April 26, 2012
When my editor at this magazine asked for a story on "the best May angling opportunities" in Oklahoma, my first thought was: "How much space have you got for that story?"
That's because good fishing options are almost unlimited in late spring in the Sooner State.
Oh, the striper and sand bass spawning runs are usually about finished by then, but the catfish spawning periods are beginning, the bluegill and redear spawns are getting into high gear, black bass are winding down their spawn and feeding aggressively to recover from the spawn, and the spotted bass in prairie streams and smallmouths in highland streams are ripe for the picking. Stripers, hybrids and sand bass are transitioning into their summer patterns and are available too.
It's a good time to be a fisherman in Oklahoma.
When May rolls around, you'll find me in my garage rigging up a couple of lightweight spincast rigs with slip-bobbers, split shot and small hooks, as well as maybe a 5-weight flyrod.
That's because the big bluegills are nesting for the next few weeks and it can be the easiest time of the year to pack my freezer with a few bags of delicious sunfish filets.
I used to regard catching sunfish as a kind of fishing for rank beginners, but that was before I met George Edwards from Oklahoma City who taught me a few things about serious sunfishing.
After a couple of outings with George, back in the 1980s, I was soon hooked and began looking forward to my annual sunfish trips with enthusiasm.
Anglers commonly argue about whether crappie or walleyes are the tastiest freshwater North American fish. But as for me, I'll take filets of bluegills or redears or green sunfish over either of them.
I still enjoy an occasional meal of scaled and gutted sunfish, fried until the tails are crispy like potato chips, but when I can catch sunnies large enough to fillet, I really love those delicious, boneless morsels.
Not only are they great fried, they make wonderful ceviche — "cooked" in lime juice without the aid of fire, and mixed with a little fresh tomato and chopped jalapeno and spices. I've turned many of my friends into ceviche eaters — most of them guys who previously turned up their noses at the thought of eating "raw" fish.
You can catch bluegills and other sunfish on any and all of our large Oklahoma lakes, but I've had my best sunfish outings by far on smaller lakes that provide municipal water supplies. The key, in my opinion, to finding a good sunfish lake is to look for a lake with comparatively clear water and lots of emergent shoreline vegetation such as water willow or cattails.
The Wildlife Department's American Horse Lake, Stillwell's city lake, and Tulsa's Lake Eucha are among the lakes where I've had very productive days catching bigger-than-average sunfish.
Sunfish seem to prosper in clearer water. Maybe it's because the young feed on algae and plankton, and sunlight penetrating the water spurs the growth of microscopic life. But whatever the reason, many of Oklahoma's small water supply lakes hold excellent populations of sunfish.
When bluegills are nesting, you can often spot the nesting areas by seeing those little fanned-out bare spots on the bottom in shallow water. Plopping a line baited with a cricket or a bit of nightcrawler among the nests will often produce results.
The most effective rig for fishing such areas consists of a well-balanced combination of bobber and weight, which makes it easy to detect those subtle little bites that you might miss if you're using too large a bobber. I prefer using a slip-bobber also, so I can reel up my line for easy casting, but a regular bobber can work just fine.
Sometimes the bluegills nest in water that's too deep for the nests to be seen from the surface. When I'm fishing those deeper areas, I don't use a bobber. Instead I'll use a bell sinker with a bobber-stop below it, that allows the line to pass through the sinker eye without resistance. That also allows the user to detect subtle bites without letting the fish feel the weight of the sinker.
If you're after redears, fish the edges of the lakes near the cattails, water willow or other shoreline weeds. The redears prowl those areas looking for freshwater snails that often attach themselves to the weed stems.
I used to fish Sapulpa's Pretty Water Lake regularly for sunfish in the spring. When I was anchored in the shallow upper end catching bedding bluegills, I'd catch far more bluegills than redears. But when I'd ease along the shorelines fishing the weedbed edges, I'd catch far more redears than bluegills. That pattern repeated itself at many other sunfish lakes I fished.
You might find sunfish nesting any time in April, May or June. Some continue to nest on throughout the summer. But this time of the year, and especially those periods around the full moons each month, I consider the best times to fill an ice chest with sunfish.
All three of Oklahoma's most popular catfish species will be spawning soon. First the channel cats move to the shallows. Usually before the channel cat spawn is finished, the blues have moved in too. And before the blues are finished, the flatheads move in to spawn in shoreline caves, crevices and cracks.
Boaters can have access to lots of catfish all year long, but May, June and early July are the times when boatless anglers usually can get lots of catfish action by fishing the appropriate stretches of shoreline.
Riprapped shorelines on big lakes and rivers are great places to find spawning catfish of all three species. The many holes and crevices around the boulders draw catfish searching for nesting spots.
On many lakes anglers can also find stretches of boulder-strewn, steeply sloped shorelines that draw spawners. I've had luck fishing such areas at Keystone, Grand, Eufaula, Tenkiller and Kaw.
For catching channels and blues, live shad or shiners or freshly cut shad are great baits. Channels can be caught on a variety of aromatic prepared baits. But for flatheads, live shad or minnows, or small live sunfish can be excellent baits.
Rod and reel anglers can fish tightline or with bobbers. I've caught many channel cats by flippin' cut shad or pieces of shrimp along riprapped shorelines.
Of course, setting out trotlines or limblines along rocky shorelines can also produce good results.
