Friday, April 30, 2010

Oak Creek Browns, mid-late April 2010

Brown trout have always held a certain mystique for me, particularly larger specimens. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and had the good fortune to be surrounded by abundant water, and spectacular fishing, for wild, native trout no less. Brown trout were often in short supply however, particularly on the western side of the state, and remained an intriguing yet elusive quarry for the most part.

Only in the last few years have I been able to pursue these fish in a more dedicated manner, and my education on Browns grew in leaps and bounds with forays to Pennsylvania, Maryland, eastern Tennessee, Utah, and particularly Arizona, in the past several years.

Arizona is gifted with a number of marvelous Brown trout streams and lakes, many with the potential to grow some trophy-sized fish, and I have felt fortunate beyond words to have sampled a few of these waters as of late. Oak Creek has probably provided me with more insight into the nature of Brown trout than any other single location, because of the frequent visits I have been able to make due to the stream's close proximity. If anything, the creek has only reaffirmed Browns in my mind as some of the more fascinating, unpredictable and challenging trout to be found, and heightened my anticipation for pursuing them any chance I get.

Spring was a great time to be along the lovely reaches of Oak Creek, for all the life bursting forth, and in my trout-addled mind, for the chance to seek out some bruiser Browns, that seemed to be invigorated with higher stream flows and increased insect activity. Such conditions created one of those rare windows of opportunity when it comes to pursuing Brown trout (the only other comparable period of time being fall), and resulted in some of the larger fish acting marginally less wary, even vulnerable to striking at a well-presented fly, if stealth, observation, and good technique (and perhaps a good dose of luck) were employed.

I found that scenario to be the case more times than I deserved in the latter half of April, including one deep pool that I have cast through with little success in the past, but as good timing would have it, I spied a mega-sized trout from a higher vantage point that flashed out from under a large boulder against the bank in mid-April, and then vanished underneath it again like a dream. I tied on a #10 Crawbugger, sneaked down to the stream's edge, and flipped the streamer near the submerged boulder, allowing it to sink near where the hefty trout was lurking. Like magic, a massive dark shape shot out from beneath the stone, hesitated a moment, and then inhaled the fly. The big fish proceeded to head-shake and use its bulk to the full extent about the deep pool, causing my 9' 5 weight to double over. Finally, after repeated efforts by the bruiser to tie me off, I towed in an impressive, heavy male Brown trout, stretching to 22".

The big curving jaws of the beast left no doubt in my mind that this fish was primarily a predator, an image that was strengthened by the Crawbugger hanging out of its mouth, as shown below.

This fish ranked among the best Browns I have caught, and took the place of the largest one landed to date in Oak Creek (although even this brute would be edged out by another, as detailed later in this post). It occurred to me that a Brown of this size, in a stream like Oak Creek, didn't grow to these dimensions by being careless, and I spent a moment gazing at the magnificent trout, just savoring my good fortune. Fooling the big ones can be an uncommon event (at least for me), but successfully hooking and landing such a fish makes the long pursuit of these lunker Browns that much sweeter.

I took a few more photos of the mega Brown (including the photo above, and a head detail shown at the beginning of this entry), and then took care in releasing the fish, making sure that he regained his strength.

The trout finned away from me, and quickly settled on the stream bottom. I had the distinct impression that the fish was staring back up at me, perhaps sizing me up, and vowing not to be so easily fooled again; it was probably my imagination, but big Browns can have that effect at times.

As April matured into its later weeks, the high flows of runoff gradually but consistently dropped and cleared, and coincided with a flurry of aquatic insect activity, including several small mayfly species (such as blue-wing olives and tricos, pictured above and below, respectively), midges, small brown stoneflies, and even occasional green drakes.

The small dark mayflies in particular hatched prolifically at times, drew fish to the surface on occasion, and seemed to provide a significant food source in their nymph stage. I encountered an increasing number of fish feeding actively below the surface, and used a double nymph rig with success throughout much of late April, consisting of a long-shank #10 Crawbugger as the point fly, attached to a #18 Beadhead Thread and Copper as a dropper (essentially my take on a Zebra Midge, with a brown thread body, fine copper wire ribbing, a small tungsten beadhead, and a curved caddis nymph hook). I suspect the little nymph imitated many of the small food items drifting through the currents in the spring, including mayfly nymphs, microcaddis, and midge larvae, and in any case fooled the lion's share of sizable Brown trout that I encountered.

