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Roosevelt Bassin'

Roosevelt Bassin'

Local anglers affectionately call this Arizona impoundment Rosey, and their annual springtime optimism is about to be confirmed on this productive desert water -- big time!

Like gamblers ready to place wagers on a hunch, anglers are ready to bet that Roosevelt Lake will bust out into a sure-thing bassin' bonanza this year.

Their confidence is bolstered by surveys conducted last fall by Arizona Game and Fish Department fisheries biologists. "There's going to be a lot of bass, 8- to 10-inchers, as a result of the spring 2001 spawn, as well as larger 2-year-old fish that are ready to participate in this year's spawn," says Jim Warnecke, one of the department's top fisheries experts. Basing his predictions on electroshock and gill-net survey results taken last October, he says, "These will be healthy bass, chunky and aggressive. Our sampling showed a lot of small bass in the shallows that should be pushing the footlong size range this spring, just under the toss-'em-back slot limit of 13 to 16 inches."

Because Roosevelt is such a nutrient-laden lake, other species will also benefit. "In addition to largemouth expectations, there's also good news for bronzeback chasers. I'm predicting there will be an increase in the smallmouth bass population, perhaps making up 10 percent of the lake's game fish," says Warnecke. "We also found lots of black crappie in two age and size classes (3 to 4 inches and 6 to 8 inches) as well as some in the 14-inch 2-pound category, so we know there are some slabsided papermouths out there, too."

An angler who spends 200 days a year on Roosevelt's waters, Art Chamberlain is the lake's resident fishing guide; he scouts for locations with cockleburs and salt cedars. "We anticipate another good year with another tremendous spawn like we had in 2001," he predicted. "There should be a zillion bass in the 12- to 13-inch range, and enough 8-inch crappie to make fishfinders go crazy."

All the signs and signals are optimistic for the largest of the six multipurpose Salt River Project lakes that provide hydroelectric power, irrigation water and fantastic water-based recreational opportunities to desert-dwelling anglers.

Professional bass angler Greg Hines says that Roosevelt's bass bite "all the time." It's numbers of fish that count here. Photo by Lee Allen

The granddaddy of all Arizona reservoirs was built in the early 1900s as the first project under the Federal Reclamation Act. In 1911, President Theodore Roosevelt drove to the fledgling waterway via the dusty Apache Trail to dedicate the tallest masonry dam in the world. The original 280-foot-tall structure (higher than Niagara Falls) was built from blocks and cement obtained from nearby hillsides, which contained deposits of cement-forming limestone.


The dam got a construction facelift and a new top hat in a four-year expansion project completed in 1995 at a cost of $350 million. The original rough-textured masonry (a boulder and mortar aggregate called "cyclopean rubble") was covered with smooth concrete, and a 77-foot structural extension was added, capping its new height at 357 feet. A 3,000-foot-long suspension bridge has been open to traffic for more than 10 years; paralleling the dam, it eliminated the necessity for vehicles to travel one at a time across a treacherous single lane at the top of the structure.

At the time of construction, the Bureau of Reclamation said that the fix-up projects would enhance the future, although they obliterated the past. "It's a sad fact," said bureau engineer Tom Gorman. "We have to cover up history - the largest masonry dam in the world - with new materials. But there will be tremendous benefits not only in safety but in expanded recreational opportunities on an enlarged lake."

The lake at the confluence of the Salt and Tonto rivers is already rated among the better bass waters in the country and it will only get better as water levels increase with spring rains and snowmelt run-off from the White Mountains of northern Arizona. Inflow will flood new structure and bring a fresh nutrient load to enrich the lake and its aquatic inhabitants.

"You can always catch fish here," says tournament bass angler John Murray, a former Phoenix resident. "No matter what time of year or what the weather pattern is, bass are always willing to bite in these waters."

The late fishing guide Floyd Preas, who described Roosevelt as "one of my favorite fishin' holes," said that there were more bass in this oversize desert pond than in many nationally known waterways in Texas and Louisiana. "Ninety-nine times out of 100, you're going to catch fish here," he would assure his clients before taking them on the lake to prove his contention.

Another man who knows that Roosevelt is a "numbers" lake is Greg Hines of Mesa, a three-time Bassmasters Classic qualifier who began his competitive fishing career more than 35 years ago. "If you don't catch fish at Roosevelt, you're not trying hard enough," he says, noting there are literally millions of largemouth bass of all sizes just waiting for the right presentation. "The fish are there and they bite all the time - and I do mean all the time. For consistency of available strikes and numbers of fish - not size - Roosevelt is definitely one of the best bass waters in the country. If it had more trophy bass, it would be out of this world."

