Arizona Adventure

There we were and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual.  After driving through a monsoon downpour and finding shelter in a store shilling cheap tourist gizmos in Strawberry, Arizona for 20 minutes, we hit the road again.  My phone buzzed with the 3rd Flash Flood alert of the afternoon, and I haven’t had much cell reception.  Our tire continued to lose air at a critical rate.  Water was flooding the streets and piling up fast in the dry washes. 

We drove just a short way toward the campground before a heavy hailstorm hit us.  Swerving off the road into a run-down roadside bar, the hailstorm raged outside as my brother and I enjoyed cold beers and crappy elk burgers.  The news from the TV and the local bar patrons was the same – Monsoon season just came in with a historic amount of rain.  Everyone was thankful of the rain to put out raging fires, but now images of muddy flash floods carrying minivans downstream covered the TV news.  This was my welcome to the Desert Southwest.

Corey and I landed in Phoenix around 2 PM, and quickly got the hell out of the city.  Once we got past the outskirts of town, just 20 highway miles out the terrain became desolate.   It was hard dirt, red rock and Saguaro cactus as far as the eye could see, just like the Wil-E. Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons.  There was no human life out here for many miles – no power lines, no buildings – because there’s no water.  Just cacti and desert animals. 

The Verde River was running high and stained from rains a few days ago, so we decided it would be best to look at other water.  As we drove further North, we started to ascend and the mountains emerged.  Eventually the terrain changed to large pine trees and rocky foothills.  By the time we traveled through Payson, the temperature had gone from 102 to 78 and we began to make our way up into the valley where we hoped to encounter Wild Gila trout.

There was a lot of driving on sketchy backwoods roads before we found the spot.  At the Trailhead, we geared up fully planning to hike our way back out well after dark.  We were making a blind attempt hiking 3.5 miles on an unfamiliar trail to the creek and this is the kind of thing that I love.  We hit the trail quickly and hiked up in elevation through huge pines and cool red rock ledge terrain. 

Arizona mountain view

There was a good amount of bear poop along the trail.  At one point we ran across three Elk and they scuttled hooves across the rock ledge into thick brush just 10 yards away. 

After a few miles we reached the creek and it was already getting pretty dark.  It was 7:30 PM, and back home in Minnesota it’s still light enough to fish until 9.  Not down here.  This little creek was amazing, just crystal clear water flowing only an inch deep in spots over shelves of red rock.  It seemed almost too small to hold any trout.

This is the spot my first Gila trout came from

With darkness closing in, we got the flyrods out.  Corey headed downstream and I just hung around the spot where we rigged up.  Tying a yellow mayfly klinkhammer to my line I snuck up on the nearest little spot downstream.  I made a wide approach behind a big downed pine on the high bank, and got into position.  The spot was no bigger than a kitchen sink.  A backhand cast with my 3 wt flipped the klink up into the flow and mid-drift a fish took – I missed him.  My next drift, though, the fish took again and I yanked it from the water onto the high bank.  There was no fight, I ambushed him.  This was a nice fish and I had to pounce on it to get it under control before it flopped away.   It was gorgeous!  Just looking at the buttery yellow belly and sides, faded parr marks and finely-spotted back I knew I’d caught a nice wild adult Gila trout around 10 inches.

Man was I happy!  This fish meant a lot to me and I had just made a catch that I’d dreamed about for many years. As I held this fish in my net to take a few photos, I took in my surroundings and thanked the stars for this opportunity.  This was the 19th salmonid that I’d caught to date, and I released him unharmed into his little spot in the creek.  I was done fishing and waited for Corey to come back around.

Corey came up the opposite bank on a high cliff 50 feet above the creek, his flashlight guiding the way.  He hadn’t caught any trout.  We made our way back on the trail 3.5 miles in pitch darkness with our flashlights, calling out for bears along the way.

The next morning our plan was to head Northeast to the White Mountains and try for wild Apache trout.  We figured with the muddy Verde maybe another day would help to clear it up so we could try for suckers and chubs tomorrow. 

After crawling out of the tents early, we packed up and hit a diner for breakfast.  This place was right on the little town’s airport runway, and Corey and I were the only people enjoying breakfast who didn’t pilot a plane to get there.  It was very cool to see weird little single person planes come in and land in the rain, and the big table of pilots say, “Hey put on some pancakes Fran, Jerry just landed and will be coming in”.  Killer breakfast too.

