Make Mine Mead

by Louis Bignami

It took millions of years for the Colorado River to cut down through the sandstone and metamorphic rocks that barred its way from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. Hoover Dam closed the chokepoint in Black Canyon in 1935. It was a marvel of its time with 660 foot thick, 727 foot high walls that backed up 110 miles of Colorado River water which formed Lake Mead. It only took seven years from the initial 1969 stocking to produce Jim Brady's 47 pound striper. Today, large stripers, as everywhere else, are not common, but you can expect many three to five pound fish plus an occasional fish in the "teens" on most trips. Considering the superb scenery and the well-known diversions of Las Vegas just over the hill, it should be no surprise that Mead stripers and black bass attract so many Southern Californians. It's just a shame more people don't fly or drive in to enjoy quality fishing and low cost recreation. 

Lake Mead and its downstream companion, Lake Mohave, also attract those who enjoy fishing, water-skiing, houseboating, camping, hunting  and other activities. Weather keys the action in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which comprises Lakes Mead and Mohave. Fall and spring offer the best fishing and finest weather most years, although you need to be prepared for extremely hot days in Indian summer and occasional spring storms.

Winter is lovely if you avoid windy days that blow you off the lake. A majority of the six million annual visitors find hot summers most comfortable in air-conditioned houseboats or motels or when they zip around the lake. Serious anglers might want to plan to come early or plan a longer stay to enjoy the other attractions of the area. You might book a trip with a guide who can help you learn the lake fast. Make sure you mention "big stripers" and "artificial". Otherwise you will doubtless end dunking anchovy over a small school of stripers in the two to five pound range. I find I catch fewer, but much larger fish casting or trolling lures. So we only fish with anchovy when we want channel cats.

Like most fishing writers, Annette and I always fished with Al Cieri. I was his sponsor for membership in Outdoor Writers of America. Al did more to protect Lake Mead striper fishing than anyone I know. Unfortunately, Al died a few years back. Now they have built a prototype fish cleaning station on the lake and named it, and a tournament, after him. You might remember him when you go by.

Going With Guides 

Some guides pick up in Las Vegas; others meet you at the lake. If you book a guide, you can use his boat, tackle and expertise. Then, after you learn the basics and see where fish lurk, you can do well on your own. Don't forget, the water backed up behind the 726 foot tall Hoover Dam covers a huge area and fish can be hard to find.

Note: wise fishermen head for shelter when strong winds blow too!

If you try the lake on your own, expect to spend much time looking for fish even after you pick up the latest information at the marina or ramp. In past years we have gone in with another couple or two, and rented houseboats so we could stay on the lake all day and night. Night surface action does key fish. You can hear slashing stripers after dark if you run up the lake, then drift with your motor off.

Houseboat rentals also cut your food costs and keep you away from slots and such. If you combine houseboats with your striper or bass boat or a rental craft, you maximize your time on the water and improve your chances of finding stripers and black bass.

Angler's Indicators

Several indicators can help you find fish. First, look for flashing, diving seagulls or terns that savage baitfish schools from above as stripers feed. You'll spot two types of grebes besides the gulls that always show action. The Western Grebe sits on shad down to 100 feet deep. The smaller Eared Grebe is a shallow diver; if you see Eared Grebes, you know shad, and stripers, are more shallow. Even birds sitting on the water suggest fish that are deep before or after a feeding spurt.

Second, check for trollers or bait fishermen who often school up to hit stripers. In particular, watch for guides, who you can spot by their deep tans and pasty-colored passengers. Take care not to zoom in over schooled fish. This kills the action for everyone.

Third, watch your depth finder carefully, and you may see stripers. A recording depth finder improves results for me. I find it gives me a better picture of the bottom, which I can use to project likely striper movement. Find threadfin shad and you should find stripers. Shad run up to seven inches long, so shad-finish lures do the job. Larger nine inch plugs in rainbow trout finishes also produce. Medium slab spoons jigged over deep bait work. Early and late in the day, I favor topwater poppers. I toss these, and two ounce silver Kastmasters with a 12 foot long surf stick armed with 12 pound test. At night, or when the light is off the water, I use a long shock tippet of 20 pound test to keep lures from popping off.

If water is extremely clear, as is not uncommon in the fall, I drop down to a ten foot steelhead stick and six pound test during daylight hours. It's tough to set the large trebles on big plugs with this, so I replace trebles with ultrasharp single Siwash hooks when I can.

Favorite Areas

You probably can find stripers in the Overton Arm or somewhere along the sloping shores of Virgin Basin anytime. We fish this area from Echo Bay Resort where rental craft run from skiffs up to 12-sleeper houseboats. Nearby Cathedral Cove, where overhanging cliffs offer a super background for photography, is a must see. If you houseboat, moor at Middle Point where herons nest above some of the best striper trolling waters in Mead.

The 17-mile wide Virgin Basin where the Overton Arm joins the Colorado River Arm of Lake Mead can kick up a monster chop in windy weather so boat cautiously! We find fishing best near Guardian Peak and off the Big Gypsum Ledges. If you drive here you can launch at Bonelli Landing or Detrial Wash.

Temple Basin just east is most easily explored from Temple Bar Resort nearest Gregg Basin and Grand Wash where Colorado rafters flush out onto Mead's calm waters. The resort's warm swimming pool is a treat. You can launch at Pearce Ferry too! Watch for sand bars when the lake level drops. Some are buoyed. Many are not.

We don't do very well on stripers in this area, but do catch some monster trout and the odd large striper on trolled plugs. I suspect such trout stray from the Colorado River. Columbine Falls is the reason we go into this area. It is simply too pretty to pass up as it cascades down the walls of Emery Canyon. All sorts of desert flowers bloom here. There is decent quail hunting in some areas and several primitive campgrounds too.

