March 17, 2016
Did you know that some of the biggest, feistiest bass of the year fall to anglers who hit prime bass waters in March? That holds true for both smallmouths and their largemouth cousins. If big bass are your game, then when much of the rest of the sporting world has its eyes focused on the hardwood courts, think of this time of year as your personal March Madness. What follows are some of the top waters in Nevada and Utah for early-spring bass fishing. Put these spots on your list when you are planning your next angling excursion.
Created in 1951 when the Davis Dam impounded the Colorado River, Lake Mohave covers more than 60 miles and 30,000 acres at full pool. Its big sister, Lake Mead, gets all the publicity and more traffic, but there are those who rightfully believe that Mohave puts out better bass.
Looking a bit like a boa constrictor digesting a meal, the lake is narrow for 20 miles at the head, then gets broad at Cottonwood Cove. It gradually tapers toward the dam. The upper section runs cold thanks to the cold water releases from Hoover Dam. The water temperature increases at Cottonwood Cove and that is an important clue about where to hit the lake's largemouth bass.
Prime water temperature begins at 65 degrees, when the largemouths begin to stir. Of the three launch sites on the lake, Cottonwood Cove offers the best combination of fish-holding habitat and less recreational boat traffic. By March, and sometimes as early as February, the bucketmouths have moved all the way into the ends of coves, looking to spawn. Check the water temperature, and fish the side of the cove that's warmest because that's the side holding the biggest fish.
Primary largemouth forage includes threadfin shad, bluegill and green sunfish. The best colors of hard and soft baits imitate one of those forage items. Ivy Santee, Nevada Department of Wildlife Aquatic education coordinator, suggests paying attention to the water color when deciding what bait to throw. Another tip is to focus on the brush pile and PVC structures that hold plenty of 3- to 5-pound fish. And don't be surprised if you tangle with striped bass, as the lake has plenty of them as well.
The lake has quagga mussels, so it's important to examine and clean every piece of equipment that has touched the water.
For a completely different feel, bass fishermen can hit Lake Mead. This big reservoir — 110 miles long and 150,000 acres when full — gets hit hard by the local bass clubs and hosts some of the tournament trail. So don't expect solitude. Do expect to catch fish, though they may be a bit smaller than those at Mohave. The lake can get windy in a New York minute, so check the weather forecast before heading out.
Lake Mead offers largemouth and smallmouth bass, with a bunch of stripers tossed into the mix. Largemouths were here first, getting fat on threadfin shad. Next came the stripers in 1974. It was another 25 years before smallmouth bass were added. Another forage base — gizzard shad — was discovered in 2007 to go along with the ubiquitous crayfish.
Ivy Santee suggested starting the bass search out of Callville Bay off Highway 167 or Las Vegas Boat Harbor on the southern shore, accessed off Highway 166. If launching from the Boat Harbor, work your way north probing into the myriad coves. Water temperature dictates the depth of the fish. The warmer the water, the shallower the fish. At the far end of the coves, target the grass and bang the brush with soft plastics.
The drought has impacted Lake Mead, as the water level has dropped 120 feet since 2005. It's now at the lowest level since the lake began filling after Hoover Dam was finished. New spawning flats have been created as old ones have become part of the shoreline. It also means that bank anglers have a shot at the big spring fish. A prime bank fishing spot is Boxcar Cove, reached by dirt road that leaves Lakeshore Drive near mile 9. The left fork leads to Boxcar, the right leads to Crawdad Cove. Park and walk to the water. Lake Mead also has quagga mussels. All boats must be pre-inspected before launching.
South Fork Reservoir
Only 16 miles south of Elko, South Fork Reservoir is accessed through the South Fork State Recreation Area. Set against the backdrop of the Ruby Mountains, the reservoir covers 1,650 acres at full pool, with an average depth of 67 feet. The inlet end, fed by the South Fork Humboldt River, has shallow flats where tubes, pontoons and small boats can be launched.
A gravel road nearly circumnavigates the entire lake, save for the dam at the northwest corner. A doublewide concrete boat ramp and campground are along the east shore. South Fork is open all year with no night closure. Bass — largemouths, smallmouths and wipers — are catch and release only from March 1 through June 30.
South Fork Reservoir long held the state smallmouth record until wrested away by Sheep Creek Reservoir. There are still plenty of smallmouth running up to four pounds.
Early season may mean colder water and perhaps even some snow on the ground. Cool water means fishing flies and bait slower because the bass will still be waking up. Pay attention to the rocky points and bluffs that attract smallmouth forage. Early-season efforts should focus on water 3 to 10 feet deep. Smallmouths and trophy-sized rainbow and brown trout cruise the inlet shallows in search of food.
The shallow water means fly-fishermen do well on South Fork with crayfish patterns and Woolly Buggers. Gear fishermen trend toward soft plastics in watermelon, motor oil and similar colors. The points northeast of the boat ramp should also be thoroughly fished. Kickboats and powerboats provide easy access to all the hot spots.
