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Commentary and unsolicited opinions about things fly fishing.


The Rapture

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

-Matthew 24:29-31 (King James Version)

According to American Christian radio host Harold Camping the Rapture was supposed to occur this past weekend. So God’s people would be taken up to heaven and the rest would remain on Earth for a few more months of tribulation before the end of the world later on this year.

It just so happened that a friend and I had out annual spring backpack in the White Mountains planned for this weekend. Despite the ominous prediction, we figured we might as well do our trip. After all, if  the event did occur,  we would get one more fishing trip in and if it didn’t, well at least we would get one more fishing trip in. Win-win.

While the Rapture never came to pass, some tribulations did. Yet , in the end, we did find our slice of heaven.

Brian with a Smallie

Things started off well enough. We hiked in and found our favorite riverside campsite was open albeit without the water pot someone left there years ago which has become as much a part of it as the fire ring and towering ponderosa pine. After a hasty construction of camp we immediately set off downstream with rod in hand. We found some willing fish and it looked like smooth sailing. That is about when thing started to deteriorate. Only a few pools down, we spotted some folks in another camp. There was an additional group farther downstream and another came in as we were heading back. Finally a fourth party arrived who were set up just upstream of us. This was going to be tough with this many anglers working the pools. On the bright side, I found the pot and returned it to its home.

The next morning, the predicted date of Rapture, we headed upstream already beat to the punch by several anglers. We proceeded slowly as to allow each pool a bit of rest between the others and us. Not surprisingly, we never found a particularly “hot” pattern. We had to work hard for each fish, but still managed an occasional trout or bass. After a couple miles, Brian continued upstream and I turned back to hit the pools below again on the way back to camp. A rather large and fat smallmouth inhaled a pheasant tail nymph which I found a little odd, but pleasing. Later in the evening, Brian landed a very nice brown while I struggled to fool many fish up top despite active risers to a pale dun spinner fall. The day of the Rapture had passed.

The next day we hoped our fortunes would improve as most of the other campers headed out of the canyon. We again worked upstream and after several miles had little to show for it. Except for one fish, all of our reliable pools had failed to produce. At least we were alone and enjoying the solitude. In the mid-afternoon Brian had an epiphany. Although this water is usually not a great dry fly river, he began picking up fish on a stimulator. I quickly tied one on and immediately began to get into fish myself. So we tossed dries and before we knew it, the day slipped away from us. Hoping to catch the pale dun spinner fall again in the evening near camp we had to hustle back, bypassing a lot of good water.

Apache Hybrid

Spending evenings along the water in a canyon carved out the mountains can be a spiritual experience for a fly fisher. The sun disappears behind the rim and the cool air sinks down canyon with a subtle breeze. The invertebrate drift picks up and, if you are lucky, you get a hatch or a spinner fall of mayflies. This particular evening as dusk approached, the pale duns appeared again on queue and we found a run just above camp where the fish were rising to them. It only took a couple drifts before I took a nice fish. Almost immediately another trout assumed its station and began feeding allowing Brian a chance. We took turns casting to one replacement riser after another. Caught in the rhythms of the water, casting, and fading light I could not help but feel we were in heaven or at least in the kind of spiritual state we pray for. It was a beauty and grace beyond the capability of man’s creation.

After some minor trials a tribulations, we had truly been blessed.


Redtail Hawk with Serpent




A Dam(n) Shame

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.

-Theodore Roosevelt, May 6th, 1903, Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon Arizona

Grand Canyon

The average person who visits the Grand Canyon walks up to the edge and peers in for a few awestruck minutes then gets back in their car and drives away.Approximately 5 million come every year. A smaller number hike down the hill and back up again. Even fewer spend the night below the rim. Yet no matter the depth or length of stay, it is tough to use words describing the scale of what is seen. Even the best of photographs or artwork fail to some extent in this regard. Perhaps this is why President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a game preserve in 1906 and later a national monument in 1908. It was clear the political climate was not there for national park status as bills to name the Grand Canyon as such were defeated in 1882, 1883, 1886, 1910 and 1911. Primary objections to national park status may sound familiar today: State’s Rights and Socialism.

