Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fall Browns--Chevelon Canyon Creek, Oct/Nov 2009

I made the trip over to the Mogollon Rim to explore a new destination during the fall season, with visions of more fall Browns in my mind--Chevelon Canyon Creek. This stream flows north to its namesake lake (a terrific fishery in its own right, from what I've heard), and then beyond, eventually leaving National Forest land. I decided to visit the stream a number of miles upstream of the lake, in the hopes of discovering some sizable Browns that were on the move, in preparation for spawning.

I followed a network of dirt roads, and finally reached a trailhead (not obviously marked) that provided access, over a mile of rather steep descent, to a rugged section of the stream--not the easiest spot to reach, but then, just finding some of these destinations can be half the experience, and more challenging access can help to preserve the quality and wildness of the fishery. The image above shows one of my first views down into Chevelon Canyon (the creek is not readily visible here). This stream flows through wilderness-type country, and once a visitor makes their way down, they are on their own (and of course, the steep hike back up has to be taken into account at the day's end).

I made three trips to Chevelon; the first in early October, the next near the end of the month, and once again in early November. The stream is shown above during the first visit, flowing low and clear past steep slopes dotted with Ponderosa Pine. The creek looked to be suffering from the recent drought conditions, with parts of the streambed often exposed, but the water temperature remained cool and comfortable for trout.

I caught this vibrant, chunky Rainbow Trout, a good foot, on an orange-bodied, #16 Neversink Caddis (I used 5X throughout my visits), cast up into shallow pocketwater. This was the first fish I caught from the creek, and it ended up being the only Rainbow I landed (although I saw another of similar dimensions upstream in a long flat). It is my understanding (based on guidebooks I have poured through) that Rainbow Trout are not resident in this stream, but rather some follow the Browns up in the fall, perhaps feeding on eggs during the spawn, and then many more bows travel upstream in the spring, engaged in their own spawning run. Whatever the case, I did not see any Rainbows on subsequent trips, later in the fall, and suspect they returned downstream to Chevelon Canyon Lake.

Chevelon Canyon Creek was characterized by long shallow stretches of pocketwater and riffles, interspersed by longer flats and deeper runs. These latter stream features tended to harbor more (and larger) fish, although the trout were invariably wary regardless, and I spooked more than my fair share, particularly on my first visit.

In fact, the fishing proved challenging for me on the initial trip, and I managed to only fool several smaller Browns, the largest measuring perhaps a foot, similar to the Rainbow caught. I certainly saw some bigger fish though, including at least a pair 20" or better, and a handful in the mid and upper teens.

I also came across this Raccoon that crossed the stream above, and then proceeded to wander along the bank right next to me. I stood motionless, and the mammal only noticed my presence after passing me, and picking up my scent.

The autumn light was beautiful along Chevelon Canyon Creek, low and golden, and enhanced the burning foliage along the banks. The photos above and below were taken as I wandered farther upstream, with deeper pools and likely lies becoming more prevalent as magnificent canyon walls loomed above the creek channel.

The leaves were brilliantly colored on some of the undergrowth, including the crimson sumac and young yellow Gambel Oak below.

This trumpet wildflower bloom added to the vivid hues bursting from the stream corridor.

Near the end of my first visit in late afternoon, I drifted a #10 Crawbugger near a partially submerged boulder in a small run (near the same spot where I caught the Rainbow earlier), more on a whim than anything else, and because I had seen numerous crayfish in the shallows throughout the day. Almost instantly, a massive Brown Trout materialized from under the rock, but I was so surprised that I instinctively jerked the streamer away. The bruiser searched for the fly a moment longer, realized it was exposed, and then vanished back under the boulder, as my jaw continued to hang open, and one last image of its big reddish brown tail lingered in my mind. Of course, I cast again repeatedly, but to no avail. I had to settle for at least drawing the large fish out from its hiding place, and getting a brief glance at the trout.

