Astute anglers who regularly hear the call of fish know that the sport can be defined in a variety of ways, i.e., “fishing, the art of casting, trolling, jigging, or spinning — while freezing, sweating, swatting or swearing.”
Bass fishermen in Arizona and New Mexico can probably find a bit of each element in their 2012 quest for largemouth, smallmouth, spotted, or striped varieties as angling opportunities this year should be thicker than gnats at sundown.
“No species of game fish has been more inspirational in swelling the ranks of North American anglers than the largemouth bass — the fish that launched millions of boats,” writes fishing authority A.J. McClane in his Game Fish of North America atlas. “Largemouth are the giants of the sunfish family. Bucketmouths becomes a trophy at whatever size you deem it so, but any weight that would exceed the 22-pound, 4-ounce world record established in 1932 is the ultimate goal of serious bass anglers.”
That record came close to being broken in July 2009 when a bass angler in Japan pulled in a same-weight catch that tied freshwater fishing’s Holy Grail, established 80 years ago. Although stranger things have happened before, neither Arizona nor New Mexico is expected to give up bubba bass that big. Current records list a 16-pound, 7.68-ounce bigmouth taken from Arizona’s Canyon Lake in 1997 and a 15-pound, 13-ouncer coming out of New Mexico’s Bill Evans Lake in 1995.
One of the largest man-made lakes in the world and the biggest of Arizona’s six Salt River Project lakes is Roosevelt Lake, which, when full, covers more than 19,000 acres near the confluence of the Salt River and Tonto Creek. And when it’s full — or even close to the high-water mark — this prolific producer of pescados turns on bass-busters, bucketmouth and smallies, alike.
“I’m still expecting a record largemouth, or one darn close to a record, out of Rosey,” says Kirk Young, chief of fisheries for the Arizona Fish and Game Department. “We saw a 14-pounder come out of those waters last year and I’m guessing, if we are going to have a new record, we should see it in the next couple of years. If I had only one lake to go to, it would be Roosevelt.”
“You can always catch fish here,” says pro bass angler and traditional tournament contender John Murray. “No matter what time of year, bass are always willing to bite.” Retired three-time Bassmasters Classic qualifier Greg Hines is fond of saying: “The fish are there, just waiting for the right presentation. If you don’t catch fish at Roosevelt, you’re not trying hard enough.”
Even more fish are there since the Arizona Game and Fish Department removed a 20-year-old slot limit in 2010. Fisheries Chief Young is convinced enforcement of the slot did the job. When implemented in 1990, it typically took anglers about eight hours to catch just a single bass with no guarantee of any size. It was hoped the slot limit (13- to 16-inches were non-keepers) would increase catch rates and average size of bass — and it did both.
A few years back, the federal government spent over $400 million to raise the stone masonry dam by 77 feet, a project completed just in time for a record wet year to end an 11-year-drought and raise the lake to its highest point in 100 years. The higher water level inundated all kinds of vegetation and structure that had never been flooded before and brought in a picnic basket of nutrients. The spawn was great and hungry bass grew bigger by greedily gobbling up anything that looked like a meal. Those increases in numbers and overall length and girth have made Roosevelt Lake an even more attractive angling option.
“After years of the lake holding at 50 to 70 percent capacity, the rise in water level created a ‘new lake effect,’ with bass growth rates continuing to increase each year and, as a consequence, we’re anticipating more — and larger — fish,” says Chris Cantrell, G&F regional fish program manager. “If this trend continues, we expect to see a large age-class moving into the ‘memorable’ — 20-inch — range soon.”
The Salt River enters the lake on the eastside above Schoolhouse Point and offers shallow flats to cruise. Tonto Creek feeds the west end and has more trees than a fledgling forest. The Salt and Tonto both offer an influx of fresh water that promotes successful spawn rates and provides nutrients for a healthy food chain. Either end of the lake or even a mid-point near Salome Cove and Steamboat Rock, are prime spots for spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, and shallow-running crankbaits in the spring.
“The new lake effect is still in play from earlier good water years,” says Young. “There’s still a lot of food in that system and looking at a year-class of 8- or 9-year-old bass, there should be at least one approaching record size. The entire Salt River Project lake system dipped to about 80 percent last summer, but even in lower water conditions during a La Nina down year, we’re still living off the grace of several wet years and looking toward the possible return of wetter El Nino conditions.”
Ask Young for advice on how to catch the new record and he’ll say, “I don’t have a clue. It’ll probably come from somebody fishing a nightcrawler off the dock. My gestalt says it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good, but folks who know what they’re doing continue to catch fish no matter where they go. I’d start on the Salt arm, work it thoroughly and assess all presentations from top to bottom. Then I’d switch it up and move to the Tonto side and systematically work through the available habitat.”
Although he’d still head first to Roosevelt for both large- and smallmouth bass, Young says Lake Havasu would be his top choice specifically for bronzebacks, and that new water in Lake Mead has turned tamarisk or salt cedar fishing into “productivity central.”