Sunday, May 20, 2012

Rim fishing part 2, May 2012

I finished up my "work and play" trip by revisiting the creek that I had fished a couple days earlier, but this time headed further downstream where the water cuts into some truly rugged country, in search of a few seldom-visited trout.

I hiked down a side wash from a bluff dotted with prickly pear, and soon found myself surrounded by vivid multicolored cliffs and emerald streamside vegetation hugging the precious cool water.

I quickly encountered some deep pools with murky water that seemed to scream out the presence of lurking predatory browns, and steep rock walls that were more appropriate for canyoneering than fly fishing.

I carefully negotiated around the pool above with a natural barrier falls at the head, and proceeded to work a Crawbugger through the depths.  I hooked at least one hefty fish that I believe was a good trout, but the fly simply came out after a few head-shaking runs.

I did find a few modest-sized round-tailed chubs, or one of the other recently identified and closely-related species that can only be differentiated by genetic testing.  In any case, this fish fought hard, and somehow managed to fit the streamer in its mouth.

Arizona features an abundance of remote wild country, particularly along streams cutting through rugged canyons, but this area had to rank up there as one of the more inaccessible I have had the pleasure to explore.

I brought another chub to hand from this discolored pool, this time on one of my #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymphs.

I continued downstream a bit farther, and missed a few decent-sized fish (both wild bows and chubs), but decided to turn around at this canyon pool and return back upstream, to explore the creek above and eventually loop back to my starting point.  It crossed my mind that this would not be a good place to get injured, given the jagged isolated nature of the landscape.  On the other hand, one of the real joys of this place was its wildness and the lack of any sign of humanity, and I felt humbled and fortunate to be able to dwell for a time in such a place.

At this point though, I had not brought a trout to hand, and I was starting to get anxious to bring a few wild browns and bows to hand.  I spied the pool below, and stripped a Crawbugger through the run, letting the streamer pause and sink from time to time.

After a number of casts, I received a slow steady tug that transformed into an unyielding weight.  I saw a golden flash, and knew that a good brown had inhaled the crayfish pattern.

The bruiser dogged down deep and made some short yet spirited runs, but eventually I coaxed a beefy 21" male brown into the shallows, and took a moment to admire the rich orange and yellow hues, leopard spotting, and toothy jaws.  I also noticed a bulge in the middle of the trout's belly, and it felt an awful lot like a good-sized crayfish--the bigger fish here undoubtedly key in on substantial meals!

I returned the brown to his lair, and savored the contentment of a heavy wild fish landed in beautiful lonely surroundings.

I continued upstream, and every turn introduced another impressive set of twisted, multi-faceted rock formations and quiet pools.

Trout turned up here and there too, such as this small wild rainbow.  Like the chub earlier, it somehow found a way to fit the bulky streamer inside its mouth.

The canyon country here was inspiring and a bit spooky at the same time, and I got the feeling that few people venture through in any given year.

This pool gave up a football-shaped brown of 16"that fled with a flick of its tail before I could get a picture.

Several rainbows held in this scooped out bowl of a pool near the whitewater at the head, including one hatchery bow that somehow made it this far downstream.

But the remaining fish were wild and lovely, including the two pictured here, with the rainbow below even starting to put on a little size.

A brown approaching 20" also spooked from beneath an undercut bank in a deceptive shallow run downstream, a fish that made me suspect that I was missing other good fish along the way.

In fact, I came across multiple deep pools that I am convinced held a larger brown or two, but for whatever reason they did not come out to play.

The pool above required a bit of rock-climbing to get up and around, or a swim through the middle, and I elected the former.

The sun crept behind the canyon walls all too soon, and I knew the day's adventures were coming to a close.  Fortunately, I managed to attract the attentions of one last good fish from the pool pictured above, by casting a Crawbugger towards the lush vegetation near the bank and letting it sink.

Another beauty of a brown struck, and I soon brought another colorful, heavily spotted male to hand, this one just shy of 18".  I wondered whether this fish had ever seen an angler before, as the buck slipped away from my grasp, merging back into the olive green flows.

As twilight settled, I bushwhacked my way out from the remote canyon stream with a twinge of regret to leave, but glad to know that such wild places and trout thrive in relative anonymity, there to be discovered anew by the adventurous.  

AZ Brookies, May 2012

Among the diverse fishing opportunities in Arizona, wild brook trout are some of the more unusual and highly regarded quarry sought after by small stream anglers in the state.  The char tend to inhabit the highest elevation streams, where the water runs cold and clean through subalpine meadows and stands of spruce and fir, in settings reminiscent of more northerly latitudes.

Several creeks on the Mogollon Rim hold self-sustaining brook trout populations, so I explored a headwater tributary of one watershed during my fishing excursions in May, and to my delight found some willing and beautiful little char, including the individual above that grabbed a scruffy Krystal Hare Nymph.  

