Rim Country visitors (and residents) have it all, when it comes to having a blast by the water.
Obviously, you’ve got your East Verde River and Tonto Creek streamside camping and hiking — and your Rim lakes trout fishing (and camping).
But did you know that Payson makes a great home base to explore Roosevelt Lake — the reservoir that sustains Phoenix, and, that this fall, offers some of the best bass fishing in the nation?
The giant lake lies less than an hour south of Payson, complete with a marina offering boat rentals and conditions that this year are guaranteed to delight anglers and boaters. And in the fall, when snow sometimes touches the Rim, it’s still shirt-sleeve weather out on the lake.
In addition, the first wet year in nearly a decade has transformed the lake into paradise for bass, catfish and crappie fishermen.
That’s because the in the face of a long drought, the lake had at one point all but dried up. As a result, a lot of brush grew on what had been lake bottom. When the lake filled up again, not only did the water cover that new brush — it advanced into the side canyons, thick with brush and trees that had grown up over a period of several years.
All of that, now-submerged brush and logs, are now providing nutrients for the creatures at the base of the food chain. That supports a population explosion among the smaller fish, which in turn supports a boom in the fish anglers love to catch — especially bass and catfish.
As a result, the whole lake will benefit from what amounts to a “new lake” effect this year, which is much higher than normal reproduction of most fish species. Of course, from a fisherman’s point of view, the population boom among the game fish is offset to some degree by the dramatic rise in the surface area of the lake.
Fishermen caught an amazing number of fish when the lake reached its low point — since a whole lake’s worth of fish was concentrated in a comparative, shrunken puddle. So now, even though the lake holds a lot more fish, anglers will need to cover more water to find the best spots.
Even so, the Roosevelt Lake Marina will be renting out a variety of fishing boats, and the nearly-submerged boat ramps, will be launching lots of hopeful fishermen all through the fall.
The lake has lots of camping spots, but not many hotels. The largest concentration of nice hotel rooms to serve as a base for people eager to explore the vast lake are located in Payson — which is just about as close to the marina as Globe.
The lake level has fluctuated wildly in recent years, demonstrating the enormous amount of water that falls on Rim Country and runs down through the Salt River and its tributaries.
The dam that created Roosevelt Lake was the first major dam in half a century of construction that transformed the face of the West. It still largely makes Phoenix possible, by hoarding Rim Country runoff.
Last year proved the 19th wettest year on record for the Salt and Verde River watersheds, on which the Rim Country and the Valley depend, according to figures complied by the Salt River Project.
“Even if it had been a much wetter year, we wouldn’t have the reservoirs any more full right now,” said SRP’s manager of water resource operations Charles Ester. “We went over capacity on the Verde (reservoirs)” by 150,000 acre-feet, which flowed through the bypasses and on down through Phoenix.
So Roosevelt, which had at one point dwindled to about 15 percent of its capacity, is now nearly full, thanks to runoff of about 1.3 million acre feet last year — about double the long-term average runoff of 683,000 acre feet.
Most of the bounty came as a result of three record-breaking wet months and a deep snow pack during the winter. The area had more than 10 inches of rain between December and February.
By contrast, in 2007, only 211,000 acre feet flowed into the reservoir during the five-month runoff season, which made it the 17th driest year on record, and the 10th drought season in the past 12 years.
The runoff was well-timed for SRP, which had just finished a major project to protect against flood by dramatically increasing the height of Roosevelt Dam.
The project created 62 feet of extra height on the dam, which means the water utility captured all of the extra runoff without having to let any of it through the spillways — as it did on the Verde.
The rising water behind Roosevelt Dam did inundate the lush riparian areas along the creeks leading into the lake, killing many trees that species like the endangered willow flycatchers use for nesting during the years when Roosevelt dwindled to an alarming 17 percent of its capacity.
However, under an agreement with the federal government, SRP had bought and restored about three times as much riparian habitat on the Salt, Verde and Gila rivers, where water flows have nourished other riparian areas.