Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Grand Canyon, November 2009

The state of Arizona is gifted with some wonderful landscapes and trout destinations, and the Grand Canyon ranks among the top in both regards. While the magnificent scenery of the place is known to many, the fishery has received less attention, simply because of the difficulty of accessing the Colorado River and associated tributaries. The Grand Canyon offers a true wilderness fishing experience for those adventurous anglers that are determined, and prepared for the physically demanding conditions it requires.

I decided to visit the Grand Canyon during the last week of November, and made the descent to the mighty Colorado to explore, revel in the awe-inspiring surroundings, and of course prospect with the rod and reel for (I hoped) some spirited wild trout.

I hiked down along the Bright Angel Trail, one of the most frequently used corridors in Grand Canyon National Park, but still a challenging path to negotiate. The trail drops close to a mile in elevation, over 10 miles along its length, on the way to Bright Angel Campground (my destination for the next couple nights), and features multiple switchbacks that can put some strain on the knees and feet.

I passed by Indian Gardens, 4.5 miles along the trail. This spot features a campground, ranger station, and a spring that issues forth, creating Garden Creek and a virtual oasis of trees and other lush vegetation, including the cottonwood above, bursting in a riot of golden color. It also provides potable water year-round, a significant advantage when proceeding along the trail. The light here, and throughout the entire trip, was slanted and beautiful, painting the country in gilded shades of autumn.

Every stretch of the trail passed by incredible scenery, and landscapes of an enormous scale. The views of the Grand Canyon are undeniably impressive from the perspective of the North or South Rim, but the sheer size of it can only really be marginally comprehended by wandering through the place--a daunting, humbling, and exhilarating experience that I would recommend to anyone with the motivation and desire.

Even amidst the spectacle of mind-boggling cliffs and massive rock formations, miniature and improbable sights rewarded the visitor, such as this verdant patch of Rock Mat, thriving from a tiny spring seep trickling along stone next to the trail, surrounded by thirsty country.

Here was one of my first views of the sweeping Colorado River, shadows already growing long in mid-afternoon. I had traveled 7.5 miles by this point, but still had a few more to go. Hiking is much more comfortable this time of year when traveling into the Canyon, compared to the summer when temperatures can reach 120 degrees; I hiked this same route several years before, in late June, and can attest to the more pleasant conditions on this late fall trip.

After meeting the mighty river, the trail paralleled the water course to the east. As I trudged along, I spotted a spectacular Bighorn Sheep ram approaching me, using the trail as a convenient travel corridor as well. I stood motionless, and the ram did not detect my presence until coming quite close to me. I snapped a few pictures of him, including the one above, as he tried to determine whether he could continue onwards past me, then thought better of it, and returned back along the trail the way he had come, vanishing around the corner.

Eventually, I crossed the Steel Bridge, the westerly bridge crossing near the Bright Angel Creek confluence, and with it the Colorado River, the wide clouded green flows and roar of the rapids under my feet. The photo above shows the view from the bridge after crossing the river, on the north bank. The campground was less than half a mile away, and I met lovely Bright Angel Creek at last, as seen in the image below, eager to shed my backpack, rest my weary shoulders and feet, and set up camp.

I squeezed in a few hours of fishing as well, and explored the creek upstream upstream of the campground, casting into the abundant pocketwater, bouncing runs, and small pools.

I cast a tan #10 Neversink Caddis on 5X into a small bankside back eddy, and was quickly rewarded with a confident rise, followed by an energetic fight from a dark, mature male Rainbow Trout, a thick 14" beauty with intense crimson gill plates. The fish exhibited fairly sparse spotting, focused mostly near the tail and above the lateral line. In fact, it reminded me a bit of a miniature Steelhead in coloration, an observation that would be repeated on this trip with other sizable Rainbows, and I suspect that it may have been a migrant from the Colorado River, preparing to spawn in the coming winter months (this time of year is marked by Brown Trout that run up the stream to spawn, followed by Rainbows in January-March). Whatever the case, the trout was beautiful, and a great first fish to start off the trip.

I continued fishing upstream, and hooked a number of fine trout, mostly Rainbows with a few Browns mixed in, generally 8-12" and in excellent condition. I also lost or spooked a couple others around 14", and one long-jawed male Brown that went 15-16" (I tried fishing for this latter fellow each of the days I spent here, but was unable to cast to him without being detected. Fish occupied just about every likely piece of holding water, and two or three might occupy the better pools and runs. I switched back and forth between the Neversink Caddis and a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph; the trout did not seem to be particularly picky about fly selection, but were still spooky in the crystal clear flows, and demanded a stealthy approach.

