Southern Arizona Bass Lakes That Are Often-Overlooked
November 15, 2014
Even native Arizonans tend to overlook the southern bass lakes when they get the urge to bass fish. The biggest lakes are in the central part of the state and along the Colorado River, and those areas are also quicker and easier to get to for a majority of the population. For those who live closer to the border, and for those willing to take the time to get there, four smaller more peaceful lakes beckon. Although you could do a drive-by of all four in a single day, each of them is different from the others.
These lakes could fool you into thinking that they are natural lakes, but they are reservoirs. They differ from the big desert reservoirs in more than size – these little lakes are surrounded by trees and have lush areas of vegetation. You can spot Coues whitetail deer browsing near the shorelines of these lakes, and if you are a birder, make sure you bring your binoculars. There is also excellent hiking near and around most of them.
Arivaca Lake is rarely crowded and has a history of very good bass fishing. At an elevation of 3750 feet, it is nestled in a hollow surrounded by some of the most beautiful high desert in the state. The shores of Arivaca are solid with big trees and flowering shrubs in summer. It averages about 80 acres in size, and can get very low in the summer. Renovation has been completed on the boat ramp and facilities at Arivaca Lake, and the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) says the lake is once again open to vehicular traffic.
The lake is only about four feet down from full right now, and the new ramp is usable. You can launch a big bass boat, but a smaller boat is ideal, since there is a 10 horsepower limit. The Game and Fish says the fishing there is picking up. They had a minor fish kill when the lake first came up because of low oxygen, but it's getting better. Because of high mercury levels in the warm-water fishes (bass, sunfish, and catfish), the Game and Fish Department recommends that you not eat these species. This means that Arivaca is basically a catch and release lake. Since the lake is still low there may not be any overhanging trees, but spinnerbaits and jigs should still work just fine.
There are plenty of open spots around the lake that you can camp on, and all but the biggest RV's should be able to navigate the roads in successfully. With a really big rig, I would call the Coronado National Forest at (520) 281-2296 and inquire about road conditions. There are no developed camping sites at Arivaca, no drinking water, and no facilities except for a pit toilet. Bring everything you might need with you, and pack out your trash when you leave.
The shoreline at Arivaca varies from weedy mud banks to rip-rap or bluffs. You can walk around the lake on the well-used paths that circle it, but make sure you wear insect repellant. With a decent selection of plastics and spinnerbaits you'll be sitting pretty at Ariva. Senko's and 4-inch worms are go-to baits. Color depends on water clarity. If there has been a lot of run-off and the water is dark, use something with a little chartreuse. Otherwise, since bluegill are the main forage, anything with a bit of blue is a good choice.
If we have a good rainy winter the water will come up fairly quickly. You might want to call the Game and Fish in Tucson at 520-628-5376 to inquire about water levels before you go. Keep in mind that you can't see the whole lake from the ramp area.
To get to Arivaca Lake, take I-19 south and go west at the Arivaca turn-off (exit 48). You'll pass through the town of Arivaca, then follow the signs. The last couple miles after you turn off the Ruby Road are dirt road. If it has been rainy, take care. There are several washes that cross the road and they can get nasty if they have been running. Keep an eye out and you might see white tails, mule deer, javelina, and other wildlife.
PENA BLANCA LAKE
Pena Blanca was closed for a while, but it opened three years ago. There was major work done at the lake – it was emptied and the bottom was dredged in an effort to mitigate the mercury problem there. Game and Fish says that the fishing there has been pretty good. The water came way up in late September after the rains, and the lake was chocolate brown and had a lot of floating debris. It should be much better by now. Drop-shotting is the way to go for bass, and the lake is stocked with trout in the winter.
There are lots of covered tables and picnic areas with a view of the lake. Back in the day, Pena Blanca had a restaurant and hotel that were very popular with hunters and fishermen. Those buildings have been torn down now and everyone is eager to see what, if anything, will be taking their place.
There are very nice campgrounds at Pena Blance with plenty of shade trees, concrete tables, grills, and restrooms. This is a lake to keep an eye on. Call Game and Fish at 520-628-5376 for an update on Pena Blanca before you head to southern Arizona.
