Central Arizona Fishing
4 Lakes in 48 Hours
by Lee Allen
There are sparkling jewels hidden among the sand and saguaros of southern Arizona. Nestled in the sagebrush and scrub oak, hidden by ocotillo cacti buds ripe for blooming after a spring rain, they glisten in the afternoon sunshine, gems that beckon Arizona anglers prospecting for fishing holes.
The names of these desert diamonds are as southwestern as their locations: Arivaca, Pena Blanca, Patagonia and Parker Canyon lakes. Taken as a quartet, they provide a weekend of wandering at its finest: four lakes in forty-eight hours with a fair guarantee of a stringer filled with something fishy for a Sunday night supper.
The northern part of the Grand Canyon state, high country, offers pine trees and reservation land throughout the White Mountains. The western part of the state has Central Arizona Project canals and Colorado River water. Central Arizona provides newly-modernized Roosevelt Dam and Lake as well as other water-based recreational spots in the Salt River chain of waterways.
By contrast, southern Arizona has to make up in scenic beauty and angling action what it lacks in number and sizes of lakes. Its four premier fishing spots provide slightly more than a total of five hundred surface-acres of hiding holes for fish, but the variety of angling opportunities and the size of the catches are what draw fishermen from all over the state.
While the chilly winds of winter still linger in the higher elevations, the Sonoran desert wakes up to spring earlier and makes southern Arizona more inviting for a weekend outing. The basin and range topography, which encompasses the mountains and valleys that buffer these lakes south of Tucson, can be harsh and, for the unschooled, unforgiving, at any time of the year. Temperature fluctuations are part of the lifestyle. Resident critters are often cantankerous and defensive. Even the plants, beautiful from a distance, can be unfriendly on close inspection. The late environmentalist Edward Abbey is often quoted describing the part of the country he loved best: "Everything in the desert either sticks, stings, stabs, or stinks."
With the official arrival of spring, and the advent of summer still a calendar page away, there's no guarantee that frost won't form at some of these four thousand foot-elevation lakes early in the morning. But a hot cup of freshly brewed coffee and an hour of early morning sunshine soon banishes any temporary goose bumps, except for those caused by nature's magnificence as the sun breaks over the mountains.
Wet or warming. Dry or damp. Hot or humid. The day that lies ahead is worth any temporary inconvenience caused by changing weather conditions.
Here is a brief rundown of the four lakes that can all be fished in a forty eight-hour weekend, beginning from and returning to Tucson.
Although not the smallest of the four, Arivaca Lake does not handle big crowds well. The ninety surface-acres are formed by a dam fed by a creek flowing into a valley at four thousand feet. The lake is surrounded by colorful mountain ranges with names as soothing as their scenic beauty.
The Cerro Colorados lie to the north, the Atascosas to the south. The Las Guijas mountains range to the west, and on the distant horizon, the Tohono O'odham Indians’ sacred peak, Baboquivari, towers in the range of the same name.
The drive to the lake is as calming as the destination itself. Interstate travel and even paved roads are left behind. When pavement ends and the graded gravel road begins, travel conditions force a slower pace that not only allows, but mandates, that more attention to be paid the terrain. It is time to look, listen and learn. There is a peaceful stand of cottonwoods with trunks thick enough to indicate they were there when Geronimo and friends first scouted the territory. There are abandoned mining claims where dreams began, flamed, fizzled and died. Range cattle graze at their water catchments and pause only momentarily to cast suspicious glances at human intruders.
Try the Friday night action, grab some shut eye and allow time for an early morning bite on Saturday. After the coffee pot cools, stow the gear and head for your next lake.
Pena Blanca Lake
If good things come in small packages, this is one of those good things. It has only fifty surface-acres but lots of places for fish – big ones – to hide. Pena Blanca is in the southwestern corner of the Coronado National Forest, about a tortilla toss away from the Mexican border. It's been there since its completion in early 1958, and it has become one of southern Arizona's most popular places for picnickers, swimmers, paddle-boaters and pleasure-seekers in general. Because of its proximity to the twin cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, the lake continues to draw visitors despite setbacks by seasonal flooding, silting and mercury-contamination from up-stream mining operations.
The lake was named for the twin peaks that dominate the southern skyline. It offers pleasant scenery and lots of places for fish (largemouth bass, channel catfish, crappie, bluegill and stocked rainbow trout) to lay in wait. This is a designated "electric motor only" lake so the bigger engines cannot be used here.
