The Lower Illinois River is a popular destination for many Oklahomans. Its refreshing waters are a magnet for tubers on hot summer days, trout anglers all year, and serious striper fishers looking for the next state record.
The river’s waters come from the bottom of Lake Tenkiller, so they’re always a crisp 60 degrees (and at times crystal clear) and run for nearly eight miles until it enters the Arkansas River.
The river’s water temperature is cool enough for trout survival, unlike most Oklahoma rivers and lakes that become inhospitable to trout for much of the year.
Lower Illinois River Fish Species
Besides the relief of cold water on a hot summer’s day, the river offers excellent fishing opportunities.
It’s known among anglers for having some of the best trout and striper fishing in the state, but there are many other species to be caught. If it’s in Tenkiller Lake, it’s likely in the Lower Illinois River.
What follows are my best tips to catch trout, striped bass and other game fish on the Lower Illinois.
The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC) regularly stocks rainbow trout in the river because they are a non-native fish species that offers excellent angling opportunities.
These popular fish get their name from their beautiful rainbow-colored skin. Most rainbows caught here will be 10-15 inches long, but they can grow much larger.
A popular way to catch rainbow trout is by fly fishing, but there are many other baits and artificial lures that will catch trout, including PowerBait, inline spinners and worms.
Wading is the most common way to catch rainbows, but I love using a kayak or canoe to reach stretches of water most others can’t go while wading.
You have to use light tackle when trout fishing because they have excellent eyesight, so they can see your line and hook if they’re too big.
Rainbow trout are incredible table fare when you wrap them in aluminum foil and bake them, but beware of the bones because they’re small and can be easily overlooked.
ODWC also will stock the Lower Illinois River with brown trout when they are available, but this is much less consistent than the rainbow trout stocking.
Brown trout can be caught using similar techniques, but they do tend to feed more heavily on other fish, which makes minnow-imitating crankbaits and similar lures effective at times.
The Lower Illinois is one of just two year-round trout fisheries in the state. The other is Lower Mountain Fork River, and both tailwater streams found a spot on our run-down of the best trout fishing areas in Oklahoma.
If you’d like to up your game, check out our simple-to-use trout fishing techniques that work across the United States.
Also keep in mind that there are special trout regulations governing these fisheries in Oklahoma.
Another fish species not native to Oklahoma waters is the striped bass. They were introduced by the Wildlife Department when they discovered striped bass could thrive in Oklahoma waters.
Striped bass are white with thin black stripes, growing to over 50 pounds given the perfect conditions, but 10-pounders and smaller fish are most commonly caught. As of this writing, the state record striped bass was caught in the Lower Illinois River in the 1990s.
You’ll need heavy-duty fishing gear to land one of these fish. Many anglers use trout swimbaits, cut bait, or live bluegill to catch striped bass, which feed primarily on smaller fish. Some anglers use actual trout caught in the river to try to tempt a monster striper into striking.
The best fishing for stripers happens south of the Marval campground, but they are also caught below the Tenkiller dam. Using a boat to reach the best striper spots is easiest, but there are many locations to fish for them from the bank.
Raise your odds with our top techniques for freshwater striper fishing.
Oklahoma’s state fish, the white bass, are some of the hardest fighting fish for their size. They’re related to striped bass but don’t get nearly as big, so you won’t need such heavy-duty gear to catch them.
I often accidentally catch these true bass, often locally known as sand bass or sandies, when targeting trout with an inline spinner. Spoons, spinners and lipless crankbaits are three of the best lures for sand bass.
White bass are a schooling fish, so if you catch one, there are likely a few more in the area.
Find the best white bass fishing in Oklahoma.
Largemouth bass are not the target species of most anglers on the Lower Illinois River. However, if you’re fishing for striper with spoons or crankbaits or using a shiny lure for trout, you might catch one from time to time.
I’ve never caught a big largemouth here, but I know there are big bucket mouths in Tenkiller Lake, so there’s at least a chance for a big bass in the stream below.
If you’re targeting largies, I recommend using a crankbait, plastic worm, or spinner bait. Look for current breaks, such as behind rocks or trees or where the river makes a sharp bend.
If you want to catch more of these fish, which are among the most popular game fish around, check out the best bass fishing lakes in Oklahoma as well as our easy guide to top bass fishing techniques and tips.
The other black bass fairly common to Oklahoma, smallmouth bass are better suited to thrive in the Lower Illinois River than largemouth. They’re abundant in the Upper Illinois River, so it makes sense that they’re also in the lower.
Smallmouths are more abundant in rivers in many places and they thrive in current better than their big-mouthed cousins.
