The race is on for striped bass, but the best action isn't on Lake Texoma.
Anglers in the know are racing to the tailrace in the Red River below the dam of the Texas-Oklahoma border lake.
"The fish in the river are in much better shape than the fish in the lake," fishing guide Steve Barnes said. "The river fish are fat and healthy in all sizes, whereas the fish in the lake are healthy in the 8- to 16-inch class, but the fish over 20 inches are so poor that you can't get a fillet off the side of them. And they have little fight when you catch them.
"Texoma is a great lake, but, just like the river, it has its good times and its bad times, depending on water levels and quality. Right now, the lake is the worst I have seen it in five years, and the river is the best I have seen it in five years.
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"For now, I am going to fish the river instead of the lake, because even though the limit is five on the river versus 10 on the lake, we are getting five much larger fish on the river."
Barnes has been launching his airboat in the river and idling only a short distance to hook up with quick limits of 18- to 25-inch stripers weighing 3 to 8 pounds.
Barnes and his customers caught many striped bass on live shad Thursday near the dam, then headed downriver where they had spotted a school of surfacing stripers. There they used top-water lures to catch numerous 7- to 10-pound fish, and even caught one 12-pounder.
"I like to get there early in the mornings, take out a scoop of shad (from the bait tank) and dump them in the water," Barnes said. "The stripers start turning on immediately. We rig spinning rods with shad and no weights. We free-line the bait, and all of the trips I have had lately have produced quick limits no matter how many people I have in the boat."
Barnes said the river has changed, mainly because of high-water releases on the lake after heavy flooding.
"The river has struggled over the past few years because there has been no real flow," he said. "A lot of holes silted in, and the fish moved downriver. This year, the rains scoured out those holes and the fish have moved back up.
"I think the action will slow down some when the water gets colder, but we will start catching even larger fish at that time. We already have caught several over 10 pounds.
"When you fish the tailrace, there always is the outside chance you may hook into a monster striper weighing 40 pounds."
Now, that's a tailrace worth racing to.
Toll at Texoma
The Striped Bass Capital of the World is quieter than normal these days, but the lull among big stripers won't last forever.
Lake Texoma has changed from last year, mainly because of heavy flooding this spring and summer. The lake's high water levels might have caused oxygen depletion in flooded vegetation and a fish kill of larger stripers, said fishing guide Steve Barnes, adding that fishing for big stripers is the worst he has seen in five years.
"We apparently had a fish kill at the end of summer from all that floodwater getting back into the vegetation," he said. "It sure eats up the oxygen, and the water quality was poor at the end of summer. It didn't affect small fish. We had one of the best crops of 12- to 15-inch fish I ever have seen, and next spring that will be good fish _ fat, but not big."
Many of the larger stripers being caught are skinny, which might indicate a depleted supply of smaller shad, but an abundance of smaller fish appears to be growing to take their place.
"The lake should be good next year for (keeper) fish, but we will just have to wait and see if we have many 20-inch and larger fish this winter when the water gets cooler and the bigger fish become more active," Barnes said.