Abiquiu Smallmouths

Big smallmouth bass are biting at Abiquiu Lake. With trout streams running low and warm, fishing for bass and other warmwater gamefish is a good alternative while giving the trout a break.

Smallmouth Bass Biting at Abiquiu Lake

With trout streams running as low as I can ever remember seeing them at a time of year when they would normally still be feeling the effects of spring runoff and the water warming up rapidly thanks to higher-than-normal temperatures, I’ve put my stream and river fishing for trout on a summer hiatus. It just didn’t seem right to fish for trout under such difficult conditions – that is for the trout. Trout are coldwater fish that prefer water temperatures between 55-65 degrees. They start to stress out once the water temperatures starts reaching over 70 degrees. Just like people when the weather gets too hot for them, trout become lethargic and tend to seek out deeper water with shade from the sun. With water levels being so low, those places are a lot more limited than they would normally be. All-in-all, this is shaping up to be a tough year to be a trout, especially a wild trout. I just don’t feel good about catching trout, even when I’m releasing them, under such conditions. They are under enough stress without me adding to it.

The water is also warming up quickly in our lakes and reservoirs, causing the trout in them to retreat from the shallow water into deeper water where the temperature is more to their liking. Fishing for trout from the bank, which I have to do because I don’t have a boat, becomes more difficult and definitely slower than it is earlier in the spring.

The State Game and Fish Department can augment the trout fishing by stocking a lot of catchable-size and bigger rainbow trout, but I don’t particularly like to catch or eat freshly-stocked trout. This year, with so many of the waters normally stocked by the Department on National Forest lands closed due to the extreme fire danger, only a handful of lakes and rivers are currently being stocked this summer.

So if you’re an angler who wants to go fishing now and catch something other than hatchery fish, this year especially you need to start fishing for other species.

When I first moved to Northern New Mexico in the late 1960’s, there was very limited fishing for anything other than trout in this area. That has changed, primarily because nearby Abiquiu Lake has developed into a good fishing hole for a variety of warmwater gamefish other than trout.

Abiquiu Lake has an interesting history. Back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, you couldn’t even tell there was a lake there because you couldn’t see it from US Highway 84 as you drove by. Then in the winter of 1972-1973 we had a tremendous snowpack and this big lake almost magically appeared where there had been none before. For the rest of that decade, the focus was on trout fishing. By the late 1970’s the lake had shrunk again.

That changed in the 1980’s thanks to years of great snowpacks in New Mexico and Southern Colorado. Reservoirs in New Mexico rose to levels not seen in many years (and not seen since). The State Game and Fish Department introduced species like smallmouth bass, walleye and crappie to Abiquiu. In addition, the role of Abiquiu Lake changed from one to being strictly for flood control to one that stored irrigation and drinking water. Eventually, a hydro-electric power plant was installed to provide power for Los Alamos.

Good snowpacks in the 1990’s kept water levels at Abiquiu in good shape. The warmwater species became established, Smallmouth bass reproduce naturally in the lake. Tens of thousands of walleye fry (tiny fish less than an inch long) are stocked by the Department annually at Abiquiu

Walleye were a new species to most local anglers. They are members of the perch family. Extremely popular in the Midwest, they are often found on restaurant menus in states like Minnesota. Native to most of Canada and the northern United States, they have been widely stocked in other states like New Mexico. They have proven popular with anglers once they learn how to catch them.

Walleye are considered one of the best-tasting freshwater fish. With firm, flaky white meat, they make for great eating. Because they have tough skin, big scales and sharp spines, they are usually fileted. Most local anglers were used to cleaning trout, which just needed to be gutted. Once they learned how to filet walleye, they began to appreciate them more.

To filet a walleye – or a bass or a crappie – you need a very sharp, thin-bladed filet knife. Rather than go through the process here, I suggest you look it up on the Internet. There they will explain the process with pictures. Basically, you cut the meat of the fish from the bone on one side. Flip the piece of fish over and then slip the knife between the skin and the meat. You should end up with a boneless, skinless piece of meat.

You can prepare these filets in a number of ways. Myself, I prefer the simple fried fish recipe. Dip the filets in a beaten egg, then into whatever coating you prefer. I dip them in a combination of flour, seasoned bread crumbs and spices. Then fry them in a deep fryer or frying pan. The key here is making sure the oil is hot enough to crisp the outside right away so the oil doesn’t soak in.

Smallmouth bass make for great eating cleaned and prepared just like walleye.

Smallmouths are renowned for their fighting abilities and after catching a lot of them I can confidently say that smallmouths have justly earned that reputation. Inch-for-inch, they pull harder and fight longer than any other freshwater fish I’ve caught. I am often very surprised at the small size of some of the smallmouths I reel in given how hard they were pulling on the end of the line.

Like walleye, smallmouths are not native to New Mexico. Originally restricted to the Eastern half of the United States, they have been widely introduced and you can now fish for smallmouths coast-to-coast.

