Get down to fish-eye level and float the Lower Colorado River for solitude and limits of largemouths. (January 2007)
Photo courtesy of Richard Alden Bean.
Flipping a plastic worm into tiny pockets at the base of the shoreline cover on the Colorado River is just about as good as it gets, if it's a largemouth or smallmouth bass you're after.
Want to get away from it all? I know a place where that's actually possible.
From the California border town of Blythe south to the city of Yuma, Ariz., the weedy back bays, meandering side channels and tule-ringed pothole lakes off the main channel of the Colorado River give access to some of Arizona's best bass fishing.
In 1935, when the Imperial Dam just north of Yuma was finished, the Colorado flooded into desert canyons and gullies, creating hundreds of winding channels, hidden potholes and seep ponds. Most are not really lakes, but simply openings in the vast network of plant life where water depth stops their growth.
Most are connected, and fish can swim through the tule, also called bulrushes, to reach the main river and other potholes. Landlocked fish were usually hand-stocked by earlier generations of anglers. Smaller potholes in the dense tules are best fished with a float tube, pram or johnboat.
Excursions up- or downriver usually mean renting or bringing a powerboat. A good way to fish the area is to go in a group, rent or bring a pontoon boat to serve as a floating base, and use float tubes in your search for a big Arizona largemouth.
THIS PLACE IS DIFFERENT
Most backwater bass angling takes place within 30 miles or so of the Colorado above Imperial Dam. The Imperial National Wildlife Refuge takes up a big chunk of this portion of the river. The hub of angling activity is found at the resort of Martinez Lake on the Arizona side of the river.
First-time anglers at Martinez may feel a bit strange when they find themselves fishing all day long without seeing another angler -- yet still being able to hear the sounds of boat traffic and voices from other anglers and water-skiers, often just a few yards away on the main river.
In the last few years, there have been a number of dredging projects aimed at opening up silted areas of these backwaters, both on the Arizona and California sides of the Colorado. These have increased the water flow through large sections of the brush-filled, shallow backwaters and, by all accounts, have improved an already very good fishery.
Chris Hayes, a tournament-level bass angler and fishery biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game, said the projects were a success, and they are looking into more of the same in the future.
First-time visitors may also find it strange to be awakened by the thump of heavy artillery, or the rattlesnake snarl of a 25mm chain gun in the distance. Martinez Lake is accessed through the Army's Yuma Proving Grounds, and such sounds are common during weekdays.
TACKLE & TECHNIQUES
Since there are both tiny potholes and big, open areas, almost all bass- fishing lures and tactics will work somewhere in the lakes, potholes or river. However, most anglers opt for soft-plastics or jigs. The dense tules and brush ringing the shores of all these lakes make accurate casting a must. Pinpoint presentations of plastic worms or crayfish imitations into small openings in the brush and tules are often the best bet for bass lurking in the shade of the shoreline.
Flipping a plastic worm into tiny pockets at the base of the cover is just about as good as it gets. There are times and places where a Carolina Rig can be worked over the bottom in deeper water. But fishing in this area is normally better suited to accurate casting to small target areas. The small-to-medium bass lurk well back inside the brush, which forms the edges of the potholes. But remember that the visible growth may be standing in three or four feet of water, and the fish can retreat as far back as they like.
"Last year, there were a lot of fat bass," said Hayes, the tournament angler and fisheries biologist. "The tournaments around this part of the river were popping out some great limits of bass. The sight-fishing in the spring last year was tremendous, especially south of Walter's Camp."
But an extraordinarily hot summer followed, and fishing dropped.
One of the best fishing days I've ever had on the Colorado came while I was using 4-inch blue plastic worms, Texas-rigged, flipped into tight pockets in shore cover on one of the many pothole lakes north of Martinez on the Arizona side of the river.
Another good technique is to cast to the many clumps of drowned trees that line the deeper center channels of these pothole lakes. Early and late in the day, try a popper such as a Pop-R or simply twitch a small Rapala on the surface. There are times, mostly mornings and evenings, when a buzzbait churned across the surface parallel to the tules will get smashing strikes. From mid-morning through mid-afternoon, a spinnerbait fished down a couple of feet is also deadly, as are shallow-diving crankbaits.
Most of the bass -- and there are thousands per mile -- are not giants, but there are enough 5- and 6-pound fish to keep things very interesting. It's also worth noting that the Arizona's Colorado River record bass is a 16-pound, 14-ouncer, caught in the Yuma area.
"The fishing next spring looks good," said Brad Jacobson, a Yuma- based fishery biologist for Arizona Game and Fish. "We have finished all of our fishery surveys, and everything looks real stable. Overall, I think it is doing well."
IF YOU GO
Martinez Lake Resort is at Star Route No. 4, Box 41, Martinez Lake, AZ 85365. The main phone number is (928) 783-9589, or 1-800-876-7004. You can call the boat shop at (928) 783-4905. Fisher's Landing, right next door, has a Mini-Mart at (928) 782-7049, and their boat shop number is (928) 343-2776. Fisher's Landing Campground, which has both primitive and hook-up RV sites, is another option, at (928) 539-9495.
One thing you won't find in the area is a fly-fishing guide. But Wally Wolfe is the local bass guide and can put you on the right track for largemouths. Call him at (928) 783-9589.
The best map of the area for anglers is the Lower Colorado River (Parker to Yuma), offered by Fish-N-Map Co., 9535 W. 79th Ave, Arvada, CO 80005.
You can get to Martinez from Interstate 95, whic
h parallels the river on the Arizona side. From the Los Angeles or Phoenix area, take Interstate 10 to Quartzite in Arizona, turn south on I-95 and drive about 60 miles to the Martinez turnoff. It's 11 miles from the highway to the resort.
From Yuma, take 95 north for 21 miles.
If you come to fish this area from a state other than California or Arizona, you'll have to purchase a non-resident license. License-holders from those two states only need to buy the other state's $3 Colorado River permit to fish from any floating device on the river.
For 2007, the Arizona resident license is $23.50, and the non-resident is $88.00. There are also four-month non-resident licenses for $39.75.
The limit is six bass on the Arizona part of the Colorado. Minimum size is 13 inches.
If you hail from any state other than Arizona and plan on fishing the Colorado River many times during the year, you might consider purchasing an Arizona annual non-resident license for the Colorado River for $48.75. This would be a good choice because to fish the river from Lake Powell to Yuma, you need to buy only the stamps for all the other states that border Arizona.
For more information on lower Colorado River fishing, contact the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, 2222 West Greenway Rd., Phoenix, AZ 85023; or call (602) 942-3000.