Try your luck during the day on Saturday, but leave enough time to move on to the next lake and set up camp.
This is southern Arizona's only entry into the big league, if you call two hundred and sixty five surface-acres big. It's the largest fishing hole in the area and the only one fed year-round by a natural stream (Sonoita Creek). At close to four thousand feet elevation, temperatures from May through September traditionally run in the upper eighties or low nineties Fahrenheit – another reason the lake fills up rapidly on weekends.
Established as a six-hundred-plus-acre state park in 1975, the lake is tucked away in rolling hills and is an ideal place to scout for native dwellers from turtles to tarantulas, deer to doves, and hawks to herons.
The western half of the lake is used for racing, water-skiing and other high-speed activities. The eastern half is restricted to wakeless speed. However, if you arrive late in the afternoon from your last spot, the swimmers and skiers have generally called it a day, and only anglers occupy the water, working the reedy shorelines or ninety-foot depths at the dam, searching for supper.
Trout, bass, channel catfish, crappie and sunfish are all in evidence. Because of the variety of quarry available, this is a popular spot. In fact, it is very popular with bass fishermen who like to practice their flippin' techniques in the cattails that carpet much of the shoreline. However, if your casting arm is tired by now, you would do well to remember that this is one of the finest spots in the state for channel catfish. They thrive on the lake's silty bottom and provide a sporting evening for those with line and lantern.
Speaking of lanterns and impending nightfall, because Patagonia offers seventy five developed campsites as well as indoor plumbing with hot showers – and because you've been on the road or in a boat for over twenty four hours by now – this might be a good place to stay the night. Again, catch the Sunday morning top water action before moving on to the final lake on the tour.
Parker Canyon Lake
This one is a beauty, a blue magnet that draws cactus-country anglers the last few miles over a graded road to the launching area for one hundred and thirty three surface-acres of boating and fishing fun.
At five thousand four hundred feet above sea level, even summertime conditions have been known to bring strong, gusty winds accompanied by an unexpected nip in the air. The water level of the lake, dependent on snow melt and rain runoff from the surrounding Huachuca Mountains, fluctuates from year to year.
Largemouth bass are beginning to think about romance, making plans for their spring spawn. There are still leftover trout from winter and spring Game and Fish Department stocking efforts. Illegally introduced northern pike show up and grow up in the cooler waters. There is no limit to the pike you can take.
Fist-sized bluegills and green sunfish are all over the lake, taking almost anything thrown at them. At this point, if bass at the three previous lakes have been afflicted with lockjaw, it might be wise to change the pattern: switch to lighter tackle and take home some trout to pan fry.
Whatever the stringer holds, you know it is going to taste great when you get back home. After two days outdoors in southern Arizona, fish fillets and a frothy beverage can only produce pleasant memories and happy faces.
And there is always the prospect of another junket later in the year after the summer heat has come and gone. This time, if you reverse the visitation order of the lakes, the fish may not see you coming.
To reach Arivaca Lake, take I-19 South thirty miles south from Tucson to Arivaca exit. Proceed fourteen miles to the Arivaca Lake Road turnoff. Travel three miles to lakeside. Facilities include a concrete launch ramp and pit toilets. Otherwise, the site is a primitive location.
To reach Pena Blanca Lake, return to the Arivaca Lake Road turnoff. Head south for fifteen miles on what now becomes Ruby Road to reach lakeside. Facilities include a concrete launch ramp and toilets. To inquire about lake conditions or additional information, call 1-520-281-2296.
To reach Patagonia Lake, return to I-19 and drive south for ten miles to State Route 82. Turn northeast and proceed twelve miles to lakeside. A general store is open daily (except Wednesday) for fishing licenses, boat rentals, bait, ice and other supplies. Facilities include a swimming beach, two boat launch sites, developed campgrounds, RV hookups (thirty five foot vehicle size limit), a dump station, toilets, showers and a picnic area with ramadas, tables and grills. Call 1-520-287-6965 for additional information.
To reach Parker Canyon Lake, follow State Route 82 northeast for fifteen miles to the Patagonia-Sonoita Four Corners intersection. Turn south on State Route 83 and proceed for twenty mile (reduced speed driving) to lakeside. Facilities include a concrete launch ramp, toilets and a floating fishing dock. Call 1-520-455-5847 for additional information.
Return to Tucson by following State Route 83 north for fifty miles, then turning west on Interstate 10 back to the city.
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