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Mead Bassin'

Mead Bassin'

Taking largemouth bass in Lake Mead's current low-water conditions requires a few simple changes. The first involves understanding how the fish react to rocks rather than to brush.

By Richard Alden Bean

For much of the last decade Lake Mead has undergone a bass-fishing revival of sorts. Water levels have been quite high, shad have been abundant, the bass have prospered, and bass anglers have enjoyed some of the best fishing this big lake has had to offer for several years.

Where there once were only hordes of slender, out-of-condition bass - one pro noted a few years ago that "Mead bass are so skinny, they only have one side" - sizes and weights rose markedly, to the delight of all. Tournament weight limits went way up, and most anglers found they were catching more and larger bass.

Lake Mead is part of the huge Colorado River system and is contained within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, operated by the National Park Service. It's a 3,000-square-mile hunk of beautiful desert and mountain acreage shared by Nevada and Arizona. At capacity, Mead holds enough water to cover the entire state of New York to a depth of 1 foot. With a potential 158,000 surface acres when full, it holds the title of America's largest manmade reservoir, which makes it America's biggest bass fishery.

Bass fishing at Mead can range from spectacular to poor- sometimes in the same week. The huge lake has so much and so many different types of structure, its complexity can be likened to asking an 8-year-old child to tackle a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle mere moments after he's successfully completed his first 100-piece version. Successful bass anglers must search over large areas to find fish. Eliminating dead water is a must.

A good graph is a prime item of equipment. One seasoned bass pro we talked with said Mead is one lake where fishing fast works: "If you put in more than two or three casts on a spot without getting bit, don't waste your time - move to a better spot."

Finesse tactics won two consecutive Lake Mead Open bass tournaments for professional angler Mike Folkestad. Photo by Mike Folkestad

The primary forage for the bass is threadfin shad. Bluegills have been growing in size and numbers in recent years, and tilapia have been discovered recently. (It's not known yet if tilapia will be a problem or a potential prey species.) In the past year or so, smallmouth bass have also appeared in Mead, and while numbers are not high, they are being caught in several locations on this huge lake.


All this sounds fine for Lake Mead bass, but the very best fishing began to shift back the other way a couple of years ago as drought gripped the Southwest. As with other Colorado River impoundments, the lake level at Mead has dropped markedly and sat at 67 percent of capacity (about 60 feet down from the annual average) entering the fall of 2002.

The fish are still there, of course, but catching them has become a bit tougher for the average angler. The reason is as obvious as looking across Mead's expanse: the low water level has put much of the shoreline brush and structure out of the water. Anglers who are accustomed to simply motoring up to a brushy shoreline, heaving out a spinnerbait and expecting a quick bite are now having to relearn the delicate presentations of drop-shotting and dart-heading. And their finesse-sized plastic worms are finding bass on deep rock piles and submerged points.

All That and Striped Bass Too

Largemouth bass are not all that glimmer at Lake Mead. The huge impoundment is also home to a tremendous striped bass fishery.


Millions of small to medium-sized striped bass roam Mead's expansive waters in search of threadfin shad to eat. The other striper chow that swims in the lake is trout, which are planted during cooler months of the year in the lower half of the lake.


Live shad and cut anchovies are the primary striper baits used by Lake Mead anglers. Locating a good area and fishing deep with either of these baits is likely to lead to a full stringer.


When trout are being stocked, a number of anglers score on large striped bass by fishing big wood lures or soft plastic swimbaits that mimic rainbow trout. Stripers will hit a range of lures, from spinnerbaits to spoons, when they are in a feeding mood. Small chrome spoons, lipless crankbaits and floating diver lures that resemble shad are excellent for fooling stripers.


While fishing is possible from virtually any shoreline, a boat offers the best way to find stripers. Why? Big schools of stripers crashing into balls of shad create obvious surface boils that can be seen from quite a distance. -- Richard Alden Bean


"What the fishermen need to do is adjust," said local bass pro Pat Donoho. "Go to lighter line, smaller lures and finesse presentations. In the spring you can probably still get by throwing a pig-'n'-jig in pre-spawn. After the pre-spawn you have to go to the very light stuff. Spinnerbaits and such won't do it. We all have to relearn all that deep structure fishing we haven't been doing over the last few years."

One of the anglers who has risen to the finesse challenge is long-time professional bass angler Mike Folkestad, who has Lake Mead's bass dialed in pretty well. He's won the U.S. Open bass tournament the last two consecutive years. It's worth noting that his winning weight this year was well below that of the previous year, an indication that things are getting tough even for professional anglers.

"Remember that the fish don't change," Folkestad said. "They still eat the same things they did when the water level was up, and they look for the same kinds of structures; it's just that the low water forces them into rocky areas instead of brush. You have to fish deeper and fish more open water areas."

Folkestad was thoughtful about the changes he's seen at Mead over the last few years of low water. "All you have now is rock. No brush - ju

st rock, humps, points or rockpiles." He was quick to point out that there are still lots of bass in this huge lake, noting that the low water has simply changed how you have to play the game.

"You can always catch fish," he noted. "You might not get big fish, but you can get numbers. I would rely on small soft plastics and light-line presentations. Think about not fishing big crankbaits or spinnerbaits but switching to drop-shotting, or fishing small Texas-rigged worms, or lighter Carolina rigs. These finesse methods would be my first choice under these conditions."

Folkestad said he would probably go with 6-pound-test line and use a 4- or 6-inch worm for the prevalent conditions on Mead today. He laughed and said he'd put in a plug for a 4-inch Robo Worm called the Mike Folkestad Special: "It's a purple with a blue vein, and they make it specially for me."

