Some of the best fly fishing in Texas is in Oklahoma.
By Larry D. Hodge
Dick Freeman is a study in concentration. Strip, strip, strip, pause. Strip, strip, strip, pause. Just as he begins another series of lightning-fast strips, the surface of the Red River boils and his fly rod rainbows. Minutes later he cradles a two-pound striped bass.
Texas fly fishers often head to Colorado, New Mexico or Arkansas to wet their lines, but Oklahoma offers quality fly fishing much closer to home — so close to home, in fact, that you don’t even have to leave Texas.
Due to an oddity of history (see sidebar), the entire width of the Red River between Texas and Oklahoma lies wholly within the latter state. Anglers standing on the Texas side need an Oklahoma fishing license, except when fishing from the bank between the base of Denison Dam and the mouth of Shawnee Creek a short distance downstream. Along that few hundred yards of river, as long as you do not enter the water, a Texas license is valid. Fish anywhere else, or wade out into the river, and an Oklahoma license is required. (A similar situation exists in far northeast Texas, where the Red forms the boundary between Texas and Arkansas. Oklahoma and Arkansas size and bag limits apply. See <www.wildlifedepartment.com/fishing.htm> or <www.agfc. state.ar.us/> for specifics.)
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Inland Fisheries biologist Bruce Hysmith, his son, Larry, and I meet for an afternoon of fly fishing on the Red River at Carpenter’s Bluff, a few miles east of Denison.
Once the site of a ferry across the Red River and infested by an assortment of unsavory characters who caused it to be known as Thiefneck, Carpenter’s Bluff now drowses along the south bank of the Red, its tranquility disturbed only by an occasional vehicle crossing the 1910 iron bridge spanning the river. Just past the bridge, J.W. Collins operates a private boat ramp ($5 launch fee. Deposit money in the honor box at the bottom of the hill. For information call 903-465-5771).
As Bruce and Larry fuss with rods and reels and flies, I head down to the river for a look. It’s early November, and trees along the bank wear their fall wardrobe. “I’ve fished a lot in Colorado, where the aspens turn gold in the fall, and this looks very much the same,” Larry observes. Lined with trees and sandstone, the river presents a panorama pleasing to the eye, and it’s easy to imagine we are standing beside a stream in the Rockies or Ozarks, especially when a sudden gust of wind rains golden leaves around us. I’m reminded of what someone once told me about the appeal of shooting sporting clays: “It’s the places you go, the people you meet and the fun that you have.” The same is very much true of fishing the Red River.
The stretch of river from Denison Dam to Carpenter’s Bluff seems made for fly fishing. Long curving loops of river furnish both shallow and deep water, rippling riffles and placid pools. Sandbars provide places to stand or to beach a canoe, kayak or airboat. Broad expanses of open beach with no trees or brush welcome loops of back cast. And despite its name, the river, at least today, purls a ribbon of blue across the red sand. It’s a gorgeous place to fish, swim or just bask on a rock, pretending to be a turtle.
For all its natural beauty, the Red is a river with a split personality. The morning after fishing with the Hysmiths, I meet members of the Red River Fly Fishers at the foot of Denison Dam to sample the fishing there. A hydroelectric power plant below Denison Dam generates electricity mainly during times of peak demand. Water released to power the turbines raises the level of the river several feet and creates a strong current. At other times, there’s little current, and rocks and snags rear out of the water.
Broad expanses of open beach with no trees or brush welcome loops of back cast. And despite its name, the river, at least today, purls a ribbon of blue across the red sand.
Prime time for conventional rod-and-reel fishers is during power generation. “Flowing water attracts baitfish, and baitfish attract predator fish,” Bruce points out. Predator fish attract anglers, and the area immediately below the dam can resemble a fishing derby, as dozens of fishers compete for the choice spots. Serious anglers use heavy surf rods with 30-pound braided line; casting a bucktailed jig under a weighted cork into the boiling cauldron often produces vicious strikes from stripers ranging up to 15 pounds.
Fly fishers prefer to wait until an hour or so after the generators shut down. (A recorded message at 903-465-1491 gives the generating schedule.) Shad and stripers remain in the deeper holes; one of the best is between the last rock outcrop and the row of wooden pilings across the river. “Usually the best fly to use is a Clouser type — anything that resembles a shad,” says Dick Freeman, president of the Red River Fly Fishers (www. rrff.org, 903-868-0335).
I ask if there’s a particular color that works best, and Freeman and members of his group look at each other and smile. “Don’t give away any secrets,” I protest, and they all burst out laughing. “The best is what we call ‘the white fly,’” Freeman explains. “The wife of a guy who came to speak to the club passed some out, and nobody thought they looked like much. Then my wife, Janet, started using them, and she outfished everybody. So we all started using them, too. They’re easy to tie, and they really catch fish. I use a red hook on mine; I think it catches more fish.” It’s easy to see why the fly is effective as the red hook makes it look like a wounded shad.
From April to June stripers furnish explosive topwater action. “Use a little white popper or something with silver or blue on it,” Freeman suggests. Bruce Hysmith concurs. “You can catch stripers in that pool just above the pilings using white or chartreuse Clousers, either solid colors or a mixture,” he says. Hysmith also advises fishing around bridge pilings, especially the remains of an old toll bridge upstream from Carpenter’s Bluff. “The river washes out holes around the pilings, and stripers hang out in those holes,” he explains.
