Introduction of largemouth bass balances Crawford Reservoir

Largemouth bass hitting and fighting a frog imitation lure.

Crawford Reservoir isn’t just for fishing: personal watercraft, ski boats and pontoons are regularly on the water.

The introduction of largemouth bass to Crawford State Park has anglers scrambling to get their bass boats in the water.

Personal watercraft, ski boats and pontoons keep Crawford Reservoir busy in the summer.


Good bass and bad bass?

That’s not really a fact, but the smallmouth bass has been a problematic situation for Colorado Parks and Wildlife on the Western Slope for several years.

The growing population of largemouth bass at Crawford State Park is a contrast to what is happening at Ridgway State Park with the smallmouth bass population.

For the third straight year, CPW has sponsored a smallmouth bass fishing tournament, and anglers are also allowed to take an unlimited number smallmouth bass while fishing at Ridgway throughout the year.

Smallmouth bass, which are an aggressive predator fish, were illegally introduced into Ridgway Reservoir about 10 years ago and the goal is to eliminate all the bass from the reservoir.

The difference between the two fish species is interesting.

“The big difference is in the water temperature and the types of habitat they can survive in,” said Eric Gardunio, CPW aquatic biologist.

But why are largemouth OK and smallmouth bad for western Colorado?

“Largemouth are a warm-water fish and they struggle a good portion of the year,” Gardunio said. “They also do better in still water, so they don’t survive in rivers.”

Smallmouth bass are the complete opposite.

The biggest concern with the smallmouth bass at Ridgway is if they escape the reservoir.

“Smallmouth bass are a cool-water fish and they do really well in rivers. The concern is when they get in the rivers and reproduce in the rivers,” Gardunio said. “They are very aggressive and can wipe out native and endangered fish species.”

He mentioned several of those endangered species that are at risk, including the Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, bonytail and humpback chub.

“We are really worried about (smallmouth bass) escaping and getting into the rivers, because we are trying to bring the endangered species back from the brink (of extinction).”

Smallmouth bass have escaped other Colorado reservoirs and have had an adverse impact of the native fish populations.

— Dale Shrull

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.”


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