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Southwest Bass Fishing: Best Bets in Arizona, New Mexico

southwest bass fishing
This year is shaping up to be a good one for bass fishing across the Southwest. (Shutterstock image)

Anglers in Arizona and New Mexico have a real shot at hooking a double-digit lunkers at these top Southwest bass fishing destinations.

Keep on keeping on — a saying that's been used in many different settings — properly describes largemouth bass fishing in the states of New Mexico and Arizona.

After early summer scorching heat so blistering that it melted the vinyl letters off road signs and wilted plastic mailbox posts abated, conditions improved. The 2016 snowpack was substantially above average in some areas, and the 2017 Southwest Monsoon was threatening record rain as well, allowing reservoirs to restore to more normal water levels.

That bodes well for all fish and fishermen. It will indeed be a good year if the area experiences normal summer temperatures. Now, let's take a look at some top spots for bass anglers to target in the months to come. 


Lake Havasu

This angling destination produced the state-record smallmouth bass in 2017. Who knows what 2018 will bring.

Beginning in 1993, Anglers United and several state and federal agencies started a habitat improvement project to reverse the lack of natural vegetation and woody debris. The project made improvements to 50 coves and 875 acres. All the reports are positive that the work paid off. 

Havasu runs 46 miles long, filling 19,300 acres with an average depth of 35 feet. Mid-summer 2017 water level exceeded what is considered full pool. With 450 miles of shoreline, it is possible to get away from the popular jet ski and water ski areas. The catch rate improves the farther anglers get from those high traffic areas around Havasu City. 

There is no off season on Havasu. What changes is where the fish hang out, and that depends on water temperature. An early and hot spring will bring the smallmouths into the shallows to nest in February. A cold spring will delay that action. The largemouths will be in pre-spawn. Check out the small off-river coves that are wind-protected. 

When the heat really blisters, go out early for some topwater action, head for the air-conditioning, sharpen hooks or tie flies, then go again for the sunset action. Later in the year, keep your eyes open for birds working the water. They can turn you on to striper boils. Tossing topwater baits and flies into a striper boil is about the most fun possible.

Saguaro Lake

Winter snowpack and monsoon water has put plenty of water in all of the Salt River lakes. By early 2017, the Salt River reservoir capacity jumped from 44 percent all the way to 62 percent, with more snow on the ground. And then the monsoons hit adding to the total.

Saguaro Lake is the third of the Salt River reservoirs and the last one filled when Stewart Mountain Dam was finished in 1930. With the best access, it gets the most fishing pressure. It also kicks out the biggest largemouths, with 10-plus-pound fish being caught every year. Primary forage for these monsters is threadfin shad, crayfish and rainbow trout.

The Butcher Jones Recreation Site provides small watercraft access. Kayaks, kickboats and even float tubes can launch here. Bigger boats have the option of the Saguaro Lake Marina or the Saguaro Del Norte Recreation Site. Bank-fishing is possible as well, though some say they prefer boating due to the rattlesnakes. Whatever.

Lake Roosevelt

All that water has done wonders for Lake Roosevelt, which had suffered the most of the Salt River impoundments from all the dry years. It should be on any serious bass angler's radar in 2018 and beyond, if only for the fact that a million Florida-strain largemouth fry have been planted since 2014. They should start to show up in 2018 catches as feisty four-year olds. Roosevelt could turn out to be the sleeper.

Lake Pleasant

Only 30 miles north of the Phoenix metropolitan area in desert scrub brush is Lake Pleasant, part of the Lake Pleasant Regional Park. Originally built nearly a century ago as part of a private irrigation project damming the Agua Fria River, a new dam was completed in the '90s, tripling the lake to 10,000 acres. The expansion created three distinct lake zones.

The area near Waddell Dam is clear, highly-oxygenated water, likely due to the current created by the irrigation outflow. Mid-lake, near the site of the original dam, the clear, deep water surrounds several islands. Upstream is turbid water flowing through a maze of channels and flooded vegetation.

The main entrance to the park, two miles off State Route 74, leads to two campgrounds and a monster 10-lane boat ramp. The north entrance, barely three miles farther up Castle Hot Springs Road, gets you into a day-use area, shoreline camping and a four-lane boat ramp. 

Early season, when the fish are getting ready to spawn, toss bright color plastics and Rooster Tails among the flooded trees to create aggression strikes. Post-spawn, drop down to more muted colors or anything that represents a shad. Drop- shot plastics off the edge of the islands when the largemouths have gone deep.