I returned to Chevelon Canyon Creek a couple weeks later, and made my way quickly towards the unassuming run where I had discovered the big Brown before, with the hope that it might still be holding in the same spot. I cast the Crawbugger again, and bounced it lightly under the same boulder, causing the marabou and legs to pulse, and creating what I hoped was a lifelike motion. Amazingly, after 10 or 15 seconds of repeating this action, the same bruiser reappeared, this time I didn't flinch, and the fish inhaled the streamer. I immediately pulled the rod downstream, to move the lunker away from the boulder (I had a feeling that the fish would break me off in short order if I allowed it to retreat back under the rock), and fortunately, the trout cooperated. The Brown thrashed about the surface and charged through the small run, but the fight ended fairly quickly, and I steered the magnificent fish into the shallows.

Here is an image of the big Brown Trout against my 5 wt. The bruiser measured about 22", and I figured 4-5 lbs. I suspect the fish was a female, based on the relatively smaller head (although it was still large enough to swallow my reel), and lack of a prominent kype.

In any case, it was a spectacular Brown, one of my best to date, and a trout that I felt fortunate indeed to have fooled, and then successfully towed in. I included one last photo below, showing the beautiful coloration of the hen, before I tailed the brute, watched her strum back into the clear flows, and disappear under a nearby stone.

My second outing on this trip had started with a bang, and I managed to bring a couple more fine fall Browns to hand as the day progressed.

I also spooked many more fish, some of them quite large, in the 18-20" range. The extremely low water conditions made approaching the wiser Browns difficult at best, and sometimes impossible. Additionally, some of the trout did not seem particularly interested in feeding, and perhaps were already turning their attention towards the business of reproduction. Nonetheless, it was a thrill to see that the spawning run was here, and making its way upstream. While some good fish were spotted earlier in October, I believe that quite a few more were present in the system on the second trip.

The two pictures above show the low flows of the creek, the beautiful mild and sunny conditions that greeted me on all three of my visits over the fall, and the lack of leaves that became increasingly apparent on the second and third trips to Chevelon.

Occasionally, I managed to sneak up on holding water unannounced, sight a good fish, and make a cast before scaring the trout. The image above shows one such spot, with a disproportionately sizable Brown holding at the very head of the small run, right beneath the whitewater. I tossed the Crawbugger just upstream, and the fish struck almost immediately.

I was rewarded with another handsome Chevelon Brown, this one a big-headed, 15" male, with a bit of scarring evident below the jaws and gill plates (presumably gained in fights with other male Browns). The size of this fish seemed to be about average for the mature spawners distributed in the creek, from what I could see.

Cliffs sometimes met the edges of the stream, creating deeper pools that harbored some good Brown Trout. Many of these fish seemed reluctant to take a well-presented streamer or bushy dry, although they would often inspect the fly closely.

The scenery was rugged and impressive through the section I explored, and I noticed the remains of former campsites along some of the benches near deep pools; evidence of fishing trips earlier this season, and in years past (I came across several anglers on my first visit, but none beyond that).

The two photos here show the upper extent of my wanderings on the second visit--the cliff formations and landscapes seemed to go on and on, in lonely and wonderful country.

I also found another good Brown Trout somewhere up in this area, hanging in a shadowed pool, rising sporadically (no apparent insect hatches from what I could see). I decided to tie on a tan #10 Neversink Caddis, cast it up against a cliff wall, and let the bushy dry drift slowly back towards me. About halfway through the drift, the fly disappeared in a small, subtle rise, and I was connected to a strong, shaking fish that bolted around in the dark pool. I held on, and soon reeled in a classic male fall Brown.

The trout measured about 17", had some girth for its size, and possessed a nice kype, as seen in the closeup below.

I made the trip over to Chevelon Canyon Creek one last time in early November, hoping to connect with a few more bruiser Browns before the season came to an end.

I passed by a herd of Pronghorn Antelope just after dawn, on the way towards my destination. The female below was the lone curious individual, that lingered behind and stared at me, before joining the others.

The fishing was a bit slow on my third visit; in fact, I only landed two fish, one small, the other a good Brown, holding in the middle of this run.

