A Bass Surprise Awaits In The High Country
Willow Springs Lake isn’t the only lake on the Rim with bass, but it’s one of the largest, and certainly one of the most popular. A lifelong resident of Pinetop, Ariz., TV host Johnny Johnson has spent countless days on Willow Springs fishing for bass.
His television show, Fishing With Johnny Johnson, often features the lake as well. “My biggest bass from this lake was almost nine pounds,” he says. A lot of anglers are surprised that such big largemouth are found in a lake in the high country, but both largemouth and smallmouth thrive there.
Sleek, Fat Bass
There are no shad at Willow Springs, but the bass get sleek and fat on a diet of crawdads, trout, frogs, and small fish. Johnny’s favorite Willow Springs lures include Senkos, plastic craws, Robo Worms, and jigs. He also keeps a variety of reaction baits on hand, including topwater lures, Lucky Craft Pointers, spinnerbaits, and small crankbaits in crawdad colors.
“Willow Springs has some really nice bass,” says Johnny, “but if you are thinking to catch fifty fish a day like you can at Roosevelt, you’re going to be disappointed.” In fact, Johnson says that it can be tough to even get a limit at times. His tournament strategy usually consists of running the bank quickly with a reaction bait to pull off any active fish he can find, then switching to plastics to fill out his limit, if possible.
Once The Sun Gets Up
While the sun is still low on the horizon, topwater baits like small poppers and floating frogs will often entice a few bites. A spinnerbait or crankbait fished along the shoreline might do the trick, too. Once the sun gets up, Johnson usually moves out to the break line and begins fishing deeper. Split-shot and drop-shot rigs are standards, but be prepared to get snagged now and then, especially if you are fishing in the right places. Those rocks and stumps hold fish, but they can hang on to a hook, too.
A 4-inch Senko is the perfect bait to drop next to those trees that stick out of the water. Rig it weedless and just let it shimmy and wiggle its way down the tree. Some of those trees are in thirty feet of water, so be patient. Johnny also catches fish on Senkos off the rip rap along the dam.
A Bass Angler’s Strategy
A bass angler’s strategy also has to take into account the fact that you can’t use a gasoline motor over 10 horsepower on the lake. You can put your bass boat on the lake, but you’ll be relying on your electric trolling motor. If you try running back and forth between spots, you’ll soon run out of power. The bag limit on bass at Willow Springs is six (half that for unlicensed anglers under 14).
Although it is only 158 acres, there is a nice variety of shoreline and underwater structure to fish. Large boulders form some of the shoreline, while other parts are gently sloping mud. The earthen dam is covered with rip rap. There are two main arms that you can’t really see from the ramp, and there are lots of dynamite places to fish in those areas.
Johnson says that in general, he catches more largemouth bass in the arms, and more smallies in the main lake. There are hundreds of stumps and dead trees sticking out of the water in the big arms, and they provide shade and shelter for the bass.
If five bites a day isn’t quite enough to keep you interested, there’s always the trout. They may just be stockers, but they’re tasty and willing to bite. Shore fishermen use Power Bait and night crawlers with great success. Just remember that when the weather starts getting hot you need to fish a little deeper, just like when you’re fishing for bass.
Trout fishermen with boats do very well trolling small in-line spinners and spoons. Flies also catch trout at Willow Springs, just like they do anywhere. Some of the best are peacock ladies, wooly worms, wooly buggers, Yeager buggers, and nymphs in black, brown, or green.
Remember The Stamp
At times you may have to soak a nightcrawler on the bottom right out in the middle of the lake to catch fish. Trout like cool water, and the coolest water will be the deepest water. Also, remember that if you are fishing for or catching trout, you need to have a trout stamp on your fishing license. The daily bag limit for trout is six. For unlicensed anglers under 14, the limit is three.
Willow Springs was built by the Game and Fish Department in 1967 simply to provide recreation. Since it is at an altitude of 7500 feet and so close to Payson, the lake is an extremely popular place for locals as well as desert dwellers looking to spend some time in the cool pines. On weekends in summer the lake gets crowded fairly early in the day. If you want to be sure of a place to park your truck and trailer, get there with the dawn.
To Get There
To get to Willow Springs, take Highway 260 to Forest Road 149, which is about 23 miles east of Payson. There is a good paved boat ramp, toilets, two picnic ramadas, and two boat beaches, plus there are two campgrounds close by. As of June 15, 2020, the developed campgrounds and restrooms on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests are still closed due to COVID-19, so check with the Forest Service about that before you go if you plan to camp.
To Learn More
To learn more about fishing the high country (and the rest of Arizona, too), catch Fishing with Johnny Johnson on Sunday mornings on Fox Sports AZ, Direct TV Ch 686 and Dish Network Ch 415. Check your local listings.