Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Black River, August 2009

One of the most highly-regarded trout watersheds in the state is the Black River, in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. The river and its numerous tributaries hold abundant wild Browns and Rainbows, and some of the remaining (and restored) strongholds of native Apache trout. I decided to take advantage of some of the remaining time off I had before starting my next job, and made the drive over to this vaunted fishery, to fly fish and camp in the backcountry for several days during the last week of August.

This was my first visit to the Black, not to mention eastern Arizona in general; it is a beautiful, wild corner of the state, and a fitting location as a Mexican wolf reintroduction site. I accessed the mainstem via Wildcat Crossing and FR 25, and hiked several miles downstream, to set up camp. I fished likely-looking runs and pools along the way, including the nice riffle confluence above.

I cast a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph on 5X into the heavier flows of the run, using a 9' 5 wt outfit, and quickly connected with a strong, heavy Brown trout, just over 16", with a head shot of the fish pictured above. After releasing the brute, I tied into another fine Brown, this one 15" and one of the more colorful fish of the trip (the photo below does not do the trout justice).

Eventually, I continued downstream, the first day of this Black River visit already a success with the landing of the aforementioned Browns. The skies overhead became increasingly sunny, after heavy rainfall accompanied by thunder that stopped just before I began my backpacking trip down along the stream. I suspect the precipitation cooled the river, providing a jolt to the the trout activity, because the water temperature became progressively warmer during my stay (I did not encounter any more rain after this initial downpour), and the fishing seemed to slow down accordingly in the following days along the mainstem. Nonetheless, I still found some fishing success in my ensuing time along the Black, particularly near deeper pools and runs.

This image shows the river near a confluence with a cool-water tributary, and close to my campsite. The currents maintained some level of turbidity throughout my stay, making the trout a bit less spooky despite the low flows of summer. Crayfish were remarkably abundant here, and no doubt provide a reliable food source for larger Browns and Smallmouth bass that inhabit the river. I also found this large, #12 mayfly dun inspecting my polarized glasses; I am not sure of the species, but several of these were visible hovering above the river midday (a large hatch occurred on the day I left the Black and returned to Flagstaff), and both the adults and nymphs provided a good mouthful for fish on the prowl. Actually, the #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph I fished represented the aquatic stage of this insect quite well, and probably accounted for the pattern's success in fooling some of the trout.

I was definitely taken with the rugged beauty of the river and surrounding country--large Ponderosa Pines dotting rocky hillsides, cliffs jutting up from the olive hues of the foam-flecked currents, and a certain undefinable wildness everywhere, with me half-expecting to see a bear or mountain lion at every new turn (I didn't see either, although I am quite sure they both thrive here, and I also did not encounter any people throughout my stay, although former campsites were in evidence here and there).

The gradient in this section was fairly low, and featured long, slow glides, occasional deep pools, and sections of riffles and pocketwater.

The pocketwater sections were often shallow, but any deeper holding areas often yielded fish, usually in the form of what I suspected were Apache-Rainbow hybrids, about 8-12".

The trout above was one such specimen, a good 11". Based on the "eye mask", coloration and spotting pattern, this fish may be a pure Apache, although it is hard to know for sure, given the presence of Rainbows throughout the system. These fish certainly struck and fought hard for their size, at any rate.

Wildflowers shone in abundance along the banks, including the sunflowers above, and multiple blooms of flowers I was unable to identify, hugging the edges of the stream below.

I found a couple of larger fish in the latter part of the second day; the first one sat in the heart of the riffle shown below, and grabbed a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph drifted through the main current.

The fish charged about the run, using its size and weight to its advantage, but eventually I pulled the bruiser close--a chunky 20" Brown trout, and the largest fish of the trip.

The Brown looked to be a female, with a relatively smaller head, and a curious overbite (almost like a snout), that is particularly noticeable in the photo below.

