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.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lees Ferry, February 2012

Lees Ferry along the Colorado has to be the most well-known fishery in Arizona, for the prolific numbers of strong rainbows it holds, to the stunning cliffs painted in bold hues looming above the river's banks. That a cold, clear tailwater could thrive in such dry country seems to offer up a significant contradiction, but one that trout anglers eagerly seek out and embrace.

I am one of those fly fishers that did not immediately take to the Ferry for various reasons, but the main factor probably just boiled down to a resistance to learning the rhythms of the river, and the techniques required to find success here. It took me awhile to really appreciate the fishery, but I felt like I finally "got it" on the most recent trip to the walk-in area in mid-February. The water flows were ideal for wading throughout the day, the weather was sunny and mild, crowds were minimal, and trout were on the move for spawning and feeding.

I began around the Paria River confluence at the downstream end of the walk-in area, and soon connected with chunky wild bows, including the two fish pictured above and below. The trout throughout the trip were tireless fighters, and used the powerful currents to full advantage.

Most of the fish landed were in the 12-14" range, with a precoius handful somewhat larger--all of the rainbows were beautiful specimens, both colorful and healthy, and fat in most cases. The trout in the photo below was one of the better trout landed over two days, stretched just past the 16" mark, and doubled over my 9' 5 wt like it was a considerably larger fish.

I used several patterns with success, including brown Crawbuggers in size 10, flashy black Marabuggers in size 4, small #20 red SJ worms, and #14 apricot-colored Otter's Soft Eggs. I generally tied one of the streamers to a 4X leader, and then attached one of the smaller flies to 12-16" of 5X. I did not use indicators (probably an antithetical practice to most Lees Ferry anglers), but instead maintained slight tension during the drifts to detect subtle takes. Egg patterns were the most consistent producers for me, although annelids had their moments, and the streamers drew some attention from a few aggressive fish, including the 16" fish pictured above.

Through it all, the Colorado River passed below striking sandstone cliffs, and multicolored hues reflected back on the currents like stained-glass windows in perpetual motion. The profusion of rich colors against the liquid music of the river put me in a trance at times, causing my thoughts to wander when casting and prospecting for trout.

Above, a lone angler worked the flats upstream of the Paria River in the waning light of late afternoon, dwarfed by the immense scale of the landscape.

I returned to the stretch the following morning, and again found some energized trout, including this 15.5" male rainbow sporting some pronounced teeth, that grabbed an egg pattern through a bouncing riffle. The photos don't do the fish justice, but it was shaped like a football, and proved difficult to subdue.

In the two days I fished the walk-in, trout feeding activity seemed to peak in the morning and again in late afternoon/evening. Early afternoons were spotty at times, probably due to fluctuating river flows, but still yielded some fine trout, particularly while wandering up towards the boulder fields near the upper section and casting to sheltered lies near the bank.

The sparsely spotted rainbow below came from such a spot, probably a male based on the rich red stripe running along its sides and gill plates, and moved for an egg pattern.

A scrappy female followed suit from the same run, also taking an egg pattern. Both of these fish were 13-14", seemingly the average good-sized bow for the trip.

The varied hues of wild trout are inevitably something to appreciate, and these fish were no exception.

So, fishing was a blast on the Ferry, and time seemed to merge together, punctuated by the frequent insistent tug of a spirited rainbow. I caught plenty, lost at least as many more, and life in the moment seemed just about right.

The light was slanted and beautiful in the fading hours of the second day, and I found myself casting on a short line up through boulder gardens and pocketwater, the ruddy pink-orange cliffs in full relief before me. I received another strike from a strong fish, and after a stubborn fight, eventually pulled close a classic-looking, heavily-spotted rainbow.

The fish featured a wide band of crimson rose on the flanks and gill plates, and measured a solid 16"--one of the prettier rainbows I have caught in the state, and reminiscent of redbands landed from rivers I hold dear in central Oregon.

And here is one final image, of a fat 15" male landed as darkness took hold--the photograph doesn't show the full extent of the bow's coloration due to using a closeup flash, but it was another stunner, and a good one to end the day and trip on.

I certainly shed my reservations about Lees Ferry on this visit, and a part of me wished that the hours would continue to stretch on and on, with trout responding in kind at the end of the line--always a sign of a good fishing expedition, and a reason to return, to be immersed in the soothing tonic of the river once more.