Friday, June 25, 2010

Oak Creek, June 2010

I fished sparingly along Oak Creek in the month of June, as the longer days and lower clear flows of summer took hold. My first outing along the stream occurred near the start of June, coinciding with my folks coming to visit Regan and I in Flagstaff.

I was able to spend a couple of days with my dad along Oak Creek, and shared a few favorite runs with him. It was his first time casting along the stream, and he quickly gained an appreciation for the beauty of the place, and also the associated challenging fishing conditions. He soon connected with a chunky, 14-15" brown in a deeper slot, on a #18 BH Thread and Copper on 5X, and guided the trout to the shallows after several dogged runs--his first Oak Creek fish, and a fine one at that.

My dad was my first fishing partner, and we shared many fond memories seeking out wild trout together in beautiful settings. We have not been able to fish as much with each other in the past few years, so it was even more of a joy to share this time with him in a place that has become special to me. He hooked several other vibrant Oak Creek browns on this day, including a scrappy fish in the low teens that threw the hook several runs upstream of the fish above, and a few in the 9-11" range in a pocketwater stretch further north in the canyon.

I managed to get away on my own near the end of June, and fished a new favorite reach. I fooled this football-shaped female brown of 16.5" on a #10 Crawbugger, dead-drifted near the head of a productive deeper run. A #18 BH Thread and Copper was trailing off of the streamer, but for whatever reason, all of the trout caught on this day showed a definite preference for the streamer; perhaps recently hatched fry and baitfish were particularly prevalent at this time.

I reached a nice pocketwater stretch upstream, featuring a few springs that bubble into the main flow, where I have had only limited success in the past.

I found a number of good-sized rainbows here on this day, in the 12-16" range; most of these were holdover hatchery fish from the looks of them (a shriveled fin or two and drab hues), although one 13-14" male showed striking coloration, and several other smaller individuals had the sleek forms and clean fins of wild trout. I suspect the contributing springs may have attracted these fish, and also the highly-oxygenated, rough-and-tumble nature of the reach. In any case, it was an unexpected pleasure to hook a number of fine, energetic trout in quick succession, all on the Crawbugger.

I also connected with a somewhat larger rainbow that I initially spooked from a shallow backwater; the trout charged upstream, then settled into the tail of a tumbling run, where I approached it more carefully, and convinced the fish to take a well-placed streamer.

The female measured 17-18", and I suspect this rainbow may also have been of hatchery origin (perhaps a brood fish released into the stream), based on the subdued coloration and a less-muscled, slim appearance; in any case, she was still a stubborn, strong trout, and the longest rainbow I have caught to date in Oak Creek.

I found one final fish of note on this late June day holding in a compact frothing pocket amidst rushing water and boulders. The trout was clearly large and dark in coloration--I assumed it may have been a big brood hatchery male rainbow. I tossed the Crawbugger into the protected lie (about the size of a large sink), and the fish quickly turned, large jaws opening, and confidently inhaled the streamer. The bruiser immediately shook its head in an attempt to throw the hook, then charged downstream, weaving between boulders to evade capture, with me in stumbling pursuit, trying my best to steer the fish clear of obstructions. Eventually, I got a good look at the fish, and realized I was attached to a mega-sized brown. I worked against the long trout some more, finally steered the lunker into my grasp, and gazed in awe at another magnificent Oak Creek brown, this one taping out right at 22".

The long jaws and kype indicated a big male, with deep burning hues of olive, bronze, orange and gold--the sort of fish I always hope to land, but never quite expect.

This brown was a bit slimmer and more streamlined for its size than some of its other kin that I have been fortunate enough to have caught recently--I suspect he may have been holding in the pocketwater looking for some unsuspecting hatchery bows to devour.

Regardless of the factors involved in the bruiser's presence in what I would call unusual holding water for a large cagey brown, it was yet another large impressive fish to savor in my memory, and marvel at briefly in the moment, before returning him to the crystalline flows of Oak Creek.