Out in the White Mountains, we hiked 2 miles up above the Wilderness boundary and found this beautiful creek flowing quickly through a meadow with a mix of spruce forest.  It was only a few feet wide, larger than the Gila stream last night but still tiny. 

     

Right away we started picking apart the creek, drifting dry flies tight along the grassy banks and woody cover.  Corey and I leap-frogged each other to keep fishing new water, making precise casts and sneaking up the bank to dap flies under our rod tip into likely spots. 

I hooked and briefly fought two really nice trout and lost them when they dug into the bank and tree roots and threw the hook.  These fish were ambush predators, hiding under the grass to dash out and attack, and when hooked they knew how to escape.  There was a trend forming with the fish I’d hooked, and so the next subtle undercut I came to I snuck up on carefully. 

The spot I caught my first Apache trout, only 2-3 feet wide

Sometimes you make a perfect cast and this was one of those times.  A fish slashed the klinkhammer fly, and I battled a feisty fish to the net.  I’d caught a very nice Apache trout! 

     

My 20th Salmonid.

We continued to pick our way upstream after this, Corey catching a trout from seemingly each little stream cranny. 

    

I caught a couple of small fish.  Eventually we came to an ancient pine that laid parallel in the creek, all covered in moss.  Corey coaxed a nice Apache from under this log and after some photos we decided to hike our way back. 

This place was an absolute blast to fish, and I’m thankful that these cool Apache trout are living Wild and we have access to fish for them.  My bro and I have fished a lot of trout in creeks during our lives, and this creek was unique.  Fantastic.

Everything was going as planned so far. We’d found success on the two trout native to this area, our camping gear was tested and ready, the main rivers we wanted to fish –  Verde, Clear Creek, Oak Creek – should be dropping and clearing from rains a few days ago.  However, as we traveled back to our core area after the Apache fishing, our rental’s tire showed trouble.  We’d noticed it losing some air pressure earlier, but thought maybe it was from elevation gain as we drove to the mountains.  Now it was getting very low, and we had to pull off in Show Low to fill it. 

Corey and I enjoyed a tour of gas stations with broken down air machines and soul-sucking stupidity.  I think we tried 6 different air stations before one actually worked.   Picked up some gas station beers in the rain and left this Show Low Shit Show.  We had to fill the tire up again in Payson when we rolled through.  As we drove East along the Mogollon Rim toward our campsite, the monsoon skies opened up and we endured the episode from this story’s introduction.  Flash flooding ensued.

We ended up crashing in a hotel for the night.  In the morning when we checked out, our tire was completely flat.  After putting on the donut, we limped into a tire shop in town where a guy saw us come in and was helping replace the tire before we could even park.  In under 15 minutes we were back on the road, happy to have the problem solved.

This morning we drove the rental SUV over backcountry roads that were ill-advised to a spot on the upper Verde river, hoping to encounter some Rough contenders like roundtail chub, Sonora and desert sucker.  The hike down into the canyon was over a mile in, and it was hot as Hades.  We were concerned about the prospect of hiking back out with no water, but pushed on.  There were a bunch of striped lizards here fleeing from our footsteps among the scrubby rocks and cactus.

Upon reaching the river down in this steep valley, we found a concrete flume which funneled the water into a nice deep plunge hole and tailout.  The river was high and cloudy but fishable.  Fishing here with bottom rigs and floats produced only one species, an odd little bass which appears to be Coosa bass.  We caught dozens of them.  There is currently genetic analysis going on with this fish in the upper Verde to confirm they are Coosa, but it’s a generally accepted fact.  We fished a mile or so downstream and caught only small bass.  They were on your bait instantly and it was all but impossible to target anything else.

     

Just as we packed up to hike out, a couple Conservation officers met us.  After checking our licenses and seeing we were from Minnesota, they asked why the heck we were here of all places.  Suckers – sonoras and desert, we explained pointing to our Roughfish patches and one of them told us that suckers don’t bite and can’t be caught.  She said, “We electrofish them in the deep hole below the Flume but you’d have a better chance swimming and grabbing one than catching one on a hook.”

Sounded like a challenge to us.   Well now, it started to rain.  A storm had been brewing and now enveloped the valley. Corey and I decided to fish for 15 minutes, right off the concrete Flume in the deep hole with heavy weight.  We may never be back here.  It quickly began to pour rain heavily, and also quickly we began to haul in Coosa bass.  After 15 minutes and 30 Coosa bass in this deluge, we gave up and began the hike back up as a thunderstorm thrashed the mountainside.  Hiking through this storm was actually very refreshing compared to the intense heat that we saw earlier, but we were absolutely soaked to the bone when we got back to the vehicle around noon.

