The first stop on this week’s tour of the Southwest was Lake Powell, which sits on the border of Utah and Arizona. The lake is the second largest manmade lake in the United States, and holds healthy populations of largemouth, smallmouth and striped bass.
The sun climbs over the lake as we ready the Center Console for an early-morning run.
Lake Powell sits in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and so there is surprisingly little development on the lake’s shores. Page, Arizona is one of the biggest lakefront towns. Stix Bait and Tackle in Page is the hub for fishing and hunting activity.
The shop’s walls are a testament to the glory days of striper fishing gone by on Powell. Stripers of this size are extremely rare these days on Powell, but there are promising signs that they might return.
The Lake is an extremely popular vacation destination in the summer, when Page is inundated with visitors from around the country.
Stix offers some unique souvenirs to remember the Lake by, should you make your way there.
I had come to Page to fish Powell with Danny Woods of “This Side of That” guide service. Danny and his partner Kyran Keisling had both spent their fair share of time working jobs they didn’t exactly love, so when they started the guide service, the aim was to get on “this side of all that.” And they seem to be succeeding.
Danny and I started the morning off by throwing topwater plugs like this Rebel Pop R. Danny explained that in the fall, right around mid-October, the largemouth will push schools of shad back into Lake Powell’s shallower bays and can be caught on surface plugs as they push the shad around the skinny water.
It turns out Danny knew what he was talking about. This 4-pound bass was my biggest yet of the trip. I made a cast that went over a brushpile, but I had help getting it out when this largemouth tackled the topwater plug and before I could even crank the handle.
This fish was on the thin side, a testament to the fact that a warm fall had so far prevented the shad from moving in good numbers up into these shallow coves, and probably the reason this bass so aggressively punched my plug. But still it was a beautiful way to start the day.
With a largemouth crossed off the list, we decided to do some striper fishing. This time of year on Lake Powell that meant chumming and chunking anchovies.
This baitfish is a striper delicacy.
Chunking is certainly different style fishing than the topwater action we experienced in the early morning, but the two distinct fisheries are a testament to the enormous lake’s versatility. And the waiting game paid off with this short but chunky striped bass.
Although the size of Powell stripers has dipped in recent decades, there is certainly no shortage of them. These fish out-compete largemouth and smallmouth bass for baitfish like the shad, Danny Woods said.
The next target in pursuit of a Powell bass slam would be a smallmouth, Danny was fishing soft plastics like this Gary Yamamoto creature bait, which we rigged up with a tungsten weight and an offset hook to pitch around brushpiles. Powell doesn’t have much in the way of vegetation, but there are fields of submerged brush.
But the smallmouth bass were hitting on top as well. The bronzebacks weren’t the size of the largemouth we found earlier in the morning, but it’s tough to argue with topwater smallmouth action of any kind.
We caught good numbers of chunky smallmouth like this throughout the afternoon on the creature bait, the Pop R, and weightless Senko baits.
Danny shows off one of the smallmouth bass of the afternoon.
Danny’s center console doesn’t go anywhere without the stuffed frog given to him by his five-year-old son. The frog is good luck, and his son’s already quite a fisherman, from what I’m told.
The most memorable part about fishing Powell is the stunning visual experience. Steep rock walls, canyons and crevices wind and twist throughout the lake, which plunges to depths of more than 500 feet.
On a calm day like the one we had the surrounding rock is perfectly reflected in the reservoir.
Danny and Kyran are planning on opening up their office headquarters in the spring, where “This side of that” will bring customers on their side of things both for fishing trips and lake tours.
Their main office is wallpapered with photos of smiling clients holding big bass, a testament to the ability of these two guys to find and catch fish.
After getting off the water, Danny offers me a couch for the night and prepares a few of the smallmouth bass we caught to go along with some elk meat he’d been saving. His 12-year-old son shot his first elk this past season, and Danny’s not letting the meat go to waste. These guys take their hunting as seriously as they do their fishing, and Danny talks about some of the most treacherous pack-outs he’s had with his father, hunting elk.
Danny cubed and prepared an elk steak to make elk chili tacos. After Meeker, Colorado, this would make the second elk chili dinner I’ve had on the trip, but only the second I’ve ever had in my life.
