Author: Ocklawahaman” Paul Nosca with the assistance of Captain Erika Ritter ….
For more than 7 decades during the 20th Century the “WICHITA SPOTTED BASS” was arguably the rarest known form of black bass (family Centrarchidae, genus Micropterus species) in the world. 445 specimens had been collected between 1906 and 1928 from their “native” West Cache Creek, Oklahoma stream basin–but none since that later year. Dams had been built across that creek in several areas since then for lake recreation and to ensure drinking water sources for a federal wildlife refuge’s hoofed animal population. Was an “endemic” riverine bass extirpated because too much of its free-flowing stream environment was converted into a lacustrine one that restricted its ability to migrate for survival during southwest Oklahoma’s severe droughts? “Ocklawahaman”, obeying orders from “Uncle Sam”, was in the “right place” to conduct an independent investigation “back then” of the status of the “WICHITA SPOTTED BASS”. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (Lawton office) provided information “back then” about the most promising segments to search for specimens–along with their belief “that the Wichita spotted bass is probably no longer present” in West Cache Creek. They would have wanted to know if I was able to collect any specimens “back then” of this presumed extinct black bass variety called the “WICHITA SPOTTED BASS”.
“Ocklawahaman” was a much younger “old soldier” during two years “back then” of “stateside” at the “U.S. Army Field Artillery Center and Fort Sill” located just north of Lawton in Comanche County, Oklahoma (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 (post department store) and the commissary (post grocery store) is situated between East Range and West Range. It was not that unusual to hear an M-109 Paladin “Have Gun Will Travel” 155-mm mobile howitzer (cannon) booming down-range and then notice the whistling of its artillery projectile hopefully “incoming” somewhere many “klicks” away!
Adjoining the sprawling Fort Sill Military Reservation on much of its northern boundary is the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge which is some 59,000 acres in size (almost half the size of the entire Fort Sill). The rugged Wichita Mountains, although only up to 2400 feet in elevation, are an extremely ancient range rising boulder strewn above grassy prairie lands and scrub oak forests. Animal life in this federal refuge is abundant featuring bison (“buffalo”), Texas longhorn cattle, elk, whitetail deer, coyote and wild turkey among its most noticeable larger species. Armadillo and prairie dog can be seen at times. I remember seeing “migrations” of HUGE tarantula spiders there (amazingly we don’t have them in Florida) plus the only roadrunner birds that I’ve ever seen (except in the cartoons).
This whole area is 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.
After I had received my latest PCS (permanent change of station) orders “back then”, but before I ever arrived at Fort Sill, my future 1st Sgt welcomed me to the unit with a long distance phone call. My new-to-be “Top” (First Sergeant) said that if I was interested in fishing during my “off-duty” time, I would probably enjoy the many bass-stocked man-made lakes of Fort Sill and the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. His very cordial conversation with me that day mentioning waters teeming with bass immediately sparked my investigative curiosity.
At the library on the post that I would soon be leaving, I proceeded to examine any available information about Oklahoma fishing plus military topographic maps of the Fort Sill/Wichita Mountains area. 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 Fess Parker “Davy Crockett” 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 “eats”.
My preference for riverine fishing begged me to study the Oklahoma streams available within reasonable driving distance of my soon-to-be Fort Sill home. I figured that I wouldn’t need a boat to fish streams (unlike most of the man-made lakes) and maybe I would even try to take a Polaroid camera with film along on some of these Oklahoma river and creek 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.
Comanche County offered West Cache Creek, Medicine Creek and East Cache Creek as likely fishing streams. They ultimately join together further south in Cotton County forming Cache Creek (a tributary of the Red River which is the border between Oklahoma and Texas).
West Cache Creek, with its headwaters and a good amount of fishable stream miles in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, supposedly once supported the endemic Wichita spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus wichitae) subspecies–presumed to be extinct per the results of a 1979 fisheries study. Finding a long-lost bass subspecies in the clear-flowing, freestone (fed by rainwater runoff and small mountain springs) waters of West Cache Creek would be a real challenge for me to pursue just a short number of years after that report was issued!
