Peña Blanca Lake is a hidden gem in southern Arizona. Read the story by G J Sagi.

Peña Blanca Lake

Peña Blanca Lake—one of southern Arizona’s most scenic residents—has faced more water-quality challenges than any impoundment deserves, but it’s a mistake to let that history prevent you from visiting and fishing the waterway in this wonderful corner of the Coronado National Forest. Arrive when fall’s splendor starts its glow and winter stockings of rainbow trout begin (conditions willing) and the cool and comfortable angling south of Tucson is hard to beat.

It’s surrounded by rolling grassy hills dotted with oak, and at an elevation of 4,000 feet offers cooler temperatures than nearby Nogales, which is less than 20 miles away. Even in January and December it’s worth a visit and it’s only an hour south of Tucson.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department created the lake in 1957 and by March of 1958 it was open to the public. Largemouth bass, crappie, channel catfish and bluegills stocked in the waterway quickly established vibrant populations in the newly flooded habitat. It didn’t take long for the lake’s original size of 52 surface acres to shrink due to siltation and stabilize at its current figure of 45.

Peña Blanca Lake

Hidden Gem

An earthen dam on Peña Blanca Wash impounds the lake, which reaches a maximum depth of 65 feet. It’s nestled between rolling hills and almost impossible to see until you arrive at the Thumb Rock Picnic Area or White Rock Camping Site—both managed by the Coronado National Forest.

That’s part of the secret to this fishery’s success. It never gained acclaim across the region and it’s in a section of southern Arizona better known for its ghost towns.

News leaked, though and the population of crappies grew to staggering proportions by the late 1980s and 1990s. Back then I watched an early spring visitor from the Midwest boat between 40 and 60 of the fish each day—for three days—using a tiny Canyon jig in green. He periodically changed to yellow or gold, depending on the fish’s mood.

Trout are also voracious when they hit the small lake’s water, at least for me. But then, I have this “secret” spot on the hill below where the resort once was.

For many years my parents and I would make a minimum of four trips to Peña Blanca to catch the stocker rainbows. Corn seemed always best, especially when floated off the bottom with a marshmallow.

My children and I also found Berkley’s Trout Power Bait irresistible to the stockers. It floats on its own, and includes a fish attracting scent tailored to attract more strikes.

Bass also call Peña Blanca home. With all the lakes I’ve fished, it’s still hard to believe one of the biggest largemouths I’ve caught came from this small impoundment.

I’m not the only bass fisherman who has good luck here. In August of 1992 an angler landed a 6-pound largemouth at Peña Blanca using a black Berkley Power Worm. The next month an angler landed an11 ½-pound largemouth bass.

Peña Blanca Lake

Overfishing by the ’90s

The secret got out, or the diehards kept coming back. An Arizona Game and Fish Department creel survey that took place from 1990 to early 1991 indicated the lake was suffering a serious overfishing and the trout taken out of the lake annually was nearly identical to the number stocked.

According to the results, anglers also caught the same number of bass that lived in the lake each year. Luckily though, ethical fishermen routinely threw back nearly every largemouth they caught…which explains the number of hook marks in every one I’ve caught there.

The creel survey indicated March to May is the most popular time to fish the lake and the least angling pressure is from September to December. On the “average” day, 8.1 people fished from shore and another nine in boats. Anglers stayed 4 hours.

Fish kept at the time, in descending order, were; rainbow trout; bluegill and redear sunfish; black crappie; channel catfish; largemouth bass; and yellow bullhead. The fish most often caught were; bluegill and redear sunfish; trout; black crappie; largemouth bass; channel catfish; and yellow bullheads.

The survey showed fishermen at Peña Blanca kept 81 percent of the trout they catch, 74 percent of the crappie, 54 percent of the channel catfish and only 27 percent of the largemouths. Of all fish caught, only 57 percent went home.

From November to April, trout were the most pursued species and the study showed any two fishermen who stay at Peña Blanca Lake for 4 hours could expect to catch 5.9 fish (of various species)—on average keeping 3.4.

Peña Blanca Lake

Improved Habitat

One of the earliest efforts to increase the fish population took place in 1985, when officials submerged weighted tree limbs trimmed. On March 24, 1992, the Arizona Game and Fish Department turned things up with the installation of 75 bluegill bungalows and 75 fish trees. The artificial habitat increases cover and shade for the lake’s bass, bluegill and sunfish.

Bluegill bungalows are 6-inch plastic pipes and fish trees are 6- to 9-foot plastic trees with leaves that extend from the “trunk.” Other lakes across Arizona have had tremendous results with such structure.

Mercury

It was working. Then disaster struck in 1993 when Arizona Department of Environmental Quality testing determined the lake’s water had high levels of mercury—three times the concentration deemed “safe” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That prompted the Arizona Game and Fish Department to issue health warnings and an advisory that all warmwater fish in the lake were not safe for human consumption. Officials recommended anglers release them immediately, although the warning did not include stocked trout because they rarely spent enough time in lake to pick up the dangerous contaminant.

The lake was suddenly a catch-and-release fishery, of sorts, and it didn’t take long for avid anglers to understand lunkers returned to the water were growing bigger, daily.

State officials identified a nearby mine that operated sometime in the 1900s as the chief suspect in the mercury’s source. In 1999 they removed more than 1,000 tons of the abandoned site’s material and optimistically claimed the levels of mercury will drop to normal levels in roughly 10 years.

They were wrong. The lake closed again in 2008 and drained to clean high levels of mercury in its sediment. The extensive operation included removal of the old resort—once widely renowned for genuine German cuisine, boat rentals, lodging, lakeside views and an annual Easter dinner so popular that it required reservations months in advance.

Peña Blanca Lake reopened in August 2009. The “All clear” was once again short lived. Four years later the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality issued findings that the contamination was above levels measure prior to dredging. The latest guess is that the mercury is just naturally occurring or seeping in along fault lines.

Pena Blanca Lake
Peña Blanca Lake

Still Worth the Trip

A handicapped fishing dock and paved trail makes this an ideal destination for the disabled, regardless of the waterway’s strained history. My wife and I helped organize a fishing outing with Tucson’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital (the hospice unit) years ago, and that fishing dock worked perfectly—so much so that we had trouble convincing the wheelchair-bound vets to get out of the sun long enough for lunch.

It’s one of my favorite fishing memories, even though I didn’t wet a line. They somehow found out we’d organized the event on our anniversary, so they surprised us with a cake, songs and the biggest, warmest smiles I’ve ever seen. Their stories were amazing, and no one wanted to go home. There’s no way I’ll ever forget that special gift from men who served on our front line of freedom so many years ago.

Water conditions continue to make Peña Blanca primarily a catch-and-release resource. That means the fish are growing and getting big again. Recent catches include a 5.6- and 4.1-pound largemouths in July 2017 (one on a brush hog early morning), 23 bass (2-pounders or less) caught by a pair of anglers on single September day in 2017, and a 5.4-pounder in October 2018.

Today the Arizona Game and Fish Department continues to stock trout during the winter, water quality willing. The lake is home to largemouth bass, redear sunfish, bluegill, channel catfish and hopefully crappie, someday. The species is not officially listed as being returned to the waters, yet.

To get to Peña Blanca Lake, take I-19 south from Tucson. Drive nearly all the way into Nogales and turn west on State Route 289. It’s about 20 miles of pavement before you reach the lake. And watch for wild turkeys along the way—especially in the spring. They’re quite a spectacle, too.

 

For more of Guy J. Sagi’s work and a taste of what he captures outdoors, visit GuySagi.com.