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Sightfishing

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.

As a native trout nerd, it would be hard to live with myself if while I was on a trip to the White Mountains in Arizona I didn’t sneak off one day to chase Gila trout in New Mexico. We were planning on switching campgrounds anyway, might as well trek into New Mexico in the morning and see if we can chase down some Gilas first. New Mexico is the state I most associate with Gila trout, for Arizona it’s Apache trout.

Looking East off Hwy 180 south Luna, NM

It was about a two hour drive to get to a trailhead where we could hike along a stream that held Gila trout in it at some point upstream. Much like the Gila trout stream in Arizona, this creek was ephemeral, bone dry at the trailhead, so we’d be hiking until we made it to water that was suitable for trout to live in. The valley we drove into was very unassuming, even as we parked, but it didn’t take long during our hike for it to transform into one with spectacular scenery.

In about a quarter mile we entered into a narrow slot canyon with steep vertical walls composed of volcanic rock of many different colors, colors that I don’t typically associate with the rocks where I find trout, but not at all out of place in the desert southwest. It was an amazing landscape of sandstone and rock spires with a trickle of a creek running through it.

Our day was made just experiencing this canyon on our feet. Having a fly rod in hand was lagniappe. We made it to a point on the creek where small waterfalls cascaded into pools that were several feet deep; it started to look like good trout habitat. The water was crystal clear, some of the clearest water I’ve seen in a stream. Lots of small fish could be seen in each pool, not trout at first, but other smaller species, longfin dace being one of them as I’d come to later find out. It wasn’t long before the trout showed up as well.

We fished the pools we could with pretty good results, no shortage of fish brought to hand. The places that looked like they should hold trout did. We had a good time bouncing from one hole to the next. Eventually though the holes dried up and we had run into a couple of other anglers walking out that said as much. I didn’t realize we’d hit a dry run on the creek and I didn’t know how long it would last so we had to make a decision of whether it was time to hike out or keep going. We hiked up a little ways trying to find water again and all we found was a little pocket, but that pocket had about a dozen trout in it with some being noticeably bigger than what we had caught thus far. It was exciting watching Blake work a small streamer in the hole, dancing it around, especially when a bigger fish darted out from under the rock on the right and smashed it.

I pulled one out too and then we made our way back to the vehicle stopping to fish a few holes we passed on the way up.

You always hear “pictures don’t do it justice” and that line fit the bill here. It truly was an amazing experience hiking and fishing in this canyon and it’s still hard to wrap my head around the fact that these trout continue to persist in this fragile, arid ecosystem. Drought and wildfire will always be a threat to wipe out their existence and that’s just crazy to think about. It was time for Blake and I to head back to Arizona and find a new place to camp, hopefully on the water or at least close to where we’d access the next place I wanted to fish in the morning, which from everything I read promised to be the best wild trout river in the state of Arizona – how could we not fish there?!

The view southwest at the top of the Mogollon Rim

We made the trek east to the White Mountains and set up camp at a very clean campground with a very welcoming host. This site would be our home for the next two nights. Campgrounds out west are always inevitably better cared for than those we have back east. I’m inclined to believe it’s because the people who utilize the resource here actually respect it as opposed to just taking advantage of it, like they tend to do back home. We may be polite to each other in the South, but we’ve historically been terrible stewards of our environment and it’s a real bummer at times.

Joseph R. Tomelleri

After setting up camp we set out on a local creek to search for Apache trout before dark. The scene was a high alpine meadow with a little meandering creek full of cut banks, what I would consider to be the perfect habitat for high country trout.

As it tends to always work out Blake struck first, with an Apache who looked like he’d been hooked before. Fishing would prove to be slow though as we continued to work upstream.

Finally I had beaten the water enough to finally land the World’s smallest Apache. Beggars can’t be choosers, so I was happy to get the skunk off my back. We pressed on and eventually made it into the tree line with Blake catching a couple more fish, including a brook trout.

I generally plan trout trips out west with goals in mind and this one was no different. First and foremost I wanted to catch the native Gila and Apache trout. I didn’t know it would be when I planned the trip, but that one was kind of low hanging fruit as it was accomplished on our first day of fishing. The next goal I had in mind was to complete the Arizona Wild Trout Challenge. To do that we had to catch a wild Gila, Apache, brook, brown, and rainbow trout, so Blake was off to a great start.

We fished into the trees a bit, but as the light began to fade and it grew darker the further we got into that valley we decided it was time to head back to the vehicle. We stopped to fish a couple holes along the way and in one spot I was able to upgrade my Apache trout to something a little more respectable.

We didn’t catch many fish here, but the picturesque setting more than made up for it. We headed back to camp to ready to cook up some dinner and have a celebratory beer. The Apache trout here left me wanting more so we planned to target them again tomorrow and hopefully the fishing would pick up.