The creek was generally small in stature, but did pool up with some frequency, creating runs of surprising depth that provided holding water for many of the finned inhabitants.  

I fooled a couple of brookies from one long slow pool, including the fish above.  I've always thought of brook trout, and char in general, as some of the most striking salmonids, and it was a pleasure to see the jewelled spots and bold contrasting colors of these fish in hand once again.  

Brook trout shared the stream with some spooky browns, including the specimen below, coaxed out from beneath a small log jam.  Like the brookies, the fish was adorned with some red-orange spots that seemed to burn like embers.  

Both the browns and brookies topped out around 10-11" for the most part, just about the perfect size for their small stream settings.   I spotted one larger fish that proved elusive, and the deeper pools seemed capable of harboring additional surprises--all the more reason to revisit this gem of a creek.

As afternoon wore on, forest shadows crept across the creek surface, and fish began rising for the odd mayfly and terrestrial floating by.

I tied on a #12 black foam beetle, and cast it up into the sluggish currents, watching the fly drift back downstream.  Often enough, the drift was interrupted by the splashy rise of a cruising fish, sometimes culminating in a streamlined handful of vivid spots and bright colors.

The silhouettes of looming conifers touched by the day's fading light reflected upon the glassy surface of the creek's pools, fractured periodically by a quiet rise or the fall of my fly line.  

A few more fish responded to the beetle before evening settled, including this lovely male brook trout that displayed some fight for its size.  

The day's search for a few Arizona brookies had been more than successful, in settings that matched the trout's beauty.  I finally said goodbye to the precious stream, until next time.

Rim fishing part 1, May 2012

Occasionally, the opportunity arises to mix work with pleasure, and I made the most of a survey week to the Mogollon Rim east of Payson in mid May, bookending the trip with fishing excursions to a couple streams I had wanted to explore.  

I prospected along one stream that quickly descended into a canyon at the start of the trip.  Plunge pools beckoned below angular cliff walls, and polished boulders created challenging, even treacherous conditions for streamside travel.

When fishing a new backcountry Arizona stream (particularly one with a healthy crayfish population and the potential for larger fish), I usually begin by tying on a #10 crawbugger, and this outing proved no exception.  I worked the streamer through a number of likely pools and runs, and received some enthusiastic strikes, primarily from hatchery bows that had drifted downstream from easier access points, and also smaller, wild rainbows eager for a substantial meal.  Rumors of larger resident browns swirl around this creek, especially in the less accessible canyon sections, but they proved mostly elusive on this day.

I spent some time casting and stripping a few subsurface patterns through the pool above, and finally fooled a good rainbow on a #12 krystal hare nymph, cast towards the shadows of overhanging tree limbs.  The fish stretched just beyond a foot, featured some rich coloration and abundant spotting, and had the distinction of being the largest wild rainbow of the trip.

As evening approached, shadows swallowed the stream beneath the canyon, and I cast a crawbugger up into a deep pool in the waning light.  As the streamer drifted back towards me on the second or third cast, the line went taut, and a heavy unseen fish ripped about the run.  After an extended fight, the fly simply came loose, leaving that empty, deflated space behind.  I felt encouraged at hooking whatever lurked in the hole though, and vowed to revisit the spot early in the morning on the following day, before meeting up with some folks to conduct fisheries and wildlife surveys.

I clambered back down along scree and rocky slopes in the cool dawn air, and found the pool still cloaked in shade, with the first golden rays of the coming day just beginning to highlight outstretched branches and cliff tops.  I drifted and stripped a streamer under the dark liquid surface, and sure enough, a violent strike rocked the end of my line once again, no doubt the brute that had escaped the night before.  I did my best to play the fish aggressively yet carefully, and steered it away from an undercut bank draped with grasses and tippet-busting tree limbs.  The tippet held, the fish returned to the depths at the center of the pool, and finally I coaxed a thick 20" hen brown to the shallows.

The brown possessed a classic beauty, with black spots scattered across warm hues shifting from olive to russet gold, and an impressive girth for its size.  I felt some hard bulges in its belly, probably a few unfortunate crayfish that the big trout had recently consumed.  The fish also had a few indentations on the right side of its head and gill plate, perhaps the failed attempts of a predator, or an angler that had planned to keep the bruiser.  The larger browns in these streams are survivors though, and it is always with a sense of awe and humility that I feel when having the good fortune to land one, and then return the trout to its murky, concealed haunt.

The brown marked an early highlight for the trip, and a good start to further wanderings featuring wild country and beautiful trout, always a happy wedding for fly fishing.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Lees Ferry, May 2012

There are certain days that linger in the mind of an angler, days that shine in the memory banks for the superb fishing and overall experiences they offer.  One recent outing to the walk-in area of Lees Ferry in early May provided such a day, when the flows were ideal (meaning low and extremely wadeable), the scenery was typically breathtaking, and the fishing was exceptional throughout the day, with seemingly every trout in the river showing an interest in feeding on any halfway convincing offering drifted its way.

