The canyon has a couple of “windows” where hiking and camping aren’t completely heinous. Spring and fall are the best windows with a couple of warm days in the winter thrown into the mix. As the days start getting longer, the call of the canyon starts to hit. If you have spent time in the canyons seemingly infinite amount of backcountry you get the “itch” every time the weather windows line up. The curiosity to check the next canyon over or the spot you hiked past last time. This trip was down a side canyon I had consistently driven past on my way to other canyon objectives. I had driven past not necessarily because this spot was any less interesting, but more so because it seemed like it was always there, so close it was easy to say “I’ll get that one next year”.
Next year became this year, which became today, we geared up to head down canyon, with the promise of a nice sunny day (ignoring that 30% chance of rain in the forecast). The drive up was easy and it looked like it would be a busy day at Lee’s Ferry, all the more reason to enjoy a nice side canyon all to ourselves. Upon arrival at the trailhead we did a final check (did I actually pack my reel and flies?) and headed out. The beginning of the canyon starts in a wide and sandy wash that rapidly transitions into pour overs and broken rock. This canyon is incredibly active, huge sections of walls crumbling off and some truly massive flows of sediment pass through it on a regular basis.
We picked our way through the rock and debris from past floods and land slides. The saying that canyon miles are actually 2 regular miles was never more true than in this canyon. After some pretty consistent down climbing and scrambling, with the middle half mile of the trail seemingly more vertical than horizontal we got to a “flatter” section of canyon. The walking got a little easier and we could move in a generally straight line.
The bottom section of the canyon had a tiny spring that moved along it, the flow in it similar to turning on the bathroom sink. The edges of the creek were an incredibly slick mud covered in a thick crust of salt. A few little salt cedars clung to the edges of the tiny creek but other than that it was a very desolate and hot spot. The 80 degree high felt like it was on the edge of triple digits and we were very glad we could hear the roar of the river echoing up the canyon.
At the end of the was was beautiful little sandy beach surrounded by boulders and any thoughts of fishing were quickly lost in the thought of cooling off in the clear water. We may have run into the water but quickly stopped, it felt icy cold! Standing in the water up to your knees was more than enough to seemingly instantly cool off.
A short bit of exploration revealed the eddy around the rocks at the beach were filled with fish, some smaller fish even rising while the big ones stuck to the depths.
We rushed to tie on some flies and started fishing. I put a pistol pete on the end of some sinking line and began casting to the edge of the current. The first cast I felt a bobble, bottom or fish? The second cast was definitely a fish and I saw a brief flash of silver before it was off of the hook. The third cast I had one on long enough to get a jump before it spit the hook and on the fourth cast I finally set the hook (I suck at strip setting the hook, I always try and lift the rod tip to early) and landed a beautiful little wild fish.
The little fish had some brilliant colors and still had par marks on it, its always good to see the young wild fish are healthy. We continued casting into the whole with lots of hits on the bugger and a few more fish landed.
I had hooked into quite a few smaller, but fun, fish before finally hooking into a larger fish. This bow fought hard across the eddy with 5 or 6 athletic jumps before it spit the hook (the curse of barbless hooks). The next cast into the same spot yielded another strong pull, after a good fight I had the fish in close to shore and on its first jump it showed off the deep red sides of a spawning Colorado River rainbow trout. While I was admiring the colors on the jumping fish it spit the hook and I had to duck as it shot straight at my head. I was really questioning why I tied a barbless hook at this point but at the same time the take and the fight are the best parts of fishing and I got that in spades with these last two fish. Also other than the glory shot picture I really didn’t miss much with my last two long distance releases ( I’m a pro at the long distance release unfortunately).
I fished upstream to above the rapid and picked my way through a couple little riffles along the bank. It was some beautiful looking water. Fortunately the trout agreed.
Kayla also managed some fish on her indicator set up with the fish keying in on tiny midges. The fight on a tiny midge is always an interesting thing, a small hook, a strong acrobatic fish and powerful current equals a tough fight almost every time.
The sun always sets early in the canyon, with some spots slipping into shadow in the afternoon, while other angles stay light for hours longer. The long slide into twilight is always a beautiful time in the canyon and this was no different, even if it was starting to get more than a little windy. The fishing died down as the sun set and we moved towards setting up camp (a tarp on the sand).
Once the sun had fully set and the canyon was filled with a blue light, we began hearing thunder rumble and see the occasional flash up towards the Vermillion Cliffs. “Maybe the rain will stay up on the high country”, “Wasn’t it only a 30% chance of rain”? All of these statements were rebuffed as soon as we got ready to cook dinner, I mean as soon as the food came out, the wind blasted in to camp swirling sand into everyones dinner. Thirty seconds later was when the real bummer happened, a wall of rain could be seen advancing up canyon in the evening gloom, further illuminated by flashes of lighting (monsoons don’t happen in April, right?). We quickly wrapped all out sleeping bags in tarps and huddled underneath a slightly overhung boulder, which means we only got slightly rained on. Sitting under the boulder allowed us to enjoy the show, lighting forking down at the river, illuminating canyon walls and swirling rain. The rain lasted for a little over an hour, leaving us crouched behind our boulder, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. Luckily the clouds blew by and we were treated to an incredibly clear and starry night. The temperatures in the 50’s were perfect to sleep in once we got dry and despite how it started, it ended up being a good night to be out under the stars.
