It’s May and the sun’s rays have broken through and started to warm the winter-chilled water all across the Centennial State. And that means bass — largemouth and smallmouth — are astir. If you are already a committed bassaholic, then you know the state has some great bass fishing. But you might not know all about the spots that follow. And if you are just getting into bass, then read on for some great places to explore.
The Larimer County reservoir has made an outstanding comeback from a few years ago and it’s all due to food and water. The long and narrow — six miles long by a half mile wide — reservoir has four earth-filled dams. A variety of coldwater and coolwater fish have been planted here over the years.
Horsetooth fishing has a history of boom-and-bust. Rainbow smelt —those slender, cylindrical, rainbow-hued fish — created the last cycle. For years they provided an outstanding forage base for the game fish until the smelt outproduced their forage. Their population crashed and the game fish that depended on them followed suit. Colorado Parks and Wildlife introduced spottail shiners, emerald shiners, and gizzard shad and, years after disappearing, the smelt returned. Add a good population of crayfish and you’ve got a great smallmouth bass water.
Horsetooth is big water spanning roughly 1,900 acres at full pool. That can be intimidating to some who wonder where in all that water the fish swim. Take a look at a map — paper or electronic — and you’ll see that the west side of the reservoir is broken up by numerous coves. Early in the year, those coves are fish magnets. Water comes into Horsetooth by pipeline from Grand Lake, which is really cold. Water in the shallow coves warms up faster than the main lake and the smallmouth pack their bags and head for the warmer water. About the same time the crayfish get active and the spring-spawning forage fish are in the shallow coves as well.
Smallmouths love rocky structure, so target those rocky points, broken rock and underwater rock humps. Baits and flies that imitate the gizzard shad do well. Slender jerkbaits effectively imitate the rainbow smelt. Fly-fishers throw Clouser Minnows and bounce crayfish patterns along the bottom. Expect plenty of action on chunky 12- to 15-inch bass, with some bigger ones pushing 20 inches.
The reservoir, managed by Larimer County, provides access for a small daily fee. There are multiple day use areas and plenty of overnight options as well. Campers can chose non-electric sites or go all the way to plush with “camper cabins.” Some choose the boat-in campsites. Camping reservations can be made at www.larimercamping.com. There are boat ramps on the lake plus a marina that offers boat rentals.
Here’s the scoop on Pueblo: During the drought years, bankside vegetation sprouted on all that newly exposed shoreline. Since then the lake has filled. The now-flooded brush provides perfect spawning habitat for most everything that bass eat. The combination of food and water means the bass — all three varieties — are doing quite well.
Fishermen can target largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. Each species can be found in different locations at this time of year. Smallmouths will be shallow, largemouths a bit deeper and spotties even deeper. There’s a 15-inch minimum size limit for all three. Expect to find smallies up to 20 inches and largemouths even a bit longer. Spotties will typically be shorter. Exceptions can happen. The former state-record spottie came from here.
With the lake now filled, the flooded coves and canyons trimmed with drowned brush are the best places to locate fish. In May, fishermen should push far into those areas until the boat runs out of water because the bass will be shallow. A boat is always nice to have but not necessary. Bank fishers can find these fish as well.
The skinny water makes for some exciting fishing as anglers can spot, then cast to specific fish. Fly-fishers can throw spun deerhair patterns like The Hamster or other topwater flies. Spinning gear anglers can enjoy the same thrill with floating baits. Wacky-rigged unweighted Senkos are an easy way to catch these fish this time of year. Other subsurface baits should imitate shad or crayfish.
Pueblo Dam blocks the Arkansas River to create 4,000 acres of fish-filled water surrounded by another 6,000 acres. There is a state wildlife area at the west end and a state park to the east, served by two boat ramps, two marinas, several campgrounds and plenty of day-use areas. In late 2016 several campgrounds were undergoing electrical upgrades so check with the park for current conditions. As with other locations, all boats must be inspected before hitting the water. Boaters should take special care to clean and dry their boat, trailer and all equipment that touches the water as the lake is home to zebra mussels. Boaters should also pay attention to boat ramp hours — once the inspection stations are closed, the ramp gates are locked. That means no boats can enter or leave the water.
Not far from Pueblo Reservoir (by Colorado distances) and easily reached by I-25 is Trinidad Lake. Sitting at 6,200 feet elevation, Trinidad Lake State Park and the lake looks out at the Sangre de Cristo Range, a perfect setting for catching largemouth and smallmouth bass. The park features many campsites, most with electricity, a boat launch and 800 acres of fishing water. After several days on the water, the camper services building, that opens mid-May, is quite welcomed for its coin-operated showers, laundry facilities and bathrooms.