I spotted a fellow angler upstream soon after releasing the magnificent brown, a young great blue heron that still seemed a bit unsure about how to best capture a finned meal.

The majestic bird allowed me to pass by quietly at close proximity, and even tolerated a few photos.

Oak Creek offered up some treasures for me once more in the month of June, as summer truly took hold. As it turned out, I would not be graced with the presence of the stream again, until the arrival of fall in October and November. So June completed a great run of fly fishing for me along my adopted homewater (or perhaps more appropriately, the water that adopted me into its home), lasting through the spring and early summer. I did find more wild trout in unforgettable places in the following months, both in Arizona and beyond, as the ensuing entries will illustrate.

East Clear Creek, June 2010

When it comes to Arizona, I still consider myself a novice angler; I have fished a handful of destinations with at least some success, but there are many more streams and rivers (not to mention lakes) that I have yet to explore.

One of the great things about the state is the number of rugged streams that beckon to the adventurous angler willing to put in a few miles of hiking, and offering potentially great fishing for streambred trout in wild settings. I decided to visit one of these, East Clear Creek, for the first time in early June. I had heard reports of good brown trout fishing at times, and figured it was time to test out the stream for myself.

East Clear Creek reminded me of the other major watershed draining north from the Mogollon Rim, Chevelon Creek, with its abundant stands of ponderosa pine, beautiful cliff walls flanking parts of the stream, and a wilderness setting once you made the descent into the stream canyon.

Some differences existed as well, including improved access in the form of several hiking access points, easier driving conditions, and closer proximity to human population centers. Consequently, I encountered more people on the day I hiked one of the trails down to the stream, although they thinned out completely (with the exception of one other fly fisherman headed in the opposite direction) once I wandered upstream and away from the access point (a pattern that seems to hold true with most fishing destinations). The flow seemed to be less than Chevelon as well, although the creek pooled up often, with some runs becoming more than deep enough to harbor sizable fish.

I began by catching a couple of small but chunky dark, wild rainbows on a bushy #10 Neversink Caddis in occasional small riffles and pocketwater, but focused most of my efforts in the deeper pools for the remainder of the bluebird, early summer day. I fished an attractor dry in some of the pools with little success, and finally settled on a #10 Crawbugger attached to 5X. Crayfish were thick here, no doubt providing a great food source for larger trout, but also posing a hazard to smaller aquatic flora and fauna; I noticed aquatic vegetation was sorely lacking along most of the streambed. I cast the streamer into likely holes, and used a slow strip and pause retrieve. This technique proved considerably more effective--I received strikes from several good fish in the mid to upper teens, judging from their flash and weight (presumably Browns for the most part), but unfortunately they all came free before being brought to hand.

I then happened upon one run that deepened against a cliff wall, and featured a ponderosa pine snag that had fallen into the water and created some cover. I took the time to slow down and observe, and found two large rainbow trout present; a surprise of sorts, as I expected bigger fish here to be browns. One of these was a large colorful male, the other a bruiser female in excess of 20" (one of the largest bows I have seen in the state); I suspect they may have recently been a spawning pair here this spring. In any case, the male was cruising in a circular pattern about the pool downstream of the snag, while the female seemed to stay put beside the downed timber. I made a number of short casts to both with the Crawbugger, trying to elicit a strike. The female seemed uninterested, but after much coaxing I eventually convinced the male to grab at the fly--fish on! The buck charged about the run, thrashing at the surface occasionally, and finally I managed to guide the fish to shore, where I gazed up close at a stunning rainbow, measuring a solid 20".

The male was garbed in vivd crimson on the gill plates and flanks, as the photos indicate, and showed some kype in the elongated jaws.

As it turned out, he was the one sizable fish caught on the day, and a great one at that. The rainbow felt like an unexpected gift, and on my first visit to East Clear Creek, no less.

I admired his hues and sleek form a bit longer as the trout revived, then pointed the brute back toward the pool, and watched as he finned back into the security of the shadowed run.

