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!