An added bonus is the South Fork Humboldt River below the dam that gets a dose of smallmouth bass that flush over the dam and have spread throughout the South Fork and into the mainstem.
There are some that say Pineview, an impoundment of the Ogden River, offers the best smallmouth bass fishing in northern Utah. Certainly it offers the best access since it lies less than 10 miles outside Ogden in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest at 4,900 feet. In Utah, that qualifies as mid-elevation. Set in pine trees and sagebrush flats, it also has areas of rocky and steep shores.
Past years of bountiful water have been good to Pineview smallmouths, with a good population of several year classes resulting in fish topping the 4-pound mark. Largemouths also swim in Pineview.
Forage for the bass are yellow perch and black crappies. Local fly- fishermen favor white streamers and what the gear guys call "fire tiger," which combines the dark green, yellow and orange colors of the yellow perch. Crayfish are absent in Pineview, but that doesn't stop the smallmouths from hitting crayfish imitations that look like food.
Slowly run a 4-inch tube along the bottom or try a Texas-rigged Hula Grub. There is something about all that wavy plastic that bass can't resist. In addition to natural colors, try something in chartreuse for a completely different look.
The area around the Port Ramp Marina on the west side of the lake is a favorite among locals. There are two other ramps on the lake as well.
Sand hollow and quail creek
In the southwest corner of the state sits Sand Hollow Reservoir. Not far away is Quail Creek Reservoir, connected to Sand Hollow by an underground pipeline, allowing water to be shunted back and forth between the two. Sand Hollow, at roughly 1,000 acres, is the larger reservoir and may produce more fish on any given day. Quail Creek may put out bigger fish. Either one will put a smile on the face of a largemouth bass fisherman due to the excellent fishing and spectacular scenery.
On Sand Hollow, the best catching areas are along the east shore, opposite the Sand Hollow State Park and a bit south. The lake is nearly circumnavigated by Sand Hollow Road, which provides access to bank anglers. Look for the access road that leads to the east shore day-use area.
The primary forage is bluegill and crayfish, so anything that matches those foods will get bit. Some of the southeast flats are home to plenty of crayfish and plenty of crayfish-eating bass.
Quail Creek forage is much the same, but the fishing technique differs due to the nature of the lake. Quail Creek is deep, and that's where the big fish will be found early in the year. Forget topwater baits for now, instead throw soft plastics on 1/2-ounce jigs in the deep water off rocky points and ledges. Fish slowly, and keep the bait in the zone.
This lake is a largely untapped fishery, in part due to its size (186 miles at full pool), remote location and limited access for boaters. There are only four spots where trailered boats can be launched. Small boats can be hand-launched from several single-lane tracks that lead to the water from the east and west. Power boat rentals are available at the marinas.
Like Lake Mead, Lake Powell's water level has suffered through the last 15 years of drought. The lake level is down more than 100 feet, and that means boaters needs be more careful to avoid rocks and sand bars guarding the mouths of canyons.
The smallmouth fishing has really come on in the past few years, with both the quantity and quality of fish improving. Forget the dinks of the past. Five-pound bass are showing up with increasing frequency. The same goes for the largemouths. And then there is the outstanding striper fishing.
Once the access issue is solved, the bass fishing is worth the effort. The best fishing is from Bullfrog Marina up to Hite, and the fish quality has never been better. An invasive plant species, tamarisk, has taken root along the lake during low-water years. The forage fish try to hide in the now-flooded tamarisk, and the smallmouths and largemouths follow the food. Success is ensured by finding and fishing the tamarisk. That means tossing a crankbait or fly into the brush. Expect to get hung up and lose some gear, but the fishing is worth it.
Threadfin shad and young gizzard shad are the target forage. Fly- fishermen should try casting two flies at once — a big topwater baitfish with a smaller Clouser-type baitfish pattern trailer. When the bite is on, it's possible to double up, and that's when the real excitement begins.
Lake Powell has 1,960 miles of shoreline, 96 flooded canyons and most all are filled with fish from March through November.
Water temperature increases from just below 60 degrees at the first of March to almost 70 degrees by the end of the month. That dramatic rise stirs the bass into action and brings them up from the depths. Canyons with tributaries attract the most fish as the incoming water supplies nutrients that in turn attract forage fish that attract the bass.
Bass move up into shallower water and stay shallow through May, affording sight-fishing possibility in the clear water except during runoff when the tributaries turn dark. Murky water will still hold fish. In fact it will warm faster than clear water as the suspended sediment absorbs more of the sun's heat. The warmest water will be next to a flat-faced north rock wall. Crayfish and forage fish patterns are the rule here. Spring and fall are the best times to fish if you want to avoid the powerboat and personal water craft scene.
Anyone planning on fishing Lake Powell should go to www.wayneswords.com to get the latest scoop on the water from Wayne Gustaveson, who knows more about that lake than anyone.
With great options across Utah and Nevada, now it's time to put the boat on the water and get in on some outstanding early-season fishing.