Friday, March 30, 2012

After the flood, Oak Creek, March 2012

One of the most significant storms of the season moved through northern Arizona in the middle of March, depositing much-needed snowpack on the landscape over several days.  Once the snow began to melt, runoff and swollen waterways inevitably followed, with heavy turbid flows present in streams, including Oak Creek.

While many anglers view runoff as time best spent away from the water, it has become one of my favorite parts of the season for pursuing good-sized trout.  The high discolored water creates challenging conditions for fly fishing, but also provides cover and an influx of food, causing some large browns seem to feed actively and lose some of their caution.

I visited Oak Creek when runoff was still in effect, but water levels had dropped noticeably from the previous days.  The stream remained extremely turbid, but with enough visibility for feeding trout to notice some larger offerings, like the Crawbugger and San Juan Worm shown above.  The dirty water also let me get away with heavier leaders and tippets.

I prospected through several sections and runs in search of active trout, and while I only encountered a few fish, they were hefty specimens.  Unfortunately, the first two threw the hook after spirited fights, but I managed to hold on to another that grabbed a #10 Crawbugger and proceeded to tear downstream, rolling over the leader and trailing fly in the process, and trying its hardest to break off in the process.

Eventually, I steered the bruiser into the shallows, and gazed down at a brown that measured 20.25", showed some girth, and featured abundant spots against simmering olive brown tones.  The fish came from a glide that runs low and clear for most of the year, and runoff conditions probably provided one of the few times when the brown could be successfully approached and fooled.  I snapped some photos of the high water brown, and watched it vanish back into the tea green currents.

I returned to Oak Creek near the end of the month, on a bluebird day teetering between late winter and early spring.  Runoff was all but over, and the stream had regained most of its clarity, save for a slight tint to the water.

I wandered along a few pools and runs, and managed to connect with several fish on subsurface offerings, including a handsome 14.5" brown from the location above, that escaped my grasp before I could get a photograph.

I approached another spot downstream, where a good trout or two sometimes make an appearance, and cast a double rig consisting of a #10 Crawbugger trailed by a smaller nymph up into the tail of the run.  A good brown in the upper teens materialized from an undercut bank to grab one of the offerings, raced back towards its hiding place, and promptly parted ways with the leader.  After shaking my head and laughing, I proceeded up to the deeper heart of the pool, cast another double rig, and after a few drifts received a strong yank from another energized brown.  This fish charged about the depths of the run, repeatedly tried to tie off against various submerged boulders, and generally did its best to elude capture.

Thankfully, I brought the fish to hand, and admired another gorgeous Oak Creek brown, this one taping out right at 20", a richly-colored male that I recognized from last year, and one that had grown a couple inches in the interim.

I took a few pictures of the long-jawed brute, and then watched him revive and strum back into the depths, hopefully to grow some more and fight another day.

March ended on a generous note, capping one of the finer months of fishing along Oak Creek I have experienced.  I reflected again on my great fortune to call such a beautiful stream "home water", populated by difficult browns that once in a while let down their guard, and never fail to impress.

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.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Before the storm, Oak Creek, March 2012

March was a generous time for me along the banks of Oak Creek, and continued the trend from February of fine trout fooled and (some) brought to hand.  The first half of the month featured sunlit mild weather, before a large winter storm blew through the region, bringing with it much-needed snowpack and precipitation.  This entry focuses on fishing Oak Creek prior to the storm, with the exception of two consecutive days that will be detailed in the following post.
Despite the pleasant weather, the landscape still clung to winter, in the form of bare tree limbs, dried husks of riparian grasses, and the slight tint of runoff lingering in the water. 

Days along the stream generally yielded a few fish, and what they lacked in numbers they more than made up for in beauty, wildness, and memorable moments, including the head detail of a 14" brown pictured above.
I found this striking foot-long rainbow in one pool, with rich coloration and a tenacity that suggested a wild trout, and yet the clipped dorsal fin and worn tail fin identified it as a hatchery fish.  Regardless of the trout's origin, it had clearly adapted well to the creek environment, taken on some of the beauty of the surroundings, and will hopefully contribute to some streambred offspring.
At times I just wandered along certain pools and runs, reveling in the warm tones of sculptured sandstone set against the gray skeletal outlines of trees without foliage, hunched boulders, and the fluid darkness of the stream.
I found a good brown hovering in the currents near here, spooked the trout in short order and watched it vanish like a ghost back into the depths.  These types of encounters often seem to be common in Oak Creek, especially with the large and wiser trout, but I made a mental note of the location to revisit the fish and its lair later in March.
I fished up through a favorite stretch of Oak Creek in the middle of the month, a day before the big snowstorm arrived, and managed to fool a handful of fine browns, including a golden 16" fish shown above, and a 13-14" specimen with vivid red-orange spots like embers in the picture below.  Both of these fish held in the same run not far from an area that receives heavy visitor use, and in fact more than a few people stood and watched while I landed the trout, giving me a somewhat unpleasant sensation of being a tourist attraction.  The browns were beautiful though, and both moved for a small olive #18 beadhead Zebra Midge.
I wandered up to a quiet glide later in the day, that sometimes offers good dry fly fishing for a fish or two, under the right conditions.  Before long, I spied a subtle riser breaking the glassy stream surface, and proceeded to switch through several patterns in an attempt to spark the trout's interest.