I started off using a #12 beadhead tan San Juan Worm with a #20 black midge larva (kind of a cross between a Brassie and Zebra Midge) as the trailer, both tied on 5X, and stuck with this setup the rest of the day.  Trout took both patterns, although more of the bigger fish landed seemed to prefer the larger fly.

Here is a simple midge larva pattern, with a black thread body, a few turns of copper wire for ribbing, and a peacock herl head, set next to a little olive natural that the fly was meant to imitate.  Based on the enthusiastic reaction of the fish, it seemed to work well enough.

A number of folks were already fly fishing in the vicinity of the big boulder and further downstream towards the Paria River confluence, so I started casting along the bank upstream, making my towards the upper boulders area.  

I quickly tied into an energetic, beautiful rainbow stretching just beyond 16" that charged through the currents, showing an unyielding strength that seems so representative of wild Lees Ferry trout.

The bow was heavily spotted, with a warm splash of rose on the gill plates and sides, set against a bronze, golden-olive coloration that matched the hues of the algae clinging to the stones perfectly.

I continued casting and wandering upstream near shore, watching the tip of the fly line for any telltale hesitations, twitches, or more dramatic pulls.  I was struck once more at the grand scale of this landscape, and the bold colors that seem to pop from every corner.

Fish struck at my offerings with some frequency, including this chunky 14-15" bow that fought above its weight class and tried its best to wear my arm out.

I found a gorgeous 16.5" male rainbow on the end of my line as I came close to the boulders area.  The buck showed some brilliant coloration, and reminded me of native redbands from some of my old stomping grounds in central Oregon.

The fish showed some teeth and the beginnings of a kype too, ranking as one of the most memorable, striking fish caught on the day.

The image above shows the sweeping montage of Lees Ferry in the walk-in area, looking downstream from the lower boulders area.  The small dark dot in the center right is an angler working a run near shore (he caught a vivid male rainbow in the 17-18" range in mid-afternoon as I was walking nearby), reaffirming the wide open country here, and putting mere human concerns in humbling perspective.  The flows were low enough that one could wade almost to the opposite bank at this location, opening up a lot of water to fishing.  Needless to say, I crossed paths with numerous trout here, ranging from dinks to fat fish in the low-mid teens that could throw their weight around and use the currents to their advantage.  

I circled back downstream in the afternoon and retraced my steps from the first part of the day, casting out from the bank into likely seams, slowly heading upstream to the boulders area.  I found both of these rainbows in the 15-16" range along the way, and was struck by the overall healthy condition of the trout, and also the endless variability of individuals in terms of coloration, spotting patterns, and overall appearance.

Eventually, I returned to the boulders area, and cast into every likely pocket and seam I could reach, stripping excess line rapidly, watching the line intently, only to cast once again.   

With the red cliffs looming above like massive sentinels, and the chilled currents of the Colorado sliding below with their own music, the fishing took on a rhythm of its own, settling me into a pleasant reverie that would be interrupted now and again by the insistent, shuddering tug of an electrified flash of fins and color arching out of the depths.

This jewel of a rainbow materialized from the dark blue-green flows of this reach, a 13-14"male that seemed to reflect and embody the bold hues of the surrounding landscape.  

As afternoon approached evening, the ever-present cliffs bathed the changing currents in fractured orange and red.  This is one of my favorite times of day to to fish here, when it feels like I am casting and wading up through a painting, with the canvas swirling and shifting before my eyes.

I prospected through the upper boulders area, hooking and losing a few good fish in the process (Lees Ferry trout are nothing if not accomplished escape artists), and then watched as the fly line shot underwater on another drift.  I lifted the rod, and felt the heavy resistance of a substantial fish on the other end of the line.  The trout sulked against the streambed, raced down and across current on several sizzling runs, and generally proved unyielding and remarkably strong.  I gradually moved towards shore, and coaxed the fish in the same direction, almost like trying to walk an unresponsive, stubborn dog.

I never quite felt in control of the fight (big fish can have that effect), but finally, I managed to steer a football of a hen rainbow into the shallows.  The photograph doesn't do the trout justice, but she was in excellent condition, measured 18.5", and had an impressive girth, probably exceeding 3 lbs.

The heavy rainbow had a subdued coloration, but nonetheless stood as one of the more impressive trout I've landed at Lees Ferry.  I felt fortunate to bring the fish to hand, and took a few more moments appreciating the bow before slipping her back into the cold clear flows.

I fooled one last colorful rainbow for the day, this one a 15" male that moved for a #20 Brassie.  By this point, I had landed somewhere between 30 and 40 fish, and lost who knows how many more.  If time had allowed, I probably could have fished on and on, oblivious to the world outside of the river and its finned denizens.    

But evening descended quickly, the shadows grew long, and the sun set the last fiery light blazing upon the cliffs.  I figured it was a good time to call it a day, an exceptional day worth remembering.