Medicine Creek, which flows through Fort Sill, had spotted bass in it that were not Wichita spotted bass–just normal “Kentucky” bass (Micropterus punctulatus). That would be interesting to check-out! The creek also had resident largemouth bass and various sunfish. Medicine Creek, to the east of and without any direct connection to West Cache Creek, empties into East Cache Creek inside the East Range of Fort Sill.
If I could arrange some non-duty weekends for overnight camping trips inside Oklahoma, away from the Fort Sill barracks, to the east within the confines of the “Chickasaw Tribal Nation” there was the Blue River. This scenically beautiful Johnston County limestone-aquifer spring-fed river, which empties into the Red River at Lake Texoma, was populated with largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass plus winter season stocked put-and-take rainbow trout. The Blue River Public Fishing and Hunting Area, located near Tishomingo, had many scenic waterfalls over lime rock ledges next to streamside granite boulders and plenty of free campsites for my pickup “camper” too!
By the time I had arrived at Fort Sill “back then”, I already was quite familiar (through reading and viewing maps) with the four Oklahoma streams that I had planned to fish over the next two years: West Cache Creek, Medicine Creek, East Cache Creek, and Blue River. I had learned, for example, that West Cache Creek was a steep gradient mountain stream with a drop of 58 feet per mile of twisting creek in the area that interested me–1490 feet elevation down to 1315 feet meant lots of waterfalls in 3 miles!
In the following paragraphs I shall endeavor to present a concise report about my 2-year West Cache Creek angling experience–along with data from fishery studies regarding the status of the Wichita spotted bass–plus just a bit of information about my fishing trips on those other three Oklahoma streams: Medicine Creek, East Cache Creek, and Blue River.
WHAT WERE THE CREEL SURVEY RESULTS FROM MY TWO YEARS OF FISHING WEST CACHE CREEK AND DID I DISCOVER ANY EXTANT WICHITA SPOTTED BASS SPECIMENS?
My best guess is that I fished West Cache Creek in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge some 45 different days while I was stationed at Fort Sill, OK. Hopefully, if I got an early enough start, I tried to fish the most “gorgeous” 3 miles of the creek from below the “Lost Lake” dam down to “Forty Foot Hole” to near “Boulder Camp” then through “The Narrows” past “Pennington Mine” and stopping at the Refuge/Fort Sill “Quanah Range” boundary fence–all in one day. Hiking along that rocky creek was done very cautiously while trying to avoid upsetting any rattlesnake, buffalo, longhorn, or elk that I “happened-up” on!
I normally used 1/8th ounce buzzbait and spinnerbait lures on my ultra-light outfit but I have to confess that my biggest largemouth bass, 21 inches in total length, was caught on a 6-inch un-weighted purple plastic worm (which I very rarely ever used) from a slow, deep pool and then released unharmed. Buzzbaits and spinnerbaits produced almost all of the other nearly 150 largemouth bass, up to 19 inches in total length, that I “sampled”–which usually were always released. Probably 500 or so “big-mouthed” green sunfish along with many longear sunfish and bluegill were taken on lures plus even a channel catfish on a spinnerbait. Almost all of these fish survived their close encounter with me as I rarely ever fried my day’s catch from the refuge although a Coleman camp stove was stashed in my truck camper–along with a frying pan, cooking oil, meal, and such.
OH, I NEVER CAUGHT A SINGLE WICHITA SPOTTED BASS – MICROPTERUS PUNCTULATUS WICHITAE! I “heartbrokenly” arrived at the conclusion that I agreed completely with the findings of the 1979 study which opined that the Wichita “spots” were probably extinct. I had tried my best stream fishing techniques in the most likely segments of West Cache Creek (where they had been collected back in the 1920’s) without catching or sighting even a single Wichita spotted bass!
