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Sooner Stripers on the Run

Sooner Stripers on the Run

The best place for catching stripers this month in Oklahoma may not be in our major reservoirs; a better bet for April angling action might be to work one of the tailraces.

Fishing guide J.B. Bennett is an expert at catching tailrace stripers on jigs. He took this one below Lake Eufala's dam recently. Photo by Bob Bledsoe

By Thomas Hawk

April in Oklahoma means it's time for striped bass to make spawning runs up our major rivers. And when they do, there will be a legion of anglers awaiting them below dams large and small, anxiously poised for what is usually the hottest striper fishing action of the year.

When stripers surge upstream, running as far as they can, huge numbers of big fish get crowded into the tailrace areas below dams like Fort Gibson, Kaw, Keystone, Webbers Falls, Eufaula, Kerr and Texoma. Smaller numbers typically can be found crowded into the areas below navigation lock dams on the Verdigris River, or in some of the streams that flow into the Arkansas and Red rivers.

Yes, it is possible to ambush the stripers somewhere along their spawning runs. If you're lucky enough to have access to the rivers at the right spots, and have an airboat, a jet-drive boat or some other craft that can navigate the rocky or sandy shallows of rivers like the Arkansas or Canadian, you might find an absolute honeyhole or two.

But most Oklahoma striper enthusiasts find it easier to just go to the dams, knowing that the dams block farther-upstream migration and that the stripers, sometimes accompanied by shoals of big white bass and big white/striped bass hybrids, will sometimes crowd so thickly into the tailrace waters that you have to be careful not to snag a fish accidentally on every retrieve.

At the low-water Zink Lake Dam in Tulsa - a small dam that stretches across the Arkansas River a couple of miles north of Interstate 44 - stripers have sometimes been so thick in the spillway area that a multi-hooked lure would accidentally snag fish repeatedly. Such fish, hooked outside the mouth, must be released, even if they're caught by accident.

In years stretching back for a decade or more, there has been a closure of about two weeks, usually in late April and often stretching into early May, during which anglers cannot fish below the Zink Lake Dam in Tulsa. The closed period, which will not be in effect this year, protected the closely crowded fish from snaggers and allowed the Wildlife Department's Tulsa Region fisheries crews time in which to electroshock some big brood fish for the hatcheries.


Brood stock may still be collected there, but the biologists finally decided to abandon the closure period and let anglers take advantage of the fishing opportunities during what may be some of the best fishing days of the year.

Oklahoma stripers spawn differently than black bass do.

Our native black bass - which of course aren't really bass at all, but are members of the sunfish family - reproduce by making a nest and spawning over it. The females deposit their roe and the males fertilize the egg mass with their milt and the eggs develop in the nest - that is, unless predators eat them or they're smothered by silt.

Stripers, on the other hand, swim a long ways up a flowing river where both the male and female fish broadcast their roe and milt together. If the river is long enough and has sufficient flow and the right water temperature and water chemistry, the fertilized eggs drift along, suspended in the moving current, until they hatch into fry.

Of course, in their native habitat on the Atlantic seaboard, stripers spawn in coastal rivers and the young fry drift right back through estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay or the many smaller estuaries up and down the coast, finally reaching the ocean, where they grow and roam until it's time for them to make their own inland spawning runs up a coastal river.

Oklahoma's white bass, which are also a true bass and related to the stripers, spawn in a similar way, running up rivers and creeks to procreate.

Dams halt the spawning runs. At least, the big dams without navigation locks do. Some stripers do move upstream through the Arkansas and Verdigris River navigation locks and continue their spawning runs, but not a significant number.

Some stripers also probably negotiate the Zink Lake Dam, which was designed with a striper "ladder" on its west end to allow upstream passage of spawners. But studies of tagged fish so far haven't indicated that a lot of fish actually make it past the dam, which is located near 31st and Riverside Drive in Tulsa, to travel another 15 miles or so upstream to Keystone.

Anglers fishing for striped bass in the tailrace areas are likely to catch white bass and striped/white bass hybrids as well. Both of those fish move up rivers and creeks on spawning runs and move into tailrace areas to take advantage of the periodic abundance of food that emerges from the turbines or floodgates.

Anglers often ask whether the hybrid bass spawn. The answer, in most cases, is yes.

