January 26, 2015
When I was growing up in Western Oklahoma, I thought that fishing was pretty much a summertime thing. I don't remember anyone doing much fishing before the trees grew leaves in the spring or after they lost them in the fall.
Later I learned that crappie fishing could be pretty good in the winter, but I still didn't know that, for example, catfishing could be excellent during the coldest months of the year. Or that sand bass and even largemouths were cooperative in the winter, too, if an angler knew the right tactics and baits.
I was pushing 30 before I really became a year-round fisherman and learned that Oklahoma has great fishing opportunities at pretty much any time of the year. Since then, I've enjoyed some great wintertime fishing trips for stripers, walleyes, sauger, catfish, crappie and bass, as well as for trout from some of the stocked trout areas.
Oklahoma has a wide variety of fishing opportunities available throughout the year. Let's look at some of the most promising locations, species and tactics for each month of the coming year.
Grand Lake Crappie
One of my favorite wintertime outings is crappie fishing at Grand Lake. Although we rarely catch giant crappie at Grand, it has consistently produced generous numbers of "keeper" crappie.
Grand, perhaps more than most Oklahoma lakes, is loaded with manmade brushpiles built by individual fishermen, by the Wildlife Department fisheries crews, and by lake-area organizations. The abundance of brushpiles at varied depths makes it easier to find a productive fishing spot.
I've noticed through the years that if I find crappie at, say, 15 feet in one part of the lake, then it's likely they'll be at about 15 feet elsewhere in the lake. I don't know if it is atmospheric pressure or sunlight or some other factor that makes them gather at the same depth, but I've seen it often.
I have also seen days, later in the spring, when fishing action was excellent in very shallow water in the first few hours of the morning, but by mid-day we had to fish at 10 or 12 feet to find crappie that would bite.
In January, while you may find crappie up shallow, it's more likely you will find them around cover or structure several feet below the surface.
Tube jigs or traditional chenille-and-marabou crappie jigs both perform well in midwinter. And minnows, of course, are effective just about any time.
Eufaula Blue Catfish
I recall one late January outing at Lake Eufaula a few years back when we loaded the livewells with big blue cats. We put the 10 biggest fish on a stringer, and then found that neither of us could lift them for a photo!
We were lucky enough to catch a lot of big fish that day. Normally our catch averages more like 5 or 6 pounds, instead of the 15 or 16 pounds it probably averaged that morning. But it's not unusual to catch a two-person limit of blues on a winter day, especially if you find enough fresh shad to net for bait.
Shad of 3 or 4 inches can be used whole. Bigger shad are cut into chunks or strips large enough to cover a 3/0 or 4/0 hook.
Drifting over the flats where the catfish roam is a very productive technique. In the cold winter months it can be even better to anchor near a channel edge and fish for blues. Some days the fish will be holding above the top of the dropoff, some days near the bottom of the channel, and some days suspended somewhere in between. It's often possible to see the suspended fish on sonar and put your baits at the correct depth to produce some action.
Tenkiller White Bass
Hundreds, if not thousands, of northeast Oklahoma anglers each spring wait for word that the sand bass are running at Horseshoe Bend. That's the bend in the Illinois River at the upper end of Lake Tenkiller where at some time each spring — usually in mid- to late March — the sand bass move up from the lake to spawn in the flowing river water.
Anglers troll with in-line spinners or crankbaits, or cast with jigs or minnows, although there are days when trolling is almost impossible because of the number of boats on the water.
The male sand bass move up first, soon followed by the bigger, roe-laden females, and some anglers fill their stringers and livewells with dozens of sand bass.
Anywhere from the Etta Bend area upstream to where the river narrows down above Horseshoe Bend can be productive.
Bank-walkers, waders and canoers may fish a bit farther up the river, near where Barron Fork Creek flows into the Illinois.
White, silver or yellow spinners are often best. Shad-colored crankbaits usually are tops. Light-colored jigs usually are best, but my friends and I have had good success with blue jigs as well.
Hugo Lake Largemouths
Back before Oklahoma and Texas began stocking Florida-strain largemouths in our lakes, Oklahoma anglers who wanted to catch an honest-to-goodness 10-pounder usually headed for Hugo Lake.
The Kiamichi River impoundment down in Choctaw County was among the first U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes built without clearing most of the timber out of the lake. Thus, Hugo had many acres of standing timber with boat lanes running through it, and all of that cover made for great bass fishing.
Fishing isolated cover in the lower, cleared portion of the lake can be the best option at certain times of the year, but at this time of the year many bass anglers prefer the upper lake, fishing below and above the Highway 93 bridge and even way up past the Frazier Point boat ramp for both largemouth and spotted bass.
Jigs tipped with pork or plastic are excellent baits for springtime bassin' at Hugo. Spinnerbaits can also be good and have accounted for several of the biggest bass caught at Hugo.
The Kiamichi River above the lake, from the bridge near Rattan and above, also harbors native smallmouth bass, but catching one in the still waters of the lake is rare.
Small Lake Bluegills
Oklahoma has dozens of small lakes, many of which are municipal water supply reservoirs, with comparatively clear water and lots of emergent shoreline vegetation like water willow and smartweed and button bush. Most of those lakes have good populations of sunfish, including bluegills, redears and green sunfish.
In April, May and June, and especially around the full-moon periods, the bluegills fan out their beds on the soft lake bottoms and spend a few days spawning.
When that occurs, an angler armed with a light spinning or spincasting rig can sack up loads of tasty bluegills by fishing the bedding areas. In some lakes it is possible to see the blugill nests in shallow areas.
