Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


August 2009 cover image Franklin Mountains

Cooped-Up Fish

Cooper Lake is flooded with fish, but hardly anybody fishes there.

By Larry D. Hodge

I’m here to give North Texas anglers a wake-up call. Just half an hour’s drive north of Lake Fork is an 18-year-old reservoir with excellent largemouth bass, white bass, catfish and crappie fishing and what may be the best hybrid striped bass fishing in this part of the state.

landing a fish

And yet on the average day 19,000-acre Cooper Lake is practically devoid of anglers.

The reason has to be simply lack of awareness. I don’t know of many anglers who wouldn’t enjoy catching five- to 10-pound hybrids cast after cast, or having two-pound white bass swarm topwater lures.

Cooper disappeared from anglers’ radar in 2006, when the lake level fell so low it was impossible to access the lake. Record rains in 2007 refilled the lake and flooded terrestrial vegetation that had grown up in dry areas.

“That gave the lake a real boost as nutrients entered the water from the flooded vegetation, and more baitfish were produced,” says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Inland Fisheries biologist Aaron Jubar. “Our annual electrofishing in the fall of 2007 showed lots of baitfish. They are obviously taking advantage of that new habitat, and the hybrids and white bass feed on them when they move out into the lake.”

Finding baitfish — primarily gizzard shad — is the key to finding hybrids, says Cooper Lake guide Tony Parker (903-348-1619).

“When the water temperature hits the 90s, the big gizzard shad move up on top of humps out in the lake, and the hybrids follow them,” Parker says. “You won’t see fish feeding on top. You might see one or two fish come up, but what you will usually see is seven or eight shad come screaming out of the water, running for their lives. They’re not doing that to get a suntan.”

TPWD has stocked 1.5 million hybrid striped bass into the lake since 1996, so there are plenty of them to terrify the shad.

“The lake was impounded in 1991 and is very close to Lake Fork,” Jubar says. “Many people thought it would be the next Lake Fork and become a superb largemouth bass fishery, but it became apparent in the mid-1990s that would not happen. It is in a different watershed from Lake Fork and is a fairly turbid lake with lots of gizzard shad, so we started stocking hybrids to try to take advantage of what the lake is giving us.”

Cooper is subject to annual fluctuations in depth that average seven to eight feet. As a result, it lacks the shoreline vegetation that makes Lake Fork so good for largemouth bass (although Cooper does have lots of flooded timber in the upper end that is good largemouth habitat).

“Hybrids don’t need a lot of vegetation and timber,” Jubar explains. “They are at home in open water areas, because they are a cross between striped bass, a marine species, and white bass, a schooling freshwater fish. Whereas largemouths associate quite a bit with sunfish species, hybrids associate more with schools of shad. They are like lions with zebras — they will be nearby at all times.”

Parker fishes for hybrids by finding them using his electronics, then offering them four-inch Sassy Shads in salty pepper or chartreuse or mullet-colored five-inch Storm Wild Eye swim baits. Both look like shad, and their effectiveness is enhanced by the fact the lake was closed to angling for a time.

“Because the lake was so low, nobody fished it, and the fish had not seen a bait for a year and half,” Jubar says. “It was like a new lake — the fish had just not experienced much angling pressure. To our benefit, they have not wised up yet.”

If there is a downside to the hybrid fishery on Cooper, it is that the hotter the weather, the better the bite. Zoe Ann Stinchcomb and I fished with Tony Parker in August 2008 during that string of 100-degree-plus days that wilted most people’s desire to do anything outdoors.

bass boat back-lit in the setting sun

“Meet me at the ramp at 3 p.m.,” Parker instructed us. “The fish won’t start biting until late afternoon.”

Armed with bottled water, slathered with sunscreen and sweating profusely just from breathing, we set out on a 106-degree afternoon with no breeze. “The last two afternoons from three o’clock to seven we boated 30 fish from three to 10 pounds,” Parker tells us. “We typically catch seven- to eight-pound hybrids. I expect the lake record of 11.22 pounds to be broken this year. The number of fish we are seeing is amazing.”

The hybrid fishing is so good that Parker doesn’t even bother with white bass. “We will see seven to eight schools of white bass on the surface this afternoon,” he says, pointing to a spot near the boat ramp where feeding white bass are beating the water to a froth. “You can catch as many as you want right now.”

