Check out these great bass lakes in southern Arizona to avoid the crowds and catch your fill. (April 2010)
Even native Arizonans tend to overlook the southern bass lakes when they get the urge to bass fish. The biggest lakes are in the central part of the state and along the Colorado River, and those areas are quicker and easier to get to for a majority of the population. For those who live closer to the border, and for those willing to travel, four smaller, more peaceful lakes beckon. Although you could fish all four in a single day, each of them is unique.
While the rest of the state may receive more attention, southern Arizona has great bass action.
Photo by Margie Anderson.
These lakes could fool you into thinking that they are natural lakes, but they are reservoirs.
Arivaca Lake is rarely crowded and has some good bass fishing. At an elevation of 3,750 feet, it is nestled in a hollow surrounded by some of the most beautiful high desert in the state. The shores of Arivaca are solid with big trees and flowering shrubs in summer. It averages about 80 acres in size, but can get low in the summer. In 2009, it was extremely dry in Arizona, and Arivaca was so low that the ramp was out of the water last October.
If you have a 4-WD tow vehicle, you should be able to launch a bigger boat. A smaller boat is ideal, since there is a 10-horsepower limit. There are no developed camping sites at Arivaca, no drinking water and no facilities except for a pit toilet. Bring everything you might need with you, and pack out your trash when you leave.
There are plenty of open spots around the lake that you can camp on, and all but the biggest RVs should be able to navigate the roads successfully. With a really big rig, I would call the Coronado National Forest at (520) 281-2296 and inquire about road conditions. Because of high mercury levels in the warmwater fish (bass, sunfish, and catfish), the Game and Fish Department recommends that you not eat these species. This means that Arivaca is basically a catch-and-release lake, and because of this, there are some huge bass and catfish in the lake.
In spring, the weeds are down and there is some open water, so crankbaits and spinnerbaits work well. Pitching a spinnerbait or a jig up under an overhanging tree is an almost a sure-fire way to get a nice bass to bite. If the lake is still low, there won't be any overhanging trees, but the spinnerbaits and jigs should still work just fine.
The shoreline at Arivaca varies from weedy mud banks to riprap or bluffs. You can walk around the lake on the well-used paths that circle it, but make sure you wear insect repellant. With a decent selection of plastics and spinnerbaits you'll be sitting pretty at Arivaca in the spring. In April, Senkos and 4-inch worms are go-to baits. Color depends on water clarity. If there has been a lot of run-off and the water is dark, use something with a little chartreuse. Otherwise, since bluegills are the main forage, anything with a bit of blue is a good choice.
When there has been a good rainy winter, the water will come up quickly. You might want to call the Game and Fish in Tucson at (520) 628-5376 to inquire about water levels before you go.
To get to Arivaca Lake, take I-19 south and go west at the Arivaca turn-off (exit 48). You'll pass through the town of Arivaca, and then follow the signs. The last couple miles after you turn off the Ruby Road are dirt road. If it has been rainy, take care. Several washes cross the road, and they can get nasty if they have been running.
Patagonia Lake is a small reservoir about an hour south of Tucson. Formed by damming Sonoita Creek, this beautiful little lake offers good crappie, catfish and bass fishing. Patagonia is at an elevation of 3750 feet, and the surrounding country is grassy hills and scrub oak and juniper.
Largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish and catfish are all good, and rainbow trout are stocked in winter. Half of the lake is a no-wake zone, which makes things nice for fishermen. Jason Klein of the Arizona Game and Fish Department says that Patagonia has been producing trophy bass lately. Ten- and 8-pounders have been weighed in at tournaments there this past summer. He says that the big bass here and at Parker Canyon feast on the stocked trout -- keep that in mind when you are choosing swimbaits.
There are two launch ramps at Patagonia. The one nearest the marina is situated at the far end of a little bay on the south side of the lake. There is a store there, and you can even rent a small boat if you need to. The marina bay narrows down just before it opens back out into the main lake, and an arched footbridge has been built across the lake at this point.
As you turn right after passing under the bridge, heading toward the east end of the lake, there is a large shelf under water just at the turn where the bay opens into the main lake. This is a part of the rock formation that the bridge sits on, and there is a good dropoff about 40 feet from shore. This shelf with the dropoff is the perfect place for a worm fisherman.
A jig-and-pig will also catch bass on the dropoff by the bridge. Purple and blue seem to be the colors that the Patagonia bass prefer, no matter what time of year it is.
Moving on down the bank on the south shore, you come to the swimming beach. This beach is buoyed off, and you can't fish inside the buoys when people are swimming there. This is a good worming spot and an excellent place to fish a spinnerbait at night.
Moving on to the north shore, the banks are cattails and trees, and pitching small purple worms, spinnerbaits or jigs is the order of the day from April through October. Purple fleck Power Worms are very good for this technique. Stay out a ways and pitch -- the water is very clear. Move it a couple of times and if you don't get bit, pitch to a different spot. They usually take it on the fall.
One stretch of this reedy bank has a lot of wood sticking out of the water in front of it, and this is an excellent place to throw a spinnerbait. A white one with double silver willow leaf blades is usually good.
