Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Oak Creek, September 2009

The month of September marked a time of seasonal transition along Oak Creek, with the heat of summer gradually shifting towards the longer shadows and golden light of fall. It also signified a period when I spent many days and hours fly fishing and observing along the clear, beautiful stream, and in my mind began to get a grip on some of the intricacies of my new home water.

I included a lot of images in this post, arranged roughly in chronological order from the beginning through the third week of the month; the next post will include photographs and details from the end of September through October. I will try to refrain from getting too verbose here, and focus on brief descriptions to help explain pictures. The two photos above and the one below show several runs along Oak Creek, just upstream from the Halfway Picnic Area. This stretch is characterized by pocketwater, along with a few pools and longer glides. It also marks a transition from the red sandstone formations and desert ecosystem below, to more forested terrain, and the feel of a mountain stream above.

As these stream shots indicate, the water was always crystal clear, to go along with the low flows of summer. Stealth tactics were mandatory in order to approach and fool the spooky trout. I found one fine Brown hiding in the plunge pool pocket (with the whitewater, on the left side) in the photo above.

This Brown was a good foot, and grabbed a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph on 5X. I also caught several other 9-10" Browns, and some hatchery bows upstream (the latter particularly prevalent near Banjo Bill Picnic Area, and no doubt near other easy access points for depositing stockers). I would consider the dark, nicely-spotted specimen above to be a good-sized fish from Oak Creek, and being able to land one or two of these fellows in a day of fishing was a well-earned highlight, although never a sure thing.

Here is an image of Oak Creek below Manzanita Campground, with a dark pool framed by red sandstone and the green of hardwoods and riparian vegetation. While a number of deeper runs and pools in this area looked likely for sizable Brown Trout, I only found the occasional hatchery Rainbow, along with native suckers. The water was warmer here, and perhaps provided less ideal conditions for wild trout (although a solitary larger Brown probably still lurks here and there in this area...).

I saw a couple of great bird species along the stream corridor--a Common Black Hawk above, and a male Painted Redstart below, flashing his crimson chest at me.

Great Blue Herons and Common Mergansers were also sighted frequently, suggesting that the older, wiser trout that survive in Oak Creek are quite familiar with various predators (including people), and more than capable of evading them at the first sign of danger.

I caught these two chunky Browns around a foot in a deep pool just below the Halfway Picnic Area; the fish above took a #14 BH Peacock Soft Hackle, while the one below inhaled a #12 black Hareabou Leech.

The pool holding these trout hardly contained a current, except at the head and tail, and may have measured over 10' deep in the middle. Significant dark green weed growth was evident on the stream bed, attesting to the fertility of this stream, and its spring-fed nature.

I approached this run like a lake shore, or a technical spring creek, by maintaining a low profile, staying out of the water, and presenting the fly quietly and carefully, so as not to spook the trout. In fact, I ended up fishing Oak Creek in general this way, through September and beyond, and have found that this mindset is often key to successfully targeting good fish here. While Oak Creek often resembles a free-stone stream with abundant pocketwater and plunge pools, it really fishes much more like the spring creek that it is, a fact that becomes increasingly evident in the larger, deep pools and long, slow glides (locations that I found often harbored the better Browns of the creek, although not exclusively).

Here is a photo of another deep pool, that yielded the first large Brown Trout (by Oak Creek standards) that I caught from the stream. I cast a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph into the main flow, and received a strong pull, as the pattern drifted along the sandstone ledge (on the left side in the picture).

The fish charged downstream, and then proceeded to attempt to tie me off under the rock ledge and several boulders (a tactic repeated by other good trout I hooked, probably because these fish equate submerged stones and similar structure with protection and safety). Fortunately, I was able to hold on, and soon found myself gazing at a wonderful 15" male Brown Trout. I included a head shot above (the bump on its lower jaw was an identifying feature for this individual), and a photo just before release below. For me, landing one of these older, wary Browns from Oak Creek was a real accomplishment, and one to appreciate.

I included an image of one of my BH Krystal Hare Nymphs below; one of the more effective nymph patterns I've created, a great searching fly, and one that Browns here often seem ready to devour.

Oak Creek flows through some spectacular country, including the pool below, surrounded by colorful sandstone formations.

Other creatures call Oak Creek home, such as this female wolf spider I found along the bank, guarding a nest of eggs beneath a mass of webbing.

Wildflowers still blazed with color along the banks, including this Yellow Columbine that Regan photographed on one outing with me.

Wild Rainbow Trout are rather uncommon in Oak Creek, and they were always a welcome surprise when hooked and brought to hand; the closeup shows the head of a spunky, foot-long fish, that also grabbed a BH Krystal Hare Nymph. In my mind, they are far superior to hatchery fish in fighting ability and appearance.

Red rock country dominates the landscape, as Oak Creek leaves the confines of the upper forested canyon, and winds down towards Sedona.