I experienced some wonderful fishing near the end of the month on several outings, including one day where I began by working my way up through a favorite section of Oak Creek, and caught a handful of fine Browns ranging from 13-15".

The settings never failed to be anything less than lovely, almost heartbreaking, and finding wild trout to match felt at times like almost too much to ask for.

It still strikes me as mysterious and wonderful how such trout can echo the hues and character of the watersheds they occupy, and I suppose it should come as no surprise that many of Oak Creek's Brown trout are uncommonly beautiful, but they still startle me with their vivid colorations and sleek forms.

Most of these fish grabbed the small Beadhead Thread and Copper, including the trout pictured above and below, from two different angles.

I recognized most of these fish as ones I have caught in months past (attesting to the power of catch and release in maintaining a thriving wild trout population), including a beauty of a 15" male pictured below, one of the first really nice Oak Creek Browns I fooled, in late summer/early fall last year.

Beyond the fly fishing itself, Oak Creek was a marvelous place to be during the spring, with the strengthening sunlight awakening all sorts of plants and animals.

The Tiger Swallowtail butterfly above and Ornate Tree lizard below were but two examples of creatures that enriched a day along the stream, and revealed themselves to the observant.

On this same day, I headed to a different location later in the spring afternoon, a stretch of Oak Creek that I have just recently been exploring and discovering.

I found fewer fish in this stretch, but managed to entice a couple, including this richly-covered, chunky trout of 16-17", that again took the #18 Beadhead Thread and Copper.

I continued upstream, surrounded by picture-perfect weather, and eventually came upon a deep chute of a run, a ways above the pocketwater shown below.

I drifted the Crawbugger and Beadhead Thread and Copper through the depths of the run, and within several casts, received a thud of a strike, that transformed into the sort of ponderous head-shaking and heaviness that any angler recognizes as a big fish. A torpedo of a trout proceeded to tear about the run and pool below, twice threatening to break off, and vaulted through the air in one timeless moment (always an impressive sight when a 20+" trout goes airborne), but fortunately I was able to hold on, and soon guided a lunker of a Brown to shore, elongated curving jaws with kype and all.

This magnificent male Brown stretched to 23", surpassing the bruiser Brown from earlier in this post, and became the largest Brown I've landed from Oak Creek (and in general in my fishing excursions) to date.

Interestingly enough, the big fella also took the small beadhead nymph, disputing the reputation of large Browns only moving for big ugly nymphs and streamers.

Here are a couple of final images of the beautiful fish, before I watched the trout revive and return to his lair.

It occurred to me that this Brown might be kept if caught by some people, to be consumed or eaten without a second thought. Individual fish may not matter in the greater scheme of things, and of course I am a biased fly angler and trout nut, but keeping this kind of rare, old and cagey specimen seems unthinkable and short-sighted to me, and just knowing such trout inhabit Oak Creek make it a richer place, full of mystery and wonder. At any rate, I sat and watched the bruiser recover in the run, and considered my good fortune yet again in April, to successfully hook, land, and release another stunner of a Brown from Oak Creek.

I set out to cast along the stream once more at the end of the month, this time wading up along a reach of Oak Creek new to me (always a pleasure in my opinion to explore new water). Again, the weather was brilliant, the water in healthy, post-runoff condition (still featuring a slight tint, but with further improved clarity and decreased volume), and life in a myriad of forms, bursting from the seams of the banks and the stream itself.

And once more, I found a few more vivid Browns in a feeding mood, if stealth and a light presentation were employed. The trout above measured a solid 17", and the mouthpiece showed evidence of a previous hookup and release (whether intentional or not). Truth be told, this particular fish rested in a nice run that probably sees hundreds of people a year pass by (or through) it, and served as a testament to the staying power of Brown trout in watersheds, even in places that may see heavy traffic at times.

