Fall Fishing and New Waters: Day 2

Day two dawned cold and clear. Getting out of the sleeping bag felt like a monumental task. The night before, the moon had been almost full and the elk were bugling all night long. A few came close enough to where we were sleeping to wake us up as they called to each other. Once or twice I almost thought I could hear them moving through the woods around us.

We began driving to the creek, with a few access points to the canyon floor of this creek sure to be occupied by others, we decided to park along the ridge and take a game trail down. This trail actually turned out to be fairly substantial and we were at the bottom after a short while. With no idea at all what was hatching I tied on a mini hopper and started casting into likely looking spots. The first pool was fishless for me. The second I came to was filled with fish, the only problem is as soon as the fly fell into the pool they all started trying to find hiding spots..

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Fuzzy looking caterpillar we first thought was someones lost fly

Upstream I heard Kayla shout and saw a splash! As soon as it was on, it was off though.. But a sign of good things to come I’m sure! I moved into the head of the pool I had spooked and one fish came up for a half-hearted take, which I missed. The good thing was I knew the mini hopper was gonna work!

The first fish of the day came from a likely looking run and my fly was inhaled in a flash. The small brown I brought in had good coloration and was back on its way after a photo or two.

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White mountain gold

As we moved upstream the three of us leap-frogged each other and seemed to alternate catching fish as we moved up. Some pools the fishing was good enough get four or five takes as we worked the tail of the pool to the head!

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Fall colors on the fish and the trees

I was very impressed by the quality of the fish in the water and it appeared to be bouncing back well from the fire that had torched both of its banks. It is good to see water in Arizona with no stocked fish and a strong wild population!

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Swimming home

The valley seemed to be coming alive as the fall set in. We moved through tall grassed made flat from elk beds and underneath groups of migrating red tail hawks. The hawks piercing calls bouncing off the canyon walls. Not a bad place to spend a morning!

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The feisty takes continued as we moved upstream and the fish seemed to be living in every spot they could fit in throughout the creek.

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Some fishing looking water along the bank

I could have spent a whole weekend trying my best to fish everywhere along this cool mountain stream. But it was time to head back to Flag. We walked back up that steep trail that had brought us in underneath spiraling hawks. A good way to end a fun weekend checking out some new spots. A whole weekend catching wild trout and not a single other fisherman seen, not bad for Arizona trout fishing eh?

 

Fall Fishing and New Waters: Day 1

The drive east of Flagstaff always has me wondering why I am driving through the desert to go fish. The reddish-tan landscape looks like I’m driving towards Mars instead of trout streams. Slowly the blue/grey hills in the distance get taller and the golden color of aspens start to take shape. Arizona’s White Mountains are like a part of Montana was taken and dropped in Eastern Arizona. With wide, windswept meadows and tress clinging to the leeward side of slopes. The area is dotted with lakes and crossed by little blue lines merging into increasingly larger ones.

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Its an area that I have not spent nearly enough time exploring and I am currently doing my best to remedy that. The first stop we took was to a tributary of a tributary to the Black River. This picture perfect creek flowed through a valley that was at times half burned by old fire scars and at others under fir trees covered in Spanish Moss. The floor of the valley was thick with grass and wild rose (not my favorite AZ plant).  As soon as the willows at the bottom broke enough to begin casting we moved down to the water and began tossing flies.

With sort of a mayfly hatch happening I tied on a size #14 royal wulff. It is my go to when I’m not sure what kind of hatch is happening and the fly is so elegant I have a hard time not picking one. The first few runs did not yield any risers.

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A cast into the bubbling pocket water at the base of a small pour over caused the wulff to disappear in a splash. The first fish on of the day was a pretty little wild brown.

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Now that we knew we hadn’t picked fishless water we moved forward more confidently. Casting into every possible slow pocket along the creek led to multiple fish, as well as many minutes spent stuck under rocks..

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This brown did its best disappearing act in the net that it could, see next image..
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Showing off its camouflage along the stream bottom

A few of the fish had brilliant coloration and the red spots seemed almost on fire as they prepared for their fall spawn.

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Fire red spots
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Shallow pool was home to more than expected

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Casting into one skinny and fast run of water lead to a much larger than expected brown! The wulff drifted quickly through faster water when it was interupted by a gentle take. When I set the hook there was nothing gentle about this fish! It drug me under the bank and then across under a rock in quick succession. After coaxing the fish out from under the rock it was trying to dig under and back across the current, I finally had a shot to net the fish. But it was not in the cards and it went on another run upstream. Finally, and with a sense of relief I managed to coax the fish into the net. I was very relieved upon netting the fish because all I could think of the whole fight was the three times too many knotted, franken-tippet I had jerry rigged at the truck, but apparently my knots were good enough today!

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The browns home

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While not a large fish, it was far more than I expected on this creek or saw again for the rest of the day!

