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The Return Of Rosy

The Return Of Rosy

As one tournament bass angler avers, "If you don't catch fish at Roosevelt Lake, you aren't trying hard enough!" What transformed this giant desert pond from mediocre backwater to a bass-fisher's oasis? (April 2007)

Tucson angler Tom Harrison hauls back to set the hook on a largemouth among newly flooded brush at Arizona's Roosevelt Lake.
Photo by Lee Allen

Whoever said that size doesn't matter never fished Roosevelt Lake.

Perhaps Arizona's most popular watering hole, this granddaddy of the state's reservoirs was built in the early 1900s. For more than four decades, I've been one of those ardent fans extolling the virtues of these bassin' waters.

Most anglers tow their boats here from Phoenix or Tucson. On the road to the lake, there's a spot where you first catch sight of the shimmering waters.

You can use that as a visual gauge of where the water level is. In the past decade or so, it's usually been like a bathtub with a ring -- and the water surface far below.

2005 was the ninth-wettest runoff season on record. Unexpected heavy runoff from snow and rain precipitation came from the Salt and Verde rivers, filled Roosevelt Lake and other Salt River Project reservoirs, eradicating below-normal water levels in the entire system.

Not long ago, Charlie Ester, operations manager for the Salt River Project Water Resource, was looking at the possibility that the lake could dwindle to a large mud puddle. "Now, because of a winter wetter than anyone's expectations, the lake rose to the highest point in its 100-year history," he said.


On May 1, 2005, it hit its highest watermark ever at 2,147.99 feet, just 3 feet shy of the maximum level allowed for conservation water.

"After lots of back-to-back years of dire drought, that's not too bad," said fellow SRP hydrologist Dallas Reigle. "This irrigation system created by a bunch of farmers a century ago continues to do its job."

Officials and anglers alike are glad to see launch ramps back in the water. But, said Ester, "One wet year does not end a drought of this duration," adding that 2006 runoff figures came in quite a bit lower than 2005.

"By the end of 2006, we had dropped back about 30 feet from the history-making high-water mark. But that still leaves us with a lake of some 17,000 surface acres."

With the newly raised cap on the dam, if the lake is 100 percent full, it would be about 19,000 acres.

"Life is good in Arizona when we have water like this," said Hays Gilstrap, chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. That's especially true for the bass population.

"Lake levels in the last year or so have put out the signal to start an epic era of water-based recreation in the SRP lake chain," according to avid angler and G&F information officer Rory Aikens.

"Several thousand acres of brush cover along the shoreline got submerged, making Roosevelt a candidate for what we call a 'new lake syndrome.' That could bring productivity rivaling any water in the nation." Aikens expects that in the next several years, Roosevelt will be one of the West's top bass lakes.

"One super year won't immediately turn around more than a decade of dryness," said Warnecke. "In the reservoirs and other recreational facilities we manage, our aquifers have been recharged. But it takes a soaking of several years to make up for all the dry ones."

Still, when life gives you lemons, set up the lemonade stand. "Hey, the water mark is up, the fish are biting, and now is the time to take advantage of nature's unexpected bounty," said Warnecke.

Professional anglers have always loved this place, even before the water level's rise inundated salt cedars and scrub brush and left stately saguaros standing in deep water.

"You can always catch fish here," said tournament bass angler John Murray. "No matter what time of year, bass are always willing to bite."

BASS Masters Classic qualifier Greg Hines, who fished competitively for more than 35 years, said that for consistency of strikes and numbers of fish, Roosevelt is one of the best bass waters in the country.

"If you don't catch fish at Roosevelt," he said, "you're not trying hard enough."

The late fishing guide Floyd Preas used to say there were more bass in "this oversize desert pond" than in many of the larger, nationally known waterways. The recent inundation should make angling even better.

Not only should there be more and bigger bass to chase, but the higher water brought in a tremendous amount of new cover to fish. But also, the fish now have more to eat and many more places to hide.

"The spring spawn in 2006 was just amazing for largemouth bass, and we're looking forward to similar results in spring 2007," Ester said.

Roosevelt fishing guide Art Chamberlain has taken clients in search of big bucketmouth for 25 years. His phone is always ringing. "I believe this will be the best bass lake west of the Mississippi for the next several years." And Chamberlain, who also guides for crappie, believes the waters could also be "the best darn crappie lake in the entire United States."

For those who like to fill their coolers, Chamberlain gets as excited as a kid with a new fish pole. "Even before the water levels went up, Game and Fish estimated, conservatively, that there were 10 million crappie here. Now they've got so many new places to hide and spawn that spring crappie fishing is going to be nothing short of amazing."

Fisheries scientist Warnecke has just about seen it all in his more than 30 years at the Game and Fish Department. Two-thirds of that time, he has worked the SRP lakes.

"Ups and downs, good and bad times, and hundreds of thousands who fish, sail, water-ski, or just splash around in this man-made swimming pool. It's a busy place, but the waters remain healthy."

And the options for satisfaction continue to increase. The elevated lake levels are just the latest bonus for a site where the federal government has spent $425 million to heighten and improve one of the last stone masonry dams ever built.

In addition to raising the dam's cap by 77 feet, the huge construction project included a 3,000-foot-long suspension bridge that now eases traffic on the west side of the lake as well as wider and longer boat launch ramps and hundreds of solar-powered campsites and picnic benches.

"There's so much recreational interest in this lake now, we're being overwhelmed," said Gary Smith, district ranger for the Tonto National Forest.

