February 21, 2012
"Ker-splash!" The quiet surface of the little forest pond exploded with the savage strike of a dandy largemouth. The spray literally shot a few feet into the air. After a tense battle that required considerable effort on my part to keep the fish out of the crisscrossed deadfalls sticking out from the bank, I slipped my fingers under the gill plate of an 18- to 19-inch, dark-colored bass, and unhooked the little floating Rapala.
It was still early in the new bass season and I had retreated from all the frenzied activity of my bass-fishing buddies. Especially on weekends, so many bass boat rigs had been speeding back and forth on the area roads, NASCAR could have organized a major event.
The number of boats on my favorite lakes looked like a yacht club's regatta. I kid you not; I couldn't slip along a choice shoreline without my little 14-footer constantly bobbing like a cork in the wakes. So, I retreated to some of my "secret spots" — little backcountry lakes and farm ponds, sometimes without even boat landings.
Not long after catching that decent fish, I left and tried another one of the hidden gems. There, I caught a genuine trophy — a solid five-pounder. In such out-of-the-way, relatively unknown ponds with only a few acres of water and limited forage, it was frankly the bass fishing equivalent of a ten-pounder or better in one of my usual lakes. In fact, when a fishing friend and author heard me tell about the fish afterwards — and knowing where I had caught it — he contended that I should have decided to keep and mount it. "You'll rarely catch one like that in that pond," he argued.
If you tire of the crowds — or if you just reach a point in your bass fishing season when you feel like a break from hauling the big rig and all of that equipment around — or if, perhaps, you'd like some peace and quiet in the forest or ranchlands — here's what I recommend for what can be some real bass fishing bonanzas.
WHERE TO GO
I'm not telling you all my favorite little ponds. If I did, I wouldn't have any of my secret spots. But I'll tell you how to find the dozens just like them in the Rocky Mountain states. Get a good state atlas, good U.S. Forest Service maps, good county/township maps — the best resources you can locate — and look for those little blue blotches with no landings and unimproved tote roads or lanes going to them or passing close by. You'll want to have a very backcountry-worthy vehicle, preferably four-wheel drive.
You can especially save some exploring time if you can locate a U.S. or state forest ranger who can confirm a fishable population of decent-sized — not stunted — bass in the ponds you want to try. They usually have an idea of what the water holds.
And you have to enjoy "alone time," because only occasionally will you run into anglers who are willing to go to all the effort of getting to the kind of spots I have in mind. Once I parked a quarter of a mile or more away from the pond I was headed for because I knew the little lane just got tighter and rougher as it neared "the spot." As soon as I got out of my vehicle, I was surprised to hear colorful language up ahead in the woods. As I hiked there with my travel rod and basic tackle, I came upon a boat trailer, bass boat, and two frustrated, would-be bass fishermen.
They had also picked out the back-in-the-woods pond to try, but without considering the possibility of no landing to launch from, or knowing how tight the quarters would become. And now they were stuck. "Gee (not an exact quote)," one of them explained as we talked, "we figured if there was a 'road' into it, there'd be a landing."
I never saw them in that spot again — or anyone else, for that matter.
Most of my experience and knowledge is in the central Rocky Mountain states. When I told my friend Jeff with the Wyoming Game & Fish (307-777-4532) that I wanted to write this story, his first response was, "Well, David, you know that bass habitat is pretty 'marginal' here in Wyoming."
"All the more reason to write it," I replied. "There's some good fishing available, but a lot of people don't know where to find it!" Try these spots:
€¢€‚In northeastern Wyoming: the Black Hills Power & Light Pond near Osage, a nice little body of water of about 25 acres. Not very far away, the Centennial Pond, only about 6 acres, near Upton.
€¢€‚In southeastern Wyoming: Find your way to Festo Lake and Rock Lake. Each are less than 80 acres, but hold some decent bass.
€¢€‚Working our way west, in west-central Wyoming, near Riverton — within the Wind River Indian Reservation — head northeast to Cameahwait Pond.
€¢€‚Continuing our counter-clockwise circle, in the far north-central part of the state, I like the Kleenburn Ponds, which are located near Sheridan. They're each only about 5 acres, but they are connected by a channel.
Information on Colorado's options can be found on page two
Almost all of my knowledge of out-of-the-way bass spots in Colorado is limited to the southeastern part of the state. I would try the Midwestern Farms Pond, about 35 acres, and 6 miles east of Granada, almost to the Kansas border. Although most of my own bass fishing is for largemouths, Midwestern Farms Pond has good numbers of smallmouths, including some going over 4 pounds — nice smallies in just about any place in the country.
