Bounty on the Border
For plentiful stripers, head up to Lake Texoma.
Stories and photos by Larry D. Hodge
Chris Carey revs the big outboard as he screams, “It’s a twin tornado!” We streak across the water, heading straight for the storm.
Seconds later we’re slinging white buck-tailed jigs tipped with plastic worms into the water beneath the double-helix swarm of circling seagulls. The birds are there to pick off shad pushed to the surface by marauding striped bass, and our lures look just like small silvery fish swimming for their lives.
My second offering is almost back to the boat, and I’m lifting the rod tip and reeling faster, preparing for another cast, when a monstrous strike snaps the 20-pound-test Big Game line.
“That’s the fish we’ve been waiting for,” Carey exclaims, quickly tying another lure on my line.
All day long I’ve been catching Lake Texoma stumps while Carey and my wife, Zoe Ann Stinchcomb, boat stripers up to 30 inches long. This is my chance to do the same. I cast, reel and BAM! — a big striper nails the lure and sets the reel to singing.
“That’s the sound guides love to hear,” Carey says. “It’s natural Viagra.”
As I admire the 24-inch fish before releasing it, words from Carey’s father, Bill Carey, echo in my mind: “I thank Ed Bonn every day for what he did.”
What the late Ed Bonn did, while a fisheries biologist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, was bring striped bass from South Carolina and develop the procedures for rearing and stocking both striped bass and hybrid striped bass (a cross between native white bass and stripers) into fresh water.
Bill Carey also owes a debt of gratitude to Jack Harper, a biologist with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, who stocked 138 adult stripers into Lake Texoma in 1965.
Zoe Ann Stinchcomb shows off a 30-inch striper that was feeding under a "twin tornado" of circling seagulls. Working birds are usually a sign that stripers have pusched shad to the surface and are actively feeding. Cast into the melee and hang on.
Striped bass (or stripers) are a marine species that, like salmon, migrate from the sea into fresh water to spawn, then return to the ocean. That process was interrupted for the first time in South Carolina in 1941, when the giant Santee-Cooper Reservoir was impounded, trapping striped bass that were in the river to spawn. Biologists expected the fish to die, but they lived, and a popular freshwater fishery was created there.
When Texas went on a dam-building spree following the drought of the 1950s, Texas went from a state where most fishing took place in rivers, creeks and stock ponds to a fishing paradise with more inland waters than any other state except Alaska and Minnesota. Ed Bonn saw the striped bass fishery in Santee-Cooper and decided to try to replicate it in Texas.
In most Texas reservoirs with stripers, the fish do not reproduce, and continued stocking is required to maintain the fishery. Lake Texoma is different. The waters of the Red and Washita rivers provide stripers with just the right conditions for spawning, and the fish are so prolific that the daily bag limit on Texoma stripers is 10 per day (only two of which may be more than 20 inches long), double the statewide limit.
Texoma is one of about 10 reservoirs in the United States where stripers are able to naturally reproduce. In April and May they run up both the Red and the Washita in huge numbers to spawn. The Oklahoma state agency is researching whether striped bass, like salmon, return to their natal river to spawn.
Rises on the rivers appear to stimulate and facilitate spawning. Striper eggs must remain suspended while hatching, so flowing water during the spawning season is critical. Reproduction in Lake Texoma is particularly high, because the fish have two rivers to spawn in. A high rate of spawning is necessary to sustain the population, since an estimated 50 percent of the fish aged one year and older die annually.
Striper fishing is big business on Texoma, which lies on the border between Texas and Oklahoma. Bill Carey’s Striper Express Guide Service is one of scores on the lake. While other Texas lakes offer striper fishing, “Texoma is the grand lady of them all,” Bill Carey says.
Texoma’s status stems from the fact that striper fishing is good all year long.
“Stripers love the cool water,” Bill Carey says. “They go on an aggressive feed as the water cools down starting in December. They will gain as much as five pounds during the winter.”
Zoe Ann Stinchcomb fishes for stripers near a stump field at Lake Texoma. Stripers hang out around the stumps and attack shad.
Zoe Ann and I fished in January after an unusually cold December had chilled the lake into the upper 30s. By late January the water had warmed into the low 40s, and Chris Carey knew scattered groups of fish would be moving into shallow water on sunny days to feed on shad.
“There’s only one reason for them to be in water 10 to 15 feet deep, and that’s to eat,” Chris Carey says.
Due to the mild weather, we fished a typical March pattern, casting our Roadrunners into stump fields on the edges of islands and creek channels whenever the fish finder marked fish below us.
