With only a few rare exceptions over the years, the striped bass fishing is almost always good on Lake Texoma.
Since those first stockings of stripers many years ago — and the subsequent decades of self-sustaining spawning runs up the Red River and the Washita River — the local 89,000-acre border lake has easily become the nation’s premiere sweetwater fishery for linesiders.
But this year, the striped bass fishing could be as good as it’s ever been. And that’s saying something since it’s usually top shelf and then some.
That’s the report coming from the recent 2019 gill net sampling work done by biologists with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.
The annual cooperative effort back in February produced some eye-popping numbers according to Dan Bennett, the Denison based district supervisor for TPWD’s Inland Fisheries division.
“We (had) a record catch rate in our sampling partnership with ODWC that began back in 1993,” said Bennett, who heads up the TPWD crew at the Lake Texoma Fisheries Station. “Basically, the sampling showed that our catch rates were twice the average with 29.6 fish per net and a total of 888 fish (stripers) that were caught.”
To put that into perspective, Bennett notes that “…we usually catch 400 to 500 fish in our sampling.” Such work is done through the placement of 30 gill nets, each measuring 125-feet in length and all being set out each year in the same locations.
“We do 15 and Oklahoma does 15,” said Bennett. “We set them out one day and pick them up the next day, then count the fish. We also weigh and measure them and that gives us an idea of the relative abundance and health (of stripers).”
This year’s work confirms some suspicions that Bennett has held for several years now.
“I’m not necessarily surprised at the big numbers,” he said. “It’s a direct result from the 2015 flood, the abundant habitat we had that year, and a super year of fish production coming out of that spawn.”
Ironically, many anglers complained about the lack of fishing success that year, since the spillway topping flood dramatically increased the available habitat, stained the water for a few months, and spread the fish out.
But Bennett says that there was something else in play that year, the lack of water and spawning success in the years leading up to 2015.
“That decline (in 2015) actually began back in 2014 and it was spawn related,” he said. “If you’ll remember, we’d had several years of drought and lower water conditions(earlier this decade), which impacts the spawning runs up the rivers. In fact, there were instances of pretty much the complete loss of an entire age class from that era.”
Meaning that the double whammy of the 2015 flood and the lack of spawning success in previous springs left fishermen scratching their heads and asking “Where are the fish?”
Bennett says they won’t be asking that question this year, and likely for several more years to come.
“We’ve basically had four years since then (the 2015 flood)of good spawning success, including well above normal spawns in ‘15 and ‘16,” he said. “And we’ve got so many fish that are going to make the spawning run this year, that I think - as long as we get some rain in the next month to keep the flows coming down the rivers - that we’ll have another tremendous spawn (this year).”
While the news is fantastically good, there is one fly in the ointment according to the TPWD biologist. And that’s the fact that there are a lot of mouths to feed in the lake right now, something that is having an effect on the weight of Texoma’s striped bass.
“One thing we noticed this year is that there seems to be a little bit lower weight on average, about 15-percent lower than what we’d normally expect,” said Bennett. “There are so many fish out there that the competition for baitfish is strong, leading to the reduced weights. And that’s why we’re also hearing anglers complain about their inability to catch bait right now.”
Bennett says the problem will likely iron itself out in coming months.
“From our point of view right now, it’s probably best to let nature take its course,” he said. “By the time we’d be able to implement something management wise, the problem will likely have corrected itself. But we’d encourage people to not be bashful in taking their limit home this year because it’s certainly not going to hurt anything.”
In addition to the sheer numbers of stripers swimming in the border lake right now, the bigger fish are also doing quite well.
“We’ve gotten an inordinate number of fish over that 20 inch range right now,” said Bennett. “We usually hope for 20-percent of the population to be over 20-inches, but this year, 30 to 35-percent of the fish are over 20-inches.”
Bennett said that a striper in the 20-inch range — at Texoma, anglers are allowed to keep two fish over 20-inches each day - will likely weigh between 3.5 and 4-pounds. That’s a fish that will fight hard and provide a little bit bigger meal at the table if the angler chooses to keep a couple.
As good as the numbers of young fish and 20-inch fish are, the news is also great concerning the trophy linesiders that are being caught now with much more regularity.
“When you get to 30-inches, you’re starting to look at those double-digit stripers that everyone hopes to catch,” said Bennett. “We didn’t see those fish over 30-inches in our gill nets this year and we usually catch a few. But there’s certainly a good number of those being caught by guides and anglers right now.”
Bennett said he’s not terribly surprised at the lack of 30-inch fish in the gill nets this year since such stripers are fewer in number and the species often tends to hang out in schools of similarly sized fish.
“Yeah, there’s most definitely good numbers of 30-inchers out there even if we didn’t see them this year,” he said. “One of our guys caught a 12-pounder yesterday, another has caught a few double digit fish this winter, and I’ve heard of a good number of fish over 15-pounds being caught in recent weeks. Some are even up in that 19 to 20-pound range and I’ve heard of at least one striper going over 20-pounds in recent weeks.
With the potential for a super summer of fishing for Texoma’s “Super Fish” — a phrase coined by the late Denison Herald outdoor writer John Clift years ago when he wrote a book by the same title — the TPWD biologist does have at least one key item on his 2019 wish list.
“(Plenty of) baitfish, that’s one thing we’re hopeful for, that the shad will have a good spawn here in another month or so to satisfy the hunger of these stripers,” said Bennett. “We’ve got so many fish in the population right now, thatthis summer, if for some reason we don’t have a strong shad spawn this spring, we could get to the point where we see a lot of long, skinny fish that aren’t able to eat as much as they are wanting to.”
Speaking of the summer season that attracts thousands of anglers and provides ample economic benefit to the surrounding lakeside economy, Bennett said Texoma is in uncharted waters right now heading into the prime fishing season.
“With our catch rate being so high, unprecedented really, we’re not too sure what to expect,” he said. “I would think it will make for some pretty exciting topwater action this summer with plenty of fish surfacing and corralling bait to the surface.”
Hopefully, with the striped bass population at a zenith right now on Texoma, there will be enough water in the lake this summer and not too much in the way of high water temperatures to knock down this super abundance of linesiders.
“I would forecast some pretty good fishing overall,” said Bennett. “One thing we’re always concerned about is thatif we have a hot, dry summer with little rainfall, that could lead to the summer squeeze we sometimes see with the larger fish getting stressed out. It all depends on the weather that we get (down the road).”
But for now, the TPWD biologist is smiling big. And with the numbers that the recent biological survey work on Texoma’s striped bass population produced, why not?
“I’d definitely say that if somebody has Texoma striped bass on their bucket list, this year is certainly a good time to come,” said Bennett.