Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Oak Creek, Winter 2012

One of the great benefits of living in the Southwest is the ability to enjoy the outdoors in mild and pleasant weather during the winter, a quality that can ring particularly true in regards to fly fishing.

I visited Oak Creek a handful of times from January through February, and reveled in the bluebird days, lack of crowds, and the occasional hookup with a hungry trout. I focused on the lower reaches of viable trout habitat in the canyon near the start of the new year, mostly because the temperatures were a bit warmer here, and the sun felt good against the skin in the heart of winter.

Winter has always struck me as a time to appreciate those bright moments that shine through amidst the slumber and starkness of the season, and they often took the form of a golden brown trout, slashing for one of my offerings, refuting the claim that winter is the "off season".

This 16" female brown was notable as one of my first fish caught from Oak Creek for the year, and representing a new downstream extent for me for a wild trout brought to hand. The fish was a typical beauty, and a fine way to usher in the season. It also bore a scarred mouthpiece as shown above, clearly no stranger to the antics of anglers.

Some of the creek's other inhabitants were searching for trout as well, including the common merganser above, and the great blue heron below.

I noticed considerable evidence of beaver activity, in the form of gnawed trees and the formation of dams in side channels.

Based on secondhand accounts, beavers suffered some declines in Oak Creek following severe flooding events several years ago, and it was encouraging to see them returning to build and shape the riparian landscape once again.

Small dark mayflies hatched fairly reliably in the afternoons on my visits, with the nymphs most often getting the attention of trout. The sailboat shapes of the duns were a joy to see, and a small reminder of the cyclical motions of life, captured in the multifaceted reflections of the stream.

The winter days were marked by a crisp clarity of bare branches, dried husks of reeds, and low-angled light against boulders and sandstone, all set against a vivid sky, bringing little details into sharp relief. Days like these, I feel fortunate to be alive, standing knee deep in cold water and waving a stick.

I found another fine fish hiding near the head of this run, wedged next to stones in a small sheltered backwater--just the sort of spot that a brown would appreciate.

This trout went 14.5", probably a male based on its dark coloration, and noticeably slim from the efforts of spawning in late fall. Despite its post-spawn condition, the brown thrashed about, showing some spunk before being brought to hand and admired briefly.

A male Western bluebird flashed his brilliant colors in the waning light of a short January day. This winter has been particularly mild and dry in Arizona, creating ideal conditions for winter forays and the earlier appearance of songbirds and wildflowers, but also giving cause for concern for spring and summer, the potential for wildfires, and the health of watersheds. For my part, I hope that a few more winter storms pass through the region before winter's end, and that the summer features some significant monsoons.

As warm winter weather continued in February, Oak Creek swelled with the murky green flows of runoff, particularly in the reaches downstream of Munds Canyon and Indian Gardens. I prospected along several sections of stream during a few visits throughout the month.

While some anglers seem discouraged by runoff, I have found that some browns (particularly larger individuals) tend to feed more freely under the security of limited visibility and heavier flows that these water conditions afford, and consequently I look forward with great anticipation to this time of year along the stream. The wading can be challenging, and the fishing can be slow (not to mention the water can be cold), but the chance to tie into a few good-sized and normally wary trout is the reward. This was the case on one bright day, when I approached the run pictured above, and lobbed a rig consisting of a #10 Crawbugger and #16 Copper Emmons (an effective all-purpose small nymph creation of mine, shown later in this entry) against the boulder extending out from the righthand bank. As the flies drifted near the boulder, a fish responded with a strong yank, and then tore downstream through the run, going airborne several times in the process.

Eventually, I guided a striking 16.5" male brown to the shallows, and took a few photographs to capture some of its beautiful coloration.

The trout took the smaller nymph imitation, similar to most of the fish I caught through this part of the season--I suspect they were feeding on small mayfly nymphs as they hatched in decent numbers on most afternoons.

And here is a closeup of the brown's flanks--the beauty and vivid hues of Oak Creek's wild trout never cease to amaze me.

Not far upstream, I cast towards the plunging pockets of this run, and found a scrappy 15" female brown, exhibiting more of a silvery cast.

These trout turned out to be the only two caught for the day, a pattern that repeated itself on other visits through the winter, where the fish were few, but often good-sized. I tend to seek out quality over quantity anyway when it comes to fishing, so the trend suited me just fine.

I found myself fishless for much of another day, when I approached a fine-looking run marked by a frothing chute at the upstream end, where I managed to lose a good fish on a bushy dry fly last year.

This time, with heavy gray clouds and blustery weather threatening overhead, I again turned to a #16 Copper Emmons trailing off of a Crawbugger, and prospected through water sheltered behind midstream stones amidst the whitewater. A Copper Emmons is pictured above, kind of a cross between a Copper John, Zug Bug, and Soft Hackle, consisting of peacock sword tails, a copper wire body, a collar of peacock herl, a few turns of a soft hackle starling feather, and a tungsten beadhead. It has worked well for me as a searching pattern, and as a decent imitation of a mayfly or small stone nymph.

The little nymph drew an affirmative response from this brown, stretching just past 18" and giving my 9' 5 wt a workout in the tumbling currents. I managed to steer the strong fish clear of the many boulders scattered through the run, and took a few moments to appreciate the russet and gold colors running along its sides.

The rusty leaves of autumn past complemented the brown in these images, and the stormy yet mild weather reminded me of the previous season.

I found a smaller brown just upstream, missed another, and came upon this small fellow sliding over the the vast expanse of a pocked boulder. Maybe its just my passion for wildlife both professionally and on a personal level, but discovering these hidden little gems can often prove as enriching as the trout during a day on the stream.

