February 26, 2018
By Bryan Hendricks
Oklahoma bass fishing is great on many waters, but none better, perhaps, than what you will find on these locales.
Regardless of your opinion about tournament bass fishing, the Bassmaster Classics held on Grand Lake O' The Cherokees in 2013 and 2016 demonstrated to the world the excellence of Oklahoma's bass fishing.
Cliff Pace won the 2013 Classic with a three-day weight of 54 pounds, 12 ounces. Edwin Evers, a native Oklahoman, won the 2016 Classic with a three-day weight of 60 pounds, 7 ounces. The latter was the fourth heaviest winning weight in Classic history, but it ranks third in the three-day, five-fish limit era.
No matter how you slice it, an average limit of 15 pounds per day — or 3 pounds per fish — is rock solid.
That tournament, coincidentally, was held in early March, right about the time you get this magazine, so everything you'll read in this article is relevant right now.
STATE OF SOONER BASS
Talking to fisheries biologists for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, we get the distinct impression that bass fishing is excellent all over the state, even in the southwest. That part of the state endured a prolonged drought that devastated what were, at best, mediocre bass fisheries.
Droughts are destructive in the short term, but they are beneficial in the long term, so it's no surprise that Western Oklahoma's bass fisheries rejuvenated in 2015-16 when rains returned.
During the drought, vegetation took over dry lake beds. When rain refilled the lakes, decaying vegetation recharged the lakes with nutrients, but the new cover also created a lot of new nursery habitat for bass fry. It will take a few years for those fish to reach desirable sizes for anglers, but lakes like Waurika and Fort Cobb are ascendant for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation no longer makes its annual electrofishing data available to the public on its wildlifedepartment.com Web site, nor is that data summarily condensed as it was in the past. An official for the Wildlife Department said the new policy arose because the ODWC didn't like the way the data was interpreted and disseminated.
Lakes that produced extraordinarily high numbers of bass per hour were erroneously portrayed as having great fishing when the opposite actually was true. High numbers of fish per hour in an electrofishing sample reflect an unhealthy fishery that is overpopulated with stunted fish. To eliminate faulty messaging, that information is no longer available.
Regrettably, the ODWC's bass fishing tournament data is no longer publicly accessible, either. Those surveys contain a lot of valuable data compiled by an avid set of real-time/real-world users.
However, we can, at this moment, tell you where the ODWC stocked various strains of black bass last year. And, we can tell you what the ODWC's fisheries biologists say about the resources they manage. This year, despite reduced transparency, bass fishing appears to be a bull market statewide. If you're a bass fishing investor, Oklahoma is a strong "Buy."
Cliff Sager, an ODWC senior fisheries biologist at the agency's fisheries research laboratory in Norman, says that two consecutive years of good rainfall has had a positive effect on Sooner State bass fisheries.
"Habitat conditions have surely improved," Sager said. "The successful spawns we've seen in 2015 and 2016 are nothing but beneficial for us in the years coming on."
There are no surprise hotspots in the Oklahoma bass fishing power rankings. Sager said anglers will find the best fishing among the usual suspects, like Grand Lake, Texoma, Tenkiller, Kerr, Webbers Falls, Ft. Gibson and Broken Bow, as well as a host of smaller lakes such as McGee Creek, Sardis and others.
One thing we've noticed over the years is that giant smallmouth bass don't make big news as they did in years past. Has smallmouth fishing plateaued in the Sooner State? Is it declining?
Not at all, Sager said. Smallmouth fishing is so consistently good that Oklahoma anglers kind of take it for granted.
"Big smallmouth bass are still being caught, but the difference is that it's no longer a novelty," Sager said. "We're still seeing big smallmouth bass on Tenkiller and Texoma, but you don't hear about those as much because anglers have gotten used to the fact that they can go out and catch those fish. It was a pleasant surprise before, but it's not surprising to catch 5- and 6-pound smallmouth bass in Oklahoma right now."
While everybody loves to catch a big smallmouth, largemouth bass drive the bus when it comes to the overall bass fishing industry. Largemouth fishing in Oklahoma is outstanding and probably will continue to be for years.
"It's hard to say that bass fishing is not as good now as it has ever been," Sager said. "We have a number of quality bass fisheries that have increasing smallmouth bass populations. That gives anglers diversity, but with trophy bass fishing and the success of tournaments, especially large tournaments that have shined a light on the quality of fishing in Oklahoma, it's hard for me to say bass fishing is not as good now as it's ever been."
HOTSPOTS AND MORE
Texoma and Broken Bow notwithstanding, northeast Oklahoma has the state's largest and most popular bass fisheries, including Grand, Ft. Gibson, Tenkiller and many others. All of those lakes are in excellent shape, and their bass fishing is outstanding.
Bass production and recruitment depends on a combination of rain, nutrients and inundated habitat during the recruitment period where bass fry can hide from and escape predators until they grow large enough to make it on their own. Fisheries managers have no control over any of those factors, but they have all been present during the last two years at least.
