March 17, 2016
When one thinks about black bass fishing, Texas, California, Florida and several other states immediately come to mind. However, the Southwestern states of New Mexico and Arizona are home to many superb bass waters as well. The lakes in these states produce bass in numbers, including lots of trophy-size fish, in spectacularly scenic surroundings.
Though not likely to challenge the current world-record largemouth or smallmouth bass in size, many of these lakes produce monster fish on a regular basis, despite environmental obstacles such as extreme heat and the ever-present threat of drought.
In fact, drought resulting from low snowpacks has recently been a deterrent to lake water levels in the Southwest. Hardy bass and diligent game and fish personnel in both states have maintained high quality fisheries despite the obstacles they encounter. Most lake levels fluctuate significantly around drought conditions and drawdowns to satisfy other water requirements, which serve to reduce typical largemouth cover.
2014 saw improvement in lake levels as the snowpack and summer monsoon rains dumped a little more water into the environment. Today the future looks even brighter as weather experts forecast increased snowpacks and perhaps heavier monsoon rains in the Southwest next season as a result of a very powerful El Nino in the Pacific Ocean. Some predictions report the El Nino is likely to strengthen until the spring of 2016.
Overall, officials in both states are optimistic concerning the future for bass fishing in their states. Arizona and New Mexico have constructed bass hatcheries and are introducing new Florida largemouth bass strains into some waters. They hope that the infusion of a new strain of largemouth genetics will both stimulate vitality and produce larger fish as well. Black bass feed on a wide variety of items, including other fish, insects, crayfish and even mice or birds. Whether your bass preference is lots of fish or trophy fish, either state can fill your wishes. What follows are some waters that offer excellent opportunities to do so.
Aptly named, the Land of Enchantment ranges from low arid desert terrain to the dizzying heights of alpine mountain peaks. Throughout the state, generally at mid-range altitudes, bass lakes abound. Many of these lakes exist in starkly scenic rocky terrain. The higher-elevation lakes warm later in the spring, and Shawn Denny, New Mexico warm water fisheries biologist, noted that fishing usually begins to pick up from mid-March into April.
Southwest bass fishing success relies on water availability. Drought conditions over the past few years have hindered fishing in many places. However, the past couple of years have seen a big improvement in water levels, stimulating optimism for the near future. Richard Hansen, New Mexico assistant chief of fisheries, said "It's been our observation that after a period of drought, when the lakes come back, they fish like gangbusters."
Denny noted that recent rising levels create a win-win situation by flooding lakeside brush, which significantly increases nutrients and provides protective cover for younger bass, leading to more and larger fish. He highlighted Conchas Lake as an example. With rising water levels, largemouth fishing is on fire, and he expects it to continue.
Primarily a smallmouth impoundment, this large canyon lake harbors lots of largemouth as well, though not a lot of lunkers. Eric Mammoser, New Mexico Game and Fish fisheries biologist, agreed. It is fishing very well now, and there are lots of 14- to 15-inch bass packing on pounds for 2016 on into the future.
Denny also sees Brantley Lake as a great bass destination for the future. Unfortunately, it is a catch and release only water because of a DDT contamination. Brantley Lake State Park Supervisor Paul Fishell said largemouth fishing has been very good to excellent recently with lots of bass caught though not a lot of big fish. 2013-2015 spawns were excellent so fish numbers should be good into the future.
Ute Lake, a perennial bass favorite, is also enjoying increased water levels. Ute is a fertile lake on the Canadian River, which provides good growth rates for largemouths and lots of line-busting hogs each year from a diet of gizzard shad and sunfish. Shawn Denny said Ute is filling and flooding lakeshore vegetation, promising improved fishing. Denny said he expects to see excellent fishing at Ute for 2016.
Over in northwestern New Mexico Navajo Lake harbors giant smallmouth and some pretty good largemouth as well. Navajo is among the top smallmouth lakes in the state, and it yielded the previous state record in 1999, which tested the scales at 6 pounds 14 ounces.
Navajo also contains lots of largemouth, including some up to 10 pounds, that patrol the aquatic vegetation, submerged rocks and trees and sheer cliff faces that make up a great deal of the lake's extensive shoreline. Game and fish officials recommended the San Juan and Pine arms and also La Jara and Francis canyons for largemouth.
New Mexico officials also included Santa Rosa among their picks for lakes to fish this year.
Bill Evans Lake is a great cool water lake in which to stalk sometimes-difficult monster largemouth. This small lake is home to the current 15-pound, 13-ounce state-record largemouth. Water pumped up to the lake from the Gila River provides the nutrients to grow these hogs. Clayton Lake is another hog hole that offers fishing for wall-hanging double-digit largemouth.
