Speak softly and carry a big flippin' stick. Oh yeah, Teddy Roosevelt would get a charge out of this Arizona bass lake! (April 2006)
Teddy Roosevelt would get a charge out of Arizona's largest inland reservoir, and not just because it was named for him. At Roosevelt Lake this year, you'll definitely want to quietly arm yourself with a big flippin' stick to work the thousands of acres of submerged vegetation.
This top-of-the-line impoundment 90 miles from downtown Phoenix is going through what biologists call "the new lake syndrome." Thousands of acres of submerged brush and trees are providing cover and fish habitat. For anglers, that will translate into world-class bass action over the next several years. For this spring, grab your flippin' sticks and spinnerbaits, and plan on having lots of brush-bustin' fun.
Ten years ago, you see, the dam at Roosevelt was raised 70 feet. Then came a 10-year drought, when this huge reservoir on the Salt River drainage shrank faster than the waistline of a devout practitioner of the Atkins Diet. Thick vegetation grew in that vast, fertile exposed lakebed.
For years, knowledgeable bass anglers dreamed of the day this drainage would fill back up. Most expected it would take 10 years of normal precipitation and runoff to accomplish the task. Last year, those dreams came true in a single season. Roosevelt went from almost dry to full, flooding the thick vegetation in the old lakebed. The rapidly rising waters also flooded about 6,000 acres of prime upper Sonoran habitat for the first time ever, including vast mesquite forests, huge cottonwood galleries, and dense stands of stately saguaros.
In fact, by mid-spring last year, Roosevelt increased in surface acres to about the size of Lake Havasu on the Colorado River, but Rosey was packed with nutrients from the tumultuous runoff. The resulting baitfish and sport-fish spawns last year were nothing short of spectacular, setting the stage for this year. Expect to have lots of fat and sassy year-old bass fighting for your lures, along with enough lunkers to keep life interesting.
While we fished this remarkable fishery last fall, the numerous small bass were so aggressive that they fought and tossed our topwater lures around like a pickup game of La Jolla Beach volleyball.
Talk about belly-busting fun!
Using light poles and line, we were laughing as the vast legions of small bass tenaciously attacked everything we threw. Tossing a Zara Puppy into a gap in the brush stretching almost across the front of a shallow cove, we saw a lunker greenback hit the lure with a loud ka-whoomp. It was an instant adrenalin rush. The toad jumped out of the water and thrashed back and forth, trying to throw the lure. Then my pole bent almost double as the brute raced into the thick submerged vegetation and broke off. It was awesome!
Expect more of the same this year, but with lots of fat yearling fish to catch.
Jim Warnecke, a fisheries biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said that anglers may have to fight through the plentiful yearling bass to get to the lunkers. But the lake's productivity is resulting in fast-growing bass, so there are plenty of large bass as well. "Bass have been moving rapidly through the 13- to 16-inch slot and coming out the other side. There will be no lack of fat lunkers this year," Warnecke predicts.
In fact, he points out that having the slot limit ensured a strong age-class of prime spawners for when the lake filled last year. In future years, anglers are going to be harvesting a lot of fun from last year's bass explosion.
Biologists also expect another great spawn this year, if runoff is even close to normal from the Salt River and Tonto Creek. Back-to-back good spawns hold the promise of a bright future for Roosevelt, which could become one of the top bass fisheries in the West, if not the nation. Personally, I think you can count on it.
That's the future.
For the here and now, Roosevelt offers lots of choices on any given day. Rosey can be like three lakes in one: the Salt River arm, the Tonto arm, and the more narrow section between the two where the dam and the marina are located. There is also a giant lake-like cove that can take on a life of its own: Salome Cove.
SALT RIVER ARM
In the spring, the Salt River arm typically looks like chocolate milk from runoff. Floating trees and driftwood can be as common as fleas on a flop-eared old bloodhound basking in the desert sun. The influx of cold water from mountain snowmelt can delay the spawn in this end of the lake.
For your lure selection, think loud, noisy and smelly. I favor rattling jigs with scented trailers to fish this thick, brushy soup. Maybe add one more word, at least in early spring: slow. Slow presentations help when the bass ease out of their winter lethargy and are not quite as active. They are hungry, however.
The northern shore of the Salt arm bumps up against hills, bluffs and cliffs, with lots of submerged rock structure that's covered with brush and some saguaros. Floating saguaros look like menacing alligators. There are lots of shelves with deep water close by, and plenty of little indents that I call pocket coves. This is a good area to work spinnerbaits and crankbaits for pre-spawn bass -- a good run-and-gun area. It you hit bass, then slow down and fish it methodically. Otherwise, move on. There are plenty of other choices.
The southern shoreline of the Salt arm is more erratic, with lots of small coves thick with submerged brush and mesquite trees. During the spring spawn, those brushy coves can be a good bet. But don't expect to do much sight-fishing of bass on beds in the stained water. This is also a decent area for shore-anglers to work bass sitting behind the thick brush. In fact, sometimes it's possible to have pockets of clear water behind the brush where you can actually see bass. If you're thinking it can be worth it to get out of your bass boat and walk some, you're right.