You can get to Pena Blanca from Arivaca by following the Ruby Road for many long dusty miles. Or you can take I-19 down to Highway 289 (Ruby-Nogales Highway) and it is approximately ten paved miles to the lake. Highway 289 is about five miles north of the Mexico border.
Patagonia Lake is a small reservoir about an hour south of Tucson. Formed by damming Sonoita Creek, this beautiful little lake offers good crappie, catfish, and bass fishing. Patagonia is at an elevation of 3750 feet, and the surrounding country is grassy hills and scrub oak and juniper. Patagonia Lake is the most developed of the four southern Arizona lakes and by far gets the most traffic. The vistor center/entry station is open every day except Christmas, and from November through March it is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The gate is open from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish and catfish are all good, and rainbow trout are stocked in winter. Half of the lake is a no-wake zone, which makes things nice for fishermen. There are two launch ramps at Patagonia. The one nearest the marina is situated at the far end of a little bay on the south side of the lake. There is a store there, and you can even rent a small boat if you need to. The marina bay narrows down just before it opens back out into the main lake, and an arched footbridge has been built across the lake at this point.
As you turn right after passing under the bridge, heading toward the east end of the lake, there is a large shelf underwater just at the turn where the bay opens into the main lake. This is a part of the rock formation that the bridge sits on, and there is a good drop-off about forty feet from shore. This shelf with the drop-off is the perfect place for a worm fisherman.
A jig and pig will also catch bass on the drop-off by the bridge. Purple and blue seem to be the colors that the Patagonia bass prefer, no matter what time of year it is.
Moving on down the bank on the south shore, you come to the swimming beach. This beach is buoyed off, and you can't fish inside the buoys when people are swimming there. This is a good worming spot and an excellent place to fish a spinnerbait at night.
Moving on to the north shore, the banks are cattails and trees, and pitching small purple worms, spinnerbaits, or jigs is the order of the day from April through October. Purple fleck Power Worms are very good for this technique. Stay out a ways and pitch–the water is very clear. Move it a couple of times and if you don't get bit, pitch to a different spot. They almost always take it on the fall.
One stretch of this reedy bank has a lot of wood sticking out of the water in front of it, and this is an excellent place to throw a spinnerbait. A white one with double silver willow leaf blades is usually good.
As you start to reach the point where you are directly across from the entrance to the marina, the bank changes. Huge boulders form the shore now, and this is one of the best places on Patagonia for big fish. Deeper diving crankbaits are dynamite on this rock, especially first thing in the morning. Spinnerbaits are good here, too.
Still heading west along the north shore, past the big rock bank, you come to another area where the shoreline is covered with cattails. This is a submerged bluff, and the creek channel below is still lined with huge cottonwood trees. The shore runs out relatively flat, then suddenly drops off, and you can see the trees beneath you on your graph. This is a dynamite spot not only for bass, but for crappie.
Just past this tree-filled fish heaven the shore begins to curve north and east into Ash Canyon. This cove is a super area for crappie and bass. The right side of this arm as you are moving in is a little steeper, and the cuts on this side are great crappie spots.
Once you come out of Ash Canyon, you're almost at the end of the lake. This end is the skiing half of Patagonia--the east end is totally no wake. You can catch bass at Patagonia all year long on worms, spinnerbaits and jerkbaits. Because of mercury content, eating bass at Patagonia is not recommended. But trout are stocked here through March, so if you want to catch some fish for dinner, go for trout.
You can get to Patagonia by taking I-10 east to I-19 at Tucson and going to Nogales. At Nogales, head north on Highway 82 to the lake. A more scenic route is to keep going east on I-10 past I-92 to Highway 83 at Pantano. Turn south here to Sonoita, then catch Highway 82 to the lake.
