Thursday, April 1, 2010

Grand Canyon, March 2010

This entry has taken some time for me to finally getting around to writing (one of the consequences of time-consuming yet satisfying wildlife biotech work that I started up this past month), but I decided to revisit the Grand Canyon and Bright Angel Creek at the start of March, amidst winter storms and runoff throughout the rest of the region. I managed to secure a permit for a couple nights at Bright Angel Campground by walking in to the Backcountry Office, and then quickly made my way to the rim to begin the downward descent.

Ice and snow still clung to the upper sections of the trail, and I once again reveled in the awesome spectacle of this landscape that can so effortlessly envelope a person in mind, body and spirit. I encountered the pictographs on a sandstone wall shown above, evidence that people have long held a strong connection to this place, and continue to do so today.

I made the trip down into the backcountry in the hopes of finding an influx of spawning Rainbows moving upstream through Bright Angel Creek, and was not disappointed in this regard. I stopped by a small tributary that meets the mighty Colorado along the way to my destination, and prospected for trout near the confluence.

I quickly found a few jewels, including this stunner of a male Rainbow just upstream in the tiny creek, that grabbed a #10 Crawbugger on 4X (I stuck with this pattern most of the trip, with good results).

The fish measured a solid 15", contained some girth for his size, and displayed some of the more vivid hues I can recall on a Rainbow recently (actually, reminiscent of native Redbands in my home state of Oregon)--a perfect embodiment of the beauty and wildness to be found in a streambred trout. One last look at the fish below, before returning him to the crystalline stream and magnificent surroundings.

I returned to the main river, and drifted the streamer through a likely pool at the mouth of the tributary.

Another strong trout inhaled the offering, and darted about the cloudy green flows, before yielding in the form of a fine 16" Rainbow, again a male from the looks of it.

Both of the fish shown above represented an average larger spawning bow, as I came to realize throughout the rest of my fishing endeavors on this trip, and the spotting pattern tended to be focused above the lateral line, at least for the migrants from the Colorado.

In contrast, the bow shown above and below featured heavy spotting along its entire body, and I suspect the trout was a stream resident because of this trait. I found the 12-13" fish holding in a good run near the campground after I finally made my way to Bright Angel Creek, and as the photo above indicates, it took a #12 BH San Juan Worm.

Other spirited Rainbows came to hand the remainder of the day, ranging in size from 12-15", including the fish shown below, and I managed to hook and lose several Browns of similar dimensions as well. I lost one other scrappy male Rainbow of 16-17" after an extended battle in the evening, and it was both reaffirming and a joy to see healthy numbers of wild trout distributed throughout the rushing creek, particularly in early March when much of the rest of northern Arizona was still caught in the grips of winter.

I awoke early the next morning, and took advantage of as much daylight as possible to explore up and downstream in search of willing trout.

I wandered down to the Colorado River, in the hopes of picking up a few energized trout preparing to migrate into Bright Angel for spawning activities. Unfortunately, the lower, relatively clear green flows of yesterday had been replaced by higher river volumes, water the color of coffee and minimal visbility. Nonetheless, I received a few strikes (including one hit that initially felt like a snag, before some unseen bruiser tore into the currents, and the fly eventually slipped out of the mouth of the fish), and landed a few smaller silvery bows.

I returned back upstream along Bright Angel Creek, as the sun's rays crept over the canyon rim to create a brilliant, warm day.

I continued where I left off along the stream yesterday, in terms of connecting with strong wild trout, including this handsome fish of 14" or so, and my first Brown of the trip.

The Browns were far outnumbered by Rainbows, but the handful of the former I did bring to hand appeared healthy and full of fight (even more so than the bows, and often jumped repeatedly), generally measuring a thick 13-15" (with a few smaller ones thrown in, and I missed a couple that went 16-17"). For whatever reason, it seemed to me that the Brown Trout caught this time exhibited more bold coloration, compared with those I landed back on my November trip. They generally showed up in spots one would expect for Browns, in slower backwaters and pockets offering ample cover, and near the tailouts of pools and runs, such as the one below near the campground.