We checked out a couple of streams, but they were flowing muddy and over their banks.  Impossible to fish, and it was raining steadily.  Nearby was an area called Red Tank Draw and there were pools among a redrock canyon which historically held native fish.  The terrain was crazy as we worked down into the canyon. 

     

We found some awesome pools, and snuck on them.  No big fish were spotted.  At one deep hole, we saw some small fish and quickly rigged up.  Unfortunately all we caught were green sunfish, lots of them. 

   

What a shame that in this gorgeous desert oasis where ancient petroglyphs are carved into the canyon walls, no native fish remain.  Some might, though, and maybe if we’d had the time to hike another mile we would have found them.  I like to think so. We headed back at dark in a steady rain, happy to have explored a new area anyway. 

The next morning way back on some redrock backroad detour, suddenly we came to a creek running across the road.  Yes, it just runs across the road.  Corey pulled off and said he knew this spot – it has chubs in it.  He had visited the area years ago, and these fish were off limits because they were classified as endangered Gila chubs.  Now all of the chubs in this area are lumped as Roundtail chubs, so we can target them.  This was a tiny spring flow and it was running clear.  We got out and hiked upstream and down, looking for fish.  Finally at one spot Corey tossed a little grass piece into a run and a fish rose to it – a chub!

I rigged up a tiny float rig and my first Roundtail chub was on the line quickly.  

The action was fast.  After we caught dozens of little 3-4” chubs, Corey also caught a Speckled Dace.  We didn’t catch anything over 5” here, but it was fun and we caught a whole bunch of chubs.  Kind of weird to think just a few years ago it was illegal to yank these little fish from the stream because they were considered a Federally endangered fish.  I told Corey we needed to get out of there before somebody noticed my tiny gear and mistook me for a Microfisher.

Corey caught our largest chub - 

Driving North, finally after passing ten magic crystal shops and a handful of Shakra gurus we found ourselves at a trailhead past Sedona, planning to hike a few miles into a headwater creek looking for Gila trout.  Even in monsoon rains, these little mountain creeks run clear and cold so it was worth a look. The little creek ran through a wild steep redrock canyon running over smooth rock ledges.  It was an amazing area. 

     

We hiked a few miles and snuck up on any deeper water but found no trout.  There were smaller fish present – speckled dace and loach minnows in particular, but no salmonids. 

     

I caught a speckled dace on a midge pupa fly and then we hiked back out as another thunderstorm was brewing.  While we didn’t get our target again, it was a cool experience to hike in this unique terrain.  This part of Arizona is uniquely beautiful.

The weather had completely conspired against us, but we had a plan.  Next morning we decided that since all of the major streams were blown out, we’d hike back into the creek we visited on our first night.  Corey needed a Gila trout, and we knew we’d get some nice wild fish back there.  The hike in was now familiar and fun, and we had all day to spend here if we wanted. 

It was great to be back in this valley with some time to spend.  The creek was amazing, just a desert mountain jewel.  It was too small and steep in many areas to hold fish, occasionally spilling over the landscape for 50 yards over smooth rock shelves and waterfalls. 

     

We fished the rare shaded runs and grassy undercuts, often only 2 feet wide.  This cool plaque was placed right near a surefire spot on the creek.

     

Corey plucked out a few small fish here and there, and then he caught a proper specimen for his Lifelist. 


We fished a little longer, catching some more beautiful little Gilas, then had lunch and split a beer I’d hauled all the way back here.  Clouds began to form, so we headed back toward the trail.  

Trying a blind shortcut route up the steep valley we chased out half a dozen cattle near the creek, and then caught up with them on the trail.  They wouldn’t go off-trail, and we kept pushing them up the mountainside.

     

Suddenly we were enveloped by black clouds and the storm hit us – sheets of rain, wind and lightning.  Every so often we would encounter the cows, as they tried to hide around a switchback in the trail and they would run, spraying bright green cow shit on the path.  The terrain was just too rough for them to try.

We ended up chasing the cows up the path and then all the way back down the mountainside to the Trailhead below in a downpour.  I mentioned to Corey how our Dad would have absolutely loved this story, hiking miles back into the wilderness to catch a new native trout and making a cattle drive on the way back down the mountain in a thunderstorm. 

