Now 's the time to tangle with these powerhouse fighters of Oklahoma's lakes and streams. Don't pass up a chance to fish any of these hot locations this spring. (April 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Several years ago, I took a look at a weathered outdoor book titled Striper: The Super Fish.
Written by the late John Clift -- a former WWII reporter for Stars and Stripes, a writer for a New York newspaper and The Sporting News, and the longtime outdoor writer for the Denison Herald -- the short tome chronicled the humble beginnings of the striped bass fishery in Oklahoma.
From those initial striper stockings in Keystone Lake and, later, in Lake Texoma in the 1960s, Clift recounted the birth, infancy, and growth of the striped bass fisheries in Oklahoma and eventually southward into Texas.
Today, more than 40 years later, Oklahoma's stripers have survived a gauntlet of simmering summer water temperatures, winter shad kills, heavy fishing pressure, desalinization projects, municipal water thirst, floods, drought, and golden alga.
Still the stripers come, eager to bust a slab, a topwater lure, a live shad, or even a fly with sheer brute force that is followed by an intense fight as the fish test the outer limits of an angler's tackle.
And after the fight is over, this amazing piscatorial resource shines on the table in a variety of ways, from delicious deep fried filets to more health-conscious recipes pulled from oven or grill.
Can there be any doubt that Clift's long-ago book title is indeed true, that the striped bass is a super fish? I think not -- and if you've ever had your drag melted by a big striper, I'm sure you'll agree!
Against that backdrop, what can Oklahoma striped bass anglers expect this year?
As of press time, biologists with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation were looking for another year of good fishing for linesiders. "I think I'd give (this year) a "B" forecast for striper anglers," said Kim Erickson, an ODWC fisheries biologist featured prominently in Clift's book. Erickson, who has climbed the career ladder at the department over the years, now serves as the agency's chief of fisheries.
Keep in mind that as this was written, drought was still a common buzzword across Oklahoma, something that biologists hope will disappear with good rains that will bump up -- if not fill up -- lakes and reservoirs across the state that are struggling with low water levels.
What happens if the drought doesn't abate? "Well, there could be more of what we see in some years of (high) summer mortality," Erickson said. "That's due to reservoir levels dropping down and getting low. When that happens, the thermal refuges that normally would occur in those lakes and reservoirs are being squeezed, and putting those fish into some water that is not to their liking."
Likewise, Erickson added, continuing drought could affect the stripers that thrive in a number of Oklahoma tailraces below reservoir dams. "We've already seen this starting to happen with some water quality issues below the dams in tailraces," he said. "You can get -- and we are seeing that already -- some striper fish kills, all species really, below dams on the Arkansas River system below Keystone, on the Grand River system below Fort Gibson, and perhaps even below Lake Eufaula. There have been fish kills (in 2006) because of the lack of water release or from downstream water-quality issues."
Of course, additional moderate to severe drought conditions into the spring would only compound such issues this year. But what if the prospects of an El NiÃ±o winter bring rain and drought relief to parched Oklahoma watersheds? Well, expect good things this year, and in years to come, when Sooner State lakes rebound and refill.
"When the water comes back, it does some good things in terms of productivity," Erickson said. "There is a bloom of primary productivity which helps shad -- and, of course, stripers feed on shad."
How will the shad -- and by extension, the stripers -- be helped by refilling lakes? Simple: When the rains do return and bring lake-filling inflow, the flooding of terrestrial vegetation that's grown on exposed lakebeds during the drought has the effect of creating an almost brand-new lake, according to Erickson.
"This gives a bloom in reservoirs that triggers spawning activity of shad and whatnot," he said. "That may not have been happening in those dry years, but if the rains come, now it is happening. That will be good for stripers and their food resources -- if it all happens at the right time."
Whether or not the rains come this year, this much is certain: The Sooner State hosts some good spots for striped bass angling enthusiasts to wet a line in.
One such spot: the birthplace of Oklahoma striper fishing, Keystone Lake, and the Arkansas River coursing below its dam.
Erickson says that system still has naturally reproducing stripers and "is producing fish for that watershed. The lake itself is a reservoir that suffers from the mortality of adult fish for thermal reasons. We first identified that in the summer of 1980. Of all the lakes where we have stripers, that is the one that is affected the most. The population there is still reproducing and we still have some fishing, but it's nowhere in comparison to Lake Texoma."