And here are photographs of several more browns brought to hand on mid-late February trips, with the images themselves speaking with more clarity than my written descriptions could achieve (although that doesn't seem to stop me from trying).
A 13.5" brown is pictured above, and a hefty old male poses for the camera in a couple of shots below. Both of these fish came from the same run where I encountered an older angler visiting from North Dakota a couple weeks earlier. He had caught a single 16-18" brown and kept it on that day--while I am not opposed to keeping a fish here and there in certain places, it was a bit hard to see a mature wild brown kept from Oak Creek. I struck up a polite conversation with him (after all, it was in his right to keep a fish from that section of the stream, and he seemed like a decent person), but I also injected a bit of conservation into the discussion, mentioning how larger wild trout are relatively uncommon, and invaluable when returned to the stream. To his credit, he was reasonable in return, and perhaps he will keep such future fish only in photographs. And perhaps I spend too much time worrying about some of the older bruiser browns on Oak Creek, but there it is.

This was a marvelous brown, just shy of 20", with a kype, a distinctive crimson line on the ventral edge of the anal fin, and vivid spotting along his sides. Incidentally, this was also a fish I have caught once each of the past two seasons, and he has grown more than an inch each year. It was great to see the trout again, a testament to catch and release, and hopefully he will continue to grow and thrive into next year.

Note the little beadhead nymph visible in the upper jaw--proof once more that the big guys often focus on small fare for at least part of their diet.

A foot-long brown is shown above, and a 16" fish rests below before being returned to swirling currents.

This fish had some teeth to it, made evident in the head detail below, and fought like crazy, weaving through a stretch of pocketwater and small plunge pools, keeping me in stumbling pursuit.

Oak Creek was generous to me once more as the new season unfolded, and it was both a relief and joy to wander its banks, and admire if only for a moment some of the glorious browns that call the stream home. As always in this place, it felt good to be home myself, in winter no less.


  1. Beautiful fish as always Iain. You definitely have a special relationship with that creek. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Thanks for the good words Ben, I appreciate it. I feel pretty fortunate to be able to visit Oak Creek on a regular basis--the place almost feels like an old friend. And speaking of the fish, just wait for my next post on Oak Creek, I think you will enjoy some images of a few browns I managed to bring to hand...


  3. Excellent. I am a raw mix of emotions right now. Excited and envious...


  4. Wow great pictures and great job again. I really like when you take a snapshot and show and talk about the actually run that the fish are holding in. That really brings back memories and strategy for each cast. Seems like they are always in a hole only a meter or two deep or shallower with exceptions of course... Do you ever catch any in the deeper holes(and by deep I mean if you stood in the middle of the hole it would be overhead) I usually cast a few times in the deep stuff at Oak Creek (above slide rock where its steeper and deeper in parts) with no luck. Then I move on to the more traditional undercut banks or boulder strewn runs with a staircase pool etc. Should I ignore the deeper pools? Thanks

  5. Anonymous, thanks for the generous words, I appreciate it. I try to provide a little insight on technique and approaching runs to decipher a place like Oak Creek, and I'm glad you find it helpful. In answer to your question, I do catch fish in the deeper holes, sometimes under a ledge or choice boulder, at a drop-off where the water becomes deeper, at the whitewater head of the run, or occasionally near the shallows of a pool, when a good trout is cruising (this latter situation can be tough though, as the fish is often spooky). Often these fish are more inclined to take a nymph, but sometimes (particularly late fall through early spring) they will rise during a hatch, often to BWOs. The trick is that often only one or two good fish will be present in the pool, so it depends on good timing and figuring out exactly where the fish has decided to hold.

    So, don't ignore the deeper pools, fish are there, although getting them to strike can be another matter...

    If you have more questions, feel free to leave your name and e-mail, and I can try to offer a few more suggestions.


  6. Iain,
    I read about your blog when friends sent me last Sunday's Az Daily Star from Tucson. REALLY enjoyed your photos and comments/tips about my "soon to be" home stream. My wife and I have had property along Oak Creek in the canyon near Garlands and Junipine for over 20 years, but my time on the water there has always been limited to brief vacations. I've now retired, and your blog has me anticipating trading our limestone spring creeks for your haunts.
    Thanks, and keep those pictures coming!

    Mike (mclau003@umn.edu)

  7. Mike,

    Thank you for your kind words on the blog, I appreciate it. I didn't realize I was mentioned in the AZ Daily Star either, so thanks for the heads-up! I have a number of blog entries to post (several of them regarding Oak Creek), so stay tuned.

    Wow, I envy you for the property you own near Garlands and Junipine! I'm glad to hear you will now have more time to explore along Oak Creek--it is a beautiful, challenging, and rewarding stream, and one I always feel fortunate beyond words to be able to visit and explore.

    Perhaps we will cross paths along the stream in the near future...Thanks again, and tight lines,


    P.S. Have you fished limestone spring creeks in Minnesota? I have heard good things about trout streams in that state, although I have yet to visit that region.

    1. Right. Minnesota--10,000 lakes but spring creeks? Yes. When the last glacier retreated towards Hudson Bay some 10,000 years ago, it unexpectedly split and left a large "driftless"/unscoured area in SE MN, SW WI, and NE IA where today we enjoy limestone cliffs and deep valleys with small but rich spring creeks similar to those in PA and the chalk streams of England. Two of these streams are close enough to the Twin Cities that I could sometimes finish my surgery by 6 and still hope to catch the summer sulphur hatch before dark falls around 10. Our wild browns are mostly in the 10-15" size but 20+ inchers are around( if always eluding me...). The scenery doesn't have the drama of the West, but the restorative value of time on the water is the same.
      I feel I have much to learn about AZ waters from experienced anglers like you and look forward to crossing paths.
      If you care to contact me at the above email address I'll let you know as our plans progress over the next few months.
      Keep up the great posts!