As you start to reach the point where you are directly across from the entrance to the marina, the bank changes. Huge boulders form the shore now, and this is one of the best places on Patagonia for big fish. Deeper diving crankbaits are dynamite on this rock, especially first thing in the morning. Spinnerbaits are good here, too.
Still heading west along the north shore, past the big rock bank, you come to another area where the shoreline is covered with cattails.
This is a submerged bluff, and the creek channel below is still lined with huge cottonwood trees. The shore runs out relatively flat, then suddenly drops off, and you can see the trees beneath you on your graph. This is a dynamite spot not only for bass, but also for crappie.
Just past this tree-filled fish heaven the shore begins to curve north and east into Ash Canyon. This cove is a super area for crappie and bass. The right side of this arm as you are moving in is a little steeper, and the cuts on this side are great crappie spots.
Once you come out of Ash Canyon, you're almost at the end of the lake. This end is the skiing half of Patagonia -- the east end is totally no wake. You can catch bass at Patagonia all year long on worms, spinnerbaits and jerkbaits. Because of mercury content, eating bass at Patagonia is not recommended. But trout are stocked here through March, so if you want to catch some fish for dinner, go for trout.
You can get to Patagonia by taking I-10 east to I-19 at Tucson and going to Nogales. At Nogales, head north on Highway 82 to the lake. A more scenic route is to keep going east on I-10 past I-92 to Highway 83 at Pantano. Turn south here to Sonoita, and then catch Highway 82 to the lake.
There is an $8 entry fee to Patagonia Lake State Park, and there is no entry from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. There are 72 developed campsites, each with a picnic table, a fire-ring/grill, and parking for two vehicles. There are also 12 boat-in campsites and 34 electric RV sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Campsites are $15 per night per vehicle, $15 per night for boat-in sites, and $22 for electric sites. There is also a store, marina, restrooms and showers and picnic ramadas. You can call the park at (520) 287-6965.
PARKER CANYON LAKE
At an elevation of 5,400 feet, Parker Canyon Lake is surrounded by hills covered with junipers, pines and flowering shrubs (Parker Canyon is in the Coronado National Forest). Plenty of good weedbeds and patches of reeds make perfect hiding places for the bass, crappie, trout, catfish and huge sunfish that live in the lake. Parker Canyon holds the state record for green sunfish -- 1 pound, 9 ounces.
The lake is usually very clear, with weedbeds that run out to about 30 feet from shore. These beds make a distinct weedline where they end, and these weedlines are excellent places to throw worms and jigs for bass. Black, blue and dark green are good colors to try. Be prepared for a big bass -- the lake record is 7 1/2 pounds. Spinnerbaits and shallow-running crankbaits worked over the weeds also produce nice bass.
Another lure that produces big bass at Parker Canyon is a Jitterbug. Plastic worms and Senkos fished along weed edges and down the banks work well. You should also try a variety of trout-colored baits.
Parker Canyon is bigger than it looks at first glance -- it actually covers about 125 acres. It is vaguely L-shaped and one arm is hidden around the corner from the launch ramp.
There are new owners at the store at Parker Canyon and they have made some major improvements. The store is clean and fresh and runs on solar energy. The rental boats are in great shape. You are not allowed to use a motor over 8 horsepower on the lake, but you can launch a bass boat and use the trolling motor. The ramp is single lane and a bit steep, but it is paved and serviceable.
Shore-fishing is very popular at Parker Canyon, and Lakeshore Trail No. 128 leads all the way around the lake. This nearly level trail is well maintained and easy to follow. Trailside benches and interpretive signs are located at some of the best wildlife viewing areas. There is also a fishing pier near the store, and the Game and Fish says that they will be improving the pier this winter.
In addition to the store, boat ramp and fishing pier, there is a courtesy dock, restroom, campground, paved parking and handicap access to most facilities. Lakeview campground has 65 sites with drinking water and a special area with handicapped access. The sites there are $10.
Three group sites at Rock Bluff are just a short distance from Parker Canyon Lake. Tables and grills are clustered on small, walled patios in a rocky little canyon dotted with oaks and junipers. Group site reservations can be made at www.recreation.gov. Use is by reservation only.
The store at Parker Canyon Lake sells all kinds of groceries, tackle and supplies. You can call the store at (520) 455-5847 for information about boat rentals and such. The new owners have great plans for the lake, including possibly a lodge. There is excellent hunting in the area, and even though the lake is only a couple of miles north of the border, they have not had any problems. Border Patrol and Game and Fish officers patrol the area regularly.
To get to Parker Canyon Lake, drive east on Interstate 10 to Sonoita, and then continue on AZ 83 approximately 25 miles to Parker Canyon Lake. The road is now paved all the way in.
Most roads off the main highway are going to have a warning sign when you are this close to the Mexico border. Despite the heavy presence of Border Patrol and other law enforcement, illegal immigration and smuggling are active. If you do plan to travel cross-country, you should absolutely consider how you would defend yourself if it became necessary. There isn't always cell phone reception, and it's big country down there. If you stick to well-traveled roads and busy areas, it's unlikely that you will have any problems.