Speaking of Lake Texoma, there is little doubt that the 89,000-acre reservoir straddling the Texas-Oklahoma border near Durant provides the best inland striped bass fishing in the Southern Plains -- and perhaps even in the entire nation!
Take, for instance, the trip I enjoyed last summer with Steve Hollensed, a fly-fishing guide who operates Flywater Angling Adventures guide service -- FlywaterAngling.com; (903) 546-6237.
With 8- and 9-weight fly rods in our hands, we experienced the striped bass trip of a lifetime on Texoma, racing from pod to pod of surfacing fish -- and nary another boat in sight. Acres of the lake's surface boiling with aggressively feeding stripers, we experienced multiple hookups that afternoon, along with the memorable screams of a fly reel's drag as stripers headed deep.
Texoma hasn't had a disastrous flood in more than a decade now, summer mortality issues usually aren't too severe, and a good set of regulations is in effect -- so it'd seem that it's all
coming up roses for this celebrated south-central venue.
On a warm afternoon when the electronic graph aboard Steve's Ranger boat was literally blacked out with balls of shad and stripers giving chase, we eventually wore down.
"Lynn, it doesn't get any better than this; why don't we head in?" Hollensed finally queried.
I was too tired to argue -- a sure sign of an epic fishing trip.
But using fly rods is only one way to catch Texoma stripers. Live bait, slabs, topwaters and Sassy Shads on baitcasting and spinning rigs all provide plenty of memorable action on Texoma virtually year 'round.
In fact, last winter, I fished with popular Texoma fishing guide Jeff "J.D." Lyle -- TexomaGuide.com; (903) 647-0386 -- and his guiding buddy and tournament partner Mark Macnamara -- TexomaSportFishing.com; (903) 821-5693 -- but instead of wearing shorts and sunscreen, we were bundled up in layers of insulating clothing and fleece to take advantage of stripers gorging themselves on the gazillions of threadfin shad seeking thermal refuge every night in a number of protected marina basins.
Temperatures were in the 30s, and we were the only anglers on the lake under that blanket of chilly darkness. Never leaving the marina basin that we launched in, our trio rocked 'em and socked 'em for several hours, rarely venturing from the boat house channels bathed in the soft glow of nighttime marina lights.
What can Texoma striped bass enthusiasts expect this year, whatever the season might be?
More of the same, asserted ODWC south-central region fisheries supervisor Paul Mauck -- assuming, of course, that another golden alga event or cold-induced dieoff of threadfin shad over the course of the 2006-07 winter doesn't intervene.
"We're looking at another banner year," Mauck said. "I see no reason why we shouldn't -- we've got the stock out there, the conditions are good, and there is a great population of shad out there. Barring one of those other events happening, I think we're in for more of the same as what we had in 2006."
Bear in mind that Mauck rated Texoma's striped bass fishing a year ago at a 9 or a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10!
Such a prognostication should not only be true in terms of the number of "box fish" (legal fish destined for the ice chest and ultimately the table) that Texoma is famous for, but also for trophy stripers the likes of which the lake used to be famous for.
"A 28-pounder was the biggest that I heard caught this year," Mauck said. "There were quite a few fish over 20 pounds, a lot over 15 pounds, and numerous fish over 10 pounds that were caught."
Why the upsurge in big stripers -- something that hasn't been seen on Texoma since the 1980s, when it was somewhat common to see double-digit stripers, a few tipping the scales into the 20- to 30-pound class? (Note: Angler Terry Harber landed the lake record, a 35.12-pound striper, on April 25, 1984.)
"They've lived a little longer," Mauck said. "These fish have got to live six years or more to really get up to that trophy size. Our fishing will let them live (that long) as far as the fisherman and our fishing regulations go. A flood event or a cold weather event that knocks the prey species back -- that is what sets your fishery back."
Although Mauck says that the 2005 striper class was somewhat weak on Texoma, he believes that late spawners from 2004's exceptional spawning class will combine with a good year in 2006 to keep anglers from noticing much of a dent in the number of keeper fish caught.
"That's good news," Mauck said. "We harvest 800,000 to a million stripers a year weighing anywhere from a million and a half to 2 million pounds per year, and yet the lake keeps cranking them out."
