Monday, April 30, 2012

To keep a fish, April 2012

Spring arrives late to many of Arizona's mid to high elevation trout streams, especially those passing through canyon reaches.  Looming rock walls essentially act as refrigerators, enveloping landscapes below in cooler temperatures early and late in the season.

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. 

Winter stones hatched as light filtered down to the canyon floor in late morning, although any fish present did not seem to take notice.  Interestingly enough, the female stoneflies possessed regular wings as shown in the image above, while the males were flightless, and resorted to crawling over stones.  This sexual discrepancy reminded me of a much larger stonefly (related to golden stones) present in the Northwest, that emerges later in the summer. 

I hiked downstream away from an access point, and cast a size 10 Crawbugger through runs and pools, figuring any potential fish were more likely to strike at a larger meal in the low visibility flows.  I received a strong yank from some unseen trout that shook itself free from the hook early in the day, but many stretches of the stream seemed strangely devoid of fish.  The reason for this absence soon became clear, when I found physical evidence that I was fishing behind at least one other angler.

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".  

My outlook on the day diminished a bit after finding a few of these kept fish, and I began bracing for additional sizable trout lying lifeless in the shallows with each new likely pool I approached.

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 wandered along a different stretch of East Clear Creek a week or so later, and this time had the canyon pools to myself.  The water was still discolored, running high, and cold with snowmelt, but less so than the previous trip.  I connected with a handful of fish, including this heavily spotted bow just over a foot, again on a Crawbugger.

I tied into a couple of trout in the upper teens, including an acrobatic rainbow from the tail of of one run that went airborne repeatedly while racing directly toward me, and a chunky brown later towards evening, but both threw the hook.  Streamer fishing can be a hit or miss proposition that way, but it was good to know such fish were present and willing to strike.

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.

I enticed another handsome wild bow nearby as well, this one a colorful 14" male.

A few streamside residents crossed my path along the way, including a striking caterpillar with contrasting hues like some miniature living flag.  

I revisited the stream once more in April, this time near the middle of the month, and again found no recent signs of visitors, at least not of the human variety.

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.

The bow sported a kype, and ranked up there as one of the more beautiful trout I had caught so far for the season.

The day was still young, and I found myself thinking I might end up bringing several more good fish to hand on this visit.  Well, any angler knows where that thinking leads, and the rainbow turned out to be the only trout I landed for the day.  I did hook up with one other trout that felt substantial, but I never got a visual, and the fly simply shook lose after an extended battle.  This creek can be that way in my experience, both stingy and generous depending on the day, and seldom revealing more than a few of its gems at one time.  Sometimes that means covering a lot of ground with little to show for in terms of actual fish brought to hand, but the scenery is abundant, the crowds are few, and the chance always exists to hook into a solid trout or two.  The same could be said of many of Arizona's trout streams I suppose, and that is part of their charm, at least to me.

I did find numerous grasshoppers along the banks beneath the sun's afternoon warmth, a sure sign of spring's emergence, but no trout were interested in the occasional misjudged jump and subsequent drift of one of the insects in the stream.

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.  

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Oak Creek, April 2012

Spring grew in leaps and bounds with the passage of April along Oak Creek.  The season announced itself in countless ways, large and small, from the varied birdsong of neotropical migrants to the subtle lengthening of days.  Somehow, all of these signs combined with a certainty of life unfolding, and the wheel of the year turning.  

I paid a couple of visits to the stream during the first part of the month, including an early April jaunt up through a section of the catch and release area, where the trees were still reluctant to don their foliage.  The trout were a bit reluctant too, and spooked easily to my presentations.

Still, I managed to fool a few gems, including this scrappy 12.5" brown that pounced on a #12 Krystal Hare Nymph drifted under a boulder near the head of the run pictured above.

A spring storm in mid-April deposited a thin layer of snow on the higher reaches of the canyon, while the welcome smell of moisture clung to the stones along lower reaches of the stream.

New green leaves provided a warm contrast against red sandstone walls, and the curling whitewater pushing through, all merging into an untamed canvas.

With the recent precipitation came an influx of water that boosted stream flows, and seemed to invigorate some of Oak Creek's finned inhabitants.  This chunky little brown moved for a #16 Copper Emmons drifted through a riffled run, and sported red spots glowing like miniature embers.

I lobbed a pair of nymphs into the run below, and another fish struck just as they passed to the right of the partially submerged boulder in the foreground.

Oak Creek breeds tough trout that often fight above their weight class, and this 13.5" brown proved no exception to that rule, using the tumbling currents to its advantage.

As shown in the image below, the fish took a #18 beadhead olive brown Zebra Midge, indicating a preference for the little nymph over the Crawbugger that I had also been casting.

Leaning hardwoods draped a run further upstream in dappled shade as afternoon wore on.  This glide is deceptively deep, and can harbor good fish at times.  I managed to hook and lose a large brown here on a dry a month ago, and was curious to test the reach again.  Sure enough, I began noticing riseforms periodically dotting the surface, and the shadowed sweep of a trout's tail underneath, always a sight to get a flyfisher's blood stirring.

After studying the stream I noticed the occasional size 12 March Brown and a smattering of smaller tan caddis drifting atop the lazy currents.  Whenever the larger mayflies passed within range, a trout would rise up and suck the insects down on an unhurried fashion.  These mayflies never seem to hatch in abundance, but whenever even a few are present, the trout take notice.  They have quickly become one of my favorite aquatic insects to see and match along Oak Creek.  I tied on a tan Parachute Sparkle Dun in matching size to an extended leader tapering to 5X, cast up towards the shade of the opposite bank, and managed to put a fish down within several drifts.  I rested the run briefly, then cast again with more care, and was rewarded with a snout that lifted over the dry--fish on!  The fish raced about, jumped repeatedly, and looked to be a pretty 15-16" brown, but I got sloppy for a moment, and the trout made one last run under a branch, snapping me off in the process.

After a few choice expletives followed by slow deep breaths, I tied on a new fly and length of tippet, and as luck would have it, another fish rose quietly in shallower water closer to my side of the stream.  I let the line unfurl towards the riser, and again, a trout broke the surface to intercept the low-riding dry.  I lifted back on the rod, and immediately a big brown went airborne, a breathtaking sight.  The fish was all over the place, thrashing about and then dogging down in deeper water.  Eventually I coaxed the trout to the shallows, and gazed down at a beauty of a 19" brown.  It was a female by the looks of it, and among the largest fish I have landed on a dry from Oak Creek, a satisfying catch to say the least.

Soon after releasing her, I spied another subtle rise in a run just upstream, where a channel funneled between two exposed boulders.  On the first cast, another trout rose confidently for the mayfly pattern, went airborne, and then barreled straight towards me, making me reel in frantically.

This fish also fought tirelessly, and again I managed to draw it in close, revealing a golden olive, red-spotted male brown of 16", just a flawless-looking Oak Creek trout.  The browns in this stream never cease to get me with their beauty, and certain fish like this one are true stunners.

The brown certainly wasn't interested in my admiration though, and after several photographs he was off like a shot, back to his lie.  I called it a day soon after releasing this fellow, and reveled in that crazy magical hour or so when good browns were taken on top, a time that always seems so brief in fly fishing, especially in a place like Oak Creek, and yet lingers on in the mind, for days and years to come.