Colorado manages the lake on a multi-species basis. On the bass side of things, there are more smallmouths than largemouths in recent years. Largemouths were planted in 2013 and 2015. However, no largemouths were counted when the fisheries biologists conducted their 2015 fall gillnetting survey. In that survey, the smallies averaged 12 inches, with some stretching nearly to 17 inches. To verify that bigger fish have been caught, check out the Colorado Master Angler Program records.
Those bass get to feed on young of the year saugeyes, walleyes, gizzard shad and other forage fish. Plenty of fishermen go low-tech here. They drag a chunk of nightcrawler along the bottom. Sometimes it just makes sense to make fishing simple.
Bass fishermen who live in the Denver metro area are living right next to Aurora Reservoir, an urban bass fishing gold mine. The Colorado record smallmouth by weight and the record by length both came from Aurora, a city-owned reservoir just a hop, step and jump from downtown Denver. It also has plenty of big largemouths that run to 7 pounds or so. And here’s the kicker: Most fishermen who ply this water ignore the bass and focus on the rainbow trout.
Aurora is an 820-acre storage reservoir that begins to fill in the spring, then draws down as the year progresses. Bass fishing starts to get cranked up in April when the water warms into the 50s and is in full swing by May as the water continues to warm. The lake is encircled by a mostly paved trail, so there is plenty of bank access.
Shaped like a jigsaw puzzle piece, the northern edge is flat. The eastern edge has plenty of jagged points, while the southern edge has three major coves. Focus efforts on the east and southern shores. Work toward the bank along the points, deep into the coves and along flats where the water is no more than 8 feet deep. The primary game fish biomass is yellow perch. The other primary forage fish is the spottail shiner. Slender crankbaits and jerkbaits that imitate small perch in both size and color are great choices. Another primary bass food is crayfish — brown and watermelon are the best color choices. Fly-fishers should use sinktip lines and Clouser minnows and crayfish flies such as Chickabou Crayfish. Fishermen can expect to hook up with wmulti-pound bass on a good day.
RIFLE GAP RESERVOIR
Over on the west side of the Rockies lies Rifle Gap Reservoir — a water that should be fished just because of the cool name — just 6,000 feet above sea level. Formed by the West, Middle and East forks of Rifle Creek, the reservoir was traditionally a rainbow and brown trout lake. Some 6,325 smallmouth bass were added in 1972. Subsequently black crappie, northern pike and yellow perch were illegally stocked. The young of the year of those fish, particularly the yellow perch, added to the smallmouth bass forage base. Downstream of the dam, Rifle Creek is screened to keep non-native fish from entering the Colorado and eating several endangered fish. Statewide size and bag limits apply as the special regulations once imposed on the smallmouths were removed as part of the new management plan. Colorado Parks and Wildlife is encouraging anglers to retain smallmouths. It will be interesting to follow the effects of the regulation change.
Five campgrounds offer more than 80 sites, ranging from full hook-ups, showers and flush toilets to bare bones primitive sites. There’s something for everyone, to be sure. The boat ramp with trailer parking spaces is on the north side of the lake just beyond all of the campgrounds.
From the ramp it’s a straight shot across the water to the dam and all that fish-holding riprap. The fish are there because the rocks are home to crayfish. Small crayfish-type crankbaits, 4-inch tubes on a jig head and small Senkos are the ticket here. Small means 3 or 4 inches — nothing larger until later in the year. Go with green pumpkinseed or chartreuse if the water is off-color. Fly-fishers should cast D-Dub’s Chartreuse Caboose or Crawdad Candy to entice the smallies grubbing in the rocks for crayfish.
Rifle Gap gets 300,000 visitors annually, so if the riprap is crowded or too windy head uplake from the launch. Investigate any or all of the small coves along that north shore with slender hard and soft baits that mimic perch and the red and golden shiners. Be prepared with crayfish baits and flies as well Expect to find plenty of smallmouths that have moved into the shallows to eat in preparation for spawning. Most of the Rifle Gap bronzebacks run in the 10- to 14-inch mold, with enough bigger fish reaching 4 pounds to keep fishermen on their game.
Colorado, land of the greenback cutthroat trout, provides myriad black bass angling opportunities on both sides of the Rockies. Grab you gear and get out on the water for some great fishing at a time when the trout streams are all blown out. See you on the water.