Folkestad said bass can be taken from fairly shallow areas in low water, but one cold weather hits anglers will need to extend their subtle presentations down 50 to 60 feet. Anglers fishing these depths should carry a hypodermic needle to learn how to properly deflate a bass' swim bladder to release these fish.

If years of low water conditions weren't bad enough, boater access has become problematic on a couple of fronts.

First, water levels have threatened some boat ramps. Callville Bay is the most obvious, but if water levels continue to decline, it's going to be a bit harder to launch a boat. The state of Nevada and the National Park Service are trying to get ahead of this problem; sources from both say it's likely that launch conditions will remain pretty good in the near future.

The other problem stems from some user groups lobbying the National Park Service to restrict the activities of personal watercraft users at Mead and Lake Mohave (farther downstream). Park service personnel have come up with a play for so-called "primitive areas" on the lake, in which motorized craft would not be allowed. But restrictions on a powered craft would affect bass boats and other anglers and would limit resources to those who use rafts, canoes, kayaks and other man-powered craft. The Center For Biological Diversity - no friend to sportsmen - has filed a lawsuit to force the Park Service into action.

Under the proposed restrictions, several areas, including the Gypsum Beds, the Overton arm and Grand Wash, would be cordoned off from boater traffic with buoys. Not ironically, these areas are home to some of Mead's best bass fishing spots. It would also have a definite and detrimental effect on businesses that cater to boaters.

Bass anglers are opposed to these proposed restrictions. Anglers opposed to the idea have dominated local press coverage. One angler, who wished to remain anonymous, simply snorted and said, "Sounds kind of stupid to me: primitive areas in a manmade reservoir inside a National Recreation Area?"

Officials in Nevada and Arizona dislike the idea, too. According to Rich Haskins, Fishery Bureau director for Nevada Department of Wildlife, Nevada licenses personal watercraft as boats. From a legal standpoint, therefore, personal watercraft have the same privileges as any other registered vessel.

Personal watercraft are highly popular with many recreational boaters on Lake Mead, and while most anglers as well as other water users consider them a distraction and a nuisance, they don't want to see their activities restricted.

A compromise may be in the works. The Park Service is said to be eyeing a plan that would create semi-primitive no-wake areas on Lake Mead - possibly even requiring the use of electric trolling motors for boat passage. Faced with the alternative, anglers will probably agree to such a plan.

Regardless of that secondary access issue, nothing is happening on Lake Mead that should keep any bass angler away. True, water levels are down, but plenty of fishing remains.

If you come to fish Mead from a state other than Nevada or Arizona, you'll have to purchase a non-resident license; all anglers must purchase a $3 Colorado River stamp for Mead and other Colorado River waters.

Nevada's resident annual license is $15.50, and there are 10- and three-day resident fishing permits, for $10.50 and $6.50. A non-resident annual fishing license is $45.50, 10-day is $30.50, and three-day is $17.50.

Arizona's resident license is $12. A non-resident general fishing license for one year is $38. You'll need to purchase a trout stamp if you want to catch trout. Arizona's five-day license is $18.50, plus $3 for the river-use stamp. Arizona also offers a four-month non-resident license (intended for retired ``snowbirds'' who winter in Arizona's warm deserts) that is $22.

If you are from any state other than Arizona and plan on fishing the Colorado River many times during the year, you might consider purchasing an Arizona Colorado River annual non-resident license for $32.50. What makes this a good choice is that you only need to buy the use stamps for all the other states that border Arizona (Nevada and California) to fish the river from Lake Mead to Yuma.

Lodging and services are never a problem at Lake Mead, since it is located only 20 miles from Las Vegas and all its enticements. The smaller communities of Henderson and Boulder City also offer all services.

Winter months can be surprisingly cold and windy in the desert, and the middle of summer is often blazing hot. Afternoon thunderstorms and heavy rain can occur at times during July, August and September. Despite this, Mead is a year-round bass fishery. Early spring, summer and fall are the best times for largemouth bass. Smallmouth bass are beginning to take up residence in Mead and may provide an additional fishery as time goes by.

Lake Mead has several major recreational centers. Each has its share of marinas, boat ramps, boat rentals, restaurants, lodging and both tent and RV camping. The most popular are: Lake Mead Marina, 322 Lakeshore Road, Boulder City, NV 89005, (702) 293-3484; Callville Bay Resort, Star Route 10, Box 100, Las Vegas, NV 89124, (702) 565-8958; Temple Bar Resort, Temple Bar, AZ 86443, (520) 767-3211; Overton Beach Resort, Overton, NV 89040, (702) 394-4040; and Echo Bay Resort, Overton, NV 89040, (702) 394-4000.

Three vital sources of information on conditions at Lake Mead are the National Park Service, 601 Nevada Highway, Boulder City, NV 89005, (702) 293-8907; Arizona Game and Fish Department, 2222 West Greenway Road, Phoenix, AZ 85023, (602) 789-3214; and the Nevada Department of Wildlife, P.O. Box 10678, Reno, NV 89520, (702) 688-1500, or the Las Vegas office, (702) 486-5127. The National Park Service's Lake Mead Visitor's Center can be reached at (702) 293-8990.

Boaters also should check with the local National Weather Service office at (702) 736-3854 for conditions.

Several fish

ing guides operate on Lake Mead. Some of them include Jim Goff, (702) 565-2169; Howard Blum, (702) 565-7583; Pat Donoho, (702) 451-4004; and Karen Jones, (702) 361-1972.

For up-to-date fishing information try Extreme Mini-Mart, (702) 564-3058; or Blue Lake Bait & Tackle, (702) 452-8299.

The best topographic map of Lake Mead is made by Fish-N-Map Co., 8535 W. 79th Ave, Arvada, CO 80005; (303) 421-5994.

Internet-savvy anglers will want to check out either or

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