Winter is waning and spring is almost here. That means thousands of Oklahoma anglers are charging up the boat batteries, filling reels with fresh line and tidying up their tackle boxes.
There's crappie to be caught, and sand bass and stripers and catfish.
But black bass, especially largemouths, are the species of choice for many Sooner fishermen, and soon they will be probing the waters of Oklahoma's many lakes both large and small, as well as farm ponds, rivers and creeks, for their favorite fish.
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation continues to expand its Florida-strain largemouth bass stocking operations, and so chances of catching trophy-sized bass from many of our Oklahoma lakes should be improving.
The Department's Florida Largemouth Bass Program had another great year of production for 2014. The program produced more than 1.8 million Florida bass and stocked them in 31 lakes. That is the second-largest number of Florida largemouth fingerlings to be stocked in a season, second only to 2013 when 2.2 million were stocked in 44 lakes.
The goal of the Florida bass program is to produce trophy bass. To do so, genetically pure Florida bass are stocked into the state's lakes to influence the genetics of the native bass populations. Except for one fish, every state-record bass since 1979 has been a Florida bass or a hybrid of Floridas and northerns. The Northern substrain is our native largemouth bass.
Oklahoma's current state-record largemouth bass, at this writing, was caught in Cedar Lake in March 2013 and weighed 14 pounds, 13.7 ounces. That small lake in the Ouachita Mountains continues to get Florida stockings.
The Department says it gets questions from anglers about where they choose to stock the Florida bass. Geography is a factor.
"Oklahoma is really right on the line of where you can expect Florida bass to be successful," said Cliff Sager, south-central region senior biologist. "Lakes in the southern half of Oklahoma have shown much greater success in sustaining Florida-strain bass. There's a reason Cedar Lake (in Southeastern Oklahoma) has broken the state record two years in a row."
Stocking sites are chosen by a committee of biologists and based on many criteria. The committee considers the documented success in trophy bass production, as well as angler pressure. Also, lakes with better habitat for bass are more likely to be stocked than lakes where good bass habitat doesn't exist. Sager said growing trophy bass in a particular lake "is an 8- to 10-year investment." Therefore, the Wildlife Department concentrates on the waters that hold the most promise for producing trophy bass.
To see a list of the 31 lakes stocked with FLMB last year, visit here. Among the lakes stocked were Arbuckle with 90,035 bass, Broken Bow with 90,066, McGee Creek with 90,069, Murray with 90,039, Eufaula with 105,200. Stockings were done both in large reservoirs and a number of smaller municipal and Wildlife Department-managed lakes.
No matter whether your favorite lake is in the southern area of Oklahoma or the northern part where Floridas don't seem to thrive, the next few weeks offer the best chances of the year for you to catch a trophy largemouth.
In the spring, when the egg-laden females are preparing to spawn, they usually are at their heaviest weights, so early spring is often when state-record and lake-record bass are caught.
In coming weeks, those big mamma bass can be caught on jerkbaits, crankbaits or Carolina-rigged plastic baits, as well as on jigs and spinnerbaits.
What technique is best during the pre-spawn and spawning periods often is dependent on the water level in the lake you are fishing.
If spring rains fill the lakes to above normal, flooding willow thickets or expanding brushy coves, spinnerbaits or jig-and-pork or jig-and-plastic baits can be just the ticket to hooking big females prowling the shallows.
If lakes are at normal levels or below, fishing a few yards out from shore where water deepens, using jigs, jerkbaits or Carolina-rigged lizards or crawfish, can be the most efficient techniques.
If you happen to fish a lake with clear water, you may even be able to spot bass nesting near the shorelines or around cover. Catching nesting bass is a specialized technique that some professional bass anglers have honed to a fine art. Nesters are sometimes reluctant to take a bait, so it can be frustrating trying to "sight-fish" — catch a bass that you can actually watch react to a lure.
But it can be done, usually with gentle presentations of jigs, craws or small, soft-plastic "finesse" baits such as 4-inch worms or small grubs.
Largemouth bass are the dominant species in most Oklahoma reservoirs, both large and small. But some lakes also hold excellent populations of spotted bass and a few have smallmouth.
Oklahoma's native smallmouth is a stream-dwelling fish that doesn't seem to do well in the still waters of reservoirs. But in the last 15 years or so the Department has expanded smallmouth fishing in Oklahoma by stocking a Tennessee River strain of smallmouth that thrives and reproduces in lakes, creating smallmouth fisheries in lakes that never before held smallmouths.
Lake Murray, near Ardmore, is one lake that has benefitted from the lake-strain smallmouth stocking program. And one of the biggest surprises of all was that Lake Texoma, a big, broad, somewhat turbid lake more known for its striper and sand bass fishing, turned out to be a good host for the smallmouths.
A couple of state-record smallmouths, and lots of 4- and 5-pounders, have been caught at Texoma in the past decade. The current smallmouth record, though, is an 8-pound, 7-ounce fish that came from Lake Lawtonka in southwestern Oklahoma.
Oklahoma's native smallmouths are found mostly in those eastern Oklahoma counties that border Arkansas, where coolwater, highland streams flow through the foothills of the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains.
A springtime float trip on the Illinois River, Flint Creek, Barron Fork Creek, Lee's and Little Lee's Creeks, Sallisaw Creek and the Mountain Fork and Glover Rivers can give anglers a chance to catch a lot of these scrappy, hard-fighting stream dwellers. It also can be a wonderful way to spend a day, floating beneath hillsides colored with blossoms of dogwood, plum and redbud trees.
