Nevada's Bass Crown Jewels

Nevada's Bass Crown Jewels

Mead, Mojave and South Fork are the hotspots for big bass right now! (March 2009)

It was the perfect morning to be on the water. The cloud ceiling was low, and the air was calm and still.

Local bass pro John Hampel has 20-fish days catching smallmouths that average 3 pounds on South Fork Reservoir. Photo courtesy of John Hampel.

I knew it would only be a matter of time before the gurgling pitch of my 1/4-ounce buzzbait would be interrupted by a sudden flush. I had been there only a few minutes and had already witnessed several shad become a morning snack.

The resident bucketmouths were having their fill, and I hoped those locals would give a look at my white imitation bubbling across the surface.

As I eased towards the rocky point, I slung my buzzbait in its direction. Past experience had taught me that places like this are prime early-morning spots.

No sooner had my bait hit the surface and started gurgling in my direction that the expected happened.

My bait disappeared under the surface with a loud flush. A second later, my 14-pound-test tightened, and my All Star rod doubled over as I played the first surface slam of the morning, lipped her and then released her back from where she came.

That same scenario played out several times, and with each surface smash that morning, the largemouth residents seemed to add inches.

So began a perfect day of angling in the Southwest.

MAKING BASS HISTORY
In southern Nevada, tournament bass fishing was put in the spotlight in 1971 when Lake Mead hosted the first-ever BASS Masters Classic.

Bobby Murray won that historic event with 17 bass that totaled 43 pounds, 11 ounces. This winner-take-all-event netted him $10,000.

Although not known for spitting out monsters, Nevada does offer several quality warm-water fisheries with solid bass numbers, plus a few where your 12-pound mono could be tested.

In fact, Nevada's state-record bass weighed an even 12 pounds, and most resident anglers will tell you that record is due to be broken.

A NEW RECORD?
Where could the new state record come from? Three lakes would certainly be at the top of the list. All offer their own characteristics, from deep gin-clear water to shallow weed-infested bowls. But best of all, each one is loaded with bass, and your chance of possibly holding a 7-plus pounder -- and maybe the next state record -- is very real.

Here's a look at what each one has to offer this spring and how to take advantage of its feeding bigmouth residents.

LAKE MEAD
The first in this Triple Crown is Lake Mead. Just like during the days of the first BASS Classic, Mead is still producing record stringers for professional bass anglers.

Last August, the WON U.S. Open Bass Tournament was held here, the largest professional bass tournament west of the Rockies.

Over the three-day event, some 900 bass were weighed in, and in the end, Justin Kerr of Simi Valley, Cal., brought it home. His tournament-winning weight tipped the scales at 27.31 pounds.

Even more impressive is that all of the top 21 anglers all caught total weights of over 20 pounds. Bass are averaging 13 to 15 inches, with ones longer than 17 inches on the scales regularly. Without a doubt, Mead is one of Nevada's top bass fisheries.

Nevada Department of Wildlife fisheries biologist Jon Sojberg has been looking after the lakes in the southern region for years.

"Anglers are catching good numbers of bass," Sojberg said, "and the number of smallmouth bass being caught is on the rise, too." In fact, out of the 900 bass weighed in last August, some 300 were smallmouths. (Continued)

Sojberg said that smallmouths are more accessible because for the last few years, the lake has been more than 100 feet low. He also feels that tournament angling has helped distribute them throughout the lake -- and with smallies being more prevalent throughout the lake, he said, bass anglers have been more satisfied.

Although smallmouths have been the buzz lately, the largemouth population is also doing well. Back in 1999, Nevada's top largemouth was landed from within this sprawling 150,000-acre impoundment.

Though the lake has been down for the past several years, it hasn't had a negative effect on the numbers or sizes. In fact, despite the water level being low, the recent springs' spawns have been good.

Expect to see the positive effects from those spawns this season. Said Sojberg, "Mead has enjoyed good bass production the past few springs, so anglers should start having high catch rates."

But Mead can still be a tough lake to fish. Its deep, clear water and changing lake levels can put the bass on the move. At times, that makes them tough to pinpoint.

"Although Mead can be very tough," said pro bass angler Duane Dunstone, "it's that toughness that I love about the lake."

He insists that to be successful here, anglers need to understand Mead's bass and their habits -- and in order to do that, he suggests that anglers fish the lake consistently and "dissect" the lake, cove by cove.

You can take to heart what this bass pro said: He finished sixth in last year's U.S. Open, with a three-day catch weighing more than 23 pounds.

Another tactic for locating bigger bass is to consider what's in their diet, said Dunstone. Most anglers naturally gravitate towards the shad that bass are feeding on. Though you can easily find schools of bass gulping them down, Dunstone likes to take a different approach.

"I really focus a lot of my efforts in finding bass that are feeding on bluegills," he said. "Typically, these bass are of better quality, so I've really put a lot of effort into locating this type of feeding fish."

And with his success being measured in ounces, you can see why he looks for bigger bass.

What's unique about Mead is that the spawn can take place from early March to mid-May. You can expect to find largemouths in coves in fairly shallow water. Smallmouths will be found spawnin

g in 10 to 15 feet of water, typically on the lake's main points, so key in on these areas.

And since the water is gin-clear, sight-fishing for these bedded bass can be effective.

LAKE MOHAVE
Just a short drive to the south is Lake Mohave. Snaking its way along the Arizona state line, it offers visiting anglers some 30,000 surface acres and nearly 64 miles of clear water.

