Rain finally came to the Sooner State last year, providing relief to our state's treasured fish and wildlife.
Our bass fisheries especially benefitted from the rains, which came at the perfect time to do the most good. Lord knows they needed it!
Of course, droughts are essential parts of the natural cycle, but that doesn't make them any more pleasant to endure. When the rains finally return, however, we start to see the beneficial aspects of the dry cycles in relation to fisheries and to fishing.
The effects of drought on Oklahoma's reservoirs is well documented. Lake levels were very low for a long time. In some areas, most notably western and southwestern Oklahoma, some lakes were hit especially hard. Many of those were marginal bass fisheries from the start, and they will take some time to recover.
In other areas, drought exposed vast mileages of shoreline for extended periods. All that abundance of dry real estate sprouted a lot of greenery in the form of brush, grass and tree saplings.
Heavy rains last summer inundated those areas. That made a lot more spawning habitat available for largemouth bass, and the flooded cover created a lot of new nursery habitat where bass fry could elude predators.
Also, decomposing vegetation released vast amounts of nutrients into the water that provided food for plankton, which provided food for baitfish, which provided food for game fish.
Of course, that's all good news for the future. Anglers won't notice significant increases in bass numbers for at least two years, but we probably will see improved quality and health of mature bass in our most popular lakes.
"We suspect we had great survival this year," said Cliff Sager, fisheries biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's south-central region. That includes some of our best bass lakes, including Texoma and Lake of the Arbuckles.
Sager cautioned anglers to temper their expectations because a strong 2015 year-class won't produce good bass fishing until at least 2017.
"Next spring those fish will be in the 8- to 10-inch range and smaller, so there won't be a big impact in tournament weights and overall catches until two or three years down the road, when people start seeing strong numbers of 14- to 17-inch fish," Sager said.
Southern Oklahoma is also the epicenter of the ODWC's Florida bass program. The biologist said the future is bright in that part of the state, but the present looks pretty good, too.
"I think anglers will see improved conditions because for so long they fished in lakes that were so low," Sager said. "Angling success will be improved because habitat is improved."
Freshly inundated vegetation provides escape cover for young bass, but it also provides ambush cover for adult bass. It makes bass easier for anglers to find.
"Once the water comes up, it inundates a lot of the rocks and woody debris that's been high and dry for so long," Sager said. "It makes more targets available for anglers to cast at."
Curiously, the drought did not create any particular stress for the Florida bass program. Last year the ODWC stocked a little more than 1.8 million Florida-strain fingerlings in 27 lakes, the same as in 2014.
Stocking bass fingerlings has a negligible impact on a lake's bass fishery in terms of numbers, but that's not the objective, Sager said. The main objective is first to replace a northern-strain largemouth with a Florida-strain largemouth. That might produce several desirable outcomes, the first being an opportunity to improve a lake's largemouth bass genetics by promoting interbreeding between a northern and a Florida-strain bass.
The best outcome is for Florida bass to breed with each other.
"Our Florida bass program is a long-term investment," Sager said. "The goal of our program is to produce trophy bass for anglers. We're not trying to increase numbers of bass. We're trying to affect the genetics of our bass populations and allow trophies to grow."
A fingerling stocked into a lake has the same chance of survival as a naturally spawned native bass. Sager said there's no way of knowing how many stocked fish survive, but it's obviously enough to matter based on the string of state-record bass that southern Oklahoma has produced in recent years.
"It's interesting how the program has grown and developed," Sager said. "We've been stocking Florida bass in the state since the 1970s, but we didn't start maintaining brood stock in our hatcheries until 2000."
The ODWC stocks Florida bass at different rates, depending on the size of a lake. A small lake gets 15,000 Florida fingerlings. An intermediate-sized lake gets about 60,000 fingerlings, and a large lake gets about 100,000.
Not only that, but a Florida-strain brood bass reaches a point of diminishing returns in a hatchery when the cost of its upkeep outpaces its productivity. The ODWC puts those giant adult Floridas out to pasture, so to speak, by releasing them into lakes, as well.
Sager said there is no data that suggests how long liberated brood fish survive in a lake or whether anglers ever catch them at all, but they offer an instant opportunity to catch a giant.
Southern Oklahoma has a long list of great bass fisheries, and all are associated with the Florida bass program. Lake of the Arbuckles consistently gets rave reviews for the number of big largemouths it produces. The ODWC stocked 101,065 Floridas there in 2015.