Fishing has been very good, as evidenced by the Bassmaster Classics, and strong year-classes in 2015 and 2016 will probably ensure that it will remain good in the coming years.
While most bass fishing tournaments concentrate on the big lakes, Oklahoma has a vast array of small municipal reservoirs, ponds and watershed lakes where thousands of anglers like to fish. Those are easier to manage and generally are more responsive to management techniques.
Chris Whisenhunt is one of the ODWC's northeast region fisheries biologists. Based in Jenks, he manages lakes Oologah, Copan, Bixhoma, Claremore, Keystone, and Heyburn and Sahoma.
We do not describe these lakes as being better than any other lake in their class, but to illustrate the excellent bass fishing possibilities in smaller, less heralded waters across the state.
"Everything for next year is looking pretty good," Whisenhunt said. "We've got lots of water and plenty of spawning habitat for fish. Most of my lakes have pretty good forage populations."
The problem with some of the lakes that Whisenhunt manages is that they are not known for bass fishing. They can be very good if you know where to fish, Whisenhunt said.
Heyburn Lake is one obscure gem. Covering 980 acres, it is the centerpiece of Heyburn Wildlife Management Area, about 10 miles southwest of Sapulpa, near Tulsa.
"It's a decent bass lake that's overlooked," Whisenhunt said. "It has some 4- and 5-pounders."
Healthy supplies of forage fish are important to bass productivity at lakes like these, Whisenhunt said. Having no competition from other predators that the ODWC stocks in bigger lakes — like hybrid stripers and saugeyes — largemouth bass do very well in small lakes that have healthy baitfish populations.
In addition, the ODWC stocks threadfin shad in lakes where it's appropriate, as at Lake Bixhoma. Situated atop Leonard Mountain, about 7 miles southeast of Bixby, Lake Bixhoma covers 110 acres and offers about 2 miles of shoreline, all undeveloped. The water is clear, and the bottom is rocky. Structure is abundant.
"Bixhoma is known for having big bass," Whisenhunt said. "We've stocked Floridas (Florida-strain largemouths), but we've struggled with trying to keep shad alive because it's not real productive to sustain a shad population very well. We have to stock it every year to keep them alive."
The ODWC stocks 2,000-5,000 threadfins semi-annually, always in the spring so that they'll be available for fish to eat during the winter.
"This year a lot of shad survived," Whisenhunt said.
Supplementing the forage base in small lakes certainly helps sustain and even improve individual bass health and quality, Whisenhunt said.
"I can't give you specific numbers, but we caught one fish that was over 11 pounds at Bixhoma in a spring sample before we stocked shad," he said. "If there had been enough food, it could have gone 13 or 14 pounds."
As with many small lakes, Bixhoma can easily get overpopulated with bass. The ODWC does what it can to improve population dynamics, but it's challenging when there's an overpopulation of 10- to 12-inch bass. The statewide minimum length limit for largemouth bass is 14 inches. Municipalities that own water supply lakes such as Lake Bixhoma have the authority to increase minimum length limits, but they cannot decrease them.
"It benefits big lakes, but it kind of hurts these little city lakes," Whisenhunt said. "They can't allow more generous harvest. They can only be more restrictive. Hopefully we can address that in future where can manage these little lakes more effectively."
Lakes Keystone and Oologah are two popular big lakes that Whisenhunt mentioned specifically. Keystone, an impoundment of the Arkansas River at Tulsa, is generally unproductive for bass because the main lake lacks habitat. The bottom is mostly sand, but the tributaries, which serve as nursery areas for the river at large, contain some good fishing.
Of course, Lake Keystone hosts a lot of bass tournaments, so there's a lot of competition for the best spots, and they endure a lot of fishing pressure.
"There's just not really good bass fishing over most of the lake, but you can get in some of the coves and up some of the creek channels in the Mannford area," Whisenhunt said. "People that know where to catch them catch them."
Oologah is deep in the south end, but the north end is very shallow. The main lake is defined by rocky bluffs and mud flats which are generally not conducive to largemouth bass productivity. Therefore, the fishing is very good in the main lake.
Whisenhunt said the best catch rates are in Blue Creek, Double Creek, Spencer Creek and especially Talalla Creek.
"If you get up far enough, you can catch them," Whisenhunt said. "Double Creek is the same way.
"There's just more vegetative cover in the creek channels," he added. "Those are the areas for fish to find cover and forage and things like that."
Of course, the Oklahoma All-Star List of great bass lakes will continue to shine this year.
"Grand Lake is the most popular lake in our region," Whisenhunt said. "Hudson Lake is very popular, and Fort Gibson Lake is very good. Our catch rates in electrofishing have been very high in all those lakes. They have a lot of fish, but also good quality fish."
That assessment applies liberally to most of the lakes in the region, big and small.
"For the most part, we have really good bass fisheries in Oklahoma, especially in northeast Oklahoma," Whisenhunt said. "We have plenty of fish, too. You don't have to be competition level to go out and have a good time catching these fish."