THERE ARE A HANDFUL OF GOOD STRIPER fisheries in Texas, but only one is gifted with all the right goodies to make it world class. Try as you might to find a better one, Lake Texoma rules the roost in striper fishing arenas in this neck of the woods.
Quality fish and lots of ‘em. Those are among the key attributes that consistently keeps Texoma ringing the bell at the top rung of the ladder where Lone Star striper fishing is concerned. Adding to the allure are liberal limits that allow anglers to box twice the legal limit allowed on other Texas striper lakes, provided only two of the fish are longer than 20 inches.
And box them they do. Historic creel surveys show anglers who visit the big lake along the Texas-Oklahoma border routinely harvest close to one million striped bass each year.
“It’s really a unique place,” said Dan Bennett, the fisheries biologist who oversees the lake for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “That’s unique as in super special. Texoma is a striper factory, indeed.
According to Bennett, several key factors help Texoma maintain what is arguably one the most prolific freshwater striper fisheries in the South.
For starters, it spans roughly 89,000 surface acres that affords the saltwater transplants plenty of big, deep water where they can thrive. The lake also supports a healthy forage base of threadfin and gizzard shad for the pelagic sport fish to dine on.
Important as those components are, what really sets the Texoma striper fishery above all others in Texas—and most in the country—is the fact the population has been 100 percent self-sustaining for nearly a half century. The first stripers were introduced to Texoma in the mid-1960s by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife and Conservation. The first spawns were recorded by the early 1970s. Fewer than a dozen reservoirs in the nation mirror Texoma’s ability.
“We haven’t had to stock any stripers in the lake since the early 1970s,” said Matt Mauck, south central regional fisheries supervisor with the ODWC. “It’s been going gangbusters ever since natural reproduction was first documented. There is no way to know how many fish are in the lake. With an annual harvest that ranges between 850,000 to more than 1 million fish it’s hard to fathom how many stripers might be out there. It’s a huge number that surpasses anything that a hatchery system could support.”
Morone saxatilis is the largest member of the sea bass family and is capable of living in fresh and saltwater environments, but their spawning requirements are very explicit. Land-locked freshwater populations can only be maintained by stocking hatchery-reared fish when those requirements are not met.
TPWD hatcheries produce several million striped bass for stocking in selected lakes each year. That’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what is probably produced naturally by Texoma’s resident striper population, especially when favorable conditions are present during prime spawning season—April and May.
“The main thing that makes Texoma such a great striper fishery is the two rivers that feed it—the Red and the Washita rivers,” Mauck said. “Both of those rivers are big, long and free-flowing. They allow the fish to get out of the lakes and go far upstream to spawn, sometimes as far as 80 miles. Those two rivers are the main reasons for the continued success story of natural reproduction at Lake Texoma.”
In a normal year, Texoma stripers will begin staging for their annual spawning run in early spring. Once the photoperiod, water temperatures and river flows are right, armies of fish will fin their way upstream in an attempt to create another generation of stripers for Texoma anglers to catch.
Bennett says TPWD biologists have found several areas as far as 60 miles upstream from the Red River bottleneck where it is believed the stripers spawn each spring provided the conditions are right.
“We’ve loosely identified some areas on the Red northeast of Gainseville and west of I-35 where we believe spawning is occurring,” Bennett said. “A lot of fish spawn up the Washita, too. But we don’t have good handle on where it takes place. They really seem to like areas with rocky outcroppings.”
Although the setting at Texoma is ideal for sustaining a robust striper population, the success of the spawn from one year to the next is highly dependent on timely rainfall to create critical current in the river systems that feed it. Without current at the right time, spawning success is sure to suffer.
Striper eggs are semi-buoyant. Current helps to keep the eggs suspended in the water column until they hatch on their long journey back to the lake. Scientists say the eggs usually hatch within 36 to 75 hours. Take current out of the equation and the eggs are destined to sink to the bottom and die.
“Anytime those big flood pulses come through in April or May we tend to have above average production with those fish spawning upriver and excellent survival of the young fish,” Bennett said. “Occasionally, we’ll have years when we don’t get a good flood pulse in April and May. That results in very minimal reproduction. We are essentially missing a year class of fish from 2014, because we didn’t get the river flow when we needed it. That was one of the lowest production years we’ve ever had, and it really put a damper on the fishery for a year or so.”
But the down time was short lived. Bennett says Texoma stripers achieved back-to-back banner spawns in 2015 and 2016, and the fishery is ripe with numbers and quality fish, alike.
“The fishery is in excellent shape right now,” Bennett said. “Our most recent sampling done in February showed just above normal catch rates compared to our 20 year records. There are a lot of big fish out there, too, that were produced as the result the banner spawn we saw as the result of 2015 flood. Those fish have experienced above average growth rates. We’re seeing a lot of fish over 20 inches and hearing reports of quite a few fish between 10 to 20 pounds.”
Not surprisingly, striper fishing at Texoma is big business that supports dozens fishing guides, marinas and other local businesses. According to ODWC reports, a 1995 economic impact study showed the Texoma striper fishery generates around $25 million annually in direct expenditures for the local economy and that it is the single-most valuable fishery resource in the entire state.
Bennett says plans are in the works to conduct an updated economic impact survey on the fishery in the next few years, possibly beginning as early as 2019. The biologist was hesitant to speculate on the current value of the fishery, but says he will be surprised if the newest survey doesn’t reflect similar or higher numbers.
“Striper fishing is a huge deal at Texoma, and a lot of people come here to catch them,” Bennett said. “Our general survey data shows that on average there are 200 fishermen on Texoma fishing for stripers every day.”
That’s mucho fishermen—and they catch mucho fish.
—story by Matt Williams