A Pilgrimage of Sorts

Arizona is home to more fish than it ever gets credit for. The ones everyone knows are the endangered Humpback Chub and of course our two native trout species, the Apache and the Gila. However AZ is home to many underrated “non-game” fish that will give you more than you expect if you are lucky enough to hook one.

One of those species is the roundtail chub, often considered a by-catch when searching for trout. I will admit, the first time I caught a chub I was searching for trout. I began by floating a dry towards a few rainbows in a remote (and tiny) creek along the rim. However I could not ever get the fly to the trout, not because the cast was difficult or the current seams challenging, but because these voracious, plainly colored fish would slam it as soon as it hit the water. So it began, a trip for trout that turned into a trip for chub.

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The beginning of an addiction
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They will slam dries

Chub aren’t the prettiest fish in the creek, they do not have flashy sides like a trout, or even the bright yellow bellies of a sucker. While John Gierach said that a trout is prettier than it needs to be and that’s what captures a fisherman’s imagination. Someone who has never caught a trout can look at a picture of one and be impressed by the color and look of the fish. The chub plays no such games, all its colors are just enough. Tan to darker green/tan upper bodies and white bellies. However this is when you need to pay more attention, the tops of these native fish are flecked with gold. The base of their fins, an almost bright orange. And they hit dry flies, small streamers and nymphs with a reckless abandon.

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They live in some pretty cool spots

 

My addiction did not begin as a rush, or as soon as I caught my first fish. But instead started as a slow itch in the back of my mind. I went back to that same creek, telling myself it was for trout. Even half heartedly looking for a few rainbows, but really looking for the multitude of chub this creek hides. After another afternoon of near constant hook ups, spirited fights and dull colored chub. I was well and truly addicted.

Most recently I made my pilgrimage to the heart of Arizona’s chub fishing. No, I would argue to the heart of chub fishing in the world. Blue green waters, fish everywhere and solitude one can only find in the desert. I won’t name names, but this place is not hard to figure out from the pictures if you’ve been before. It was a place I’d been to many times in the summer, but never during fishing season.

We left Flagstaff on a chilly morning and headed down to the desert. The dirt road takes you on a winding, up and down journey through some incredible high desert. As you near the last ridge you can look down and see a little ribbon of green in the bottom of the valley, with the white, bony branches of leafless sycamores rising above the other vegetation. With some helpful tips from Lesser Places who knows this creek and chub fishing better than most, we rigged up our rods and began

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We began about halfway up the fishable section of creek, parking our car in the abandoned (usually packed full in the summer) parking lot. We started fishing upriver with no luck or even sight of a fish in the crystal clear water. One thing I had forgotten about this creek was how thick the edges of it are, and how hard it is to get a good cast out! I had probably lost around 8 flies in the surrounding trees or to the travertine bottom of the creek before I’d ever even seen a fish!

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What I actually did all day, untangle and lose flies..
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Kayla searching some good looking water

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Some tempting water (did not tempt a fish though)

After a few hours laboring upstream through heavy brush. I finally got a bite, no tugged along the bottom, maybe a bite? I’m calling it a bite! The next cast through the same area yielded the same results a slight bump, this time when I pulled it in though there was a tiny cub on the line! This little guy broke the skunk and the next 7 cast resulted in 5 fish out of this plunge pool.

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If nothing else works, try purple
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Gold flecked (mini) streamer eater

 

The fish in this pool were so aggressive they chased a small size 10 deer hair “streamer” through the pool and a few even slammed into it!

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Purple was a hit, the purple frenchie

As we were wrapping up fishing in this pool a group in pack rafts came down the creek. We watched them drop off the lip of the pool and into the next plunge pool, maybe an idea for next time?

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A group of pack rafters

 

The next pool up was a similar result, lots of small fish and one or two larger! Kayla was pulling fish out of this pool on the order of nearly every cast. We could see one or two larger shapes resting towards the bottom of the pool, however it was tricky to get past the smaller residents. Finally, Kayla managed to slip the fly through the mob of hungry little fish and connected with one of the pools larger residents. A short fight and the largest fish of the day was in! While not huge, or even big by anyones standards, it was good to see a fish with a little more size on it!

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The “bruiser” of the pool

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Another fooled by the purple

The final hour of the day had some incredible fishing in it. Crystal clear water with fish lined up along every seam in a 3D pattern both horizontally along the water and down to the bottom of the pool. Darkness started coming too quickly and we headed back to cars.

