Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fall Browns--Oak Creek , late Sept./October 2009

The arrival of fall for me has always been subtle, yet unmistakable. Small changes, like cooler evenings, lower slanting sunlight, and wood smoke in the air, combine to announce that summer has passed, and been replaced by autumn. Other changes, relevant to fly fishing, come with the new season as well, including reinvigorated insect hatches, and perhaps most notably, increased Brown Trout activity.

Fall has always been a special time for me, for the colorful foliage, the often ideal weather conditions for outdoor activities, some of the best fishing opportunities of the year, minimal crowds, and the feel of a last hurrah before life shuts down a bit for winter; my favorite part of the year, and always too brief. It is also the time for fall Browns on the move, gearing up for spawning, and the chance to pursue some potentially large fish that may be unavailable most of the rest of the year, due to their wariness and secretive habits. Fall began (in my mind anyway) in late September, and I continued to prowl the banks of Oak Creek the remainder of the month, and several times in October. Perhaps I was just becoming more effective at seeking out some of the better Browns in the stream, but I felt like I found a few more sizable fish as fall continued, and credit at least some of this success to the season. For example, I hooked a strong, leaping Brown around 15" while nymphing the run above, near the West Fork confluence, that grabbed a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph on 5X, drifted under a partially submerged stone (shown near the bottom of the photo, with a small grass clump growing on top). Unfortunately, the fish threw the hook while jumping, but it was still good to know that a sizable Brown lurked here.

This is a long, fairly deep pool near Hoel's Wash in the catch and release section. I spent some time exploring this reach, from below this pool upstream to the West Fork confluence and beyond. Private residences line the east side of the stream for much of this section, making access difficult, but also ensuring more solitude. Also, some relatively large and wary Browns are scattered through here, in long flat glides, occasional pools, and a few deep pockets; challenging (and sometimes impossible) fish, and fun to stalk.

I caught several fine fish in the pool above on a late September day, including this foot-long Brown, that took a #10 brown BH Girdle Bug drifted through the deeper middle part of the run.

I saw another trout holding in a shallow, lazy riffle upstream, and watched it slowly rise on occasion, to any hapless prey drifting its way (including a bit of tan leaf litter that the fish tested and then spit out). No hatches were evident (in fact, I didn't see much in the way of insect activity until October), so I tied on a simple Foam Beetle (I use the butt ends of peacock herl for the legs), a go-to dry fly for me when fish are rising sporadically, particularly in the low flows of summer and early fall. I affixed the pattern to a long length of 5X; I have found that 6X (or 7X for that matter) is not usually necessary, even in spooky, low water conditions, if enough of the thicker tippet is used (3' of tippet on top of a leader tapering to 5X), and the breaking strength and durability is much improved.

I crouched down, and slowly placed myself in a good position for the riser. I cast as softly as I could, and on the second drift, was rewarded with an unhurried, confident rise. I lifted the rod, and the Brown Trout zipped downstream, and made several short runs for the abundant weed growth along the streambed. Eventually, I pulled the fish close, and admired a good 13" Brown. I included a head shot above, with the beetle pattern evident in the upper jaw, and an image of the fish in hand, just before release.

I cast towards another fish that quietly rose on occasion, located against the east (roadside) bank, and while I received a good look to the dry (and later a #16 Zug Bug), the fish refused to take, and eventually spooked (it looked to be a good Brown, 14-15"). However, I did fool another Brown at the upper end of the run, in a shaded side riffle, that engulfed the beetle on the first cast, and emerged as a beauty of a male, just over 12".

I have noticed on Oak Creek that while the wild Brown Trout population is quite healthy, the density of fish in any given run is fairly low (in contrast to certain pools that receive stockings of hatchery bows, and can be chock full of the fish, in unnaturally high numbers), which is to be expected in a relatively fertile, small stream environment. Moreover, these fish are spooky enough that catching more than a couple in any given run or pool is not a common occurrence. Needless to say, I felt fortunate to be able to land 3 fine Browns from a single (albeit longer and deeper) run on this day.

I explored the upper catch and release water from below Hoel's Wash upstream to the West Fork confluence again near the end of the month, and ended up having one of the more productive days to date along Oak Creek, in terms of larger, difficult fish hooked and landed. The day began slowly, with only one smaller wild Rainbow brought to hand, while I spooked several Browns. However, things began to change in the afternoon as I approached the red sandstone section near the West Fork (reminiscent of Slide Rock State Park downstream). I caught a foot-long hatchery bow (one of the few stockers that looked as if it might survive beyond the season), followed by a good 12" Brown on a #10 tan Neversink Caddis in a couple of bouncing pockets. I proceeded upstream to a long, flat run that contains more depth than a first glance might suggest (Oak Creek is so clear that certain spots can appear deceptively shallow). The run contained a canopy of trees that provided ample shade, and may have emboldened a pair of fish to rise. Whatever the reason, I found a couple of trout coming to the surface, and managed to spook the first one near the tail, before settling down, and casting quietly to the second, creating tiny riseforms (often a sign of a better trout) in the middle of the run.

