Author - “Ocklawahaman” Paul Nosca with the assistance of Captain Erika Ritter….
IS IT REMOTELY POSSIBLE that somewhere in the south-central part of the Sooner State there could be an Oklahoma version of a Shangri-La for stream anglers? A clear-water, free-flowing, spring-fed paradise for river fishers who enjoy wading and bank-walking where there are so many waterfalls over limestone ledges that about the only boat traffic you’ll ever see are college kids floating on air mattresses in the crystalline pools during the hot Texoma summer? Cool, tumbling waters containing 3 black bass and at least 3 bream species, plus 2 kinds of catfish along with a wintertime bonus of rainbow trout? Could this “Okie oasis” possibly have free campsites and plenty of swimming holes to boot?
ALL OF THE FOREGOING WAS PROBABLY TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE and cried-out for expert evaluation. But who could possibly take-on this “dirty” job? Only a dedicated stream angler, accustomed to using man-power instead of horse-power fishing methods and skilled in the use of buzzbaits and spinnerbaits, would possess the unique qualifications that would be required for this type of rigorous examination! So it was that “Ocklawahaman”, obeying the orders of Uncle Sam, was in the right place back then to conduct an independent investigation of the Blue River Public Fishing and Hunting Area to determine if it was FOR TRUE.
IT WAS NINETEEN EIGHTY-SOMETHING. “Ocklawahaman” was a much younger old soldier during two years of precious stateside duty at the U.S. Army Field Artillery Center and Fort Sill located just north of Lawton in Comanche County, OK. The spacious Fort Sill is about 25 miles across and is split into 3 artillery firing sectors: East Range, West Range and Quanah Range. The downtown section of the garrison with the PX and the commissary is situated between East and West ranges. It was not that unusual to hear an M-109 Paladin “Have Gun Will Travel” 155-mm mobile howitzer booming down-range and then notice the whistling of its artillery projectile hopefully “incoming” somewhere many “klicks” (kilometers) away!
MORE ABOUT OKLAHOMA, FORT SILL, AND MY PRE-ARRIVAL TO THE FORT BACK THEN:
Oklahoma is very rich in Native American Indian culture and history. The great Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo, who was never permitted to return home to Arizona or New Mexico, is buried at Fort Sill–he died as a prisoner of war of the U.S. in 1909. Several times a year, my unit and I did 5-mile jogging runs to Geronimo’s gravesite–I am quite certain that today’s soldiers still do. The graves of the famous Kiowa Chief Satanta along with the noble Comanche Chief Quanah Parker are also at Fort Sill. Comanche County plus several other bordering southwestern Oklahoma counties comprise the present geographic limits of the Comanche Nation with Lawton as its tribal headquarters. The State of Oklahoma is forever tied to the American South because of the forced removal in the early 1800′s from the southeastern U.S. of the “5 Civilized Tribes” which are the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole to the land area that would later become Oklahoma. Later on the majority of those Tribal Nations sided with the Confederacy during The War Between The States. Many other designated Indian Nations besides those formerly so-called “5 Civilized Tribes” exist in Oklahoma today.
After I had received my PCS (permanent change of station) orders back then, but before I ever arrived at Fort Sill, OK (where I had never been before), I went to the library on the post that I would soon be leaving. There I examined any available Oklahoma fishing information plus topographic maps of natural areas near Fort Sill. This has always been standard operating procedure for me when exploring a new “wilderness”. As the only outdoorsman in my city folks family–you can blame “Davy Crockett” (Fess Parker) in 1955 for my Southern outdoors addiction ever since–I learned fishing and hunting myself by reading about it in town then experimenting, usually alone, with various methods in the field seeking those that enabled me to bring home some tender victuals.
My preference for river fishing made me study the Oklahoma streams available within reasonable distance of my soon-to-be Fort Sill home. I figured that I wouldn’t need a boat to fish streams and maybe I would even take a Polaroid camera along on some of these expeditions to record some of the goings-on! My exploration in library books back then did yield some useful data about the streams that would be within reach of a Fort Sill soldier with a pickup truck.
IF SOMEHOW I COULD ARRANGE some non-duty weekends for overnight camping trips inside Oklahoma, away from the Fort Sill barracks, 135 miles to the east in Johnston County and within the confines of the Chickasaw Tribal Nation there was the fish-filled Blue River! This scenically beautiful limestone-aquifer spring-fed river, which flows generally south emptying into the Red River (Oklahoma’s border with Texas), was populated with largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass along with plenty of channel catfish plus winter season stocked put-and-take rainbow trout. From my readings, Blue River really appeared to be an Oklahoma version of a stream fisherman’s Shangri-La. Blue River Public Fishing and Hunting Area, with about 4 miles of the stream, had many scenic waterfalls over lime-rock ledges next to streamside granite boulders and plenty of free campsites for my pickup camper too!