We moved out of the forest and into a beautiful meadow with a gently meandering stream and deep pools on the bends of the stream. The water was beautiful and yielded a few rises but the fish were incredibly spooky and long casts were a necessity! After many long casts with no rise or landing in the grass along the channel we were relieved to move back into a steeper forested section of creek.

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This fish took the fly almost all the way at the bend in the riffle above this pool.

After many long casts with no rises and many missed cast into the grass along the channel we were relieved to move back into a steeper, forested section of creek. As evening fell a few small risers chased out flies but most of them missed the fly or we missed them. Somehow one tiny brook trout managed to latch onto a mini hopper towards the end of the day.

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Eyes a little bigger than its stomach?

The walk back did not have any fish in it, but the suns falling behind the hills gave the meadow some spectacular lighting. Some trade offs work out just fine.

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A few final casts

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First Day of Fall Brookies

Fall is finally here in Flagstaff and it feels every bit like it. The cold snap we had midweek killed all my tomatoes and turned the leaves on Mount Elden gold. I woke up Saturday to a strong wind and brisk temperatures in the low 40’s. We headed east out of town into the high desert along I-40, usual scenery when searching for Brook Trout right?!

We climbed out of the desert and back into the pine and fir forest. The creek was small and made its way through little meadows surrounded by tall evergreens. The grass that lined the channel was thick and overhung much of the available surface in many locations. I could’t have been more happy to see that with all this grass came grasshoppers! Rows of dry, brown ferns lined the edges of the meadow and were a challenge to remove my fly from when I made the error of getting to near to them. As we walked in we moved past a pile of fresh bear poop with elk droppings all around it, apparently this was a popular trail with the locals.

The first of the long, slow pools in the meadow didn’t yield so much as a glimpse of a fish. However once we finally sighted a brooky hovering midway between the top and the bottom we knew we were in luck. After a poor cast made worse by the wind (so I tell myself) my hopper landed about 6 feet to the left of the fish and I thought I had blown it. Luckily this fish had other ideas, after a seconds pause it charged across the pool and slammed my fly. The fish was off as quick as it was on but we knew that the creeks finned inhabitants were looking up!

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First fish of the day on the hopper!

Shortly after the first hit more started coming, first from a small but well colored brown trout. As we moved out of the meadow and into the skinny pocket water more fish started to turn up! The canyon was beautiful and filled with maple trees just beginning to turn and roofed by massive old growth conifers. This is truly my favorite type of fishing, scrambling through a thick canyon with no true trails and casting to wild and colorful trout.

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Hopper eater
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3 weight country!

The walking along the creek was tough and the fish more than a little spooky. Often a fish could be seen at the tail of a riffle feeding and just as often it would run to its hiding spot before I could ever land a cast in the creek.

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Dark colored brown Kayla caught that almost pulled the leg off this hopper!
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Gold and orange

Finally a small brooke trout came to hand a little further down creek and in a pool covered in branches and overhead leaves. It was one of those cast where I’m thinking, ‘if I don’t catch a fish I’m going to be stuck’. Luckily this time my fly disappeared in flash and this small and dark colored brook came to hand!

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What the fish lacked in color it made up for in spots!
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Always a good day when the hopper is all you need!

The day continued on and far too soon it began getting dark and we started to head back to the truck. The way back yielded a few fish as well as some turkey feathers, and to Kayla’s delight, a small tree frog!

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An almost purple brook

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Fishy looking water!
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Bright legs
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Final fish of the day

All in all checking some new water on the first day of fall couldn’t have gone much better. After all, who could complain about using a grasshopper all day?!

Summer to Fall in Rim Country

While summer in Arizona is never far off, in the high country fall can also come a little early. To take advantage of the final days of summer Kayla and I headed down to one of our favorite rim country creeks. With dreams of wild trout on foam bugs we left Flagstaff early and made our pilgrimage to the rim country two Saturdays in a row.

The weather was incredible, mid-seventies and not a cloud to be found, After a longer than expected car ride and a short hike we were into our own section of water. Other than some fearless Stellars Jays and few squirrels we had the place to ourselves as we began to move upstream.

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Not quite fall yet!

The dries did not start hot, nor the nymphs. In this case I always turn to the San Juan worm. Call it dirty, say it isn’t fly fishing to dredge San Juans through pools, but it works and I’ll keep using them if thats what the fish are eating! A few hits and one fish on the worm did not quite make up for the amount of time I was stuck to the creek bed and the dropper was removed. After the sun had a few hours on the creek the need for the nymph was eliminated and the fish were looking up!

From just downstream I heard Kayla shout and she had hooked up on the first fish on the dry. A pretty little brown that snuck out of a less than likely looking run.

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Mini hopper eater

After a quick photo the brown rocketed back to its hiding spot.