Drawdowns conducted to facilitate construction projects in the early to mid-1990s brought the lake down to near-record lows, at one time as low as 15 percent of capacity. For many months, boat docks and ramps were left high and dry, and traditional salt cedar and scrub brush cover ran dozens of yards up the hillside from where fish were actually swimming. In the spring of 2001, the lake began to rise from rainfall and snowmelt, reaching a height of nearly 40 percent of capacity by June. Summertime evaporation again reduced water levels, but weather prognosticators are encouraging about this year's rainfall prospects, which would help flood newly emerged brush.

"The good news about rising water levels is that these newly flooded zones have had a couple of growth years since they were last inundated," says regional Game and Fish spokesman Ty Gray. "This means the vegetation is well-established and provides lots of new hiding places for structure-oriented fish."

Veteran outdoor scribe Bob Hirsch has made his living for a half-century writing about fishing opportunities in Salt River Project reservoirs. Having weighed an 8-pound, 12-ounce bass from these waters (caught while fishing with guide Chamberlain), he certainly qualifies as an expert. "Roosevelt grows fish fast," he says. "Because its waters are extremely nutrient-rich, the lake stays warm year 'round, and it has lots of relatively sha

llow brush-filled bays that provide excellent spawning sites."

That combination has produced a lot of bass to fill up stringers of shoreline anglers and line the livewells of the boating crowd. A few trophy-sized wall mounts, at least by Arizona desert lake standards, have been taken from Roosevelt waters.

If you could bottle bass fishing, 1988 would be listed as a vintage year. Arizona Inland Water Hook and Line records show a 7-pound, .96-ounce smallmouth caught by Dennis Barnhill of Mesa on a live minnow near Windy Hill in March, and a 14-pound, .52-ounce largemouth taken a month later. Alex Atamanchuk, a 75-year-old Tucson crappie fisherman, hauled in the bigmouth bass while trolling a black and chartreuse jig behind a small aluminum boat. Not all of Roosevelt's big fish come from this same spot, but Atamanchuk's fish, the largest to date, was discovered along the rocky shoreline near the sheriff's substation, about a mile up the Salt River arm from the dam.

As he posed for photographers with his 28-inch-long catch, Atamanchuk told reporters, "It felt like a log until it broke the surface and started a half-hour fight." Without a net - "Who needs a net when you're fishing for crappie?" - the veteran Roosevelt Lake angler delicately maneuvered his 8-pound-test line before bringing the fish to the boat. "My arm was so tired, I couldn't lift the bass," he said. His catch was especially significant because he broke a record that had held for more than 30 years.

This waterway has always been so popular with bass anglers that many had been loving it to death. With more than a million visitors a year and in excess of a quarter-million angler-use days annually, intense fishing pressure contributed to over-harvesting. Although fish in the 5-pound range were common and acknowledged without public fanfare, trophy fish records that take several decades to be broken indicate an opportunity for improvement in lake management practices.

One catalyst for change came in the spring of 1990, when slot limits were imposed to increase catch rates and fishing opportunities, according to AGFD officials, who said anglers were taking too many pan-sized bass home. "Before the slot was instituted, bass fishermen were harvesting 50 percent of their catch," according to statistics in Guy Sagi's book, Fishing Arizona.

"That's a bunch of fish," says biologist Warnecke. "Our harvest surveys indicated that whole year classes (size groups) were disappearing before they reached 15 inches in length, or about 4 years of age." Correspondingly, the rate of bass caught per hour declined from .3 to .15 over a 10-year period. "As anglers catch and release slot fish of 13 to 16 inches, the catch rate is expected to increase, and bass should be able to grow to larger sizes," Warnecke predicted, calling the size-limit restrictions an investment in Arizona's fishing future.

A year after the slot was introduced, author Sagi reported: " . . . the keep rate has already dropped to 10 percent and the catch-per-hour ratio is increasing." In fact, in the first year of slot regulations, the catch rate nearly doubled. Now, a decade later, AGFD sampling results show continuing gains in both size and numbers of fish. "Our surveys typically show a greater number of fish at Roosevelt than at other similar SRP lakes, and these are not skinny fish, they're well fed because the lake has lots of shad bait," according to Warnecke.

