New Mexico's Fab 5 Bass Waters

Known for its superb trout fishing, the state of New Mexico offers surprising fishing opportunities for anglers hoping to hook a spunky largemouth or smallmouth bass!

By Lynn Burkhead

At first glance, the Land of Enchantment would seem to be something other than a paradise for anglers hoping to wet a hook for largemouth or smallmouth bass. But first glances can be deceiving.

While the state of New Mexico might not ever host the Bassmasters Classic, the state does offer some surprising opportunities for catching largemouth and smallmouth bass.

Take, for instance, the state's benchmark largemouth bass, checking in at nearly 16 pounds, or the best New Mexico smallmouth bass, a solid keeper weighing more than 6 pounds.

The guess here is that either of those fish would cause any angler to smile big, whether claiming the winner's check before the ESPN television cameras at the Classic or simply posing for a hero shot as a jealous fishing buddy snaps a quick photo.

Are such bass anomalies in New Mexico? Not according to the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish's Assistant Chief of Fisheries, Richard Hansen. But there are places for warmwater anglers to pursue their sport.

With Hansen's assistance, here are our picks for New Mexico's Top 5 bass waters.

BILL EVANS LAKE

When it comes to bass-fishing waters, bigger isn't always better. That's especially so if an angler wants to catch a largemouth bass that anglers will talk about around lakeside coffee shops for years to come.

And those are the kinds of largemouth bass that are occasionally reported from tiny 62-acre Bill Evans Lake, some 29 miles northwest of Silver City.

Doubt that claim? Then consider that New Mexico's benchmark bass, a 15-pound, 13-ounce largemouth, was pulled from this 4,700-foot elevation lake!

Why such big bass from a diminutive lake? "It stays pretty warm and it has good vegetation growth - those are the two big reasons right there," Hansen said.

And that's not to mention that the fish are genetically predisposed to growth.

"There are pretty good sunfish populations there and we stock trout in the wintertime, so there are plenty of groceries for these fish to eat," Hansen said.

A fairly shallow and stable water body, Bill Evans' big bass blitzes seem to come in cycles.

"It's a small lake, so a single year-class (of fish) can have a greater effect than on other much bigger lakes," Hansen said. "It's fairly cyclical in that lake. Every few years, we get a good year-class coming through. Right now, we're moving toward another big fish era because we have a strong age-class coming through.

"A previous (state) record was from there too, I believe," Hansen said. "Most all of our bass lakes (can) have double-digit fish of 10 pounds or more, but this one might be among the best."

CONCHAS LAKE

Fed by the Canadian River and located some 34 miles or so northwest of Tucumcari, Conchas is one of the state's biggest lakes, boasting a length of 25 miles and roughly 9,600-surface acres. What can anglers expect to find at the 4,200-foot elevation lake, which boasts a forage base of gizzard shad and sunfish?

While Hansen reports that anglers here shouldn't necessarily expect to challenge state-record bass marks, some quality fish can be found, along with good numbers of bass.

"You can expect to catch primarily smallmouths, with some largemouths thrown in," Hansen said. "It's a rocky lake with cliffs - it's in a canyon, so the sides are pretty steep. There are drop-offs, underwater ledges, humps, and that kind of thing."

Like many other New Mexico bass waters, however, there is a catch. Conchas has suffered by the recent drought. "It is somewhat prone to water-level fluctuations," Hansen admitted. "All of our lakes, to be honest, have taken a huge hit because of the drought. With a few exceptions, it has hit us hard."

As of press time earlier this year, Hansen said snowpack levels in New Mexico's high country were not high enough to warrant optimism for improving lake levels this year. But while Conchas and other Land of Enchantment waters may not rebound fully in 2004, eventually the state will receive much-needed moisture. When that happens, newly emergent vegetation on dry lake shorelines will be inundated, providing prime habitat for juvenile bass to thrive.

"It's been our observation that after a period of drought, when the lakes come back, they fish like gangbusters," Hansen said.

ELEPHANT BUTTE

New Mexico's biggest lake, the 4,500-foot elevation Elephant Butte is nearly 35 miles long and boasts about 36,500 surface acres. Accessed 5 miles northeast of Truth or Consequences, the state's most popular water recreation spot was created in 1916 with the damming of the Rio Grande.

As one might expect, Elephant Butte has quite a history of good fishing, thanks in part to a solid forage base of threadfin shad, gizzard shad and sunfish.

Despite the drought issues influencing the lake, it's that supply of groceries that allows Elephant Butte to enjoy a reputation for solid bass fishing action.

"It's hard to say if it's a quality or quantity lake since it's in flux, but I'd say that if I had to pick one, I'd go more toward quality," Hansen said.

"I'd say there is some size in there still, although the numbers have dwindled. If you'd like to catch a good fish in reasonable proximity to Albuquerque, this might be a spot to try."

The New Mexico assistant fisheries chief said that in addition to the lower lake's areas of deeper water and cliff habitat found near the dam, falling water levels are beginning to expose a lot of cottonwoods in the old river channel. That gives anglers a couple of key types of bass habitat to zero in on when they unload a bass boat into the waters of Elephant Butte.

"Historically, Elephant Butte has fished well for largemouths and smallmouths," Hansen said. "Right now, folks are still catching bass, although not like they used to. We've observed that the smallmouths are doing a little better than the largemouths in there right now. But when the lake level begins to come up, the fishing should improve."

NAVAJO LAKE

Mention Navajo Lake, some 25 miles east of Bloomfield, and most thoughts immediately turn to the cold water spilling forth from Navajo Dam into the trout-rich tailwater of the San Juan River. On the other side of the imposing dam is a sparkling 15,590-surface-acre aquatic jewel known for growing feisty smallmouth bass.

In fact, the state-record smallmouth, tipping the scales at 6 pounds, 14 4/10th ounces was pulled from this 6,100-foot elevation lake.

"This is generally a deeper lake with a lot of rocks, ledges and cliffs," Hansen said. "There are some largemouths in this lake in some of the shallower habitat around the rockslides on the upper end of the lake where it peters into the river, but primarily, this is a smallmouth lake."

While fair numbers of trophy smallies dine frequently on golden shiners, kokanee salmon, small crappie or even bass fry, Hansen said the lake also offers good quantities of smallmouths.

"I think it would be fair to say that this is the state's best smallmouth fishery," Hansen agreed.

UTE LAKE

The final entry in our Fab Five bass waters is a water body of some 7,400 surface acres downstream of Conchas Lake some 30 miles northeast of Tucumcari.

"It's on the Canadian and is a shallower lake than Conchas," Hansen said. "Anglers can key in more on vegetation and (rocky) structure here."

With a solid forage base of gizzard shad and sunfish, Hansen said that Ute Lake is a good choice for New Mexico anglers hoping to catch a quality largemouth bass.

"Our lower water reservoirs have pretty good growing seasons, so we have good bass growth in many of them," Hansen said. "It's a pretty fertile lake with good growth rates like Conchas. And there are some pretty good-size fish."

* * *

So what's the bottom line on bass fishing in New Mexico? For anglers willing to look past a first glance of arid landscapes and mountain trout streams, there is a solid supply of fabulous bass fishing to be found in the state.



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