It takes a little longer in the Rocky Mountain states for winter to wane than it does almost anywhere else in the continental U.S. But with late spring solidly in place, it’s time to shed the winter fishing blues and hit the road — from Montana to Arizona.
Load up the boat, fishing tackle and camping gear. The icy lid on Rocky Mountain fishing waters has lifted and your favorite game fish are back on the prowl!
Striped Bass at Lake Havasu
Lake Havasu’s reputation as a great striped bass fishery is well-deserved. Individual fish scale in the tens of pounds in this 19,000-acre Colorado River impoundment, and the aggressive game fish feed actively on the lake’s schools of shad. As May water temperatures begin to warm, fishing early and late with topwater lures or spoons that resemble shad can produce great action. Watch for birds flocking over the water or the “boils” of feeding fish, and you may enjoy the electrifying experience of a double-digit striper attacking your lure.
By June, highwater temperatures settle in at midday across Havasu and likely send the stripers to the depths. Many anglers choose to avoid the heat by fishing with live shad or cut anchovies at night. Many drop a light into the water, which attracts bait fish, which attract the bass. Look for the best action where the water depth falls away around points or drop-offs. The Bill Williams arm in the south end of the lake is one of the better sites to fish.
Fishing access sites (with facilities) are in place at Take-Off Point, Havasu Springs, Site Six and Mesquite Cove.
If you go, bring your fly rod and cast flies and poppers into the lily pads. Havasu also grows huge redear sunfish, confirmed by its almost 6-pound world record, and it’s largemouth bass are healthy, too.
Lake Trout/Mackinaw at Blue Mesa Reservoir
Spring ice-out is the perfect time to target big, voracious Mackinaw trout prowling the shallows of Blue Mesa Reservoir, a few miles west of Gunnison. Perhaps, the best “laker” destination in America, it gets top billing because it produces big lakers more frequently and probably presents the highest potential for anglers to catch trophy lakers. Lots of big, fat lakers feast on a diverse diet of small trout, yellow perch, suckers and their favorite, kokanee salmon. The favored food at any site depends upon what species of prey are available at those sites.
Shore fishermen have their best shot at a trophy laker in April and May, before the water temperature reaches 55 degrees and drives the macks into the depths, from 100 to 200 feet deep. Try swimbaits, sucker-meat-tipped jigs, and spoons along rocky points and drop-offs. The lakersmay occasionally chase prey into shallow water, but by June the fishing is a boat angler’s game — putting fish finders to use, trolling lures very deep, and working jigs vertically. The lake’s western basins — Cebolla and Sapinero — are good bets to start the search.
Nearby, Taylor Park Reservoir lies 30 miles northeast of Gunnison in the very picturesque Taylor Park, surrounded by spectacular peaks. This lake is managed as a trophy-laker destination. Perch, trout and stocked kokanee provide a forage base for the lakers. Large fish are often found in the Taylor River inlet and right in front of the marina.
If you go, view the huge trout cruising the Taylor Park Dam outlet pool from the overlook near the top of the dam. You may see a double-digit behemoth cruising the pool.
Smallmouth bass at Coeur d’Alene Lake
Idaho’s best smallmouth-fishing destination is Coeur d’Alene Lake in Idaho’s Panhandle. Four-pound bass and 40-fish days aren’t unusual. From May to July, smallmouth fishing is at its best. The fish are still in the shallows, and spawning is nearing completion. Rocky shorelines and the docks/pilings associated with lakeside development good bass cover. Probe rocky shorelines and docks with jigs, spoons, or crankbaits. Crayfish, minnows, and worms are excellent natural baits.
By July, smallmouths on Coeur d’Alene migrate into deeper water as temperatures increase. Explore points that drop into deep water with lures, jigs or baits that resemble kokanee salmon. Drop-shotting is a common technique here, too. Deep fish will often transition into shallows, changing depths throughout the day, depending on the prey of the moment, when plastic worms, grubs and lures take fish. Crayfish, hooked near the end of tail; minnows, hooked through both lips; and night crawlers are a good choice. For sunrise and sunset excitement, floating lures or bass bugs can induce smashing strikes on the surface.
If you go, take a lake cruise on this spectacularly scenic water to view celebrity homes and isolated segments of the lake. Fin and Feathers tackle shop in Coeur d’Alene is well stocked with both tackle and professional fishing advice.
Smallmouth Bass at Fort Peck Reservoir
Montana’s spring trout are hidden away in chocolate torrents of runoff, so now is the time to focus on Fort Peck Reservoir’s dense population of smallmouth bass. April through June is the perfect time to stalk healthy smallmouths that average 16 inches long but grow to more than 6 pounds. Recent phenomenal spawn and habitat growth for smallmouths and their forage — yellow perch, shiners, cisco and crayfish — have made the lake a virtual smallmouth hatchery.
Walleyes are the local fisherman favorite but overlooked smallmouths have increased in number and expanded distribution as a result. At the same time, highly nutritional cisco have improved growth rates. Look for smallmouth amongst numerous rocky and gravel shorelines in the upper portion of the reservoir, from Hell Creek upstream to Devils Creek/Fourchette Creek. Explore the Rock Creek area, up to McGuire Creek in the Big Dry arm, with shallow to mid-depth crankbaits in the spring. The Big Dry arm offers better shore-fishing options.