This was the kind of trout that I had heard inhabits the waters of the Black, and one of the reasons I came to visit here. I felt fortunate indeed to fool the mature Brown, especially in the slower fishing of late summer, capture a few images, and return the fish to the tinted flows, to live on and perpetuate its race. There is something about seeking out larger wild Brown trout that I have always found fascinating and rewarding--each individual fish seems to have its own preferences and eccentricities, they do not always cooperate (and can be downright impossible), but when the stars do align , and a big mature fish comes to hand, it is a moment to savor.

Deeper pools were scattered throughout the section of the Black River that I explored, including the one shown above, not far upstream from the riffle with the previous Brown. Here, the currents ran up against a steep cliff face, and produced a foam line right along the rock. This type of holding water always screams out larger fish to me, especially Browns (I did fish several other similar pools during my stay without success, although I suspect at least one good trout occupied each spot). I decided to tie on a #10 tan-bodied Neversink Caddis on 5X, as shown below, since numerous hoppers in similar dimensions were visible along the banks.

I have found that casting a big bushy dry along cliff faces of deep pools can sometimes bring up a larger fish from the depths, so I employed the tactic here. Within a couple casts right against the rock wall, I received a subtle, quiet rise, that quickly translated into a heavy, unyielding weight, followed by head-shaking and several reel-singing runs.

Finally, after a spirited fight, I was able to land another impressive Brown trout, this one a heavy, 17-18" male, with more color than the previous fish, and the beginnings of a kype on the lower jaw.

This may have been my favorite fish of the trip, as it was a big mature trout that fell for a dry fly--one of the great highlights in fly fishing, when it happens.

The following day, I decided to head up a tributary near my campsite and explore, but I began by fishing the pool shown above, along the mainstem. Some of the cliff formations along the Black were quite impressive, including the one abutting this run. A good riffle swept against the massive stone, and created a swirling backeddy up at the head (not visible in the photo). I had seen the quiet riseforms of what I assumed to be a good trout in the reverse current the last couple days, during evening BWO hatches (size 18-20), but I ended up spooking it both times. I saw a few more subtle rises in the foam scum line this morning, so I approached cautiously, decided to lob a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph, and let it drift against the cliff. I received a sharp yank almost immediately, and the fish raced downstream through the run, using the entire length of the deep pool to elude me. I held on, worked the trout back towards me, and gazed down at a fat, muscular Apache-Rainbow hybrid of about 15".

The fish resembled a Rainbow with its spotting pattern and overall appearance, but also contained a yellowish-golden hue, and hints of the black "eye mask" suggestive of Apache trout. I slid the strong hybrid back into the olive-brown currents, and mused on what it must have been like to fish the Black before exotic Rainbows and Browns were introduced. I suspect that some relatively large pure-strain Apache trout once reigned in this river, and they must have been impressive to behold.

I fished through the main run next to the eddy, and hooked up with another strong fish that bolted into the currents, and materialized as a healthy, dark 14" Roundtail chub.

This species is native to many of the watersheds in Arizona, and has also been called "Verde trout" by local anglers, due to its trout-like behavior (Roundtail chubs will rise much as trout do, can put up a good fight, and just recently have been included as an official gamefish in the state). They tend to thrive in warmer water than trout, and the presence of this one indicated that the river temperatures were not necessarily optimum for trout at this point in the season.

The specimen was relatively large by the standards of this species (although I've heard they can approach 18-19" in the right conditions), and I carefully returned the chub to its home water.

I wandered up a side tributary later in the morning, to fish in a small-stream environment. This stream has been known to produce some large Browns, and also contains an isolated sub-tributary with a pure-strain, original population of Apache trout. I tied on a #16 orange-bodied Neversink caddis, and worked my way upstream through pocketwater and small plunge pools, under a canopy of hardwoods and conifers.

I found quite a few willing fish (as long as they were approached carefully), but nothing out of proportion to the mountain stream (I suspect that large Brown trout and Apache-Rainbow hybrids do venture up the creek, but probably only during spawning season). I did lose one Brown in a shaded, deep little run, that would have gone 13-14". The trout above was a typical specimen, most likely a hybrid, 9-10".

