Sunday, March 18, 2012

Over the mark, Oak Creek, March 2012

There are times in fishing when all the right conditions seem to align, and a demanding stream like Oak Creek briefly lifts the veil, revealing some of the gems it holds.  Such was the case for me over two consecutive days in the first half of March, when I had the good fortune to encounter some exceptional fish that were both approachable and in a feeding mood. The days were not high on quantity, but I managed to cross paths with a handful of Oak Creek's larger, wary brown trout denizens, and brought several of these magnificent fish to hand.  
I began by fishing somewhere in the vicinity of the reach above, and drifted a #10 Crawbugger trailing a #16 Copper Emmons (the streamer was attached to 4X, while the smaller nymph was tied to a length of 5X) through a deep slot pool.  I had tied into and lost a strong fish in the same location earlier in the season, and figured I would try my luck again on this day.  Within several drifts, the line pulled taut, and I was connected once more to an unyielding, head-shaking force unseen in the depths of the run.  The fish charged about and stayed deep, but gradually I coaxed the brute to the surface, and steered an impressive brown to the shallows.
The trout measured 21", showed some girth, and featured rich coloration and spotting--yet another gorgeous Oak Creek fish.  

The bruiser took the Crawbugger, clearly ready to inhale a substantial meal, and yet proved to be the only fish willing to take the streamer over the two days.  
After a few photographs, I tailed the brown, watched it revive quickly, and released the beauty back into the amber green currents of its pool.  I've said this before, but such uncommon and beautiful fish deserve to be returned to their aquatic lairs to live out their days, perhaps to be caught and released again along the way.  While big wild trout can be legally kept in many (too many, in my humble and biased opinion) of Arizona's waterways, that doesn't mean they should be, and removing such specimens strikes me as selfish and short-sighted, only serving to impoverish and remove some of the magic from a given watershed.

I wandered down to another section of Oak Creek, and reveled in the mild sunlit weather, red sandstone set against the darker hues of the the sky, slopes and stream, and the prospect of seeking out more elusive browns.  I cast up through one favorite pool in the vicinity, in the hopes of tying into another bruiser, but couldn't find a taker in the deeper, slightly discolored currents after repeated drifts.  I had just about given up on the run, but as an afterthought I flipped the streamer and nymph rig under an overhanging tree limb to a spot that appeared insignificant at first glance, with perhaps 12" or so of leader extending beyond the rod tip.  Immediately, the leader tightened, and I quickly steered the rod tip towards the main flow away from the structure, and felt the heavy throbbing of another fish determined to part ways with the tippet.

The fish dogged down in the cloudy green depths, but eventually I eased another large brown into the shallows, an old male with a kype and glowing red spots along the flanks.

The brown stretched to about 22.5", and was recognizable as the same fish I had landed from the site a year ago (it had grown a couple inches in that time).  It was good to see the aged fellow again, ranking up there as one of the longer trout I have brought to hand on Oak Creek.  I snapped a few detail images of the trout's head and spotting, and then watched him merge seamlessly with the currents.  Needless to say, I felt pretty thrilled with the way the day had turned out, although it wasn't quite finished yet.

The long-jawed brown had moved for the little Copper Emmons, indicating that at least some of the big guys will pass up larger meals in favor of smaller, more prevalent fare.  In fact, the two remaining fish that I brought to hand on this day and the next also took the #16 nymph pattern.

I encountered one run upstream where the long shadow of a brown trout was visible just under the surface, close to the leaning trees of the far bank.  I drifted some subsurface offerings in the feeding lane without success, and then watched as the fish began rising quietly for small olive mayflies that began hatching in the afternoon.  I tied on a #18 olive Parachute Sparkle Dun on a long length of 5X, cast upstream, watched as the the trout gulped the dry in an unhurried motion, lifted the rod, and the fish proceeded to charge straight for the far bank, promptly breaking me off in a tangle of roots.  A lost fish, but an exciting encounter, and always a marvelous sight to see a big brown move for a dry in Oak Creek.

Further upstream, I cast towards the head of another good run where I had seen a sizable trout working earlier in the day, and lobbed the streamer and nymph rig into the swirling currents.  After several drifts, I received a strong yank, and an acrobatic brown leaped clear of the stream several times (always a breathtaking sight), before ripping line off the reel.  I navigated the fish clear of boulders and woody debris and landed a final striking brown for the day, just as the sun hid behind the ridge.

The fish taped in at 20.5", and after looking at previous images of Oak Creek browns, I realized I had caught this individual last season as well (and it had grown two inches in the interim, similar to the big trout mentioned earlier).  Once again, the brown attested to the benefits of practicing catch and release, and provided an exclamation point to a terrific day of fly fishing.

The following day, I walked along another section of Oak Creek, one that never seems to yield many fish, but occasionally holds a larger trout or two, and doesn't receive much traffic from anglers or tourists.  I found one good brown swimming slowly through a deep pool early in the day, but was unable to stir the trout's interest with my offerings.

The beauty of the stream and its surroundings always fills me with a sense of wonder, particularly with a backdrop like the one pictured above.

Winter still lingered on trees and other plants that had yet to bloom and unfurl their foliage, and yet signs of spring were present for the observant, including these clusters of flowers dangling off the ends of manzanita branches.

The day had been uneventful up to this point in the fish-catching department, and I began to suspect I might get skunked along Oak Creek as afternoon progressed.

However, I made my way to the head of one significant pool, to a spot that had always looked likely, but never yielded fish for me in the past.  I peered into the foam-flecked currents, and belatedly realized that small olives were hatching out in good numbers, while a long trout was working a foot or two under the surface, probably for emergers rising and drifting in the water column (I was practically on top of the fish when I finally spotted it).  I backed off from the head of the pool, waited a few minutes, and retied the double rig of the Crawbugger and Copper Emmons I had used the other day.  I cast the flies through the feeding lane several times, and sure enough, eventually received that welcome insistent pull on the line, before the trout went wild, racing through the pool below and vaulting into the air repeatedly.  The fish took some time to subdue, and I was reminded how strong some of the larger finned denizens can be in Oak Creek.  The stream was generous again, and I found a big hook-jawed brown at my feet, with the #16 Copper Emmons peeking out from the upper jaw.

This male fish measured right at 22", was probably pushing 4 lbs., and had a distinctive notch missing in the dorsal fin.  He had that impressive, spooky look that big browns seem to get, and gazing at the beautiful fish was both humbling and memorable.  I watched this old bruiser swim back to his hole, hoping the fish will grow and thrive for another year.

I also mused on how I managed to catch four fish in two days, all of them surpassing the 20" mark, an arbitrary number to be sure, but one that seemed pretty exceptional all the same, particularly from Oak Creek.  If nothing else, these two days were certainly among the finest for quality fish that I have experienced along this wonderful stream to date, with moments that an angler always hopes for, but never quite expects.


  1. Oh man this was a great read and awesome pictures as well! Those early days in March tend to be the time we get on big fish here as well. I think the lack of crowds tends to help the fish feel safe to feed during the day perhaps. I'll look forward to more of your adventures in search of trout!

  2. Thanks for the good words David, those two days in March were exceptional, and I agree, that month does seem to be a good time to seek out some good browns. Late fall through early spring in general is a favorite time of mine to wander the banks of Oak Creek, because crowds are diminished; it may be a time when the browns feel more at ease as well. Thanks again, and I'll be posting more soon.


  3. Beautiful stream and fish love it.