Life in a wheelchair always seems easier at this time of the year for Ray Austin.
Austin, 56, was partially paralyzed when he fell 30 feet from a tree stand in 1992. But he hasn’t let his disability keep him from participating in the two outdoors sports he loves — fishing and hunting.
He runs a popular guide service on Grand Lake and looks forward to the spring months when the large reservoir in Northeast Oklahoma shows off. Grand is nationally known for its giant paddlefish and white bass. And Austin is among the many who get spring fever once those species start their spawning runs up tributaries each March.
“This is the time of the year when everything breaks loose,” said Austin, who runs Austin’s Fishing Adventures guide service. “People know winter is over once the spoonbill (paddlefish) and white bass make their runs.
“We can’t wait for March to get here," he added.
It is especially welcome for Austin, who is recovering from a surgery related to his paralysis. He is ready to get back in the boat and transport customers to the fish.
“It’s a challenge,” he admitted. “I need an able-bodied deckhand to launch the boat and help me get in there with my wheelchair. But I call the shots on the fishing part of it. I joke with people who help me that I’m the brains of the operation.”
Austin generally caters to paddlefish snaggers in March and waits for the white bass to finish spawning and return to the main lake before he starts chasing them.
He keeps track of the three key ingredients that trigger the big fish to move upstream — water temperature, length of day and inflow.
When all three line up, he knows it’s time to go snagging.
“The smaller males are the first ones to show up. They’re like a bunch of teenagers. They show up early and just wait for the girls to join them,” Austin said. “The bigger females won’t move up until the water is in the mid-50s.
“That’s when you can snag the big ones. A 50-pound fish is no big deal at Grand.”
Austin’s personal best weighed 87 pounds. But he knows there are bigger ones out there. Much bigger ones.
A 121-pound paddlefish was snagged in 2018 — a lake record for rod and reel fishing. And a 134-pound fish was landed on a trotline in 1992 — a lake record for that type of fishing.
“Grand has some monsters,” Austin said. “The biggest ones are the barren sows that we’ll catch in deep water in February.
“We’ll snag big spoonbill in water as deep as 60 to 70 feet.”
Unlike Missouri, which has a designated season for paddlefish snagging, Grand Lake is open year-round. However, fishermen are limited to only one fish per day and two annually.
That means there is a lot of catch-and-release snagging. It can be grueling, frustrating work. But when the paddlefish make their run up the Neosho River, they attract a crowd of fishermen.
“It’s just getting good now,” said Austin, who lives in Bella Vista, Arkansas. “We have good flow, and the fish are starting to move.
“The past four or five years, the prime didn’t come until April 1. But it’s earlier this year.”
Likewise, the white bass is on the move, too. Fishermen are using everything from suspending stick baits to plastic grubs to jigs to catch stringers of the hard-fighting game fish.
But for as good as it is now, the fishing will get even better later in spring, Austin said.
“In May, the whites will come out of the rivers and they’ll go on a feeding spree. They just tear into the shad,” Austin said. “I’ll do some trips when they’re running, but it’s just unbelievable in May.
“If you can push a button (on a reel), you can catch fish. You just drop a jigging spoon down there on a flat when they’re bunched up, and you’ll get a hit before it even hits the bottom.”
Image credit: Photo by Author