Roosevelt Lake in Arizona
Theodore Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River in Arizona
If you’re a fisherman, Roosevelt Lake is nirvana. From killer spring crappie spawns to lunker largemouth bass and record-setting flathead or channel catfish in the summer, the massive waterway offers anglers a full array of options.
Roosevelt Lake is the largest of four lakes created as part of the Salt River project. It’s a big lake, the largest reservoir in Arizona, and at maximum water levels, it offers a length of almost 24 miles from the Salt River arm on the east side to the Tonto Creek inlets o the northwest side. This translates to more than 88 miles of shoreline when the lake is at full capacity.
The Theodore Roosevelt Dam that created Roosevelt Lake was built between 1905 and 1911. The reservoir is the oldest in the state. It was dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt, who drove there via the dusty Apache Trail for the ceremony. The dam, the nation’s first project under the Federal Reclamation Act, is the tallest masonry dam in the world. The original 280-foot-tall structure (higher than Niagara Falls) was built from block and cement hewn from nearby hillsides which contained deposits of cement-forming limestone. From base-to-crest, the dam was filled with 356,000 cubic yards of boulders and mortaran aggregate which was called "cyclopean rubble."
The original construction crew was a ragtag band of laborers and specialists. In Raising Arizona’s Dams (University of Arizona Press, 1995) authors A. E. Rogge, D. Lorne McWatters, Melissa Keane and Richard P. Emanuel called the project, "a classic example of what might be the most important aspect of Western historythe formation of a new southwestern American workforce, a society made up of ethnic groups from all over the globe." Apache Indians built roadways (like the one used by Roosevelt). Hispanic laborers established and maintained supply routes. African Americans worked in adjacent quarries. Italian stonemasons put the granite blocks in place.
The dam got a construction facelift and a new top hat in a four-year expansion project completed, at a cost of $350 million, in 1995. The original rough-textured masonry was covered with smooth concrete, and a 77-foot structural extension was added for a new height cap of 357 feet. A 3000-foot-long suspension bridge which parallels the dam has been open to traffic for over a decade, eliminating the once-treacherous requirement for vehicles to travel single lane, one-at-a-time, across the top of the dam. It will take some time before water levels come close to setting a new high water mark of some 20,000 surface acres, or three million acre feet (an "acre foot" equals the volume of water required to cover one acre of land to one foot of depth).
This lake, with some of the best bass waters in the country, will only get better as water levels increase, flooding new structures and bringing new nutrients to enrich the lake and its aquatic community. "If you don’t catch fish at Roosevelt, you’re not trying hard enough," says professional tournament angler Greg Hines of Mesa. "You can always catch fish here," says fellow pro and former Phoenix resident John Murray. "No matter what time of year or what the weather is like, bass are always willing to bite in these waters."
The game fish include not only largemouth bass, but their smaller relations, the "bronzebacks" or smallmouth bass, as well as crappie, carp, channel catfish, flathead catfish, bluegill, buffalo fish and an occasional rainbow trout. Some catches have set new Arizona Inland Water Hook and Line records, including, for example, a 7-pound smallmouth, a 14-pound largemouth, a 36-pound buffalo fish, a 40-pound flathead and a 50-pound channel catfish.
"Roosevelt grows fish fast because it stays warm year-round and is relatively shallow with brush-filled bays that provide excellent spawning sites," says veteran outdoor writer Bob Hirsch, who has weighed in an 8-pound 12-ounce bass from the lake. "The water is extremely rich because of all the nutrients brought in from the two river inflows."
Drawdowns initiated to facilitate construction projects brought the lake down to near-record lows (approximately 15 percent of capacity), leaving boat ramps high and dry and fish cover dozens of yards up the hillside from where the fish were swimming. The lake began to store winter rains last fall and snowmelt this spring, and it is now back to about 77 percent of capacity. In the process, new structure and cover has been flooded, and fish have found new homes.
"The good news about rising water levels is that the newly-flooded zones have had nearly two growth years since they were last inundated," says Regional Game and Fish spokesman Ty Gray. "This means the vegetation is well-established and provides lots of new hiding places for structure-oriented fish."
The West’s most popular panfish, crappie, started biting here last February and continue to do so. Biologists from the Game and Fish Department estimate there are well over 10 million of the speckled beauties in these waters. Game and Fish management of largemouth bass (slot limits initiated in 1991) have increased the numbers of big fish since their initial stocking 90 years ago. Smallmouth have also grown and proliferated since their introduction in the early 1920’s.
In addition to keeping anglers happy, the waters of the storage reservoir also act as a rest area for migrating waterfowl. A closed-to-access site has been maintained by Game and Fish since 1956, and in cooler months, as many as 3000 wintering Canada geese flock here for refuge and to feed on Bermuda grass and filaree.
The area, which contains three lakes in addition to Roosevelt Lake, has over a million visitors a year. Many make the trip especially to see Tonto National Monument, the cliff dwelling ruins of 25 individual rooms in natural caves overlooking the lake. The well-preserved ruins were inhabited by the Salado Indians in the 1300’s.
The most interesting approach is from the west; take US 60 out of Phoenix through Apache Junction, and turn left on State Route 88 through Tortilla Flat before descending the narrow, winding Apache Trail. (Make sure your brakes are in good working order.)
From the north, take Beeline Highway (SR 87) out of Mesa past Saguaro Lake, right on the Tonto Basin shortcut to SR 188, through Punkin Center and on to Horse Pasture Campground to the mouth of Tonto Creek.
From the south, take US 60/70 about halfway between the mining towns of Globe and Miami, then 30 miles on SR 88 to the town of Roosevelt, just east of the dam.
By Lee Allen
Tonto National Forest Service 1-602-225-5200
Regional AZ Game & Fish 1-602-981-9400
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