When a bedding area is spotted, it's best to anchor a few yards away and cast toward it. Jigs and small spinners can produce results, but for serious sunfish action, using live bait is best. My favorite is live crickets, but earthworms can be effective.
My favorite rig is a spincasting rig with 4-pound line and a slip-bobber that allows the baited hook to fall straight down toward the nesting area. It's best to use a small bobber that is just barely big enough to float the bait a few inches above the nests. The small bobber allows the angler to detect even the subtlest bite and then set the hook, preventing these notorious bait-stealers from escaping.
In lakes that have a lot of water willow or cattails growing along the bank, fishing the edges of the weed beds can produce action from redear sunfish that prowl the weeds.
Redears, known as "bream," "brim" or "crackers" by some, like to feed on freshwater snails that cling to the submerged stems of the weeds, but can be caught on small lures or the same baits used for bluegills.
Fly tackle, with streamers or tiny jigs, can also be used for spawning-season sunfish.
There are many good sunfish lakes throughout the state. Some of my favorites are Tulsa's Lake Eucha, the Stillwell city lake, Brushy Creek Lake near Sallisaw, and Sapulpa's Pretty Water Lake.
Channel Cats In Rivers & Creeks
All three of Oklahoma's popular catfish species spawn in May and June. Flatheads continue to spawn a little later in the summer as well
In lakes, they tend to nest on rocky shorelines with lots of little crevices and caverns, like riprapped areas or bluff-like shorelines with lots of boulders and chunk rock.
Channel cats are stream dwellers by nature and they often nest in caves and beneath undercut banks, or even in and around logjams or similar objects that protect the nests from strong currents in the streams.
Channel cats are among the most omnivorous of eaters. They not only will take some lures, they'll take minnows, worms, grasshoppers, crickets, shrimp and any of a variety of smelly and disgusting-smelling prepared baits.
You can catch them at any time of day, but nighttime fishing can sometimes be more productive than daytime fishing.
Rod-and-line fishing can be fun and productive, but trotlines strung near nesting areas or banklines set along shore can be good ways to catch channel cats during the spawning season as well.
Texoma Striped Bass
One of the nation's premier inland striped bass fisheries is Lake Texoma. While not noted for giant stripers, for more than 30 years it has been one of the most prolific self-reproducing striper areas.
Numerous striper guides work from both sides of the Texas/Oklahoma border lake and fill their clients' stringers with limits. On summer days you may see flotillas of boats at mid-lake, all full of anglers pulling in lots of stripers.
Crankbaits, jigging spoons, jigs and even topwater plugs can yield results, but many guides recommend live bait, preferably live shad, to fill their limits quickly.
You can follow the herd and fish where you see other boats having success, but the roaming schools of stripers, and schools of sand bass, are plentiful on the big lake.
Trolling with crankbaits can fill your stringers, but most anglers cast or fish bait once schools of active stripers are located.
Keystone White Bass
You might catch stripers at Keystone in the summer using the same techniques used at Texoma, but lots of Tulsa-area anglers flock to Keystone on hot summer days to catch sand bass from the schools that roam the Arkansas and Cimarron River impoundment.
Schools of feeding sandies can sometimes be found by watching for sea gulls diving to feed on shad chased to the surface by sand bass and stripers. Trolling with crankbaits can also be an effective way to find concentrations of fish.
On windy days, sand bass may be found near the down-wind shorelines feeding close to the water's edge.
Fort Gibson Largemouth Bass
As fall approaches, bass fishing at Fort Gibson often picks up, especially in the shad-filled coves and creek mouths along the shorelines. Fishing shallow cover with plastic worms can be good, but surface action with buzzbaits and topwaters often gets really good in September and October, especially in those areas of clearer water like at Spring Creek and 14-Mile Creek.
I've also had some great early-fall days with Rat-L-Traps and similar rattling crankbaits along the river channel in the upper half of the lake.
Smallmouth Bass in Streams
Eastern Oklahoma has several streams teeming with native "brownies" or smallmouths. October is often one of the best months of the year for floating or wading the creeks and rivers with light tackle to catch these small but hard-fighting fish.
Saline Creek, Flint Creek, Spring Creek, the Barron Fork, Sallisaw Creek, Little Lee's Creek, Eagle Fork Creek, the Mountain Fork and Glover rivers, as well as Pennington Creek, are all good reivers and streams to fish smallmouth.
Small crankbaits and spinnerbaits are top lure choices, and big buzzbaits can sometimes be effective, but small jigs and plastic grubs usually are the most consistent producers for Oklahoma's stream smallmouths.
Trout in Stocked Areas
Trout aren't native to the warmwater streams of Oklahoma, but from November to March the state and a couple of cities stock rainbow trout in several lakes and streams.
Additionally, there are two year-round trout areas — the Lower Illinois River and Lower Mountain Fork River — where cold water is released from the depths of lakes to support trout in the streams below.
The wintertime trout fisheries are stocked with fish straight from hatcheries and they are accustomed to eating pellet food, so baits such as corn and salmon eggs can be effective. Earthworms or maggots can be good, too, and a variety of commercially prepared baits work.
Areas to be stocked this winter include Lake Perry Park, Robbers Cave, Blue River, Lake Watonga, Lake Carl Etling, and Medicine Park. The city stocks Pretty Water Lake with rainbows.
Kaw Lake Crappie
A couple of the heaviest stringers of crappie I've seen in Oklahoma came from Kaw Lake, an Arkansas River impoundment between Ponca City and the Kansas border.
Minnows and jigs are effective, but one of the most successful Kaw Lake crappie anglers I've met was a fellow who used big, heavy, homemade jigging spoons to catch big slabs from river channel edges in the middle of the lake. He consistently came home with a livewell full of hefty slab crappie using that technique.