ELEPHANT BUTTE, N.M. – Now that Elephant Butte Lake finally is back in Bassmaster's Top 25 Bass Lakes in the West, the fishing "just will keep getting better," according to Earl Conway, conservation director for the New Mexico B.A.S.S. Nation (NMBN).
For more than five years, Conway has been spearheading a multi-pronged project, Elephant Butte Adapt-a-Cove, to return the 36,500-acre impoundment to its former glory days. The effort has included a wide range of habitat improvements, including shoreline plantings, floating wetlands and spawning platforms, as well manmade habitats and five semi-loads of Christmas trees. Other strategies implemented have been better catch-and-release care at tournaments, voluntary off-limits areas for spawning coves during May and June, and multiple stockings, with the latest coming this past fall.
Unfortunately, an improved bass population isn't reflected in recent electrofishing surveys, Conway said. That's because they don't work well on deep irrigation reservoirs like Elephant Butte because fish are often on the move as water levels change frequently.
"Data from the last two years' surveys taken while the lake level was dropping would indicate we are doing worse," he explained. "But the pictures and angler success rates tell another story.
"What we do know is that we have a lot more young fish, either from the stocking efforts or natural spawn, and the average tournament weights continue to increase."
Instead of complaining about not getting bites, anglers often complain now about too many "short" fish, the conservation director added.
"There is also a legitimate shot at catching that double-digit largemouth or a new state record smallmouth."
Conway also praised the relationship that has developed between NMBN and New Mexico Game and Fish (NMGF), as well as other agencies, as they have pulled together to bring back the fishery.
"NMGF is implementing new marking techniques to decipher how well stocking is working and develop a game plan for the future," he said, adding that it also has been studying spawning behaviors and working with the Bureau of Reclamation to minimize the impact of water releases during the spawn.
The project also has benefitted from grants provided by Friends of Reservoirs Foundation, Shimano/B.A.S.S. Youth Conservation Initiative, and, most recently, the Aquatic Ecosystems Restoration Foundation & Aquatic Plant Management Society.