Over the next few pools and likely looking runs we had a few misses and a few long distance releases. I’m not always a barbless hooks kinda guy, but on some of these small creeks I try to keep in barbless to stress these little guys as little as possible. It may lose me a few fish but it keeps the fights a little more interesting as well!

My fish of the day drifted lazily out of a rock/log jam and slowly sipped the fly off the top, turned his head and I set the hook! The 14-15 inch brown quickly wrapped me around a small stick and as soon as he was on, he was gone.. next time. The Stellars Jays that kept moving up the creek with us seemed to have a good laugh at my frustration.

A few small fish later and Kayla cast into some likely looking pocket water next to a large rock. Seconds later and the largest brown I had seen in this creek came out and smashed the hopper! A short fight and it was over, the fish slipped the hook.. but I guess thats the reason it has gotten bigger than the rest in this creek. The video shows just how short lived it was, but always good to see a larger resident of the creek!

The rest of the day brought a few more fish to hand. Each had good color and a few were highlighted by fiery adipose fins. IMG_7692

I’m not sure what the fish were mistaking the mini hopper for because I did not see any true hatches on the day. A couple scattered stonefly casings and a few caddis showed up throughout the day with no true rhyme or reason, but apparently that did not matter to the resident browns of this small creek.

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Close enough I guess?

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The browns had begun to color up for the fall!

The leaves had not yet begun to change however there is the feel of fall in the air in the rim country. The trout had begun to feel it too and were coloring up and waiting for the trees to match their spots.

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The last weekend of summer was all I could ask for, warm weather and trout looking for foam hoppers. I’m looking forward to some fall streamer fishing but the days chasing fish in skinny water with big foam bugs will be missed!

Weminuche pt. 2

We decided to leave the lakes and begin our trip down the second afternoon of our trip. Initially we had thought of staying at the lake for two nights but the thought of all 12 miles downhill in one push was too much! So as with all best laid plans we changed our mind and headed down to another camp a little bit early.

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Lake side breakfast

We decided to break up the hike down by fishing any likely looking runs along the trail. This sounded like a nice break from walking, but it turned into some pretty serious blundering through thick ground cover, raspberries (good and bad) and willows .

IMG_7567This Colorado side creek was beginning to feel an awful lot like some Arizona small stream fishing. Luckily this is some fishing we understand exactly how to do! I tied on an AZWanderings mini hopper and it was off to the races. Casting into any likely looking hole, and some less than likely looking runs, all were yielding fish after fish! These small and darkly colored rainbows were a blast on the short 3-weight rod and were able to pull some pretty tricky maneuvers under rocks, around logs and under branches.

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A slightly out of focus hopper eater

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Even the bellies on the little rainbows were taking on a dark hue.

The dark colors on these rainbows were unique to what I had ever seen. From what little information I’d been able to glean off the internet on the subject it sounded as though the creek and lake had not been stocked in 20+ years, but I am not 100% sure on that info. Regardless, with multiple barrier falls at the bottom of the system and nothing else above the system these rainbows have had time to adapt to their small stream home. I wonder if their colors have changed to match the dark almost black rock that makes up their creek home? Either way its only speculation on my part because I don’t know nearly enough on the subject to do anything more than speculate!

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After stopping a few more spots to fish along the trail we made it to the river that the smaller creek fed. This river had incredible pocket water and was packed with fishy looking corners. We were so tired from the first stretch down we didn’t rig up the rods up for a few minutes, but eventually the excitement overcame the tiredness. We both ran a dry/dropper rig of a hopper to a hares ear and began checking all the likely looking spots. Before long Tanner had one on the end of his line after the fish mistook his hopper for the real deal.

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Pocket water

Shortly after his first fish on my hopper very slowly sank under the surface, caught on another rock.. But the rock started to wiggle and flash and the “rock” turned out to be a pretty little brown trout! After a short battle I had the fish out of the current and to hand.

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Fish did not want its picture taken
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Pretty little brown
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Tanner had the “catch” of the day when he discovered this wedged in the rocks. Smelled like gin, looked like gin, tasted like 50/50 gin and river water…

As we moved upstream the fish hit often on both the dry and the dropper! While most missed the hook (both their fault and mine), it was a great way to spend the last hour of the day! The river was full of hungry little brown trout and someday I’d like to return to spend a few days fishing it.

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This little flashy hares ear/stonefly hybrid seemed to be the ticket. We headed back to camp and somehow came to the decision to walk out at that moment. With 6 miles left to walk and 30 minutes of daylight left we shouldered our packs and began walking.

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Wilderness boundary in the dark

Hiking at night takes on an almost treadmill like quality. It feels like you are going nowhere, but the miles blur into one and the hike seemed quick in hindsight. With thoughts of chicken fried steak in our minds we pushed the last 3 miles past the wilderness boundary and fell asleep in the trailhead parking lot.