Soaking wet again, we were back in the vehicle and on the road.  After a minute we saw our group of cows running up the other side of the valley across the road.  Then a large black bull stood on the small dirt road and eyeballed us as we maneuvered around him.  Glad we didn’t run into him on the trail.

The plan was to travel down closer to the Phoenix area and spend our last day looking for fishable water on the lower Salt river.  The Verde river was chugging muddy but our hope was that the Salt might be clear since it had an impoundment on it.  At least above the confluence with the Verde, of course. 

The next morning we found some pretty nice-looking water.  It was hot as hell.  The river was flowing clear, fast and fairly shallow, and a nice bend upstream looked promising.  After hiking in and rigging up, the paddleboard hatch came off thick.  There were groups in paddleboards, kayaks and tubes coming downstream every 5 minutes or so.  We were bottom fishing crawlers in the current looking for suckers.  Soon, Corey hooked up and although we got excited at first it fought like a turd and ended up being a stocker rainbow trout.  We caught a few more of these fine trout over 2 hours in sweltering heat and got frustrated with the whole situation.  We backed off and re-assessed our options.

Upstream by a highway bridge, there were steep cliffs across the river and it appeared to be very deep, slow water.  Even though dozens of floating humans were continually floundering past us in various states of sobriety and dress, we figured it was our best chance to try for a Sonora sucker before we left Arizona in the morning.  So, I broke out a local preroll for good luck and we fired out bottom rigs into this deep hole.

A group of novice kayakers were headed our way, and they were veering toward our bank instead of keeping to the deep flow on the other shore like normal people might do.  Our 4 lines would need to be reeled in so they didn’t run right into them.  I reeled in my first rod, then picked up the second one and felt weight there.  Then I felt a headshake – I had a fish, from the deepest part of the hole.  As the kayakers beached right on top of us, I waded out and saw the fish rise near the surface next to a big pile of weeds on my line, and it sure looked like a sucker!

Corey confirmed my sucker intuition, and I played the fish along with the giant weed ball on my line carefully.  The fish fought like crazy.  It made a couple of fast runs near the net, and I thought he was going to get away but somehow Corey got him in the net.  Sonora Sucker!  I was extremely happy.

We showed this awesome native fish off to some interested people that had gathered.  I was in amazement at my luck for managing to catch this species when it looked to be an impossibility over the past 6 days.  This fish, a new Catastomid for me, was the main reason I was excited for this trip to the Desert.  It made everything worth it!

We caught a few more derpy rainbow trout and a largemouth bass, both having no goddamn good reason to be here, but encountered no more natives.

This was a crazy trip, one of those times nothing seems to go in your favor.  Conditions made it impossible for us to target the areas and species we wanted, but we had some great adventures anyway.  For this Northern boy from Minnesota, it was wild to dirtbag around and see what this area had to offer. Most of the time we were in areas dominated by mountains and pine forest inhabited by Elk and black bears.  Not exactly the Arizona that I had a preconceived notion of.  It was rugged and beautiful, and gave me a whole new perspective.

Species List:

Comments

Mrfish's picture

what a cool adventure!  sounds like you guys had a good time.

Pinefish123's picture

Awesome adventure, thanks for the trip report. Glad that you both got your wild Gila trout, though it took a second visit to the stream.

I was laughing out loud at parts of your report, not because I enjoy others' misfortunes, but because I could totally relate to some of your frustrations. Like cows on the trail. Arizona is FULL of cows on public lands and that happens ALL the time. Worst is when they are in the stream and run up the middle of the stream as you attempt to fish upstream. And air pumps at gas stations in Show Low? They've totally given up. I have a portable air pump in all our family vehicles exactly because of that. But that wouldn't help you with a rental. And lastly, the tubers in the Salt River during the summer are very irritating. That's awesome you caught a Sonora sucker amidst all that. 

You and Corey did very well despite the monsoon weather. That was one of the 2 or 3 most intense monsoon seasons I can ever remember. It set records in many spots in Arizona. Great job! And again, thanks for the write-up, that was an enjoyable read.

andy's picture

I can't believe the Show Low air stations make you mad too!  I have lots to talk with you about since our trip, Pinefish123, but wanted to thank you for your advice on the area.  Thank you!  Corey and I used it to our advantage throughout this adventure.

Mike B's picture

Great trip guys ... and pics. Those Apaches are particulary amazing. I need to go back to Arizona and see some of the things you guys were seeing.

mike b