Once again, I switched to a #12 Foam Beetle on 5X, after receiving a lunging rise (but no take) to a #10 Neversink Caddis, and after several nerve-wracking drifts, the fish grabbed the terrestrial. The trout proved to be a fighter, and charged about the length of the run repeatedly before I could guide it to shore. Finally, I gazed down at a lovely Brown Trout, just over 15", with warm russet-gold hues and striking spotting. Moments like these make the careful approaches and casts all the more worthwhile; sometimes, even the bigger, wary Browns can be fooled. The fish is shown above and below, and the rich hues looked to me like spawning colors.

I continued upstream after releasing the Brown Trout above, getting closer to the West Fork confluence.

This stretch features some beautiful red rock formations, often as long flat slabs of stone, with the creek cutting through it and producing some amazing sculptural effects.

I fished a small yet deep pool, pictured towards the right in the image, and drifted a nymph through current at the head, towards a good Brown that I spotted, sitting on the bottom. The trout remained unresponsive, until the sun set behind the looming sandstone cliff walls to the west, and then suddenly, its behavior changed. The fish rose in the water column, and moved upstream a bit, and looked much more active. It still ignored the nymph, so I switched over to a #10 Crawbugger, and dead-drifted the streamer in front of the fish. Almost immediately, the trout responded, nailed the fly, and I was connected to another hefty Oak Creek Brown.

I pulled the fish in, and admired another stunning Brown Trout sporting spawning colors (these photos don't do the fish justice, the golden yellow and rusty orange hues were glowing), this one just under 15". I used a flash here (and on two more fish landed and photographed), hence the light reflection in the eye.

I had not experimented with streamers too much on Oak Creek up to this point (other than occasionally down towards Slide Rock), but I continued fishing the Crawbugger on this evening, and found two more good Browns that struck at the fly aggressively. These encounters served as a good reminder that better Browns are often low-light predators, and tend to seek out larger prey items under the guise of darkness.

One of these fish lurked in the run shown, under the partially submerged rock just behind the triangular boulder, in the lower right side of the photograph. I dead-drifted the Crawbugger along the underside of the rock, twitching it on occasion, and a dark, shark-like form rushed the fly and inhaled it on the first cast; I always get a charge out of seeing a predatory trout emerge from hiding to attack a fly, something that seems to happen often when streamer fishing. I have noticed that fish usually strike on the first or second cast in these situations. Also, I tended to only use a rod's length of leader, both with streamer and nymph fishing along Oak Creek (except along longer runs and deeper pools), because the broken water, conflicting currents, and numerous structure seemed to necessitate it, for both line control and effectively sneaking up on spooky fish.

I pulled in this long-jawed male Brown after a bout of thrashing about by the trout and making repeated attempts to tie me off under the aforementioned boulders. He measured just under 14", another great Oak Creek fish featuring a dark golden olive coloration (that blended in well with the the dark recesses under rocks in the stream), and the Crawbugger is evident protruding from his mouth in the pictures above and below.

Soon after, I reached the West Fork confluence, and proceeded to make my way back to the road, and downstream to the vehicle. The skies were turning dark with dusk fast approaching evening, and I decided to wander down to the pool near Hoel's Wash once more, and flick the streamer near submerged boulders, to see if I could move another larger fish. Sure enough, within a couple short casts, followed by letting the Crawbugger sink slowly, a Brown Trout emerged from the depths, paused right in front of the fly, and then quickly grabbed it, and raced back towards the bottom of the pool. I managed to pull this fighter in as well, and admired another beauty of a wild Brown, just over 14", and I believe the same fish I unsuccessfully cast to and eventually spooked, as mentioned earlier in this post.

This fish was a great end to a fabulous day along Oak Creek, where I managed to connect with 4 fall Brown Trout between 13 and 15", a productive outing by the high standards of this stream.

September came to a close, and gave way to October. I continued to explore Oak Creek, although much less so than the previous month. However, what October lacked in quantity in terms of days spent along the stream, it more than made up for in quality. I included a photo above of a productive deep run below Junipine Crossing; a couple of chunky Browns around a foot lurked here, but I managed to lose both.

I caught this fine Brown Trout just over 11" on a tan #16 Deer Hair Caddis on 5X, cast upstream into a quiet pool, perhaps a mile above the West Fork confluence, one evening near the start of October.

The fish inhaled the dry fly after previously rising for several natural brown caddis of similar size drifting on the surface. I noticed that insect hatches became more prevalent as the month and season wore on, and the fish responded with more surface activity. The foliage began to turn crimson and golden on bushes and hardwoods, and the sun's rays became slanted and golden--like I said earlier, autumn is one of my favorite times of year, for many reasons, and certainly a wonderful time to be streamside with a rod in hand.

I captured an image of a young Narrow-headed Gartersnake hunting in the shallows along the creek. This is an uncommon snake species, although they seem to thrive here, particularly near the West Fork.