“Most people think you have to drag the bait across the bottom, but you want to reel it just over the tops of the stumps,” Chris Carey explains. “Shad hide around the stumps, and stripers will come up and eat your bait. If you don’t hang up on stumps, you’re not fishing in the right place.”
TPWD Inland Fisheries biologist Bruce Hysmith manages the fishery on Lake Texoma, and he offers some advice on where and when to find those right places.
“May and June and October through December are the peak periods,” he says. “In the spring, either the Red or Washita River arm will have fish returning from spawning in the upper river. In the Red River arm, try Big Mineral Bay, Buncombe Creek Bay, the Oklahoma Flats, Caney Creek Bay, Soldier Creek Bay and McLaughlin Creek Bay. In the Washita arm, try Newberry Creek Bay, Glasses Creek Bay, Willow Springs Bay, Platter Bay, Platter Flats and Washita Point.”
In June, action switches to the open water as stripers form huge schools roaming the lake looking for unfortunate balls of shad.
“Schools can be a mile long and a quarter-mile wide,” says Bill Carey. “For the first two hours of the day we fish 6-inch Cotton Cordell Pencil Poppers on top. We move it fast and pop it aggressively. You’ll get lots of short strikes; let it sit, twitch it, and they will blow up on it.”
Chris and Bill Carey prefer to use artificial baits for stripers.
Stripers are light-sensitive and will go deeper as the sun gets higher, but they stay in schools.
“We switch to 1- to 2-ounce slabs in chartreuse, chrome and white combinations,” Bill Carey says. “Drop it straight down over the side of the boat and let it fall. If it doesn’t get hit on the fall, reel it in as fast as you can. You cannot reel fast enough. The stripers are so aggressive, you may see as many as five fish following the lure.”
Hysmith advises starting your summer search for stripers around daylight near Denison Dam, where you may find schools of fish on the surface.
“They will then migrate around the south shoreline to Navigation Point, at which time they disappear over an open-water area known locally as Table Top,” he says. “Around noon they will reappear near West Burns Run swim beach. They do this on a daily basis from late May until about mid-June.”
Seagulls that have spent the summer annoying beach-goers on the coast redeem themselves by coming to Texoma in the fall to act as fish-finders, joining the ones that reside there year-round. Anglers watch for flocks of gulls circling over the water, and when they start squawking and diving, it’s striper-catching time. During feeding frenzies the fish can make the water boil as they pursue and gobble up fleeing shad near the surface while the birds join the feast from above. Almost anything thrown into the melee — chatter baits, poppers, Rat-L-Traps, slabs — will catch fish.
Striper fishing brings pleasure from the hook-set to the plate.
“Crappie are sometimes called the walleye of the South, but I will put stripers right up there with them,” Bill Carey says. “The meat is white, flaky, excellent table fare. Just be sure to remove the red meat so the fillets are totally white.”
The fish that Zoe Ann and I catch illustrate another point Carey makes about stripers.
“They are the fightingest fish in fresh water,” he says. “They fight from the time you set the hook until you get them in the boat — and then they will bite you at the cleaning table. That’s what makes them such a great fish.”
From Sea to Shining Sea
Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) are native to the Atlantic Ocean, but thanks to stocking by federal and state wildlife agencies, they can now be found along the California coast and in more than 30 states.
Striped bass played an important part in early American history. Pilgrims of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (think Captain John Smith) wrote of them being so numerous in creeks that one might think it possible to cross by walking on their backs. A tax on the sale of striped bass funded the first free public school in the colonies. Overuse of the fish as fertilizer led to passage of the first conservation law in 1639, which forbade such use.
Stripers have been transplanted to new waters for more than 100 years. In 1879 and 1881, New Jersey striped bass were taken by train in wooden barrels and milk cans and stocked into San Francisco Bay.
Using the methods pioneered by Jack Bayless of the South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources Department, Jack Harper of Oklahoma and Ed Bonn of Texas, TPWD freshwater hatcheries produce millions of striped bass fingerlings each year for stocking. They’re put into reservoirs with ample open-water habitat more suitable for stripers than for species such as largemouth bass.
Early on, lakes stocked most often included Amistad, Buchanan, Buffalo Springs, Canyon, Granbury, Lavon, Livingston, Possum Kingdom, Tawakoni, Travis and Whitney. The list has sometimes changed over the years. Lake Texoma was last stocked with striped bass fingerlings by Oklahoma in 1984 and 1985. Lake Buchanan maintains its outstanding striper fishery with annual stockings.
For more information on striped bass, visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/.