“We really live the ‘Outdoor Life,'” Danny says, and he’s not kidding. Everything these guys do, from launching the boat at dawn to eating smallmouth and elk after sundown is some way connected to fishing or hunting.
The tacos, with peppers, fried potatoes, lettuce and tomato, are delicious, and a welcome respite from gas station suppers.
Before sending me on my way in the morning, Danny and Kyran are kind enough to show me one of the more scenic routes from Arizona into Utah. If you ever find yourself between Page, Arizona and Cannonville, Utah, Johnson Canyon Road is a pretty fun way to spend an afternoon without another human being in sight. Heavy rain can make these roads impassible, so be aware of weather conditions.
Stopping along the roadside you’ll see deep and narrow crevices like this one crawling down into the earth. There’s a different view around every tight and steep turn.
I was headed back through Utah to visit Zion National Park. The Park is an astounding series of sandstone cliffs and canyon walls that’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.
If you do go to Zion, you’ll likely find yourself in the Virgin River Valley, the most popular part of the park. But the Kolob Canyons to the north offer an equally impressive and less-crowded alternative.
En route to Lake Mead in Nevada, I’d find a different kind of awe-inspiring sight: my first trip to the Vegas strip. An electrical storm lit up the sky above the strip as bright as the neon lights below as I wandered through Caesar’s Palace, the Mirage and the Bellagio.
Impressive as it as, Vegas was not my thing. So the next day, with a day to kill before fishing Mead, I left the neon lights of the strip behind to visit something I’d consider more impressive, perhaps one of the country’s greatest natural wonders: Death Valley.
Watching the thermometer on your car climb as the elevation drops is a cool part of descending into Death Valley. It was 73 degrees when I left, and 87 when I arrived at Badwater Basin, the deepest part of the valley.
At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin in Death Valley is the lowest point in the United States.
Runoff from the rare rain that falls around Death Valley collects in the basin, and when it evaporates, it leaves behind mineral deposits that create a crusty salt-like layer that covers much of the bottom of the basin. From above it appears as if there’s a frozen crystal river running through the valley.
For sheer natural beauty, I’ve never seen anything that could hold a candle to the sunset view from Dante’s View, a viewpoint terrace overlooking Death Valley from 5,500 feet up.
The view is just unbelievable.
Finally, I’d finish off the week on Tuesday fishing the country’s largest reservoir, Lake Mead, just outside of Vegas.
I’d be fishing with Captain John Moehlenbrock, a Mead guide for the past eight years, who has caught stripers to 38 pounds in the lake. Mead has been known to produce stripers to 60 pounds, and is one of the best freshwater striper lakes in the nation.
Captain John and I were on the water by sunup, scouting for stripers breaking on the surface, pushing around bait like gizzard shad on top.
Wheeling gulls gave away the fish activity, and we chased around schools of stripers on Mead for much of the early morning. They cooperated, ripping into paddle-tail soft plastics like the one pictured here, reeled steadily and quickly right under the water’s surface.
The action was steady for much of the morning, and John shows off another starved schoolie here. It was similar to saltwater fishing for stripers, with the schools popping up on the surface, and a run-and-gun technique being the most effective.
Later in the day, the schools would move deeper, so we adjusted our approach.
John threw a castnet in some of the shallow back coves of the lake.
We collected a baitwell of these gizzard shad, which were making up much of the striper’s forage, and we rigged them with a barrel sinker to get them down to the fish, which were holding somewhere in the 60- to 90-foot range in the water column.
The technique adjustment worked, and we continued to catch fish throughout the rest of the late morning and early afternoon, despite the change in the bite, further proof that a willingness to adapt is crucial to success on the water. Lake Mead is a must-stop for anyone that appreciates or wants to try freshwater striper fishing.
If you go… Lake Powell: This Side of That Guide Service, www.fishingpowell.com Lake Mead: Captain John Moehlenbrock, www.vegasfishing.com Zion National Park: http://www.nps.gov/zion// Death Valley: http://www.nps.gov/deva/
This week Fish America tackled two of the country’s biggest reservoirs, came away with the biggest largemouth bass of the trip, visited Zion National park and Death Valley and patrolled the Vegas strip.