Oklahoma!

Oklahoma!

The bass bite best when there are tornadoes around...

  • By: John Gierach
You naturally compare everywhere to home as a way of getting your bearings. Some say that's why we travel in the first place: to see how other places are different and then have the satisfaction of finding our way back. Osage County, Oklahoma, is roughly 600 miles from where I live in the foothills of northern Colorado. To get there you drive east and south on interstates, state highways, paved and gravel county roads, and then two-rut dirt tracks to finally reach the fishing. You can do it in just under 12 hours if you don't dawdle, break down or hit weather.The countryside changes gradually on the long drive from the Rocky Mountains as you simultaneously lose altitude and latitude until you're finally in a new kind of place altogether: a place far from small, cold trout streams and pine trees, where there are yellow-billed cuckoos in the trees and scissor-tailed fly catchers on the telephone wires, and where the regional hazards include buffalo mites, chiggers, water moccasins and twisters. There's even a different dialect of the same language, with a few unfamiliar expressions and a hard drawl-part southern, part western. It's entirely understandable with only the odd misunderstanding, as when a man talked about the fine new tires he had on his land. Turns out he meant "towers"-elevated stands for deer hunting. In the first full week of May, Oklahoma was a good six weeks ahead of Colorado. The grass was already tall and lush. Hardwood trees were fully leafed out and had gone from the pale chartreuse of new growth to the hard green of mature leaves. The air was warm and humid and downright hot the few times the sun came out and the wind died. It was an unsettled spring at the height of bass, panfish and tornado season. I was fishing with three locals: Steve, Dennis and Gene. I'd met them a few months earlier when they came to Colorado to talk to Mike Clark, the bamboo rod maker. We'd hit it off, agreeing about bass, bluegills, bamboo fly rods and few other things. I'd picked their brains about rumors of good warm-water fly-fishing in Oklahoma that was largely unknown outside the state, and they'd invited me down to fish with them. It was as painless as that. It turns out the rumors were pretty much true. This is rolling, mostly open country with scattered hardwood groves in the low spots, and the occasional hill high enough to offer a big view. There are a few large, public reservoirs and hundreds of smaller, more obscure ranch ponds, many hidden in draws a long way from public roads. It seems as though every likely looking gully has been dammed for reasons anyone with thirsty cows or a fishing pole can understand. Some ponds are fairly new or newly dredged out, others are so old the dams were built by hand with the help of mules and the banks have softened and gone wild. The limestone geology makes the ponds as weedy and rich in bugs as English chalk streams and virtually all of them have been stocked with largemouth bass, panfish and sometimes catfish. Like much of the rural Midwest, a lot of the fishing here is beyond the reach of an outsider. You'd have to brazenly trespass to even find most of the ponds, and then look longer and harder to locate someone to ask for permission to fish. Even then, a moderately reasonable landowner could glance at your dopey fishing hat and out of state plates and politely say no. It's not exclusionary like a private spring creek-fences and gates are there to keep cattle in, not to keep fishermen out-it's just that the water is there for who it's for, while the rest of us are out of the loop. It's always been like that. It's nothing personal. My benefactors had access to some of this stuff by virtue of being local fishermen and therefore part of the web of friendship, business, sport and family history that makes a rural community coherent. I was along for the ride and only got hints of it all in the course of things. For instance, Dennis was part of a lease on a big handful of good ponds that was amazingly cheap: less per year than you'd pay for a single day of guided float fishing on a Western trout river. (Everyone admires good fishing, but here the big bucks go for rights to hunt white tailed deer, wild turkeys and quail.) And Steve used to run a local funeral home, so, as he put it, he had buried many old ranchers and now fishes with permission from their widows and children. Our mornings would begin with a stop at the warehouse. These guys are serious fishermen and they had all reached the point where they had more gear than their houses would hold and their wives would tolerate, so they'd gone together and rented a small old industrial building down by the tracks where they stored an impressive collection of fishing tackle, trailered boats, float tubes, pontoon boats, waders, flippers, cases of bottled water and I don't know what all else. Leaning against one wall was a handsome wood coffin with brass fittings, presumably a leftover of Steve's that might eventually come in handy. Then we'd head to a cafe with a dirt parking lot full of pickups where the food was good and cheap and there was lots of it. The pickups were well used and the bumper stickers were religious, patriotic or both. Inside, one of the locals wore a triple-X-large size T-shirt that said, "Holy Cow Beer: Helping Ugly People Have Sex for Over 20 Years." We spent our days pond-hopping, fishing from float tubes and pontoon boats because those were all we needed on the small ponds and because there were no boat ramps anyway. The wind blew constantly, which sometimes made casting and paddling a belly boat difficult, but the weather was warm and humid, the water was choppy enough to cover your cast, and the sky was usually cloudy, which is known to be a prescription for good fishing. My friends said the bass fishing was actually a little slow, probably because spring itself had come on a little late that year. There were stories of bass weighing eight or nine pounds coming from these ponds, but I knew what that meant. I had recently told someone that a certain small stream near home held brown trout to 16 inches, but I failed to mention that I had caught precisely one trout of that size on the rare perfect day after 30 years of hard fishing. It's true there were some dead spells (when are there not