The text was a simple one, only a few words that described a quick after-school session of fishing on the big waters of Lake Texoma.
“We ended up catching 16,” texted Lance San Millan, a principal in the Denison ISD, who had hit the water for a couple of hours’ worth of evening fishing with his friend Kyle Uber, another principal in the land of the Yellow Jackets.
While the striper fishing is good most years at Texoma, the two North Texas anglers’ quick session showed that this year, it’s nothing less than great.
“I’d definitely say that if somebody has Texoma striped bass on their bucket list, this year is certainly a good time to come," agreed Dan Bennett, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department inland fisheries biologist who oversees the southern portion of the 89,000-acre reservoir northwest of Denison.
Since the first stockings of stripers at Texoma many years ago — and the subsequent decades of self-sustaining spawning runs up the Red River and the Washita River — the Texas/Oklahoma border lake has easily become one of the nation's premiere fisheries for linesides.
While many locals maintain it’s the best freshwater striper fishery in the nation, there’s plenty of proof this year after recent 2019 gill-net sampling work by biologists with TPWD and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
Their survey work back in February produced some eye-popping numbers, according to Bennett, the best that’s ever been recorded in fact.
”We (had) a record catch rate in our sampling partnership with ODWC that began back in 1993," said Bennett, who works out of the Lake Texoma Fisheries Station. "Basically, the sampling showed that our catch rates were twice the average with 29.6 fish per net and a total of 888 fish (stripers) that were caught.”
To put that into perspective, Bennett notes that "we usually catch 400 to 500 fish in our sampling." Such work is done through the placement of 30 gill nets, each measuring 125-feet in length and all being set out each year in the same locations.
”We do 15 and Oklahoma does 15," said Bennett. "We set them out one day and pick them up the next day, then count the fish. We also weigh and measure them and that gives us an idea of the relative abundance and health (of stripers).”
This year's sampling confirms some suspicions that Bennett has held for several years now.
”I’m not necessarily surprised at the big numbers," he said. "It's a direct result from the 2015 flood, the abundant habitat we had that year, and a super year of fish production coming out of that spawn.”
Ironically, many Texoma anglers complained about the lack of fishing success that year, since the spillway-topping floods dramatically increased the available habitat, stained the water for a few months, and spread the fish out.
(Editor’s Note: 2015 was a year that saw Texoma go over its spillway twice, once in late May when the lake’s record level of 645.72 feet above sea level was achieved, and then again in late June when floodwaters crested a few inches below that mark.)
But Bennett says something else was in play that year, the lack of water and spawning success in the years leading up to 2015.
“That decline (in 2015) actually began back in 2014 and it was spawn-related," he said. "If you'll remember, we'd had several years of drought and lower water conditions (earlier this decade), which impacts the spawning runs up the rivers. In fact, there were instances of pretty much the complete loss of an entire age class from that era."
Meaning that the double whammy of the 2015 flood and the lack of spawning success in previous springs left fishermen scratching their heads and asking, "Where are all the stripers?”
Bennett says they won't be asking that question this year, and likely for several more years to come.
“We've basically had four years since then (the 2015 flood) of good spawning success, including well above normal spawns in '15 and '16," he said. "And we've got so many fish that are going to make the spawning run this year, that I think - as long as we get some rain in the next month to keep the flows coming down the rivers - that we'll have another tremendous spawn (this year).”
While the news is fantastically good, there is one fly in the ointment according to the TPWD biologist. And that's the fact that there are a lot of piscatorial mouths to feed in the lake right now, something that is influencing the weight of Texoma's current striped bass crop.
“One thing we noticed this year is that there seems to be a little bit lower weight on average, about 15-percent lower than what we'd normally expect," said Bennett. "There are so many fish out there that the competition for baitfish is strong, leading to the reduced weights. And that's why we're also hearing anglers complain about their inability to catch bait right now.”
Bennett says the problem will likely iron itself out in coming months.
“From our point of view right now, it's probably best to let nature take its course," he said. "By the time we'd be able to implement something management-wise, the problem will likely have corrected itself. But we'd encourage people to not be bashful in taking their limit home this year because it's certainly not going to hurt anything.”
In addition to the sheer numbers of stripers swimming in the border lake right now, the bigger fish are also doing quite well.
”We've gotten an inordinate number of fish over that 20-inch range right now," said Bennett. "We usually hope for 20 percent of the population to be over 20 inches, but this year, 30 to 35 percent of the fish are over 20 inches.”
Bennett said that a striper in the 20-inch range — at Texoma, anglers are allowed to keep two fish over 20 inches each day — will likely weigh between 3.5 and 4 pounds. That's a fish that will fight hard and provide a little bit bigger meal at the table if the angler chooses to keep a couple.
As good as the numbers of young fish and 20-inch fish are, the news is also great concerning the trophy linesiders that are being caught now with much more regularity.
”When you get to 30 inches, you're starting to look at those double-digit stripers that everyone hopes to catch," said Bennett. "We didn't see those fish over 30 inches in our gill nets this year and we usually catch a few. But there's certainly a good number of those being caught by guides and anglers right now.”
Bennett said he's not terribly surprised at the lack of 30-inch fish in the gill nets since such stripers are fewer in numbers to start with and the species often tends to hang out in schools of similarly sized fish.
“Yeah, there's most definitely good numbers of 30-inchers out there even if we didn't see them this year," he said. "One of our guys caught a 12-pounder yesterday, another has caught a few double-digit fish this winter, and I've heard of a good number of fish over 15-pounds being caught in recent weeks. Some are even up in that 19- to 20-pound range and I've heard of at least one striper going over 20 pounds in recent weeks.”
All this number speak should simply boil down to this, a great spring and summer season of striper fishing on Texoma.
“I would think it will make for some pretty exciting topwater action this summer with plenty of fish surfacing and corralling bait to the surface,” said Bennett.
With such thoughts in mind as springtime’s oak and pecan trees bud and the bluebonnets bloom on area roadways leading to Denison Dam, the local TPWD biologist is smiling big at Texoma.
And with striper numbers like those being seen this year, why not? The fishing is always great at Texoma, and this year, it just might be as good as it gets.
Even if your fishing trip is nothing more than a couple hours spent on the water after work!