One day last spring, my phone rang. I answered it and was surprised to hear the voice of a longtime friend who lives in Florida. After the perfunctory questions from each of us about health, welfare and family, the conversation went something like this.
“So what have you been up to?”
I thought a second or two about Jim’s question, then replied with, “Not a lot. Hit the field for the last day of the quail season last month. But that’s been about it. I’m planning to head out and fish for trout for a few days at the end of this month, though.”
The phone was silent for several seconds, then I heard a snicker and , “Trout? In that god-forsaken desert? No self-respecting trout would hang out in Arizona.”
Although I knew his comments were tongue-in-cheek, I decided to play along a bit. “Come on Jim, you know better. You’ve been here, done that.”
“Yeah, yeah. I was just ragging on you.”
Later, I thought about the ribbing and then started wondering. I eventually decided that many people who hadn’t ever fished for trout in the Grand Canyon State actually did have the same impression as Jim had kidded me about.
But of course, as I indicated to my buddy, that impression would be totally off-base. In reality, Arizona offers some of the finest and diversified trout fishing opportunities in the West. The high-country lakes and streams and the cold waters of the Colorado River harbor five species that include the native Apache, brown, rainbow, brook and cutthroat. And if everything goes as planned, within several years Arizona’s anglers could be fishing for the currently endangered Gila trout, too.
The Gila, like the Apache, was once prevalent in many of the state’s waters but basically disappeared decades ago. Fortunately, the same strain remained viable in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness Area. The Gila trout conservation efforts in New Mexico began in 1923, and since 1970, the population has expanded.
So a little over a year ago, the cooperative effort of Arizona’s and New Mexico’s state wildlife agencies reintroduced the Gila into Arizona’s Dude Creek on the Verde River drainage. The Dude Creek area was the victim of a huge fire several years ago. It burned so hot that it killed any fish in the creek. Thus, the stream became a prime candidate for the native fish’s reintroduction because there would be no competition from other species.
The head of the Arizona Game & Fish Department’s (AGFD) Fishery branch, Larry Riley feels it’s only a matter of time before there’s a fishable population.
“It is realistic to expect a sufficient population in Arizona within five years to support down listing the Gila trout from endangered to threatened status. When that occurs, creating a sport fishery for this colorful native is a possibility we will aggressively pursue.”
Now rather than gazing too far into the future, let’s look at where the best trout fishing in the god-forsaken desert will be in 2001.
The one place in Arizona that has developed a wide-spread reputation for quality fishing is the 15 miles of the Colorado River commonly known as Lee’s Ferry – a gap in the walls of Glen Canyon where John D. Lee once ferried travelers across from Arizona to Utah.
Created by the completion of Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, this tailwater runs crystal clear at a constant 45-47 degrees, thus providing exceptional fishing for 365 days a year. Because the Ferry is a trophy fishery, anglers can expect to catch rainbow trout averaging 14 to 18 inches and likely at least one over 20 inches.
The best access is by boat because 600 to 1,500-foot-high red sandstone cliffs border the river from the dam to the launch ramp downstream. First time boaters at the Ferry should exercise caution, however; plenty of engine props have succumbed to the shallow riffles and gravel bars.
The upriver fishing consists primarily of wading around the riffles, gravel bars and islands. About 1.5 miles of shoreline above and below the boat ramp is fishable for those without boats. Although nymphs are the primarily and most productive flies, during specific times of the year and under certain conditions, the dry-fly fishing can be outstanding.
The main menu of Lee’s Ferry rainbows includes scuds (Gammarus Lacustris), annelids and about 40 midge species. For the most part, the chironomid and emerger stage of these midges are the most important to the rainbows, but the trout often feed vigorously on the adult midges along back eddy scum lines.
The spawning season begins in mid-November and continues through March. When the spawn is on, fishing becomes a spot, stalk and cast game in shallow water that’s sometimes only a few inches deep. The emphasis is on casting accuracy rather than distance. It’s primarily nymphing, although large attractor dry flies occasionally work effectively.
Starting in mid-March, more sunlight pierces the canyon, thereby increasing the midge hatches. The trout will move off the redds and into vegetation filled runs and riffles, where they feed ravenously. Several fishing techniques will work but mostly depend on the flow releases from the dam.