No rod-toting largemouth angler should overlook Mohave. In fact, this southwestern high-desert gem consistently spits out bigger bass, and more of them. And though many locals would like to keep the spotlight on Mead, Mohave's bass fishing is only getting better with age.

Need proof? Then consider a couple of bag limits that were brought to the scales just last spring.

Chris Hornbrook, American Bass regional tournament director, reported that in a one-day tournament he held in early spring, the top five-fish limit weighed nearly 19 pounds.

A WON Bass event held a few weeks later had a winning stringer of more than 18 pounds. Hornbrook said that once spring rolls around, weights like this are common in Mohave.

This self-described "Lake Mohave bucketmouth junky" has been slinging baits here for more than 30 years -- and considers Mohave to be the best bass lake on the Colorado River.

He admits a statement like that might raise a few eyebrows, but his proof is the quality bass the lake continues to produce.

"On a decent day on Mohave, a good angler will catch between 10 and 15 bass that will average 3 pounds," he said. "Even better is that a couple of them will be 4- to 5-pound kickers. Mead doesn't come even close to that."

NDOW fisheries biologist Mike Burrell has been keeping an eye on Mohave for nearly 25 years. He said its numbers of bass are not as strong as Mead's, but that Mohave definitely outproduces in overall weight.

On average, largemouths tend to be in the 2- to 3-pound range, and it's not uncommon for anglers to lip 5-pound toads. Burrell also said that he knows of several bass in the 7-to 8-pound range that have been hauled in from its clear waters in recent years.

If creel surveys are any indication, the overall bass population is also creeping up.

Even though Mohave is a top producer as far as quality goes, Hornbrook admits most anglers visiting Nevada get beat up on the lake.

"Mohave can be tough at times," he said. "To be consistently successful there, you really should spend a lot of time on the water to learn where the big bites live."

Being a tournament angler, he likes to hunt for bigger fish and tends to find them around the lake's underwater springs. Crayfish prefer the warmer water there, and the resident bigmouths like to gobble them up.

Another key to success on Mohave is presentation.

"Bass tend to suspend a lot in this lake," said Hornbrook, "so I like to fish the vertical edges along canyon walls."

Once he finds a wall that looks promising, he focuses his presentation in the dark pockets along the edge. In these situations, he likes to use spider jigs and tube jigs. Small diamond spinnerbaits can also be deadly in the right circumstances.

So where should you go to find the best prime places? Well, most seasoned Mohave anglers confess that the areas around Cottonwood Cove, in the middle of the lake, are your best bet.

The coves, points and canyon walls within a two- to three-mile range are usually about as far as you need to go to find some willing residents. And since it doesn't receive heavy angler pressure, lonely water is easy to find.

But some specific areas you might want to try that are popular spots among anglers are Arizona and Nevada bays.

SOUTH FORK
Rounding out this Triple Crown is a lake that lurks in the shadow of Mead and Mohave. But when you consider catch rates, consistency and overall quality, you might put this bass factory on the top of your to-do list this spring.

Located just a few miles from Elko, South Fork Reservoir is the region's bass-fishing jewel. It has just less than 2,000 surface acres at capacity and a maximum depth of nearly 70 feet.

This relatively young reservoir was built in 1988 as a boaters' and anglers' playground, not for irrigation, so its water level fluctuates only a few feet during the year.

According to NDOW fisheries biologist Chris Drake, South Fork is a very productive reservoir that consistently produces quality bass.

Both smallmouth and largemouth swim these waters, and some really big ones are living there.

On average, largemouths are in the 16-inch range, and smallmouths stretch the tape to 17 inches.

During a recent electro-shocking creel survey, largemouths up to 7 pounds floated up, and it wasn't uncommon to see 4-pound smallmouths either. Back in 1999, in fact, an 8-pound largemouth was captured, and in 2002, Nevada's current state-record smallmouth came out of here -- weighing 6 pounds, 4 ounces.

Drake knows of several other bigger ones caught during the catch-and-release-only season. Some would press the scales to 7 pounds, he said.

Needless to say, it's a good bet that the next state-record smallie will come from South Fork's rocky shores.

Local tournament angler John Hampel said that South Fork is the best smallmouth fishery he's ever fished, and he's fished them all over the country. He said that even though you're not going to catch a 7- or 8-pound smallmouth, it's not uncommon to have days of 20 fish and more, with them averaging 3 pounds.

And in terms of largemouths, Hampel said that South Fork is one of the most underrated lakes in the West. He said its largemouths don't come as easy as their smallmouth cousins, but do tend to be bigger.

"I've had days when the largemouths averaged 4 to 5 pounds," he said. "And over the past couple of years, I'll bet I've caught more than 40 that weighed 7 pounds."

Hampel is convinced that 10-pound-plus largemouths swim these waters. Don't bet your boat title that you'll catch one, but 5-pound bass are very common.

What makes South Fork such a mecca for quality fish? Both Drake and Hampel strongly agree it's the catch-and-release regulation that applies from March 1 through June 30.

Thanks to this, optimal production is reached during the spring spawn,

year after year. And after the catch-and-release period is over, anglers may keep only one largemouth or smallmouth; and it must measure at least 15 inches.

Now you can see why South Fork supports such a healthy population of bass!

Hampel fishes this lake regularly, and according to him, largemouths are found in weedbeds and flooded willows throughout the lake. One of the best spots is the weedbed west of Jet Ski Beach.

For spring smallmouth action, look for activity along the rocky shores. And don't be afraid to look shallow! After the spawn, you'll find bass on deep structure, like channels and rocky points.

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