From Virgin Basin, boaters thread through the Narrows -- keep an eye out for "zoom" boats which rush through at high speed -- before they reach Boulder Basin, the main body of Lake Mead which offers the best striper action late fall and winter. In frigid conditions locals fish large minnows and dead baits on bottom.

Trolling off Saddle, Pyramid and Sentinel Islands with large plugs should produce in early fall if you get your lures down to the right depth. It's no problem toplining when stripers are on top. Tests do show side planers or long rods that take lines outside the wake hook more fish. Still, when stripers lurk deep you may need downriggers. I tote portable downriggers we add, with a portable depth finder, to our houseboat. No sense trolling "bare" when you can enjoy equally good results with a kitchen and bathroom along!

The Overton Arm is another favorite striper spot for tossing topwater plugs up near the bank early and late in the day. It reaches over 60 miles north to the mouth of the Virgin River. We often fish the wide bays to the east. The "haystacks" on the northern shore where the Overton Arm joins the Virgin Basin is a hot spot. Check with the locals to find out where the Christmas Tree cover spots are located and try these with slab spoons too.

You can troll up stripers from the back of a houseboat with small Rebel or Rappala minnow-type plugs just about anywhere in the lake. So this is a good system if you know fish are in a certain cove or arm, but are not sure where. Once you hit fish you can simply circle back and rerun the productive area. If you prefer to cast, stop the boat and fling silver 1/2-ounce Kastmaster or Hopkins Spoons to any surface swirls you spot. If you don't see swirls let spoons or white HairRaiser jigs down to the level of the suspended fish you see on your depth finder.

Early and late in the day, flip topwater plugs such as Zara Spooks up into coves for stripers and black bass which you can spot in the clear waters of Lake Mead. If you want a very large striper, and don't mind lots of casting, try a red and white Cotton Cordell Redfin 1000. I fish this with a nine foot long spinning rod to maximize casting distance and six or eight pound test line so I don't spook fish.

I look for long points that slope gradually and position our boat in about ten feet of water well off the point. Then cast along, not across the point toward the shore -- In this way two fishermen can work both sides of most points. When the lure hits the water, wait until the ring dies, tighten the line and reel slowly so the lure barely wiggles on top and leaves a long V-shape wake. This system takes very large stripers "now and then" in the spring and fall, but it requires much patience and confidence in the method, which seems effective on all landlocked stripers.

I release such big females as may contribute to striper fishing in Mead. Besides, we prefer to eat smaller school stripers that ice down in the cooler when we catch them so they keep fresh for the trip home.

Black Bass Basics

While black bass now take a back seat to stripers, Mead does produce good specimens of these fish. Spring and fall remain the ideal seasons. Arms with cover and areas such as Temple Basin, the Overton Arm along the Overton Wildlife Area and Quail Bay produce big bass in the spring. You can, if you do not own a boat and do not rent one from one of many good Marinas on Mead, drive to Overton and fish along the shore.

SIDETRIP: If you drive to this area, visit the Valley of Fire State Park for its unique red rock towers and other odd geological formations. You'll find petroglyphs too. The Lost City Museum of Archaeology built on the Restored site of Pueblo Grande de Nevada also deserves a look.

Two methods take black bass consistently for me at Mead. In spring shallows I do very well with a motor oil Bobby Garland plastic bait slipped onto a 1/8-ounce jig and fished on an ultralight spinning rig and four pound test line. I pitch this up tight against cover, let it sink and watch the line. When the line twitches I set the hook and hang on. This system also takes panfish like crappie that, frankly, I'd rather eat than bass.


Bank fishermen can catch bass in coves -- the cove near the campground at Echo Bay also produces stripers -- but you really need a boat to do well at Lake Mead. We have used all sorts. Prams, john boats and canoes suit protected coves and work as tenders when we houseboat. Houseboating does let you see more of the lake, and moor right on the best fishing. Skiffs or ski boats get you around the lake faster. So you have the choice.

Water skiers do zoom through these areas. Still, we find the protected waters downwind from islands in the Boulder Basin a good hideout from the ski set. Boulder Basin isn't a bad spot to troll or drown bait for big striped bass during winter months either. Callville Bay and Lake Mead Resort and Marina offer all services and boat rentals. You'll find additional shopping in nearby Boulder City.

By the Dam Site

No visitor to Lake Mead should miss a chance to tour the dam. If you don't boat, consider a cruise with Lake Mead Yacht. Helicopter flights over the lake and up into the Grand Canyon offer decent value and there's much to do in Las Vegas. It's a good family town away from the tables and slots. RV parks are first class too.

Costs are extremely low for those who avoid or win at the tables. Name entertainers -- we like cocktail shows better than dinner shows -- deserve a look. Still, some of the best entertainment we have found is in the lounges where tomorrow's stars perform. With so much to do besides the fishing, it's easy to see that you need more time in Vegas. 

Downstream from Lake Mead, Lake Mohave offers a superb fishery for rainbow trout and decent black bass. Major California access is Cottonwood Cove off Highway 95 from Searchlight. A variety of primitive campsites along shore suit campers. RV visitors in search of full facilities do best off Highway 93 on the Arizona side of the river. Willow Beach gives access to the upstream sections with the best trout fishing. Lake Mohave Marina suits those who enjoy the striper and bass action near the dam.

It's the chance to see unique desert terrain and wildlife that, when added to the fine fishing and boating on these two lakes, make them so attractive to visitors. It's a long haul from Idaho, but we visit at least once a year. If you are lucky enough to live closer you can visit more often.

Information: Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 601 Nevada Highway, Boulder City, NV 89001