A popular method employs large attractor dry flies with a shallow running chironomid imitation below. It’s very effective in the shallow riffles along the margins of gravel bars where midge activity is highest.
David Foster, owner of Marble Canyon Guides, likes to use an extended drift for deep-water nymphing when the flows increase.
“During higher water, fish dispersed more in the riffles and runs. They are obviously deeper, as well. Using a long drift with the proper rig allows the fly to sink deeper, so more fish will likely see it. Done correctly, the extended drift covers large areas of deep water very efficiently.”
Foster’s favorite rig consists of a 10 to 14-foot leader, a large, very buoyant strike indicator made of yarn and one or more split shot. He picks his leader length according to the water depth. If he’s rigging for a client, Foster also determines the angler’s ability to cast a weighted leader.
“The longer the leader, the deeper it will sink. I try to fish a leader about twice as long as the water is deep. I carry a selection of different size, small tin shot to fine tune the depth even more. Except in extremely deep water, a rig should hit the bottom every few drifts. The third factor is the duration of drift. A longer drift puts the fly deeper.
“The extended drift technique works best when current speed is consistent throughout the run. Lees Ferry is perfect with its long, even riffles. With a long leader, it takes a long time for a strike to show up and indicators often do not go under before a fish gets rid of the fly. Strike anytime the indicator moves. Lastly, a long powerful rod is best for this type of fishing. A 9-10 foot rod for a 5 or 6 weight line is best. Leave the 8 footers at home.”
Foster’s fly choices for nymphing are a variety of midge patterns, primarily in black, red and brown, sizes 16-22. Zebra midges are the predominant midge pattern used by locals and guides at Lee^s Ferry. Size 14 and 16 ginger, orange, watermelon and pink scuds in, small green or orange egg patterns and red or brown San Juan worms are also consistent producers.
For dry fly fishing, Foster recommends a 4 weight rod and a reel that has a rim control spool and backing. Leader lengths should be about 9 feet, with longer leaders sometimes used when deep nymphing and shorter leaders used in shallower water. Tippet sizes normally used are 4x-6x. For flies, try a size 20 or 22 griffiths gnat with a small white CDC wing for visibility or an “Unbelievable” – an imitation of a dead dried out scud floating on the surface.
For those who prefer spinning gear, throw silver or fluorescent Z-Rays, Globugs, Panther Martin spinners, small Dardevles or dark-colored maribou jigs along the numerous riffles or drag them behind a slowly drifting boat.
The White Mountain area in east-central Arizona is the most popular destination for Arizona’s trout fishermen. Fishery management in this area is shared between the AGFD on the state land and the White Mountain Apache tribe on its reservation land.
These are a few state waters that should yield good fishing in 2001:
At 500 acres, Big Lake is probably the most heavily fished cold-water fishery in the White Mountains, but it still produces more trout than any other lake in the state. During the summer, this is a popular family camping and fishing destination. Most of the fishermen use bait, but flies can be very effectve in the late afternoon.
Big Lake – and nearby Crescent – are the two premier brook trout waters on Arizona’s public lands. Prior to 1995, a Big Lake resident brookie was the state-record at 4 pounds, 10.25 ounces Big Lake held and was.
Several campgrounds and a store are nearby. To get to the lake take state route 273 south from highway 260. The last fifteen miles are graded dirt, but is easily accessible by a passenger car. The lake freezes over during winter and is usually not accessible from December to some time in April, depending on the year.
Crescent Lake, just north of Big Lake, covers 100 acres at an elevation of 9000 feet and is known for fast-growing rainbow and brook trout. This lake is a perfect one for float tubing because a large weedy section has lots of damselfly nymphs. In 1997, Cody Gebelle won a “Big Fish of the Year” award for rainbow trout with a 6 lb. 5.0 oz., 25-inch brook trout.
To get to the lake take 273 or 261 south from highway 260.
The Greer Lakes – River, Bunch and Tunnel – sit just north of the town of Greer at an 8,500-foot elevation and are popular fishing destinations throughout the summer and fall. The main fare is rainbow trout with a hardy population of browns.
