October 04, 2010
Veteran Arizona anglers know where to get winter lunkers on this pair of reservoirs.
Veteran Arizona anglers know a secret: Winter lunkers at Canyon and Saguaro lakes often lurk around certain boat ramps and coves looking for an easy meal of inexperienced and dazed trout that are new to the neighborhood.
It's a startling welcome to the real world full of hungry aquatic predators.
Anglers and lunker largemouth bass have come to rely on the methodical biweekly winter trout stockings in these two popular Salt River impoundments close to Phoenix. The trout-stocking program by the Arizona Game and Fish Department offers anglers a two-pronged winter opportunity of catching a possible wall-hanger bass -- maybe even a state or world record -- and a delectable winter salmonid meal during the same fishing trip.
It's a winter treat that's tough to beat, anywhere, and you don't need to break out your thermal underwear for this winter fishing expedition, although the mornings are often chilly. However, be sure to put on plenty of sunblock, wear a hat and grab your best polarized sunglasses.
When heading to Canyon and Saguaro lakes, arm yourself with some of the largest and the smallest lures in the freshwater arsenal. Large trout-sized swimbaits are the rule for catching the green-backed behemoths. Small spinners or prepared trout baits are the ticket for catching delectable winter rainbows.
Most behemoth bass devotees at Canyon and Saguaro lakes have learned that when fishing big swimbaits for huge bass, typical bass rods and reels can leave you with a broken line and a sinking feeling, especially in your wallet. Lose one or two $30-plus lures in an afternoon, along with a couple of trophy-sized bucketmouths, and you'll be running to the catalog to buy some salt water gear.
Some of the 10- or 12-inch swimbaits can weigh up to 6 ounces. It's a physics equation. A 6-ounce lure at the end of 40 yards of line being hit by a 15-pound bass moving at 20 mph in 15 feet of water equals how many pounds of line-breaking action? Simply, it's more than enough to break your heart.
A favorite with the lunker-catching crowd are surf-casting outfits designed to cast heavy baits long distances, then haul in big fish through turbulent waters. This is also a good outfit to use for catching huge 30-, 40- and 50-pound stripers along the Colorado River impoundments where trout are stocked, such as Willow Beach and Lake Mead.
No matter what your outfit, a slow, sporadic retrieve is the rule of the day. One angler says he does best letting his big trout-like lure fall to the bottom, then popping it up with a few cranks on the reel and letting it settle back down again. Others like to slow-troll. I like to rip the big bait fast, and then let it hesitate or fall.
Those viewing the winter trout stocking are sometimes in for a treat; watching huge dark shapes charging through the clear waters to gobble up a disoriented rainbow. Sometimes those green-backed behemoths come and hover within a few feet of the stocking truck, like kids anxiously waiting on the sidewalk when an ice cream truck ambles over to the curb with music playing.
But it's luck of the draw to be there at the right time -- Game and Fish keeps the exact stocking day and time a secret. There is, however, a stocking schedule online at www.azgfd.com; look under "What's New." Typically, stockings take place early in the week.
The other good thing about using swimbaits for lunkers is that you don't necessarily need a boat. Fishing from shore is not only a viable method of fishing, it is the only way of fishing in specific recreation areas at both Canyon and Saguaro where boats are excluded and trout are plentiful.
Adam Hodge, a bass angler who routinely fishes both Canyon and Saguaro, says it's possible to use swimbaits year-round to catch the big bass.
For those who catch-and-release big bass, there are certified scales at the marinas of both lakes to weigh the lunker and return it to the water. The Arizona Game and Fish Department keeps annual catch-and-release big fish of the year records, but you must weigh the fish at a certified scale, then measure and photograph it to qualify.
At Canyon Lake, trout are stocked at the main boat ramp and in LaBarge Cove, which is surrounded by the Boulder Recreation Area. LaBarge Cove is like a small lake attached to the main body of water. The big cove connects to the main lake by a narrow channel that goes under the highway adjacent to the marina.
In the winter of 1991, a previous state-record largemouth bass weighing just over 15 pounds was caught in about two feet of water near that bridge on a spinnerbait. That was before the AGFD initiated the trout-stocking program. The current state-record bass of 16 pounds, 7.68 ounces was also set at Canyon Lake, when Randall E. White of Mesa was fishing there in 1997. Canyon Lake is truly the land of the giants and has been for some time.
Some Canyon devotees never get more than a few hundred yards from the main boat ramp because that is where the big ones hang out. A favorite spot for some is where the big paddlewheel tour boat, The Dolly, is moored. Its broad hull is a perfect hiding place for drop-bellied giants.
At the other stocking spot, the hatchery truck doesn't drive to the shoreline in LaBarge Cove. There is a long tube angling down into the lake from the roadway above. The trout slush down the big tube then splash into the cove below. It's dramatic. The sound of water coming down the tube is like a dinner call to big bass. Sometimes you can see the dorsal fin of a big bass slicing through the water like a white shark charging a seal pup struggling in the surf.
You can get a good view of the action from the large handicapped-accessible fishing pier in the cove.
A critical element in the big bass mystique of both Canyon and Saguaro lakes is electricity. Canyon, Saguaro and Apache lakes make up a hydroelectric trinity. Water is pumped from Canyon and Saguaro lakes during peak electrical demand times during the day, and then pumped back into those impoundments during low demand times. Since Canyon is in the middle, between Apache and Saguaro lakes, it can flow one way in the morning, and another way during the afternoon, and then switch directions again at night.