A sooty-colored water dipper landed briefly upstream, and kept a watchful eye on both my antics and any food items drifting by in the currents.
Eventually, I noticed some tiny pale midges, and tied on a #22 yellow-bodied Fore and Aft on a long piece of 5X tippet.  Within a couple casts, the fish sucked down the dry, quickly went airborne, and then zipped about the pool.  I brought the scrappy fighter to hand and admired another handsome Oak Creek brown, this one a chunky 14", and one of the first dry fly-caught trout from the stream this year.

With evening approaching and heavy gray clouds settling overhead, I quickly made my way upstream to one last spot, a deep pool that yielded a couple of nice fish last season.

No surface activity was evident, but after moving towards the head of the run, I spied a good brown cruising slowly in the shallows, and lobbed a scruffy #12 beadhead Krystal Hair Nymph its way.  The fish turned, and casually inhaled the fly on the first cast.

This trout also provided a tussle, and proceeded to charge about the corners of the pool, doing its best to tie me off in weed beds and other structure.  I guided the trout to shore, and gazed down at one final brown, a 16.5" male with the beginnings of a kype growing in, a good fish to end any day on.  I caught this same fish almost a year ago, and it had grown a solid inch in the interim--one more testament to the benefits of catch and release, and yet another shining moment to be savored along this demanding and wonderful stream.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lees Ferry, March 2012

One of the endearing qualities of fly fishing for wild trout in beautiful places is the often unpredictable, humbling nature of the pursuit. It seems to me that when I arrive at a fishing destination with certain preconceived notions or expectations, the place and the fish often throw a curveball or two my way, as a reminder that I need to watch and learn some more.

Such was the case in early March when I made the trip back up to the walk-in at Lees Ferry for the day, and received my medicine in more ways than one. I came with expectations of many fine rainbows being brought to hand, and landed a fine fish in short order near the Paria River confluence to start the day. However, I followed with more fish missed or lost, mostly through a comedy of errors on my part, than I care to mention here.

Some days, or parts of days, are just like that at times with fishing, when the timing is a little off, the powers of observation are not as keen, or the mind just wanders, too wrapped up in the surrounding frenetic pace of the world. Thankfully, by early afternoon on this particular day, I slowed down, tied on a #12 beadhead red San Juan Worm with an egg pattern trailing, and worked methodically up through the boulder gardens towards the upstream end of the walk-in area. I dead-drifted the double rig on a short line, and cast into as many likely seams and pockets as possible.

I only connected with a few fish, and of these, two were brought to hand, but they were both spirited wild rainbows, including this healthy female stretching just past 15".

As the day wore on, the red and pink cliffs turned brilliant with the sun's late afternoon light, and reflected on the river's surface like a giant flowing stained glass window. The rhythm of casting and wading through this landscape was mesmerizing and otherworldly, making me feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

I continued to lob the patterns upstream, and after one cast to a rather unremarkable pocket created by a subsurface boulder, the line tightened quickly, and I found myself firmly attached to an unyielding, ponderous weight. A heavy fish had grabbed the San Juan Worm, and proceeded to head-shake and use the strong currents to full advantage, wearing down my arm in the process. I could eventually see that I had hooked my best fish to date at Lees Ferry, a football-shaped rainbow that peeled off line every time I tried to coax it towards the shallows near shore. The trout had to be one of the toughest I've fought in recent memory, displaying that raw and spooky strength where you don't feel entirely in control of the outcome. Instead, I just hoped the fish didn't decide to blast away downstream and snap the tippet like an afterthought.

Fortunately, after what felt like an agonizingly long time of tug-of-war, I managed to coax the big trout close to shore, and gazed down at a thick slab of male rainbow, measuring just over 18", a dark olive fish with vibrant crimson gill plates and side stripes--truly one of the more stunning bows I've caught in some time.

I admired the beauty of the bruiser male for a few more moments as he revived in the cold clear currents, and then watched as the fish charged off, seemingly unaffected by our brief shared encounter.

It was an unexpected and welcome finish to a day that had mostly not gone as planned. I suppose a lesson lies there somewhere, but at the time I just felt glad to be knee deep in a river sweeping through a stunning landscape, and graced with a beautiful rainbow that calls Lees Ferry home.