The name “smallie” seems to have stuck as the colloquial favorite here in Colorado, and many of the pristine lakes and reservoirs have smallmouth bass in abundant supply.
By Nathan Watkins
There is something about smallmouth bass that calls out to certain anglers and for at least two good reasons: 1) Smallmouths have often been compared to a large trout, only harder fighting; and 2) when they strike a topwater lure, it’s one of the most epic events in fishing.
It is a testament to anglers’ love of the smallmouths that they have given it so many nicknames. A few of the most popular names are: smallie, brownie, bareback and bronzeback. The name “smallie” seems to have stuck as the colloquial favorite here in Colorado, and many of the pristine lakes and reservoirs in Colorado have smallies in abundant supply.
The smallmouth bass shares much of the same habitat with its largemouth cousins, but smallies generally tend to enjoy clearer and colder water. They also tend to move around a lot more than largemouth bass and can inhabit nearly all parts of most waters where they are found. Often referred to as an “indicator” species, smallmouth bass can be quite intolerant of pollution.
The Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife no longer stocks smallmouths anywhere. This move is seen as controversial for some smallmouth-loving anglers, but being the aggressive fish they are, smallmouths tend to feed upon and out-compete many species of Colorado’s much beloved trout.
As one CPW biologist put it: The CPW is neither managing for, nor against, smallmouth bass in most areas. Luckily for the smallmouth angler, these hardy fish have no problem maintaining robust populations in habitats in which they currently reside throughout the state.
During the late spring through early summer, when the bass are in their spawning phase, is usually the best time to get out for some memorable smallmouth fishing in Colorado.
For outdoors-loving anglers, a relaxed evening spent fishing for smallies on the water’s edge can be the perfect antidote to the increasing hustle and bustle of life on Colorado’s Front Range. Make no mistake: The Front Range offers some great smallmouth fishing opportunities. A plethora of lakes and reservoirs spread out across the sweeping plains up here, many of which hold ample smallmouth populations.
Right within the city limits of Aurora, Aurora Reservoir currently holds the record for the largest smallmouth bass caught in Colorado. More than 20 inches long and tipping the scales at more than 6 pounds, this fish was caught by a lucky young angler just a few years back. Other good bets for finding large smallies around the metro area include: Barr Lake, north of Commerce City; Boulder Reservoir, just north of Boulder; and Boyd Lake, in the city of Loveland.
If we travel to the northern edge of the Front Range, Horsetooth Reservoir is another excellent spot for hunting smallies. Located at the western edge of Fort Collins, the lake features quite a bit of walkable shoreline access to the rocky shoreline bottoms that provide excellent opportunity to get into smallmouth habitat.
The reservoirs of southeast Colorado are prime smallmouth bass country. According to Jim Ramsey, an aquatic biologist for the CPW out of Lamar, the area has seen especially good fishing for smallies in recent years. The reason things are so good here is mainly because water levels are relatively high throughout the area. John Martin Reservoir, which is the second largest body of water in Colorado, has seen excellent water levels in recent years.
Ramsey further explains that recent electrofishing trips conducted by the CPW in John Martin indicate strong populations of smallmouth. For those who do not know, electrofishing is when biologists put an electric device into the water that temporarily stuns fish, immobilizing them, when they are carefully collected off the surface with nets. Clearly a practice not allowed for us anglers, this technique allows biologists to acquire good trending fish-population data. Based on these findings, he adds, the smallies on John Martin tend to congregate around the rocky shorelines and areas near the dam’s outlet. This confirms most anecdotal reports about smallmouth behavior from other waters as well.
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Ramsey says a “sleeper” spot for smallmouth in southeastern Colorado that does not get near enough attention right now is Two Buttes Reservoir. Two Buttes is located just 30 minutes south of Lamar. This reservoir had been nearly bone dry for years until the flash floods of 2013 filled it up to the high-water mark. Since then, Two Buttes has maintained good water levels for the last five years, although it is receding a bit. Ramsey says the smallies are still thriving there, and the fishing is excellent. Depending on weather events, fishing at Two Buttes could be limited. Now is the time to head down to this often overlooked and under-crowded area.
If we travel a little farther north and west, we make our way to Pueblo Reservoir, or Lake Pueblo, as it is often called. It is no secret this is a popular angling destination. Beautiful mountain views and nearly 4,600 fishable acres of surface make this a great lake on which to stalk smallies. Aquatic biologist Kerry Tucker of the CPW in Pueblo says water levels are high, and the fish populations are excellent. Tucker says the high water levels in Lake Pueblo, in addition to more fishable acreage, have the added benefit of covering trees and large rocks.
