Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


Size Matters

Anglers have only one complaint about Lake Texoma: Too many big fish.

By Larry D. Hodge • Photos by Chase Fountain

Spring and early summer of 2019 saw some frustrated anglers on Lake Texoma. The renowned striped bass fishery had too much of a good thing: striped bass over 20 inches long. Anglers accustomed to harvesting a limit of 10 fish (up to two fish over 20 inches and eight smaller fish) were having a hard time catching a limit.

Internet wisdom put the blame on the flooding of 2015, when rainfall sent water over the spillway. It seemed logical that the water took the striped bass with it. Not so.

“It was actually the 2014 drought that was the culprit,” says Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Inland Fisheries biologist Dan Bennett. (Striped bass are a marine species that spawn in rivers — at Texoma, migrating as far as 60 to 90 miles up the Red and Washita rivers to do so. Striper eggs must remain suspended in flowing water for about 48 hours in order to hatch.) “The drought resulted in record low lake levels, and the Red River was cut off from the lake except through a narrow secondary channel. Fish from 2014 were virtually absent — we have caught only one fish from that year class in our gill nets.”

Two-year-old fish make up the majority of the 16- to 19-inch fish that wind up on the cleaning table, so fishing was poor in 2016 and early 2017 — at least by Texoma standards. However, the flooding had an upside.

“Due to the flood of 2015 and high inflows in 2016, we had some particularly good spawns those years, and we also saw record densities of shad in the lake,” Bennett says. “Without competition for forage from older 2014 fish, growth rates of the 2015 and 2016 fish were tremendous. We are now seeing many fish caught in the 10- to 20-pound range from those years. Those fish reached the 20-inch mark so quickly, anglers and guides are struggling to find the ‘box’ fish to fill out their 10-fish bag.”

Zoe Ann Stinchcomb and I join Striper Express guide Chris Carey to sample this upside-down fishery. Carey has been guiding on Texoma for 26 years, and it’s an understatement to say he knows the lake and where to find fish better than almost anybody. He cranks the 300-horsepower Yamaha four-stroke and heads across the lake, not even bothering to turn on the navigation system. He’s heading for a place where he’s been catching fish, but what he’s looking for is birds.

Chris Carey of Striper Express guides clients on Lake Texoma.

Shad tend to congregate in large numbers near the shore in early morning, and concentrations of herons, egrets and gulls are a sign that feeding stripers are pushing shad into the shallows along the bank. Stripers are transient opportunists, like a school of hungry teenagers at a food court, and during feeding frenzies they will bite almost anything they see. Topwater lures like the Cordell pencil poppers favored by Carey will catch fish almost every cast.

Carey soon spots what he’s looking for, and as he brings the boat close, we can see stripers breaking the surface as they feed. The school is moving parallel to the shore almost as fast as a person can run, and Carey positions us ahead of them and hands us rods. As soon as our lures hit the water, all three of us hook up. Zoe Ann’s fish is 28 inches, and Carey and I bring in ones three or four inches shorter — all “overs,” as 20-inch or longer fish are known.

By the time high-fives and pictures are done, it’s over. Topwater fishing is exciting, but as soon as the sun climbs a little over the horizon, shad go to deeper water and the stripers follow. Now the catching is over and the fishing begins.

Carey turns on the fish finder and takes us to one underwater hump and point after another, looking for fish holding near the bottom. We trade our pencil poppers for soft plastic swim baits and try to tempt the fish to bite. They’re not having it, despite Carey’s coaxing.

“Come on, striper; come on, baby,” he pleads. When that doesn’t work, he resorts to trash-talking. “You’re not big enough, striper.”

My rod bends. It seems the stripers are listening, but it’s only a catfish. Carey points to the fish finder.

“Stripers layered on the bottom in 19 to 20 feet of water. It should be a no-brainer,” he laments.

We can see fish chasing our baits, but they just aren’t biting. Like the shad, we decide to get out of the sun.

Come January, we’ll be back. The fish that eluded us today will be six months fatter and easier to find.

“In winter the fish are structure-oriented, and we run a route,” says Bill Carey, Chris’ dad. With more than 50 years of experience on Texoma, the Careys know where the fish will be and how to catch them.

“In winter it’s all bucktail jigs and Roadrunners,” Chris Carey says. “I also like spinner heads, green with a fluke, that run along the bottom kicking up a trail of mud.”

Stripers think it’s a shad and … bam!

Bill Carey of Striper Express has been finding fish at Lake Texoma for more than 30 years.

As exciting as the summer topwater fishing is, winter fishing may actually be better.

