The Southwestern states of Arizona and New Mexico are more than cactus and red rock. They are largemouth bass erupting from the water to slam a topwater bait. Read on for current information about still-water hotspots in both states, and maybe even pick up a tip about a sleeper lake that should be on your radar.
As the rain falls, so goes Arizona bass fishing. Arizona gets water from winter snowfall and the North American Monsoon System that officially runs from June 15 through Sept. 30. In a normal year, most of the summer rains hit the parched landscape in August. With a few notable exceptions, Arizona bass lakes have more water now than in the last couple of years. Some areas really got wet in June, while other adjacent areas fell behind. Bass fishermen should keep their fingers crossed for heavy winter snows.
Here’s one example of water level improvement. In 2011, water managers suspended draw on San Carlos Lake. In 2013, the lake was drained after suffering years of diminishing water inflows and remained closed in 2014. By 2016, water returned, as did the fish. The bass are not monsters nor are they dinks not worth bothering. There are reports of 4-pounders, and if the water situation improves, those favorable reports will be outdated.
In the central region, three of the four Salt River lakes — Apache, Canyon and Saguaro — are doing fine. The fourth — Roosevelt — is on the mend. Bryant Dickens, Arizona Game and Fish Department aquatic program supervisor for the central region, is thrilled with the size and quantity of bass in his region. He puts Apache at the top of the list. This is partly because the water levels are more stable, meaning spawning and food-growing habitat rarely gets dewatered. The lake is bit harder to access, and that means less pressure.
For those who make the effort, Apache Lake is putting out five-fish tournament sacks of 30-plus pounds. Tournament fishermen are showing up with a roughly equal mix of largemouths and smallmouths. When asked where he would send a fisherman who wanted to target smallmouths, his response was Apache without a moment’s hesitation. The primary forage in Apache is bluegill and threadfin shad. Dickens said some gizzard shad are showing up, having come down the Salt River from Roosevelt. The best catches are coming on swimbaits imitating the forage fish. Even though AZGFD doesn’t do any surveys of crayfish, Dickens said they are present and consumed by the bass. A crayfish crankbait or D-Dub’s Crawdad Candy dragged along the rocky bottom will take plenty of fish.
Canyon, the next lake in the chain, is doing well. Fishermen there are catching plenty of big largemouths on trout and gizzard shad swimbaits. Bank fishermen will benefit in 2017 from the new fishing pier at the Boulder Creek Recreation Area. Additionally, 2017 should also bring plenty of big largemouth with some trophy fish running up to 11 pounds.
Dickens likes Saguaro Lake as well. Easiest to access, it attracts the most fishing pressure of the three lakes. Even so, surveys in 2016 revealed plenty of largemouths in the 3- to 5-pound class. Those fish should step up into a new weight class after the fall feeding binge. Fishermen should take the time to explore the river arm.
Roosevelt Lake is in a recovery mode. 2016 showed increased water levels. Dickens said underwater habitat continues to be improved with the placing concrete fish balls — hollowed out concrete shells with holes where fry and young-of-the-year fish can live —around the lake. For the last two years he has planted 40,000 Florida-strain fingerlings. They are showing up in post-plant surveys, demonstrating they are surviving and will soon grow into catchable size.
Lake Pleasant, better known for its stripers, has largemouths as well.
“It is a tough lake to fish, as you really have to know the lake,” Dickens advised. Tournament bags will average less than 3 pounds per fish.
A better central region choice for catching a bundle of largemouths is Bartlett Lake. The fish aren’t big, usually none over 3 pounds, but they make up for it in quantity. Dickens noted there are “tons of small bluegill,” so many that they interfere with bass surveys and threadfin shad. He thinks the relative small size may be due to the fact that Bartlett largemouths have the smallest percentage of Florida-strain largemouth of his lakes.
Over near the California border, Russ Engels said Lake Havasu is “one of the best spots in the state and the nation. Everything is lined up for largemouth and smallmouth bass.” The bass are feeding on bluegills, redear and green sunfish, threadfin shad and even some gizzard shad. The upper third of the lake — above the London Bridge — fishes best as it has move shallow flats, coves and cattails. The farther away from pleasure boat traffic anglers go, the better the fishing. Backwaters of the Colorado River above Imperial Dam — spots like Martinez Lake and Ferguson Lake — can be accessed from the river. And they have largemouths.
Mittry Lake will be another good option. If a fisherman works a frog bait or Kermit, a spun deerhair slider, along the edges of the cattails, the results will put a smile on even the most jaded bass fisherman.
As in Arizona, adequate rain makes for good fishing. And the report for much of the state is favorable.