I explored some of the water in this area one day, upstream of Grasshopper Point, while Regan studied along the banks (and spotted a gorgeous Summer Tanager). Oak Creek contains quite a bit of water in this section, and holds some great-looking deep runs and pools.

Again though, as with the water closer to Manzanita Campground, I found only hatchery bows, and some large suckers glued to the stream bottom. I suspect the creek may become marginal for wild trout in this section (the water temperature was noticeably warmer, and a fine layer of silt covered much of the streambed, both factors that may inhibit trout survival), but this area still looks as if it may contain a large Brown or two.

Speaking of which, I fooled another good-sized mature male Brown near the middle of September, in the section between Slide Rock State Park and the Halfway Picnic Area, on a #16 orange-bodied Neversink Caddis on 5X. The fish measured between 15-16", was rather slim for its size, and proved to be another challenging and beautiful Oak Creek trout.

This Brown was a perfect example of one of the better fish in the stream holding in an unlikely spot. It sat under the grassy boulder, in the still backwater towards the left side of the image below, and only appeared when the dry fly floated slowly right against the rock. The trout served as a good reminder that you can never be sure where a larger fish might turn up, especially if it is a Brown, and particularly in a stream like Oak Creek, where structure in the form of submerged boulders and woody debris can be found everywhere.

I provided a detailed shot of the Neversink Caddis. This dry is a great attractor pattern, and does a fine job of imitating caddis, stones, and small hoppers.

I managed to connect with and land the largest fish of the month from a small pocket above a lovely run, not far from Slide Rock State Park, again on a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph.

This female Brown measured close to 18" and about 2 1/2 lbs, and thrashed about in the run below, before I pulled the fish close, snapped a few pictures, and returned her to the crystalline flows. I would have to call this Brown a big fish for Oak Creek (although I have spied a very few oversized wild Rainbows between Slide Rock and the West Fork confluence that stretch at least 20", and I have no doubt that a few bruiser Browns exceed these dimensions, and lurk under some of the boulders in this reach), especially for those that are marginally catchable, and I certainly felt fortunate to admire its beauty for a few moments.

A section of Oak Creek flows over the abundant red sandstone near Slide Rock State Park; prospecting for wild trout in these settings can feel surreal at times, and magical.

Another fine Oak Creek Brown trout is brought to hand in the picture above; this one measured a good 13", and pounced on a nymph in a plunge pool, below Slide Rock State Park.

Some good Brown trout lurk near Slide Rock, but they can be difficult, and the crowds can be intolerable (and detrimental to fishing success), on weekends and throughout the summer.

Another Brown Trout poses for the camera, this one around a foot. The Browns are invariably beautiful in Oak Creek, and often seem to sport abundant red and rust-hued spotting.

Red cliffs loom over another deep green pool, upstream of Slide Rock State Park; another likely hangout for a large Brown, although I did not detect a sizable fish here on this visit.

And one more beautiful run, coursing past colorful sandstone and riparian vegetation. At times, just gazing at the scenery provided (almost) as much enjoyment as the fishing.

I explored the upper stream in the catch and release section above Junipine Crossing beyond the middle of the month, in the vicinity of Bootlegger Campground.

This is a beautiful section of water, and a delightful stretch to fly fish, characterized by several good runs and pools, and abundant tumbling pocketwater.

Some of these runs featured quite a few hatchery Rainbows that had moved away from the easier access points, but the entire reach was dominated by wild Browns. In fact, the catch and release section in general seemed to hold the most prolific population of trout, although the average size of the fish seemed slightly smaller than downstream.

I lobbed a nymph upstream into this pool, while crouching down, and got a hard pull as the fly drifted against the partially submerged boulder shown just above the closest rock in the foreground. I did not see the fish take, but rather felt it; if I had been fishing at an angle where I could have spotted the trout emerging from its hiding place, I would have undoubtedly spooked the fish. The Browns in particular here require such sneak tactics, and even when the approach and presentation is successful, the trout can often strike so quickly that they are gone before a good hookset can be made; tough conditions, but satisfying when everything works out and a fine fish comes to hand.

This Brown Trout went between 12 and 13", a good fish anywhere on Oak Creek, and showing some vibrant reds and golds.

The stream swirls around sculpted stones and boulders, through a wooded setting, with trout possible at every turn.

Another lovely wild Brown poses for the camera upon a bed of multicolored stones, with red spots that seem to glow. The trout measured a good 13", and materialized from the heart of the run shown below (which first yielded a hatchery bow), upstream of Bootlegger Campground.

I landed another fine, dark fish, 12-13", from a small eddy to the side of a shallow run farther upstream, that grabbed the dependable #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph. I didn't see any fish in the mid to upper teens (or larger, for that matter) in this stretch, but I suspect that at least a few of the big submerged boulders here harbor some bruiser Browns.

Sunlight catches on a small pool; watching the play of light on the water, and the colors of the streambed, was hypnotic at times.