River Reservoir, at 50 acres, is the largest of the three and holds some nice brown trout. The next largest is Bunch Reservoir at about 20 acres. It receives the least fishing pressure and tends to have smaller sized trout. The smallest and most popular among bait fishermen is Tunnel Reservoir at 15 acres. While the bait fishermen ring the shoreline during the summer, fly fishing from a boat or float tube can be very good.
The AGFD begins planting catchable rainbow trout in the spring, with heavy stocking occurring throughout the summer months and into September. Nearly every year someone catches a noteworthy brown trout, and River Reservoir once produced the state record at 14.25 pounds.
All three lakes have easy access from Highway 373 about five miles south of highway 260. Because these lakes form a significant part of Springerville^s water supply, they tend to be lowered significantly during the summer months.
Covering 35 acres when full, Mexican Hay might be the best “sleeper” trout lake in the state. It is a shallow, nutrient-filled lake that quickly grows football-shaped rainbow trout, provided it gets enough water in it. Unfortunately, it is prone to fish kills during thick ice or low-water years. When fish survive through mild winters, four to six pound rainbows are common.
The best way to fish the lake is from a float tube or small boat. Used weighted, dark-colored Wooly Worms. Bait fishermen normally do well with salmon eggs or marshmallows, but vegetation in the shallow water makes fishing from shore very difficult. To get to the lake take Highway 261 south from Highway 260 just west of the Springerville/Eager area.
Elsewhere in the White Mountains, don^t overlook Concho, Luna or Rainbow Lakes for rainbows. Lee Valley is predominantly a grayling fishery but also harbors a good population of native Apache trout. The limit here is 2 fish over 12 inches, and only one can be a grayling or an Apache.
The miles of streams also yield some exceptional fish each year. Try the Black River near Sheep Crossing and the Little Colorado near Greer.
Southeast of Flagstaff and around Payson, several lakes produce decent fishing at certain times. Most are stocked, put-&-take type fisheries where the main catch consists of 8 to 10-inch rainbow trout.
Black Canyon, located about 14 miles southwest of Heber, is a 75-acre impoundment reached by a gravel road running south off State Route 260. It contains rainbows, browns and brookies. Bank fishermen will find plenty of shoreline available, and boaters have access to a paved launch ramp. Only electric motors are legal, however.
Willow Springs, a 150-acre lake, is a mile north of State Route 260 along the Rim Road, USFS No. 300. It offers the same species as Black Canyon, but also contains cutthroat trout. The rainbows and browns attract the most attention, though. Each year, anglers haul out several trout topping five pounds.
The turn-off to picturesque Woods Canyon Lake is a mile past the one for Willow Springs. At an elevation of 7,500-feet, Woods Canyon draws throngs of people seeking to escape the desert heat and to take advantage of the two nice campgrounds. Because of the heavy fishing pressure, the AGFD heavily stocks the 55-acre lake with catchable rainbows and browns from April into September.
Bear Canyon lake was a blue-ribbon fishery and one of two homes for the Arctic grayling in Arizona. This 60-acre impoundment is now managed as a rainbow fishery and receives regular plants of catchable fish. Boats and electric motors are allowed, but there^s one small problem: a steep, trail switchbacks down the hillside from the parking lot to the water. Getting the gear to the water is easy; carrying it up is another, perhaps painful, story. The turnoff is about 13 miles on the Rim Road from No. 260, and it^s another two miles to the parking lot.
The White Mountain Apache Reservation encompasses more than 1,500,000 acres, and most of the 400 miles of rivers and streams and 25 lakes are open to non-tribal members for above-average rainbow, brook, cutthroat and brown trout fishing. It is also the premier area in Arizona to hook a native Apache trout – the reservation’s featured fish.
The original range of Apache trout diminished from 600 miles of stream to less than 30 miles in the late 1970^s because of habitat degradation and competition and hybridization with non-native trout. Although the White Mountain Apaches initiated protective measures in the 1940^s, the habitat reduction resulted in adding the Apache trout to the Endangered Species list in 1973. Since then, the tribe, several state and federal agencies and private groups have corroborated on a successful restoration effort.
Two hatcheries on the reservation now raise over 100,000 Apache trout (Oncorhynchus Apache) each year for stocking. Most are over 14 inches long. The larger fish go into the lakes during May and June and into the streams on a weekly basis throughout the summer. On the north fork of the White River, the plants occur near Upper Log and Lower Log campgrounds, and upstream of the Highway 473 bridge. The primes lakes to catch an Apache trout are Christmas Tree, Hurricane, Sunrise and Reservation Lakes. They also inhabit Paradise Creek.