There are lots of expert opinions when it comes to this lake, so the value of any free advice should be weighed in concert with how much it cost you. My own notes from last season indicate that by April, largemouths in the chain of SRP lakes ranged from pre- to actual- to post-spawn status. My fishing log indicates: "A good time to work soft plastic jerkbaits, shallow-running cranks or Texas-rigged worms starting at outside points, moving along the sides of coves all the way to the backs of the coves."

One of the standard best spots for largemouths is on the north side of the lake in Salome Cove, Roosevelt's largest indentation and a spot that holds an incredible number of fish. "By this time of year, I'm beginning to move from the north side of the lake to the south in search of areas with structure," says Chamberlain. "I generally start in the middle of the lake because I've found that fish tend to move in shallower near the islands and from Sally Mae down to Goose Flats."

Smallmouth searches often start on the Tonto River end of the lake close to the dam and its cold, deep (up to 250 feet) water. There are lots of submerged salt cedars to fish where the Tonto enters the lake. These waters are muddier than in mid-lake, but if your lures make noise or have some flash, they should gain the interest of a nearby bucketmouth.

On the west side of Bass Island are long, brushy and gently sloping shorelines fed by washes from the Sierra Anchas Mountains, that are generally dynamite in the springtime. "In springtime shallow water, you only need two weapons," says Chamberlain, "a spinnerbait to fish the brush and a weedless lizard when you get tired of cranking. Depending on water clarity, bass will be up in anywhere from one to 10 feet of water, so they're really accessible to all anglers."

April is your last chance to fish here before uncomfortably hot daytime temperatures begin to show up. By mid-May even lake guides switch their schedules to night fishing to beat the heat.

A year-old state-of-the-art marina offers a boat ramp (usable regardless of water levels), boat and personal watercraft rentals, and wet and dry storage. The Roosevelt Lake Marina's phone number is (520) 467-2245.

For those without portable sleeping accommodations, Roosevelt Lake Resort Motel and Trailer Park, (520) 467-2276, and Tonto Basin Inn, (520) 479-2891, are not far from the shoreline.

The AGFD's Region VI office can answer questions about angling regulations; call (480) 981-9400. For additional information, call Tonto Basin Ranger District, (520) 225-5296, or Tonto National Forest Service, (520) 225-5200.

A Class A general fishing license is required of resident and non-resident anglers. Daily bag and possession limit is six bass in the aggregate.

Scenic approaches are from the west and south. West: Take U.S. Highway 60 out of Phoenix passing through Apache Junction, take a left on state Route 88 through Tortilla Flat before descending the narrow, winding Fish Creek Hill (not for the squeamish). South: From U.S. 60/70 between the twin copper mining towns of Globe and Miami, take SR 88 about 30 miles to the town of Roosevelt on the lake just east of the dam.

And there's another approach - from the north. Take Beeline Highway (SR 87) northeast out of Mesa, past Saguaro Lake, then right to SR 188. Head south past Jake's Corner and through Punkin Center to lakeside.

Near the dam are the mountainside cave cliff dwellings of Tonto National Monu

ment. Inhabited by Salado Indians 800 years ago, the well-preserved ruins overlook the lake.

Roosevelt Lake fishing guides include: Art Chamberlain, C&C Guide Service, (520) 467-2770, tightliner@; Lee Gassoway, Lee's Fishing Guide Service, (520) 479-2120; and Curt Rambo, (520) 479-2512.

Roosevelt's Other Game Fish
This is the time of year when bass anglers carry a light-line spinning rig to take advantage of the West's most popular panfish - crappie.

Literally tens of thousands of the speckled beauties infest the shallows with spawning starting near the eastern end of Schoolhouse Point and tiny coves south of Windy Hill. While 1-pound crappie are common, 2- to 3-pounders also lurk among the schooling fish.

They'll fall for live minnows jigged slowly along shoreline brush. "All you have to do is troll and enjoy the sunshine, pick up your rod occasionally and reel in a fish," says guide Art Chamberlain, who also likes 1-inch curly tailed plastic grubs as bait.

In addition to largemouth and smallmouth bass and crappie, Roosevelt is loaded with channel and flathead catfish, carp, bluegills and an occasional rainbow trout. A record 36-pound bigmouth buffalo fish also came from these waters.

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