing for stripers in tailrace areas, but fishing jigs beneath casting floats is probably one of the most consistently productive techniques.
Two or three jigs can be tied on a dropper beneath a weighted casting float. The weighted float enables the user to make long casts, but the small jigs beneath the float can draw strikes from stripers, hybrids, sand bass or other types of fish feeding in the turbulent water.
Fishing with live or freshly dead shad or sunfish or big minnows can also be a good way to catch catfish in the tailraces in late spring.
No matter whether you're a heavy-tackle enthusiast who likes to work the tailraces, or an ultralight-tackle specialist who likes to use a little finesse to fool sunfish or small bass, this is a time of the year that offers a little something for everyone.
I haven't even mentioned crappie fishing, which can also be great about now. While you might find a few crappie still spawning in the shallows in early May, they are typical
ly back in their usual haunts, suspending around deep structure and brushpiles, by mid-May, and can be caught on minnows or jigs.
Late spring can bring a free-for-all for Oklahoma anglers. If one species of fish isn't cooperating to our liking, it's easy to change up and catch something else. It's oh so true; there's a little something for everyone at this time of year!