Havasu and Roosevelt are your midwinter tickets to the best bass fishing in the Southwest. (Feb 2009)
Bass pro Debbie Blanchard casts to smallmouth bass in a Havasu canyon. Because they spawn before the largemouths do, smallmouths are common in February. Photo courtesy of Debbie Blanchard.
One of the perks of living in the desert is year-round bass fishing. When others are still drilling holes to reach their smallmouths and largemouths, Arizona's desert rats are gearing up for the spawn and boating giant bass.
In February, things begin to heat up on desert waters. Big bass move toward shore in search of food and places to nest. Two lakes known for their trophy bass -- both largemouths and smallmouths -- are Lake Havasu and Roosevelt Lake.
Lake Havasu was created in the 1930s with the construction of Parker Dam. During World War II, an R-and-R camp for the armed forces was built on the peninsula. That peninsula is now "the Island."
In 1963, Robert McCulloch bought 26 square miles of desert, the current site of Lake Havasu City. In 1968, he became the proud owner of the authentic, original London Bridge.
McCulloch had the bridge dismantled, the pieces numbered and shipped to the desert. By 1971, the bridge had been re-built at Lake Havasu. The land beneath it was dredged out to form a channel, turning the peninsula into an island connected to the mainland by the London Bridge.
Today, you can drive your boat under the London Bridge. The shores of the channel are a popular place for boats to beach while their owners sunbathe and visit with each other.
You won't find many sunbathers in February, however. Early mornings can be very chilly. But if there's no wind, you'll be shedding your jacket by afternoon. By the end of January, the water temperatures rise into the 50s. And from there, things get nothing but better.
Havasu lies on the Colorado River, so there is always current on the main lake, even if you don't notice it.
Structure ranges from steep cliffs to rocky banks to sandy beaches, and there are miles of reeds and tules all year long.
"Early in February, it can seem like the fish are on strike," said local resident and tournament angler Debbie Blanchard. "But before long, the big smallmouths start to move in, and you can catch a lot of really big fish."
The smallies start to spawn when the water reaches about 58 degrees, and they spawn deeper than largemouths do. Debbie looks for beds in at least 10 feet of water.
They're easy to spot because smallmouth nests are as much as three times as big as largemouth beds. The smallmouths also excavate clear down to the rock, making the big pale beds very easy to spot in the clear water of Havasu's main lake.
This time of year, Blanchard begins in the main lake. Her first stop will be the Pilot Rock or Steamboat area, and then she'll fish south toward the Bill Williams River.
"The river area actually warms up first, because the water there isn't as clear," said Blanchard.
She fishes the primary points with a Carolina rig or a split-shot rig.
Fish will stage on these points in 15 to 25 feet of water until they decide to spawn.
To be successful at Havasu, a Carolina rig needs to be more like a slightly beefy split-shot rig. On her Carolina rigs, Blanchard uses 6- to 8-pound-test fluorocarbon line and a 1/4-ounce weight.
The fish at Havasu are very line-sensitive, and the water is extremely clear, so if you try braid or even heavy mono, you may end up skunked. Best baits for Carolina and split-shot rigs include Senkos in green and white laminate, purple with blue flake, and root beer with red and gold flakes.
Power Worms are a staple at Havasu as well. The bass there just love purple Power Worms. For split-shotting, it's hard to beat 4-inch curlytail or straight-tail Robo Worms in Bold Bluegill or Warmouth colors.
Wayne Crowder of Orem, Utah, often fishes tournaments at Havasu. This time of year, a split-shot rig is always his first choice.
He likes main-lake areas like the humps and reefs around Site Six, and has his best luck on long main-lake points in about 25 feet of water. He often finds his fish holding on the manmade structures that have been placed in these areas.
Like Blanchard, Crowder uses fluorocarbon line and Robo Worms, but his favorite color is oxblood.
Being able to read your depthfinder is a crucial skill on Havasu. When he's fishing a long point, Crowder is often at least 50 yards from shore, and the only way he can stay on the right structure is by keeping an eye on his graph.
It takes patience, especially when you're split-shotting with an open hook. The artificial structure that holds bass also grabs hooks and hangs on to them.
When the weather is clear and calm, go with the finesse baits and fish very, very slowly. Blanchard uses a 10-inch leader on split-shot rigs, and 3 feet on Carolina rigs.
The slower the bite, the longer the leader. She paints her sinkers brown to blend with the bottom and to prevent the fish biting the sinkers instead of the baits.
Once the fish go into active pre-spawn mode, Blanchard starts using reaction baits, like crankbaits and jerkbaits. These are also the go-to baits on windy days when fishing a split shot or Carolina rig becomes impossible.
The bass at Havasu love chartreuse-shad colored baits. Pointer 78s, cranks and Rat-L-Traps in ghost minnow, chartreuse shad, pearl ayu and American shad are among their favorite hard baits.
While the smallmouth bass seem to love the deeper waters of the main lake, the big largemouths head for the backwaters and spawn on the shallow sandy banks.
If you're simply racing down the main lake, it's easy to miss the entrances to these backwaters.
If the water's a bit low, you may have to pole your way through the tules to reach them.
Slow down and slowly cruise the edges of the tules while you watch for small channels
leading to open areas hidden behind the reeds.