It would almost be a waste of space to try to list lakes where catfishing can be good at this time of year. That's because the truth is that virtually all of Oklahoma's major reservoirs hold plenty of catfish. Grand and Eufaula are two of my favorites, but Lake Texoma, Keystone, Kaw, Kerr, Hugo and Webbers Falls are other excellent catfish destinations.
I should also mention the tailrace areas. Even during the spawning season, when lots of catfish in lakes are seeking out nesting spots, there is often some fast catfishing action in the stilling basins below the major hydroelectric dams in Oklahoma.
Fishing the tailraces often calls for specialized tackle — long rods for making long casts — or using balloons, motorized remote-control boats, even kites, to deliver baited lines out to the far-from-shore areas of the stilling basins.
And over on the Arkansas-Verdigris Navigation System lakes that are on those two rivers, there is a string of large and small dams and the smaller ones can be fished effectively with conventional rods and reels, although even at those spots a long rod can come in handy.
While you might catch catfish in the tailrace waters at any time, it is usually far better when there is water being released through the power-generating turbines. When the flows begin, more fish move upstream and feed in the turbulent areas where dead and stunned baitfish are sucked through the dams and discharged into the stilling basins.
Generation schedules for most of Oklahoma's U.S. Army Corps of Engineers power dams, although not always 100 percent accurate, can be found on line at: www.swt-wc.usace.army.mil/power/hydropower.html#Day 0
If sunfish and catfish aren't enough for you, there is always bass fishing. May is usually a great month when many different lures and patterns can be used to catch largemouths, spotted bass and smallmouths.
You may find some largemouths still spawning in early May, although most will be finished by then. At most of our lakes, though, May is one of the easiest times to catch largemouths by just cruising the shorelines with spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jigs or plastic worms.
Topwater action can be good at this time of year, especially early and late in the day.
And action on spotted bass can be excellent. In the Grand (Neosho) River chain of lakes — Grand, Hudson and Fort Gibson — spotted bass tend to gather at this time of year in the headwaters areas where the lakes are still river-like. It's sometimes possible to find short stretches of shoreline where it seems as if you can catch a spotted bass on almost every cast.
Over the years I've lived in northeastern Oklahoma I have enjoyed numerous springtime days in the upper end of Lake Hudson, just a couple of miles below the Pensacola Dam on Grand Lake, when spotted bass were concentrated along the shorelines and hitting aggressively. Hudson is one of the best lakes in Oklahoma if you want to catch big spotted bass. I have caught one and seen another 5-pound-plus spotted bass at Hudson, but I don't believe I've ever seen another honest-to-goodness 5-pound spotted bass from any other Oklahoma lake.
Hugo Lake, down in Choctaw County, is another good spotted bass lake, and the Kentuckies there can often be found in the Kiamichi River channel, all the way up to Rattan Landing, in the springtime.
There are many other large reservoirs with plentiful spotted bass. At Tenkiller and Broken Bow, for example, the fisheries managers for a while manipulated slot-length limits to encourage anglers to harvest more spotted bass because they were more numerous than the largemouths.
But one of my favorite fishing trips in late April, May or early June is a float trip on one of Eastern Oklahoma's highland, coolwater streams, catching native smallmouth bass. Although our native "brownies" rarely grow large, and a 3-pounder is a trophy catch, what they lack in size they make up for in their valiant fights, usually beginning with a jump or two when hooked.
In northeast Oklahoma, the Illinois River, Barron Fork Creek, Flint Creek, Sallisaw Creek and Little Lee's Creek are usually pretty good smallmouth streams. Down in Southeastern Oklahoma, the Kiamichi River, upper Mountain Fork River, Glover River, Eagle Fork Creek and a few others offer good smallmouth action.
You can rent canoes from a number of outfitters on the Illinois River, and there are rental canoes available near the Mountain Fork, but for most of the other streams you'll need your own canoe, johnboat or float tube.
A variety of topwater plugs, spinnerbaits and crankbaits can be effective on stream brownies, but I'd recommend using 1/8-ounce jigs tipped with plastic grubs on all of those streams. That's been my "money bait" for stream smallmouths during 40 years of fishing those streams.
STRIPERS & SAND BASS
Striped bass and white bass can sometimes be hard to find for a week or two at this time of year; they've completed their spawning runs from mid-March to late April. But as summer grows closer, they can usually be found roaming open water in the big lakes and can be located with sonar or by trolling with crankbaits. As the season progresses, you may find stripers, sand bass and hybrids schooling and chasing shad to the surface of the water. Later, during the hotter summer months, surface-schooling action can be the best way to find these open-water predators.
When you find a school feeding on or near the surface, white, pearl or silver crankbaits and topwaters can be great lures for catching these line-sided bass. Another method that can be fun is to tie two or three small jigs on loop knots on your line and throw them into a surface-feeding school. Getting two or three 2-pound sand bass on a single line can be an interesting experience.
On Lake Eufaula I've pulled three sand bass to the boat only to see another dozen or more following and trying to grab the jigs.
Keystone, Texoma, Grand, Tenkiller, Fort Gibson and many other Oklahoma lakes are loaded with sand bass. All of the Arkansas River chain of lakes hold both sandies and stripers as well as a few hybrids.
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Oklahoma is loaded with many kinds of fishing opportunities at this time of year. No matter whether you're fishing from a new $20,000 bass boat or just slinging lures from the shoreline, this is one of the best times of the year to find fishing action with a variety of species.