Prior to my Fort Sill arrival, I had already learned that Blue River was a steep gradient artesian spring-fed stream with a drop of 31 feet per mile in the section that interested me–820 feet elevation (above sea level) down to 710 feet elevation meant possibly 35 waterfalls or so in 3.5 miles of river!
MORE ABOUT BLUE RIVER, OKLAHOMA AND ITS SPRING-FED WATERS:
The headwaters of south-central Oklahoma’s Blue River, supplied by the pure Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer, are located near Ada in southern Pontotoc County and part of the Chickasaw Nation. Blue River then flows south-southeast through Johnston and Bryan counties some 95 miles, mostly through private property not accessible or navigable to the public, until it empties into the Red River (Oklahoma-Texas border) many miles DOWNSTREAM of the Lake Texoma Dam.
JUST HOW RARE A TREASURE IS BLUE RIVER? VERY RARE INDEED! There are NO man-made structures controlling its water. Blue River is a totally free-flowing, spring-fed stream (one of the last in Oklahoma) from its source to its mouth at the Red River. There its contribution of pure waters flow-on many hundreds of miles down the Red River into Arkansas and Louisiana then on to the Mississippi River emptying at the Gulf of Mexico un-impeded by any dams along the way!
Reading about this extremely rare STILL-FREE-FLOWING-FROM-SOURCE-TO-THE-SEA quality of the Blue River got me to hearing Burt Reynolds speaking part of that line from “Deliverance” (1972) that goes something like this, “…just about one of the last un-dammed, un-polluted, un-******-up rivers in the South.” It also had me thinking about a 2-word term that is still spoken from time to time which goes something like this, “By God”.
THINK ABOUT YOUR OWN FAVORITE FISHING STREAMS FOR A MINUTE. Do any of them flow un-dammed from their headwaters to the ocean? I wish that I could say that about my Ocklawaha River of Florida, but I can’t. Rodman (Kirkpatrick) Dam blocks the Ocklawaha’s Silver Springs Floridan Aquifer headwater to most all “by God” fish migration from the St. Johns River and the Atlantic Ocean.
The USGS “Blue River near Connerville, OK” stream-flow gage located upriver from Blue River Public Fishing and Hunting Area reports the river’s discharge usually between 40 to 160 cubic feet per second from a 162 square-mile basin–along with a winter-summer water temperature range of 48 F to 80 F. I seem to recall measuring Desperado Spring, an artesian outflow north of the Blue River designated campsites, at about 64 F during the summer. Blue River is a Texoma cooling-off oasis in the summer and a popular cold-water trout stream in the winter!
The approximately 4 miles of the stream that flows through the Blue River Public Fishing and Hunting Area that I knew back then is full of limestone and granite outcrops. The end result is beautiful pools, riffles, and waterfalls along with scattered islands of bushes and cedar or sycamore trees that separate the river channel into a braided multi-channeled stream in many sections.
ABOUT THE UPLANDS ALONG BLUE RIVER, OKLAHOMA:
Some limestone bluffs occur along Blue River while in other places the banks are bushy or wooded with cedar, cottonwoods and sycamore trees. Interesting mixed outcrops of lime-rock and granite boulders work their way upland into “cross-timbers” forests of cedar and scrub oak or into prairie-type grasslands.
ABOUT THE UPLAND WILDLIFE ALONG BLUE RIVER, OKLAHOMA:
Upland wildlife that I’ve seen there includes: whitetail deer, wild turkeys, coyote, foxes, striped skunks, cottontail rabbits, gray squirrels, armadillos, bobwhite quail, rattlesnakes, copperheads, etc. One memorable evening while frying bass fillets on a Coleman camp stove by the light of a Coleman lantern, a falling flying squirrel just missed landing in my frying pan!
ABOUT NON-FISH AQUATIC AND WETLAND LIFE OF BLUE RIVER, OKLAHOMA:
I’ve seen Canada geese, mallard ducks, river otter, raccoon and the rare alligator snapping turtle there. There were cottonmouth moccasins to be carefully walked-around. When shining a strong flashlight into the clear stream waters at night or when bathing during the day, I remember sometimes observing large crawfish beyond 6 inches long. I’m thinking now that these were some type of Macrobrachium species (giant river prawn). Blue River is not blocked from long distance migration to brackish water, which giant river prawn require for natural reproduction.