Morning light painted golden the sandstone cliffs looming above Slide Rock State Park.

I fished a deep pool at Slide Rock on one early morning, before crowds of visitors descended on the sculpted sandstone and rushing water.

I tied on a large #4 Crawbugger as shown below, featuring a brown marabou tail with root beer krystal flash, a brown chenille body, olive barred hackle, brown rubber legs, and hourglass eyes for weight--a fairly simple but effective pattern I modifieded from the venerable Wooly Bugger, to represent crayfish, baitfish, salamanders, and any other big mouthful for a sizable trout to inhale.

I drifted the streamer through the deeper part of the run, and after several casts, the fly line tightened, and I quickly felt a strong, shaking presence on the other end. The fish repeatedly dove towards the bottom of the pool, and proved rather unwilling to be subdued.

Eventually, I brought a football-shaped wild Rainbow Trout to hand, a good 15" and about 2 lbs, and the best wild bow to date that I've landed from Oak Creek.

I included a head shot above, and a photo below just before releasing the bright fish back into the deep flow. The girth and small head indicated that this Rainbow had been feeding quite well, reaffirming the relatively fertile conditions of Oak Creek.

One last look at the stream weaving through red sandstone, before the sun highlighted its currents once again.

Here is a closeup of a fat, 12" Brown Trout that took a #12 black Hareabou Leech (a pattern I tied, with a rabbit strip for the body and tail, a few turns of marabou for the collar, and small hourglass eyes for weight at the head).

Occasionally, a leech pattern fooled a fish when nothing else seemed to work, particularly when retrieved slowly through a sluggish, deeper pool, like the one below, where the aforementioned trout lurked. I spied a couple of larger Browns in this glide, but was unable to approach without spooking them.

I fished the water upstream of Bootlegger Campground in the catch and release area once again in the third week of October, and came across this striking, bold jumping spider.

I also drifted a nymph through a small shaded foam eddy, next to a large mid-stream boulder, and received a hard yank, soon materializing as a solid foot-long Brown Trout; another dark and vibrantly colored wild Oak Creek fish.

I'll finish off this entry with a final image of Oak Creek, just upstream of the Brown shown above; enticing water on a beautiful sunlit day.

I had some great times along Oak Creek through this part of September, and began to better understand this wonderful little fishery. I continued my education as fall took hold in the latter part of September and on into October, to be covered in the next post.


  1. Great post Iain. I would be interested in seeing a dry picture of your BH Krystal Hair. Seems to be one of you go to flies. We need to meet up here some time soon on the creek.

  2. Hey Nate,
    Great to hear from you! I'm glad you liked the post. A dry BH Krystal Hare looks pretty similar to the photo in the post, except scruffier, with the haretron dubbing sticking out at all angles. I will take a photo of one and include it in a future post. That would be great to meet up, on Oak Creek or any other stream in the near future, let's try to plan on it.

  3. Hi Iain,
    Great blog! I just found it while searching for info on Oak Creek. It's where I first fly fished last year and is my favorite place, fishing or not. We spend a week up there every year, as we have friends that have a house behind the gate at the Junipine crossing. But in the past year and a half of fly fishing I've been to Oak Creek numerous times, rarely fishing anywhere else. I was just up there this past Saturday and got into a few small fish, and will be up there again next Saturday (30th). Maybe we'll bump into each other sometime. My favorite area is upstream from the Cave Springs crossing. I've managed to find several small browns there, great fun on a 3 wt. Keep up the great work on the blog, I'll visit often.

    Brandon Labudde

  4. Hey Brandon,
    Thanks for the positive response with the blog. Oak Creek is a special place, for the fly fishing and natural beauty it offers, and has become one of my favorite streams anywhere as well; I feel like I learn and see something new every time I wander along its banks. I'm glad you got into a few fish recently; I haven't explored the upper waters near Cave Springs, but I'll have to do that in the near future. And yeah, we'll probably run into each other at some point along the stream, and maybe we can exchange some fishing wisdom. I'll be posting several more entries on Oak Creek (and a couple other AZ destinations) from this past fall and winter until I'm up-to-date, so stay tuned.
    Tight lines, Iain

  5. I also wanted to say thanks for showing the fly patterns you use. I tie something similar to your Krystal Hare nymph, only without the krystal flash tail. It's been a good fly for me on Oak Creek, and what I caught a fish on this past Saturday. I'll have to tie your version, along with the Neversink caddis. Take care and keep up the good work.

  6. hey buddy im headed to sedona in a week to go camping. where should i go if i'm looking forward to fishing and hiking

  7. Anonymous, Oak Creek is probably your best bet, although a few other options exist in the area. Anywhere from around the Call of the Canyon downstream should offer some fine fishing, and hiking options abound near Sedona; if you want to put the two together, feel free to send me your contact info and I can try to make a few suggestions.


  8. I'm not a fisherman, but your photos are fabulous. Enjoyed the tour!