October 05, 2010
Fishing with live bait may just be the key to taking January stripers and hybrids at these prime Oklahoma locations. (January 2009)
Fishing guide J.B. Bennett is best known for using jigs to take hefty stripers like this -- but he's been known to tie on a live bait from time to time. He caught this linesider below Eufaula Dam on a cold January morning.
Photo by Bob Bledsoe.
I am not a big live-bait fisherman.
It's not a snobbish thing, and it's not that I have anything against it.
But it's a lot of work.
It's not the fishing with live bait that bothers me. It's getting the bait and taking care of it in all sorts of weather.
Striper fishermen go to great lengths to catch and keep their baitfish alive and lively. They have bait tanks and aerator pumps and a variety of chemicals and salts and this and that, all aimed at trying to keep their shad healthy and swimming until it's time to hook them and drop them overboard.
When the weather is hot the shad tend to die easily. When the weather is cold the shad tend to die easily. The poor old shad just don't seem to stand much of a chance in captivity.
It kind of makes you yearn for an old-fashioned minnow bucket and a dozen fat shiners that stayed healthy when you put the perforated inner bucket into the water at your feet or over the side of your boat.
But live bait -- especially lively shad -- can be the most productive method for catching stripers and hybrids, especially in the coldest and hottest months of the year.
No matter whether you fish in one of Oklahoma's big striper reservoirs like Texoma or Keystone, or whether you fish in tailrace waters or one of our river fisheries like the Lower Illinois River, using live bait can be the ticket to successful fishing.
Free-lining a lively shad in the Lower Illinois or in mid-lake at Texoma, or fishing a shad under a balloon in one of the tailrace fisheries like Keystone or Eufaula or Kaw, can be just the ticket to filling your stringer with big, hefty linesides. Catching 20-pound-plus stripers in midwinter isn't uncommon, and fresh gizzard shad are often the best baits for the job.
I have always preferred using artificial lures. About the only time I fish with bait is when catfishing, or when I am crappie fishing with someone who is a diehard minnow dunker.
But I can be persuaded quickly to use bait when striper fishing at this time of year.
Oh, I've had some very productive days on the Lower Illinois, and in some tailrace areas, using only jigs. My friend J.B. Bennett of Okmulgee, who operates Jig Blue Guide Service and who I consider to be one of Oklahoma's best striper fishermen, taught me many years ago how effective light line and small jigs can be for catching stripers on the Lower Illinois when winter conditions are right.
But I have also spent some days probing the waters of the Lower Illinois with little or no success while Delmer Shoults and some of the other professional guides there were sacking up big stripers with their clients using live bait.
On the Lower Illinois, live rainbow trout is another popular choice for live bait. Because the Lower Illinois below the Lake Tenkiller Dam is a put-and-take trout stream, trucks from the hatcheries regularly dump thousands of 9- and 10-inch trout during winter months. Big, hungry stripers in that river dine frequently on the tasty flesh of trout.
Oklahoma even changed the law a few years ago to make it legal to use trout for bait. At one time it was prohibited to use any kind of game fish species as bait for catching other fish. But, chiefly because of the striper anglers on the Lower Illinois, the law was changed to allow anglers who catch no more than their legal limit of rainbows there to use them for bait if they choose to do that instead of eat them themselves.
Some of the guides, though, keep live-boxes in the cool waters of the river. They fill the boxes with trout they purchase from hatcheries, and then remove a few at a time, as they and their clients need them to fish for stripers in the river.
The Lower Illinois is a unique wintertime fishery. And it all has to do with water temperature.
Because it is a designated trout fishery, there is a constant release of water from the Tenkiller Ferry Dam. The water is drawn from the depths of the lake so that it comes out at a temperature in the low 60s. In the hot summertime, when surface temps in most Oklahoma lakes and streams is in the 90s, that cool water draws game fish up from the Arkansas River at the head of Robert S. Kerr Reservoir. They move out of the warm waters of the Arkansas into the cooler waters of the smaller river.
In the winter time, when surface water temperatures can get down around freezing, or even below, that same 60-odd-degree water flowing down the Illinois also draws game fish, including many stripers, sand bass and the occasional hybrid, up into the Illinois.
If you fish the Lower Illinois a few times, you begin to see a pattern. When flows are heavy in the Arkansas and light in the Illinois, the warmer, more turbid water from the big river backs up into the Lower Illinois, sometimes for quite a distance -- as far upstream as the Highway 64 bridges (There are two of them, because at that point the Illinois flows through two separate channels.)
At other times, when the level of Kerr Lake is lower or the flows in the Arkansas are less, the clearer waters of the Illinois push all the way downstream to the junction of the rivers and even create a clear-water area just downstream from the junction. There is an island and slough that lies at the mouth of the river and when the water is clear around the island and in the slough that lies behind the island, fishing can be good there also.
Taking note of where that "mixing" area is on any given day can be the key to catching many species of fish here, especially in the coldest and hottest months of the year. More often than not, the best fishing will be somewhere slightly upstream of where the water turns clearer.
Anglers using big shad or trout will likely catch mostly stripers or the occasional catfish or largemouth bass in the Lower Illinois. Anglers using smaller baits like shiner minnows may catch walleyes, saugers, sand bass or other species there as well.
Here's one last thing to remember about the Lower Illinois River: Fishing usually is best there when the weather is at its seasonal e
xtremes. Thus, the hotter the temperatures in late summer and the colder the temperatures in midwinter, the better your chances of finding a lot of fish feeding in the Lower Illinois. It's that temperature difference -- cooler water in the summer, warmer water in the winter -- that draws the game fish into the Lower Illinois out of the Arkansas River.
