San Carlos Lake

Southeastern Arizona

by Lee Allen

San Carlos Lake located in southeastern Arizona, has had more ups and downs than a bungee jumper.

Located on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation 25 miles east of Globe and 50 miles west of Safford off I-10, San Carlos Lake stands today just about where it has stood for the last 70 years—on the edge of disaster. It’s been up and it’s been down for seven decades while it has supplied water-based recreational opportunities on one hand and functioned, on the other hand, as a major storage facility of irrigation water for fertile downstream farmlands from Coolidge and Florence to Sacaton and Casa Grande.

President Calvin Coolidge and comedian Will Rogers showed up in 1930 for the formal dedication of the dam, which looks like a series of eggs standing on end, side by side. Although "Silent Cal" was indeed silent as he looked at the dam with no water behind it, Rogers couldn’t resist a quip. Surveying the Gila River that had shrunk to a tiny trickle and a lake bottom filled, not with water, but with grazing cows, Rogers told the crowd, "If this was my lake, I’d mow it."


It took half a century for the lake to fill up, with water levels ranging from fairly high to near empty with inevitable hot weather draw downs. The fish population was repeatedly re-stocked and wiped out in response to the rise and fall of San Carlos lake. Operating on a boom-and-bust philosophy driven by downstream irrigation needs, water levels have dropped low enough to cause dead-storage fish kills and risen high enough to set new high-water marks. San Carlos lake has been drawn to the dead-pool level nearly 20 times. It has been full – the largest body of water in Arizona, with 158 miles of shoreline and 19,500 acre-feet of water – on just three occasions.

With low water conditions that appear in cyclical fashion, San Carlos Lake is a body of water that continually has to recreate itself ecologically. This drives the angling public crazy because San Carlos Lake is often referred to as the lake to go to when fish won’t bite anywhere else. When full, it has a wide variety of fish to chase, from the standard bluegill and green sunfish to carp, bullhead, channel catfish (up to 22 pounds) and flathead catfish (up to 65 pounds). San Carlos Lake is also noted as a springtime hot spot for crappie, with some of the panfish nudging the five-pound mark. It also yields good-size largemouth bass, including a 16-pounder taken here in 1996.

The lake’s chief drawback of fill-it-up/draw-it-down cycles is also one of its chief advantages. Each time irrigation needs require that the lake be lowered to a muddy pond, salt cedar bushes re-grow on the shoreline. When the water rises, the new brush structure is flooded and provides fertile new playgrounds for re-stocked fish, a boon for the sportsman.

Fortunately, "We had a wet spring this year," says tribal fisheries biologist Cliff Schleusner. "We expect water levels to be relatively stable during the hot weather months." Serious anglers should consult topographic maps of the lake, looking for river inlets from the San Carlos and Gila Rivers as well as an area called The Lava Beds. Some favorite spots include the large cove east of Power Line Road as well as smaller coves such as Old Government, New Government Corral and Mohave Point along the north shore. On the south side of the lake, visiting boaters should check out Catfish Bay, County Line, Willow Creek and Blue Cove.

For the most part, the 25-mile-long San Carlos Lake is relatively shallow with few drop offs. The main lake is a big, spreading basin with a maximum depth of some 75 feet at the dam. Before the dam was built, thousands of mesquite and palo verde trees covered what is now the lake bottom. Now shoreline coves and points are lined with the brush that reportedly creates more productive fishing-per-acre than any other southeast Arizona lake.

Although the lake lies within the Sonoran desert, it is surrounded by three national forests: Coronado to the south, Tonto to the west and Apache to the east. At a 3000-foot elevation, the lake offers geographic and ecological diversity from mid-altitude desert to high-country forests, and it provides an excellent climate for boating, water skiing, fishing, hiking and leisurely sight-seeing. The reservation is huge, nearly two million acres, with many small impoundments called tanks, used to water livestock. These cover surface areas ranging from one quarter acre to 50 acres, although the average is about a single acre. The Apache tribe built three other lakes designed for recreation—nearby Talkalai (a 11/2-mile-long, 500-acre trophy bass impoundment three miles above the community of San Carlos) and higher elevation trout lakes at Seneca and Point of Pines.

In addition to water-based recreation, 10 big game animals call the locale home. Hunting is permitted for seven species, including antelope, mule deer, elk, javelina, bear and lion as well as turkey. A record-breaking Rocky Mountain elk was taken in a hunt on the reservation a few years ago. Record-breaking trophy Coues deer and desert and bighorn sheep have also been bagged. Birdwatchers like the Sonoran desert to high mountain landscape because it attracts more than 200 species, ranging from bald eagles to Mexican spotted owls.


To reach San Carlos Lake, take State Route 70 east from Globe for 25 miles, then turn south at Indian Route 3. Stay on that road for nine and one-half miles to reach the Soda Canyon General Store, where you'll find a 60-foot-wide concrete launch ramp within a mile of the dam itself. The lake is a little over 100 miles east of Phoenix and about 125 miles north of Tucson. The San Carlos Apache Tribe has sovereign rights over the lake and the land, and the tribe has managed water recreation since 1968 under contracts with the U. S. Interior Department.

More Information

  • San Carlos Apache Tribe -- 1-928-475-2361
  • San Carlos Game & Fish Department -- 1-928-475-2343
  • San Carlos Wildlife Department -- 1-928-475-2653
  • Soda Canyon General Store -- 1-928-475-2756
  • Globe/Miami Chamber of Commerce -- 1-928-425-4495
  • Arizona Game and Fish Department -- 1-602-942-3000


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