ABOUT THE FISH OF BLUE RIVER, OKLAHOMA:
Blue River is blessed with abundant ground-water plus lots of excellent in-stream rock and wood fish-holding structure along with great waterfall induced dissolved oxygen levels. This combination results in a robust fish population! The native fish of Blue River includes the following species: northern largemouth bass, northern spotted bass, channel catfish, flathead catfish, bluegill, green sunfish, longear sunfish, longnose gar, and some form of river sucker.
Non-native smallmouth bass were stocked into Blue River in the distant past and are self-sustaining. I presume that these are the northern smallmouth variety–MORE ABOUT THE DIFFERENT SMALLMOUTH BASS VARIETIES OF OKLAHOMA later on in this article.
Non-native rainbow trout are stocked into the tumbling waters of the Public Fishing and Hunting Area during the cold weather months making Blue River a designated Oklahoma trout stream from the last Saturday in October until the end of March. The coldwater rainbow trout are strictly a put-and-take fishery as they can’t survive water temperatures above 70 degrees F for very long. Local anglers told me of the supposed existence of a large river pool named The Glory Hole, with cold springs in it, below a waterfall downstream in a long stretch of private property. Rainbow trout reportedly could survive the hot summer here and “carry-over”. I know NOT whether this Glory Hole was actually for true or just a myth!
ABOUT MY OWN BLUE RIVER, OKLAHOMA FISHING EXPERIENCE, TECHNIQUE, AND CREEL SURVEY RESULTS:
My best guess is that I fished Blue River some 45 different days while I was stationed more than 2 years at Fort Sill, OK. Blue River Public Fishing and Hunting Area, being almost a 3-hour drive away from base, required overnight camping–it was never just a day trip for me. Whenever I managed to get a pass for 3 non-duty days in a row, I was headed to camp at Blue River right after quitting time of the last duty day before. Many times, with only a full weekend off-duty, I arrived at camp there Friday night in the dark and fished all-day Saturday plus part of Sunday past noon then returned to the post on Sunday night.
If I got an early enough start in the morning, I tried to fish as much as possible of MY FAVORITE 3.5 MILES OF THE RIVER–from near the private log cabin about 2.25 stream miles north of camp back down to the camp for lunch then down to the south boundary about 1.25 stream miles south. Camp chores like coffee-making, cooking, cleaning, bathing and the like do consume precious time. My method of fishing consisted of casting lures while bank-walking, wading and hiking along that cascading river. This was done very cautiously during warm weather while trying to avoid upsetting any copperhead, cottonmouth or rattlesnake that I happened-up on!
1/8th ounce buzzbaits and spinnerbaits produced almost all of the approximately 350 BLACK BASS that I caught from Blue River, mostly during the 7 warmer months of the year, which included largemouths to 19 inches, smallmouths to 19 inches, and spots to 17 inches. 20 to 30 bass caught in a day was not unusual. I would put a couple of black bass on the stringer daily for camp eats but the overwhelming majority was released. The black bass species catch ratio at Blue River was about 60% spotted bass, 20% smallmouth bass, and 20% largemouth bass.
I must admit that MY BIGGEST BLUE RIVER SMALLMOUTH BASS, just shy of 22 inches long, was caught on a 6-inch un-weighted purple plastic worm from a gin-clear pool below a gorgeous waterfall. This beautiful fish, which just about matched the then Oklahoma record smallmouth bass in length, was easily visible swimming around in the clear water–so I cut-off my buzzbait, re-tied and tossed her a plastic worm with embedded hook. She engulfed that worm that was moving downstream in the current and the battle was on. But after that bass jumped several times my line apparently broke at the knot.
TO MY ASTONISHED SURPRISE, I could still see this big bass slowly moving in the crystalline current running between two jagged limestone formations. So I tied-on another purple worm, cast and “round two” was on. After several jumps and runs I was able to grab MY BIGGEST SMALLMOUTH EVER by her lower jaw and retrieve both of my purple plastic worms. I admired my catch and quickly measured its more than 21-inch length with a tape then put the bass on a stringer back into the highly aerated flowing river so it would stay alive.
My Polaroid was about a mile away in the truck and nobody was with me, so I decided not to try to snap a photo–I didn’t want to kill this magnificent fish that obviously weighed 5 pounds or more. But maybe one of those Oklahoma conservation employees in trucks would happen to drive along the road so I could flag him down to witness and photograph this lunker smallmouth bass? After about an hour of no luck waiting around for anyone to help me celebrate this angling achievement, I LET HER GO BACK INTO BLUE RIVER–never to see or catch that almost 22-inch smallmouth again! That is a bass picture that I would have liked to have had.
