Roosevelt, Bartlett and Alamo are the places you will want to try this year, as full pools and flooded vegetation make way for excellent fishing conditions. (February 2006)
Dennis Green, the Arizona Cardinals football coach, fishes a rising Roosevelt Lake along with Vickie Williams and her dad, Gary Williams, who owns Tempe Marine. The rising waters at Roosevelt flooded thousands of acres of prime upper Sonoran habitat.
Photo by Rory Aikens
Bass anglers, looking for the best action this year? You'll want to point your rod tips toward the top-of-the-line lakes in central Arizona, where an epic new era of fishing is unfolding, thanks to unprecedented runoff in the winter and spring of last year.
Roosevelt, Bartlett and Alamo will be the bass triumvirate in 2006 and most likely beyond -- they all received massive influxes of nutrient-laden inflows during last year's fortunate runoff. These lakes' productivity simply went off the charts and they experienced humongous bass and shad spawns. Crayfish populations also exploded.
These three lakes, Arizona's top bass factories, will be providing anglers some terrific bass and crappie bonanzas. But keep a close watch on Lake Pleasant too: Throughout the spring spawn, it had a massive influx of nutrients and sustained the highest lake level in its history.
New Lake Syndrome
The water at Roosevelt Lake looked like rich chocolate milk, so while maneuvering the bass boat, my friend Ernie Bunch could toss a soft plastic jerk bait alongside a giant saguaro cactus that was half submerged.
It was one thing to hear about the lake level rising to cover 10,000 surface acres of vegetation. It was quite another to experience the phenomenon in person from the deck of a bass boat. It was like visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time: almost more than the mind could absorb.
While fishing Salome Cove, I looked over to see my friend, Gary Williams, his daughter Vickie, and Arizona Cardinals Coach Dennis Green working spinnerbaits through the brush-choked chocolate soup amidst a forest of half-submerged saguaros. Vickie was the first to hook up with a bass. "Way to go, Vickie," I shouted, then almost ran the boat into the arms of a saguaro. I had to stay alert every second or lose a trolling motor prop.
I looked over at Ernie and asked, "Man, can you believe this? Imagine what this lake will be like in two or three years! I lost track of the 50- to 100-bass days I had at Lake Pleasant while it was going through the New Lake Syndrome. This lake could be even better."
Ernie, who fished the pro bass circuit some 20 years ago, agreed. We could both remember in the late '90s when tournament anglers at Pleasant routinely caught five fish weighing more than 30 pounds and sometimes, more than 40. A friend of mine once took five fish totaling more than 32 pounds, and he didn't even place in the top five. Is Roosevelt going to eclipse Lake Pleasant's premier days as a big bass producer?
One day last spring, after a fun day of fishing at Roosevelt, our group of outdoor writers, guides, tournament anglers and biologists all sat around the campfire, eating fish tacos and sharing visions about Lake Roosevelt's future. "Wouldn't it be something," somebody asked, "if we have a lake just 90 miles from Phoenix that rivals Mexico's top bass lakes, such as Huites Lake or Lake Novaro?"
We all agreed that it's possible.
Our superb cook that night was Jim Warnecke, a biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. He pointed out that thanks to the 13- to 16-inch slot limit, Roosevelt had legions of prime spawning-age bass available when the lake exploded beyond its drought-starved physique.
"The fantastic forage base of shad and crawdads also means the slot-sized bass will be moving quicker through the slot, due to lots of groceries, and popping out the top end quickly," said Warnecke.
He predicts there'll be masses of 8- to 11-inch bass to catch this year, but plenty of lunkers too. "These small bass are the future, and no one should mind dealing with them. Plus, I look for another year of good spawning conditions, since the lake level stayed pretty high through the winter. Even if we get a spring runoff that's only so-so, lots of submerged habitat will be available again to continue the 'New Lake Effect' for another year."
Last summer and fall, before the fish went into their deep-winter holding pattern, Art Chamberlin, a guide at Roosevelt, saw huge numbers of bass and crappie fingerlings. "We should see large numbers of small fish this year, but the good ones will also be around," Chamberlin predicts. "In two or three years, look out! Roosevelt could be the premier bass fishery west of the Mississippi and one of the very best crappie lakes in the nation.
For most Arizona anglers, the tough part about fishing Roosevelt is getting used to working so much cover.
Two Steps Ahead
The topwater lure had barely hit the surface when multiple bass began knocking it around like a volleyball. Bass will often smack a shad to knock it senseless before gobbling it up. "Daddy's got another fish," shouted my excited 5-year-old son as I fought the hard-pulling greenback.
Good-sized bass were seemingly stacked on every point, island and reef, waiting to pounce on schools of shad -- and lures. Catching 30 or so bass, weighing two or three pounds each, ranks extremely high on the fun meter.
Last year, Bartlett was an angler's dream, routinely the hot bass fishing lake in Arizona. There were times when anglers could catch-and-release 60 to 80 nice bass a day. You can expect more of the same this year from the Horseshoe-Bartlett bass production complex.
