Winter Rains Usher in New Fishing Era

April 08, 2005 Winter rains are ushering in a new era of fishing in Arizona An epic era of water-based recreation, especially fishing, is unfolding in Arizona thanks to the runoff from one of the state's wettest winters on record.

The filling of the lakes after a decade of drought, especially behind the new dam at Roosevelt Lake, is expected to create fishing opportunities that may be unparalleled in this state's history. Arizona could become the envy of the fishing West, and possibly the nation.

Roosevelt Lake
The dam at Roosevelt Lake was raised 70 feet in 1995. Since then, Arizona has been experiencing a severe drought. In 2002, Roosevelt was at one of its lowest levels since the lake was created in 1911. This year, Roosevelt is close to full.

"We always expected that it would take years of decent runoff to fill Roosevelt. Now it is happening in a single season," says Jim Warnecke, a fisheries biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

During all those years of low lake levels, vegetation grew up in the exposed lakebed at Roosevelt. This year, approximately 8,000 acres of vegetation in the exposed lakebed became covered with nutrient-laden water. Above the old lake level this spring, it is expected that around 2,500 surface acres of prime, upper Sonoran desert habitat will be covered with water. That sets up a dynamic cycle.

Roosevelt is expected to go through what biologists call the "new lake syndrome," which in loose translation, means productivity that can rival any water in the nation, and possibly rival some of the more popular bass lakes in Mexico as well.

This spring, Roosevelt is expected to come within a few feet of the maximum conservation pool. By the end of summer, the lake will likely be reduced by water use to just below the old dam level. There it will stay through winter (with about 6,000 acres of submerged brush on the lake bottom). Then during spring 2006, normal runoff would send the lake level back into the prime Sonoran habitat again.

Prognosis: Roosevelt will be a top bass lake in the West, if not the nation. It should draw anglers and other water recreationists from near and far.

Bartlett-Horseshoe lakes
Another amazing story this year is the filling of Horseshoe and Bartlett lakes on the Verde River: multiple times. The Verde River didn't just rival the flows of the mighty Colorado River, it surpassed them many times this year.

Bartlett actually experienced a decent influx of water last year, and the past three years has had good bass reproduction. Last fall, anglers at Bartlett were routinely catching 1- to 2-pound bass. That strong age-class of bass should now be 2 to 3 pounds. This year, Bartlett may be the best lake in Arizona to offer high catch rates of line-stripping, medium-sized bass.

Although both reservoirs are full, Horseshoe will be gradually drained into Bartlett to keep it full as water is drawn out for irrigation and other purposes. Bartlett should still be full going into the fall-winter season. Horseshoe will likely be down to just a small pool or be drained by the end of the summer. It will, however, act as a shad, crappie and bass nursery for Bartlett.

Alamo Lake
High drama seemed to unfold at Alamo on a routine basis starting last fall when a major rainstorm hit the drainage area of the Big Sandy and Santa Maria rivers and then began rolling into Alamo Lake at levels to rival the Colorado River.

Alamo rose so fast that boat launch ramps that had been out of the water became totally submersed, leaving anglers to launch their boats off the roadways. In the process, hundreds of acres of thick vegetation--including large stands of cottonwoods along the riparian area leading to the lake--were overtaken by the rising waters.

The reproduction at this classic bass and crappie lake could rival that of Roosevelt, but on a smaller scale. What makes Alamo so attractive to anglers is that it does not have gas and other services for the typical water recreationists, such as skiers and personal watercraft users. In other words, it is primarily a serious fishing lake for the purists because it lacks the typical multiple-use conflicts.

Lake Pleasant
The stupendous inflows provide Lake Pleasant a much-needed nutrient shot in the arm this year. In fact, Pleasant had been on a nutrient starvation diet for many years due to the drought and other factors. This year, it is fat, sassy and nutrient-wise healthy again.

In fact, in a single weekend of flows down the Agua Fria River and other small tributaries, Pleasant rose to the 1,702-elevation mark, which is something it hadn't done since 1993 when the lake first filled. That meant a 5- to 7-foot vegetative ring around the lake became flooded, providing much-needed hiding, ambush and spawning cover, in addition to providing even more nutrients.

Pleasant is what biologists call a "closed system." Basically, it doesn't have out-flows, so all the nutrient loading this year will stay in the system. Biologically, that is great news for continued reproduction in subsequent seasons.

Don't expect Pleasant to return to its glory days when it was going through the "new lake syndrome," but anglers can expect this renowned fishery to significantly increase its productivity and fill creels with hard-fighting fish again.

Apache, Canyon and Saguaro lakes
Apache, Canyon and Saguaro lakes all received nutrient inflows from side tributaries during the major rainstorms. These added nutrients should equate to increased fish health this year, and hopefully, to some decent reproduction as well.

Canyon has been producing the behemoth bass so far this year, but Saguaro is typically a close second for the lunkers.

Lake Havasu
It hasn't been too long since Lake Havasu, which is located on the Colorado River, completed its multi-year, record-setting artificial habitat program. On the heels of that, the Bill Williams River has been running since January, dumping tons of nutrients into this lake. The timing couldn't be better. Expect good fish health and grow-outs this year, and excellent spawns. This lake is worth watching, and fishing.

Mountain Lakes
This is the year for high country trout. All lakes are expected to fill and spill. A bonus this year is Lower Lake Mary: last year it was a cow pasture, this year it is a 600-surface-acre trout fishery that will likely be a hot fishing spot throughout the spring, summer and fall.

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