Ryan Jones and Bruce Burton have different approaches to Oklahoma fishing, but they both favor a method that is growing exponentially in popularity across the country. They do it by kayak.
In a little over six years Jones has kayaked his way from Oklahoma City to Florida and back.
“Out on Lake Hefner those first times it was just me and my dog in a two-person sit-in kayak, and my thighs were my only rod holder,” Jones says.
A few years later, as manager at OKC Kayak and Tulsa Kayak stores he got a chance to try fishing off the coast of Florida, won an offshore Extreme Kayak Fishing tournament with a pair of big sailfish with then-partner Chris Thomas and eventually moved there for three years. He moved back more than a year ago, however, and is getting to know Oklahoma all over again as a regional sales rep for a paddle sports company.
“The cool thing is I have a different perspective now,” Jones says. “Oklahoma actually has more shoreline than the East Coast and West Coast combined, so there are just so many places in this state to go with a kayak and so many more places I want to explore,” he adds. “I love it here. There are a ton of fishing opportunities for an angler in a kayak.”
Burton is a retired wildlife biologist who spends a lot of his free time in a kayak — and has for many years. He’s often fly-fishing but sometimes uses “regular” equipment, too. He likes to “toss the kayak in the back of the Toyota” and fish his local lakes near Okmulgee.
They have different approaches to the sport, but both know one undeniable fact: that their home state is packed full of great bass-fishing waters for the paddle sports crowd. And they’ve both fished tournaments, which roll into full gear in April and run into the fall months.
Kayak fishing for bass has a lot of positives over hitting the water in a bass boat, including ease of access, lower cost and the flexibility to hit smaller waters close to home, a scenic river or a larger lake if you so desire.
Joining in with the kayak bass-fishing community is a great way to learn new waters, new techniques and gather tips from fellow anglers. The Oklahoma Kayak Anglers tournament trail kicks into high gear in April and hits several lakes around the state, and information is easy to find on Facebook or at their webpage. Another busy social media site is the North East Oklahoma Kayak Anglers group on Facebook.
There is no time like the present to dip your paddle into kayak bass fishing. Sitting in a kayak to fish (some people do have the balance to stand up) puts a different perspective on casting and catching, and it will take some practice and some getting used to, according to Jones and Burton. Paddle in your lap, rod in one hand, landing net in the other, the wind blowing your boat in the wrong direction, it can take some coordination.
“I can remember my first time out in the kayak on Dripping Springs with the wind blowing. I was constantly trying to keep the boat straight and trying to keep the paddle in my lap and trying to fish,” Burton says. “A lot of it is just practice. Now I have the paddle in my lap, and it just rides there. I don’t even think about it.”
To get your feet wet, both men recommend a slow approach with rentals through the paddle sports stores or lakeside marinas or riverside float rentals and connecting to others through social media.
And securing your rod, paddle and other important items to your kayak with tethers is a good tip for beginners, too, Burton says.
“On the river or a lake outfitter, you’re usually going to get a lower-end kayak, but at least it can get you out there and you can experience it without making a purchase,” Jones says. “That can give you ideas as you start look around.”
The bare basics for a first kayak are “a comfortable seat and a nice paddle, and tracking is important, too.” Jones adds.
For a very basic start, $200 to $300 will get an angler on the water with a basic model for the back of the pickup or atop the SUV. On the upper end, some larger kayaks require a small trailer and might support fish finders, worm-drive propulsion with pedals instead of a paddle, or even trolling motors, high-end electronics and PowerPoles.
“You can spend as much on a kayak as on a smaller or used bass boat if you want,” Burton says. Most kayaks with a comfortable “lawn chair style” seat and room for storage are good for a start. He recommends going with a paddle as opposed to the worm drive and a boat that suits your body weight.
“That’s a mistake you’ll see guys make; a 250-pound guy gets a kayak with a 300-pound capacity when it should be 500 pounds,” he says. “Figure at least double your weight.”
And after you’re outfitted and ready to hit the water, where do you go? The two anglers listed some of their favorites with a few tips on each.
Okmulgee Lake and Dripping Springs
Burton’s home lakes are mid-sized lakes just 3 miles apart as the crow flies, west of the town of Okmulgee. Both have local parks and easy access. Okmulgee has several possible put-in spots. Both hold some big bass. Dripping Springs has more wood and structure, and the water isn’t as clear, so heavier gear is required. The choice for Burton depends on the wind.