The following excerpts are from the “FISH POPULATION STUDY OF WEST CACHE CREEK WITH EMPHASIS ON SEARCH FOR THE WICHITA SPOTTED BASS, MICROPTERUS PUNCTULATUS WICHITAE” (1979) by Kenneth D. Cook, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation–which is available online at http://digital.library.okstate.edu/oas/oas_pdf/v59/p1_3.pdf
“…This study was initiated to determine the status of the Wichita spotted bass, Micropterus punctulatus wichitae, last collected in West Cache Creek, Oklahoma in 1928. West Cache Creek on the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge was sampled with seines, electrofishing, rotenone, and hook and line in an attempt to collect specimens of the Wichita spotted bass. A total of 98 bass were collected, none of which were identified as the target subspecies. It was determined that the Wichita spotted bass is probably no longer present in the area. Other species collected are listed… ” “…The bulk of the samples were collected from an area below Camp Boulder on the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge known as the ‘narrows’, which is a stretch of West Cache Creek bounded on both sides by precipitous rock walls and ledges. There are several relatively deep pools in the area which historically contain water even during the worst drought conditions. It was felt that this area would be the most likely area in which the subspecies could have survived since its last collection. The creek bed below the ‘narrows’ lies on a gravel substrate and often is dried up during summer months, and therefore could have acted as a survival barrier downstream. Several dams have been built upstream from Camp Boulder, which effectively blocked upstream migration… ” “…It is believed that a thorough search was made of the area on West Cache Creek wherein the greatest likelihood of the presence of the Wichita spotted bass existed. The large numbers of largemouth bass collected would tend to indicate that the available habitat was well sampled… ” “…The ecology of the area has been significantly affected by construction of several dams on West Cache Creek above the sampling sites and by historically lowering ground water levels. Due to these and other less understood factors, it is believed that the Wichita spotted bass no longer exists in West Cache Creek. The largemouth bass has been apparently better able to adapt to the prevalent conditions of the watershed and has replaced completely the Wichita spotted bass from its formerly occupied niche… ” “…A total of 53 largemouth bass was collected with hook-and-line techniques. They ranged from 127 to 483 mm in total length. These fish were well distributed throughout the sample area… ”
“Ocklawahaman” Note: 483 mm equals approximately 19 inches in total length.
In 1995, many years after my last Oklahoma fishing trip, it was scientifically determined that the “extinct” Wichita spotted bass had actually been some type of hybridization between introduced smallmouth and spotted bass. This determination is described in the “INVALIDATION OF THE WICHITA SPOTTED BASS, MICROPTERUS PUNCTULATUS WICHITAE, SUBSPECIES THEORY” (1995) by Larry M. Cofer. It is available at http://www.jstor.org/pss/1446918 with more spotted bass subspecies data at http://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?SpeciesID=397.
I never fished East Cache Creek at all during my time in Oklahoma but I did fish parts of Medicine Creek, inside Fort Sill, a couple of times. Medicine Creek did produce numbers of “muddy-colored” largemouth and spotted bass for me up to maybe 13 inches maximum. I now wish that I had taken some clear photographs of what were most likely ordinary “Kentuckies” (northern spotted bass) from that alluvial-tinted Medicine Creek.
Several times I fished Lake Lawtonka, a large man-made impoundment of Medicine Creek outside of both Fort Sill and the Refuge, which provided me with buzzbait/spinnerbait catches of: largemouth bass, northern spotted bass, white bass, and walleye (I’ve never hooked walleye anywhere else). The Lake Lawtonka tailrace (Medicine Creek) gave-up the only freshwater drum that I’ve ever caught. Lawtonka’s waters are very deep and rocky. This reservoir produced a state record largemouth in 1983 (the record stood till 1987) and was stocked with smallmouth bass in 1990. Will there be any reported smallmouth bass x spotted bass hybridization in the lake or Medicine Creek below the dam? Maybe a new version of the Wichita spotted bass? Only time will tell!
My highly treasured memories of fishing Oklahoma’s magnificent Blue River for largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass along with rainbow trout just may be the subject of a future “Riverbassin” article by “yours truly”. I also caught hundreds of various sunfish plus even some channel and flathead catfish from that superb stream. Blue River definitely was a “keeper” and it probably still is OK!
Over and out for now,
“Ocklawahaman” Paul Nosca