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Final look at the creek

The Balloon Hopper

My go to dry fly pattern in just about every spot with water in Arizona. This pattern is a mix between a balloon style caddis and a foam grasshopper pattern. It is by no means my original, it is just one that I have been slowly tweaking to work best for me in the spots I like to fish, skinny waters.

It may be a caddis mixed with a grass hopper, but it looks like just about any floating bug in Arizona’s small creeks. Whatever the mix is, it seems to do as good a job fooling trout as it is an indicator on the hopper dropper set up. Best of all the fly can float all day with minimal help! It has worked for me in high alpine streams in Colorado and tiny trickles of water in the Arizona desert. Hopefully this post can help you make a few or inspire some other variations to make it your own!

Sorry some of the pictures are so dark, I was having a heck of a time trying to get the right lighting and eventually just settled and decided a little dark would have to do! In the future I’m looking to try out some new lighting schemes!

Ingredients:

  • Hook: Size 8-16 dry fly hooks, wider gap is better!
  • Tail: Deer hair or pheasant tail, 5-10 strands
  • Body: Dubbing, buggy and natural colors (brown, gray, green)
  • Foam: Thin width foam, brown, yellow, green and tan are my favorites
  • Legs: Any color, dark or bright
  • Hackle: Brown or grizzly dry fly hackle to match hook size
  • Wing: Deer hair
  • Underwing: silver or green flash
  • Indicator Post: Brightly colored foam or rubberleg

Step one of any fly is one I can always do, attach the thread. After that is where things get trickier!

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Attach a small group of deer hairs to the tail of the fly, about a hook shank long. Next, add dubbing to your thread.
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Wrap dubbing approximately 2/3’s of the way up the hook body.
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Cut a small piece of foam with a taper at one side, about 2/3’s the length of the hook.
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Tie the foam on to the front of the hook facing away from the body of the fly.
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Add rubber legs at the end of the dubbing body, I don’t worry too much about keeping them even at this stage, I can trim the sides down later.
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Secure the dry fly hackle in front of the dubbing body and over the legs
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Add a pinch of deer hair about a hook length long and secure with 5 or 6 wraps. If you want to add flash to the wing you can add some flashabou to the deer hair. Wrap the hackle forward to the foam and secure it there.
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Trim the top side of the hackle even with the dubbing body and flip foam towards the back of the hook. Secure with 2 or 3 firm thread wraps.
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Add a small piece of foam for an indicator post if desired and secure with 2-3 wraps. Whip finish 4-5 times and add a small drop of head cement.
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Fish eye view of the finished fly

Part of what makes this pattern so effective is the multitude of color combinations it can be tied in. Some creeks the difference between one or two fish and ten is switching the legs from yellow to orange. Hope you have some fun making a few of these flies and fooling a few fish!

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Another, in my favorite color combination, brown and orange!

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Tiny AZ Brookie on the Balloon Hopper
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Desert dwelling AZ brown, indicator post made out of an orange rubberleg
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High alpine rainbow in the Weminuche

January in the Red Rocks

As much as I can I try to keep the locations I’m fishing in a secret. At worst, I like to make it so you have to have been there to know where I am writing about. I do this partially to keep the spots I like to fish less crowded, but also because figuring out where to fish has been such a process for me. While there are some creeks I have read about online that show pictures of spots, flies and tactics. The creeks I have liked the most have been the ones I had to search out. The little blue lines at the upper ends of canyons. Lee’s Ferry is not one of those places. As much as I would like for it to be a less well known place, the Colorado River and high red walls are pretty much impossible to hide. To write a story about the area without talking about the river or the canyon walls seems to be a massive injustice. So, I’m sorry if you think I’m publicizing a spot and making it more crowded. But let’s be honest, the Ferry is hard to hide and was famous before I was ever born. Plus my writings will never even show up on the first page of google if you were to search for it!

Winter fishing in Arizona is often a winter rather than a WINTER. However somedays do dawn more coldly than others. I woke in the morning to find my sleeping bag and backpack covered in a hard layer of frost. The blue and grey bag was almost white with the thick layer of frost. Luckily I had left my waders in the car and rushed into them before the ice that had formed around me overnight had a chance to thaw out and get me wet. My friend Cole emerged from the back of the truck and reminded me I was covered in ice and sleeping on the ground wasn’t as wise as the covered bed of a truck. The sun was beginning to color the west side of the canyon walls and we knew it was time to rush to the water before its golden light hit.

