One of the best fishing lakes near Phoenix, Lake Pleasant is less than an hour from Arizona’s largest city. It’s also one of the top fishing lakes in the whole state for a wide variety of fish species.
Originally built on the Agua Fria River in 1927, Lake Pleasant is a sprawling man-made reservoir with a deep main-lake channel and numerous fertile river arms and coves. Striped bass, largemouth bass, white bass, catfish, crappie and many other fish species call it home.
Lake Pleasant is surrounded by a beautiful Sonoran Desert landscape crisscrossed by hiking and mountain biking trails. The ruins of a thousand-year-old Hohokam Puebloans village overlook the shoreline, and the rolling hills are studded with towering cacti.
A wide range of fishing tactics can work here, and with such a rich diversity of fish species, it’s common to come away having caught a mixed bag. The best approach is to arrive at Lake Pleasant prepared for anything.
A lot of that has to do with the lake’s cyclical fluctuations in depth. As the lake rises and falls, the best fishing spots change from day to day. Islands appear and disappear, stands of timber emerge and sink below the surface, and fish are almost always on the move.
In fact, the entire face of the lake has changed a lot over the years. Lake Pleasant was connected to the Central Arizona Project (CAP) aqueduct and enlarged to three times its original size with the construction of the New Waddell Dam in 1994.
Lake Pleasant now spans 10,000 acres and is more than 200 feet deep at full pool (though it’s seldom entirely full). The old dam is still there, completely submerged beneath the surface.
Although the Agua Fria River still partly feeds Lake Pleasant, most of the reservoir’s water now comes via the CAP aqueduct, which diverts water from the Colorado River. It’s a major water storage reservoir for the Phoenix area in addition to being one of the area’s most significant recreational lakes.
Fish are abundant in Lake Pleasant, but that doesn’t always mean the fishing is easy.
Striped bass were never meant to be introduced into Lake Pleasant. In all likelihood, these fish made their way into the lake through the CAP aqueduct.
However it happened, stripers have come to thrive in Lake Pleasant, making it the only inland lake in Arizona where you can reliably catch them and overall one of the best striped bass fishing lakes in Arizona.
Stripers have proliferated here to such an extent that they’re now the most abundant and sought-after game fish in Lake Pleasant. Anglers have caught stripers weighing well over 25 pounds here, though fish in the 5-pound class are far more common.
For the most part, striped bass favor deep water. In Lake Pleasant, they’re often caught around deep standing timber, and along the ledge that drops off to the main river channel. Depths in the 30 to 60 foot range are usually most productive.
Spring is the only time stripers reliably enter shallower waters, and this season provides the only real opportunity to catch them from shore.
Striped bass typically spawn in April, and can be caught in the backs of Lake Pleasant’s northern coves, particularly Castle Creek and Coles Bay.
Threadfin shad, which are stripers’ main forage species in Lake Pleasant, are also most likely to be shallow in springtime. Striped bass spend much of their lives pursuing shad, and if you can find a school of shad in Lake Pleasant, chances are stripers won’t be far away.
The best striper action takes place on spring mornings and evenings. Try to arrive before the sun rises, or linger until after dark. Triple-digit temperatures are common as early as May, so most anglers choose to retreat during midday.
From June through September, the best time to fish for stripers is at night. Locals use lights to attract plankton, which attract shad. As always, where the shad go, stripers follow.
There’s often a solid nighttime and morning bite in the area around Scorpion Bay Marina.
Unsurprisingly, lures that mimic shad work the best.
If you see signs of stripers feeding on the surface, throw a topwater like a Zara Spook or a Pencil Popper. Diving crankbaits and jigging spoons are effective when stripers are down deeper.
Soft plastic jerkbaits like Zoom Flukes and paddle-tail swimbaits like Sassy Shad are versatile lures that can be worked at varying depths. White and silver colors are almost always effective, but a bright yellow or chartreuse lure can trigger strikes when stripers are particularly aggressive.
Anchovies are also popular baits. Try fishing one on a drop-shot rig when striped bass are in deep water. The biggest stripers often hold in deeper water than smaller fish, and a drop-shot rig will help your bait get down into the strike zone.
Though Lake Pleasant has historically been a great largemouth bass lake, the introduction of stripers caused a significant decline in largemouth populations.
Stripers compete with largemouth bass for the same food source—threadfin shad—and in Lake Pleasant, stripers tend to come out on top.