The lower numbers of Browns in the stream probably reflected the recent management practices of the National Park Service in reducing trout populations in Bright Angel Creek, to somehow aid native warmwater species in the Colorado mainstem, despite a lack of hard evidence that trout are truly making a large impact on chubs and other endemic fish, and the greater and much more significant limiting factor to native fisheries in the watershed in the form of Glen Canyon Dam, which almost certainly will remain in place in the foreseeable future, to satisfy human needs, and incidentally continue to create conditions favorable to trout. While the fish that exist in Bright Angel Creek are not native, they are beautiful and wild, and provide what I am quickly realizing to be one of the top trout fisheries in the state. I recognize that I am biased and more than a bit selfish in saying this, but I can only hope that the Park Service aborts the trout control efforts, and allows this wonderful stream to continue thriving in its current state, offering a backcountry trout haven for those adventurous anglers willing to make the trek into the Canyon.

I also saw encouraging signs that the NPS may have already lessened their fisheries management practices along Bright Angel, in the form of some large, stunning spawner Rainbows, two that I was fortunate enough to fool and bring to shore. Both of these bruisers nailed a #10 Crawbugger, and held several runs apart from one another.

The first fish emerged as a marvelous male Rainbow, just shy of 20", with broad shoulders and rich crimson and golden-olive coloration, as evidenced in the pictures shown--truly one of the more impressive bows I've managed to bring to hand. The big trout proved a powerful fighter, using its size and strength to race about the small water, before I finally towed it in.

The male quickly revived upon release, and blended back into the multicolored stone stream floor.

I followed up this fish with another remarkable Rainbow, this one a hefty female that lurked under a root wad that created an undercut lie. Somehow I convinced her to take after repeated presentations with the streamer, avoided breaking off, and managed to guide the trout into open water, to land the beauty in relatively short order. The bruiser measured a solid 20" or so, and featured a silvery-turquoise sheen, interspersed with burning red-orange gill plates and side stripes--another superb, mega Rainbow Trout.

After capturing the trout's image a few times on camera, I eased the fish back into protected shallows, and watched her recover as well, before she shot back under the cover of the far bank.

I sat back for a moment after this second grand fish, and savored the pure pleasure and satisfaction that can come in fly fishing, and become even more amplified after the magic of sharing a brief space in time with such untamed, elemental creatures as trout, and particularly the elusive larger ones.

The moment passed, and flowed into more exploration and discoveries, rod and reel in hand. I continued to prospect upstream, working the streamer through the laughing pockets and currents, and soon found another energized Brown, hiding under a stone in the slack water, in the middle of the image above.

The fish thrashed about, and zipped through the fast water downstream, before I found a calm spot in the creek to pull the trout close, and get a closeup of brassy-gold and rusty-olive hues, set against the elongated head of another classic Brown, this one a solid 15".

Great fishing continued throughout the day, and I soon lost count of numbers of fish caught (always a good sign), not to mention those missed or lost.

Another Rainbow exhibits colors befitting its name; this fish measured a good 14".

A number of trout lurked in this pool, including an energized 16" Rainbow, as seen in the picture below.

This particular fish featured a transmitter beside its dorsal fin, probably for tracking studies by the Park Service. Despite the implant, the fish seemed to be in excellent condition.

A large boulder creates likely holding water; I coaxed yet another vital bow from the foam-flecked lower pocket, and connected with a strong Brown from the deceptive upper pocket.

This golden Brown measured a good 15", and was probably a male based on the sizable head and jaws.

I crossed paths with a fellow angler, spinning outfit in hand, around this time, heading down the trail as I worked my way up the stream. We exchanged nods, but due to my lower vantage point, it wasn't until the young guy had wandered down the path a bit that I noticed a large slab of a trout (on par with the two bruisers I had caught earlier in the day) crammed into a ziploc bag in his other hand--no doubt a big spawner Rainbow from some pool further upstream. The angler was certainly within his rights to keep the fish, and I suspect the loss of a single trout will not hurt the overall population in Bright Angel (and to his credit, he only kept the one), but the sight made me feel a bit sick at heart, and sad that of all the trout he could have kept for dinner, he decided to take one of the largest and (in my mind) most precious specimens in the creek. Maybe it is a trait of our society, or some deep-rooted part of human nature, that causes some people to take the best of what the natural world can offer and consume it for their own short-term needs--or maybe I am just a biased fly angler that got bent out of shape based on my own values and preferences. In any case, I was sorry to see that a magnificent fish had been lost to the stream, but I suppose life goes on.