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Sun touching the red rocks and fog beginning to come off the water

Arriving at the river the grass along the edge was frozen and crunchy. Upon arriving a scared a flock of buffleheads and mallards rocketed out of the shallows and into the cold sky. A good sign, it means we were there first! We started by occupying my favorite section of riffle and in short order I felt a hard tug and reel stripping run. FIMG_9251irst fish of the day was on and it was a dandy! It was an almost magical scene to start the day, a hard charging rainbow jumping and flashing its pink sides to match the canyon walls. The fog rising off of the water added an almost storybook feel to the experience, more of something you would read about than ever get to experience. I will not try to paint the picture anymore, because like the quality of my camera and the quality of my words do not quite capture the feeling and scene that first fish of the day created. The strong fish jumped and showed its colors as it tried to run me first up, then down river. Finally, I got it into some shallower, slower water and was able to corral him into my net.

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Colored up buck

The fish had great color and appeared to be a strong male with a big head and shoulders. It is always good to see how healthy the fish are at the ferry this year.

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Eats on the Cracktacular Scud

After releasing the fish I sat in awe for a moment at the edge of the river looking at the spot the colorful fish had disappeared back into the river.

I stood up and took a cast from where I had been sitting, aiming for a submerged rock along the edge of the current, my indicator dropped and I lifted my rod tip! At first I felt only slack, must have hit the bottom.. Then the water exploded and the fish came rocketing across the surface! A short, but spirited fight later and I had anothe rbeautiful rainbow in the net!

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The not as spotty strain of ferry rainbow

 

Shortly after I had released that fish Cole was hooked into a strong fish that he managed to coax out of the strong currents where it had been hiding.

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Almost..
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Yes!
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Success!
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Big jawed rainbow!

His first fish of the day was a gem, with a thick body and big head and bright pink stripe on its side! The fishing was challenging with the river flowing at nearly 17,000 cfs the amount of wadeable water was limited to the edges. The heavy current kept us on our toes and I lost multiple fish that I did not turn towards the bank fast enough and they rushed off into the heavy current.

My next fish was one of the most acrobatic I have ever caught. As soon as I set the hook the fish skipped first upstream, and then down! The fish seemed to run with only its tail in the water as it made hard upriver runs with only its tail in the water. After at least 5 to 6 strong jumps I had it in the shallows. As I reached to net him there was one last jump and run in the trout, catching me off guard! The next time I got him to the slack water I was able to land it.

 

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A very acrobatic rainbow

Shortly after we had released the last two fish we decided to move down river away from the growing number of people beginning to head to the riffle. We moved downstream into easier wading at this high flow. The fishing slowed down but before too long Cole managed to hook another good fish and I lost one shortly after.

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Only a scale remained on the midge

The water continued rising, pushing us ever closer to the thick Tamarisk trees growing along the waters edge. This turned out to be a good thing! As we moved further downstream and closer to shore I had a fish begin to play with my flies. The same spot multiple drifts in a row. Was it a rock? A fish? Weeds? It seemed I would not know the answer, my next two drifts came by with not even a bump.. But third times a charm right? Maybe not, nearly the whole drift passed with no action, past the spot my flies had been getting nibbled on. As the line began to swing back towards me they suddenly pulled the opposite way of the current! A fish was on!! The fish hugged close to the bottom and refused to be moved out of the current. A slow tug of war began, unlike the earlier explosive fights, this fish had a different strategy. A long slow tug and refusing to leave the heavier current, making me question the 5X tippet and multitude of knots tied in my old leader. Towards the end of the battle the fish decided to change tactics and went charging into the muddy waters of the Paria! This suited me fine as the water was almost slack and the fish far easier to reel in.

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Bright cheeks
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A fine looking fish stretching the length of the net!
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Headed home

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The best fish of the day was also our last bite, Cole moved upriver into a likely looking riffle and on the first cast it was fish on! After a slow start to the fight this fish began to show its strength, pulling his 6 weight rod down towards the water and stripping line! With 3 or 4 very strong runs and not much of a break in between runs the fish was not subdued until it was finally wrestled into some slower waters!

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Losing line
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Almost got the fly line back!
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The picture doesn’t do this fish justice, one of the hardest fighting fish I’ve seen!

When the fish came to the net we were stunned at the size, while similar in length, this fish was far fatter than any other we had landed on the day. Unfortunately I do not have any better pictures, but the memory will stick with me for some time to come!

