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Catching Brown Bass in Trout Country

Trout is king in Colorado, but burgeoning smallmouth fisheries offer anglers ample opportunities at hard-fighting fish.

Catching Brown Bass in Trout Country
Many of Colorado’s top smallmouth waters are located on the outskirts of Denver and offer excellent fishing from either boat or shore. (Photo by Mike Gnatkowski)

If someone mentions Colorado fishing, it’s only natural to automatically think of trout. The Centennial State is home to some of the most famous trout waters in the world—the North and South Platte, Gunnison, Frying Pan, Roaring Fork, Arkansas, and Colorado rivers, plus reservoirs like Blue Mesa, Spinney and Delaney Butte to name but a few. It’s no wonder Coloradoans are trout crazy.

However, a growing cadre of anglers are discovering the outstanding opportunities that smallmouth bass provide in the state, despite the fact the species is not welcome in the state’s waters by fisheries managers nor the majority of Colorado’s fishing community. On some waters, you are encouraged to kill every smallmouth bass you catch, and there’s no limit on how many you can take. Still, smallies flourish in many bodies of water, and like it or not, more and more anglers are discovering the great sport the brown bass provide.

Reservoirs like Aurora, Horsetooth, Quincy, Chatfield, Boyd and Cherry Creek produce outstanding smallmouth fishing. And despite regulations that discourage the release of bass, the Colorado and Yampa rivers have strong populations of smallies for those who like to fish moving water.

The state-record smallmouth was a 6.69-pound chunk caught in 2011 at Aurora Reservoir on the eastern outskirts of Denver. Indeed, many of the state’s top smallmouth waters are a stone’s throw from the Mile High City and its legions of passionate anglers.

“Colorado’s best smallmouth waters have a few things in common,” says Colorado Parks and Wildlife Northeast Region Fisheries Supervisor Kyle Battige. “They uniformly have a good water supply, they tend to be colder, with some depth that bass can retreat to in the warmer months, and they feature plenty of rocky structure where their favorite forage—crayfish—thrive.”

smallmouth bass at boat
Colorado isn’t often thought of as a smallmouth capital, but that reputation is starting to grow. (Photo by Mike Gnatkowski)

AURORA RESERVOIR

Guide Brad Petersen (bradpetersen.me) says that Aurora remains one of Colorado’s best venues for big smallies.

“Aurora has big-fish potential, especially with the higher water levels we experienced [in 2023],” says Petersen. “The south-end coves are always good in the spring. Spawning fish collect there. They’re a little shallower and warm up quicker than the rest of the lake. Later, the structure near the dam is always good.”

You don’t need a big, fancy bass boat to fish Aurora, either.

“The whole lake is electric-motors-only, but not no-wake,” says Petersen. “The entire reservoir is ringed with rocky structure, which offers particularly good opportunities for shore anglers.”

A walking path rings the reservoir, and enterprising anglers strap a couple rods to their bike’s handlebars to access the best fishing. Bring along a pair of waders or a float tube to increase your coverage even more. Most of the bass in Aurora average 12 to 14 inches, but 20-inch-plus smallies are caught yearly.

Petersen says that besides the normal smallmouth favorites, he does well casting Rapala Ott’s Garage (OG) crankbaits, in particular the Tiny 7 in the classic craw color. The reservoir is loaded with crawfish, which explains the lure’s productivity. There’s plenty of shad in Aurora, too. Casting jerkbaits during the calm of morning and evening can produce explosive action.

There’s ample parking and a campground on the reservoir’s west side.

Recommended


QUINCY RESERVOIR

Not far from Aurora is 165-acre Quincy Reservoir, an equally prolific smallmouth venue. With an 18-inch minimum on smallmouths, there’s an excellent chance to tangle with a trophy bass here. The shallower south end is productive in the spring. Later in the summer, try near the point on the south side, around the island in the southwest corner of the reservoir and near the dam. Quincy Reservoir offers outstanding shore fishing opportunities, too.

Only electric motors are allowed, and there’s a launch near the dam. The reservoir is open from March 1 to Oct. 31.

HORSETOOTH RESERVOIR

The only time I’ve fished Horsetooth Reservoir was with Brad Petersen. We targeted walleyes by trolling diminutive crankbaits behind short lengths of lead core. The problem was we couldn’t keep the smallmouths off our lines. They weren’t big, maybe 10 to 14 inches, but there was no shortage of them.

“Horsetooth is definitely a numbers game when it comes to bass,” says the guide. “An 18-inch smallmouth is considered a kicker fish during tournaments on Horsetooth. In early spring until mid-June, you’ll find many of those bigger fish in the coves on the reservoir’s west side. Around Father’s Day, the bass start moving more toward the mid-lake structure.”

Shore anglers will find great action around the rocky structure on either side of the dams using tubes, Ned rigs and drop-shot rigs. Petersen says it’s hard to beat a Rapala Crush City Clean-Up Craw when smallies are patrolling the rocks.

