My entire career as a fisherman has been spent almost exclusively in pursuit of two popular Oklahoma game fish: bass and catfish. Bass are my number one target, and fishing for them can be very technical. Catfish are more simple: put something revolting on your hook, and put it on the bottom of the lake.
Since my college years, however, I have grown increasingly interested in a non-native fish that can be found in a handful of waters in our state: trout. For one thing, trout fishing picks up in the winter, when other fishing slows down. It seemed like a natural avenue to explore. The following story is one of fascination, despair, and eventual triumph. Yes, it was that dramatic.
Chapter One: The fly fishing fiasco
I honestly cannot recall how and why trout fishing first caught my attention, but I somehow got the wild idea that I should go fly fishing for trout on the Lower Illinois River. It’s a beautiful stretch of water just below Lake Tenkiller (one of my favorite places in the state), and it’s now stocked year-round with rainbow trout (browns are also stocked, when available). My dad had made the mistake of casually mentioning that he used to fly fish, so I recruited him into my mission. A little bit of back story here: my dad tried to get me into fishing when I was young, but it didn’t quite work out…mainly because I hated it. The fact that I got him to agree to go with me on this trip was somewhat of a miracle, especially after I later convinced him to fry up a drum that I passed off as a smallmouth. Long story.
Anyway, I talked Dad into a spring break fishing trip. We set up camp at Lake Tenkiller, then drove down to the river and got started. Fish were hitting the surface all over the place. Unfortunately, Dad couldn’t get any bites and I had no idea what I was doing with a fly rod. We gave up pretty quickly and went back to the lake, where the drum incident took place. I’ll tell that story some other time.
I came away with two conclusions: fly fishing is stupid, and trout aren’t worth the trouble.
Chapter Two: More encounters
Over the following years, I had an occasional brush with the elusive trout: a huge brownie swam past my kayak on our honeymoon, and I made a failed attempt at a stocked pond in Oklahoma City.
I finally started catching trout when I went with the church youth group to summer camp in Missouri. The ponds there are stocked with big, aggressive bass and trout, and I’ve caught plenty of both over the years, and it was there that I first suffered at the hands (fins?) of a rainbow trout.
I’m used to landing largemouth bass: get them close enough, grab them by the mouth, and you’re in the drivers seat. With trout, that isn’t quite the case. They are an extremely strong and slippery fish, and getting them to shore is only half the battle. One particular fish stands alone in my memory. I had caught him on a small crankbait with two treble hooks. As I attempted to remove the lure from his mouth, he gave one shake of his head and buried the hook in the my thumb, well past the barb. With the help of another counselor, I managed to cut away the rest of the hook. I dropped kicked the trout back into the pond (I know, it was wrong of me), and headed to the camp nurse. What happened there was the stuff of nightmares, but I survived.
I came away with another conclusion: trout are the manifest spawn of Satan, and they still weren’t worth the trouble.
Chapter Three: Success!
I finally started catching Okie trout in February of 2016. We were on a trip to Beavers Bend State Park, home to the premier trout stream in Oklahoma and our state-record brown trout. While my family napped, I dropped an earthworm in just below some rapids on the Lower Mountain Fork. A few minutes later, I landed my first trout in Oklahoma. I caught a total of two or three, and they were small. Still, it was a proud moment.
After a long spring and summer of bass fishing, I decided to take another crack at trout. This time, I chose a much closer location. Rainbow trout are stocked through the winter in Lake Watonga, at Roman Nose State Park, and it is believed that some even survive through the summer there (most stocked trout die during the hot months, with a few exceptions). Shortly after stocking began in early November, I made the relatively short drive to Watonga and spent the morning fishing. People in my vicinity caught a few, but I went home empty-handed. I began to question the sanity of trout fishing once again.
On the day before Thanksgiving, I decided to try one more time. My friend Phil and I went back to Watonga, and it looked like we were going to have another pointless day on the water. We got bored, threw out our gameplan, and started fishing with spinners and spoons…and that actually worked. We each caught a keeper, which was my best day of trout fishing in Oklahoma so far. I took them home and grilled them up (see the recipe below) and officially decided that trout are worth the trouble after all.
I decided to see if my good day was a fluke, so on the day after Christmas I returned to Lake Watonga with Nick and Tyler Baker. They were experienced in trout fishing in California and New Mexico, which proved to be the game-changer. Nick tipped me off on the bait that the fish could not resist, and I’ll take the name of that bait to my grave. Within fifteen minutes, Nick landed the biggest fish of the day, and we ended up with seven keepers between us (by the way, if you put a trout on your stringer or in your basket, you can’t throw it back; choose wisely).
In 2017, I continued my hot streak. I managed to land a keeper at Robbers Cave State Park, and I almost hit my limit two days in a row at Beavers Bend. My Okie trout curse is finally at a merciful end.
Grilled Stuffed Trout
When you finally get your own trout, give this recipe a try:
Trout (gutted, cleaned. Head can stay on for decoration)
Salt and pepper
1. Rub fish inside and out with oil and season with salt and pepper
2. Layer basil leaves and thinly sliced lemons, onion, and tomatoes inside the fish. I like to throw in a few pats of butter for extra flavor. Don’t overstuff. I like to sautee leftover stuffing as a topping.
3. Truss up the fish with string and snip off loose ends. If you like bacon, lay a slice lengthwise on each side of the trout before tying up.
4. Grill the fish over high heat on a well-oiled grate for 4-6 minutes per side. One trick to test for doneness is to insert a metal skewer into the thickest part of the trout for ~20 seconds. It should come out hot to the touch.
Oklahoma trout information/regulations: www.wildlifedepartment.com/fishing/trout-information