Another incredible trip to one of my favorite spots, couldn’t have asked for much more!

 

 

Colorado River Winter Float and Fish

The winter in northern Arizona has been an unseasonably warm one. With temperatures in the upper 50’s to low 60’s, all plans of skiing have been halted. This warm weather does allow for fishing areas I normally would not go to if the weather were colder. This combination of warm weather and no snow to ski on sparked the idea that we could hike in to Marble Canyon and float our way down to Lee’s Ferry on pack rafts.

The day came and we left early in the cold, predawn light. We made our way north to Lee’s Ferry to stash one car for half of the shuttle and then headed up to the Page area. We turned off onto a sandy road and stopped under a sandstone ridge. This trip was beginning to look a lot like all good Arizona trout fishing adventures, drive to the middle of the desert and you’re close.

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Filling up on the essentials at the “trailhead”

We walked about a half mile through the desert and came to the edge of the canyon. Looking down we could see the river winding through the bottom, not yet touched by the 11 am sun (it was gonna be a cold trip). After a half hour or so of looking for the route down, we finally came to the right break in the cliff edge. Luckily the wrong spots were pretty obvious (vertical cliffs) and the right way was marked by steel posts driven into the rock.

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Halfway down

The way down was steep but relatively straightforward with only two short sections to scramble down. On the flip side the hike was pretty exposed and the drop to the side was a bit heady. At the bottom of the trail we found the ropes which were helpful but you could definitely get by without them. Word to the wise, the leather gloves we brought for the steel cables were very worth the extra weight because the cables were old and no longer smooth.

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Tanner descending the cables
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The route in from the bottom looking up

We reached the beach at the bottom and found an opening in the thick groves of Tamarisk trees that coat the shoreline. After inflating out boats we pushed off into the main current. The river seems lazy from the side, but in many spots the water flows at a deceivingly fast pace! The plan was to paddle along until we saw a nice spot to fish and then see if we could get into any trout. We drifted through the high red rock walls for around an hour when we came to a promising looking riffle.

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Drifting through the upper canyon, the route in is shown in the back

We pulled our boats on shore and began rigging up the rods. The first few passes through the riffle’s tailout did not bring much action. I figured before moving up I’d try casting one deep and before I had time to mend a fish slammed into my fly! The fish made several strong runs in the deep current giving my reel a pretty serious workout! Even after I got the fish into the shallow slow moving water along the side, the big shouldered rainbow made several more strong runs, giving my rod a workout!

The trout was using all his tricks and tried to shake the hook with a good jump and several strong head shakes. Finally, we were able to get the large fish to hand and took a second to admire its colors.

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All colored up for the spawn!
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Big head and a jaw just beginning to develop a small kype

After a few quick photos we sent the fish back home and he darted off into the clear water.

Shortly after releasing the last fish Tanner began shouting that he had a fish on! His fish made several strong runs before being corralled into the shallow water. After removing the hook the fish took off like a rocket!

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Tanner with a good looking bow

We moved up into the riffle and before long Tanner had another fish on. This fish must have jumped at least 7 or 8 times and they were no small jumps either!

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Hooked up in the riffle

Coming 2 feet out of the water with its head shaking side to side he had hooked into an angry and wily fish! After a wild fight he had the fish on shore and it was a small miracle it hadn’t shaken the hook during all its acrobatics.

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A very acrobatic rainbow

After that fish came to shore we decided it was a good one to end on and that we had better head downriver towards where we wanted to sleep. The best part about doing this trip in December was that no one was up camping, the bummer was that we only had a few hours of day light in the bottom of the canyon. We began our trip downriver and away from the little riffle that had produced some great fish.

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Looking back at horseshoe bend
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Last sun of the day

Dark came early a little after 5:30 and we set up for a cold night. After a freeze dried meal it was time for bed, or at least there was nothing else to do but be cold so sleep sounded like the better option! The nearly full moon lit up the canyon walls almost so much so that it was almost hard to sleep until it too set behind rim.

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Morning came around 7 the next day and it was cold! After some oatmeal we put on our frozen waders and hoped paddling would warm us up!

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Not the most inspiring breakfast but it was hot
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Frozen boots and iced up boats

We drifted down from camp and finally got a little bit of sun which warmed things right up. No more ice on the waders and a good looking riffle just downstream of us and the cold night was beginning to feel pretty worth it!