Horsetooth Reservoir is unique in terms of Colorado’s smallmouth waters. It’s deep and cold and harbors a population of smelt. When the bass start suspending under the smelt schools during mid-summer, savvy anglers use their electronics to pinpoint hovering bass and use a technique called “moping” to target them in depths of 60 feet or more. The technique, refined by bass pro Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson, uses a fluke-style bait fished vertically on a jig head. Petersen says a Z-Man Scented Jerk ShadZ is money for moping.

Contact the Fort Collins CVB (visitftcollins.com) for information on lodging and amenities in the area.

closeup of smallmouth bass
A number of different lure styles, including prop baits, elicit savage strikes from Colorado bronzebacks. (Photo by Mike Gnatkowski)

BOYD RESERVOIR

“Boyd is not as rocky as some of the other smallmouth reservoirs, but it has a lot of man-made structures to target,” says Petersen. “It doesn’t have the number of bass other reservoirs have, either, but it’s possible to catch a smallie there that could top 20 inches.”

Boyd Reservoir, at 1,675-acres, fishes best when it’s full. As the water temperature rises, bass move shallow in late May and June. “The east side of the reservoir can be really good then,” says Petersen.

Because Boyd doesn’t have an abundance of prime smallmouth habitat, the bass can be very concentrated when you find them. Petersen recommends using Ned rigs and drop-shot rigs early in the year and more Senko and wacky-style rigs later in the season. He adds that it’s hard to go wrong with baits in the green pumpkin color.

CHATFIELD RESERVOIR

Smallmouths in Chatfield Reservoir get overlooked in favor of the walleyes, catfish, crappies and trout the reservoir is famous for. That’s fine with smallmouth aficionados. Despite stockings of walleyes, catfish and rainbows, smallmouth bass remain a significant portion of the fish community in Chatfield. Recent fishery surveys conducted by CPW indicate that more than 11 percent of the fish community in Chatfield Reservoir is made up of smallmouth bass. Although the survey found only smallies up to 15 inches, Chatfield is known to have much bigger smallmouths. The bass gorge on young-of-the-year gizzard shad when there’s a prolific hatch and become much more difficult to catch.

Concentrate your efforts in the spring near the riprap along the dam and near the old Plum Creek Channel. In the summer, bass can be found chasing shad near the old gravel pits on the reservoir’s south end.

WESTERN SLOPE

Quality smallmouth fisheries on the Western Slope are rare, and where there is good smallmouth fishing, like on the Colorado and Yampa rivers, CPW doesn’t want them.

“We don’t have much in the way of smallmouth waters,” says Ben Felt, senior aquatic biologist, Northwest Region. “To be honest with you, in many cases, [CPW] actively manages against smallmouth bass. That said, a few locations that I would recommend are Rifle Gap, Harvey Gap and Elk Head Reservoir.

“Both Rifle and Harvey Gap are agricultural reservoirs, so they can get extremely low in late summer,” says Felt. “[Last year was] a good year for water, so I expect better conditions in 2024.”

Both reservoirs have a lot of rocky structure, which is ideal for smallmouths, plus man-made fish structures placed around the reservoirs. Rocks and boulders near the dams are always a draw for smallmouths.

Forage species are abundant in both Harvey Gap and Rifle Gap; yellow perch are a significant prey species, especially in Harvey Gap. Anglers can hedge their bet by fishing lures that imitate the perch.

For information about opportunities and regulations for smallmouth bass in northwest Colorado, contact the CPW office in Grand Junction (970-255-6126).

COWBOY STATE SMALLIES

Like its neighbor to the south, Wyoming has no shortage of primo bass factories.

Wyoming fishermen are just as trout-crazy as Coloradans, though anglers looking for a little diversity in their fishing life will find several top-notch locations for spunky smallmouths. As in Colorado, the bass aren’t meant to be there, but now that they’re established, anglers might as well take advantage of it.

Smallmouths saved the day during a fishing trip to Wyoming’s Wheatland Reservoir No. 1 several years ago. We started fishing for walleyes, but the ‘eyes wouldn’t cooperate. Trolling produced a barrage of small catfish, so we decided to change gears and try casting to the rocks on the east side of the reservoir. The structure was loaded with pre-spawn smallmouths, and we had a ball. Jigs with orange/brown plastics excelled.

An impoundment of the Laramie River, 3,547-acre Grayrocks Reservoir has one of the best smallmouth populations in Wyoming. Located 16 miles northeast of Wheatland, the smallmouths, combined with great walleye fishing, draw anglers from all over Wyoming, as well as Colorado and Nebraska. Try along the dam and the rocky north shoreline with Ned and drop-shot rigs.

Keyholes Reservoir, 14,000 acres when full, is home to a variety of warm-water species that include trophy walleyes, pike and plenty of smallies. Formed by the Belle Fouche River, Keystone has an abundance of prime smallmouth habitat in the form of rocks, sunken islands, bluffs and bays that attract bass in the spring. Prime spots include Pat’s Point, Pine Ridge, Pronto Bay and Rock Cliff.


  • This article was published in the April 2024 issue of Game & Fish magazine. Click to subscribe.



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