“In Okmulgee I can get up in Salt Creek and really get up out of the wind, so that’s usually my deciding factor,” he says.
Eucha and Spavinaw lakes
The two spring-fed impoundments of the Spavinaw Creek drainage in the rolling hills of northeast Oklahoma share one descriptor: beautiful. Both also have plenty of 6- and 7-pound bass. Eucha (pronounced Oochie) is south of Jay on Oklahoma Highway 10. Spavinaw Lake is east of the town of Spavinaw off Highway 82. Spavainaw has great grassy points; Eucha Lake has great chunk rock and gravel points and coves.
The multi-named W.R. Holway Reservoir, known as “The Pumpback” but labeled on Google Earth by its original moniker, Chimney Rock Lake, is a Grand River Dam Authority project attached to the east side of Hudson Lake, northeast of Locust Grove. Pumps pull water from Hudson through large pipes to the power-supply reservoir, thus the “Pumpback” name. It’s known for its big smallmouth bass, and it’s known for being finicky.
“It has some amazing fishing but can be frustrating,” Burton says. “You can go up there and really get into ‘em, and the next day, nothing. I still haven’t figured it out.”
The lake west of the City of Prague in Lincoln County is a 300-acre hidden jewel with Florida-strain largemouth stocked by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
“It has a lot of good structure and timber, and it’s one where you can cover the whole thing in a day’s time,” Jones says.
Quanah Parker, Elmer Thomas and Jed Johnson lakes are more than worth a visit at the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in southwest Oklahoma, near Lawton.
“It’s a beautiful place to escape to and not that far from Oklahoma City,” Jones says. The Fish and Wildlife Service sees the clearwater lakes as watering holes for bison, elk and other wildlife, but all have no-wake, small-craft-only rules and offer good bass fishing.
Just west of I-35 about 20 miles northwest of Ardmore, Mountain Lake has faded from some radar screens since it held the state largemouth record for several years in the 1990s, but it’s still very well known. A clearwater hidden beauty with big bass, it is high on Jones’ list of places to go.
With back-to-back state-record bass at 14 pounds, 12 ounces and 14 pounds, 13 ounces in 2012 and 2013, Cedar Lake in the Ouachita National Forest, LeFlore County, is probably the best-known little 86-acre bass lake in Oklahoma with giant Florida-strain bass. Camping is convenient, put-ins are easily accessed, and at Cedar, you never know when that next cast might connect on a double-digit fish.
Upper Illinois River
The Neosho-strain and hybrid smallmouth bass in the clear waters of the Illinois River upstream from Lake Tenkiller are an Oklahoma treasure, according to Jones and Burton. The Grand River Dam Authority is the place to go for information on put-ins, take-outs, mileages and streamflow reports. Note you will need a day pass. Put in on your own or rent a craft from one of the many float operations along Highway 10 north of Tahlequah. In slower stretches, you can anchor and fish; in others, it’s best to pull up on a gravel bar and wade-fish the area. The smaller Neosho’s are aggressive fighters, and the big ones, well, “I’ve seen plenty of big smallmouth in there, some 5- and 6-pounders, and they’re just fantastic fish,” Jones says.
A kayak tournament angler need only start with a rod or two, the will to fish and a few bucks for entry fees, but required items also include a life jacket, 360-degree light, anchor, measuring trough and a talent for taking a photo of a fish in said trough without losing the fish or the phone/camera in the water.
Angler Ryan Jones recommends life jackets designed specifically for kayak anglers and taking the time to try on different models. Room to move, storage pockets and comfort are key things to consider.
It’s also nice to have more than one rod and a choice of baits and hooks.
Jones says he turns to one of the commercially made crate systems that include rod holders and other attachments and are designed to sit in a cargo spot behind the seat. He usually has six to eight rods on board.
His tackle organizer will hold four 3600 Series Plano bait boxes, plus one 3700 Series, and has rod holders and accessory attachments on the outside for a landing net and/or a flag or safety light.
“You’d be surprised how much gear you can get into something that takes up a space about the size of a milk crate, which is what most of us start with,” he says.
Angler Bruce Burton says that a milk crate still serves many just fine. “A free milk crate, some 1 1/4-inch PVC pipe and some ingenuity works for a lot of people,” he says.