These areas provide prime habitat for smallmouth bass. She adds there are no shortage of 18- to 19-inch smallmouths throughout the lake. Kerry also mentions, the highest concentration of smallies tend to be near the dam outlet and rocky shores, much as they are in John Martin. Good bass fishing takes place below the dam in the Arkansas River, as well; however, these massive, smallmouths have been known to elude all but the deftest of anglers.
An often underappreciated smallmouth fishery nearby, Tucker says, are the Volco Ponds. These ponds sit right along the Arkansas River below the Lake Pueblo Dam and apparently have plenty of big smallmouth in them. They are often less crowded than the lake above and provide easy access to good shoreline fishing.
While Pueblo Lake deserves its reputation for great smallmouth fishing, Tucker says, the best spot in this part of the state for specifically targeting smallies is arguably DeWesse Reservoir, near Westcliffe. The water levels here are high in late spring and early summer but tend to go down significantly throughout the summer. If you get here from May through June, you can expect high water and excellent fishing. Tucker says big smallies are the norm here, and the area is rarely crowded.
Tucker adds some other nearby waters that are notable for smallmouths: Trinidad Reservoir, and Martin Lake and Horseshoe Lake in Lathrop State Park. Populations of smallmouth seem to be maintaining steady numbers in these lakes. Also not to be overlooked down here is Wahatoya Lake. Nestled south of the Spanish Peaks, this little lake covers only about 200 fishable acres, but the views are spectacular, and the smallmouth fishing is not too bad either!
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Ben Felt, the aquatic biologist for the CPW in Grand Junction, says some unique opportunities for smallmouth bass fishing lie out on the Western Slope. For starters, the Colorado River features some good stretches for smallmouth fishing. In just about all of the rivers in Colorado, smallmouth bass can be a true hindrance for trout. Large populations of smallmouths continue to thrive here, so there is currently no bag limit on them. If you enjoy eating bass, this may be the place to stock the freezer.
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Smallies can be found anywhere on the Colorado River — from the edge of Grand Valley on Colorado’s western border with Utah, all the way upriver to Glenwood Springs. But the best stretch on the Colorado River for getting into smallmouths, Felt says, is from just west of the small town of Silt, downstream to De Beque Canyon. He says that unlike largemouth bass, which typically enjoy slower waters, smallmouths can pretty much make a living anywhere in the river. That means just about any stretch of water is game. Of course, you are still more than likely to find them in the usual spots around slower water and deep shelves.
While you are in the area, you may as well head north of Silt and check out Grass Valley Reservoir in Harvey Gap State Park. Felt says the smallmouth populations here are solid, but he admits smallmouth fishing at Rifle Gap Reservoir, just 10 miles west of Harvey Gap, may be even better.
Southwest Colorado is home to the northern portion of renowned Navajo Lake. It has been called, Colorado’s (or New Mexico’s depending on who is talking) answer to Lake Powell. This relatively large body of water straddles the southern border of Colorado and the northern border of New Mexico. There is no shortage of fishing to be had here, and smallies are in large supply. There is more than enough smallmouth fishing to be had in the Colorado portion of this mighty reservoir, but if you head to the even larger southern portion of Navajo Lake in New Mexico, do not forget to get a New Mexico fishing license.
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If we head north from Lake Navajo into the high country above Durango, we find pristine Vallecito Reservoir near the headwaters of the Los Pinos River. You can fish for smallies year ‘round here, but during a decent portion of the year, you may be ice fishing! Once the ice melts in April or May though, the topwater fishing can be nothing short of excellent. Smallmouths reportedly spend the majority of their time near the dam outlet but have been known to travel close to the banks and even toward the inlet of the Los Pinos River.
Another spot worth the journey in the southwest portion of Colorado that is the often overlooked is Echo Canyon Reservoir, just south of Pagosa Springs Colorado. This tiny, tucked-away mountain reservoir provides a full day’s worth of beauty in addition to excellent smallmouth fishing. Smallmouths are found throughout all of the 212 acres of fishable water.
North of here, up and over the formidable Red Mountain Pass on the Million Dollar Highway, rests Ridgeway Reservoir. The views alone of the San Juan Mountains to the south are worth the visit. Fortunately, Ridgeway also holds a major population of smallmouth bass to get into.
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If you have a competitive nature, or just want to meet some other anglers who loving fishing for smallies, check out the Ridgeway Smallmouth Bass Tournament that annually takes place at the beginning of June. The contest awards prizes for catching tagged smallies. It’s free to enter. Last year, the grand prize they gave away was a 14-foot fishing boat. If you are interested in participating, contact the CPW out of Montrose for more details.
These are some of the hottest spots for some exciting topwater smallmouth fishing this spring and early summer. Water levels should peak in most of these spots this time of year, which means plenty of fishable acreage to go explore. Get out to at least a few of these beautiful Colorado waters this May and June and get into some big smallies. I wish you good luck! You may need it once you hook into that 20-incher!