One of the best days I've ever had on the Lower Illinois was in January when big chunks of ice were flowing down the Arkansas River and the stripers and big sand bass were stacked up in the Lower Illinois. Two companions and I boated probably 100 or more stripers and 200 to 300 big sand bass that day. It was toward the end of a multi-day period of temperatures in the teens, and ice was covering many bodies of water. But the Lower Illinois' waters were flowing and the game fish were gathered there in big numbers.
The Lower Illinois certainly isn't the only place to catch stripers in January and February in Oklahoma.
There are a few lakes full of stripers, plus several tailrace fisheries that can be very productive.
Sometimes small sunfish can be very effective baits. But day in and day out, shad seem to catch stripers more effectively than sunfish do.
Live bait fishing can be good in both types of places.
Fishing live bait in tailrace areas presents its own set of challenges -- mostly in the area of casting. When you're using long rods and making long and energetic casts to deliver baits 50 yards or farther up into the tailrace or stilling basin areas below the dams, it's easy to sling the baits off of your hooks. Gentler casting won't get the baits where they need to be in many cases, so anglers turn to other methods for delivering their baited hooks.
Radio-controlled or "RC" boats are one of the most common and most effective methods for getting baits positioned in the best fishing areas below the dams.
Bennett and his clients use jigs or other artificial lures much of the time, fishing the jigs beneath weighted casting corks that allow them to make those long casts toward the dams at Fort Gibson and Eufaula spillways. At most major dams, a buoyed cable stretches across the river 100 to 200 yards downstream from the dam. But the best action is usually in that stilling basin area closer to the dam.
And there are times, Bennett concedes, that fishing with live shad, sunfish or shiners can be far more effective than fishing with lures. So he also uses an RC boat to deliver baited lines up to the apron of the dam where hungry stripers often lurk.
Since it is virtually impossible to make such long casts without slinging a shad off of the hook, Bennett clips the baited lines onto his radio-controlled boat that can travel up to the dam where the line is released. Then the small boat is steered back to Bennett's boat where it is moored until time to send another bait up into the stilling basin.
Some spillway striper and catfish fishermen make their own boats out of blocks of plastic foam. Others buy small radio controlled boat kits. Most of the boats are powered by small trolling motors, often with the shafts cut down to shorter lengths; some are powered by deep-cycle batteries. I've also seen some with smaller motors powered by banks of flashlight batteries, and others that use the small wet-cell batteries such as riding lawnmowers and motorcycles use for starting batteries.
You often see such bait-delivery boats in action below our major dams, especially those on the Arkansas River impoundments like Kaw, Keystone, Webbers Falls and Robert S. Kerr, and below Texoma and Eufaula. As I mentioned earlier, the Fort Gibson Dam spillway on the Neosho River, which is open to the Arkansas River only a mile or two downstream, is another place where lots of stripers are caught using RC boats.
If you're buying or building an RC boat for fishing, make sure the transmitter and receiver have adequate range. The radio-control systems made for most RC model airplanes are adequate and have ranges of several hundred yards. Those systems made for RC cars and other "toys" often have less transmitting and receiving range and it is possible to lose control of the boat if it is sent too far away from the user. Sometimes that 100- to 200-yard distance from the cable to the dam surpasses the usable range of smaller transmitters, so know your system's effective working range before sending a boat too far away.
What kind of bait is best for catching stripers?
I think most experienced striper anglers and guides will cast their vote for good old gizzard shad as being the most effective bait. They are also one of the most difficult baits to keep healthy and alive. Some lakes, Texoma for example, also have threadfin shad, but threadfins have proved difficult to manage in lakes in the northern half of Oklahoma. That's partly because the wintertime water temperatures and occasional ice cover on large expanses of the lakes resulting in large-scale die-offs of the threadfins.
Most shad are caught with cast nets. Some are trapped, but most are netted. Like any kind of fishing, throwing a cast net can sometimes be easy and quickly productive, and sometimes difficult and frustrating. I've made a single throw with a net and pulled it back so full of shad I couldn't lift it out of the water. And I've also spent hours making dozens of casts without catching enough shad to go fishing with any confidence.
Finding shad and learning how they react to seasonal differences, surface temperature differences and other factors could fill a whole magazine article of its own, and so I won't dwell on it here. At this time of year, when water is cold, it is possible to keep shad alive for short periods without a lot of equipment and water additives.
Later in the year, though, and especially during the hotter summer months, it may be necessary to have a large, well-aerated bait tank in your boat. And you may have to add salt or other additives to your bait tank that have been created just for keeping fish alive in tanks. But that will help to keep shad swimming and looking lively until time to put them on the hook and feed a striper.
Usually it's much easier to keep medium or small sunfish alive to use as bait. Sometimes small sunfish can be very effective baits. But day in and day out, shad seem to catch stripers more effectively than sunfish do. Or at least that has been my experience. Most of the guides with whom I have discussed live-bait fishing for stripers seem to agree.
I have also seen some anglers on the Lower Illinois River use freshwater herring for bait. These small tarpon-like members of the minnow family, like shad, are very bony and their flesh is oily. That oil, though, seems to make them attractive as baits for both stripers and catfish.
The hard part is catching the herring. I've never used them live as striper baits, o
nly cut into chunks and strips as catfish bait. My fishing buddies and I catch them using small jigs, often fishing in the slough at the mouth of the Lower Illinois, or around the wing dam that lies just at the south end of that slough.
Artificial-lure purists who look down on live-bait users often don't realize just how much skill and knowledge is needed to gather and care for bait. It's not always as simple as just buying a couple of dozen minnows and putting them in a small bucket.
Effective live-bait fishing can be just as exacting a pursuit as fishing with artificial lures, sometimes even more so. And it can sometimes be the most effective way by far to catch big stripers, no matter whether you fish in lakes or rivers or in tailrace waters.
And right now is one of the best times of the year to give it a try!