By Don Price
Photo by Loren Worthington
The bald eagle soared high above the lake and banked sharply toward me so that his snow white feathers sparkled in the early morning sunlight. For the past fifteen minutes, I had been so preoccupied with identifying the circling bird above me that I hadn’t paid any attention to the fishing pole I was holding. Now that I was sure I was watching an eagle on the hunt, nothing else would have my attention for quite a while.
Now the impressive bird caught a thermal and rose high into the cloudless sky, almost out of sight, but his screech could be heard for miles. I craned my neck to find the soaring raptor just in time to witness him tuck suddenly into a dive, streaking at full speed toward the water below. Before I could catch my breath, the eagle swooped above the glass-smooth surface, dropped his talons into the water and plucked an unsuspecting trout from the current. It was, truly, awesome.
Where was I fishing when I witnessed this amazing moment? Alaska? Montana? Minnesota? No, I was fishing in the middle of the urban sprawl we call the Valley of the Sun, at Tempe Town Lake, to be specific. Very few people know that Arizona supports a population of bald eagles, and even fewer realize they can often be seen along the Salt River, especially east of Tempe Town Lake.
I grew up fishing with my dad in the north woods of Wisconsin, so when I moved to Arizona many years ago I didn’t expect to find any lakes that could compare with the sport fishing I had known as a kid; I was wrong. While Arizona doesn’t have the sheer numbers of lakes one would find in the Midwest, the desert reservoirs and canals of Arizona hold an abundance of fishing opportunities, as well as a few lunker fish. Additionally, the Arizona Game & Fish Department stocks numerous urban or “community” lakes around the Valley – one or two surely within a few miles of your home.
Arizona’s Urban Fishing Program is recognized nationally as one of the best in the country. There are 36 urban fishing locations across 15 cities.
I’ve fished quite a few of the community lakes in Maricopa County, but three of my favorites are: Rio Vista Park, in Peoria; Tempe Town Lake; and Water Ranch Lake at the Riparian Preserve in Gilbert. All three parks offer unique fishing experiences in urban settings.
Rio Vista Park, located just west of the Loop 101 and Thunderbird, is a thriving park with ball fields, a skate park and a recreation center. Rio Vista Pond, while only 2.7 acres, holds a nice population of stocked bass, catfish and sunfish, easily accessed by paved trails. This is a busy park, so don’t expect to be fishing alone. If you like doing some “people watching” while fishing, this is a good park for you. You’ll need an urban fishing license here, and you can’t go wrong with a simple set up of night crawlers fished along the bottom or with a bobber.
Tempe Town Lake, adjacent to the busy Mill Avenue district in Tempe, is also a very well-used park, but it is large enough – a whopping 227 acres — that you can often find a secluded spot for yourself, especially on the far-east end where I witnessed the eagle capture its breakfast. The lake is a fantastic producer of largemouth bass, as well as carp, catfish and yellow bass. Additionally, trout are stocked and plentiful during the colder months of the year, November through January. For bass, try plastic worms or spinners as you walk along the paved shoreline, and for trout, try corn or Powerbait on small hooks fished under the Mill Avenue bridge. You’ll need an urban license here and a trout stamp if you’re fishing trout.
For those of you in the East Valley, Water Ranch Lake, located at the Riparian Preserve near Guadalupe and Greenfield Roads in Gilbert, is a fantastic place to spend a day fishing, hiking or nature watching. This 5-acre lake has a decent amount of bass and bluegill, but is heavily fished. However, the adjacent Riparian Preserve holds a plethora of local and migratory waterfowl, so you’re likely to see quite a show of nature while you’re trying to coax that fish to bite. I’ve done well with night crawlers and pieces of hot dog (for catfish) at this lake.
Be sure to know the regulations at whichever urban lake you decide to explore. I generally catch and release, but if you’re taking your catch home for dinner, you’ll want to be sure not to go over the bag limit. Fishing licenses can be purchased at local sporting goods stores or online at the AZ Game and Fish website. An urban license costs $24 for one year, or there is a combination license for $37 per year that includes a trout stamp and allows you to fish in other waterways throughout Arizona. Licenses are good for one year from date of purchase.
For those of you wanting to explore the lakes outside of the city, there are accessible fishing piers at Canyon Lake, Saguaro Lake and Bartlett Lake. Lynx Lake, near Prescott, has a nice fish dock, and Payson has its beautiful 12-acre urban Green Valley Lake, which features an accessible fishing pier. Another spot that is on my “to do” list is Dead Horse Ranch State Park, along the Verde River in Cottonwood. There are so many places to try and never enough time!
I could sit for hours, fishing, if the weather is nice. I know not everybody shares my enthusiasm for the activity. Of course, there are always other activities one can engage in while fishing: bird watching; reading; meditating or snacking on a PB&J sandwich. There are no guarantees that you’ll catch fish at any of these locations. The only guarantee is that you’ll see more of nature, and have a richer experience, than sitting home in front of your TV.
Although most of the piers in Arizona are accessible, there are currently no adaptive fishing classes in Arizona. Fishing Has No Boundaries is an adaptive fishing program that is based in Wisconsin and has chapters mostly within Midwestern states. The closest chapter to us is in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but you can visit their website at www.fhnbinc.org or call them at 800-243-3462 to learn about adaptive fishing equipment.
Somewhere out there a largemouth bass lurks beneath a tangle of lily pads; an eagle circles high in the azure sky; a wild horse grazes majestically along a riverbank. All of these adventures await you – now get out there and find them!
Arizona Game & Fish Department
Ability360, Early Intervention Coordinator-CI Unit
Don Price is Ability360’s Early Intervention Coordinator. As a person living with a spinal cord injury–sustained in a diving accident at age 18—Don mentors those with new disabilities by offering information, resources and an empathetic ear. Don lives in Tempe and enjoys fishing, reading, writing, listening to music and spending time with friends. He’s also a proud Sun Devil.