I also managed to fool a larger Brown Trout in one prime deeper run, as the cool air and ensuing darkness of evening took hold. I lobbed a #10 Crawbugger up into the pool after spying the fish holding near the tailout, and let the streamer drift back towards me, all the while crouching to avoid being seen. The line tightened on the first cast, and I was connected to a powerful fish, that zipped around the run, and repeatedly tried to tie me off in the bankside structure. I was able to hold on, and gazed down at a fat Brown in the waning light, perhaps 17" and probably a female from the look of it. I snapped a few pictures with the flash, including the image above, watched the brute fin back into the cold currents, and returned to my campsite, already pleased with the fishing on this backcountry trip.

The following morning, I quickly got down to business after breakfast, and proceeded upstream from the campground, casting to likely lies in search of wild Grand Canyon trout. I found the small pool above, near the cabins of Phantom Ranch (near Bright Angel Campground, and a destination that offers beds, dining, showers and other amenities, and also requires reservations far in advance). I crept up near the tail, and flipped a #10 Crawbugger into the deeper flows.

An energized Rainbow engulfed the fly, and soon came to hand as a heavily spotted, foot-long specimen; the streamer is evident emerging from the the trout's mouth in the photos above and below.

This fish was fairly typical of many of the Rainbows caught in the creek--nice coloration, abundant spotting, and ranging in size from 8-12". I believe that these trout were stream residents, while the larger individuals, with fewer spots, where mostly Colorado River fish, making their way up the stream for winter spawning (as noted earlier).

I followed up the Rainbow with a couple of good Brown Trout from this run, both a solid 15", as shown in these two images. The fish above took the Crawbugger, while the one below grabbed a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph; both strong, healthy wild trout. I saw and landed relatively few Browns on this trip, although the ones caught were generally sizable fish.

Sunlight filtered down to the canyon floor as morning progressed, highlighting the russet canyon walls and the crystalline rushing creek. The sun's warmth felt welcome against my skin, and I couldn't help but be amazed by the spectacular surroundings, with a thriving trout stream flowing through it all, no less.

I continued prospecting for fish, mainly with nymphs and streamers, caught more than my fair share, and spooked others. The trout weren't pushovers, but responded aggressively to a convincing presentation, while I maintained a low profile--small stream fishing at its best.

I found this lovely run while proceeding upstream, tossed a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph towards the soft water against the cliff, and quickly received a strong strike, materializing as a scrappy male Brown in dark spawning colors.

This chunky trout went 14", a good fish for Bright Angel, and stood as the most colorful Brown of the trip. I cradled this fellow in the icy currents, and watched as he shot back into the multicolored hues of the clear stream.

Here are a couple more shots of the rushing stream, forming plunge pools and beckoning cliffside runs. The creek was beautiful in its own right, and I found myself being easily seduced by its wildness and liquid song (something that happens often with me, particularly with backcountry trout streams).

Further upstream, I found a deep little pocket sandwiched by chutes of whitewater, and hooked up with a leaping, muscular Rainbow Trout.

The fish measured 14", and I snapped a couple of pictures of the beauty before release.

The Rainbow was aptly named, with a vivid crimson-orange side stripe and gill plates.

Eventually, I made my way back downstream, along the North Kaibab Trail that parallels much of Bright Angel Creek. I took a few more photographs of the awe-inspiring scenery that surrounds and defines this waterway, including the image above, with the massive ancient stone cliffs in evidence.

I also managed to land a few more fine fish, including this 15" Rainbow. It took a #20 Copper Emmons (my take on a Copper John, with peacock sword tails, copper wire for the body, a bit of peacock herl and starling for the collar, and a tungsten bead head), after refusing larger nymphs.
And here is one last picture from the middle day of the trip, in the waning hours of afternoon. I included an angler (the only other one I came across on this day) standing ankle-deep in the stream at the bottom of the image, to give some scale to the incredible verticality of the place.

I awoke on the third day, and packed up my camping gear in preparation for the trek out. I saw this Canyon Wren (one of my favorite birds in this region) flitting through camp in morning's early light, and captured its image in a rare moment of stillness.