A host of techniques can work.
Last fall, a fishing pal of mine, outdoor writer Lee Allen, put my oldest boy and me to shame by working a little crankbait magic in these small brushy coves. A crankbait with a slow wobble, bumping submerged brush, can get the bass excited. But bring plenty of crankbaits. The brush eats them quicker than my oldest boy, Jason, gobbles down donuts and sandwiches while fishing.
In the spring, a more attractive alternative might be to slowly work spinnerbaits with trailers. You can still get the brush-bumping effect to excite the bass, yet not lose a lot of hardware in the waiting limbs of treacherous me
squite trees. With the turbidity, you don't have to worry about bass being line-shy. In other words, use the heaviest strength line your outfit allows. Of course, somehow I manage to lose a spinnerbait or two anyway. But there's nothing like the feel of a good-sized bass busting a spinnerbait going through brush.
On the other end of the lake, the Tonto arm can be a little less stained, depending on runoff down Tonto Creek. But it has flats full of submerged brush, along with huge cottonwood galleries and a giant forest of dense mesquites. Fishing in that area is about as close to fishing in a jungle as you can get in Arizona. It's not the best place to take a shiny new bass boat or for trying lightweight line and finesse techniques.
Be sure to pay attention to the buoys: some bald eagles are nesting on a huge cottonwood in this area. The closed nesting area is marked, and bald-eagle nest-watchers keep close tabs on anglers. It's a good idea to give this area a wide birth. But keep an eye peeled to catch a glimpse of those magnificent bald eagles, which just might be fishing nearby.
Where Tonto Creek flows into the lake basks an area of submerged cottonwood galleries and mesquite. It is flippin' and pitchin' heaven. There's not much like it in Arizona right now, except for where the Bill Williams River enters Alamo Lake. It's almost amazing to be in 50 feet of water and still have 30 or 40 feet of cottonwood towering above you. Each of those cottonwoods could hide an army of bass. And there is an army of cottonwoods surrounded by a vast forest of mesquites. It can be daunting at times.
It's fun to fish along the submerged Tonto Creek channel ambling through this impressive submerged forest. The creek channel is really a bass super-highway. Bends in the old creek channel can provide some interesting bass-congregating spots. Many years ago, not long after Lake Pleasant filled, I watched one of our super anglers, John Murray, sit atop one such spot while pre-fishing for a tournament and pull out one lunker after another.
The Tonto end of the lake also has some huge flats that attract spawning bass like Phoenix freeways attract cars on workday mornings. You might find only 3 or 4 feet of water spreading across immense areas of submerged brush. It's a blast to burn a spinnerbait (work it real fast) or a crankbait across these flats to try and get a reaction bite. Quite often, the excited bass will bust just behind the bait. Either have a second pole rigged with a flutter-down type bait, or have your backseat partner so equipped and ready to cast into the action.
Fishing the edge of these flats adjacent to deeper water is the one place where using a drop-shot rig for staging bass makes perfect sense.
Fishing the center section of the lake, commonly called the Narrows, can be a different world. If the runoff from both the Salt River and Tonto Creek is tumultuous, even this section can be stained. (It was last year.) But during times of normal runoff, the narrows often has the clearest water in the lake.
Here you can expect to find a combination of largemouth and smallmouth bass. Sometimes if the largemouth bass are not hitting, it's a good strategy to work the rocky areas near the dam for smallmouth. This is also a good area for those afoot.
In fact, when storms blow in and waves are crashing about, fishing from shore might be the safest. This new and larger Roosevelt is quickly developing a reputation as a place not to be on the water when blustery storms are blasting between the local mountain ranges. Be sure your bilge pump is working properly.
When it's windy, keeping your bass boat on the leeward side of the marina tire line can be a decent strategy. Bass can often be found hanging around such floating structure. The cove behind the marina is also a decent place to try. While quail hunting in the area last fall, I stopped there to wet a line and caught three bass in five casts from shore.
Salome Cove, just off the Tonto arm, is like a lake within a lake. A long, gooseneck-like channel leads to this secluded cove, then the cove opens up into a huge bowl that's rimmed with submerged mesquites and saguaros. There are times when I've experienced just a slight breeze rippling the surface in Salome Cove when the rest of the lake was topsy-turvy from high winds.
Last spring, a large group of us, including Arizona Cardinals football coach Dennis Green, fished the dense vegetation not long after it was flooded for the first time. Bass were so dispersed then that it was tough finding a bite. Nonetheless, it was still dramatic to be fishing a landscape that was so recently submerged.
This year, I have high hopes for my favorite Roosevelt cove. It is one of those picturesque places where you want to take your lunch break and just kind of kick back and fish slowly.
There have been times when Salome is just outside the stain line from the Salt River, and other times when it is also chocolate soup. Clear, stained or in between, it is worth your visit.