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.

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).

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!

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!

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!

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!

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!

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.

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.

Upstream of the last pool
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!

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.


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!

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).



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.


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

Dark fish against a dark bottom
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.

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


9 thoughts on “Desert Rainbows

    1. Thanks! And yeah the small “creeks” have really been drawing me to them recently! Your posts on Fossil have got me excited to give that area a try!

      And thanks man I’ll have to try and make a few of those they look pretty sweet.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Wow, great find. I am so happy I stumbled onto your website! I found it reading Max’s “Lesser Places” site, in fact. I think I know which stream you’d fished, and was surprised to learn that it could sustain fish! If I’m right about where you were, I wonder if you’ve explored a nearby creek that sustained populations of wild Gila trout until the 1990s? I’ve never been but it’s on my “to do” list.


    1. Hey, glad you enjoyed story! I believe I know the creek you are talking about, it flows off the opposite side of the mountain not too far from where I was at. I think you are right, the other creek does have Gilas in it, however the game and fish has it closed to angling currently!


  2. Have been meaning to post this for a while, but I am very happy to report that the desert rainbows are alive and well in this creek. My wife and I made the drive in late December (before the rain and snow) and despite the skinny water, caught and released a few of these little trout. We were impressed that they seemed to be thriving in just a few pools. The recent rain and snow should sustain them through this season, and the lack of fishing pressure can’t hurt (that drive is nuts, it took us over an hour to go about 15 miles)! Just thought you might like to know these little guys are in good shape in the creek!


    1. Thanks for the update! I’m glad to hear they are still there! Yeah the lack of pressure is probably very helpful, we may have been the only people through this past year. The drive is brutal! Just a slow bouncy grind!


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