A dozen years ago, Elephant Butte began suffering a series of low water years that reduced the largemouth bass fishing to a mere shadow of its heyday. Fast forward a decade later. Water levels have been on the rise for the past couple of years and the lake continues to fill, at least through the first half of 2016. The fishing has rebounded. In 2014, there were plenty of 2- to 3-pounders. Primary forage is shad, plus sunfish, yellow perch and crayfish.
Some other positive news for the lake comes from two recent stockings of largemouth bass. In 2014, local area residents raised $21,000 and used that money to buy 20,000 largemouths from a fish farm in Ada, Okla. Volunteers dropped those 4-inch-long fish in several locations around the lake. Given the available food supply triggered by the rising lake, those fish should be three-quarters of a pound by year’s end and worthy of catching by spring 2017. In May, 2016, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, under the guidance of Kevin Gardner, warmwater sportfish supervisor, dropped 100,000 largemouth fry in the lake. As part of the Southwest Adopt-a-Cove project between DGF, Elephant Butte community leaders and fishermen, three spawning coves were designated as voluntary no fishing spawning areas. In addition, New Mexico BASS Nation has salted the lake with over 30,00 Christmas trees and 100 artificial structures. Gardner has been working with the Bureau of Reclamation and downstream irrigators to minimize drastic water drawdowns that can dewater spawning habitat.
If the water continues to rise or stays relatively stable so both the fish and fish food can reproduce, then Elephant Butte will be a must fish spot for years to come. Elephant Butte Lake State Park is at the southwest side of the lake with a number of remote campgrounds sprinkled uplake. There are also several resorts and other facilities on the lake.
On the other side of the state, New Mexico and West Texas bass fishermen target Conchas and Ute lakes. Conchas Lake, sitting at 4,200 feet, is an irrigation impoundment of 9,200 on the Canadian and Conchas rivers. According to Kevin Gardner, Conchas is going through a “new lake” phase and is the best fishery in the state. During the previous low water years, bankside vegetation regenerated and that now-flooded vegetation provides habitat for forage fish and young of the year bass. “There is quite a lot of diversity in all age classes,” Gardner said, noting there are plenty of 5-, 6- and 7-year-old fish.
To find those fish, look for coves and canyons that show signs of having small creeks or watercourses running into the lake, then move in close to shore to fish in and around the flooded vegetation. Primary forage is gizzard shad, green sunfish and bluegills, with all those populations exploding in the flooded vegetation. Plastics in watermelon or smoke and black flake will take plenty of fish. Firetiger cranks work most everywhere.
Conchas Lake State Park has primitive and RV camping and marina facilites as well as a seaplane dock.
Not 60 miles away and a few hundred feet lower in elevation from Conchas is Ute Lake. Unique among large New Mexico impoundments, Ute, at 8,200 acres, suffers no irrigation drawdowns. Gardner said the lake level is quite stable throughout the year, perhaps varying only a few feet. That level of stability is reflected in the stable fish population and forage fish population as well. In addition to gizzard shad and crayfish, Ute bass eat big-scale logperch, a slender 4-inch-long fish that spends most of its life hugging the bottom trying to avoid getting eaten by bass. An excellent reason to make the trip to Ute is it avoids the bust and boom fish population cycle so often experienced by Southwest irrigation reservoirs.
The same fishing techniques work here as Conchas and the forage is the same as well. New Mexico thoughtfully created Ute State Park with similar camping facilities as Conchas.
Bill Evans Lake over near Silver City is a lesson in how low water and excess harvest can mess up an excellent fishery. The lake, only 65 acres when full, suffered double whammy water withdrawals when authorities battling New Mexico’s largest forest fire in history sucked out water at the same time as mining operations took its quantity. Gardner said the lake is down 40 feet. Angler harvest on the small water has removed the trophy fish and it will take years to recover. Gardner said sampling shows “the lake is missing two and perhaps three age-year classes.”
To relieve the doom and gloom of Bill Evans Lake, bass fishermen should make the trip to Brantley Lake. A 4,000-acre impoundment of the Pecos River down near Carlsbad, the lake is currently managed under mandatory catch and release regulations due to pesticide contamination. Gardner said the recent testing shows levels are diminishing. In the meantime, the lake is full of water and salt cedar is so thick along the shoreline that it can make launching a boat difficult. By the same token, all that vegetation can be beneficial as it in on Conchas.
Gardner reported that Brantley is full of 4-year-old largemouths that currently run about 3 pounds. The good news doesn’t stop there. He said the supply of green sunfish, the primary largemouth food, is in great shape so the bass should continue to grow and grow. He also mentioned that the lake gets relatively little pressure given the wonderful size and quantity of willing largemouths.
The largemouth bass fishing starts early in the Southwest as the desert sun begins to heat up the water. Early in the year the fish are shallow, the water is not yet colored-up with runoff and many fishermen are trying to dope out who will be in the NCAA basketball tournament. Be the exception. Get a fishing license and get on the water.