We began fishing a promising looking riffle with nice, slow pockets along the side. However, there were no takers in the area. We moved onto some different depths and flies, but still no luck! As we fished we noticed smaller fish rising all through the shallower area in riffle. While we could tell there were no large fish in this spot, the temptation to cast to rising fish of any size is always there!

The morning was turning out to have quite a prolific midge hatch and the little, dark bodied midges were coming off the water in scores! I had a couple of size 18 dry fly patterns I had been messing around with at home and figured if not now, then when?

I started with a purple haze in size 16 with no luck. I moved on to a peacock bodied wulff in size 16. This fly had a few come to the top to see, but still no takers. Finally I added a few inches tippet beneath my wulff and tied on a Scotty’s Midge I had heard about from Blue Ribbon Flies out of West Yellowstone, Montana. These flies are awesome for fooling picky fish rising to tiny, emerging midges.

As soon as I cast this combination, I had a hit on the Scotty’s, and I missed. I roll cast back into the same area and another hit, this time on the wulff! I missed again! These little fish were reminding me of some of the smaller streams in Arizona with their voracious appetites and lighting fast strikes! By my fourth or with cast I finally hooked one of the little guys and brought in a 5 or 6 inch young rainbow.

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Little rainbows on dries

The baby rainbow was small, but brightly colored with lots of fine spots and its par marks still showing. Despite being relatively tiny fish for the canyon, being able to catch fish on dries in mid-December is a blast! Also It was good to see a lot of young, healthy fish in the river and it bodes well for the years to come! After a few more small fish on dries we decided to head on down to the launch ramp and hopefully be back in Flagstaff before dark.

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Somehow this little guy managed to grab a hold of the Scotty’s Midge

As we drifted the last few miles in to the ferry we were lucky enough to see two condors glide lazily along the cliff walls before perching up on a high ledge. Not a bad way to end a mid-winters float!

Mexico Continued

The day after Thanksgiving began like all post Thanksgiving days, lazily. A combination of too much sleep and too much food (odd that should make one feel tired). Luckily a lazy morning is the perfect pace for Rocky Point. I began the day with some sweet green corn tamales from the vendor walking down the road (delicious).

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Tamale breakfast

Shortly after I moved out to the shore and began casting. Today I was hoping to add a few species to my list I had caught this trip and maybe add a little size. My first few cast brought some cabrilla and a few needle fish to hand.

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Needle fish showing of its camouflage and chewing on the net.
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Kayla’s ambitious cabrilla latched on to the large, orange clouser

The needle fish continued to intrigue me with their long jaws and seemingly voracious appetite. A word to the wise, stay well away from their jaws, they don’t break skin but they are hard to get to let go of fingers! The cabrilla continued to feed hungrily on just about any pattern we threw (bugger, nymph, clouser, anything with a hook that moves). Kayla hooked into a large fish that sent her reel screaming. After a short fight we saw the large, dark sharp dart out towards open water minus the fly. Oh well, next time!

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Ben’s Cleanup Popper

After seeing some surface action and small minnows jumping I decided to tie on a popper, just to see what happened. I reached for a size 8 Ben’s Cleanup Popper. These poppers are a fun and easy tie and have worked really well for me!

The action on the popper was fairly fast, however I was having a hard time hooking what I believed to be needlefish. After multiple passes through and no hookups (and a little bit too much attention from passing birds), I decided to switch back to the clouser.

After a few more small fish we moved down the beach towards a rocky out cropping that hopefully held a few more fish. Along the way we saw a dried up eel sitting on the shore.

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That would be interesting to hook into!

We also saw a baby sea turtle make its way into the ocean. This was the first time I had seen a turtle in Mexico! We watched it make the last five feet of its overland journey to the sea and off it swam!

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Turtle makes it to the ocean!

The next spot allowed us to wade a bit further out and fish in a sandy pocket between two spurs of the reef. We began fishing, both of us pulling clousers through the gap in the reef. A few cabrilla showed interest immediately and we seemed to have escaped the needle fish schools (a relief). My line went taunt and a larger weight than usual was attached to the end of it! This fish did not immediately run for cover like the cabrilla and grouper we had caught before. I could see the shape of the fish but it continued to elude capture with three or four strong runs. After a short (but hard) fight Kayla managed to get the fish into the net! The fish had a stunning color combination of a sea-green body with a black stripe and yellow dot near its gills. The fins were an orange color tipped in a neon blue and the scales were separated by more neon spots.

