Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees

This is the first time I’ve ever written about my time on Grand Lake in Oklahoma, but the lake was a big influence on me when it came to the outdoors and fishing. I can only guess that my dad must have had a profound love for Grand Lake, judging from all of our visits when I was a kid growing up. Later in life, he and my stepmother owned a home at the lake for over 20 years before moving to Texas. I wasn’t much older than 6-7 when I can first recall weekend trips and fishing the lake. Back then we would fish for catfish from the bank at our campsite when we weren’t out on the lake trolling for white bass with Roostertail’s. My dad had a cab-over Cameo camper on top of the bed of his pick-up truck and we would spend a lot of weekends on the lake during the summer months. It wasn’t much more than a 2-hour drive from the house to the campsite and usually my dad’s friends Gene and Charlotte would bring their camper with Gene’s aluminum boat in tow, and they would camp with us. Hanging out at the campsite and fishing around the shoreline would occupy my time during the day but the real fun was going out in Gene’s boat and trolling for white bass, usually in the mornings before the lake traffic and pleasure boater came out in full force. Trolling was usually good during the summer months and catching white bass was a fond memory I have of the lake. When we trolled, we would use a couple of Zebco rods with Zebco 33 reels, one protruding out of the gunnel at a 90-degree angle on each side of the boat, and each towing a Mepps type rooster tail, white with black dots. It had to be white with black dots. To this day, if I see a Roostertail that is white with black dots, my mind immediately goes back to Grand Lake in my younger years. Basically, we just put the motor at idle and moved around different areas of the lake until we ran across white bass and started catching them. We would concentrate on the areas we were having the best luck and using nothing but dead reckoning and reading shoreline to stay around the schools of white bass once they were found. In the mid to late 60’s there wasn’t a whole lot of electronics and depth finders were usually the anchor or dropping a weighed bait over the side to see how close we were to the bottom. Sometimes we would camp at the State Park on the lake and sometimes we would stay at the cabins at a place called “Blue Bluff Heights” (which is no longer there) or a place called “Blue Bluff Habor”, (which is still there from what I understand).

Staying at Blue Bluff Heights was pretty interesting as a kid. The owner was a Native American artist who not only ran the business, but also was a very talented painter and painted western type canvas art. He sold his paintings from time to time, and I can remember us buying a couple of the big paintings from the owner/artist. The most interesting part about staying at Blue Bluff Heights is the fact that it was at the top of a huge rock bluff at the lake and the drop had to be more than 60 feet. There was an elevator shaft from the top of the rock bluff down to a crappie house, and that’s what my dad and stepmother Kay liked to do when we didn’t camp at the park. We would stay at the cabins and crappie fish from the crappie house for the weekend. We would usually bring back a haul of crappie and throwing a fish fry was pretty common in our household. I don’t have any pictures of Blue Bluff Heights because it is long gone and the old owner that we became friends with died when he was struck by a winch and fell from the bluff and drown. It was a tragic ending for a great man a personal friend to our family. I can remember riding in that old rickety elevator down to the crappie house and you would have to stop the elevator manually before you got to the water or you would wind up with wet feet. It was an experience to get to the crappie house but once you got to the crappie house it was pretty cool. If you’ve never seen one, here’s a picture of the inside of a crappie house at Blue Bluff Harbor which was exactly like the one at Blue Bluff Heights. You can barely see a fisherman on the left edge of the picture. At times, when there was a good bite, there would be a few dozen anglers in the house fishing at once.

Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, for $10 per person you could sit inside the crappie house and fish all day. You could get 2-3 dozen minnows for another $10 and for a total of $20 you could bring home a pretty good mess of crappie if you knew what you were doing. It was heated in the winter and a window air conditioner ran during the summer, so it was pretty nice inside the floating house. There were two large square openings with seating all the way around the openings into the water. The depth of the water was around 20 feet and brush piles were stacked and added to regularly under the floating house. Some brush was on the bottom and some brush hung suspended from the crappie house. With all the brush and a great population of crappie on Grand Lake, the crappie houses were always a good place to fish. You just bought a few dozen minnows or just used crappie jigs and made a day of it. I can remember sitting in those seats for hours with my eyes glued on my rod tip waiting for it to bounce. It was always pretty comical to watch the older people catch crappie because they would somehow become youthful and giddy catching the fish. It was pretty close quarters inside the crappie houses, and you usually got to know the people around you during the course of the day. There we no secrets inside the crappie house and if one color or bait was working better than another, everyone knew it right away. There was always a certain smell inside the crappie house and it’s a smell very similar to the smell of bait or shad out on our own lake. I can only imagine the amount of bait around the brush piles below the crappie house and the fish eating the bait. I liked to go outside the crappie house and fish the exterior from time to time. You could either crappie fish or catfish from the outside and there was some bench seating around the outside for you to sit and fish from. Usually, I would take my old Zebco 202 and wrap a dough ball of catfish bait around a treble hook and fish the bottom for channel catfish to add to the crappie collection. Most folks kept their catch in fish baskets that were hung from the posts that surrounded the openings inside the house. I can remember watching as folks pulled their baskets up to put in a recent catch and the number of fish in the baskets was a good way to determine whether or not the fish were biting. It was always pretty cool for me to catch crappie as a kid inside the crappie houses and sometimes my grandparents would be there to join us for the fun. By the time I was 10-11 my dad and Kay bought a cabin on the Neosho River, and we went from camping and fishing at Grand Lake to setting trot lines and limb lines on the river just about every weekend.

There was a pause in my visits to Grand Lake in the early 70’s but in 1980 I took a job at a local grocery store in Miami, Ok. which was just a couple miles from the lake. I lived with a workmate in Miami and my roommate, and I met 2 sisters that were our age and their parent’s owned a very nice lake house. Their dad had a very successful dental practice, and they spent the school year at their home in Kansas City, but they spent their summers at the lake. We became good friends with the sisters and for one summer we stayed with them at the lake house and we water skied with their family boat in our off time from working at the grocery store. It was a fun summer and a summer I’ll never forget but a year later I joined the Navy and left the area for my new career in the Navy.

In the meantime, my dad and Clyde bought a little mobile home in a little lake community at Grand Lake and the lake was a short walk from their mobile home. They used it as a weekender from their main home in Tulsa, Ok. and when I came home on leave from the Navy my dad would take off work and we would stay at the lake and fish. There were times I would plan my leave from the Navy to coincide with the crappie spawn on the lake. My dad and Clyde lived just off the shores of Horse Creek and during the crappie spawn we would take their aluminum v hull up the creek to look for productive blowdowns where the crappie would spawn. It wasn’t uncommon for us to catch 30+ crappie in a trip and we tried to have a family get together and fish fry when I came home for leave in the spring. Once my dad retired from his job in Tulsa, they moved to the lake full time and replaced their old mobile home with a nice doublewide mobile home. I spent quite a few years visiting them and fishing on the lake while they lived there. My dad bought a very nice bass boat, and he tried his hand at bass fishing the lake for a few years, but it was tough for him, so he gravitated back to crappie fishing and he and Clyde used his bass boat for crappie tournament fishing before selling it when they started spending their winters in south Texas. I bought my dad’s aluminum v-bottom boat in the early 90’s and they sold their place at Grand Lake in the late 90’s, moving full time to south Texas. It probably been 30 years since I last fished Grand Lake and I may never fish it again in my lifetime, but I’ll never forget fishing the shores of the lake or trolling for white bass as a youngster on Grand Lake.


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