Introduction of largemouth bass balances Crawford Reservoir
CRAWFORD STATE PARK — Dennis Wentzel packed up his gear after a leisurely Sunday afternoon of fishing at Crawford State Park.
“I caught a few, not a bad day,” he said.
Was largemouth bass part of his take on the day?
Wentzel, a recent transplant to the Delta area, had a befuddled expression take over his face.
“There’s bass in there?” he said, his voice taking on an excited tone.
Many anglers who come to the state park have no clue that largemouth bass can be found in the waters of Crawford Reservoir.
Not only that, but the largemouth bass numbers continue to grow, thanks to an ambitious plan by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
“It’s been something we’ve been looking at for a while,” said Eric Gardunio, CPW aquatic biologist.
Gardunio, a Grand Junction native who started at the Montrose CPW office in 2013, said the overall plan was to create more fishing diversity in the reservoir.
“The northern pike changed the dynamics in there and the fishery went through a transformation,” he said. “The fishing at the reservoir had declined because of the aggressive pike.”
The northern pike is an aggressive predator fish that was wiping out the other fish populations at Crawford.
“The pike numbers really increased and they ate most of the prey species, crappie and perch, and that declined their population, and that hurt the sport fishing there,” Gardunio said.
A plan to decrease the pike population started more than a decade ago.
“We weren’t trying to wipe out the pike numbers, but we were just trying to keep the pike numbers down,” Gardunio said.
Fishing limit regulations were pulled for northern pike about 10 years ago, allowing anglers to take as many as they could catch. That reduced the numbers by 50 percent, then in 2013-14, the CPW reduced the numbers more through a net-capture program.
With pike numbers down, it helped the perch and crappie populations to return, and it created the opportunity for the largemouth bass to have a higher chance at survival.
Stocking mostly 4-inch largemouth bass, brought in from a Pueblo fish hatchery, for several years, Gardunio said they recently started introducing largemouth up to 12 inches into Crawford Reservoir.
Bass fishing destination
Gardunio said CPW has reached its goal to bring back fishing diversity with anglers now able to fish for a variety of species.
Now the plan is to make Crawford State Park a largemouth bass trophy fishing destination.
“I think it’s getting there, it’s just taken time, but I think in another two, three years we will be close,” he said.
After a successful stocking effort over the past several years, and the lower population of pike, Gardunio is now optimistic that the largemouth are close to having a healthy natural reproduction cycle at the reservoir.
“We want to get to the point where they take care of themselves,” he said. “It feels like it’s really coming together.”
To achieve that goal, and the goal of making the reservoir a trophy fishing destination, the largemouth bass must to allowed to grow.
“We’ve seen some bigger fish, up to six-pound largemouth bass at the reservoir,” Gardunio said, adding that he’s caught a 19-inch largemouth bass at the reservoir.
There are largemouth bass regulations at the reservoir. Anglers must catch and release all bass under 18 inches, and are only allowed to keep one largemouth bass over 18 inches.
“The only way to get bigger fish, is to allow them to grow and allow the population to increase,” Gardunio said. “We’re trying to make it into a trophy fishery and that will help us grow the largemouth bass, and help make it a trophy fishing area.”
Wentzel, who moved from the southwest part of the state where he fished for bass in McPhee Reservoir, is excited about the opportunity.
“I had no idea they had (largemouth) bass here,” he said. “But I love fishing for bass and I will definitely check it out. I guess I’ll have to get my bass boat ready again.”
With Crawford Reservoir being fairly large, Gardunio believes it will help enhance it as a largemouth fishing destination since it will have plenty of bass boat access.
Diverse fishing returns
Crawford State Park, which has averaged more than 126,000 visitors a year since 2011, is a popular destination that welcomes a variety of outdoor enthusiasts with water skiers, jet skis, campers, picnickers and anglers fishing from shore, boat and on the ice, all spending time at the park.
Gardunio said the Crawford State Park fishing project has been a success to this point.
“The pike had eaten almost everything in there,” Gardunio said. “The perch were almost completely gone, the reservoir had just a handful of small perch that remained, so it wasn’t good fishing, or at least not good diverse fishing.
“I feel like we really turned it around, we were able to get back those other populations,” he added.
Catfish and rainbow trout can also be caught at the reservoir.
Gardunio also said the increase in perch population has helped the ice fishing popularity at the reservoir to bounce back as well.
“The big thing was to try and get balance back into the reservoir, and to have good crappie and perch populations,” he said. “I now see the potential that it could be a good largemouth fishery.”
Not only good, but Gardunio thinks it could be great.
“I actually feel like it’s of the best bass fishing opportunities in western Colorado, and it’s only going to get better,” he said. “I feel like it could be one of the best in the state, in another 2-3 years, it will be a really good bass fishery.”