Unlimited forage here grows big bass, but it also maintains well-fed fish that are sometimes reluctant to eat. Elephant Butte has a reputation for its large populations of largemouth and smallmouth and there are some very large fish to be found there. Elephant Butte also received stockings of nearly 500,000 fingerling largemouth recently. The Butte has shown that it is ready to explode again this year.
Above average annual monsoon rains in 2014 stimulated bass fishing in the Grand Canyon state, and many lakes are fishing lights out right now. The powerful Godzilla El Nino off California's coast further reinforces optimism for 2016.
Arizona has an impressive list of top-notch largemouth bass lakes that deliver a high quality bass fishing experience. Lower in elevation than New Mexico lakes, Arizona bass usually begin to wake up in late February in preparation for the spawn. Winter rainbow stockings in some lakes are turning big largemouth into outsized double-digit behemoths as they dine on trout filets. Here is where the experts recommend for 2016.
A consensus selects Canyon Lake, where a 16.5-pound largemouth state record was taken in 1997, as the top prospect in Arizona. This small, picturesque Salt River impoundment in Tonto National Forest is a serious big largemouth destination. Plenty of food and an infusion of Florida strain genetics validate this reputation and, combined with winter stocking of rainbows that supplements their diet, almost guarantees the possibility of a new state-record largemouth there in the near future.
Chris Cantrell, Arizona Game and Fish chief of fisheries, placed Canyon Lake and Saguaro Lake on his list of top prospects. Saguaro, one of the Salt River impoundments, is fishing extremely well right now, yielding largemouth up to 8 pounds. Cantrell told me that fishermen were sight fishing for double-digit hogs during the past spring spawning period.
Saguaro has a very good reputation for producing big bass, and a 12-pound largemouth was recorded during a recent survey. The Saguaro narrows are rimmed by canyon walls, while aquatic vegetation is found throughout the upper lake flats. Limited shoreline access makes Saguaro a boat friendly lake.
Jon Griffith, from Arizona Fishing Guides, said "Saguaro Lake is still growing giant largemouth and consistently putting out large trophy-sized bass." He noted that Saguaro may well produce the next state record, especially after bass have been dining throughout the winter on stocker rainbow steaks. I recommend you contact Jon if you want to tangle with some of these lunkers.
Cantrell nominated another Salt River Canyon lake as a promising water for 2016. After a massive golden algae bloom fish kill a few years ago, Apache Lake has recovered and is now yielding lots of 5- to 8-pound largemouths. Apache is an especially scenic lake in central Arizona with spectacular desert sunrises and sunsets. It is a deep, clear water canyon lake with very little brush or vegetation, thus, rock and contours become the structure of choice for bass. There is a healthy population of big largemouth bass, but the real attraction is the plentiful 3- to 4-pound smallmouths.
Roosevelt Lake has a reputation as a high-quality big fish destination. Cantrell said fishing there has slowed down some recently, but is now coming back. The gizzard shad the bass were feeding on grew too large for forage, and bass had to shift to sunfish. Younger shad numbers are way up again, providing a better forage base. In addition, more than a million Florida strain bass have just been planted, and it is hoped that new genetics will produce vital and larger bass in the near future. Cantrell believes Roosevelt will soon become a top bass lake once again.
Lake Havasu has a reputation as one of the best smallmouth waters anywhere, but it has always been a top largemouth lake as well with plenty of 4- to 5-pound fish. Russ Engle, Arizona Game and Fish program manager in the region, said the future for Havasu bass is bright. Largemouth are distributed throughout the entire lake, but the upper section from the inlet down to the island near the London Bridge may be a little better. There is lots of aquatic vegetation along the shore and in the coves. The lower section is much rockier in nature.
Engle also said the backwaters area above Imperial Dam just north of Yuma is a great place for largemouth fishing. One can catch lots of mixed Northern and Florida strain genetics bass in the backwaters area or below the dam in Mittry Lake. This is an area known for numbers rather than large fish. He also suggested Alamo Lake, which has been fishing really well. This is another water in which the catch rate is high and numbers are the star attraction rather than really big fish. And a recent count found an increased number of nice 16-inch fish in the lake.
If you would like to just go out and catch a few 3- to 5-pound largemouths, Cantrell recommended Patagonia Lake south of Tucson as a great location to do so. Patagonia is a small, largemouth-only lake that also holds some lunkers. Lakeshore vegetation provides cover for the bass, and Christmas tree bundles have been added to the lake bottom for additional cover.
Patagonia has limited shoreline access, thus a boat is useful here. Don Mitchell, the regional fisheries manager, suggested Ash Canyon Grove in the western end of the lake, where bass hide in the cattails and submerged vegetation. He also said some big bass hide amongst the rocks across from the marina.
2016 looks like a potential Southwest region bass bonanza, with improved water levels and more water predicted. Bass fishing should be on fire across Arizona and New Mexico once again.