I crouched low in order to avoid spooking it, and then made a short cast with a black #12 Foam Beetle. The fish took the terrestrial confidently, vaulted into the air, and then darted downstream. I pulled the trout towards the bank, and admired another fine Chevelon Brown, this one just over 15", and a female from the look of it.

I hooked several other good Browns on this day, including one brilliantly colored male, but they all came loose prematurely--frustrating, but some days are like that, and I was glad to at least bring to hand the one good fish above. I also noticed that the majority of the fish this time seemed to be engaged in spawning activity, or preparing to do so; pairs of Browns were following each other in various pools, while others rested flat against the streambed, perhaps spent by recent reproductive activity. Several of these fish again measured 18-20", and one bruiser male, with several large scars on his dorsal, easily went 24", if not larger (quite a sight).

One of the highlights of the day came as the sun dipped below the canyon rim, while I made my way back towards the trail access heading up and out. I spotted a good-sized Black Bear crossing the stream channel, and snapped a quick shot as it lumbered towards the brush and trees. Sightings like these always strike me as gifts, and reaffirm the wildness of places like Chevelon Canyon Creek.

And here is one last look at the stream, the leaves now almost completely gone from the hardwood trees and streamside brush, a sign of winter soon approaching. These visits provided a great introduction to Chevelon Canyon Creek, and certainly supported its reputation as a superb Brown Trout fishery. I felt fortunate to have caught several good fish here, and witnessed some of the spawning run. I will definitely return to this wild, rugged stream this next season, explore its canyon reaches again, and try to seek out more of the impressive trout that call this place home.


  1. Great stories from one of my favorite places. I remember exploring it in the fall before and always had a good time. Be careful down there though...I came upon a fresh elk kill a couple of miles above the lake one time. Looked like a mountain lion was responsible... The soft belly had been eaten out and the kidney was laying on the ground several feet away... Oh, love the big brown as well...magnificent fish!!!

  2. David,
    Thanks for the comment; I thought you might enjoy the post, and the Browns I was fortunate enough to land (particularly the big one). Chevelon Canyon is a wild, beautiful spot, one that I will certainly revisit, and like you said, I'll keep my eyes out for mountain lions; I have no doubt that a healthy population exists there...

  3. Iain, I have been following your blog for a couple of months and very much appreciate your writing and great photography. What camera do you use? I find myself easily distracted by the fishing and the place and just haven't taken the time to take the pictures. You may inspire me to begin to do so. I have fished on Chevelon Creek from the lake upstream about a mile and a half. It is beautiful, wild and demanding but worth the trip.

    If the cicada hatch is strong (beginning mid/late May) you can have an epic day on the lake. Fishing dries the size of your thumb and having rainbows and browns go airborne on the take...big fun!

  4. Cactus Mike,

    Thanks for the positive response, and I use a digital Olympus SP-55OUZ; it is a durable camera with a great lens and zoom capability. I can get locked into the fishing as well, but it is a nice change of perspective (for me) to step back and take some photographs from time to time. Plus, it is nice to have some images that record the beauty of the places and fish that are encountered on a given trip.

    I definitely will be returning to Chevelon Canyon Creek; as you said, it is beautiful and wild, and rewarding. I have not fished the lake yet, but I intend to, and I will have to check it out during the cicada hatch; thanks for the heads-up!


  5. I saw fish feeding on a hatch in fall during a turkey hunt from the ridge and had to go. Just got back from a trip about 6 miles up stream from where you go. I had to hike 3 miles cross country and climb 800 feet down the canyon but it was so worth it. I caught over ten fish in just three hours the first day, the biggest was 14'. I stayed the night, fished in the am and then hiked out. I am more of a backpacker who tries to fish but I am getting better. Are the fish I caught in the creek all year, it was late June? Thanks for this blog, I really enjoy your write ups.

  6. Anonymous, thanks for the comments, and yes, I believe at least some of the browns there are year-round residents, including some of the larger fish, although I tend to fish Chevelon more in the fall, when lake-run trout bolster the creek population. It sounds like you got into some beautiful rugged country further upstream--that entire canyon is essentially a wilderness once you get away from the few access roads in the area.