I suppose I am biased as a fly fishing nut that tends to prefer catch and release, but it only seems natural that a big wild spawner like the one above should be released, both to sustain the population, and because a rare large trout is so much more beautiful to behold in a stream than in a pan or on a wall mount, at least from my jaded perspective.

I passed by several other great-looking deep pools and runs, that almost certainly harbored a large trout or two, but I was unable to connect with any other fish for the day, and no browns came to hand on this visit (although I spooked a few in the 12-16" range).

I did cross paths with a fellow angler back up at the trailhead at day's end, who seemed to be a regular along this stream. He mentioned that some of the pools can really alive near dawn and dusk, when browns will rise freely for mayfly hatches and other available food items.

I encountered some gems along the creek that made the day richer, including the canyon treefrog above, and the wildflowers in a riot of color below.

Individual cactus blooms glowed amongst the rocky ground as I began the hike back up and out along the access trail, providing splashes of color and a way to end the day on a high note.

My first visit to East Clear Creek was one of those high quality, low quantity fishing days (generally the way I prefer it, given the choice) along a scenic canyon stream, harboring some intriguing fishing possibilities, combined with a measure of solitude--all qualities I treasure when pursuing trout. I suspect I will be revisiting this creek in the near future, in search of a few more of its finned inhabitants.

Oak Creek, May 2010

(It has been some time (too long) since I posted my last entry, resulting in a serious backlog of trips that are in need of being written up. I have made a New Year's resolution to update my blog into the present, beginning with this post.)

The beginning of May along Oak Creek continued where April left off in terms of fly fishing--with a bang. The stream continued to run with a healthy flow, attesting to the strong winter snow pack that built up over the winter, and resulted in more trout actively feeding. I managed to find a few lovely Browns at the very start of the month, including two solid 20" fish, on consecutive days from different stretches.

The first of these bruisers was a fat hen, pictured above in two images, that I found in a beautiful riffle-run right against a large boulder, in the waning hours of daylight. The fish vaulted from the dark currents repeatedly, providing quite a fight before being brought to hand. The Brown was particularly memorable in two ways--I caught it after a full day of work (I repeatedly find myself counting my good fortune to live in such close proximity to a quality wild trout fishery, where I can pay the stream a visit for even a couple of hours on any given day), and the hen represented the downstream extent of wild trout to date for me along Oak Creek (somewhere between Grasshopper Point and Midgely Bridge).

I prospected along several reaches of Oak Creek the following day, amidst that marvelous time in spring when seemingly all life is growing and thriving, under scattered clouds and vivid blue skies.

I crossed paths with this well-camouflaged canyon treefrog, no doubt with thoughts of feeding and breeding on its mind, consistent with the season.

I fished the head of one productive pool early in the day, and connected with the second 20" fish in two days, this one a male that charged about the lengths of the run, and proved difficult to subdue. The male sported rich coloration along his flanks, as shown in the photograph above.

The head detail also shows the small #18 Beadhead Thread and Copper lodged in the upper jaw--both this male and the female Brown shown earlier struck this pattern. Size 2o blue-winged olives hatched sporadically on these days; I suspect these larger trout took advantage of the nymphal stage of this food source, and took my fly as a reasonable imitation of the naturals. I used the little nymph as a dropper, tied to a larger Crawbugger as a point fly and source of weight, and dead-drifted the double rig on a short line through likely deep runs.

I found several other good fish in the feeding mood on this early May day, including a spooky Brown rising quietly near the brushy bank, near the tail of this glassy run. I fooled it with the most delicate cast I could muster, using a #20 BWO Parachute Sparkle Dun on a long leader ending in 5X, and found myself attached to an acrobatic, chunky 14-15" trout. The fish zipped about the run, but unfortunately the fly simply popped out of its mouth, ending the battle prematurely with a long distance release. Such is the unpredictable nature of cagey older trout and fly fishing, and the fish lost can often be at least as memorable as the ones landed.