Clayton Lake

If you want a bona fide chance to boat a double-digit New Mexico largemouth, then Clayton Lake is the bet to make. Just don't expect to land fish after fish. The lake is full of fish and plenty of big ones. It's also chock full of fish food — an honest to goodness good news/bad news fact. More on that in a bit.

Let's back up. The lake sits at around 5,200 feet elevation in northeastern New Mexico's Clayton Lake State Park. The park has the usual developed campsites and those with water and electricity, plus a boat ramp. An added feature is the over 500 fossilized dinosaur tracks on the northeast side of the lake — not something seen at every fishing location.

Over the winter months, the lake is home to huge numbers of migratory waterfowl. The forage base primarily consists of golden shiners and black bullheads. Golden shiners have a deep body, dark green or olive back and silvery sides.

The Livetarget Golden Shiner crankbait is a good imitation. Black bullheads are mostly black with a tan belly. A dark plastic minnow or a jig with black silicone skirt are good choices. The preferred length of both forage species is 4 inches.

The key to catching Clayton Lake largemouths is persistence. There is so much available food swimming within inches of each bass that they don't have to compete with all the other fish for limited food. Solving that challenge is what makes landing one of these lunkers so rewarding. 

Brantley Lake

Bass anglers willing to travel to southeastern New Mexico have 4,000 bass-filled acres to fish. Located in Brantley Lake State Park north of Carlsbad, the impoundment of the Pecos River is the southernmost lake in the state.

That location places it away from population centers, resulting in less pressure than other lakes get. And the lake is home to more largemouths than most other locations as well. In other words, make the trip because the rewards are worth the effort.

At nearly 3,300 feet elevation, the lake begins to shrug off winter's chill by the end of March. Early-bird fishermen get on the lake and start catching fish before spring runoff discolors the water. By May, daytime temperatures have reached into the 80s, warming up the water and really activating the largemouths.

It stays warm through September, but by October the chilly overnight temperatures have cooled the water. A good thermometer can be an angler's best friend. When used liberally, it can locate pockets of cooler than normal water in summer and warmer than normal in spring and fall.

Brantley has two boat ramps — both on the south end of the lake. The westside ramp is off West Brantley Road, the eastside ramp is favored by those staying at the campground. In addition to developed campsites with water and electricity, the park has primitive shoreline and boat-in camping for those wanting to get away. Informal launch sites can be found where dirt tracks end at water's edge.

In 2016, the lake was full of 3-pound largemouths, and since the lake is managed under mandatory catch-and-release regulations due to diminishing pesticide levels, those fish are still swimming there.

They will be bigger in 2018 because their primary forage, green sunfish, are doing just fine. Good water levels, even better than 2016, and plenty of flooded salt brush make for healthy habitat for bass forage and that makes for some exciting fishing.

Cochiti Lake

Fifty miles up the Rio Grande River from Albuquerque sits 1,100-acre Cochiti Lake. Initially conceived by Congress as a flood and sediment control facility, substantial state and local pressure got the feds to modify the plan to allow a fishing lake that opened to the public in the '70s. There are two camping areas on the lake. Cochiti Recreation Area is located within the boundaries of the Pueblo de Cochiti Reservation.

It has four camping loops — two with electricity and water, two with community water spigots. It features a four-lane boat ramp serviced by a paved road. On the other side of the lake is Tetilla Peak Recreation Area.

Smaller than Cochiti, it has two camping loops and a boat ramp as well. The campsites in both areas feature shade structures, as the high desert lake is in desert scrubland. Anglers can bring their go-fast bass boats but can't let them rip, as it is a no-wake lake.

Like Brantley, water levels here are up a bit from previous years. Increased water levels result in greater production of fish food, and we know that means more and bigger fish. New Mexico has stocked the lake with several fish species. In the winter months, rainbow trout are the draw. Northern pike and walleyes also show up in catches. But we are interested in the black bass, as both largemouths and smallmouths swim here.

The Rio Grande, with its heavy sediment load, flows in from the north, creating substantial shallows. The west side is dotted with small rocky coves, the east shoreline is a bit steeper, at least north of Tetilla Peak. Since Cochiti was conceived as a sediment control water, it's no surprise that water clarity reflects that fact.

Bass fishermen toss all sorts of baits, including all manner of subsurface plastics. Hard baits or noisy baits like chatter or spinner baits make it easier for fish to locate the bait and can even incite neutral fish to attack.

Ten years ago, no one outside a few knowledgeable local bass anglers would think of either New Mexico or Arizona as destination largemouth fishing states. Both states have demonstrated what a couple years of decent water levels, combined with habitat enhancement by state and federal agencies working with local angler groups, can do for a fishery. Anglers in both states have a real shot at hooking a double-digit bass.

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