It is widely known that all but the tiniest fraction of hybrid bass are unable to reproduce. That is, their fertilized eggs aren't usually viable. They won't develop and hatch.

But that doesn't mean the fish don't feel the spawning urge or go through the spawning motions. In the springtime, when water temperatures and water flows are sufficient, the hybrids move upstream just as their parent species do, and the males and females go through the spawning process.

Striped/white bass hybrids are produced in fish hatcheries. Virtually all states use eggs from a female striper and sperm from a male white bass to produce their hybrids. It can be done the other way, too, but there are advantages to the accepted method. It has proved effective, and it's easier to get large quantities of eggs from big female stripers. Female stripers are very fecund. One state recently reported milking nearly 2 million eggs from a single 44-pound female.

Some states have reported natural reproduction among hybrids in the wild. Others have noted back-crossing with white bass. But detection of such reproduction has been extremely rare, at least according to all the research papers I've found.

I'll list all of the major tailrace striper fisheries in the state, plus a few lesser-known tailrace areas where striped bass fishing or hybrid bass fishing is sometimes very good.

Most of the best striper tailrace fisheries are on either the Arkansas River

or the Red River or their tributaries.

The Red River's major tailrace fishery is at Dennison Dam, which forms Lake Texoma. A few dozen miles downstream, the Kiamichi River flows in from Lake Hugo. The Texoma tailrace is an excellent striped bass fishery. Good fishing can be found there at almost any time of the year when there are moderate to large flows of water through the turbines or floodgates.

The Hugo Dam tailrace can also be very productive, but usually only during periods of extended heavy flows. Friends who fish there regularly tell me that the stripers seem to leave the Kiamichi River entirely, probably retreating to the larger Red River about 15 or 16 miles downstream, during late summer or other times when flows out of Hugo are smaller and infrequent. During springtime, though, flows are more likely to be frequent and larger, and stripers seem more readily available in the tailrace area when the water is flowing.

There are many more tailrace fisheries along the Arkansas.

Kaw Dam, just outside of Ponca City, is where many of the stripers in Lake Keystone go when the spawning season arrives. It was one of the state's first tailrace fisheries to develop in the 1960s, and it remains one of our best today.

Keystone Dam, about 15 miles west of downtown Tulsa, is another excellent tailrace fishery.

Also in Tulsa is the Zink Lake low-water dam I mentioned earlier. It, too, provides a lot of striper fishing action each spring.

Below Tulsa are quite a few miles of undammed river before you get to the next tailrace fishery.

At Muskogee, both the Verdigris and Neosho (Grand) rivers flow into the Arkansas. Many stripers move up the Neosho the short distance (only a mile or two) to the Fort Gibson Dam. Some stripers also move up the Verdigris River at times and are caught below the navigation lock and dam north of Okay, and just east of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's northeast regional headquarters.

The three major rivers come together at Muskogee and flow into Webbers Falls Reservoir. The Webbers Falls Dam spillway area is a good tailrace fishery at times. A few miles farther downstream, the Lower Illinois River flows into the Arkansas. Stripers move up into that stream, traveling the 11 miles or so up to the Tenkiller Ferry Dam, which forms Lake Tenkiller. Although not as prolific a fishery as some of the other tailrace areas, Tenkiller does yield some very large stripers at times.

The Canadian River coming from the Lake Eufaula Dam flows into the Arkansas a short distance below I-40. Many stripers move up that river to spawn and to feed below the Eufaula Dam. It is definitely among the top four or five tailrace striper fisheries in the region.

The Robert S. Kerr Reservoir Dam tailrace area, about 10 miles south of Sallisaw, is another good tailrace striper fishery.

There are stripers caught at the W.D. Mayo Lock and Dam a few miles below Kerr. Mayo is the last navigation dam on the Arkansas before the river leaves the state and enters the state of Arkansas at Fort Smith. That W.D. Mayo tailrace area is somewhat off the beaten path, though, compared to the larger upstream dams, and it gets considerably less fishing pressure.

I'll mention two other dams where an occasional striper is caught but where many big hybrid bass are caught on a regular basis. Those are the Pensacola Dam, which forms Grand Lake, and the Lake Oologah Dam on the Verdigris River.

Some hybrids are also caught below the Markham Ferry Dam, which forms Lake Hudson, and below the low-water dam that lies a few miles downstream in the upper end of Fort Gibson Reservoir, just northwest of Locust Grove.