Several blooms of Cardinal Flowers glow along the banks near sunset in the early part of the month, again near the West Fork confluence.

Near the middle of the month, I caught this nice 11-12" Oak Creek fish on a #10 Crawbugger from a shaded pocket above Bootlegger Campground in the catch and release section, and missed a good-sized dark Brown from a plunge pool further upstream on the same pattern, that looked to be at least 13".

I came across a well-camouflaged Canyon Tree Frog in this section, that proved to be a patient subject for the camera.

I spent one last day in October along Oak Creek, on Halloween, from Slide Rock State Park up to the Halfway Picnic Area. The weather was beautiful, in the mid 60s, and the sunlight made the abundant sandstone burn red with color.

I wandered up to a nice run, spotted a good Brown holding near the tail, and lobbed a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph above the fish.

The trout reacted quickly as the nymph drifted into its feeding lane, and inhaled the fly. I soon gazed down at a lovely male Brown measuring a good foot, featuring some brilliant spawning coloration (including the black along the belly, which I noticed increasingly as the fall progressed, particularly on male specimens). I watched the trout fin back into the crystalline flows, and then noted that small, #20 tan mayflies began hatching, around 1 pm. I saw a larger fish start feeding high in the water column, in the middle of the run, and also rose once for a wasp drifting atop the currents. I managed to sting the trout twice, on a small nymph pattern followed by a #12 black Foam Beetle. Finally, I tied on a #20 tan Parachute Sparkle Dun to a long length of 5X, after watching the fish take several duns off the surface, and received a confident rise and subsequent solid hookset.

The riser emerged as a large female Brown Trout, right around 18", and in fact the same big fish that I caught upstream back in September (pictured in the previous post), with the identical spotting pattern. This time, the brute was somewhat leaner, with more of a vibrant rusty golden hue than before, no doubt in tune with the coming spawning season (or perhaps this fish had already spawned, based on her slimmer profile). It was great to see this large trout again, and reaffirmed the benefits of catch and release, especially for big wild fish. I kept the Brown at least partially submerged on her side in water as I snapped a few pictures (I try to follow this practice with all the trout I photograph, as it allows them to breath and rest, and I feel it may aid in their survival when released), and then returned the fish to her lair after getting a closeup of the head.

I continued upstream, through more stunning scenery of slickrock cliffs and the shining creek, until I came to a deep pocket in shadows, with a polished gray boulder near the tail of the run. I tied on a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph (this pattern has become my go-to prospecting fly on this stream, and an effective one), and let it sink and wash against the underbelly of the rock. On the second drift, the line went taut, I raised the rod, and a heavy, unyielding weight shook violently against my resistance. I quickly realized I was connected to a significant trout, more so than I expected from this run, and proceeded to battle it as the bruiser charged up and downstream, and darted for the safety of several submerged boulders. Finally, I coaxed the fish to shore, and looked upon a fantastic male Brown Trout, thick-shouldered, heavy and measuring over 18" (and I figured at least 3 lbs).

The Brown showed some spectacular coloration, with a golden belly and abundant spotting along the sides.

The big jaws starting to show a kype and the considerable girth of the brute left no doubt that this was a mature, dominant wild Brown in this section of the stream, and the best fish I have landed to date from Oak Creek.

As always, the moment for admiring such a beautiful trout was timeless and yet all too brief, before I found myself tailing the bruiser Brown, getting one last glimpse of him, and then he shot out of my grasp, and back to his deep, concealed lie.

I took a moment to reflect on the glorious landscapes that abound here, and the wild trout that thrive in this clear cold stream. I thought once again how fortunate I am to be able to take part in such rich bounty, and for some precious hours get outside of myself, to merge with the inner workings of the stream, and this beautiful place. It also struck me how big Browns like the one I just landed do not show themselves often, and yet sometimes the stars align in an angler's favor, and that possibility is part of what fall fishing is all about.

I found this mayfly dun resting on a stone in late afternoon. While many of the mayflies that hatched on this day were a size 20, some specimens, such as the one pictured above, were a size 16. As the image indicates, their bodies were tan and brown, and not BWOs as far as I could tell.
Whatever their identity, the insects were handsome specimens.

I caught one final fish to round out this productive day--a dusky gray, olive, and gold Brown Trout that went a good 12", with large black spots along the sides, and fell for the #12 Krystal Hare Nymph once again, near the head of a deep pool up near the Halfway Picnic Area. I included one last image of the fish below, before watching it swim back into the dark pool.

Needless to say, I was happy with the outcome of this autumn day, and with the ascending fall season of late September through October, filled with memories that will keep me returning to Oak Creek, to explore and uncover more of this stream's mysteries.


  1. Great post! I love your photos and writing skills. Almost makes me feel like I was there with you. I can't wait for more.

  2. Hey Parker,
    Thanks for the response! I'm really enjoying putting the posts together. I have more entries that I am currently working on--check back soon!