And if you explore and fish in the southeastern corner, you would do well to wet a line in a couple of "smallish" reservoirs: Just west of Granada, near the town of Lamar, is Thurston Reservoir, a 170 acre pond; and a good drive farther west, toward the south-sentral part of the state, near little Westcliffe, the DeWeese Reservoir, about 200 acres, and also good for smallmouths.
But if Denver and parts north are more convenient for you in the "Centennial State," I would drive east, almost to Nebraska, to the town of Wray in the northeast corner, and look up a dandy little, 27-acre pond rather generously named Stalker Lake.
For other possibilities, perhaps closer to where you might be, Randy Hampton, statewide public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, would be happy to point you in the right direction — (303) 291-7482; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information on Montana and New Mexico's options can be found on page three
MONTANA AND NEW MEXICO
While I have personally had no fishing experiences in Montana — and little in New Mexico — state game and fish personnel are just as eager to be helpful. Mike Backes, in Miles City, Mont. — southeast part of the state (406-234-0925), recommends the Region 7 pond book as a good resource for the kind of overlooked bass waters I'm recommending. And Ann Tewes, in Lewistown — Region 4 in the central part of the state (406-538-4658), likewise has a list of bass waters. And I would personally like to explore the little forest ponds way up in Region 1, near Kalispell. Call Ken Frasier at the Montana Fisheries Bureau in Billings, (406) 247-2961.
For "where-to-go" in New Mexico, I would call Casey Hawthorne, in Las Cruses (575-647-5989) for the southwestern part of the state, and Mark, in Roswell (575-624-6135), for the southeastern region.
In addition to your usual fishing boat and equipment, a breakdown, travel rod is certainly handy. I often like to fly-fish, so a travel fly-rod carries better — especially if you have to hike in and negotiate thick brush. I also use a medium-light spin-cast rod a lot. And it's no trouble to tote in both if they're that 3-piece or 4-piece type in fabric cases.
Sometimes these little ponds will be totally surrounded by brush and trees, sometimes with nary a place to stand on the bank to cast. And you will want to fish more than just one spot on the bank, anyway, so a good pair of waders should enable you to ease along the shoreline and give you casting room. Quality stocking-foot waders with wading boots seem best to me. The waders roll up to a small bundle, and can be carried in a backpack with the boots, a couple of reels, and a small box of lures and terminal tackle. Although folding landing nets are certainly available, that's really optional.
Some of these little ponds are loaded with deadfalls, sticking into the water from virtually every place on the banks. That woody/brushy environment makes for great cover for both bass and prey fish. But it also makes for lots of snagging possibilities. I mostly use small-to-medium floating Rapalas in basic minnow black/gray/white, or perhaps perch coloration. By retrieving with little jerks and "pops," it certainly resembles a wounded, struggling baitfish, often resulting in the kind of strike at the beginning of this story.
Other surface or just-under the surface baits will do well, of course; I also like a variety of lures from the old Hula popper to the spinnerbaits that I work, again, at or near the surface. And sometimes, when the fish just aren't surface-oriented, nothing beats the old weedless plastic worm. When I'm using a fly-rod, I almost always use poppers for my fishing.
CONS AND PROS
The "cons" to this kind of bass fishing include that you leave thousands of dollars of prime bass boat and fishing technology sitting at home, unused. There's also no zooming across the water, no live well splashing with potential tournament-winning trophy bass, no admiring crowds, no competitors to eat their hearts out at your skill and catch — and certainly no fat check or glittering prizes.
The "pros" are that it certainly is good to get away from all that sometimes, to take a few hours for what will probably be peace and solitude, to be in fantastically beautiful surroundings, to be able to explore and discover — and to have a lot of fun in the process. The fish will undoubtedly average smaller; but with all things being relative, a 3- to 5-pounder will be gargantuan, and a genuine trophy and accomplishment.
And while all of the waters I've mentioned above are public and accessible by you and me, don't forget the myriad private farm and ranch ponds available in these states. Often a polite request of the landowner will result in permission to fish his or her pond. One told me, "Sure thing! The grandkids don't get here very much anymore to fish my bass and panfish, so you're welcome to try." And remember our mention of Sheridan, Wyo. above? The Wyoming State Record largemouth — 7 pounds, 14 ounces. — came out of a little farm pond near there.
Give these little, hidden-away, Rocky Mountain states bass waters a try. They're a lot of fun, and sometimes the fish act like they've never seen a lure before — and, in some waters, maybe they haven't.