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Colorful clouser eater

The fish had some significant teeth and did its best to destroy the pliers as I extracted the hook from its bony mouth. After a few photos we set this stunningly colored fish free and it darted back to the edge of the reef.

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Toothy
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Tailspots

We continued fishing the same area until the needle fish reappeared (they are everywhere). “Ten more good casts and we are going in.” Was the decision as the tide was coming in and the water getting rougher. On one of my final cast I felt the strongest fish of the trip! This fish ran me around every rock and piece of reef it could find. It was all I could do to pull it away from one rock and it would change directions into the way I was pulling and head for another! I was slowly gaining ground on the fish and the 5 weight fiberglass rod was handling it beautifully, when the fish pulled another direction change and the line went dead… Not no fish dead, but stuck dead. Did it get my hook stuck on a rock? Did the fish get stuck in a rock? Luckily for us my dad was snorkling a hundred feet or so away and we were able to get his attention.

He swam his way over and we explained our situation. He dove down about 5 or 6 feet to the fish. It had gotten in a small pocket in the rocks and puffed its fins up to be well and truly wedged in the reef. Luckily the presence of a really big fish (my dad) seemed to scare it out of its hiding spot and we were able to net the fish! My first trigger fish on the fly! I see why people target these hard fighting and wily ocean fish! Not only are they a lot of fun to catch, but they are quite pretty. A dark bodied fish with blue edges to its fins. Their jaws are also quite toothy and make an impressive clacking sound when the bite down!

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First trigger fish on the fly!
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Dried out trigger fish on the beach showing off its teeth

My introduction to salt water fishing was a lot of fun and I will definitely be coming back to try my hand at it again! A final evening of bocce ball and Tecates and back to the States, not a bad way to end a trip eh?

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A Trip to Old Mexico: Part 1

Rocky Point has been an almost annual fall trip for my family since I can remember. However, this is the first trip I have been able make since I have started fly fishing or fishing at all. I began preparing for this trip by procrastinating all week on fly making (like usual) until the night before it was time to go. I had a few patterns that would work for salt but I had wanted to make quite a few more clousers before I headed down. Luckily I was able to get a few hours at the vice to start whipping up some minnows. The clouser is an elegant and simple way to mimic baitfish. One of the hardest things for me is remembering less is more and a little bit of color and flash go a long way! My experience using this versatile little fly on bass, trout and now in the sea has been that the more sparse a fly is, the better. I am so often tempted to add rubber legs or make a more beefy body to a fly that is better suited to simplicity.

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A collection of clousers, a popper and some simi seals after a few hours of frantic tying
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Simple and flashy, one of the more productive flies of the trip

It’s always easy to forget that it takes just about as long to get to Rocky Point as it does to get to the San Juan Mountains around Durango from my home. I don’t know why for these past few years I forget about heading down to the salt but rest assured that will no longer be the case! Leaving early in the morning put us at the border around 11 and on the beach by noon. Shortly after passing through the border we were into the rugged desert that surround Puerto Penasco. It is one of the relatively uncommon places where the desert meets the ocean directly.

Upon arriving and unpacking it was time to explore the beach and maybe cast a fly or two with the incoming tide. I was unsure of what to tie on (I have never fished or researched salt water fishing) and figured I’d give the chartreuse clouser a chance. Sure enough it began producing a few hits and a couple of chases. I began to slow my stripping speed down and it was fish on! My first fish on the fly in the salt water was no giant, but it did have some pretty awesome colors and I’d never seen one before!

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A small cabrilla, first fish on the fly in the salt

I continued fishing for an hour or so and brought in a few more small cabrilla, but bocce ball and cold Tecates were calling, so who was I to say no?

Thanksgiving day dawned clear and calm, with temperatures in the mid 80’s and glassy water. I started fishing early in the morning on the ebbing tide (not the best time I found out). The action was near constant, however the hook set eluded me. The fish were right on the surface and I could see their splashing, but no fish. Confused I continued casting and varied my speeds and tried pausing before the set, still no luck. Finally one of them must have hooked them self because on one of my pauses the line went taunt. The fish that came in was about a foot long but no thicker than a quarter. It had a blue-green back, slivery belly and a long, narrow jaw filled with teeth. It was a needlefish, no wonder I couldn’t see what was hitting my line because the fish was nearly invisible even in my net!

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First needle fish
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Toothy!

I was surprised to see what fish had been haunting me for the past two hours and I couldn’t believe that these foot long fish had been within 10 feet of me and I had not yet seen one!