I explored various reaches of Oak Creek throughout the next couple weeks, some of them old favorites, and others that were relatively new to me. Through it all, I was reminded once again of the stunning beauty of this place, and the diversity of the stream's moods and character.

Stream flows continued to drop and clear as May progressed, approaching summer conditions, and the trout became correspondingly warier. Better trout seemed to lose some caution during low-light periods of the day, and in runs affording shade, but I still managed to spook my fair share of fish (not a hard thing to do along Oak Creek).

I found myself poking along the edges of the stream while fishing (one of the joys of pursuing trout are all of the other unexpected gems that one can uncover), and discovered other aquatic denizens wrapped up in the web of this environment, including the tiny mayfly nymphs pictured above, and a school of speckled dace hovering in the sunlit shallows of a run below.

On one visit with Regan to the upper creek near the West Fork confluence, she spotted a subadult narrrow-headed gartersnake sunning itself on a large slab of red sandstone.

This aquatic gartersnake has suffered population declines across its range (it is actually one of the animals I spent time surveying for in my work this year); the fact that this species still exists along upper Oak Creek attests to the quality and health of the watershed. Moreover, sightings like these always make fly fishing more rewarding and meaningful for me, and provide a lens into the natural world that few other activities seem to achieve.

On another mid-May day, I fished Oak Creek for a few hours in late afternoon, just as the sun left the water, and the resulting shade invigorated hatching insects and the fish. Midges, a few #16 brown caddis, #20 BWOs, and some #10-12 pale tan drakes all made their presence as the afternoon crept towards sunset. I brought a few decent fish to hand in the 9-12" range by casting a variety of dries, including a #16 orange-bodied Neversink Caddis, and both #12 and #16 tan Parachute Sparkle Duns. The latter pattern fooled a subtle riser in the foam-flecked eddy above, after I took my time approaching quietly, kneeling down, and casting into the backwash.

I was rewarded with another beauty of a Brown, right at 13"; not the largest fish I've caught recently, but a difficult trout, and among the more satisfying I was able to admire briefly in hand this month, before watching it revive and blend back into the clear, multifaceted currents.

Generally, as the month progressed, larger trout became tougher, but the number of smaller fish landed increased, including a day spent wading up through pocketwater just below the Junipine area, where I brought 8 or 10 to hand, mostly smaller Browns, along with a couple stockers and one wild Rainbow, and lost a couple more Browns in the low teens.

This fish went a good foot, struck a sunken #16 Parachute Sparkle Dun on 5X from a neat plunge pool, and stood as the best fish landed on the day mentioned above.

I was able to fish once more later in May, again for the last few remaining hours of daylight, as the shadows grew long and slanted across the dancing stream. I noticed several different species of caddis flying about, so I tied on a #16 Deer Hair Caddis to a long length of 5X, and cast the dry through likely-looking pockets and runs. I quickly caught a fat little Brown from a riffle head, missed a good fish from a deeper run, and rose another trout from a nice shaded pocket, protected overhead by a leafy canopy of hardwoods.

This latter fish materialized from the dark sheltered water, big jaws breaking the surface to inhale the caddis pattern, and vanished in a toilet bowl flush. The trout was larger than I expected given the holding water (although the one constant in Oak Creek seems to be the unexpected), and it proceeded to vault free from the stream once, then race downstream, weaving between rocks and logs, as I rock-hopped after it. Finally, I coaxed it to shore, and gazed down at another spectacular Oak Creek Brown, this one a good 19" male with a developing kype.
This Brown was vibrantly colored like so many that call Oak Creek home, in rich hues of red, orange and gold that echoed some of the surrounding landscape. The trout marked my best dry fly-caught fish to date on the stream. Here are a couple more looks at the bruiser, before I let him go on his way, hopefully to grow larger and produce more magnificent wild trout. He provided a great exclamation point to another generous month from Oak Creek, a stream that always instills in me a profound sense of wonder and appreciation.