On this late April day, I wandered along a variety of pockets, pools, and riffles, prospecting with the same double nymph rig I employed on previous visits, and discovered relatively few fish, but when found, they were good trout, in fine condition, and seemed willing to strike at the #18 BH Thread and Copper.

The richly-colored Brown trout shown above (and a closeup head detail below) measured close to 18", and was one of four fish landed for the day. I managed to spot him in the soft water behind a partially submerged boulder, next to a sweeping current, towards the tail of a significant run. In fact, the brute held in a location that I would not have immediately guessed for a fish of its dimensions, but Browns can be anything but predictable, especially in a complex stream like Oak Creek, and good fish-sighting skills can come in handy in these situations.

I dragged another good fish from the depths of a pool further upstream (and another spot that receives heavy use from human visitors), a 16" hen that again showed a preference for the little beadhead nymph.

I continued upstream, passing by some likely-looking pools and runs, that nonetheless yielded nothing in the way of trout (which may or may not have suggested an absence of the fish, especially in the watery puzzle that is Oak Creek).

Even in runs that seemed devoid of trout, Oak Creek was unfailingly lovely and enchanting, as usual, to the point of being distracting in the best way.

Eventually, I came upon a dark frothing run, with currents that funneled together near an outstretched log--just the sort of spot a good Brown might appreciate for cover and access to drifting food.

As luck would have it, a good-sized drake drifted through the currents, and the curving form of a nice Brown trout exploded from the water, only to miss the chunky mayfly on its way back into the run. I had left my larger mayfly dries back at home in another fly box (how often has that situation occurred to anglers everywhere?), so I tied on a tan-bodied, #10 Neversink Caddis, and made a short cast up into the broken water. After a few drifts, the Brown exploded on the bushy fly, and the fight was on, with me steering the fish away from the log as much as possible.

The fish came to bay finally, and materialized as another broad-shouldered, handsome wild Brown, this one right at 16".

I had to admire the warm gold, olive, and rusty hues of this male Brown, helping to produce yet another beautiful trout, that somehow seemed to emulate the colors and features of Oak Creek so well.

So, April approached an end for me along the banks of Oak Creek, a generous time full of memories of fantastic fishing, the ascendancy of spring and all the buzz of life associated with it, and perhaps another window into the workings of elusive Brown trout. Like the Common Black Hawk pictured below, the month helped me gaze a little deeper into the rhythms of the stream, and if anything gave me new-found appreciation for the mysteries of Oak Creek.

Oak Creek, early April 2010

Spring can announce its arrival in an infinite number of ways--the insistent call of a wren, leaves unfurling from the outstretched limbs of a sycamore, growing light against red canyon walls.

As the snows began to recede from a strong winter in northern Arizona over the past few months, stream flows inevitably mounted, producing that condition known to all anglers familiar with running water, runoff.

I visited Oak Creek often amidst these elevated flows, casting here and there, hoping and waiting for improving conditions, and all along noting increasing signs of spring taking hold, such as the Ornate Tree Lizard basking on a log above, and flowers opening to meet the sun's warmth below.

Eventually, the waters seemed to drop and clear, just slightly, and the creek felt ready to reawaken with the activities of trout...or perhaps more truthfully, I simply couldn't stand it any longer, and started off the new fishing season in earnest, putting in the time and renewed focus along my adopted homewater.

The month of April marked the beginning of a marvelous stretch for my angling endeavors along beautiful, multifaceted Oak Creek, and for me, felt like the true emergence of spring. I explored numerous reaches throughout the season, from above the West Fork through and below Grasshopper Point, both old favorites seen in a different light, and a number of new stretches that at times yielded some fantastic results (and always provided more insight into this demanding stream).

I began the month casting through runs of one section that I had only briefly (and unproductively) explored last summer, on a tip from a fellow angler, and started off with a bang in the run above, drifting a #10 Crawbugger through the high, discolored currents.

A strong fish grabbed the streamer in the middle of the drift, and proceeded to charge about the run, using the flows to its advantage. Eventually, I pulled an 18-19" Brown to the bank, a female by the look of it (and one of the better fish I have managed to land in Oak Creek), and snapped a few pictures before returning the trout to her lair.