Also, tournament anglers submitted four reports from Lake Arbuckle in 2013, the last year tournament data was available. Anglers weighed an average of 16.75 bass per tournament, and it took an average of 20.51 pounds to win a tournament. The average weight per bass was 3.7 pounds, and it took an average of 86.45 fishing hours, divided by an average of 13 boats per event, to catch a bass larger than 5 pounds.
Compare that to Webbers Falls, a pool on the Arkansas River near Muskogee, whose numbers were also derived from four tournaments. An average of 9.25 boats weighed in an average of 31.75 bass. It took an average of 13.85 pounds to win a tournament, and the average weight per bass was 2.51 pounds. The big bass per event weighed 5.16 pounds, and it took 124 fishing hours to catch a bass larger than 5 pounds.
As tournament destinations, Oklahoma had five lakes on the Bassmaster Top 100 for 2015. Grand Lake O' the Cherokees ranked No. 13 nationwide, and will host this year's Bassmaster Classic March 4-6.
Lake Hudson ranked No. 64, followed by Lake Konawa (68), Lake Texoma (73) and Lake Arbuckle (75).
"Lake Texoma has really developed over the last 10 years to be a destination for bass," Sager said. "The number of trophy largemouth and smallmouth bass has been on an upward trend despite Texoma having one of the best striped bass populations in the nation."
I have caught some of my biggest smallmouth bass at Lake Arbuckle, but Sager said its smallmouth population actually is low.
"They are there and they reproduce naturally, but we don't see many large ones," he said.
Keith Thomas, the Oklahoma City regional fisheries biologist for the ODWC, had a similar assessment for the lakes in his region. Reproduction and recruitment of young bass was way down for several years because of drought, but he said he expects to see them rebound strongly in the next two to three years.
"We had plenty of nursery habitat for young bass and good habitat for brooders to spawn in, and we will have some good crops of bass in farm ponds," Thomas said.
The best lakes in central Oklahoma traditionally are Lake Hefner and, surprisingly, Lake Thunderbird. Water levels at Lake Hefner were very low for a long time due to lack of water in Canton Lake, which feeds it, but it should rebound on the strength of a good 2015 year-class.
Lake Thunderbird has a reputation for being hard to fish, but Thomas said it actually is an overlooked hotspot.
"It's really good," Thomas said. "It gets a bad rap for being muddy and busy, but numbers-wise and quality-wise, it's a really good lake. When people ask me where they fish in the Oklahoma City area, that's where I send them."
Like other lakes, it could be excellent when the 2015 year-class comes of age.
If you want to catch Kentucky bass like crazy, Lake Stanley Draper is a good destination. Draper has a well-earned reputation for being a "dead sea" due to extreme turbidity. That suppresses the food chain, and it didn't help that it was as much as 20 feet low for a long time, which greatly diminished habitat and food.
However, spotted bass appeared in Stanley Draper several years ago, and for reasons unknown, they thrived. Thomas said he doesn't know how they got there. They're not native, and the ODWC certainly didn't stock them.
The best places to catch Kentuckies, Thomas said, are in the middle and lower parts of the lake. You can catch as many as you want, and since there's no limit on "spots," you can keep as many as you want.
"If you want to catch the heck out of spotted bass, that's where I'd send you," he added.
For a sleeper bass-fishing hotspot, Thomas recommended Pauls Valley City Lake. It's only about 750 acres. It's dingy and muddy, but Thomas said there have been a lot of reports of anglers catching some "really nice bass."
"It's a really good lake," he said.
Chris Whisenhunt, a fisheries biologist in Eastern Oklahoma, manages mostly small lakes around Claremore and Bixoma, but he's also in charge of Keystone Lake at Tulsa. Keystone runs hot and cold as a bass fishery, but high water seems to have given it a boost.
"Keystone surprised me because we caught fish even in poor places," Whisenhunt said.
Areas in Keystone that produced some of the highest numbers of bass in 2015 electroshocking surveys were Mud Creek, the confluence of the Cimarron and Arkansas rivers, and Appalachia Bay.
"Claremore, Bixoma and Bristow are really good bass lakes," Whisenhunt added, but he cautioned anglers who fish city lakes to check local ordinances to see if they require additional permits besides a state fishing license.
Oklahoma's other great bass fisheries, such as lakes Tenkiller, Fort Gibson, Hudson and Broken Bow, keep rocking right along. Large bass populations pulled them through the dry years, and a strong 2015 year-class will make them shine in the future.