Fortunately persistence paid off and in 1919 the Grand Canyon National Park Act was passed and signed into law. In the 1970’s additional acreage was added to reach the present size of nearly 2,000 square miles. According to the National Park Service Organic of 1916, the National Park Service is tasked “ promote and regulate the use of the…national parks…which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.This sound simple enough, but as we were soon to see first hand the mission itself is much like the Grand Canyon: There is more to see than the first glance.

My mother and I had planned this hike months ago. Both of us are native Arizonians who had never hiked The Canyon and figured it was time to correct this. We made reservations at Phantom Ranch for three nights. I also had ulterior motives. For several years I had heard of the great fishing in Bright Angel Creek and wanted to sample it.

The day arrived and after a long hike we arrived at the bottom of The Canyon and checked in at Phantom Ranch. We were both tired, so we settled in the dorms and after a quick dinner called it a day.

Phanton Ranch Cabin

Cabin at Phantom Ranch

The next morning we were able to secure a cabin for the next two nights so we stashed our packs at the front door and I rigged my rod. Heading up Bright Angel Creek, I was surprised to see a legion of other anglers. None of them were fly fishing. In fact, all but a couple were fishing worms and doing quite well.

It took a while to get  upstream of all of them, but it was not a problem. The problem was I was so enchanted with the scenery, I always wanted to get around the next corner to see what lie ahead.

Finally, I diverted my attention to the trout. The trout of Bright Angel Creek are non-native Browns and Rainbows. Most of these are thought to be decedents of plantings back in the 1930’s. I have not been able to find evidence there were native trout to these cool, clear waters  which at first seems surprising. Most of the high country of the Colorado Plateau contains one variety of trout or another. About 20 million years ago the Plateau was pushed up as a single piece and sits higher than adjoining basin and range. Since the Grand Canyon itself is commonly though to be carved out less than 10 million years ago, it is possible that cold water stream which spring from The Canyon walls  and now sustain trout did not exist at the time. I don’t know.

Grand Canyon, Arizona Rainbow Trout

Bright Angel Bow

What I do know is that it is a phenomenal fishery. At first I used a large stimulator pattern to drop a midge off it. It did not take long to find a taker on the midge.  Shortly afterward a brown attacked the high floating stimi. Fishing continued to be good as I worked my way along the creek eventually switching to a short leader and a simi seal leech which is a far more durable pattern. The first day really slipped away from me and before I knew it the sun had sunk below the rim. I hustled back to Phantom Ranch passing many of the anglers I has seen earlier in the day. Like me, they had done well. Unlike me, they were toting large stringers of fish.

The next day I had some more exploring to do. In the morning, I wanted to check out the Bright Angel tributary of Phantom Creek. It was a spectacular little watershed with multiple waterfalls, but I found the fishing to be quite poor. Later in the day, I mentioned this to one of the other anglers and they said they had “hammered” them up there the day before. Since they were keeping every fish they caught, I took the expression to mean they removed a large portion of the population which explained the mediocre fishing.

Water Fall in the Grand Canyon, Phanton Creek, Arizona

Phantom Fall

In the afternoon, I headed down Bright Angel Creek towards the confluence with the Colorado River. This is where the first signs of trouble began. The National Park Service has implemented a trout reduction plan in the Grand Canyon. Part of this plan is the installation of a weir across Bright Angel Creek during the trout’s spawning season.

Weir Across Bright Angel Creek


I spotted it below the first bridge. The objective of the weir is to prevent spawners from moving upstream. Some mechanical removal takes place as well. The removal is an effort to protect the native humpback chub. To at least some degree, the trout consume and compete with the native species although the extent of this is undefined.