I haven’t caught any big smallmouths in the Lower Illinois, but I’m sure there are a few big brown fish swimming in the river.
Using smaller lures will be the best approach to catching smallmouth. Ned rigs, small spoons and crankbaits are three effective lures for smallmouth. A Whopper Plopper or other top water lure is good to throw along the calm stretches of the river.
The bass fishing tips listed in the largemouth section just above will also get you into some big smallmouth bass, which are some of the best fighters pound-for-pound you will ever hook in freshwater.
Bluegill & Sunfish
When throwing a small spoon or Rooster Tail, I always catch bluegill and sunfish on accident.
These are fun fish to catch because they’re not picky about baits.
Live worms work best when targeting these panfish, but they’re aggressive and will hit anything they think they can get their mouth on, even lures bigger than them!
This is a great way to introduce kids to fishing because you can quickly catch several once you’ve found them.
Look for bluegill and sunfish in current breaks along the shoreline. They stay shallow to avoid the large predators.
If you see a blue heron walking along the bank, chances are it’s hunting bluegill or sunfish, and that’s a good place to begin fishing.
Find more tips and tricks to catching bluegill and other sunfish in our simple guide.
Channel catfish are abundant in the river. Many of the catfish here are not big enough to eat, but I have caught some that were table worthy.
I typically catch them accidentally when using a small spoon for trout, but live earthworms and other natural baits work great if you’re targeting catfish.
Find the deep holes above and below the ripples, and you’re bound to find a catfish or two.
I don’t use heavy-duty fishing gear when I catch catfish here, but if I were fishing closer to the navigational channel, I would consider using bigger equipment.
If you really love catfish fishing (and what kind of Oklahoman doesn’t?), check out my list of the very best catfishing lakes and rivers in the state.
Lower Illinois Fishing Tips
The Lower Illinois is a unique fishery in eastern Oklahoma, so you shouldn’t approach it the same as every other area you fish. However, if you use the following tips, you’ll be better prepared to catch more fish.
When to Fish
Most fish won’t bite when they’re running lots of water out of the dam, so if the river is flowing strong, chances are the fish aren’t biting.
I’ve had the best luck in the morning during the summer. During the fall and winter, anytime they’re not generating power is good because the water will be cold no matter what time of day it is.
Where to Fish
There are a few public access areas to fish that offer excellent opportunities for anglers of all skill levels.
Look for deeper holes above and below the ripples, eddies, big rocks and trees blocking the current, as most fish respond to cover to get out of the current or to ambush their next meal.
Tips & Tactics
Many anglers on the Lower Illinois are willing to give advice on what the fish are biting that day, so don’t be afraid to make new friends.
I have yet to go to the river and not catch fish using a Super Duper, which is a U-shaped lure. I love to throw the silver with a red tip, but I’ve also caught them using the rose gold color.
Most of the time, the water is crystal clear, but sometimes if they’ve been running a lot of water through the dam, it will become stained. You still should use light line and light fishing gear if you’re targeting trout, but try out some other colors to increase your lure’s visibility.
You’ll need heavy-duty fishing gear if you’re targeting stripers or giant catfish.
Planning Your Trip
I visit the Lower Illinois River multiple times a year because I can take advantage of the great fishing while there are things to do for everyone in the family.
Getting to the Lower Illinois River
The Lower Illinois is a little over an hour driving southeast from Tulsa and over two hours heading east from Oklahoma City.
The best way to get to the Lower Illinois is through the town of Gore on Highway 100. You can go onto several county roads from the highway that will take you to public access points.
There are several public fishing spots with bank access.
However, be prepared to get in the water because the best fishing is accessed by wading or boat.
There is a boat ramp at Gore Landing where you can put a boat on the river, but to go very far up the river, you will need a jet boat.
If you’re kayaking, I recommend parking a car at Gore Landing, then taking the kayaks to the dam with your other vehicle and floating back to the one you left at Gore Landing. It’s about a six-hour float full of fun and fish.
Camping & Accommodations
Marval Resort is a private campground with cabins and RV and tent sites on the river. They’ve got a lot of activities for kids and adults. I have enjoyed many summer vacations here.
Tenkiller State Park also has camping available. This is another park I’ve spent a lot of time at, and I really enjoyed hanging out at the lake and heading to the Lower Illinois River to fish.
Greenleaf State Park is another campground nearby with many activities for kids and adults. Options include hiking, swimming, boating, mini-golf and a nature center.
More: Be sure to read my Complete Guide to Tenkiller Ferry Lake Fishing.