After seeing most of the plays in the playbook over his more than three decades of monitoring fishing patterns, Warnecke is usually not impressed with year-to-year fluctuations. But he likes what he sees at Roosevelt this spring. "We didn't do an electroshock or gillnetting survey last year. But based on observations by field personnel and interviews with anglers about their catch rates, the status of several species is what we were expecting -- good reproduction, good growth and good survival rates."


Another reason angling continues to get more exciting is imposition of a slot limit that began in 1990, calling for release of bass between 13 and 16 inches long. "Before the slot, bass fishermen were harvesting about half their catch. Whole year-classes were disappearing before they attained much size," said Warnecke. "These size-limit restrictions are paying off with a rising catch-per-hour rate."

With angler days continuing to increase and a lot of the day's catch going home with fishermen, Game and Fish Department officials had determined that 75 percent of the harvested bass had measured between 10 and 13 inches long. Whole groups of largemouth were disappearing before they came anywhere near age four or close to 15 inches long.

Now those 15-inch fish get to stay in the water longer and grow even bigger. In fact, Game and Fish likes anglers to harvest bass outside the slot, especially those under 13 inches, to ensure ample food for spawning-aged bass within the slot limit.

"Thinning the herd" of abundant young bass helps manage population numbers and leaves more food, especially threadfin shad, for the larger bass. Biologists are in agreement that harvesting the pan-sized filleting fish will not damage bass production. Roosevelt spawns are typically robust, especially when water levels are up and food and cover are abundant.

Shortly before the slot-limit restrictions were imposed, the rate of bass caught per hour had declined from .30 to .16. State decision-makers were hoping the catch rate would increase to more than one fish per hour, once the effects of the slot limit kicked in.

They made the right call. "The restricted size-limit for bass continues to help the quality of the population, not only keeping our slot sizes fat and healthy, but moving them quicker through the slot due to the nutrient enhancement," said Warnecke.

The slot has served the lake well in the past, especially in low-water years with limited bass populations. It has maintaining good catch-rates, and larger bass are now showing up regularly. Last year, several largemouths weighed on certified scales topped the 10-pound mark.

"I grew up in an era when biologists told us that largemouth bass were so prolific that each breeding-age female produced up to 75,000 offspring every year and it was impossible to 'fish 'em out' with hook and line," said former outdoor writer Bill Quimby in one of his 1990 newspaper columns. "Old fish had to be caught or die naturally so they could be replaced by fish moving up from lower levels. Each age-class had to have fewer fish than the one below it for the population to be healthy."

And that's why the state requests anglers to take some of their catch home for supper, to keep the production line orderly and some lunker bass awaiting your arrival.


Tonto Creek feeds the lake on the west end and has more trees than a lumberjack could hope for. The Salt River enters the lake on the east above Schoolhouse Point. The Salt has more shallow flats and tapered points, while the Tonto side gives up more steep banks. And all roads lead to the midpoint near Steamboat Rock and Salome Cove. No matter whether you drop in the boat at Windy Hill or Cholla Bay, there are miles of shrub-filled shallow-water shoreline to cast to, and no specific right or wrong way to approach it. A Tucson old-timer once caught a state-record largemouth while trolling Windy Hill and fishing a tiny crappie jig on light line.

However, there are some tried-and-true tricks to tantalize brushpile bass and facts to keep in mind when they go undercover in thick vegetation.


If water temperature hasn't yet reached the low 50s, bass will still be in their early stages of heading toward the shallows, relating to brush on points, or banks near deep water. As waters continue to warm up into the mid-50s, bass start to filter into visible brush in the shallows. Stick to northern shorelines that receive the greatest exposure to sunlight.


Spring bass like to roam when they first show up shallow, looking for a spot to hold their trysts. Use a lure that lets you cover lots of water. Spinnerbaits are great for their noise and flash. Buzzbaits or crankbaits with BB shot also do the trick.

When waters rise into the 60's, topwater lures run by bushes in a twitch-and-wait fashion can produce powerful explosions out of the woody cover.

Let your imagination wander. Look through your tackle box for lures that attract attention -- stickbaits, poppers, propeller lures -- even that funny green widget you've never taken out of its wrapper. If it wiggles or wobbles, it could be enough to attract attention.


Predictions for the future are filled with optimism for fat bluegill, even-fatter black crappie, and big largemouth bass. "In the last year or so, bluegill populations -- especially the larger-than-hand-size mature fish -- found all the food and shelter they needed and became a surprise by-product for crappie anglers," said Warnecke. "The slabsides' (crappie's) population continues to explode, and the dominant size-classes in the 12-inch category will grow another increment larger this spring, with males exceeding 13 inches and at least 14 inches for females."

As for largemouth bass, "The future is rosy at Roosevelt," according to Warnecke.

The lake dropped 25 to 30 vertical feet last year from its earlier historical high-water mark, but received over 5 vertical feet of rainfall from last year's monsoon rains.

The extra water brought in more nutrients for faster fish growth. And there remains lots of brush in newly flooded coves as additional hidey-holes.

"All species should be healthy and happy. The future of fishing at Roosevelt continues to indicate 'thumbs up' for anything with fins, but especially bass and crappie -- the species Arizona anglers love to catch."

Smart anglers are scheduling some Roosevelt Lake days into their 2007 fishing calendar. SRP's Ester, calling himself "the fearless forecaster," said winter rains have helped bring water levels back up a little.

"We're cautiously optimistic that a wet winter could bring the lake back up to those historic levels we achieved in 2005. And if this turns out to be another wet year, we could actually hit the record high with a possibility that we'd have a good shot of getting up to 100 percent full." l

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