July 01, 2019
By Lynn Burkhead
People may think of Oklahoma as just a place where the wind comes sweeping down the plains. But thanks to the rain that often falls as fronts and storm systems move through, there’s no shortage of places for anglers to wet a line –– including many top-shelf fisheries where largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, striped bass, crappie and catfish all thrive.
While Oklahoma may have the market cornered on things like wind, wheat and, occasionally, tornadoes, there are plenty of chances to experience some great fishing action across the Sooner State, too. And that includes 2019, a year that Kurt Kuklinski, supervisor of the Oklahoma Fisheries Research Laboratory in Norman, expects to be especially good for most of the state and its major game-fish species.
“Yes, I expect this year to be a good one, the reasons being good seasonal rains in recent years, which has led to good reproduction and good age classes,” said Kuklinski. “Plus, there has been plenty of forage for our game fish to eat recently, so I’m going out on a limb and predicting that the next couple of years or so will be good for most fishing activities in Oklahoma.”
That includes the state’s tremendous catfish opportunities, from blues on big reservoirs to channel cats in secluded backwaters, as well as flatheads in some of the Sooner State’s major river systems and lakes. In most years, the catfishing action is really good across Oklahoma and there should be little change this year, a fact that caused Kuklinski to give an enthusiastic forecast grade for catfishing opportunities in 2019.
“It’s got to be an A (grade) based on the number of available fish in most places, not to mention the big-fish potential in a lot of areas,” he said. “We’ve got good quality and good age classes, so for the next year or two, this is about as good as it gets.”
And like the college football team that plays on the campus where his lab is located, Kuklinski said that Oklahoma’s catfishing status from year-to-year is upper echelon in a national sense.
“Oklahoma has above-average catfishing opportunity, bordering on great,” said Kuklinski. “We’ve got a good variety of catfish – blues, channels and flatheads – and in some spots you can catch a lot of fish. Plus, if you want trophy blues or big flatheads, we’ve got them.
“Looking around at other states, Texas has some outstanding catfishing opportunities, Virginia has some trophy blues, and a couple of other states out there might have some catfishing opportunity that ranks above us,” he added. “But there’s little doubt in my mind that Oklahoma ranks right up there in the top tier of states for great catfish opportunities.”
Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than Lake Texoma, a reservoir on the Oklahoma/Texas border. In addition to being a world-class fishery for striped bass and a pretty good spot to catch largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, there might be no better place to catch a giant blue catfish than the 89,000-acre Lake Texoma.
That seems evident by taking a quick glance at the record book. The Red River- and Washita River-fed impoundment produced Billy Nabors’ Oklahoma state-record blue of 98 pounds, a behemoth that measured 54 1/2 inches in length, in 2004. Earlier that same year, the border lake also produced an International Game Fish Association (IGFA) world-record blue catfish when Cody Mullenix landed a 121-pound, 8-ounce benchmark blue on the Texas side of the reservoir, a fish that was nicknamed “Splash.”
Add in the lake’s numerous channel catfish and one could make the argument that Texoma is right at the top in terms of the best Oklahoma fisheries for whiskerfish.
“Texoma is certainly right at the top in our state,” agreed Kuklinski. “There are some decent numbers of catfish and, of course, that’s where our state record blue is from.”
Matt Mauck, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) biologist in charge of the Texoma region in the south-central part of the state, agrees that the fishing is really good at the big reservoir, certainly in terms of blue catfish potential. And with the recent water levels –– Texoma has flooded periodically since 2015 and was several feet above normal as this was written –– he sees nothing that makes him think anything will change anytime soon.
“Water availability certainly helps our populations of fish thrive and our big years of fish production are generally tied into an abundance of rainfall like we’ve had at Texoma in recent years,” said Mauck. “Rainfall fills our lakes back up to where they are supposed to be, it gives the fish more flooded habitat as the water backs into terrestrial vegetation, and that helps the overall population, the vulnerable young fish produced that year and the baitfish that the game fish rely on. When the baitfish thrive, the predator fish species usually respond, too.”
Why does Lake Texoma, specifically, excel in terms of its potential for producing big blue catfish?
“Probably the easiest answer is that the lake has such an abundance of food, with most of that resource being centered around threadfin shad and gizzard shad,” said Mauck. “The shad generally reside out in the lake’s pelagic zone, or the open water niche (found) offshore. That’s probably what drives it all, not to mention the blues access to Texoma’s two large feeder river systems. There’s lots of food, it’s a big body of water, and there are lots of opportunity for blues to thrive.”
While trophy blues often take the headlines at Texoma, Mauck noted that with two main river arms and numerous small feeder creeks, there are other catfishing opportunities at Texoma, particularly for channel cats.