While the river holds smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, spotted bass and a host of sunfish species, keep in mind that most bends in your rod will be caused by hard-fighting striped bass or hybrid striped bass. “You can catch 10- to 15-pound stripers, and 4- and 5-pounders are not uncommon, so you need a heavy rod, like a 6- to 8-weight,” Freeman says.
Larry Hysmith prefers at least an 8-weight and perhaps even a 10. “Lighter rods are harder to cast in windy conditions down in the river channel, so it’s better to have a heavier rod, like one you would use on the coast,” he explains. “Plus you can use larger flies. If you see fish surfacing, a big popper will work well.”
Line should be matched to the rod. Larry uses 10-pound floating line with about a 7 1/2-foot leader, which should be lighter than the line: The river hides lots of rocks and snags, so you will break off at times.
Freeman also uses floating, weight-forward line. “I prefer a sinking tip line, because often fish will be holding near the bottom,” he says.
Using the rod tip to set the hook can result in a broken rod if you hang a big striper, Freeman adds. “Use a strip set. Instead of raising the rod to set the hook, strip line, then raise the rod tip.”
“When you strip set, you use the power in the butt of the rod instead of the tip,” says Steve Hollensed, a certified fly-casting instructor and guide. “You put more power to the fish.” He offers another piece of advice: “Use a wading staff; even the rocks that are out of the water are slippery. And watch out for holes.” Wear hip waders at minimum; chest waders are even better. You’ll definitely want to wade fish when there’s no generation, as the river is so wide you can’t cast across it. However, keep out of the water when the current and level are high, as footing is treacherous.
Fishing with Freeman and Hollensed are Frank Lawrence, Rex Walker and Walker’s 12-year-old daughter, Taylor. Taylor learned to cast at Fly Fish Texas, which is held each March at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens. She blanks on fish today, but she hooks a couple of trophy rocks. Rex brings in a couple of stripers and a largemouth bass.
“Fly fishing is a challenge. It takes a while to learn it,” Taylor says. She especially enjoys catching sunfish on her fly rod. “It’s so much fun because they are so aggressive. They think they’re big, but they’re not,” she laughs.
Somewhat the opposite might be said of the Red River, which is dwarfed by huge Lake Texoma. Largely overlooked by hordes of anglers swarming the lake and the tailrace, the Red below the dam offers a great deal more fun than most people imagine. It’s bigger than you think it is. And it offers the unusual opportunity to fish in two other states without ever leaving the good old Lone Star State. How cool is that?
River of Controversy
Part of the novelty of fishing the Red River is the fact that even though you may be standing in Texas, you will be fishing in Oklahoma (or in Arkansas, should you fish the far northeast corner of Texas).
Had the Red River been located farther south, its history would have been far less complicated. But because it lay on the frontier between Spanish (and later French) territory and the expanding United States, the river became a diplomatic football. The United States and foreign countries, and later Texas and Oklahoma, disagreed over whether the boundary between them followed the middle of the river or one of its banks. A map drawn in 1818 that misplaced the 100th meridian and failed to show that the river forked in what is now southwestern Oklahoma complicated matters when the Red River as shown on that map was made the official boundary in treaties.
Texas, of course, claimed the boundary that gave it the most territory. Not until 1896 did a U.S. Supreme Court decision declare that the 1.5 million acres of disputed territory were part of Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. A 1919 discovery of oil in the bed of the river near Burkburnett inflamed the argument again, with Texas claiming title to the southern half of the riverbed. In a Solomon-like decision, the Supreme Court awarded Oklahoma the north half of the bed and political control of the entire bed and gave Texas control of the oil wells in the floodplain.
In 1931, a dispute erupted over a free bridge, built jointly by Texas and Oklahoma that siphoned business from a nearby toll bridge. The toll bridge company claimed that the Texas Highway Commission had reneged on a promise to purchase the toll bridge and obtained an injunction against the commission opening the new bridge. Texas Governor Ross Sterling had barricades placed on the Texas side. Enter William Murray, Governor of Oklahoma, who claimed that Oklahoma’s half of the bridge ran lengthwise and sent Oklahoma highway crews across the bridge to demolish the barricades. This was messing with Texas big-time, and Sterling sent Texas Rangers to rebuild the barricades.
Murray countered by having highway crews destroy the northern approaches to the toll bridge, rendering it unusable. Now nobody could cross the river on either bridge, the resulting public outcry forced the Texas Legislature, which was then in special session, to grant the toll bridge company permission to sue the state and collect the money for the bridge. Two days later the injunction was dissolved and the free bridge opened to traffic, but the trouble wasn’t over.
On the day before the bridge opened, a federal district court in Oklahoma enjoined Murray from blocking the northern approaches to the toll bridge. Getting wind of what was afoot and acting before the injunction was issued, the governor declared martial law in a narrow strip of land along the northern approaches to both bridges and sent an Oklahoma National Guard unit to the toll bridge, leading them himself, brandishing an antique pistol. Saying he had heard of a plan to close the free bridge permanently, Murray sent Oklahoma guardsmen to secure both ends of that bridge, sparking newspaper charges that Texas had been invaded. Soon thereafter the legal challenge was dissolved and everyone went on to more important matters.
After all the fuss, the bridge was dynamited in 1995 to make room for the present U.S. 75 bridge across the Red River.