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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.

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?!

After lunch I thought it would be a good idea to head to a small creek that, according to my research, held brook trout. I wanted to catch back up to Blake on the species count so we’d only have brown and rainbow trout to target the rest of the trip if we were to complete the Arizona wild trout challenge. One thing that was very prominent when driving across Arizona was that you didn’t have to look far to find the effects of wildfire. This area was hit hard in 2011 by the Wallow fire and things have been recovering ever since. That fire was actually started by two guys who were camping so we definitely had to be on guard at night around the campfire because I’d hate to be known for something like that.

Naturally Blake caught the first fish, a brown trout. He was fishing behind me so I was doing something wrong. That fish took either a small streamer or a nymph, I don’t remember exactly, but I know it wasn’t a dry, which is what I was throwing. I switched up and soon had the pleasure of bringing a fish to hand of my own.

It was also a brown trout. I was happy to have caught something when the bites were hard to come by because at this point it was looking like catching fish of any type here was going to be tough.

We covered some good looking water, but turned up very few fish. A bit demoralized we turned back and headed to vehicle. I don’t know what was up with that creek, the water clarity wasn’t as good as it was as in the last three creeks we fished, it had a slight stain to it, but I really don’t know the area well enough to know if that was normal or not. Sometimes you just don’t catch fish, I don’t really know, I just know we struck out on brook trout there and so I’d have to figure something out over the next couple of days if I wanted to complete the challenge.

We headed back to camp and prepared for steak night, a good consolation for a tough afternoon. Mother Nature also rewarded us for our troubles on the creek because on the way back to camp we were treated with a pack of bighorn sheep on the side of the road.