To me, the striper is the Oklahoma version of the famed steelhead that so many people dedicate so much of their time to find and catch these fish. The fish can be hard to find sometimes, their feeding patterns are random at best, and, to make conditions even tougher, the best waters to find them are tailwaters that are subject to random generation schedules. From time to time though, everything falls into place...the water is right, the fish are there, and they are feeding! Its times like these that make all the searching, the walking, and the casting worth while...especially when you have a 20lb stripe at the end of your line.
For myself and my fellow addicts, our search began a couple weekends back on the Lower Illinois river below Tenkiller Dam. The LIR runs into the Arkansas river and tons of stripers make their spawning run up this little tailwater where they frequent the deep holes that are a long walk from any access point and gorge themselves on the rainbow trout that the Wildlife Dept stocks throughout the year. Under normal conditions, they start their run at the end of April and then return to the Arkansas about the middle of June . Joey Cloer and myself decided to make the drive down to the Lower Illinois to mostly do some scouting for stripers. I hadn't been down yet to do any scouting myself but I had heard that the conventional tackle striper guides were beginning to catch them at the mouth of the LIR and even were catching a few as far upriver as Gore Landing. So the early signs that the fish were moving into the river were good, just how far upriver they'd made it was yet to be found.
Joey and I met in Gore where he got his out-of-state license before we headed down to Marvals Family River Resort where we had decided to access the river. We geared up with big rods, big flies, and big hopes of tying into a big striper. We began our trek downstream to some deep holes that I'd caught stripers out of last year during the run. The walk downstream yielded some surprises as we found some holes had filled in but new holes had formed that looked promising. Joey was throwing a white/chart clouser while I was chuckin' a rainbow trout patterned deceiver, hoping to key in on the stripers primary food source while they were in the river. We dredged every deep hole, undercut bank, and deep run but never got a strike. As we continued downstream we came across large pods of buffalo spawning. When I say large pods, I mean hundreds of them schooled up for hundreds of yards, it was nuts. Joey couldnt resist so he tied on a brown/tan clouser and begin hopping it off the bottom through the hoards of buffalo. He quickly hooked up with a few nice 3-5lb buffalo that put on a great fight on the 8 weight. If we hadn't of had stripers on the agenda, we woulda spent the whole day catching those fish but we had bigger fish to fry!
All those black shapes are buffalo...
We continued our trek downstream...casting to every likely looking hole but coming up empty everywhere. Thoughts were starting to creep into my head like; "Are the fish even in the river yet?" "Are they even feeding because of the overcast and rainy weather?" "Are the flies we are using too big or too small?" I just couldnt figure out what the deal was...the fish had to be here! My answer came in the form of a fellow fisherman who came upon us and asked if we were fishing for stripers. We replied with a frustrated yes. He stated that the fish weren't running up the river yet and that he'd been down here the last few weekends looking for them, but the cooler weather has kept the fish in the Arkansas river. That information was a relief and a letdown at the same time for us as it meant we'd figured out why we werent catching fish because the fish weren't there!
We were about to pack up and head back to the truck when I made another long cast up next to a large log. I let the fly sink and began to strip it back to me when I noticed a large silvery torpedo came out from under the log to chase my fly. It quickly ran down my fly and flashed at it but missed it. I set the hook instinctively upon seeing the flash, obviously missing the fish but it kept swimming around looking for the fly. I quickly recast and put the fly right on its head! The fish whirled around and inhaled the deceiver instantly...I set the hook and the fight was on! The fish made an awesome run followed by a huge jump which allowed me to identify the fish....it was a freaking huge rainbow! She made a few more impressive runs, almost putting me into my backing before I was able to slide her into the shallows and grab its tail.
It was the biggest rainbow I'd caught out of the Lower Illinois as well as the biggest trout I'd caught in a couple of years actually. She was fat, healthy, and full of color...quite impressive for a stocked fish. After some quick pictures and a little more admiration, I released her back into the river where she swam right back towards the log which she came from. We decided to call it quits on chasing stripers for the morning and made the long hike back to the truck.
We ended the day by putting away the big rods, breaking out the trout sticks and heading upstream to the Watts WMU access to catch trout for the remainder of the day. We each caught more than our fair share of rainbows so the day wasn't a total loss. We decided to give it a week or two and then come back to the Lower Illinois to start the search again...