"To be truly successful fishing Canyon, you need to read the current," says veteran lake angler Bill Warman, who compares fishing Canyon to fishing in tidal rivers. "If you don't know which way the current is flowing, you could be casting the wrong way. Predatory fish face into the current."
Warman is on a quest to break the largemouth bass world record at Canyon, having presumably caught and released more 10-pound-plus bass there than any other individual.
Another secret to Canyon Lake is oxygen. Oxygen equates to energy in organic systems. Energy may equal MC-squared in physics, but when it comes to the science of fishing, it can equal lots of line-stripping monsters.
This 960-acre impoundment is shaped like a tadpole with a big round head and a long, squiggly tail -- a 10-mile-long squiggle. The round head is the only relatively shallow basin for this remarkable reservoir, and it is where you will find the boat ramps, marina, restaurant and other amenities.
However, Canyon averages 130 feet deep. Most of the lake is squeezed into a long, narrow channel below towering cliffs where desert bighorn sheep and peregrine falcons dwell. Be sure to bring your binoculars.
The rugged sides of this desert canyon, where the Salt River used to tumble its way toward the desert, are full of delectable hard-shelled creatures with claws -- crayfish. Canyon has plentiful threadfin shad, but the primary prey base is crayfish, especially in winter.
When fishing in late winter, also keep in mind that Canyon has plenty of smallmouth bass and walleye as well. A 4- or 5-pound smallie can put a smile on your face.
Canyon may hold a world-record bass in its depths, but Saguaro holds the hearts of a legion of veteran Arizona anglers.
This 2,500 surface-acre impoundment in prime upper Sonoran desert habitat can consistently put more lunker bass over 3 pounds on the end of your line than any other fishery in Arizona. It's a fun lake to fish, especially in winter when most ski boats and personal watercrafts are sitting in garages gathering dust.
Saguaro has two connected basins, kind of like a barbell, plus a long river-like section rambling through a deep canyon connecting to Canyon Lake on the watershed above it. Like its namesake, this fishery is surrounded by Arizona's signature cactus, the saguaro. It's common in winter to see nesting bald eagles soaring above its waters looking for fish to feed their growing young, and an occasional osprey diving into the water. Mule deer, bighorn sheep, javelina and even secretive mountain lions can sometimes be seen along its shoreline, especially during dry winters when water sources can be lacking in the uplands.
The Four Peaks dominate the skyline. Sometimes in winter, Saguaro anglers are treated to the sight of snow on these towering desert peaks in prime black bear habitat.
Like Canyon, Saguaro has a plentiful crayfish prey base for predatory fish, but the two large basins also provide plenty of shallow spawning space for threadfin shad. Saguaro's two major prey bases of crayfish and shad offer anglers many winter angling opportunities. Try using a modified drop-shot rig that has a crayfish jig for the weight with a shad-like lure two or three feet above it.
Trout are stocked in the Butcher Jones Recreation Area, which is a large cove where boats are excluded. There is a fishing pier along the side of the cove. Trout are also stocked in the Keyhole area, which contains both of the small two-lane boat ramps. There are also fishing piers -- and some boat exclusions -- in the Keyhole area.
Saguaro is the perfect fishery for shore anglers hoping to get lucky on largemouth bass, or who just want to catch a couple of nice trout for dinner. I like to still-fish near the bottom using Power Bait, with my rod sitting on a forked stick stuck in the dirt, while using the big rig to cast and slowly work a trout-like swimbait.
The plentiful shore angling opportunities mixed with the variety of fishing piers adds up to a lot of fun for youngsters and adults. This is the winter lake for kids. The Butcher Jones area is also great for picnics. You can throw a blanket on the grass in the shade of a large mesquite tree or use one of the many picnic tables.
The area outside the boat exclusion buoys is a favorite place for anglers to slow-troll big trout-like swimbaits. Those with a two-pole stamp might consider trolling a large swimbait on one rig to catch big bass, and a small spinner or rainbow-patterned Rapala on the other to catch trout. It's a great one-two punch.
One time, I caught a 4-pound largemouth bass surprise on a Yellow Jacket spinner. Fighting a large bass on ultra-light tackle is a blast. Saguaro also has plenty of yellow bass (often called stripies in the Midwest) to keep life interesting. Trolling small spoons, such as KastMasters, can catch both rainbows and yellows.
Another key to Saguaro is the current caused by dam operations. Veteran anglers know that when the current is moving, the bass dinner bell can be ringing. As with Canyon Lake, it is good to determine the current's direction: Predatory bass often face into the current, or can be found waiting in ambush on the lee side of structure. Be sure to read the water.
Saguaro also has another fishing dimension -- plenty of cattails. Bass and shad like to hide in these cattail forests along the edges of coves, flats and benches. Try flippin' and pitchin' into the edges of tules, especially where there are ragged edges creating small pockets where bass can sit in ambush. Be sure to have a stout pole and tough line.
For the adventuresome, try using light line and tossing flutter-down baits adjacent to the plentiful stickups in some of the coves and flats. Having a 6- or 8-pound bass explode onto a Senko can get the adrenaline pumping! Landing those monsters on light line will test the skills of highly experienced anglers.