I encountered this pool upstream, and landed a couple of fine fish on the dry. The first one was the nicest fish caught in the stream, a good foot-long trout with golden and violet hues along its sides.

This trout bore a striking resemblance to pictures of pure-strain Apaches I've seen, except the spotting seemed too small and abundant, and the "eye mask" was missing. All the same, it was quite a beautiful fish.

I was determined to find indisputable pure-strain Apache trout, so I searched for and discovered a tiny sub-tributary that joined the stream, and followed it up a steep, brushy slope. Sure enough, a series of small natural cascades soon appeared, preventing the upstream passage of fish from below. I continued above, where vegetation grew dense along the creek, obscuring the miniature runs, and creating challenging fishing conditions.

Fortunately, I was able to find a few openings in the foliage, and flicked a small dry fly into likely spots, such as the little pool below, using the best small stream stealth tactics I could muster.

I managed to bring a couple fish to hand, and lose several others--all fairly modest trout, but good-sized for their surroundings.

Here are a couple shots of one of the fish brought to hand--a fat 8" Apache trout, near the maximum size in this waterway, as far as I could tell. The pelvic and anal fins were edged with white, while the dorsal fin was tipped with deep orange. The spotting was fairly sparse, and the "eye mask" was quite evident. And the entire body possessed a golden-yellow hue, one of the most recognizable traits of the species.

All in all, it was a special moment to briefly admire the beauty of these pure-strain Apaches, some of the true native trout of Arizona. Hopefully, they face an increasingly bright future, with continued protection and restoration of their streams throughout the White Mountains.

Eventually, I wandered back to the mainstem of the river, where I fished a bit more in the evening and following morning (and caught some more Browns and Apache-Rainbow hybrids, although none of notable size), before making the drive back to Flagstaff. The Black certainly lived up to its reputation as one of the top wild trout destinations in the state, and I look forward to returning in the near future, hopefully during the spring and fall, when water temperatures are ideal for trout activity, and large fish are on the move.


  1. Looks like a great trip! Great write-up too. I am curious about your camping during these excursions, do you just pack in some stuff? Tent and what-not? I wouldn't mind seeing a shot of one of your campsites from these trips if you don't mind. I would love to do the same thing sometime soon, and am looking for ideas.

    Can't wait to see the next trip.

  2. Iain,
    I have really enjoyed reading through your writings and taking in the beauty of those photos. Your black river trip is very similar to what I am planning to do sometime early in the summer. It looked like a ton of fun. Thank you for posting.


  3. Ben and Parker,
    Thanks for the comments, and I'm glad you're enjoying the posts.
    Ben, you should have a great time on the Black if you go; beautiful country, and fishing to match.
    Parker, I'll try to include a photo of one of my campsites on a future trip, but I do bring a tent and various other essentials in my backpack, I bear bag any food and toiletries, and I try to practice Leave No Trace as much as possible. If you have more questions, feel free to shoot me an e-mail in my profile.

  4. Great stuff!
    I live in CT. Hope to move to Flagstaff with my wife someday and retire there. Been there many times and love it.
    Planning a trip in 2011 and will bring the fly rod.
    I'll make sure to get in touch with you before our trip.
    Look forward to following your blog.
    John (aka. Apache Trout on fishing forums across the U.S.)

  5. John,
    Thanks for the positive response on the blog; I'm going to be writing more posts on Oak Creek soon, so stay tuned.
    And feel free to contact me regarding fly fishing for your trip; I'll do my best to provide useful advice!

  6. Hi Iain.... your blog it's amazing!!! Congrats!!

    I'm a rookie on fly fishing and I have learned a lot with you so far. But I have a question for you (that may sound stupid..but) when you use your #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph how do you set up?? Do you use indicator???
    Also do you guide here in Arizona?? I leave in Scottsdale and need some help.

    Dr. Thiago