Coronavirus in Oklahoma: Lake Texoma's striper guides are busier than ever
The striped bass fishing on Lake Texoma has been excellent this year and after many cancellations in the spring in the weeks right after the initial COVID-19 outbreak, the fishing guides on the lake are in high demand.
"Right now, we are busier than we've ever been," said Kari Sparks, who takes reservations for Sparky's Guide Service in Mead operated by her husband, Eddie, and father-in-law, Larry.
M.T. Evans, office manager at Striper Express Guide Service in Pottsboro, Texas, said Wednesday they broke a record last month for the number of striper fishing charters in May, and their 10 boats are already booked each day for almost the entire month of June.
"We had 214 charters in the month of May," she said.
Evans estimates about 40% of their bookings are first-time customers, people who are looking for something they can safely do with the threat of COVID-19 everywhere. On one day, Evans said they had 240 phone calls from people inquiring about a guided striper fishing trip.
"That was a 16-hour day," she said.
Evans said many of the fishing guides on Lake Texoma are just as busy, as she has called others to check availability for customers when Striper Express is booked and "they are all full."
Eddie Sparks, who operates five guide boats out of Willow Springs Marina, said in the first few weeks following the COVID-19 outbreak many people canceled fishing trips that were scheduled in March and April.
"We lost about 70 trips," he said. "We lost probably over half of our trips."
Several of the fishing trips were large corporate outings, Sparks said. Since mid-May, however, business has been booming, he said.
Lake Texoma, which straddles the Oklahoma-Texas border, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Oklahoma. It offers good fishing for bass, catfish and crappie, but it is the striper fishing that attracts anglers from across the country. There are dozens of striper fishing guides operating on the lake.
Matt Mauck, south-central region fisheries supervisor for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said in one calendar year people from 48 states purchased Lake Texoma fishing licenses, which allows anglers to fish both the Oklahoma and Texas side of the lake.
Lake Texoma has some of the most liberal striper limits in the country, and Evans said she even had a customer this year from as far away as New York who traveled to Lake Texoma just to fish for striped bass.
In the mid-'60s, striped bass from South Carolina's Santee Cooper Reservoir and New York's Hudson River were introduced in many Oklahoma lakes. Stripers are more commonly associated with the Atlantic coast, but they found viable Oklahoma homes in Lake Texoma and Lake Keystone.
Striped bass thrived in Lake Texoma because of the lake's higher salt content and its massive open water. Also, the vast river systems on both sides of the lake (the Red and Washita arms) are a necessity for the long spawning runs of stripers.
State wildlife officials have documented natural reproduction of stripers in Lake Texoma every year since 1975. Mauck said an estimated 850,000 striped bass are caught on average each year by anglers at Lake Texoma. On especially good years, it's believed that number rises as high as 1.2 million.
It's estimated more than 6 million people visit Lake Texoma each year and the striped bass fishing alone is believed to have an economic impact of more than $25 million, but those numbers are based on a 1990s study. Mauck said the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and Texas Parks and Wildlife are working with economists to update those numbers.
The month of May provides the best top-water fishing with artificial lures on Lake Texoma, while live bait fishing is king during June. But as the temperatures climb, the lake transitions into a summer pattern where large schools of stripers will congregate deeper in the lake.
In July, there might be a top-water bite early in the morning, but fishing guides turn to slabs and jigging spoons as the primary way to catch stripers.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has reopened its campgrounds and Oklahoma lakes are busier than ever, including Lake Texoma.
"The lake has been a buzz with people," Mauck said. "Every weekend feels like a holiday weekend."
Not just weekends but "every day," Evans said.
Getting outdoors has been a positive, unintended consequence of COVID-19, said Brandi Burkhalter, director of the Lake Texoma Association. She knows of several families who have gone camping this year for the first time ever.
"I think this has driven people to kind of go back to the way things once were, where people did more outdoor activities," she said. "Stuff that they did not allow time for before COVID-19."