There is a $10-$15 entry fee to Patagonia Lake State Park, and there is no entry from 10:00 pm to 4:00 am. There are 105 developed campsites with a picnic table, a fire-ring/grill, and parking for 2 vehicles. Campsites are $17 for non-electric sites (there are only two of these), $25-$28 for electric sites, and $17-$20 for cabana or boat sites. The sites vary in size but most can accommodate just about any size RV. The boat-in sites have a picnic table and fire-ring and are accessible by boat only. There is also a store (520-287-5545), marina, restrooms and showers, and picnic ramadas. You can call the park at (520) 287-6965.
Site reservations are available by calling the Reservation Center at (520) 586-2283. You can call 7 days a week, from 8 am to 5 pm MST. There is a $5 non-refundable reservation fee per site. You may also reserve campsites 24/7 for this park online.
PARKER CANYON LAKE
At an elevation of 5400 feet, Parker Canyon Lake is surrounded by hills covered with junipers, pines, and flowering shrubs (Parker Canyon is in the Coronado National Forest). Plenty of good weedbeds and patches of reeds make perfect hiding places for the bass, crappie, trout, catfish and huge sunfish that live in the lake. Parker Canyon holds the state record for green sunfish – 1 pound 9 ounces.
The lake is usually very clear, with weedbeds that run out to about thirty feet from shore. These beds make a distinct weed line where they end, and these weed lines are excellent places to throw worms and jigs for bass. Black, blue, and dark green are good colors to try. Be prepared for a big bass -- the lake record is seven and a half pounds. Spinnerbaits and shallow-running crankbaits worked over the weeds also produce nice bass.
Another lure that produces big bass at Parker Canyon is a Jitterbug. Plastic worms and Senkos fished along weed edges and down the banks work well. You should also try a variety of trout-colored baits.
Parker Canyon is bigger than it looks at first glance -- it actually covers about 125 acres. It is vaguely L-shaped and one arm is hidden around the corner from the launch ramp.
The store at Parker Canyon is clean and fresh and runs on solar energy. The rental boats are in great shape. You are not allowed to use a motor over 8 horsepower on the lake, but you can launch a bass boat and use the trolling motor. The ramp is single lane and a bit steep, but it is paved and very serviceable. This store is open every day except Wednesdays, from March through Oct. During winter months, it is closed Tuesday through Thursdays, and open from 12-5 on Friday and 8-5 Saturday and Sunday.
Shore fishing is very popular at Parker Canyon, and Lakeshore Trail #128 leads all the way around the lake. This 5-mile, nearly level trail is well maintained and easy to follow. Trailside benches and interpretive signs are located at some of the best wildlife viewing areas. There is a fishing pier as well as a lakeside paved area and a graveled path along some of the best catfishing shoreline.
In addition to the store, boat ramp and fishing pier, there is a courtesy dock, restroom, campground, paved parking and handicap access to most facilities. Lakeview campground has 65 sites with drinking water and a special area with handicapped access. The sites there are $10.
Three group sites at Rock Bluff are just a short distance from Parker Canyon Lake. Tables and grills are clustered on small, walled patios in a rocky little canyon dotted with oaks and junipers. Group site reservations can be made online at http://www.recreation.gov. Use is by reservation only.
The store at Parker Canyon Lake sells all kinds of groceries, tackle, and supplies. You can call the store at (520) 455-5847 for information about boat rentals and such. There is excellent hunting in the area, and even though the lake is only a couple of miles north of the border, they haven't had any problems. Border Patrol and Game and Fish officers patrol the area regularly.
To get to Parker Canyon Lake, drive east on Interstate 10 to Sonoita, then continue on AZ 83 approximately 25 miles to Parker Canyon Lake. The road is now paved all the way in.
Almost any road off the main highway is going to have a warning sign when you are this close to the Mexico border. Despite the heavy presence of Border Patrol and other law enforcement, illegal immigration and smuggling are constantly going on. The border between the U.S. and Mexico is lamentably porous. If you do plan to travel cross-country, you should absolutely consider how you would defend yourself if it became necessary. There isn't always cell phone reception, and it is big country down there. If you stick to well-traveled roads and busy areas it is very unlikely that you will have any problems.
Margie Anderson may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.