dead spells in fishing?) but we caught bass every day, sometimes pretty nice ones weighing a few pounds. Some came to the big deerhair diving frogs I like, but the boys were doing better on smaller flies, so I switched. I think it's to my credit that I'm now usually unaware of competition with other fishermen when I'm up. When I'm down, I'm aware of it only in the most neutral sense: That guy is catching more fish than I am. It looks like fun. I'd like to catch more fish, too. Plus, a stranger who doesn't try to copy what the locals are doing probably has too much to prove for his own good. It was when I changed to another favorite, a size 8 cork pencil popper that I see as a cross between a baby frog and a dragonfly, that I started getting into the big sunfish. As it turned out, the panfishing was exceptional. There were white crappies, black crappies, bluegills, green sunfish, bluegill/green hybrids, rock bass, red ears and long ears. They came in the usual wide range of sizes, but the biggest were close to a pound: a big handful side on and wide across what pass for shoulders on a fish. Dennis said the biggest fish were all green/bluegill hybrids, and that's what I thought, too, but I have to say that when sunfish start to cross breed, my identifications can get foggy. They were mostly dark greenish bronze overall with a slight iridescent cast that doesn't show up in the snapshots. Some shaded to pale yellow on the bellies, but others didn't. The fins on some were a plain clear olive while others had muddy yellowish or orange margins, but they all had those midnight blue, thumb-shaped gill flaps that gave them the name bluegill. A few of mine came from open water, but the rest were in potholes in the thick weeds closer to shore where you'd look for bass. I got some bass in this stuff, too-since they liked the smaller bugs anyway, and in the first few seconds of a fight-before he snarled you in weeds and you had to go dig him out-the biggest bluegills felt the same as bass weighing three times more. In open water I could tell the difference. With room to move, a sunfish planes strongly off at an angle like a lop-sided saucer. At its best, it's like trying to land a Frisbee sideways. A few days into it I figured out that the bass would bite best when there were tornadoes around, and that happened often that week. One day, something like 80 tornadoes tore through the countryside (a new record, they said). There were enough that if you stood in one spot all day, you'd eventually see one; if not the funnel itself, then at least the black wall of the cell that spawned it. The weather that whole week was a constant buzz. Every radio or TV I came close to was tuned to weather, and apparently the coverage was wall to wall. There were detailed forecasts; weather maps showing bright, multi-color blobs marching across the state; film clips of wreckage; interviews with survivors. In the evenings you'd read about the weather in the newspaper. Driving out to fish, Steve had recordings from the National Weather Service on his short wave. As if all that weren't enough, you could also spend an inordinate amount to time staring at the sky. On the stormiest afternoon, we were fishing a beautiful big pond with lots of flooded timber. To get there we'd gone off-road on faint tire tracks and then off off-road to bounce down a long hill in low range 4-wheel. You had to think the place hadn't been fished much. The wind was whipping and the sky was dark, but we were accustomed to that and had gotten used to cutting it close. I had paddled up a flooded creek mouth with lots of cover and was getting bass or missing strikes often enough to keep my attention off the weather. By then I'd learned that when things got this threatening I should switch back to the size 4 deerhair bug because the bass that had been fastidiously sipping little poppers on a faint twitch would now suddenly want something big and juicy and moving fast. Maybe they thought it could be their last meal. Of course this wasn't a complete surprise. A friend once asked me why I keep going into tornado country during tornado season. I had to say it's because that's when the bass are biting. But finally I could no longer deny that the air had turned a sort of sickly green color, the sky was black and the thunder had not only gotten closer and louder, but the rumbles had run together into a constant roar that sounded like a jet engine. We got out of the water, threw our stuff in the two pickups and dashed for the main road as well as you can dash on two faint tire tracks through the grass. Steve's short wave crackled with static and I couldn't make out what was being said, although the computer-generated robot voice sounded reassuringly calm. Sheets of rain and hail hit us before we made the gravel road, but the ground didn't get too slippery to stop us. A few miles farther on, the sun broke out as if nothing had happened. Steve called home on his cell phone to see if everything was okay. It was. We learned later that that particular tornado had passed over Fairfield Lake a half-mile away where a man named Jamie Flagler was fishing alone. We talked to him at a restaurant the next night and he still seemed shaken, his eyes darting around the room as if he expected another tornado to come through a window. He said he had also stayed on the water too long, but when he saw the funnel coming toward him across the small lake, he drove his boat full speed onto the bank and dove into a ditch, where he held onto handfuls of grass and chanted "Oh my God, oh my God" as the storm passed over him. His boat was dinged up, but he wasn't hurt except for a bruise where he'd landed on a rock when he dove into the ditch. He said he also remembered the bass biting like crazy, right up until the moment he saw the funnel come over the dam. That night we drove into Ponca City to eat dinner at a sports bar, and as we drove through the town's wet streets I noticed once again how many churches there were. There seemed to be one or two on every block. There are as many churches here as there are restaurants in Boulder, Colorado, where a food critic for the Daily Camera once said that if every man, woman and child in town decided to go out for dinner at the same moment, there'd be seats for all of them. But then it may not be entirely coincidental that Tornado Alley is also the Bible Belt.