    Thanks again,


  7. My Dad's Friend says the biggest Brown Trout he has seen come out of Chevelon canyon lake was 40 inches 8 pounds.

  8. A 40" brown is a huge fish, but I believe it in Chevelon--the largest I have come across in the creek during fall was 25-26", and I have no doubt that even bigger trout show up from time to time, although catching them can be another matter...

  9. How do you get to those parts of the creek you went to? I went to Chevelon Lake where the mouth of the lake is and turned a corner and the creek was right there. but didn't catch any fish but this was in may.

  10. This is anonymous. I would not recomend trying to reach the upper end of the creek unless you have a good GPS, a SPOT and a lot of back country experience. I camped less than 2 miles from my car as the crow flies but it may has well have been 30 miles. This canyon is very rough and is very steep in the best places. I basically looked on Google earth and found a FS road that would get me close and then used a good topo map to find a way to climb down. It helped to follow the game trails(saw at 5 elk) but it was still very nasty and could get you in real trouble if you turned an ankle or fell.

  11. Anonymous, I would second the caution and preparation that Chris mentions when considering a Chevelon Creek trip--it is basically a wilderness upstream of the lake, and the only other signed access point is a trail a handful of miles above the lake access, leading off a forest service road. That said, if you come prepared for the backcountry, it is a beautiful area. You might want to invest in a detailed map (National Geographic has a Trails Illustrated map for the area) to find potential routes down to the stream. Fish are present in the creek, but they can often be hidden and spooky.


  12. Chevelon creek is one of my favorite spots, right next to black river/fish creek. The headwaters at the lake tend to be bigger, and the stream a couple miles upriver of the lake is prime. If you go 8-10 miles up from there, at Bitch Ridge (that's really its name) there are nice runs, but it is definitely much smaller and the fish spook much easier. (One of the pictures above showed a very familiar reflection pool against a cliff that I have personally pulled more than one 20+ inch fish out of). For the upper sections, I have had the best luck in late may with terrestrials (like hoppers mostly) or during the monsoon rains (which are exceedingly wet there) fishing with copper johns or pheasant tails during the day and maybe a caddis in the evening. For the lower section, predictability seems to go out the window. I have caught a 20+ inch brown out of a fast, shallow riffle, while getting skunked all day at the holes. Best part about this river? usually you can see the fish approach your fly and take, which is the most exciting and fun kind of fishing IMHO.

  13. does anybody have an idea of lake levels on the rim around chevelon? I am having trouble finding out if they are low, spilling, or full. I pray for spilling, but I also doubt it. Any info would be helpful.

  14. Nick,

    Great info on Chevelon Creek, it sounds like you have quite a bit of experience exploring and fishing that stream. It is a beautiful and rugged spot, and one of my favorite places in AZ as well. While I have fished it a fair amount during the fall the last several years, I have yet to prospect for the trout there in spring and summer--I will have to make an effort to do so next season. I tend to prefer the stretch somewhere around 4-8 miles above the lake, and you never quite know what you will find.

    The lake levels are low on the rim (although certainly fishable) right now, as there has not been any significant precipitation since the summer monsoons; I would imagine they won't be spilling again until runoff next spring...


  15. Nice blog! Very well done. Going to Chevelon tmrw for the first time. Grew up in mesa and have dreamed about going there my whole live. Should be fun!

  16. I do wish you would be easier on the fish. They are out of the water too much if you have to set down you rod, lay them on the ground, and then take a picture. If we do this, the stress on the fish is too great, and soon there will be no more browns to catch and release.

  17. Hi Anonymous (not even a name?),

    If you look closely at all of the photos, all of the fish remained on their sides in water while I photographed them (it can be hard to tell in some of the images, because the water is so clear and motionless), and were breathing throughout the process. I have the utmost respect and concern for the well-being of fish I release, and this method has proven effective for me in safely photographing and returning trout to their stream--in fact, I have used this method numerous times on Oak Creek with larger browns (the stream I tend to revisit the most), and found specific individuals again in subsequent months and years with no ill effects.

    Peace and tight lines, Iain