CANTON — Joe Myers smiled broadly as he stood on the bank of Canton Lake this week, pulling his fishing hook out of the mouth of a sand bass.
If Myers had tried to stand in the same spot a few years ago, he’d have been more than 10 feet under water.
For people like Myers, who enjoy fishing, or those who can’t wait to take their boat out on the lake, the arrival of Memorial Day weekend means the unofficial start of the state’s outdoor recreation season.
While officials at lakes across the state report a full range of activities will be available, such as boating and fishing, they sing a different tune when it comes to describing the water levels at those lakes.
Park managers in eastern Oklahoma report lakes with normal or above-normal water levels, while those on the western side of Interstate 35 point to the drought and its lingering effects.
Myers, of Crescent, has been coming to Canton Lake to fish off and on for about 25 years, he said. Although he’s watched the lake rise and fall over the years, the 71-year-old said he’s never seen water levels dip as low as they are now.
The water level at Canton Lake was nearly 13 feet below normal this week, leaving some boat ramps out of the water and buoys sitting on dry land.
At some lakes in eastern Oklahoma, the opposite is the case.
“We’re fortunate to have good lake levels,” said Jim Miller, park manager at Beavers Bend State Park in Broken Bow in far southeastern Oklahoma. “It’s really in good condition.”
Miller said Thursday the water level at Lake Broken Bow is three feet above normal, and RV sites and cabins are full as visitors prepare for the long weekend.
Lake Eufaula park manager Sue Hughart said that lake’s level also is above normal.
According to figures provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Eufaula was 0.3 feet above normal this week.
Hughart said the park’s RV sites would likely be full Thursday, and that officials are expecting a good crowd for the long weekend, noting how last May’s severe storms kept some Oklahoma City-area visitors from traveling to the park.
“I suspect we will have people who didn’t get to come last year,” she said.
Meanwhile, at Canton Lake, low levels have persisted since Oklahoma City officials drew 30,000 acre-feet of water from the lake in late January and early February 2013.
That water was meant to replenish the water supply at Lake Hefner, which was dwindling after two years of drought. That move came over the protests of Canton Lake-area residents, who asked city officials to wait until after spring rains ended to draw water.
Just weeks after that water release, Oklahoma City received torrential rains and flooding, sparking resentment among some people who use Canton Lake and depend on it for their livelihoods. Since then, several restaurants and retail shops in Canton have been forced to close.
Myers said he’s still angry about the move. Although he doesn’t live in Canton, he’s hunted and fished in the area for decades, and he said he thinks the town is in danger of drying up, just like the lake that shares its name.
“The town is about gone, and I don’t know that it will ever come back,” Myers said. “I hope that Oklahoma City can do something about their water problem, but I don’t know that they will.”
Compounding the problem is a crippling drought that is affecting all of western Oklahoma. According to a U.S. Drought Monitor report released May 15, the area upstream from Canton Lake, as well as the lake itself, are experiencing exceptional drought, the report’s most severe category.
Jeff Converse, president of the Canton Lake Association, said the low lake levels have already devastated the community, which relies on visitors’ dollars to survive.
About 300 people registered for the town’s annual Walleye Rodeo fishing tournament recently, Converse said. While that’s an improvement from the 175 entrants the tournament saw last year, it doesn’t compare to the 800 or so anglers the town generally expected in past years, he said.
Elsewhere, in southern Oklahoma, Lake Texoma’s water levels were nearly 9 feet below normal on Wednesday. Like at Canton Lake, many of Texoma’s boat ramps are out of the water. But J.D. Lyle, a fishing guide in Pottsboro, Texas, said the lack of water hasn’t affected the quality of fishing.
Over the past few weeks, Lyle said, he’s taken calls from regular lake visitors who have heard rumors that the lake is closed or isn’t usable.
Although the low water levels have exposed sand bars and islands in the middle of the lake that weren’t there before, the lake is still open to boating, he said.
Lyle said he’s concerned this year’s spawn could be affected. If that happens, it could mean fewer fish in the lake for years to come, he said.
But for now, he hasn’t seen much difference in quality of fishing.