I also came across this Bighorn Sheep ewe as I began the hike out from Bright Angel Campground, and towards the Colorado River. She was browsing on grasses near the trail, did not seem alarmed by my presence, and provided an ideal subject for the camera.

Soon, I returned to the mighty Colorado River, and decided to fit in a bit more fly fishing before making the ascent back up to the rim.

I cast a #10 Crawbugger into the cloudy gray-green flows, and worked it through a bankside run below the bridge crossing on the north bank, the dull roar of rapids in the center of the river audible.

It took awhile to drift the streamer through the length of the run, but eventually I received a strong strike, followed by a series of short runs, and then a thick 13" Rainbow Trout that came to hand--a classic super-charged wild bow from a powerful river.

I prospected some more for trout in a sheltered deep run upstream, as the morning sun slowly crept above the cliff walls, spilling rays into the shaded canyon. I cast the Crawbugger into the depths of the run, letting it sink and drift with the currents, and immediately received a hard pull, followed quickly by the fly being busted off by some unknown bruiser. I pulled in the leader, tied on another streamer to 4X, and cast out again into the murky flows, a bit upstream. Within a couple drifts, I hooked up with another good fish, and this time held on, to bring a silvery 15" bow to shore, as shown below.

I cast the streamer out once again, and let it sink and move through the main pool, near a large submerged boulder. The leader went taut, and I felt myself connected to another powerful wild trout. This fish had some size to it, and proceeded to bolt downstream, jumping free from the water several times as the reel sang. The Colorado River here seems to breed some tireless and tough trout, and this one was no exception. Finally, after several shorter runs and dives to the bottom, I pulled in a magnificent bright buck Rainbow, measuring around 18", the best and last fish of the trip.

The trout sported a developing kype, and the silvery flanks, torpedo-shaped frame, and sparse spotting again reminded me of a miniature Steelhead, fresh from the salt.

The male was certainly a superior wild specimen, and I admired his rosy hues, white-tipped fins, and overall sleek appearance before returning him to the cold water, and watched his colors immediately blend back into the river.

It was an impressive fish, and a great way to end the fishing part of the trip (it is always nice when these expeditions end on such a note).

I crossed the sweeping Colorado, gazed back upstream one last time, as sunlight flooded the area, and shouldered my backpack, to begin the long haul up and out of the Canyon.

I passed by Garden Creek and Indian Gardens once again in the afternoon, and the cottonwoods burned in gold and green.

Here is a view past Indian Gardens, looking up towards the South Rim, and the last 4.5 miles of the trail--a steep and unrelenting climb for much of the rest of the way.

The views and rock formations are a big part of any trip into the Grand Canyon, and I had no shortage of these, to help make the demanding ascent more tolerable. I also ate and rehydrated while taking breaks along the way, to pace myself and maintain my strength.

It took several hours to complete the latter half of the climb, but I finally made it out near sunset, and was rewarded with some vivid hues splashed across the canyon walls in the fading light.

I completed a successful trek into and back out of the Grand Canyon, and found some fantastic fly fishing for undeniably wild trout along the way, in breathtaking and rugged surroundings--my idea of a great fishing trip, and one that I will certainly attempt again, hopefully many times. As mentioned earlier, this is a fishing destination that I would recommend to any angler up to the challenge, for the chance to cast over some of the wildest trout water that Arizona has to offer.


  1. Iain ~
    I've greatly enjoyed reading your blog, please keep it up! I'm glad to hear that you had an enjoyable trip into the Grand Canyon!
    Will Jordan

  2. Hey Will,
    Thanks for the comment, I really appreciate it. I bought your fly fishing guide to Arizona recently; very nicely written, with a lot of invaluable information. I can tell you feel strongly about the streams in the Grand Canyon, especially Bright Angel (and I can see why). I will try my best to keep up the blog, I have been enjoying it, and at some point I think I might like to try my hand at writing an article or two for Southwest Fly Fishing as well...Thanks again!
    Tight lines, Iain

  3. Awesome report as always! I've always dreamed of fishing Bright Angel Creek and am glad that there are still fish to be caught there. Hope to make that trip someday...

  4. Fantastic report Iain!
    What an amazing place.
    Someday soon.....
    PS. I miss AZ!

  5. Hey David and AT,

    I'm glad you liked the post; Bright Angel Creek is spectacular; I know I will be revisiting the trout in that stream...