I continued fishing and began to let the line sit so my flies could sink beyond the upper part of the water and the seemingly voracious needlefish schools. The action was definitely slower at this depth, however it did allow for a few more cabrilla and another reef fish I do not know the name of.

 

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Small cabrilla with a mouthful of orange leech
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Blue eyes

The reef fish (if you know the name please let me know if you do!) didn’t have sharp teeth, but instead what looked like flat molars to grind and crunch up their food. I’m guessing it mistook the orange simi seal leech for a type of crab or shrimp, but who knows! This was the “largest” fish I had caught so far on the trip. The fish made itself feel much larger when it would manage to wedge itself in the reef (a reoccurring theme for the fish in this area..).

After a mid-afternoon turkey dinner (it was Thanksgiving after all) we returned to the surf and fished for a half hour or so as the sun set. Kayla managed to hook into her largest fish of the trip. This fish became well and truly wedged in the rocks for around 5 minutes. We sat there and waited, wondering if her line caught and the fish had swam off. Suddenly her line regained tension and she quickly brought the fish to shore. It appeared to be a young gulf grouper (?) and had row of some nasty looking teeth (almost like a walleye).

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Orange clouser eater

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Sunset bocce ball games

It was a good beginning to my novice salt water fishing career. I learned 1X line is about perfect and that sink tip is key! Also there are enough fish on this reef that it seems any fly (within reason) will drum up some interest. More to come in part 2!

Desert Rainbows

I have spent many hours combing google earth for the hint of a possible creek. Rarely do I find something and think there may actually be water, even more rarely do I decide to take a trip to find out. The alleged creek was marked by a narrow band of trees clinging to a narrow valley bottom. Further research (a forest service map) revealed there were springs present, but that it was the dotted line of an ephemeral stream and a few photos showed there may be a large pool there. On the assumption (hope) there would be a pool that held fish we drove south. It was a cold night in Flagstaff but the promise of warmer southern weather and some water (hopefully) with trout (really hopefully) seemed like a better plan than staying in the cold.

We turned off the interstate a little closer to Phoenix than I ever thought to look for trout and began our way along winding dirt roads. We snaked our way through grassy hills covered in big prickly pears and the occasional scrubby tree. As we moved away from the interstate the roads followed suit, getting steadily worse. Our speed corresponded with the roads and the final 9 miles took an agonizing hour to bounce our way down.

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If the road doesn’t look like this does it count as Arizona fishing? Probably not.

The “creek” started as all good Arizona creeks do, dry. This had us second guessing the decision to go to this dotted blue line (not even a solid one) instead of going up to Lees Ferry (definitely a solid blue line).

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First view of the creek.

Luckily in Arizona a dry stream bed does not mean there will not be flowing water around, it just means there will be a walk to it. Some of my favorite streams in the state are only above ground for a brief period, hopefully this would be the same. A few hundred yards from the parking area we came to the wilderness boundary and slipped through the gate. We walked under huge sycamore, elm, oak and pine trees. This canyon seemed to house an incredible array of old growth riparian trees. Definitely a little gem even if the water remained below the surface. We moved our way up the trail and came upon the beginnings of surface water, the problem is that it was covered in a thick coat of leaves. I get stuck in enough leaves without the surface of the water being coated as well, hopefully there would be a clear pool ahead!

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First views of flowing water

The first pool we came upon was a deep, dark run which seemed devoid of any life other than a couple of small bugs bouncing off the water surface. The next pool up ran deep next to a boulder with half the pool hidden under a double thick coating of leaf debris. But in this pool there were signs of life, 3 or 4 dark shapes circled above the bottom of the pool! There were fish here after all!. We rigged our rods up, Kayla choosing the royal wulff and me the AZ mini hopper. A few looks but all we really achieved was scaring the fish in the pool. We moved our way up with new found confidence that there was the possibility of catching some sort of fish, at this point we had not gotten a good enough look to figure out if they were trout, or chub or something else entirely.

The dry flies did not seem to be getting any sort of attention but when a fly sunk, the follows began. I switched to a mini simi leech and began jigging it along the undercut bank of a tiny pool. Bam! A small fish rocketed out from under the bank and slammed the fly!I quickly had the fish to the waters edge and it turned out to be a very darkly colored rainbow!

