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Fish

Back in mid-July I managed to get a saltwater kayak daytrip in. The destination I chose was Leeville, for no reason in particular, it just seemed like it had been a while since I fished out of Leeville. I had every intention on making it out super early and watching the sunrise in the kayak, but we had gone to a party at a friend’s house the night prior and getting out of bed was a task in itself. It worked out to my benefit as I’m pretty sure a storm had rolled through the area at sunrise so I was able to avoid that. That was the theme for the day, avoiding thunderstorms, but I was able to do that for the most part.

I piddled around the marsh close to the road early on with no luck and made my way into a bay where I could tell the water was looking pretty fishy. There was a lot of bait activity and that bait was looking pretty unsettled. I even had a mullet jump in my kayak while I was just sitting there. Soon I caught a trout under a popping cork.

I pulled out the fly rod and started throwing my own version of a popping cork bait which was a Vlahos’ combo crab suspended off a an old crease fly Blake had tied. It wasn’t long before I had a nice fish on and after a good fight which had me wondering what the hell it was I had on the other end of the line I soon found out.

It was a gafftopsail catfish, which was definitely a first for me on the fly. It was amusing and slimy as hell. My leader was all slimed up and it took effort getting that slime off my hands. Shortly after that fight a storm chased me off the water.

I retreated back to the vehicle and hunkered down until I felt it was safe. After that I ventured back out toward the marsh. In between storms the winds were actually fairly light so I felt like I might be able to sightfish a redfish or two provided I could find flats that held them. The tide was high when I launched and had been falling all morning so the later it got the better conditions were. Eventually I put myself in a position to catch a redfish.

I kept fishing, hoping to catch a better one for the BCKFC/Massey’s yearlong CPR tourney, but I really wasn’t having much luck. As I got into skinnier marsh I was hearing fish crashing bait, which is usually a sure sign of redfish in the area, but it wasn’t redfish this time. It was sheepshead! Another fish I needed for the tourney and with them acting so aggressively I figured I had a shot to get one to eat and eventually after putting fly in enough of their faces I managed to get a strike.

It’s always fun catching sheepshead on the fly. I really don’t recall when my last one was, I think it’s been a few years. They are picky as hell though, I was thankful to have been on the water with some aggressive ones. I kept searching for reds and sheepshead, but started working my way back toward the vehicle as the afternoon was waning on. As I got closer to the road I connected with a solid redfish that actually broke me off. My line didn’t clear and got caught on something on the boat and the fight was over just like that. I was bummed because it was clearly an upgrade, but undeterred. I paddled around an island and soon enough had another opportunity. This time everything went right and I was hooked up to a nice upper slot red.

After a few pics I sent him on his way. I was satisfied to call it a day after that fish. I didn’t catch many, but I caught a few memorable fish and I figured I came out ahead having to dodge thunderstorms.

I put a link to the fly that caught the sail cat, but I wanted to take another moment to plug Nick Vlahos and his flies, which you can find at Sandbar Flies. Nick actually went to the same high school I did over in Georgia, Milton HS in Milton (was in Alpharetta I went there). Nick is a great guy and a fantastic fly tier, you can buy flies tied by him at his site, but you can also find some of his patterns at Orvis stores. I don’t know if it’s Fulling Mill or Orvis that carries his patterns, but the Baton Rouge store tends to keep them in stock as he did live in Baton Rouge for a number of years. Nick’s got some great patterns, be sure to check them out.

Whenever I research a slam trip like this I make sure to have backup options for each species in mind for just this type of situation. If I wanted to complete the Arizona wild trout challenge I needed to catch a brook trout and I was down to my last afternoon/evening to do it. Insert your clever sports cliché here. I knew of three creeks with brook trout in Arizona, two in the White Mountains, one on the Mogollon Rim. I’m sure there are several more, but in my research I only came across three. No one publicizes small streams, even ones with invasive species, so it’s up to me to try and develop intel with the help of local knowledge or books, other publications, and things I come across online.

Blake and I drove a couple hours from the Whites to the Rim to a lake outlet stream that I had heard held brook trout. After striking out twice this was last my chance so I took the lead on the creek. This creek was unlike any other we’d come across thus far on our trip. It was a narrow creek, one you could jump across in spots, but it held deep, still tannic water so you couldn’t see the bottom where it was deepest due to it being so dark. It was full of submerged vegetation too and really seemed like a good place for any coldwater fish species to live.

I started with a dry-dropper rig and really worked the spots faster than I should have been as Blake ended up catching a brook trout in a likely looking spot behind me.