We woke early the next morning and threw a few half hearted casts in to the spots we had fished the evening before, with one fish on and off as quickly as it was on. Probably for the best, because if the fishing had been good we wouldn’t have left until it was too hot anyways! On our way out we found a few rocks to climb to relax and break up the hike out. Going back up the rock falls is always easier than coming down and we were back at the car before noon.
Once again the canyon was pretty incredible, not often you can fish for hungry trout in a setting like that, the only hard part about it is staying focused on the water and not looking around all day!
Some spots are better left unnamed. Actually I’ll rephrase that, almost every spot is best left unnamed. These tiny desert creeks and trickles that spill out of Arizona’s high country are best when they have to be found. The rewards magnified by hours spent pouring over google maps and old game and fish reports. That is one of my favorite parts of fishing in Arizona, that there is no guarantee of fish in the creek or even water in the creek bed. Arizona creek fishing still has an air of discovery about it that I feel some other states lack. There aren’t fly shops that know every creek here, or lines of fisherman waiting to fish their favorite spot. There is still solitude in trying to find water in Arizona and my favorite spots have been places where not another fisherman was seen on the day, or maybe for that week, or even that month.
This little creek is one of those spots. We left early on a spring morning and drove to the edge of the small canyon we would be hiking into. The hike in was easy down a set of overgrown switchbacks that hinted at a hot return hike out. The canyon wall we walked in was covered in mahogany barked manzanitas and every few steps brought the rustle of lizards fleeing our footsteps.
We quickly reached the bottom of the canyon and saw the little trickle that awaited us. It looked perfect. By that I mean Arizona perfect, around 1 cfs and covered in logs, sticks and overhanging branches. Surrounded by blackberries and wild rose. This creek would have very few easy casts and the walking would be slow, but that’s what makes these creeks my favorite.
Despite our better judgement we jumped immediately into fishing which contradicted an earlier plan to walk to the bottom end of the canyon and work our way up. What can I say, I was excited to see if the creek had fish! I started out with a parachute adams and got nothing in the first few pools. We moved down and spotted out first fish of the day, a little trout looking fish hiding next to a rock in a large (for the creek) pool. My first two casts didn’t even get a glance from the mystery fish. My third cast the dry fly sank and all of the sudden it was on, three fish fought for the sunken fly. It was time to switch it up and go sub surface. I tied on a mini simi and cast back into the pool, I had 3 fish on in as many casts but all three slipped the hook as soon as I tried to set it. On to the next pool I guess.
The next pool had three small fish suspended in the current at the head of the pool. I cast in front of them and began jigging my fly back towards the bank, all of the sudden the small fish scattered and a larger one darts out and grabs the leech! The first fish of the day was far larger than what I expected to find in the creek but by no means a monster. Still it had good colors and a toothy mouth for a small fish!
At this point we decided to go back to our original plan and start at the bottom and fish up, as fun as walking in blackberries and spooking all the fish was. We decided to start from the bottom, with renewed confidence that fish were biting.
We got to the end of our hike and Kayla started fishing a small pool that turned into a pretty fun spot to watch. Everytime her fly hit the water two or three little rainbows would fly up at it and inevitably miss the fly. This continued for a while before the larger residents began showing interests. In this little pool, around the size of a bath tub, she must have had a hit for 15 or so casts in a row. It was incredible, the bite was on and the fish were very hungry. One of the fish that came from this pool was a very dark colored rainbow, it seems when there is no consistent stocking you get a wide range of coloration and some of them can be pretty unique as they adapt to their environment.
The fishing continued to be good and the dry fly bite really took off around noon. Every likely looking corner of water would yield a strike it seemed.
Each fish brought to hand from this creek seemed to have a slightly different color and spotting pattern to it, just another reason to appreciate little waters that don’t get stocked any longer.
My best fish of the day came as a surprise when I cast a dry to the backside of a boulder. I couldn’t see the fly but I was waiting to see a ripple and hopefully it wouldn’t be too late to set the hook. The ripple came and I lifted my rod, there was a weight on the end and the weight did its best to swim back under the rock it had come from. I jumped to the other side of the creek and was able to pull the fish out from its hiding place. This fish had great color and was an energetic fighter.
We watched four fish rise in the pool above for a few minutes before sneaking up to the bottom edge. The fish didn’t seem to notice and continued gorging on the mayflies and little black stone flies that were on the waters surface, the first cast landed and two fish ran right at it! Both missed. The second cast was a different story and the “big one” in the pool inhaled the royal wulff.
We had fished our way back to the trail out of the canyon and it was a wonderful day, fish on drys and mini jigged streamers is a wonderful way to supplement a hike in Arizona’s beautiful back country!
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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!
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!