As we head across the lake, we seem to have it all to ourselves. I recall that writer Noel Coward said that only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” Perhaps he should have included deranged hybrid striper anglers. Even the boat on plane does not generate enough breeze to keep us comfortable. It’s going to be a miserable afternoon.

But misery is made more bearable by catching fish, and although they don’t start biting for a couple of hours, we have a ball, albeit a sweaty one. Parker ties a chartreuse Sassy Shad on one rod and a Storm Wild Eye on the other and has us drop them to the bottom, then jig them up and down by raising and lowering the rod tip six inches or so. Hybrids gobble both, and several times we have a double on, and twice a triple.

I’m used to seeing deep-bodied hybrids, but these brutes are in a class by themselves. They take drag, jump, run under the boat and generally behave badly.

Late in the day we see another boat in the distance.

“People see me and wonder what I’m doing,” Parker says. “I’m out in the middle of nowhere casting at nothing.”

But the sight of seriously bowed rods is irresistible, and after a while the boat wanders over. One of the anglers hails us.

“We’ve never fished this lake before,” he begins, and in short order Parker has clued him in and even tossed a package of Storm swim baits over. Another angler has become a Cooper convert.

“Over the years, we have seen that hybrid lakes get hot for a couple of years, and Cooper is very hot right now,” Jubar says — and he’s not talking about the weather. “We talk a lot about hybrids, but white bass are plentiful, the largemouth bass fishery is good and the lake is loaded with catfish and crappie. It’s the complete package.”

Rounding out Cooper’s attractions are the two state park units located on the north and south shores of the lake. Both the Doctors Creek Unit on the north shore and the South Sulphur Unit on the south shore offer campsites and screened shelters, but the South Sulphur Unit also has furnished lakeside cabins, deluxe screened shelters with air conditioning, equestrian sites and two lighted fishing piers.

The fishing piers make it possible for boatless anglers to sample the crappie fishing, which Parker says is fantastic in the winter. Live minnows or crappie jigs work well, especially along “the wall” at the Heron Harbor day-use area in the South Sulphur Unit. Anglers with boats target crappie in the flooded timber on the upper end of the reservoir.

While we are reeling in hybrids, Parker tosses out a teaser that assures I will be coming back to Cooper next summer.

“We have a very unusual fishery on this lake,” he says. “In the summer when the big grasshoppers are flying, I have some fly-fishers who like to fish for catfish with dry flies.”

Having a five- or six-pound catfish slurp a fly off the surface has to be as much fun as having a hybrid slam a bait on the bottom — maybe even more.

Cooper seems primed to remain an outstanding hybrid striped bass fishery for some time to come. TPWD stocked approximately 200,000 hybrids in both 2007 and 2008, and Jubar says he is planning another big stocking in 2009.

“We will have multiple year classes, with lots of two-to-four and four-to-six pounders, and a lot of even bigger fish that will give you a real workout,” he says. “If the lake stays essentially full like it is now, that jumpstarts the food chain. If we have that habitat there supplying the predator fish with food, we are going to see the fishery continue to improve.”

Jubar notes that Cooper fares well when compared to better-known East Texas lakes like Takawoni.

“In the past few years we have seen more white bass and hybrids in our sampling than we do on Tawakoni,” he says. “I can’t say how it compares to other good hybrid fisheries, but the quality of fishing is stellar.”

And it’s not just hybrids, Jubar points out. He fished the lake a couple of weeks before Zoe Ann and I did, and he was enthralled.

white bass and hybrid striped bass

“It was neat to see acres of white bass feeding on the surface,” he says. “There were lots of baitfish fleeing — it was like something on the Discovery Channel. To see that happening and cast into the middle of it and have them take your bait is very exciting, and only with white bass and hybrids do you see that very often.”

Ironically, Jubar says, the one thing Cooper needs to keep it an outstanding fishery is more anglers.

“Our hatchery system has limited capacity, and hybrids are at a premium,” he says. “In order for Cooper to continue to get stockings of hybrids, we need to be able to show that anglers are utilizing these fish — we need to have data to show that people are using the lake.”

Wake up! This is no dream!

Cooper needs you — now.

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