But the Arizona Game & Fish Department has been ramping up its efforts to manage Lake Pleasant for bass fishing in recent years. Today, there are more and bigger largemouths in Lake Pleasant than there have been in decades.
The transitional season from winter into spring offers some of the best bass fishing on Lake Pleasant. Warming trends this time of year trigger bass to move into pre-spawn mode, and it’s common to find them feeding heavily in shallow water.
Largemouths usually spawn around the time water temperatures cross the 60°F threshold. In Lake Pleasant, bass may be on their beds as early as February if it’s a warm year. Solid bass fishing is a safe bet from March through May.
Coves and cuts all around the lakeshore can be productive when bass are shallow. Try working soft jerkbaits and swimbaits around brush and timber.
Any area with woody cover can be productive, but some of the best bass spots include the north end of the Humbug Creek Arm, and the flooded timber-filled flats around Castle Creek. Jackass Cove has some great bass water as well.
When temperatures are below 55°F, bass are more likely to be in deep water (in Lake Pleasant, that typically means 35 to 40 feet). Try drop-shotting with a Robo Worm around deep reefs, points, channels and ledges in winter.
Extreme heat can drive bass deep as well, and getting a bite here in summer is no easy feat. On hot and sunny days, look for parts of ledges and channels where bass can take shelter in the shade.
Much like largemouth bass, crappie in Lake Pleasant have been impacted by the introduction of striped bass. Juvenile stripers directly compete with crappie for resources, and gobble up the smaller shad that both species feed on.
Still, there are tons of crappie in Lake Pleasant, even if they’re not quite as abundant as they once were. True slabs aren’t especially common, but you can catch a lot of 8- to 12-inch fish.
Spring is the best time for crappie, and there’s a good bite around shallow timber and brush from February through May.
Crappie are hard to pin down in summer, but moderate fall weather, coupled with rising water levels, usually brings about some excellent crappie fishing from October into December.
If there’s one thing you can say about crappie, it’s that they love brush. Luckily, that’s a commodity that Lake Pleasant has no shortage of. Jackass Cove, Humbug Creek, Cole’s Wash and the Agua Fria Arm are full of it, and crappie will often be found suspending above it.
Look for crappie in 10 to 20 feet of water in spring and fall. During other seasons, they may suspend at depths of 30 feet or more.
A live minnow under a bobber is the most reliable crappie bait on Lake Pleasant, but a wide range of small jigs and soft plastics can also be effective. Carry an assortment of 1/16 and 1/32-ounce jigs, focusing on bright colors like white, hot pink and chartreuse.
Near the south end of the lake, the line of floating tires out beyond Pleasant Harbor Marina is another prime crappie spot. Try jigging around the tires, or slowly troll the area with baits at various depths.
Lake Pleasant is unique among Arizona lakes because it’s the only one that supports a substantial population of white crappie along with black crappie.
White crappie tend to favor the more turbid water up in the lake’s coves and creek arms, while black crappie are more at home in clearer waters in the lower lake.
Other panfish species you might catch in Lake Pleasant, possibly while fishing for crappie, include bluegill, redear sunfish and green sunfish.
Lake Pleasant is home to channel catfish as well as flathead catfish. While channel cats are more common, flathead catfish reach more impressive sizes. Surveys by the AZGFD have turned up flatheads over 45 pounds here.
Catfish are most common in the Agua Fria Arm, but are caught in areas all over Lake Pleasant. Some big cats have been taken at the south end of the lake, near the dam.
Nighttime tends to provide the best catfish bite. Catfish typically retreat to deep holes when the sun is out, but prowl shallow flats at night. Any of the lake’s many coves and creek mouths can be productive.
Any smelly natural bait can be effective, especially for channel catfish, which don’t have a reputation for being picky eaters. Nightcrawlers, chicken livers, hot dogs, shrimp and various dough baits will tempt channel cats.
Use a good-sized sinker to keep your bait on or near the bottom.
Flathead catfish are more active hunters, and respond better to live baits. They’re known for catching anglers by surprise, grabbing baitfish intended for stripers or largemouth bass.
Live shad, bluegill and small carp are the best baits for flatheads. Many Lake Pleasant catfish anglers catch their bait during the day, and then bait their hooks for catfish at night.
Be sure to use heavy line to avoid losing your rig to an oversized catfish.
The Agua Fria Arm, Humbug Creek and Castle Creek all have excellent catfish habitat, and there’s a lot of shore access along the west side of the lake.