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A mouthful of leech

This little fish gave us quite a surprise and we were determined to see if the other fish in the creek were a similar dark color. Moving upstream we saw a few fish rising and switched back to the royal wulff. A few pools up I could see 5 or 6 trout lined up and sipping bugs off the surface. My first cast fell short (not that it mattered) and all the fish turned and ran at the fly. They all missed, the next cast and it was another jump ball that they seemed to knock the fly away from each other again. Yet another cast and this one lifted a fish out of the water but then it slipped the hook again! A fourth cast had another hit but my hook set was far too early and that was the end of the action in that pool. At least we knew the fish were hungry!

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Pocket water

The next fish that went for my fly I was ready for. This was the lightest colored fish of the day and quite pretty!

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Wulff eater

This pocket of Arizona definitely held some unique and very pretty trout. As near as I could tell this area hadn’t been stocked since sometime in the 70’s or 80’s (but don’t quote me I don’t have access to all the data). It was awesome these rainbows had been able to hold on so long in this remote canyon. The fact that it is at the end of a terrible road and up in a wilderness area probably helps!

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A few trees still thinking it was fall along the creek edge.

We moved our way up stream and little trickles of water seemed to be feeding this creek from all over the valley walls. As we moved up the water got smaller and smaller and we wondered if any fish were around. In one small pool we saw the biggest fish of the day, after multiple drifts of the dry and bouncing a leech off of its nose the fish seemed tired of our games and went under a rock. The next pool up was so covered in leaves you could only see fish when the rose up through the leaves after the little bugs that walked across the leafy top. In one of these pools Kayla got multiple rises to the dry but no hook ups. She switched to the leech and dropped it through a gap in the leafs and BANG! Fish on! She managed to hook into a pretty and dark colored little rainbow. This one had finer spots than the others and pretty red/gold sides.

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Another leech eater

Shortly after this fish we came to the upper end of the creek. If you were to walk the trail I think this creek would be a short 10 or 15 minute walk top to bottom with probably less than a mile of surface water. Which made it all the more incredible these fish had persisted here for so many years without help. The colors on these fish made you wish more areas were allowed to exist on their own and not constantly diluted with hatchery stock.

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Upstream of the last pool
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Upstream end of the creek hidden under thick leaf cover

We began moving back downstream and looking for a good spot to grab some lunch at and maybe cast to one or two more rising fish. While we ate lunch a cowboy from the ranch on the edge of the wilderness boundary came through on his way to find a few stray cows. He was wearing the biggest pair of chaps I had ever seen but when you look at the prevalence huge prickly pears and honey locust I can see why!

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Honey locust guarded by its 3 inch spines

The honey locust is an interesting story, while it is considered a native plant it was believed to be transferred from the Mississippi valley by native Americans. This is an interesting take on native vs. exotic plants. It seems that if the people that brought the species with them lived long enough ago the species will be considered a native. I wonder if someday many years from now some of the introduced trout will begin falling into this category? Seems strange to think now but I guess you never know!

While sitting at lunch we noticed a few rises and I decided to tie on a little caddis pattern made of cdc and tied by my friend Ryan. The first couple of drifts through the little pool there yielded no strikes.

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When I was beginning to think maybe these fish aren’t feeling like caddis today a small splash heralded the disappearance of the fly. The fish turned out to be a tiny and almost all black rainbow trout, definitely one of the oddest fish I have ever caught but pretty none the less!

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A very dark rainbow

The next pool above this also showed a few slight rises and on the second cast one of these sipped the fly. Up to that point the fish had been small enough I hadn’t had to hold the line on my click-pawl reel. When I set the hook on this fish the reel let out a short buzzing sound as line left and the fish ran upstream! This was my fish of the day due to its brilliant coloration in which no photo I took could fully do it justice (but they rarely do).

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After this pool we moved our way back to the car, fishing one or two pools along the way but generally enjoying the massive old growth sycamores that grew skyward in maze-like fashion.

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Kayla managed one more fish in the pool that had defeated her at the beginning of the day and we decided that was a good way to end the day fishing. While she managed to catch the fish my ability to catch a picture of it was not quite there

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Dark fish against a dark bottom
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A hatch of red beetles

As we made our way down the dry creek bed we were shadowed by a group of noisy Pinyon Jays. The drive out takes you through some fairly stunning desert grassland scenery and a few cool little riparian areas shaded by massive trees. Returning to county maintained roads was a definite relief for the car. What the creek lacked in size it made up for in fish and solitude. It is definitely a spot you can go to and wonder if you were the only person to cast a fly into its waters that year.

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A good sign to see if you want a spot to yourself

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