Through it all, Bright Angel Creek flowed like a ribbon of life, and a healing tonic for the soul, under towering cliffs of ancient stone--truly one of the special places in the world, especially from the perspective of one awe-inspired fly angler.

And a few more aggressive trout showed themselves, including another wild Rainbow featuring spectacular coloration, with the Crawbugger emerging from the jaws above, and warm oranges and reds evident against deep olive green and abundant black spots in both photographs (the overall spotting and appearance reminded me a bit of Cutthroat Trout caught elsewhere).

As mentioned before, I strongly suspect this fellow to be a stream resident, based on the profuse spots, dark coloration, and large head (even sporting a small kype) of this foot-long male--in any case, a beautiful Rainbow.

Eventually, the lengthening shadows of evening approached, and while part of me wished the day could stretch onward indefinitely, my upstream wanderings soon reached an end...but not before the last cast and fish of the day, in the frothy plunge pool shown below.

I quickly received a hard strike while drifting the Crawbugger along the edge of the whitewater, and the hit materialized as one final Brown Trout, again an energized leaper that I soon pulled close to briefly admire.

The fish measured 14" or so, and possessed a dark rusty gold appearance, with winking black and red spots--yet another fantastic and vivid trout, and a fitting one to end the day.

So, another wonderful trip into the Grand Canyon, and along the clear cold flows of Bright Angel Creek (the presence of this stream cutting through dry dusty country still strikes me as something of a miracle). The only major downside to the trip occurred on the second night, and throughout the following day on the hike out, when I came down with a rather serious bout of food poisoning, making the final day and uphill trek grueling to say the least (needless to say, I did not fish on the last day as I had intended, but instead focused on staying as hydrated as possible, and pacing myself along the ascent). The experience was a good reminder of the wildness of the Grand Canyon though, and the need to be careful even with packaged any case, I will certainly be revisiting this wonderful fly fishing destination come next fall and winter, and hopefully many more times to come in the seasons ahead.


  1. Iain,

    Inspiring as always. Thanks for documenting and sharing your trip. Beautiful pictures and great dialogue. Look forward to hearing more.


  2. Incredible! That's such an amazing place, I'm glad to hear of another angler enjoying it! Those two big rainbows are beauties. This post really makes me miss AZ and the canyon! Interesting to hear of you finding a few trout in the other trib. Well done!

  3. Great post. I read a brief write up on Bright Angel last night and wondered what it was like. You just showed me. Thanks.

  4. Hey all,

    Thanks for the comments--Bright Angel really is one of the gems in Arizona.

    Will, it was neat to find and land a few fish in the lower end of the other tributary. I also saw some other smaller specimens farther upstream, and intended to revisit the spot on the last day, but unfortunately I wasn't in any shape to do anything other than hike time I guess!


  5. Great writeup... The gold/bronze on that big bow is stunning.

  6. Alex, thanks for the response, and yeah, the large male bow was a beauty.

    Ray and Tim, I published your comments, but for some reason they didn't show up on the blog entry...thanks for the generous words. Tim, the hike is right around 10 miles along the Bright Angel Trail to the campground, and I visited the spot in June a few years back; if you decide to go around that time, make sure to get an early start and avoid the heat in the middle of the day!


  7. Iain,
    Nice Blog. I've enjoyed browsing through it. I am a new AZ resident, moved down to Tucson from Northern Ut. I am actually planning a trip up to Sedona to Fish Oak Creek this weekend. Do you have any tips on what flies are hot up there right now? Also, any fly shops in the area that you recommend?
    I have a fishing blog set up also in case you are interested. Its always nice to see new fish pictures.
    If you don't mind dropping me an email with any help/tips I would appreciate it.

  8. What a stunning place to visit.......and fish!

  9. Iain,
    I thought there was a trout eradication project involving BA creek. Has it ended or what is the status? Looks like the trout were doing well in early 2010. Thanks for sharing. great images.
    Fred G

  10. Fred G,

    Thanks for the response. I will be writing up another post soon about a BA Creek trip I made this past December, and addressing some of your questions, but here is the short answer: the eradication effort was on hiatus in the fall of 2009 and winter of 2010, but the effort has been started up again with renewed vigor, starting in fall 2010 and continuing through this year. Needless to say, but the trout fishery is suffering accordingly, and will likely do so for some time to come, based on a conversation I had with the fisheries biologist for the Park. But more on that later...

    Thanks again, Iain