Tailrace fishing can be hard work, but it's not always that way.

Because there are designated no-entry areas below the dams - areas where treacherous and violent currents make wading and boating hazardous - anglers must sometimes make very long casts to reach the areas where stripers are feeding. Wading is prohibited in some areas and cables stretched across the spillways mark the boundaries of the no-entry areas.

Both anglers casting from the shorelines and those casting from boats tied to the buoyed cables usually rely on long rods - 9 to 15 feet or sometimes even longer - to make their long casts.

The long rods are heavy, and slinging a big lure or bait repeatedly for a few hours can be fairly strenuous labor, especially for those who aren't used to it. But learning to use the big tackle can be worthwhile.

There are times when smaller rods and lighter tackle can be used effectively, but the rule of thumb for tailrace fishing is to be able to make very long casts when necessary.

Some anglers prefer to fish the tailraces with live bait. Big shiners or live shad are probably the most consistently effective baits. Small sunfish also work, and even cut shad has been known to take a few stripers, although they make a better bait for catfish.

Fishing the bait beneath a float of some sort can be effective. Weighted casting floats that provide enough density to make them castable are popular. Some anglers prefer to fish tight-line, usually with the baited hook on a dropper line of some sort. If you plan to tight-line with a weight on the bottom, it might pay off to use a swivel, or even a three-way swivel. Tie the weight onto the bottom of the swivel, using a line that is weaker than your main line. Most sinkers quickly get hung up in the rocky bottoms of the spillway areas, and using a lighter pound-test line on the sinker will allow the angler to break the rest of the tackle free without losing the entire rig should the sinker get hopelessly jammed beneath or between rocks.

Many expert tailrace striper anglers rarely if ever use live bait. My friend and professional striper guide J.B. Bennett from Okmulgee (918-756-0830), whom I consider probably the best tailrace striper angler in the state, uses big topwater lures on occasion, but he fishes much of the time with jigs suspended beneath casting floats.

Sometimes Bennett hangs one or two jigs straight beneath the float on a dropper line. Sometimes he uses a more versatile rig that includes a three-way swivel. The main line is tied to one eye of the three-way. The float is tied on a line to the second eye. Then the jig or jigs are tied to the third eye.

The advantage of this rig is that the jig can be fished deeper or shallower on any given cast. If the line from the swivel to the float is, say, 3 feet, and the line from the swivel to the jig is 3 feet, then the user can fish the jig anywhere from 3 to 6 feet deep, depending on how much tension he puts on the line. An angler can shorten or lengthen the lines depending on what the fish are doing. I'll warn you in advance, though: If you make the lines too long, casting becomes diffic

ult and tangles become frequent.

Any variety of jigs can be effective. Bennett usually uses jigs tied with chenille and hackle feathers by a friend in the Okmulgee area. But many anglers use jigs dressed with curly-tailed grubs or soft-plastic shad imitations. Chartreuse, blue, red and other colors work at times, but the most consistent producers seem to be whites and pearl-hued soft plastics. Remember, gizzard shad is the food that most of the predators in the tailrace are after, so any lure approximating the color of a shad is probably a good choice for starters.

Use caution!

Anglers fishing tailrace areas should be cautious. That's true no matter whether you're walking the rocks, fishing from the shorelines or fishing from a boat.

If you're walking the rocks when flows are low, be prepared to move out of the spillway on short notice. The dam operators usually sound sirens or illuminate flashing lights or both before they increase flows out of the dams, but water can rise several feet in a relatively short time when turbine or flood gates are opened. So be prepared to pack up and leave quickly.

If you fish from a boat, make sure there are wearable and throwable flotation devices onboard. It's not only the law, but also the smart thing to do. Currents can be swift and treacherous when flows are high, and anyone who falls overboard or who is caught in a disabled craft should be prepared for the worst.

And if you just walk the banks, be careful of your tackle and of the tackle of those around you. When there are crowds of anglers virtually shoulder-to-shoulder, all slinging 12- or 14-foot rods, there are often tangles and problems. I've seen fistfights erupt on a couple of occasions because of anglers who couldn't handle the crowded conditions. When fishing gets hot, word spreads fast. Sometimes there are more anglers on hand than there is room for them to stand and fish. It pays to be courteous . . . and careful!

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