Winter can prove stubborn in relinquishing its icy grip in these conditions, even as the sun provides real warmth to the rim country above. Such was the case when I visited East Clear Creek on the northwest side of the Mogollon Rim in early April, in search of a few wild trout. Currents ran swollen, cold and discolored with runoff, patches of snow clung to shadowed crevices, and the new green of spring foliage had yet to appear along the streambanks.
I found a handful of good-sized trout that had been killed and secured on sticks in the shallows of some prime pools, presumably to be collected on the return trip, including this striking spawner rainbow, measuring around 15".
This chunky 17" brown was placed near the tail of the run pictured above, again with a branch to hold the trout in place. To make a long story short, I saw four or five fish between 15-18" that had been placed in such a way near the streambank, and one last trout, a magnificent hook-jawed male rainbow of 20-21", resting at the feet of one of two spin fishermen that I eventually crossed paths with near the end of the day.
I am not opposed to keeping a few trout here and there, even wild fish, when conditions in a given watershed make such a harvest reasonable, particularly when a stream or lake has a large population of fish, or the trout in question are stocked. However, East Clear Creek (like quite a few other Arizona streams) holds a relatively small, tenuous trout population that relies solely on natural reproduction, and is no doubt hampered by burgeoning numbers of crayfish that limit recruitment and survival of young fish. Granted, the two spin fishermen I met were within their rights to take the fish according to state laws, but keeping those larger spawning age trout struck me as rather short-sighted and selfish, and not in the best interest of the creek's trout fishery. Seeing the 20+" buck rainbow dead in the shallows in particular made me feel a bit sick, and sad as well that some fishermen feel the need to capture and remove such a rare, valuable specimen for some brief sense of affirmation, rather than embracing a longer view of conservation. I ended up being polite (mostly) with the two fellows, who after all did seem to be basically decent guys that appreciated the outdoors, and dropped more than a few hints suggesting that keeping a number of large mature fish was not necessarily doing the creek or its trout population any favors.
Fortunately, the fishing was not a complete bust for the day, and I managed to find at least one good trout that had escaped the efforts of the two catch and keep fishermen. I cast the Crawbugger near the base of the sandstone cliffs in the pool above, and after several drifts the line tightened and shuddered with the determined head shaking of a heavy fish.
In fact, after a tug of war, I steered a big post-spawning hen rainbow close to shore, and admired the trout's ruby rose hues set against olive and gunmetal on her dorsal and sides.
The fish measured a solid 21", one of the larger rainbows I've brought to hand in Arizona, and a heck of a trout anywhere in my book. Based on my experiences of fishing and exploring the state (admittedly limited compared to some anglers), at least a few specimens of this size (and larger) probably inhabit many of the trout-bearing canyon streams throughout Arizona, particularly in those reaches that require a fair amount of sweat and hiking to reach. Nonetheless, landing one is always a real treat, and a moment to be savored.
I noticed the hen sported a pair of splotchy cutthroat marks under the throat, and based on the coloration and spotting patterns of fish caught on subsequent trips over the month, I suspect the rainbows here may possess some cutthroat lineage from previous stocking efforts.
I revived the big bow in the runoff-stained shallows, and eventually watched her merge back into the tea green pool, keeping the the fish only in photographs and memories, as befits such an exceptional trout.
I spied several pairs of rainbows actively spawning, including in the run pictured above (the tan strip in the center left of the image was a freshly exposed redd), and gave the fish a wide berth to conduct their business.
Like many Arizona streams, East Clear Creek offers solitude and rugged beauty to those willing to put a few miles under their feet, and I found myself appreciating the looming cliff formations of the run above, with no one in sight, on a lovely early spring day.
A few streamside residents crossed my path along the way, including a striking caterpillar with contrasting hues like some miniature living flag.
I stripped a streamer through a likely-looking pool early in the day, and within a few casts got an answer from a strong fish that charged about the concealed depths of the run. I coaxed the fighter to shore eventually, and admired a vibrant 17" male rainbow, with crimson gill plates and side stripes that seemed to glow.
A good-sized rainbow trout carcass rested in the shallows of one run, most likely a fish that did not survive beyond the early spring rigors of spawning. Two large crayfish were already guarding the tail, no doubt ready to begin consuming the feast, and reversing roles with a trout that had probably swallowed more than a few of the crustacean's brethren in its time.
The slanted rays of sunlight in late afternoon painted the canyon walls in sharp relief, causing the silent looming cliffs to come alive in bright shades of ochre and gray. It was a fitting celebration of light and color to mark the ending of the day, and the end of a visit to an often enigmatic and always rewarding destination.