Many years later I was given a copy of the March/April 1993 edition of “Outdoor Oklahoma” magazine. It listed the then Oklahoma State Record smallmouth bass as 6 pounds 14 ounces with a length of 22.63 inches and a girth of 16.25 inches caught 4-14-1990 from Lake Texoma. Note that the present Oklahoma State Record smallmouth bass is now 8 pounds 3 ounces with a 23.5-inch length and a 19-inch girth caught 3-4-2006 from Lake Eufaula.
For RAINBOW TROUT, I normally used 1/8th ounce treble-hooked in-line spinners as the lure of choice during the 5-month winter trout season. I caught about 100 “stocker” rainbows from 9 inches to 18 inches from Blue River. That 18-inch rainbow was taken on Thanksgiving Day during a 3 non-duty-day camping trip of mine. It was not that unusual to catch your limit of 6. Although rainbow trout are delicious, I just couldn’t eat 6 per day–so I released most of them.
1/8th ounce buzzbaits and spinnerbaits also produced probably 500 or so Blue River BREAM for me as incidental catches while bassing. There were GREEN SUNFISH up to 10 inches long plus BLUEGILL to 9 inches and colorful LONGEAR SUNFISH to 7 inches. If the bream were what I call “magnum” size, 8 inches or longer, they sometimes were kept for the frying pan. Sometimes, smaller sunfish were cut-up for catfish bait.
Every once in a while, I would slow down and fish for CATFISH using cut bream for bait on plastic worm hooks tied onto my UL spinning outfit. I caught maybe 40 CHANNEL CATFISH up to 23 inches long plus 3 FLATHEAD CATFISH up to 18 inches long from Blue River. Several LONGNOSE GAR up to 44 inches long, were hooked every once in a while catfishing with cut bait. Most of those tasty channel catfish were released but field duty makes a fellow hungry for fillets and a Coleman camp stove was waiting in my truck camper–along with a frying pan, cooking oil, meal, and such.
UNDERWATER OBSERVATIONS AT BLUE RIVER, OKLAHOMA:
During the hot summer if the water was clear, I would occasionally wear a diving mask and jump-in to experience what it was like to be underwater with the fish in a pool below a waterfall. Prior to taking-in my last deep breath of air, I would grab a good-size rock to hold and use as a weight–to be able to stand on the river bottom easily. The view was quite interesting in the pool below the turbulent bubbles with different black bass and sunfish species looking-up towards the falls for food items tumbling-in. Suckers and minnow-sized fish would also be present. No rainbow trout were ever seen in the summer. Small caverns in the lime-rock walls often held channel catfish and crawfish. 45 seconds is about my limit underwater and then it was up for air until the next dive.
NOW MORE ABOUT THE DIFFERENT SMALLMOUTH BASS VARIETIES OF OKLAHOMA:
Excerpted from “Outdoor Oklahoma” (March/April 1993 edition):
“…In an effort to learn more about smallmouth bass, angler use, and economic importance, the Department is funding a study through the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Oklahoma State University. One study being conducted will survey populations in Ozark streams to determine if a pure population of Neosho strain smallmouth still exists. Biologists suspect this strain occurs in the northeast due to the fact that Ozark smallmouth populations often consist of small, slower growing fish, which is characteristic of the Neosho strain. Ouachita stream smallmouth tend to be fewer in number than northeastern populations, but are larger-growing. If a pure population of the Neosho smallmouth does exist, fisheries biologists want to avoid contaminating the gene pool. No one is quite sure of its importance yet, however, introducing a new subspecies in the northeast could disrupt the food web in this delicate ecosystem. Biologists hope the study will shed some light on this subspecies as well as help them determine suitable management techniques. Yet another subspecies of smallmouth–a reservoir strain originating from the Cumberland River system in Tennessee–is being stocked into Oklahoma lakes and creeks without existing smallmouth populations… ”
I don’t know if the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has updated the preceding smallmouth bass data since 1993. Maybe ODWC has issued newer information about the status of the northern, Neosho, Ouachita, and whatever other forms of smallmouth bass there are that reside inside the State of Oklahoma?
YES, “Ocklawahaman” was a proud “Okie” with an Oklahoma resident fishing license for a couple of years back then (even though I had a Florida driver license) all thanks to the “Be All That You Can Be” U.S. Army.
The aesthetics of BLUE RIVER, OKLAHOMA and the quality of its fishing experience were comparable to that of the finest spring-rivers that I have bass fished in Florida or cold-water free-stone streams that I have trout fished in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Georgia and Virginia. Blue River just might be south-central Oklahoma’s Shangri-La for stream anglers!
“Ocklawahaman” Paul Nosca