If your main interest is catching one, the prime time is April through June in any waters where the Apache lives. Wet flies such as brown or black Woolly worms work especially well when the water is cold, and bait is good at those fisheries where it is allowed.
For many flyfishermen, Christmas Tree Lake is the place to be in early June. The scenic lake at the junction of Sun and Moon creeks is so named because the Christmas tree for the White House was cut there in 1965 and presented to then President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The tribe runs a special fishing camp from May 9 through May 27 each year. Cost is $175 per day and includes lodging in wall tents, food, permits and boats with electric motors. But once the camps are done, the lake is open to the public all summer long.
No more than 20 people may fish at any one time, however, and the daily fee for the privilege is $15. It’s well worth it; Christmas Tree harbors the best population of native trout in the state, and produced a new state record almost every year for several in a row. It also has outstanding brown trout angling. A native Apache over 16 inches and nine browns of any size are the legal limit.
The current 5 lb., 15.5 oz. state record, caught in 1993, came out of Hurricane Lake, which is now open to public fishing only through the tribe’s Rent-A-Lake program. Cyclone Lake is also part of the program. The rental rates are $400 per day at Hurricane and $300 for Cyclone., with a 3-day minimum over non-holiday weekends. The daily limit is two fish at Hurricane and one 16-inch or longer at Cyclone.
Sunrise Lake consistently yields the best fishing from July to September. Most of the catch from this 900-acre impoundment consists of 10- to 12-inch rainbow trout, but some in the 4- to 5-pound class commonly appear. Anglers can also try for brook trout and brown trout, which sometimes reach trophy status. The current state record brook trout, weighing 4 pounds, 15 ounces was caught here in 1995, and reports of browns up to 10 pounds are common.
Fish early in the day because the wind often picks up at this lake in the afternoon. Boat anglers do well with cowbells and worms at all lakes. Horseshoe, Hawley, and Reservation Lakes are also productive during the summer months.
For bank anglers, trout often bite flies at dusk (ant and caddis imitations are popular). If you prefer using bait from the shore you must remember the fish prefer colder water this time of year. Try fishing the deeper water near dams or toward inlets for best results. Stream fishing is often excellent this time of year, too. Fish near campgrounds for stocked fish and isolated streams for wild brown trout. Good areas to catch wild brown trout are streams in the Diamond Creek Drainage, streams in the Bonito Creek Drainage, Reservation Creek, Pacheta Creek, upper Black River, and upper Canyon Creek.
If you really want a big brown, head to Horseshoe Cienega just off Highway 260. This 120-acre lake^s reputation for great fishing comes from the lunker brown trout that seem to crop up each year. In 1985, Burke Hudnall of Snowflake nailed a 16-pound, 7-ounce lunker that once ranked as the state record. On the same day, he caught 8 others, which weighed between two and eight pounds. He used a gold Rapala minnow plug. Although the fishing remains good year-round, the best time for big browns usually occurs in the spring, immediately after the ice goes off.
Reservation Lake, on the eastern edge of the reservation near the New Mexico border, is another top spot for big browns. In 1999, Bryce Sisson landed a 22.9-pound monster brown, setting a state record that might never be broken. The 17-year-old Sisson -- using a silver-colored, floating 4-inch Rapala on 8-lb. line -- caught his trophy at twilight while fishing from a 3-man inflatable raft. Reservation Lake is 9 miles off the Big Lake road, which continues from Highway 273 south of Sunrise Lake.
As the weather cools, the fishing for big brown and brook trout in the larger lakes on the reservation gets even better. Brook trout move into shallows to spawn at Sunrise, Reservation, and Earl Park Lakes. They can be caught on salmon eggs and woolly buggers. At Hawley, Reservation, Pacheta, and Horseshoe Lakes, try gold Rapalas, Z-rays or wet flies for brown trout. Because of their remoteness, both Earl Park and Pacheta get light use. Both are known for producing large fish, though.
There are numerous smaller impoundments and miles of streams on the reservation that harbor trout. A few of the more notable ones are Diamond Creek, A-1, Big & Little Bear, Driftfence, Bog Tank and Cooley. Some of them suffer winterkills, so the majority of the fishing is put-&take for trout in the 8- to 10-inch range.