The chicken fried steaks the next morning made it all worth it! I would definitely recommend Oscars’s in Durango for any breakfast needs you have.

Long Walk in the Weminuche

This trip to the Weminuche has been in my mind for the past two years now and it finally all came together this past weekend. The trip would be a 12 mile out and back to a high elevation lake hidden away in the San Juan mountains of southern Colorado. The lake is supposed to be incredible and the small creek leading out of it was rumored to contain some uniquely colored wild rainbows. With these points in mind I was able to convince a friend to join me and head north out of Flagstaff for the weekend.

We arrived into Durango Friday night and after grabbing a quick slice of pizza headed to the trailhead to camp. Morning came quickly and we shouldered our far too heavy packs and began the hike in. The first three miles of the trail run through private land and upon exiting the ranch we were immediately greeted by the site of a river flowing through the mountain valley. As tempting as this river was we had a goal in mind and resisted the temptation to immediately begin fishing.

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The entrance to the Weminuche Wilderness and trailside temptation

After the turnoff from the main trail we began ascending a steep valley and the hike turned into more of a slow trudge. The decision to bring pack rafts was starting to feel slightly foolish. After a few very slow miles we finally crested the upper end of the valley and saw the lakes laid out before us. The pack rafts suddenly didn’t feel so heavy!

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First views of the lake

We immediately set up both the rafts and rods and began exploring the smaller of the two lakes. The fishing was slow and the olive woolly bugger had only elicited a few slight tugs and one huge hit that snapped the 5X tippet almost instantly.

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After an hour or so of slow fishing we paddled to where the creek spilled into the lake and almost instantly Tanners line went taunt and a large, brightly colored rainbow danced and squirmed on the far end of the line! After multiple attempts to wrangle the fish into shore we had it in hand!

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Tanners first catch and the fish of the trip, the tail on this fish was no joke!

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Shortly after the first fish was brought in my bugger was inhaled by a hungry rainbow, although not the same size as the previous fish it was still a great fish considering we were above 10,000 feet!

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After these fish the lake fishing slowed down and we moved on to the creek coming out of the lake. Here the dry fly action was fast and the fish aggressive and uniquely colored. Between the royal wulff and the AZ mini hopper the fish did not seem too picky!

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The colors on these little fish were top notch!
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Decision time…
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The creek was full of these small and dark rainbows

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A few lighter colored rainbows were in the creek as well but the colors on all of them were stunning.

That night we ate fresh trout over the fire and listened to the elk bugle, and it rained, of course. The next day we explored both lakes a little more, however the fish were not coming out to eat like the day before. The scenery on the other hand, more than made up for slow fishing!

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Dawn hitting the mountain walls

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Far side of the lake and some midday refreshments.

Towards midday we finally found a few fish, but after only mild interest and some half hearted hits we began heading back down valley to the main stem of the drainage to try our luck there.

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Casting to cruising, but uninterested trout!

I’ll cover the creek and river fishing we did for the rest of the trip in my next post, hope you enjoyed!

 

Skinny Water Gold

While fishing larger rivers and lakes for bigger sized trout is incredible, the skinny creeks and hard to get to spots will always be my favorite. The long fight of a trout in big water is a rush, but not quite as much as the short battles in log and tree crowded creeks. There is something special about casting into something so small that only a bow and arrow cast with a dry fly can make its way through the thick cover along the bank. The fish may be smaller, but the challenge in finding, hooking and fighting them can be greater than their larger brethren in bigger waters.

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The first fish of the day fell for the mini hopper

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Another draw to these small creeks is often they are isolated from hatchery fish making their way into them. While a hatchery fish can be a fun trout to target, they are not the same as their wild counterparts. They often lack the brilliant colors of wild fish, as well as the instinct and fight. One of the most incredible things about Arizona fishing is  the variance in fish from creek to creek. It seems as though each creek has its own distinct population of fish, with their own look and even types of fly they are preferential to.

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This fish also fell to the hopper, but getting the fly to it was not as easy as I’d hoped. This took a bow and arrow cast into an eddy to bring the fly upstream and under a willow trees branches to where this fish aggressively took the hopper off the surface! The fish then did its best to wind me around every branch, log and rock in its home before I could finally land it!

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Apparently I should have tied some bigger flies…
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A larger brown trout surprised me when it charged out from under the bank in a tiny section of the creek to inhale the hopper!
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A good sized fish for this creek with some great color! This fish gave the 6X tippet right about all it could handle as it ran up and down its pool and under a few logs!
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A lighter colored brown!
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This fish gave me more than I bargained for when he slammed the dry and proceeded to jump nearly bank to bank across the stream!

Any day on the water is good, but they are always better when they are spent tossing foam flies to hungry and wild trout!