What makes Texoma so good for striped bass? A variety of factors that all converge in the famous reservoir, explained Erickson.
"It's a highly productive reservoir," he said. "We have got a lot of productivity from agricultural run-off into the lake. Then there is the component in the Red River, where the salt is higher (than the Washita River, which feeds Texoma from the north) -- it clears up real nice because of that. The lake produces both threadfin and gizzard shad, and it is just a phenomenal fish-producing factory."
Part of the reason for that, of course, is the amazing natural reproduction that Texoma annually sees thanks to its two lengthy river systems, which mimic conditions found along the Eastern seaboard, from which these piscine creatures originally hail.
"They spawn in both systems, although sometimes not as much in one as in the other," Erickson said. "With stripers spawning in both the Red and the Washita, that keeps pumping fish into the lake."
And: Texoma hasn't had a disastrous flood in more than a decade now, summer mortality issues usually aren't too severe, and a good set of regulations is in effect -- so it'd seem that it's all coming up roses for this celebrated south-central venue.
Or is it? For now, Paul Mauck will allow, the answer is yes, although storm clouds might eventually loom on the horizon. "I don't want to abuse the lake," he said. "It can take so much; how much I don't know. If we continue to take natural salts out of the water from way out west in the whole Red River system, along with the massive amounts of water being reallocated from hydropower to municipal usage, we can end up with cumulative effects."
Add in the specter of golden alga, a tiny organism that can and has wreaked toxic fish-killing havoc in the Red River basin -- Lake Texoma included -- and Mauck has additional reason to be concerned about the future of this great reservoir.
"It has been great, but how much it can stand, I don't know," he reiterated. "These things concern me greatly."
Of course, there's more to Oklahoma striped bass fishing than just Keystone Lake and Lake Texoma.
Take the famed Illinois River in the eastern part of Oklahoma, home to the state's biggest trophy stripers, including the 47-pound, 8-ounce state-record linesider pulled from the Lower Illinois by Louis Parker on June 10, 1996.
"The Illinois has always been noted for its bigger fish," Erickson said. "The water that feeds the river comes from a reservoir (Tenkiller) where the water resources are real deep and real cool."
On the one hand, that means that the Lower Illinois is cold enough for a year-round trout fishery, one of two in
the Sooner State. On the other, it also means that the river's striped bass don't suffer the heat stresses common at other Oklahoma striper waters. "In the summer these fish are looking for these thermal refuges -- places they can stand," Erickson said.
Most boating activity takes place below the Highway 64 bridge, but, Erickson reported, some linesiders are caught above the bridge. The ODWC fisheries chief reminds anglers that a trout license is required to fish portions of the Illinois River; check ODWC fishing regulations for full details.
"Stripers seem to be concentrated in the deep holes below 64, but they can still swim up toward the dam at Tenkiller to a hole in the river known as Striper Hole," Erickson said.
While the Illinois River is popular during the warmth of summer, Erickson's been hearing good things about early-autumn striper fishing below Lake Eufaula in the Canadian River tailrace to the northeast of McAlester.
"Below Lake Eufaula I've heard that there is a guide using remote-controlled boats to carry baits into the stilling basin," Erickson said. "They've reportedly been taking 30- to 40-pound fish out of that area."
Another tailrace showing some future striper promise is the Arkansas River below Kaw Lake, which lies not too far from Ponca City. "We noted some fish in seining efforts at Kaw that were naturally reproduced," Erickson said. "Our biologists saw more (stripers) than they have ever seen, so that was a good thing below the dam."
A final place to consider for good striper fishing this year is the Zink Dam area on the Arkansas River as it flows through Tulsa. Where allowed, the striped bass fishing there can be phenomenal at times, according to Erickson.
"It has developed now into a very, very good place to hold fish, especially in the spring," he said. "In fact, it's a place that we go to get brood fish for our hybrid striped bass program. It has developed into a pretty significant striper fishery throughout the year." Significant indeed: Its heritage can be traced back to linesider stockings at Keystone and Texoma decades ago.
Those original stockings have given Sooner State anglers multiple places and chances to catch striped bass in 2007, a piscine predator that some anglers regard as the "superfish" of all freshwater species in Oklahoma waters and beyond.
Find more about Oklahoma fishing and hunting at: OklahomaGameandFish.com.