Local angler Mike Baldwin of Mohave Valley loves to throw spinnerbaits along the tule line and in the backwaters. There's just one problem: At Havasu, there are literally miles and miles of tules.
How do you decide where to fish?
"Look for dark water," Baldwin said. Dark water is deep water, and the bass love to use the little holes near the tules.
The good water is maybe four feet deep. Baldwin starts in coves near the north end of the lake, fishing a Pointer 78, but slowly. Water in these shallow areas is usually warmer, and the manmade brushpiles hold fish.
Baldwin said that from the Arizona Channel to Blankenship is the first area where the largemouths will spawn. There is a series of coves going up this area. He stops to fish the rocky points along the way.
Baldwin travels with the trolling motor because if he rams into a sandbar on the trolling motor, he won't get stuck as badly as he would with the big motor
He keeps a variety of baits tied on and switches them with the cover. The deck of his boat holds crankbaits, spinnerbaits, split-shot rigs and jigs. For his split-shot fishing, he likes Mojo-style weights because they go through the cover more easily.
He ties a swivel about a foot or so above the hook, then adds the weight another 18 inches above that. He'll pitch this rig underhand close to the tules or beneath any overhanging vegetation and let it fall, shaking it four or five times. He then repeats the fall and shake without re-casting.
Lake Havasu has plenty of launch ramps and lots of places to get supplies, rent a room, camp or park your RV. You can get an excellent map of the lake at www.fishnmap.com, and find all kinds of information about Lake Havasu City and the area at www.golakehavasu.com.
For advice and tackle, or to find a guide, visit Angler's Pro Shop at 362 London Bridge Road, No. 1 in Lake Havasu City. Or call (928) 854-2277.
To fish Lake Havasu, you need both a Colorado River Stamp and an Arizona fishing license. A non-resident five-day license costs $32, and the California Colorado River Stamp is $3.
Visit the Arizona Game and Fish Web site at www.azgfd.gov for information on other licenses and prices. You can purchase a license and find the complete Arizona fishing regulations online at the state's Web site.
The limit on bass, including largemouths and smallmouths, is six per day.
Roosevelt Dam was completed in 1911 and was then the tallest masonry dam in the world. (Now it's India's Nagarjuna Sagar Dam, at more than 400 feet tall.)
Roosevelt Lake has two main arms -- the Salt River arm toward the east and the Tonto Creek arm on the west end. In 1966, the dam was resurfaced and raised 77 feet, increasing the lake's capacity by 20 percent.
Right after the addition, however, there was a long drought, so the lake stayed very low until 2005, when it finally reached 90 percent of its new capacity. This new water level submerged miles of trees and brush at both ends of the lake, creating acres of new brushy habitat for fry.
For a long time, there's been a slot limit on Roosevelt -- bass between 13 and 16 inches must be returned to the water immediately.
Jim Warneke, a fisheries biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said that the slot gave Roosevelt a head start on "new lake syndrome."
Those protected slot fish now have an enormous food base, and Warneke expects trophy bass to emerge from Roosevelt much sooner than they would have otherwise.
The lake had good rains again in 2008, which means that the water level is still high.
Roosevelt has a variety of shoreline structure. There are steep cliffs, large flats, big and small coves, and rocky shorelines of varying slopes, all up and down the main lake.
Since the water level goes down every summer, it gives brush a chance to grow along the shore and at the river ends. When the water comes back up in spring, this submerged brush makes great cover for bass and other fish.
Gary Key of Phoenix fishes Roosevelt frequently. In early spring, the first place he heads for is the Tonto end of the lake. Since the water came up in 2005, acres of trees are sticking out of the water down there.
There's so much cover that you just need to grab a reaction bait and keep moving. Key fishes a variety of search baits, including small swimbaits, Senkos and spinnerbaits.
Small channels score the bottom of the Tonto area, but no map can show them because they constantly change.
These little channels may only be a foot or two deep, but the bass will be in or near them. The trick is to just keep moving and cast your baits right up into the trees.
Key particularly likes swimbaits, Trick Worms and Senkos because they can be fished at a variety of depths. He starts out fishing fairly fast -- maybe throwing a Trick Worm to the trees and twitching it back just under the surface. Often the little males will explode on a topwater worm or a small swimbait.
If you're mainly interested in lots of action, this is hard to beat. Kids particularly love this kind of fishing. Just rig them up with a spinning rod and an unweighted plastic worm.
It's easier to set the hook if you rig it open, but this setup can be difficult to fish in heavy cover. For youngsters, rig the worm Texas-style. Just slip the point back into the plastic. Have them cast this to the trees and crank it back. Kids usually crank a bit erratically anyway, so it's perfect.
Guide Mark Kile of Rye has lived in the Roosevelt area most of his life. He's long been a tournament angler, well known all over the state.
In early spring, Kile uses Senkos, spinnerbaits, and a variety of creature baits to pull big largemouths out of Roosevelt. This past spring, he found his biggest bass in the Salt arm, in an area called Pinto Creek.
Once the snow in the surrounding mountains starts melting, its run-off starts pouring into Roosevelt, bringing with it all kinds of "trash." Thick layers of floating debris coat the lake's surface, and big logs can be floating just under the surface.
This debris also piles up in the backs of coves, creating vast areas of shady water where the bass love to hang out. Kile has found that in early spring, pitching a bulky creature bait through this slop is a dynamite wa
y to catch big bass.