Roosevelt Lake Fishing: Catch Bass & Lots More

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A sprawling reservoir in Central Arizona, Theodore Roosevelt Lake is among the state’s greatest fishing resources.

Roosevelt Lake is one of six man-made reservoirs along the Salt River, and spans 21,000 acres at full pool, making it the largest and farthest upriver of the Salt River lakes.

It’s also the largest lake entirely within the Arizona state lines. Roosevelt Lake stretches 24 miles from end to end, and offers about 88 miles of shoreline.

That’s a lot of water, and anglers have ample opportunity to chase the countless bass, catfish and crappie that call it home.

One of the things that makes Roosevelt Lake a great place to fish is that it has fishable water year-round. 

The lake stays fairly warm even in winter, and has plenty of deep structure that fish favor when summer temperatures soar.

An abundance of shallow brush-filled bays and coves provide perfect spawning sites for bass, crappie and a variety of other game fish. 

The Arizona Game and Fish Department also has placed hundreds of fish habitat structures all around the lake, and they even offer a map that helps anglers find those fish magnets. (See below for details.)

Lake Roosevelt is a popular recreational lake in addition to being a great fishing hole. Located less than 2 hours from Phoenix, and with no horsepower restrictions on boats, it tends to see a lot of traffic on summer weekends.

Lucky for anglers, the best time to be on the lake is springtime, before most of the summer pleasure boat crowd arrives. 

Roosevelt Lake Bass Fishing

Roosevelt Lake is primarily known as a bass fishing lake. A strong case could be made that it’s the best ‘inland’ bass lake in the state (meaning the best that isn’t immediately part of the Colorado River system). 

Largemouth and smallmouth bass were both introduced to Roosevelt Lake in 1941, and both species are abundant, though largemouths are much more so. Bass fishing tournaments on Roosevelt Lake are a common occurrence.

Largemouth Bass

Largemouth bass are the most sought-after game fish in Roosevelt Lake.

Bass in the 3- to 5-pound range are common, and there’s a genuine shot at a 10-pounder. A former state record largemouth, weighing a little over 14 pounds, was caught here some years back. 

Roosevelt Lake has large populations of gizzard shad and threadfin shad, which make up the bulk of bass’ diet. But largemouths will also scarf down crayfish, juvenile bluegills, and just about anything that will fit between their jaws. 

Lures that mimic shad tend to fare best. Soft jerkbaits like Zoom Flukes are effective when bass are in shallow water, and diving crankbaits are great choices when they head deep.

When largemouths are less active or holding tight to cover, try tossing a Senko or plastic worm. 

Spring and fall are the best times to find largemouths in shallow water. They start making their way toward shallows as early as April, eventually spawning in sheltered areas when temperatures are between 55 and 65 degrees.

Roosevelt Lake offers a huge amount of brush and submerged timber in a wide range of depths, and targeting largemouths around this woody cover almost always pays off. Look for fish in 1 to 15 feet of water in spring, or 15 to 30 feet deep in summer.

On hot, sunny days, dawn and dusk are your best bets. Bass are likely to smack topwater plugs and poppers when the sun is low in the sky. A floating weedless frog worked through emergent brush can also yield explosive strikes. 

Spots where an area of brush and timber intersects with a major depth change are the best areas to target. The Salt River and Tonto River inlets have a lot of great habitat to try out.

Salome Cove is a fantastic area on the north side of the lake that almost always harbors a ton of bass. Cholla Point and Cholla Bay are great places to fish from shore, with ample brushy structure relatively close to the bank.

Roosevelt Lake has always been a great largemouth lake, but the Arizona Game & Fish Department (AZGFD) has really stepped up its efforts to manage it as a trophy bass lake in recent years.

After a gradual decline in the fishery in the mid-2000s, the department began stocking Florida strain largemouths in 2016 for the first time since the ‘80s. Reports since then suggest that Roosevelt Lake is producing more big bass than it has in decades.

Smallmouth Bass

Although smallmouth bass don’t get as big as their largemouth brethren, pound-for-pound a smallie will out-fight a largemouth every time. Arizona’s 7-pound, 0.96 ounce state record smallmouth came from Roosevelt Lake in 1988. (See Arizona Game Fish Records.)

Roosevelt Lake remains one of the state’s most reliable smallmouth fisheries. Though they’re nowhere near as abundant as largemouth bass, they have a healthy, self-sustaining population.

Expect to catch a lot of 1- to 2-pound smallies, along with occasional fish surpassing the 5-pound mark. Crayfish is their main forage, though they’re always more than happy to gobble up passing shad and other baitfish. 

