Tremendous Inflows Give Shot in the Arm to Fisheries

January 10, 2005

The recent rains were like an angler’s prayer being answered.

Bartlett Lake filled to overflowing.

Horseshoe Lake filled, was lowered, and was filling again, with more storms on the way.

Roosevelt Lake rose to 43 percent by Jan. 10. On top of that, the White Mountains received 18 to 24 inches of snowfall. Plus, more storms are on the way. Cross your fingers: if this weather pattern continues through the spring, this could be the year Roosevelt exceeds the old lake level. The dam was raised 77 feet in 1995, but the state has experienced a prolonged drought since the project was completed.

Alamo Lake filled significantly in the fall (rising 37 vertical feet in a few days), and then the lake got hit with heavy inflows again this past week. On Jan. 5, the Alamo Lake outflows down the Bill Williams River were around 5,940 cfs. Inflows from the Santa Maria River and the Big Sandy peaked at around 10,000 cfs. That’s good new for Lake Havasu as well: it also received a nutrient shot in the arm.

Even nutrient-starved Lake Pleasant received lots of nutrient-laden runoff via the Agua Fria River, Castle Creek and Humbug Creek. It rose almost eight feet in a week.

Anglers at Canyon Lake reported seeing logs and Saguaro cactus floating in the water. Lower Lake Mary near Flagstaff filled to a level not seen since 1995. It should be stocked soon with small trout that should reach catchable size by March. The popular trout lakes in the Williams area all filled for a change.

For anglers, all that runoff means fishing can be challenging in the short term, but the future is brighter than it has been for some time. Most lakes around the state received much-needed water and nutrient inflows.

“For Bartlett, it is as good as you can imagine,” says Jim Warnecke, an Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist.

According to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Verde River hit a peak flow recently of about 90,000 cfs. All that nutrient-laden water filled Horseshoe and Bartlett lakes to capacity and beyond.

Warnecke says that Bartlett was full a couple of years ago and at that time, it produced strong year classes of bass, crappie and catfish. This past year, Bartlett was providing great action on plentiful 1- to 2-pound bass. “This recent nutrient and water influx will translate into great growth rates and high reproductive activities. Last year’s one and two pounders could be two and three pounders this coming year.”

For Horseshoe, the crystal ball is still cloudy. Salt River Project will continue to draw down Horseshoe to fill Bartlett. “If water is impounded for any length of time at Horseshoe during the spring and early summer months, fish will spawn and there will be lots of little ones all over the lake. Whether they stay in Horseshoe or are transported down to Bartlett will depend on a wide range of water management factors,” says Warnecke.

Thanks to the runoff from the recent storms, Roosevelt will enter the spring thaw at its highest lake level in years. The lake level at Roosevelt this spring is likely to rise enough to inundate vast areas of the lakebed that haven’t seen water in years. Those areas have since been overgrown by vegetation. The flooded vegetation will provide yet another source of nutrients for this lake, along with providing hiding cover for the bait fish and ambush cover for the predatory fish.

It’s all looking rosy for Rosy.

Lake Pleasant, as usual, is a slightly different story. Pleasant is used to bank water from the Central Arizona Project (CAP) each year. It is filled with the CAP water from the Colorado River throughout the winter, then it is drawn down in the summer and fall to help meet the Valley’s water needs. That CAP water comes from a canal that stretches to Lake Havasu. By the time the water reaches Pleasant, it has long since lost most of its nutrients. During Arizona’s prolonged drought, this fishery did not get a lot of runoff, and therefore, was experiencing low nutrient levels, especially in the main basin of the lake.

At the height of the recent storms, the Agua Fria River was flowing at around 10,000 cfs. There are no flow gauges on Castle Creek and Humbug Creek, but all reports indicate that they too were flowing at flood-stage levels. Because there are no outflows from Pleasant (the water is pumped out), the nutrients will stay in the system. Biologists call it a “closed system.” Plus Pleasant received decent inflows during the fall storms.

Scott Bryan, a department research biologist who has been studying Pleasant for half a decade, says the nutrient influx should have a positive Domino effect up the food chain. “There will be increased zooplankton for forage fish and for larval and juvenile fish that are hatched this spring. There will be less competition because of the zooplankton and we should see higher recruitment for most species,” Bryan says.

Bryan adds that all this doesn’t necessarily mean that fishing will be better this year, but it should translate into better fishing for the next two to five years. “However, because of the plentiful forage fish, anglers may see sport-fish that are in better condition—fatter—this year.”

For Alamo Lake west of Wickenburg, this is the second time in the past several months it has received a tremendous influx of both water and nutrients. Bass and crappie anglers who are familiar with Alamo have great anticipation for the future of this fishery.

The downside was Tempe Town Lake where the inflatable dams were lowered when 20,000 cfs was roaring down the Salt River past Phoenix. Biologists feel that this season’s holdover trout are likely lost, but most of the warmwater fish, such as bass, should be okay. The trout stockings were also suspended along the lower Salt River.

The flip side of so much runoff is a possible bonus for duck hunters along the Gila River drainage, especially at Painted Rock Dam.

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