“We have twice the typical number of stripers in the lake right now,” Bennett said last summer, “and they have eaten themselves out of food and are skinny. We are just now seeing the shad numbers bounce back after the May spawn, and the stripers should fatten up quickly. Barring a drought with severe high temperatures this summer that could result in some bigger fish dying, we should make it into the fall and winter with a good number of fish in the 15-pound range.”

If your bucket list includes catching a 15-pound striper, 2020 is your year.

The striper fishing on Lake Texoma is no accident. It’s the result of many years of cooperation between Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The two agencies jointly manage the lake, which the two states share.

“The Red River channel is considered the state line,” Bennett says. “We partner with the ODWC to conduct a striped bass gill-net survey each February. This survey is done using nets set overnight in the same 30 sites and has been done since 1993. We pool the data to give us a very precise picture of the population. This gives us an idea about the number of fish in each size range, as well as the general health of those fish. Some years we also do an extensive age and growth analysis to determine what year classes are most prevalent and how long it took those fish to get to certain sizes. It typically takes three to four years for a striper to reach the 20-inch mark. Following the 2015 flood, stripers have been reaching that length a year faster than normal.”

Striped bass are a marine species but are able to reproduce at Texoma.

Guide Chris Carey seeks out different parts of the lake to see where the fish are biting.

Carey promises "one more cast."

As mentioned earlier, striped bass are a marine (saltwater) species. So how did they wind up in Lake Texoma? Therein lies a fish story.

Stripers were so abundant along the East Coast of the United States in colonial times that they were harvested by the thousands and used for fertilizer as well as food, helping the early colonists survive. Captain John Smith of Pocahontas fame wrote in 1614 that stripers were caught in fish traps in such numbers that it seemed possible to walk across a river on their backs without getting his feet wet.

By 1639 the Massachusetts Colony banned their use for fertilizer due to overharvest. In 1670 Plymouth Colony funded the first public school in America using taxes on the striped bass fishery.

Stripers were assumed to be restricted to saltwater until the 1940s, when the Santee-Cooper Reservoir was impounded on the Cooper River in South Carolina, trapping stripers on a spawning run up the river. They were soon found to be reproducing, and fisheries biologists across the nation, including Texas and Oklahoma, began experimenting with stocking striped bass in new reservoirs being built following the drought of the 1950s.

Lake Texoma was one of the lucky lakes to be stocked, and it has an advantage over many other lakes: It has enough river miles above the reservoir for the fish to ascend and spawn successfully. Oklahoma and Texas stocked more than 2 million striped bass into Texoma in the 1960s and 1970s. The population is now self-sustaining. However, that doesn’t mean the fishery couldn’t use a little help now and then, and that’s the focus of a project currently underway.

The issue is the notoriously variable rainfall in the Texoma watershed. Drought and flood seem to be more the norm than “average” rainfall, and that plays havoc with streamflows and the spawning runs.

“Since the early 2000s we have had five years with poor river flows and subsequent poor recruitment of striped bass, most recently 2011, 2013 and 2014,” Bennett says. “The high-catch-rate, high-harvest striped bass fishery on Texoma relies heavily on the typically most-abundant, 2-year-old class fish, so if we have poor river flows one spring, we are sure to have subpar fishing two years down the road.”

The catch (pun intended) is that poor recruitment doesn’t become obvious until it’s too late to do anything about it. Bennett hopes to change that.

“The goal of the research I’m currently doing is to determine hatch dates of juvenile striped bass from the Red and Washita rivers and correlate those hatch dates with river conditions at the time,” he explains. “There is a fairly narrow window when those fish hatch. This data, along with historical data on river conditions and our data on adult striped bass collected annually since 1993, will be used to develop a model to predict year-class strength by the river flows we observe in April and May each year.”

Bennett and his fisheries management crew use seines to collect juvenile striped bass each June and then spend hours peering through microscopes at 100X magnification to count daily (yes, daily) growth rings on the bass’s otoliths (ear bones). By counting backwards, they can determine what date the fish spawned.

“It’s pretty boring, tedious work,” Bennett says, but it’s essential. “If we observe poor conditions in the rivers one April and May, we can predict year-class strength, and it may be possible to supplement a poor year-class with fry or fingerlings produced by our hatcheries. We certainly will not be able to produce the numbers of young striped bass produced naturally during a good year, but we may be able to reduce the severity of a bad fishing season two years later. If we follow this plan, we will chemically mark the stocked fish so we can determine later just how much stocking contributed to the number of fish in the lake.”

The goal is to keep enough fish in the lake to keep everybody happy, whether they like big fish or little ones.

Larry Hodge enjoys fishing for stripers because they fight all the way to the boat.

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