Fall float trips on those same streams can be beautiful too, when the hillsides above the streams are painted with the brilliant colors of turning leaves.
At least three lakes are known for their big populations of spotted bass. Broken Bow Lake down in McCurtain County has long been one of the region's top fisheries for spotted bass. Lake Tenkiller, near Tahlequah, also holds a lot of spotted bass, so many that at times tournament anglers are frustrated because they catch far more "spots" than the bigger largemouths, which add more weight to their weigh-in bags.
And Lake Hudson, the middle lake on the Neosho (Grand) River chain of lakes in northeastern Oklahoma, has produced more big spotted bass — 5-pounders and better — than any lake I know of in the region.
Strangely, there isn't a single spotted bass entered in the ODWC's "Lake Record" listings for Lake Hudson. That may be because when some anglers catch one of those hefty spotted bass they think it's a largemouth. In most Oklahoma lakes, a spotted bass weighing more than 2 or 3 pounds is a rarity.
Oklahoma's long-standing spotted bass record is an 8-pound, 2-ounce giant that came from a Pittsburg County farm pond back in 1958.
Speaking of farm ponds, March usually is a great month to fish farm ponds in Oklahoma. It's early in the year so the algae and aquatic vegetation hasn't grown up to choke the surfaces of most ponds, and the springtime sunshine is warming the shallows of those ponds and warming up the bass as well.
Oklahoma State University says there are more than 200,000 farm ponds covering more than a half-million acres. And while not every pond is suitable for fishing or holds bass, I'd guess that the majority of them do hold largemouths.
I've fished Oklahoma ponds in at least 20 counties and caught bass up to 9 pounds. And when you break it down to fish caught per hour, I've caught more bass in farm ponds than in large lakes.
Pond fishing can be great about eight or nine months a year, although it can get a little slow in the wintertime when water temperatures plummet and some ponds get covered with ice.
Oklahoma's spring weather is fickle. In March it can be sunny and temperatures in the 60s one day, followed by a blizzard and temperatures in the teens the next day. But in most years, there are enough sunny days to warm the surface water and trigger some bass action.
If you can find a pond with the dam and deeper water on the south end and the shallows on the north end, that's a perfect environment for early spring fishing. The sunshine warms the surface water and the south spring breezes push the warmer water into the shallows, making them even warmer. Bass often move into those warmer areas and readily attack jigs, crankbaits or spinnerbaits.
I used to carry a thermometer with me to measure the difference in temperature on the upwind and downwind sides of ponds on sunny springtime days. It wasn't unusual to see a difference of as much as eight or nine degrees from one side of the pond to the other. And, of course, the best action was usually on the warmer side of the pond. That isn't necessarily true later in the year, but in early spring those temperature differences can be a key to finding active bass.
These days, with free tools like Google Earth, it can be easy to locate farm ponds and the roads that lead to or are closest to them. But anglers should always obtain permission from landowners before fishing ponds on private property.
I have found some ponds and old oxbows that were not really visible from any highway or road, on public hunting lands and one federal wildlife refuge in northeastern Oklahoma by scanning the areas on Google Earth.
Look at the Deep Fork National Wildlife Refuge, the portion south of Okmulgee near Highway 75, and see how many old oxbow lakes or ponds are hidden in the woods. You may find similar hidden fishing holes on public lands elsewhere as well.
For the next month or two, bass will be in pre-spawn and spawning modes, but by mid- to late May they likely will be recovered from the spawning.
In many Oklahoma lakes, that period coincides with when water temperatures climb up into the 70s. That's when my favorite bass bait, the plastic worm, comes into its own.
I don't know why, but plain ol' Texas-rigged plastic worms don't perform nearly as well when water temperatures are in the 50s and low 60s. But as the surface water gets close to 70 and continues to climb, plastic worms can sometimes be by far the most productive lure in the box.
Oklahoma anglers can also catch bass in streams of all sizes.
Most of our creeks and rivers of any size hold largemouths, but many are loaded with spotted bass. In many of the slow-moving prairie streams of central Oklahoma spotted bass are the prevalent species. There used to be a separate species of spotted bass in southwestern Oklahoma around the Wichita Mountains, the Wichita Spotted Bass.
Professional bass fisherman Ken Cook, a former fisheries biologist, even surveyed Cache Creek, one of the area's principal streams, back in the 1970s, searching for a remnant population of the subspecies. He found none and concluded that damming of the creek may have negatively impacted the habitat needed by the species.
Eastern Oklahoma's big navigable rivers, the Arkansas and Verdigris, which these days are just series of lakes with locks and dams, produce impressive stringers of both largemouth and spotted bass and are often the site of national bass tournament circuit events.
Anglers fish the oxbows and creek mouths, the wing dams and jetties and other structures.
But many smaller streams that can be waded or fished from float tubes or canoes or johnboats, offer excellent bass fishing prospects. Lunker bass weighing 7 or 8 pounds are pretty rare in most small Oklahoma streams, but the abundance of bass in the under-5-pounds category can make for some excellent action for light-tackle anglers who probe the riffles and pools with small crankbaits, jigs and spinners. Sometimes topwater fishing can be excellent in small streams as well.
Oklahoma is blessed with a lot of fishable water, from the dozens of big, sprawling reservoirs to the small municipal lakes and flood-control structures to the small streams and farm ponds that are found in pretty much every one of our 77 counties.
All three black bass species are available and the variety of fishable waters we have means there's a time and place for just about any style or technique of bass fishing an Oklahoma angler wants to try.