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."
ELEPHANT BUTTE RESERVOIR
To the east of Arizona lies the Land of Enchantment, with the biggest welcome sign for New Mexico bass anglers at the state's largest lake, Elephant Butte Reservoir. Constructed in the early 1900s by the Bureau of Reclamation for irrigation and flood control, the $5 million dam holding back Rio Grande waters was, at that time, the largest structure built in the United States to impound water. At full capacity, the 40-mile-long lake (named for a rock formation resembling an elephant) offers in excess of 36,000 surface acres with more than 200 miles of shoreline.
While the lake seldom fills to high-water mark, it remains one of the top bass fisheries in the Southwest, essentially two lakes in one separated by a slim passageway called "The Narrows." The lower end still has bass to bust in the backs of coves where arroyos bring in rain runoff and snowmelt; you just have to work a little harder to attract interest here.
The upper end of the lake, fed by the Rio Grande River, is filled with bass hidey-holes in salt cedars, cottonwood trees and flooded mesquite and creosote bush. The game fish population is fed by crawfish and two species of shad — threadfin and gizzard.
State fisheries managers are fond of saying there are generally two seasonal patterns at the lake — spawn, and the rest of the year. When I first fished there 22 years ago, fisheries manager Ernie Jaquez told me, "Pre-spawn, actual spawn, and post-spawn create three levels of a seasonal pattern once the water starts warming in early spring." Because bass have universal traits, largemouth act the same as their brethren in any other waters. "Work post-spawn deeper in the upper end of the lake first," Jaquez advised, "then work your way down through The Narrows. Keep heading south, going deeper in the Black and Chalk Bluffs areas until you end up fishing deep structure off the main channel."
Frank Vilorio grew up with the lake in his backyard and the longer he fished it, the more it became a passion, so much so he started guiding there in 1994 with a 14-foot aluminum boat and a 30-horsepower. motor. Times have changed a bit (he now fishes out of a 24-foot watercraft), as has the fishing. "Striped bass were introduced into the lake in 1972 and while white bass remain bountiful, stripers really took off," he says. As testimony, he points to a recent client, a visiting angler who pulled in a 41-pound, 6-ounce striped bass.
In a perfect example of you-should-have-been-here-yesterday, Viloria said big schools of white bass went crazy last fall. "Fishing for whites was phenomenal, limiting out daily with 25 fish per person.
"Lake levels were low, down 80 to 100 feet below high-water mark, and that concentrated the fish. Largemouth bass rely on cover and they lost it in 2011. Bushes were gone and all cover was out of the water. The way to catch bigmouth then was to target points, drop-offs, submerged points in channels."
Because white bass and stripers are pelagic, remaining on the move, they like to chase bait. The key for them was to find the shad to find the whites to find the stripers. "Last spring, water temperature was key and I've never seen it that cold," Viloria said. "Things finally picked up in late April — and then the winds came and stuck around until late June when fishing picked up tremendously. This year, I expect things to be milder, with striper action starting before Memorial Day." Like all fishing guides, he's optimistic, but realistic: "The fish are still there, they'll still be hungry, but we're dealing with the unpredictability of Mother Nature."
One of the West's most knowledgeable striper experts is veteran Fisheries Biologist Wayne Gustaveson, who says 2012 should be a case of good news/bad news. "2011 was a good year for forage production, which will make the fish bigger and stronger," he says. "That will also make them harder to catch in the spring because they'll be so well fed.
Speaking to Arizona anglers, Gustaveson adds: "There are some trophies swimming around out there and I expect you'll see a few 30-pound fish caught as well as a more frequent 7- to 10-pound fish, but schooling stripers will run in the 3- to 4-pound category. The positive here is that there will be a lot of them."
By March or April, when waters begin to warm up, look for stripers in the backs of canyons with the shad. When the baitfish spawn and young fry are at eating-size for predators, the action starts hot and heavy. Gustaveson predicts if a big striper comes out of Arizona in 2012, it will probably be found in Lake Powell's Navajo Canyon.
For fishing folk visiting New Mexico, the Warm-Water Bag and Possession Limits show 5 black bass per day with 14-inches as minimum-keeper size for largemouth and spotted, and 12-inches for smallies. Arizona anglers are a bit more fortunate: White and yellow bass catches are unlimited, while 10 stripers a day are allowed along with 6 bass (largemouth and smallmouth or in combination).
(For further information, log on to www.wildlife.state.nm.us or www.azgfd.gov.)