“In general, when you get away from some of those bigger, more open areas of water, that’s where you’ll find some of that other catfishing opportunity at Texoma,” he said.
As good as Texoma is, it’s not the only resource that Mauck recommends to catfish anglers.
“Yes, there are a couple of other good spots in my part of the state that are good for catfish, too, one being Lake Murray where there is a nice population of channel cats that lives in the shadows of the lake’s well-known black bass population,” he said. “And the other one is McGee Creek, which has some nice opportunities for flathead fishing.”
If that’s the opportunity in the south-central part of the Sooner State, what about some of the state’s other regions like the southeastern corner near the Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana borders?
“Hugo is a pretty good one,” said Kuklinski. “And Sardis is a pretty good one, too.”
Up in northeastern Oklahoma, the ODWC biologist pointed out that Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees can be pretty good for catfish, even though state sampling sometimes doesn’t measure up to angler reports on the biglake northeast of Tulsa.
Kuklinski also pointed out that one of the region’s biggest river systems –– the Arkansas River –– can shine for catfish, too. In fact, while on the subject of Oklahoma rivers, Kuklinski noted that many other major river systems across the state are good for catfish, from the Cimarron and Canadian rivers out west to the Washita River in the south and the Keystone River up north.
In the northern part of the state, Kuklinski mentions Kaw Lake as a spot that also offers good catfishing opportunity. And a little bit further west in the state’s northwestern corner, ODWC biologist Chaz Patterson adds that despite the region’s reputation as a dusty spot best suited for agricultural pursuits and quail, there can be some good catfishing opportunities at Canton Lake.
“Like other parts of the state, we’re in good shape out here right now,” said Patterson, who noted that his northwestern region is generally known for channel catfish and flatheads. “Canton is probably our best catfish lake in the northwestern part of the state. The habitat is pretty good, it’s one of our more productive lakes in the area, and there are lots of fish in it, including channels. In fact, it actually did hold the state record channel cat at one point.”
While catching a state-record-class channel cat isn’t necessarily something that an angler at Canton should expect, Patterson said people routinely catch 5- to 8-pound channel cats at the lake.
“Early summer is a good time for channels, usually right around the spawn in June,” he said. “Those catfish like to congregate around the dam and anglers catch them before the spawn, during the spawn and right after the spawn on typical methods like using cut shad, stink baits, that type of thing.”
Patterson noted that a smaller 100-acre lake in the region – American Horse Lake near Geary – is also good for catfish.
“Our agency owns 16 department lakes, and American Horse is one of those,” said Patterson. “It’s stocked regularly and has historically produced lots of good fish. With shoreline access and some boat ramps, too, the lake might not be huge, but it does give some good opportunity for catfish.”
Down in the southwestern corner of the state, ODWC biologist Clayton Porter says Tom Steed Lake is tops for catfish, particularly blues and flatheads.
“It’s a tremendous fishery and has a lot of fish,” said Porter. “And there are a lot of good-size fish in it. Late spring and early summer are good, but the fall is a good time as well. The southern bank is pretty good in the spring and the dam is a pretty good area in the summer.
“Waurika is also a pretty good lake, although it’s more of a turbid lake than Tom Steed is,” Porter said. “But it is also really good for good-sized blues in the lower end of the lake. The upper portion, which has more trees and bigger rocks, tends to have more flatheads in that region. And the channel cats are pretty good around the dam and on the east side of the lake where there is quite a bit of deeper water.”
As for how to catch whiskerfish across Oklahoma this year, Kuklinski said that while there’s never a bad time to go fishing, there are some months that are better than others, even for catfish.
“For channel catfish, I’d say the early summer spawn time is good, sometime from mid-May until late June into early July,” he said. “For flatheads, the best times are often in the summer months from late June into July, although they can be difficult to catch for anyone but noodlers when they get into cavities (to spawn) from May into June.
“And for big blues, the cooler months are tops,” he added. “Unlike our other catfish species, for big blues, January and February are probably the best months.”
Asked about what the top Sooner State catfish baits might be for whiskerfish this year, Kuklinski said that while shad often dominates –– cut or whole –– there are many baits that anglers like to use including dip and stink baits, flavored and scented doughs, nightcrawlers, and crawfish. Visiting local tackle shops or talking to local anglers who excel in a certain area, will help anglers find out what’s best in a region or a particular lake.
But the bottom line is that when it comes to taking advantage of Oklahoma’s tremendous catfishing resources this year, the experts are telling anglers to load up their fishing gear and get on the water. Because the fishing is good and the 2019 forecast for the Sooner State’s whiskerfish is about as good as it can get.