Several lakes southeast of Flagstaff and around Payson can all supply decent fishing at certain times. Most are stocked, put-&-take type fisheries where the main catch consists of 8 to 10-inch rainbow trout.
Ashurst Lake is a popular destination for weekend anglers due to its close proximity to the city of Flagstaff. It’s heavily stock with hatchery rainbows, most of which are caught from shore by bait fishermen. There is a campground and boats with motors up to 8 hp are allowed.
Black Canyon, located about 14 miles southwest of Heber, is a 75-acre impoundment reached by a gravel road running south off of State Route 260. It contains rainbows, browns and brookies. Bank fishermen will find plenty of shoreline available, and boaters have access to a paved launch ramp. Only electric motors are legal, however.
Willow Springs, a 150-acre lake, is a mile north of State Route 260 along the Rim Road, Forest Service No. 300. It offers the same species as Black Canyon, but also contains cutthroat trout. The rainbows and browns attract the most attention, though. Each year, anglers haul out several trout topping five pounds.
The turn-off to picturesque Woods Canyon Lake is a mile past the one for Willow Springs. At an elevation of 7,500-feet, Woods Canyon draws throngs of people, seeking to escape the heat of the lower elevations and to take advantage of the two nice campgrounds. Because of the heavy fishing pressure, the AGFD heavily stocks the 55-acre lake with catchable rainbows and browns throughout the season.
Once a blue-ribbon fishery and one of two homes for the Arctic grayling in Arizona, this 60-acre impoundment is now managed as a rainbow fishery. It receives regular plants of catchable fish and now goes under the same rules as the other Rim lakes. Boats and electric motors are allowed, but there^s one small problem: a steep, trail switchbacks down the hillside from the parking lot to the water. The turnoff is about 13 miles on the Rim Road from No. 260, and it^s another two miles to the parking lot.
Knoll Lake, at an elevation of 7,300 feet, supplies both beauty and good fishing. Vast stands of big Ponderosa pines cover the shoreline and the island for which the 75-acre lake received its name. Knoll harbors rainbows, brookies and some exceptional browns such as the 12-pound lunker caught a half- dozen few years ago. Bank fishing with bait or lures is sometimes productive, but trolling pop gear is best bet, especially for the stocked rainbows. Bait is legal here, so wiggly nightcrawlers might be the most seductive offering for a trophy brown trout. Knoll has a launch ramp, parking area, nearby campground and restrooms. The turn-off from the Rim Road is about 15 miles west of Bear Canyon^s.
Of all the Rim lakes, Chevelon is at the top as far as fishing goes. It harbors both big rainbows and trophy browns. As part of its Cold Water Fisheries Plan, which began in 1986, the AGFD has placed restrictions on anglers at Chevelon. A slot limit requires mandatory release of all trout between 10 and 14 inches. To eliminate culling smaller fish, anglers must kill immediately or release unharmed a legal- sized fish. The limit is 4 trout of any species. Fishing is also restricted to artificial lure or flies.
Access to the 200-acre impoundment is by foot only, either down a meandering trail or a steep, mile-long road. Boats and motors up to 8 hp. are allowed, but getting them into the water is a problem unless they are lightweight canoes or inflatables.
Chevelon Canyon is one of two Mogollon Rim lakes located a fair way from the Rim Road. To get there from the south, take Forest Service No. 169, which leaves No. 300 about five miles past Woods Canyon. From the north, by way of Winslow, State Highway 99 connects with Forest Service No. 504, which goes to No. 169. No. 504 also goes northeast out of Heber.
Blue Ridge is about 28 miles north of Strawberry and five miles to the east of State Route 87. Basically a rainbow fishery, this 70-acre reservoir also holds brook and brown trout, which often rival the trophies taken from the other Rim lakes. The lake sits in the bottom of a U-shaped canyon. Only a handful of steep paths lead to the water, and the lack of level shoreline limits anglers who usually fish from the bank. Boat anglers generally catch lots of fish by either trolling flies and lures or fishing with bait.
Once someone gets around to fishing a number of these places, they should no longer think there’s isn’t any good trout fishing in Arizona.