 Smallmouths tend to prefer rocky habitat. The flooded canyons and rocky coves of Abiquiu Lake have a lot of that habitat and the bass have adapted well. Smallmouths really love to eat crayfish and crayfish prefer rocky habitat as well.

One of the nice things about fishing for walleye and smallmouths is you can catch both species using the same technique. Both species will strike a crank bait cast from the bank or trolled behind a boat. Both will also hit a jig or swim bait bounced along the bottom. They will also both take a nightcrawler or minnow suspended beneath a bobber.

Walleye, which got their name from the large, milky eyes that allow them to see well under low-light conditions, often bite better early in the morning or late in the evening. They will often bite well during the night.

My usual strategy since I have a second rod stamp is to rig one rod with a nightcrawler suspended about 4-6 feet below a bobber on one rod. On the other, I’ll cast a jig or a crank bait.

One of the drawbacks at Abiquiu Lake is there isn’t a lot of shade on the shoreline. There’s been a lot of days when I could have gone fishing at Abiquiu but didn’t because I didn’t want to bake in the sun given the hot and dry weather we’ve been having.

However, about a week ago there was a day when weather was a bit overcast and there was even some scattered rain showers. It was a good day to go fishing at Abiquiu and I couldn’t let it slip away.

I went to one of my favorite spots, which is on the Canones Creek arm of the lake near the dam. There are some fertile areas of shallow water here that promote weed growth that produces food for fish. There’s also some deep water nearby where the fish can seek shelter during the middle of the day. Just like there’s a lot of water in the lake that doesn’t have a lot of fish, there’s a lot of shoreline along the bank that would be a very poor spot to fish. Certain areas of the shoreline will hold a lot more fish than others.

It’s a bit of a hike to where I like to fish, but I look forward to it. It’s good to get a little workout going fishing.

The first fish I caught surprised me. It was a good-sized bluegill. As a kid growing up back East, I cut my teeth fishing for bluegills. We called them “sunnies.” Unlike New Mexico, there is lots of water back East. It seems like around every other bend in the road is a lake, stream, pond or river and I think all of them had bluegills. They don’t get very big and a hand-sized bluegill is a nice catch. Despite the small size, you can cut two tasty, little filets from each fish. Cooked like you would walleye or bass filets, they make for a tasty treat. I kept this one.

​Bluegill are also being caught at Abiquiu Lake. Although small, they have tasty, little filets when big enough to clean.

As the afternoon wore on, it seemed like that bluegill would be the only fish I would be taking home. I was catching plenty of bass and even some walleye, but none that I wanted to keep. There is a 12-inch size limit on smallmouth bass and a 14-inch size limit on walleye. Some of them might have been close to being keepers, but I was looking for a fish that would leave no doubt as to whether it was of keeping-size.

I did get another keeper bluegill. It was getting late. I got a bite on the nightcrawler. Since I’d caught so many smaller fish, that was what I was expecting when I set the hook. I was in for a surprise.

A really big smallmouth came rocketing out a good three feet above the water. This was a big fish. I’d hooked it on my light five-and-a-half foot spinning rod and six-pound test line. It would have to be played carefully if I was going to land it.

The fish fought long and hard, making powerful runs. I took off the anti-reverse on my reel so I could give it line by back-reeling when it made a run. That and the drag on the reel did the job. Finally, after getting it close to the bank only to have it make another run, it grew tired. I was able to lead it to the bank and land it in classic fashion, grabbing it by its lower jaw.

It was a beautiful fish. It looked to be about 18-20 inches long. A female that had not yet spawned, it was heavy with eggs. Probably about a five-pound fish.

It was time to call it a day. One of the things I like about Abiquiu Lake is they have some beautiful sunsets.  It’s a long walk back because now it’s all uphill. However, I get to turn around and admire the sunset when I stop to rest. It had been a good day.

​Sundown at Abiquiu Lake

Back at home, I measured the fish at a solid 19 inches. Maybe I could have stretched it to 20, but I wasn’t going to worry about fractions of an inch. I sharpened my knife and set about cleaning the fish. It yielded two big filets. Normally, it takes two filets to make a meal, but just one of these filets would be plenty. Checking its stomach, I found the partially-digested remains of a big crayfish.

​Back home and ready to be fileted, this bass measured a solid 19 inches usiing a 15-inch ruler. It yielded two nice, big filets.

The filets did indeed make for fine eating. I cooked up the bluegill filets with them. There’s something satisfying about eating a fish you caught, cleaned and cooked yourself.

The weather continues to be hot and dry. It looks like the National Forests will remain closed. If you haven’t given fishing for smallmouths and walleye a try, now is a good time to do it. If you watch fishing shows on television, you might get the impression that you need a boat to fish for bass and walleye. Don’t you believe it. You can catch these fish from the bank. I have no doubt that there’s a smallmouth bass of state-record-breaking size swimming in Abiquiu Lake. Maybe you’ll be the one to hook it.