One key difference between smallmouths and largemouths is that smallmouth bass favor rocky habitat. Their coloration blends in perfectly with submerged rocks, a feature found in abundance at Roosevelt Lake. 

Spring through early summer are the best times to target smallmouths on Lake Roosevelt. These fish spawn in springtime when water temperatures are 59 and 64 degrees, digging out nests on Lake Roosevelt’s shallow flats.

Jigs and finesse soft plastics are often the most productive smallmouth baits.

Look for these fish around shallow rocky structure in spring, and focus on waters in the 15- to 35-foot range in summer as smallmouths move deeper along rocky points, ledges and drop-offs to the main river channel.

The area between Windy Hill and Cottonwood Cove is a good place to target smallmouths on Roosevelt Lake, along with the area around Rock Island and the point on the west side of Methodist Cove.

Check the steep rocky banks near the dam too. The crevices between all the rip-rap and rocks in this area are home to loads of crawfish, and smallmouths often prowl nearby.

Catch More Bass

Not surprisingly, Roosevelt Lake has earned its spot on our listing of the Best Bass Fishing Lakes in Arizona. What are the other hot spots for largemouths and smallmouths?

Also make sure you go prepared. Learn all of the top strategies with our free guide, Bass Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.

Crappie Fishing

Two species of crappie can be found in Arizona, though only one—black crappie—resides in Roosevelt Lake.

Game & Fish Department surveys regularly turn up excellent numbers of 6- to 10-inch crappies in Roosevelt Lake, though true giants are rare. 

Crappies bite readily on small jigs and minnow-imitating lures, and are some of the best fish for the table you can catch in fresh water. They usually travel in schools, so it’s rare to catch just one.

In Roosevelt Lake, crappies leave their deep winter haunts in March and head toward shallow water to spawn. Their favorite habitat is thick brush and woody cover, and Roosevelt Lake has plenty of it.

The Salt River Inlet at the east end of Roosevelt Lake is a perennial favorite crappie fishing area. It’s a large section of the lake with a lot of hot spots, the brush and timber across from Cougar Point being especially productive.

Other key areas for crappie fishing include Methodist Cove, Chubb Bay and the Tonto Creek Inlet, all of which have submerged brush as well as man-made habitat structures placed by the Arizona GFD. Crappie often suspend offshore near the dam as well.

For the most part, crappie are most comfortable in 15 to 30 feet of water. That being said, during the hottest and coldest parts of the year, they may suspend as deep as 45 feet.

They’ll be shallowest in spring and fall when the weather is moderate and stable. 

Many local anglers troll along the edges of brush and timber looking for schools of crappies, and then slow down and start casting or jigging once they’ve located fish.

Light to ultralight spinning tackle with 1/16 to 1/32-oz jigs is perfect for crappies. 

Carry a variety of small soft plastic jigs (especially tube jigs) in a variety of colors, and experiment to find out what works best. White and chartreuse are often the best colors, especially when the water is muddy or stained.

Catch More Crappie

Find out where to find the Best Crappie Fishing Lakes in Arizona and then hone your skills to catch them with Crappie Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.

Catfish Fishing

Is Roosevelt Lake the best catfish lake in Arizona? It’s hard to say. But it’s one of a handful of lakes that unquestionably deserve to be part of the conversation.

Simply put, Roosevelt Lake harbors abundant populations of both channel catfish and flathead catfish. 

Channel cats are more common, but flatheads are the most prized by anglers. That’s not only because they get bigger—flathead catfish up to 60 pounds have been caught here—but because they’re not nearly as widespread throughout the state. 

Some of the best catfishing on Roosevelt Lake takes place on warm summer nights. This is when catfish feed in shallow water, and are usually within casting distance of shore.

Channel catfish will bite on almost any smelly, natural bait close to the bottom. Nightcrawlers, anchovies, chicken livers, hot dogs and a variety of homemade and commercially-available dough baits can all be effective.

Flathead catfish are more active predators, and are more likely to strike live prey. Live shad and bluegill are favored by local anglers, many of whom catch their own bait on Lake Roosevelt during the day, and then use it to tempt catfish at night. 

Flatheads hunt by ambushing their prey, and they spend the daylight hours hunkered down in secluded crevices, log jams and rock piles, sometimes as deep as 45 feet. If you’re fishing while the sun is out, focus your efforts on deep water.

It’s possible to catch catfish practically anywhere on Roosevelt Lake, but the Salt River Inlet tends to be where a lot of the best action is. Within this area, specific locations like Cougar Point, Wildcat Shoal and Champagne Bay are all productive. 

Another great area is the stretch of shoreline between Cottonwood Cove and Windy Hill. There’s an old submerged road bed here, and catfish love to hide in the old culverts underneath the road.