It had come out from under a rock and hit the dropper nymph. I continued to cover water ahead of him at a faster pace than I should have, throwing a rig I probably shouldn’t have been. I was too focused on targeting the one dumb fish that every stream has, you cover enough water and you find him. Every once in a while I’d see a fish holding near the bottom, but they never took interest in my offering. After some time a young lady fly angler came by on the adjacent trail heading downstream of us. I took the opportunity to gather some much needed intel and switched up my rig after speaking with her. She convinced me to go small streamer and the closest thing I had was a tungsten jig bugger that my local Orvis in Baton Rouge always has in stock. I use it a lot for the bass and sunfish at home, it’s a good all purpose fly. The first or second hole I dropped it in and starting swimming along a weed edge I feel the rod come tight.

It was a damn brown trout. A gorgeous one, but these things are apparently like cockroaches in Arizona. I sent him back along his way and kept at it. I was looking for the obvious spots and fishing them hard. After Blake’s fish came from under a big boulder I had structure in mind.

Eventually I was able to swim the fly by a submerged log and out came the brook trout I was looking for. After a quick pic and a sigh of relief I realized just how far ahead of Blake I was and started trekking my way back toward him.

After I met back up with Blake that same young lady fly angler came walking back by. I thanked her for her help and I’m sure she thought I was completely nuts, but I had blinders on before talking to her and she showed me the light! With daylight fading we made our way back to the vehicle and continued on up to Payson. In Payson we found a hotel, had a proper Mexican meal, and found a local IPA worthy enough to count as a trip capper.

The campground host notified us of bear and mountain lion activity in the area across the river the year prior as we were setting up camp last night. Not to be deterred we actually got the best night’s sleep we’d had all trip, which is usually how it works sleeping in a hammock. It takes me three days to get used to it and by the time I get a normal night of sleep it’s back to real life.

Our last fishing day in Arizona had arrived. Our goal for the morning was wild rainbow trout, we’d each need to catch one to complete the Arizona wild trout challenge, but from what I had read about the river we planned to fish we would have the opportunity at some better-than-average wild brown trout too. That same literature pointed to this river as being the finest wild trout water in Arizona; couple that with the success we had the night before, and the anticipation of getting out on the water, at least for me, was very high.

The hike in

As in other places we’d come across in the White Mountains it was hard to escape the damage caused by previous fires. Hiking through hillsides that have been entirely burned up is an eerie experience and one that is new to me on this trip. Coming from an area of the country that is covered in water, the persistent extreme drought and fire danger of the desert Southwest is a shock to the system.

The closer you got to the river though the fire damage faded away and our focus turned to the trout and the beautiful place they call home. We hiked a little ways and began to work the water with our dry-dropper rigs heading back upstream. After about half an hour Blake struck first with a trout on top. We weren’t quite sure what it was, but it kind of looked Apache-ish, not out of the realm of possibility here. I wasn’t sure it’d pass for a wild rainbow. Maybe another half an hour passed before I brought my first fish to hand.

With parr marks still visible and fins intact I figured this rainbow trout wasn’t stocked and if it was it was at least naturalized enough that it looked wild. Just as we thought we were figuring them out a passing thunderstorm forced us off the water.

We ate lunch in the rain and I had a break to reflect on my food of choice on the trip. I had never had biltong, which is not all that different from jerky, prior to this trip, but after picking some up at the store to snack on for the week I am now a fan. It wasn’t as chewy as jerky and tasted more like a good steak than just seasoned meat.

The lightning didn’t stick around too long and we were able to get back on the water shortly after lunch. Soon enough Blake got his rainbow to complete the Arizona wild trout challenge. I know the rainstorm had him a little nervous, but with the monkey off his back he could relax and fish better. It’s funny how that works.

The strikes began to increase for us from that point on, but I didn’t manage as many fish to hand as on previous days; my average was way down. I expect that when fishing barbless flies, but I was also slinging a 6wt here instead of the 3wt glass rod I had been throwing, which may have had something to do with it. Any of the larger fish I hooked on the day I never got a picture of. I’m certain we caught a few browns mixed in with the rainbows, they were just camera shy. Par for the course.

The river had a few huge sections of still water that we didn’t effectively fish. We had no idea what to do with the slack water other than strip streamers through it, which I tried to do unsuccessfully, albeit it not thoroughly. If we had more time to really focus on that style of fishing it may have been productive, but at this point I was a little antsy.

I knew I still needed a brook trout to finish off my wild trout challenge and that wasn’t going to happen here. We decided to hike out and make the long drive to the Rim and over to the only other stream I knew they lived based on prior research. It was at least back in the direction of the airport and a hotel so it made sense to give it a shot.