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Desert Bass Fishing Outlook 2018

desert bass fishing
Warming temperatures mean shallower bass. Don't overlook near-shore structure. (Photo by Scott Bernarde)

Utah and Nevada offer some great desert bass fishing opportunities, and these are a few of the best.

Southern Utah. Where Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford came to film all those shoot 'em up Westerns years ago. In fact, so many movies were shot in the red rock around Kanab that it become known as Little Hollywood.

Contrast all that rock with the forested Wasatch Mountains to the north. To the west is Nevada, equally geographically diverse. Much of northern Nevada is mid-latitude steppe bisected by mountain ranges where miners still dig for gold. Down south, where sand and rock is watered by the Colorado River, gold is mined by the glittering lights and glitz of Las Vegas and Laughlin. Point and counterpoint.

North and south of both states offer impoundments — some huge and some almost intimate — where largemouth and smallmouth bass await the desert angler. What follows are some top choices for bass-angling action.


Sand Hollow

A few miles north of Arizona and just east of St. George lies Sand Hollow Reservoir and State Park. A new impoundment, Sand Hollow only started filling in 2002 so it is going through the growth stage of developing shoreline vegetation and deteriorating flooded brush. Those two conditions combine to make it a Utah largemouth bass hotspot.

Sitting at only 3,000 feet elevation, Sand Hollow's 1,300 acres will warm up early making it a prime spring season outing. It is also 95 feet deep with an average depth of 45 feet. That means fish can relocate to cool water when summer turns hot. In 2010 a quagga mussel was discovered clinging to a dock by a diver. That lead to boats leaving the water having to undergo decontamination.

After three years, scrupulous testing and decontamination, Sand Hollow was certified as "non-contaminated." Since then any vessel that has been in Lake Powell within 30 days must be decontaminated before launching to protect that certification.

Access is through 20,000-acre Sand Hollow State Park that envelopes the water. There are two boat ramps, one on the west side, the other in the southwest corner. Sand Hollow is nearly encircled by a road that leads to Sand Pit Campground and primitive camping along the shoreline. A second campground is up near the main gate. Campgrounds have showers and full RV hook-ups.

Sand Hollow has big numbers of 8-to 16-inch largemouth, with plenty of fish in the 20-plus range. Structure abounds here. The island is speckled with small coves. The rock dam drops off into deep water. Early in the year, the south and east shore flats provide exciting sight-fishing for big bass in shallow, clear water. No boat required for this kind of fun. Primary forage for the largemouths is the abundant bluegill. 

Pelican Lake

Due east and a couple hours of driving from Provo, puts anglers on Pelican Lake, sitting at 4,797 feet. A natural lake that covers 1,680 acres, it is better known as a blue-ribbon bluegill lake. Local bass club anglers know Pelican harbors plenty of largemouth, including some that get to toad-size by gobbling all those bluegill.

This lake just screams near-shore structure consisting of greasewood, sagebrush, cattails plus a few willows and cottonwood trees. All that vegetation harbors bluegill. And where bluegill are found, largemouth come to eat. Boating access can be had at both the north and south ends of the lake. There is primitive camping at the south end.

But all is not well at Pelican. Bluegill are sight-feeders, and over the past few years water clarity has declined due to a growing population of common carp. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has decided the only way to restore water clarity, and the bluegill and largemouth fishery, is to rotenone the lake. Originally set for October 2017, the treatment has been postponed to October 2018. And bag limits of both bluegill and largemouth have been expanded to give anglers an opportunity to harvest these fish, making 2018 a great time to bag a trophy-sized largemouth that can end up on the man cave wall without a shred of guilt about damaging a resource.

Lake Powell

The abundant winter precipitation throughout the Colorado River system means the water level is up from previous years. That means more flooded tamarisk and other brush up in the canyons. More flooded brush means for food for crayfish, threadfin shad and gizzard shad. And that means largemouth and smallmouth bass benefit. Water is the key to desert bass growth and survival.

Lake Powell is a tremendous angling resource that would get multitudes of anglers but for its remote location far from any population center. The abundant threadfin and gizzard shad and crayfish make for excellent fishing for black bass and exhilarating fishing for stripers boiling on the surface.

Smallmouth bass were introduced herein 1982 in an effort to provide an additional sport fishery to accompany the stripers added eight years earlier. The smallies are doing well, though the largemouth population cycles up and down, depending on the water level and amount of flooded brush where the fry and juveniles can hide to escape predation.

Nearly 100 major canyons — some stretching up to 20 miles — are flooded by Lake Powell. Some are better fishing than others, all hold fish. The lake starts fishing as early as January though the cool water inhibits feeding. By February, the water temperature will be 49 to 54 degrees, with bass on the move. Depending on weather, the spring runoff can create some off-color water in what is referred to as the north lake, making fishing a bit tougher. 

The Southwest Monsoon can create some crazy-tough fishing with rapidly rising water levels. The smallmouth move to different depths making them hard to locate without electronics. 