My nicknames for these two sister lakes on the Verde River are Batman and Robin, because they're definitely a dynamic duo when it comes to fish production. Horseshoe is typically kept low so it can serve as a flood catcher. But in good years, it plays another role as well, being a bass, crappie and shad nursery for Bartlett.
Last year's dynamics were unprecedented. Time after time, torrential rains deluged the watershed and swelled the Verde River until it routinely surpassed the flows of the mighty Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
Each time, Horseshoe would fill to near capacity, then be lowered as rapidly as possible into Bartlett Lake to make room to hold the next flood. It was awesome to watch. Nutrient-rich water roared out the floodgates at Horseshoe and cascaded down the steep spill
way, creating a scene that could have been used during the filming of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The roar of that man-made waterfall was so loud that you had to shout at the person standing next to you just to be heard. Those who were brave enough could even take the protected footpath beneath the lip of the overflow and walk behind and beneath the Hershey-colored waterfall.
The dynamic situation didn't end with the spring runoff. Throughout last summer, Horseshoe was gradually drained into Bartlett, keeping that lake full while the system still provided irrigation and drinking water for a growing Phoenix metropolitan area. Yet during the spring spawn, Horseshoe was almost full. All those young fish were systematically fed into Bartlett.
Last year, in fact, some of the hydrologists called Horseshoe "the lake that wouldn't die," because every time Salt River Project drained it down to almost nothing, another "precipitation event" in the watershed would fill it up again, even during late summer.
In a way, Bartlett Lake is two steps ahead of the other prime bass factories. It had good runoff and experienced terrific spawns for three out of the past four years. For anglers, that all translates into Bartlett being the hotspot again this year for consistent action on one- to three-pound bass, with a decent sprinkling of fours and fives as well.
An Early Favorite
Last year, Alamo blossomed out like a woman in her ninth month carrying triplets. This desert impoundment on the Bill Williams River experienced high lake levels not seen since the early days of its existence.
Going into January of last year, Alamo was so low that all the boat ramps were out of the water and couldn't be used. But by late February, there was quite a transformation. All the ramps were underwater and again, not useable. Even signs pointing to the boat ramps were underwater.
As the Santa Maria and Big Sandy rivers routinely pumped tens of thousands of gallons of nutrient-rich water into this fishery east of Wickenburg, all the luxuriant growth along Alamo's shoreline, and along the riparian area leading to the lake, became flooded.
After years of drought, the Alamo bass factory experienced a tremendous spawn and was back in business once again. By summer, anglers were seeing huge schools of juvenile bass and vast clouds of baby shad. If Alamo crappie futures were sold on the stock exchange, maybe we all could make enough money to retire and go fishing more often.
Alamo has yet another claim to fame: Typically, it experiences its annual bass spawn a month to six weeks ahead of most other Arizona bass lakes. My friend, Stewart Kohnke, the wildlife manager at Alamo and a good fishing partner, says this fairly shallow desert lake sits in a depression between two small mountain ranges, creating kind of a "solar bowl" effect.
Stew has treated me to many a February fishing expedition where we caught bass and crappie staging for their spawn, or on the beds. Watch for a warming trend in February or early March, then hook up the boat and head for Alamo for some pre-spawn angling action. Be sure to take your flippin' rod and plenty of spinnerbaits.
Also, keep in mind that the nutrient-rich flows down the Bill Williams River have fed into Lake Havasu, which also responded with terrific spawns of sport fish and forage fish.
Dark Horse Worth Watching
The normally dry Agua Fria River snaking through Black Canyon City drew onlookers in 2005, after it turned into a rampaging river
By the time the Agua Fria emptied into Lake Pleasant, it resembled some of the historic footage of the silt-laden Colorado River boiling through the Grand Canyon prior to the building of Glen Canyon Dam.
Every year, typically, Pleasant is gradually filled with nutrient-poor irrigation water piped a couple of hundred miles from the Colorado River via the Central Arizona Project Canal. Then throughout the irrigation season, Pleasant is gradually drawn down to meet water demands.
But last year was dramatically different. From its normal winter low in early March, Lake Pleasant filled to overflowing in almost a single week. For the second time since the Waddell Dam was built in 1993, Pleasant rose to its maximum elevation of 1,702 feet in height. For the first time in its history, however, Pleasant was kept at that 1,702 until early summer, inundating a wide band of luxuriant upper Sonoran habitat throughout the prime spawning times for sport and forage fish species.
By the fall, anglers were once again catching Pleasant bass with paunches resembling footballs. While the lake may never again provide a parade of behemoth bass as it did during the New Lake Syndrome, this past season offered a decent number of lunkers putting big smiles on a host of faces, including mine. An occasional six- to 10-pound bass on the end of the line raises the angling anticipation factor.
So give these lakes a try in 2006. Maybe I'll see you out there.