I approached another nearby run downstream, with a likely-looking pocket created by a well-placed sandstone boulder. As the photo indicates, the creek was still heavy and frothing with runoff, creating challenging conditions for wading and fishing. While some anglers shy away from these conditions, it has been my experience that the higher water and reduced visibility of spring seem to invigorate the trout, particularly larger Browns, creating more security for fish to actively seek out potential food. In any case, I cast the Crawbugger up against the face of the rock, allowing it to sink and stripping occasionally.

Again, a good fish struck at the fly, materializing as a beauty of a male Brown, right at 16", belly glowing golden in the strengthening spring light.

Yet another fine Brown came to hand in a pool in the vicinity of the above fish, and stood as the third and final trout of a productive early spring day. I wandered upstream, and cast over other likely pools and runs, but to no avail--the fishing that had begun with a bang finished with nary another trout seen or hooked. Fly fishing can be like that sometimes, reflecting the moody, unpredictable nature of the environment, particularly an ever-changing, complex system like Oak Creek, populated with moody, unpredictable Brown trout. I suppose it is that unknown, shifting quality beyond human control that helps keep me drawn to fishing, always tinged with the hope that something unexpected and wonderful could happen, often in the fleeting form of a wild trout.

I made my way up through a pocket-riddled stretch of creek a bit later in April, and found few willing takers on this given day, although the settings were glorious.

One fine Brown of 10 or 11" clobbered a #12 Beadhead Krystal Hare Nymph, and posed briefly for a photograph.

Runoff slowly receded in Oak Creek as the days approached the middle of April, but the flows still remained noticeably higher and tinted as compared with summer and fall.

I revisited a favorite reach of water in the second week of April, with many of the hardwoods still lacking leaves. I spotted a few Browns here and there, fooled a few, and spooked plenty more.
I came upon a familiar run, that contains a deceptively deep slot created by a current confluence flowing right past a root wad of a large tree. It is an easy spot to overlook, but is just the sort of location that would seem likely to hold a good fish, perhaps even a large cagey Brown, under the right circumstances.

I tied on a #10 bushy Neversink Caddis, and trailed a #16 Copper Emmons (my take on a Copper John, consisting of peacock sword tails, fine copper wire for ribbing, a few turns of peacock herl followed by starling for the collar, and a tungsten beadhead) off the end on 5X. I haven't fished a hopper-dropper setup with much enthusiasm in the past, probably because it strikes me as being too similar to indicator and bobber fishing, which I usually prefer not to employ (not really for any good reason, other than being one of those goofy preferences that every angler seems to develop in their own way over time, to fit their own justifications). However, in this instance, the setup seemed to fit the conditions perfectly, so I set aside my preconceived notions, cast up and across, right into the main current seam, and watched the dry drift downstream. As the fly passed near the root wad, it disappeared, and I immediately lifted the rod, to feel a shuddering, unyielding weight on the far end of the line. A powerful fish raced up and down through the extent of the run, causing my reel to scream in protest, and I soon saw the shape of a big Brown, doing its best to part ways with the tippet. Fortunately, the tippet held, and after an extended battle, I guided the brute to the shallows, revealing a hefty, long-jawed Brown just exceeding 20".

The extended jaws and bulk of the bruiser attested to the undoubtedly predatory nature of an older male Brown trout, but in this case, the fish moved for the small Copper Emmons, probably taking it for a small stonefly or blue-winged olive nymph. Note the fly wedged in the corner of the mouth below.

This fish went down as my largest Brown caught from Oak Creek to date, and the first to pass the 20" mark; needless to say, I felt exultant and satisfied to gaze at such a beautiful, impressive trout, before taking time to revive the fish, and then watched him strum back towards the run, fading back into the shifting hues of the currents. This fish also reaffirmed for me the reputation of Brown trout achieving considerable sizes, even in relatively small stream settings, and made me ponder on what other bruisers might be lurking under some of the countless boulder-strewn runs throughout the creek. Remarkably, I managed to cross paths with a few more of these elusive larger Browns throughout the spring, as detailed in some of the upcoming entries.