Because strong winds can whip across the 245,000-acre impoundment, larger boats are preferred on open water. Shoreline anglers will find 4-WD drive vehicles the best way to traverse the perimeter’s slick clay roads. The Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge map helps to find your way around the area.
If you go, drag yourself away from the smallmouths and visit Fort Peck State Fish Hatchery. This big modern facility rears Chinook salmon, along with many other game fishes.
Walleyes at Clayton Lake
About 15 miles northwest of Clayton is a small lake that breeds huge walleyes. Clayton Lake is 80 acres of highly productive water full of woody structure, vegetation and rock. Four state-record walleyes including the current 16-pound-plus record were produced here. Netting surveys by state fishery technicians occasionally capture 18- to 20-pound walleyes.
Managed as a trophy bass and walleye fishery, productivity is based on a rich, diverse buffet line including golden shiners, bluegills and stocked rainbow trout. The average size of Clayton’s walleyes is significantly larger than most lakes.
Lake depths reach 45 feet, but much of Clayton Lake is shallow. Spring walleyes hide in the deeper weed lines and shoals, and it is the perfect time to find walleyes, from dusk into the night, cruising the shallows, rocky areas, points and shorelines. By June, they will move into deeper water and distribute throughout the lake. Jig curly-tailed grubs or cast large spinners and crankbaits along the lake’s main channel. Others troll bottom bouncers very slowly, worm-tipped spinners.
If you go, check out Knott’s Sportsman Supply in Clayton. It has an excellent reputation for its inventory and friendly service to outdoorsmen.
Muskies in Joe’s Valley and Scofield Reservoirs
Muskies are buzzing in the Beehive State. Following the stocking of tiger muskies in Joe’s Valley and nearby Scofield reservoirs to control Utah chubs, Joe’s Valley Reservoir now produces muskies that stretch more than 50 inches; Scofield Reservoir muskies will exceed 32 inches this season.
Fisheries biologist Calvin Black of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources fishes both lakes regularly for the cantankerous muskies. Well-distributed muskies in both lakes offer excellent fishing for wade or boat fishermen. Heavy-duty rods, high-quality reels, braided lines up to 100 pounds, and steel or 60- to 80-pound fluorocarbon leaders are required.
On Scofield, about an hour southeast of Provo, fish weed beds in the bays from 5 to 10 feet deep. Very large hardware and jigs, tipped with chub meat, work in both lakes. The local fishery also includes huge Bonneville cutthroat trout and tiger trout, up to 19-plus pounds.
Black says he sight-fishes rocky shorelines at Joe’s Valley, two hours south of Scofield, with a 10- or 12-weight fly rod and huge Rainey muskie flies. He finds plenty of muskies chasing chubs in very shallow shoreline water, but the trick is to tease one into striking. Muskies like to ambush chubs in shoreline weeds and willows. The local fish fishery also includes a large population of double-digit splake (lake trout-brook trout hybrid).
If you go, first drop in on the website of the UDWR — wildlife.utah.gov — for more information.
Brown/Rainbow/Cutthroat Trout on the Green River
When you seek solitude and big trout — browns, rainbows and cutthroats — the Green River tailwater, downstream from Fontenelle Dam, is the answer. Along its flow from the dam through the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge, the Green River is one of the last, best places in the Rockies to fish for trophy trout in excess of 4 pounds. Best fished by floating, anglers also find plenty of wade-fishing access in the tailwater throughout its flow in the refuge, and trout are well-distributed throughout.
Sculpins and other baitfish abound in the tailwater. Fly-fishermen strip streamers to attract large trout. Golden stoneflies and caddis are on the menu from June throughout the summer, but large Copper Johns, Pat’s Rubberlegs or other large nymphs drifted deep may be the best bet. While sub-surface fly-fishing is the path to success, occasional dry-fly activity transpires. Standard lures also should find success for spin-fishermen.
If you go, there are no services nearby so prepare to be self-sufficient in the nearby campgrounds or book private lodging. Then, take a break from this remote environment and enjoy a couple days of relaxed fishing. About 90 miles north, near Pinedale, try fishing for enthusiastic grayling in Meadow Lake. Beautiful, unique fish up to 2 1/2 pounds love small flies or lures. Use a sink tip line to cast size 14 Wooly Buggers or leeches from a float tube or boat and have a blast. A rough, dusty access road to the lake makes a high-clearance vehicle useful.
WHEN YOU GO
Whether you spend the summer trying to hit each of these sites or can only try one or two, chances are you will have a great time and experience something new. Always check your destination fishing regulations, as they change frequently. When you head into the Rocky Mountain back country, be prepared with emergency and comfort items, like bug spray and sun lotion, a lot of water, extra rations and warm, dry clothes. Search your destination online, too, regarding applicable state wildlife agencies and your sites’ fishing regulations; local fishing shops and guides; and informal blogs, which can be informative and timely.
Now you know. Let’s roll.