Fishing on the Colorado River
What to Expect
by Joe Zentner
The thin light of morning nurtures optimists as they head out to fish the mighty Colorado River. Many anglers have a "big one" fixed firmly in mind. A largemouth bass, maybe, or a rainbow trout. Channel catfish, black crappie, walleye and striped bass are all popular catches.
Anglers anticipate the cast, setting the hook, the screaming reel, the flexing rod, the noble fight, the fair catch. Some picture him or herself in a photo, sweaty and smiling, holding a prize fish. Some even dare to imagine making the record books.
Once in a while, that dream of glory comes true. More often, outbound optimists return as realists in the harsher light of late afternoon, eager to show off their catchhowever small it might compare to the record setters.
Starting at the top of the lakes that make up Colorado River desert impoundments, Lake Powell’s trout population, including those found in the Glen Canyon Dam south to the Lees Ferry stretch of the river, provide exciting fishing opportunities year-round. The area is known for its largemouth and smallmouth bass, striped bass, black crappie and walleye fishing.
March to November is prime fishing season. Crappies swim into the shallows to spawn in the spring; fishing shoreline brush then is a good bet. Fish in deep waters during the cooler months to catch walleye. Before your first cast, check with a marina store for the necessary licenses, fish limits and other regulations.
Throughout human history, mankind has built monuments to its ingenuity and skill. In Egypt, it was the Pyramids. Rome built the Colosseum. The Greeks built the Acropolis. The great cathedrals of Europe raised the skills of their builders to unparalleled heights, creating awe-inspiring structures. In the Americas, the city dwellings of Mesa Verde and the high mountain city of Machu Pichu speak to the skill and ingenuity of their builders.
In the modern era, it’s buildings that reach half a mile into the sky, bridges that stretch enormous distances in a single span, and machines that extend mankind’s reach far into space. One monument that must be counted among the great achievements of mankind is Hoover Dam.
The dam and Lake Mead behind it are located in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River about 35 miles southeast of Las Vegas. Located on the Arizona-Nevada State line, the dam and reservoir are in the counties of Mohave in Arizona and Clark in Nevada. The Colorado River Basin is an area of over 242,000 square miles that includes parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. The Colorado River itself originates in the mountains of Colorado and flows 1,400 miles to the Gulf of California.
Anglers are drawn to Lake Mead and Lake Mohave just below it like gamblers to Vegas. The lakes offer some of the best sport fishing in the country. Unlike some impoundments, these two offer an open season on all species of fish year-round.
Largemouth bass, rainbow trout, striped bass, channel catfish, black crappie and bluegill are all popular catches. There are differences between the two lakes in the abundance of certain species. In Lake Mead, one of the most sought after fish is striped bass; specimens weighing 50 pounds and more have been caught here. In Lake Mohaveespecially in its upper reaches in Black Canyonrainbow trout are the most popular catch. Before heading out, you may want to stop by a ranger station and find out the current "hot spots" for the fish you are seeking.
Nevada and Arizona share jurisdiction over Lake Mead and Lake Mohave. To fish from shore, you need a state fishing license. If you fish from a boat, you are required to have a license from one state and a special use stamp from the other. Most marinas sell licenses and stamps. They also sell bait, tackle and other fishing supplies. Anglers should be familiar with catch limits and legal methods of capture.
Anglers appreciate Lake Havasu for several reasons, one being that the best fishing seasons coincide with the most pleasant months, climate-wise. Havasu is the finest crappie fishing lake on the Colorado River. Crappie fishing is good in late winter and early spring. Mainly night feeders, crappies are attracted to light; for that reason, many people like to fish for them after dinner off a dock.
Shortly after its creation, Lake Havasu began offering bass fishing on a par with Lake Mead. Years ago, largemouths were stocked in marshy areas of the winding river but remained largely undiscovered until the lakes were formed. Then, as the fish population grew and big bass started showing up, excited anglers began beating a path to the desert oasis.
Bass fishing is at its best March through May, and again in October and November. Bass are most often caught by casting or trolling in coves.
Although London Bridge is Lake Havasu City’s standout attraction, of interest also is Shambles, a modern version of an English village of the same name that flourished during the 15th century. It has been re-created to give visitors a feeling for medieval times. Here one can stroll along Shambles Lane and gaze at buildings that lean so close together, neighbors in olden times could shake hands from one house to the next.
Largemouth bass, a member of the sunfish family, are dark greenish above, fading to a whitish belly. A series of dark blotches form a horizontal band along its midline to tail. Named for its large mouth, the average weight is two to four pounds, with up to ten pounds frequently caught.
An opportunistic feeder, largemouth bass eat other fish, frogs, crayfish, tadpoles, insects, small rodents, snakes and ducklings. The fish has adapted to large reservoirs, where it swims around drop-offs, ledges, underwater islands, sunken timber, docks and bridges.
