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Hiking

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.

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?!