Catfish have a habit of hanging out in the thickest cover available, so look for areas with lots of wood and timber close to a deep drop-off.
The cover in a lot of areas is so thick that many catfish anglers choose to fish from a boat and keep their lines near-vertical to minimize snags.
Catch More Catfish
With good numbers of the state’s two favorite species of cats, it’s not a surprise that Lake Pleasant earned a spot on our list of Best Catfish Fishing Lakes and Rivers in Arizona. Read the article for other great catfish catching lakes.
Also, learn all about the best baits, riggings and other tricks that will put more of these delicious fish on the end of your line in our Catfish Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips.
White bass are related to striped bass, and somewhat similar in appearance. They’re smaller, typically weighing just a pound or two, and have a more compact body shape.
White bass were introduced to Lake Pleasant in 1960, and this is the only lake in the state where you can catch them.
Much like stripers, white bass hunt schools of shad in open water, and often bite on smaller shad-imitating lures including jigs, crankbaits, spoons and jerkbaits.
They spawn in spring when water temperatures are in the mid-50s, and are often caught alongside crappie this time of year.
It’s common to catch dozens of white bass on a spring day if you locate a school. They’re a lot of fun to catch and put up a good fight on light tackle.
Keep an eye out for surface disturbances that indicate white bass are present, especially in spring or fall. When a school of shad is cornered on the surface, white bass commonly go into a feeding frenzy, often accompanied by stripers.
Castle Creek is a prime area to target white bass. Look for them at the mouths of feeder creeks in spring, and along the drop-off at the mouth of the cove in summer when the water is lower.
Humbug Creek has an extensive stand of brush and timber that often yields white bass as well.
Catch More White Bass
Read our resident expert’s favorite tips for white bass fishing, including top lures and tips.
Planning Your Trip
Lake Pleasant is fishable year-round, but spring is the best time to visit the lake, with fall being a close second. Because of its proximity to Phoenix, Lake Pleasant is very popular for boating and watersports, especially on summer weekends.
For the best fishing experience, get there early in the morning. Steer clear of holidays like Memorial Day and the 4th of July, when the lake is often overrun with visitors.
Directions to Lake Pleasant
Lake Pleasant is just 40 minutes from Downtown Phoenix via I-17 north and State Route 74 west. The southern end of the lake is closest to the city, and is where most of the lake’s developed amenities are located.
You can also follow Castle Hot Springs Road up the western shore of the lake to reach some more remote areas, including some great shore fishing spots.
Bank and Boat Access
Anglers have a few options for accessing Lake Pleasant. Most of the lakeshore is included within Lake Pleasant Regional Park, which is managed by Maricopa County Parks and offers several entry points, fishing access sites and boat launch facilities.
Scorpion Bay Marina, located on the western shore of the lake, is part of Lake Pleasant Regional Park. The marina offers launch facilities, boat rentals and an on-site restaurant.
South of this marina, the park also includes several lakeside campgrounds and day use sites, as well as an additional 10-lane boat ramp just west of the New Waddell Dam. Campsites for tents and RVs are available at the Roadrunner Campground and Desert Tortoise Campground.
At the east end of the dam, Pleasant Harbor Marina is the only launch site that isn’t part of Lake Pleasant Regional Park. The marina offers various watercraft rentals, and has an adjoining restaurant, bar and RV park.
Much of Lake Pleasant’s northern and eastern shoreline is managed as a conservation area, with limited or no land access.
Know Before You Go
Like most Arizona lakes, Lake Pleasant is prone to drastic fluctuations in water level, which can impact the fishing. Fortunately, Lake Pleasant is seldom drawn down to the point that it is unfishable, and the patterns are usually predictable.
Lake Pleasant begins filling in October, as water is delivered via the CAP aqueduct. This floods much of the vegetation that has grown along the shoreline over the previous season, adding a lot of nutrients and providing new cover for fish.
The water is generally at its highest level throughout the colder months.
Lake levels are kept as consistent as possible in spring to allow fish to spawn successfully. Water is typically pumped out for irrigation and other uses beginning in May, leading to the lowest water levels in summer.
Boaters need to use caution on Lake Pleasant, especially when water is low, due to the abundance of timber, reefs and various structures below the surface.
The Agua Fria River Arm of Lake Pleasant is closed every winter and spring to protect bald eagles during their nesting season. The bald eagle closure typically lasts from December 15 to June 15.