Fly, spinning or bait-casting rods and reels can all be used when fishing for largemouth bass. Plastic worms, surface lures, jigs and other lures imitating minnows, crayfish, frogs, salamanders and nightcrawlers can all be cast to them. Live bait includes minnows, crayfish, nightcrawlers and frogs.
Also a member of the sunfish family, smallmouth bass are coppery-brown above, with greenish-brown sides and dark vertical bars. Crayfish are a favorite food, as are tadpoles and other small fish.
Smallmouth bass prefer clear flowing streams and rivers with rock and gravel riffles, as well as cool deep water found in large reservoirs with boulders and gravel bottoms. Fly, spin-casting and bait-casting rods and reels are all suitable for taking this scrappiest of freshwater gamefish.
Striped bass have an elongated body. Their color ranges from dark olive above through silvery sides to a white belly. Horizontal black stripes originate behind the head and extend to the tail. Ten to 15 pound fish are common, with 30 to 40-pound-plus fish landed occasionally.
Heavy bait-casting and spin-casting outfits with 15 to 25 pound test line are used to fish for striped bass. Trolling, drift fishing and deep jigging are the usual methods of fishing. Large feathered or plastic jig combinations, spoons and crankbaits can be used as lures.
Black crappies are covered with dark, irregular blotches and have seven dorsal spines. Minnows and other small fish are favored foods, but black crappies also eat crustaceans and insects. They are found in rivers and streams, swamps, tidal creeks, small lakes and large impoundments. Fishing techniques center on light spin-casting rods and reels using tiny jigs and small crank baits that imitate minnows. Best live baits are small to medium size minnows.
Rainbow trout have a back that is olive-green with a silvery cast on its sides fading to a silvery white belly. A pinkish or light rosy red band extends from its cheek to near the tail. Native to the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, rainbow trout favor fast flowing streams but also thrive in lakes, where they can grow to enormous size. Rainbows will hit dry flies, wet flies, nymphs, small spinners, and spoons, as well as worms, minnows and salmon eggs. Berkeley Power Baits that give off a scent and can be shaped on the hook are used extensively by knowledgeable rainbow trout anglers.
Largest member of the perch family, walleyes avoid bright sunlight, choosing to lie in deep or shaded cover during daylight hours. They move onto bars and reefs near the shallows to feed at night. Foods include small fish, insect larvae, crayfish and other aquatic animals. In some instances, walleyes will be active during daylight hours if it is overcast or the lake is turbid, which cuts down on light penetration.
Walleyes prefer waters that are cool, particularly near ledges, large rocks, underwater islands, logs, the edges of aquatic vegetation beds and along old riverbed channels. When fishing for walleye, try minnows, nightcrawlers, spinners and deep-running crankbaits. Walleyes can be caught still fishing with live minnows, as well as by trolling. Slow retrieves produce the best results since walleyes generally move slower than do other game species. Delicious to eat, the best fish dinner I ever had was walleye at a restaurant in Wall, South Dakota, across the street from the legendary Wall Drug.
Catfish (order Siluriformes) are a diverse group. Named for their prominently displayed "barbels," which are slender, whiskerlike sensory organs located on the head, cats are found in freshwater environments of most kinds, with species found on every continent except Antarctica. (There is an incredibly ugly looking saltwater variety of catfish, the name of which I have long since forgotten, but I know it exists because I once snagged one while fishing for speckled trout in the Gulf of Mexico.) Catfish lack scales but do possess a strong hollow ray in their dorsal and pectoral fins, through which a stinging protein can be delivered when the fish is irritated.
The diet of catfish consists of insects, larvae, small fish, frogs, freshwater mollusks, and seeds carried in water. Although trolling minnow-imitating lures does occasionally catch catfish, 99.4% of them are taken on dead or live bait of one kind or another. Chicken livers, shrimp, nightcrawlers, red worms, fish belly strips and stink baits are all used as catfish bait.
When boat fishing, try to anchor above a known catfish hotspot (for their precise location, inquire at Colorado River bait shops). Catfish congregate around underwater mounds. Cast and retrieve slowly. Your rod tip will bend as you drag your sinker up the side of a mound. When the rod tip straightens, you are, more than likely, on the ridge of a mound. Prepare for a strike as you slowly work your bait down the side. Catfish are slow eaters, so be patient before setting your hook.
Whether your preference is fishing from a boat, a shore or wading, anglers fishing Colorado River waters regularly take home their limit of fish. Being successful in catching fish takes planning and flexibility. If nothing else, witnessing the sunrise or sunset is reason enough to be on the water. Remember to keep only those fish you intend to have for dinner. Take an extra trash bag along to pick up garbage if the fishing is slow. I’ll see you on the river, though you better hurry ‘cause I’m getting old. The colloquial term for a saltwater catfish is a hardhead.
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