The biology of Tenkiller

The fishing isn’t exactly on fire at Tenkiller. We’ve seen and heard many theories about why. Wrong month, excessively hot temperatures, and high (now falling) water. That’s too bad, considering the fact this fertile lake supports healthy populations of largemouth, spotted and smallmouth bass. In fact, Tenkiller ranks as one of Oklahoma’s best smallmouth lakes, if not the best.

Those are facts shared with me by someone who should know. He is Gene Gilliland, B.A.S.S. Conservation Director and the former assistant chief of fisheries for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Gillland joined the department as a fisheries biologist in 1982.

According to Gilliland, smallmouth are native to this part of the state, and mostly in the presence of a stream-based strain. They never became established in area lakes, and the state stocked Tenkiller with smallmouth transplants from Tennessee only once, in 1981. Ironically, many of those transplants came from the lake I grew up on, which is J. Percy Priest Lake, located just outside of Nashville.

“The Tennessee fish adapted really well to Tenkiller because they were more lake oriented,” he said.

Very well, in fact Gilliland told me that Tenkiller produces 20-pound winning weights of smallmouth. Four pounders are common and 6-plus pounders are not uncommon. Some smallmouth caught here push the 8-pound mark. The winter fishing for smallmouth is excellent.

Gilliland also enlightened me on the background of the 16-inch minimum length limit for smallmouth and largemouth.

“The slot limit was put into effect in 1991 after studies showed us Tenkiller was a bass factory that was overproducing,” he said. “As anglers harvested fewer bass, we really started to see Tenkiller becoming overpopulated, and growth rates began too slow.”

He went on to explain the theory behind the slot was to encourage harvesting of fish below the 13-inch slot, to leave more food in place for the bigger fish to grow faster. Between the slot limit and a natural cycle of good and weak spawns the population grew in size.

“Instead of having good recruitments every year it’s helped balance things out,” he said.

He added, “Tenkiller is one of the few lakes in the state where we have over-wintering threadfin shad, so there is a really good forage base.”

What is more, Gilliland said most clubs use the 16-inch minimum length limit for their events.

“It takes 16-inch or longer fish to win tournaments under normal conditions.”