Catch More Catfish

Who doesn’t want to catch more catfish? Start by identifying the Best Catfish Lakes and Rivers in Arizona, and then double up on your success rates by choosing the best strategies and baits with Catfish Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips.

Other Fish Species

A vast lake with a diverse ecosystem, Roosevelt Lake harbors a wide range of fish far beyond its most popular gamefish. In the event that the bass aren’t biting or the catfish refuse to cooperate, one of these other species can save your day. 

Bluegill and Sunfish

Roosevelt Lake supports large numbers of bluegill, along with green sunfish and redear sunfish. Although they don’t impress with their size, these panfish bite readily and offer great opportunities to introduce kids to fishing. 

It’s possible to catch bluegill and sunfish from shore almost anywhere on Roosevelt Lake, especially around docks and other structures, though the largest individuals favor slightly deeper weeds, brush and woody cover.

Live worms and small jigs are effective baits.

Learn how to catch more of these fun panfish with our easy guide, Fishing for Bluegill and Sunfish: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips.

Yellow Bass

Yellow bass are closely related to striped bass, and have been stocked in a select few Arizona lakes.

They also look a bit like striped bass, though yellow bass are much smaller (usually less than 2 pounds) and have a more compact body shape with a silvery-yellow tint. 

Much like crappie, yellow bass feed on small minnows and congregate in large schools. It’s common to find them schooled around bottom structures or in open water, and they bite readily on small jigs, spinners, spoons and crankbaits.  

Bigmouth Buffalo

Along with Apache Lake, Roosevelt Lake is one of only two lakes in Arizona that supports a population of bigmouth buffalo. These large, heavy-bodied fish are somewhat similar in appearance to carp.

Feeding on plankton, bigmouth buffalo are rarely caught using hook and line, though they may sometimes take small dough balls near the bottom.

Bigmouth buffalo are more often targeted by bow fishermen, and Arizona’s archery record bigmouth buffalo, weighing over 40 pounds, came from Roosevelt Lake in 2014.

Planning Your Trip

Roosevelt Lake is a year-round fishing destination, although spring and fall are the best seasons for most species. If you’re planning a fishing trip to Roosevelt Lake, you have a lot of options for shore access, boat launch facilities and accommodations. 

Directions to Roosevelt Lake

Roosevelt Lake is about a 2-hour drive from Phoenix. The most direct route to the lake is State Route 88, although double-check to make sure the route is open (fires have closed off as recently as 2021).

Two alternative routes are available from Phoenix. Either take State Route 87 North and then make a right onto State Route 188 South; or take US-60 East and take a left on State Route 188 North to reach the lake. 

Bank and Boat Access

Roosevelt Lake is located within Tonto National Forest. Numerous recreation areas, acces sites and boat ramps are available around the lake, some operated by the U.S. Forest Service, and others run by private concessioners. 

The first place most visitors arrive is the Roosevelt Lake Visitors Center, which is at roughly the midpoint of the southern shoreline. In the immediate area, you can launch a boat at Roosevelt  Lake Marina, or fish from shore at the Cottonwood Cove Picnic Area. 

The stretch of shoreline from Cottonwood Cove down to Windy Hill, about 3 miles east, offers an abundance of easy access for bank fishing. The Windy Hill Campground and Boat Ramp is a popular camping area for anglers. 

Additional launch sites are available farther east at the Grapevine Boat Ramp and the Schoolhouse Boat Ramp. The latter, along with the nearby Schoolhouse Campground, offer the closest access to the Salt River Inlet at the east end of the lake.  

Farther west toward the opposite end of the lake, additional shore fishing access and another boat ramp are available at the Cholla Bay Day Shoreline Area.

Know Before You Go

In addition to nine designated campgrounds and camping areas operated on or near the lakeshore by the Forest Service, dispersed backcountry camping is also permitted throughout much of the Roosevelt Lake area. 

Two areas of the lake—from Rock Island along Goose Flats to Methodist Cove, and from Bumblebee Creek to Rock Creek—are closed to fishing for a period of time every year to protect migrating Canadian geese that winter here.

The closure is typically mid-November to mid-February, but double-check before planning your trip around this time frame.

One thing to keep in mind is that lake level can drastically impact fishing at Roosevelt Lake.

Although the lake is usually still fishable at times of low water, some boat ramps may be inaccessible, and some of the best fishing spots can be high and dry. 

Check the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s current Lake Levels & River Flow information page for up-to-date information on Lake Roosevelt and other lakes throughout the state.

Also, as we mentioned in the introduction, AZGFD makes its map of artificial structures available to anglers. Check out this printable map you can bring along to help pinpoint some of the best places to fish.