By October, and through the end of the year, the smallmouth come up shallow to eat threadfin shad hiding in the flooded tamarisk at the tips of the canyons. Baitfish fly patterns get eaten as do plastics and cranks in shad colors. October is Lake Powell at its finest — warm days, cool nights, no wind, little angling pressure and plenty of biting fish.

desert bass fishing


South Fork Reservoir

South Fork Reservoir was conceived with recreation, and, more specifically, trophy fishing as the impetus. The South Fork valley, a few miles over the Elko Summit from Elko, was a wide, fertile, meadow-filled valley where the South Fork Humboldt River serpentined.

In 1938, Congress passed the Flood Control Act. Fast forward to 1983 when the Nevada Legislature authorized damming the South Fork Humboldt River and creating a three-mile-long lake consisting of deep holes, several bays and shallow, weedy flats. At full pool, it covers 1,650 acres and sits entirely inside the South Fork State Recreation Area, managed by the Nevada Division of State Parks.

The park features the Hamilton boat ramp — a two-lane concrete structure — plus two smaller launches in the southwest corner at Coyote Cove. The Tomera campground, a 25-site area on the east shore, has camp tables, grills and restrooms with showers.

Initially the management plan was a three-species coldwater/warmwater fishery consisting of rainbow trout, smallmouth bass and channel catfish (yes, channel catfish). The Nevada Department of Wildlife thought the rainbows would attract the most attention, the catfish would offer a fishing opportunity unique to northeastern Nevada and the smallmouth would keep the non-game fish in check.

The baitfish and the rest of the forage base of crayfish and aquatic invertebrates supported those three gamefish so well the Nevada Department of Wildlife added rainbow-cutthroat hybrids, brown trout, largemouth bass and wipers, a white bass-striped bass hybrid.

Although South Fork was a smallmouth lake and produced a then state-record bronzeback over 5 pounds, Chris Drake NDOW fisheries biologist, says the largemouth catch in recent years has outstripped the smallies by a 3 to 1 margin with fish going 8 pounds. He thinks the smallmouth that now average 14 to 16 inches are starting to rebound.

Water enters the south end where the old river channel serpentines through the now-flooded meadows. The southwest and southeast edges of the lake are shallow, weed-filled aquatic insect incubators.

The east and west mid-points have some deep water — 30 feet or so — a short cast from the bank. At the north end is the spillway and rock-faced dam. The largemouth tend to favor the shallow end while the smallmouth hang out along the dam and the spillway.

Most anglers target the trout. Early season they are casting chironomids and finding largemouth eating those little flies. As the water continues to warm, the newly-hatched forage fish and crayfish come into play. Flies and baits should imitate those foods. 

Lake Mead

The water releases from Lake Powell flow down the Colorado River and fill Lake Mead. Water managers predict 2018 will be a good water year, and that's good news for the fish and fishermen. When the water rises, it floods more brush providing more places for fry to hide making survival more likely.

Doug Nielson, NDOW public affairs supervisor, said, the arrival of the gizzard shad changed the forage base. They grow fast and they grow large. And they reproduce in greater numbers than the already existing threadfin shad.

Lake Mead black bass respond to all that forage by producing big numbers of fish, but not a lot of large fish. Smallmouth top out around 4 pounds, with largemouth pulling the scale down a few more notches. A typical tournament bag of five fish will weigh 13 pounds, equally split between smallmouth and largemouth. The challenge here is finding where the fish are swimming in the five major basins that make up this huge lake. "If you can catch fish on Lake Mead, you can catch fish anywhere," Nielson said.

This is a year-round fishery, though catching starts to crank up in the spring. Nielson suggests two areas that take only a few sentences to describe but cover miles of water. The first is the coves between Callville Bay and Vegas Wash. The other is the coves from Virgin Basin up into the Temple Arm. Fishermen should work the points, the flats and the submerged brush until they find fish. It's important to really pick apart the structure to find where the fish are hanging. Once located, the fish will be on the same type of structure elsewhere. So when one area is exhausted, boaters can more to a similar location and start catching again.

Summer is more of a challenge as the heat makes both the fish and fishermen uncomfortable. Things pick up again in the fall with Callville Bay and Echo Bay up through the narrows being primary target areas. Light-colored soft plastics and crankbaits can do the trick. 

Lake Mohave

Even though Lake Mead and Mohave are only separated by a dam, bigger fish swim in Mohave, with plenty of 3- to 5-pound smallmouth bass getting fat on shad. Mohave is long, narrow and much shallower than Mead, with distinct water temperature regions. Water emerges from Hoover Dam at 52 degrees, then progressively warms as it travels downstream.

The coves north and south of Cottonwood Cove are good areas to prospect for black bass. The same can be said for the coves around Katherine Landing near the south end. Look for typical bass structure of flooded standing trees and other flooded cover. 

Mohave has benefitted from a multi-agency habitat restoration project through which different types of structures have been placed in the water. These structures provide sanctuary for the small fry.

The Hollywood Western has been replaced by the intergalactic Western. The dreams of gold still dance in the minds of prospectors and gamblers. Bass fishing is on the uptick as water has returned to the desert. It's a great time to start planning your next angling excursion to at one of these locations or another bass hotspot near you this year.

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