For many years, the population of the native fish in the river were fine and the trout were doing quite well in the creek. This all changed in the early 1960’s with the completion of Glen Canyon Dam about 20 miles upstream of the current park boundary. The flows after the dam became some 30 degrees cooler during the summer. Also, the sediment now collects in Lake Powell rather than continue downstream and lending the Colorado River the meaning of its name. The daily average sediment load, estimated at as much as 12,000 dumps trucks a day,  also built critical bar, beach, and backwater habitat for the native fishes as well as provided cover from airborne predators such as eagles and osprey. This change in aquatic habitat has proved disastrous for the chub and other native fish. On the converse,  the trout now flourish in the river. At this time, the entire population of the endangered chub in the Grand Canyon lives near the confluence of the warmer and more sediment-laden Little Colorado River a few miles up the river from Bright Angel.

The future looks grim for the chub. In order to restore the habitat, Glen Canyon Dam would need to be removed and the impacts of this would be felt by millions of people in the Lower Colorado River Basin in both water storage and power generation. There have been some alternatives suggested like modifying the draw of the dam to release warmer water from the top of the water column and building a delivery system to transport the sediment from the top of the lake back into the river below the dam. However, these projects are estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. All of the above would also wipe the economies now built on the Lee’s Ferry fisher. Even more, with warm-water species living in the river below the park, another exotic species invasion could begin to consume and compete with the chub.

So for now, the Park Service concentrates on trout removal in the immediate area of the chubs last stand. Considering the habitat changes it seems more akin to treating a symptom rather than a cause, but the alternatives are not good either.

The Silver Bridge over the Colorado River

Silver Bridge

After fishing in the river for a while, I worked my way back up the stream  from the confluence towards the weir. At one point I ran into one of the bait fishers lining a hole with worms. He did not catch anything while I watched. After he passed his way down and around the corner, I thew a few fly casts into the same pool landing and releasing three brightly colored rainbows. By their coloration, it was apparent they were fresh out of the river, pushing upstream for nature’s call. Knowing they were destined for death in a weir, I could not help but wonder if all the trout I had released the past couple days were less fortunate that the ones bonked over the head and strung up by the bait fishers.

And that is a damn shame. Maybe President Roosevelt was right  – it seems our efforts of improvement can only mar.

Grand Canyon

Garden and Pipe Creek Divide

Five Dogs in The Gap

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

When a man’s best friend is his dog, that dog has a problem.

-Edward Abbey

It had been a while. Fall fishing is some of my favorite and it had not been a good year. Parental obligations and poor health kept me off the water for the most part. Due to a surgery, I even missed a deer hunt after waiting on a tag for six years. To say I was ready to get out is an understatement. My skin was crawling.

So when I got a phone call on Sunday afternoon asking if I wanted to head up to Lee’s Ferry, I was all in. A friend had someone unable to make a planned trip. Norris was looking for a last minute replacement when he gave me a ring.  A little over an hour later, we were on the road.

Lee's Ferry Rainbow

Four Mile Bar Rainbow Trout

Many of the trips I have made to the Ferry the last few years have been with friends Rusty and Scott. One reason I like traveling with them is that even though we are all forty-to-fifty-something, we are not afraid to let the kid come out a little. An example of this would be a game they came up with: “Guess the Number of Dogs in The Gap”.

The Gap is a small Navajo Nation town between Tuba City and Page on Highway 89. On the way to Lee’s Ferry, it is little more than a wide spot in the road; the speed limit only drops by 10 mph. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in canine population. So to play “Guess the Number of Dogs in The Gap” everyone chooses a number of dogs which they think will be visibly present between the two town limit road signs. The closest guess, without going over, wins.

If you call it up front, three-legged dogs can count for two.

It was nearing sunset last Sunday as Norris as I approached The Gap. After a brief explanation of the game and the rules, I offered up the number five and he chose four. Slowing down, we scanned porch, driveway and roadside for pooch. We counted to four pretty quickly. It appeared beginner’s luck was in his favor as we approached the sign on the far side of town. Just in time a dog appeared in a gulch. It was a narrow win, but a win none-the-less: five dogs in The Gap.

Less than an hour later we arrived at Lee’s Ferry Anglers. At the shop, Ted had some ominous news: the weather looked grim. While not a lot of rain was forecast, high winds were expected. Owing to the fact I needed to be back in town for work on Tuesday, Norris and I resolved to go out on Monday anyway, if possible. After all,  the best time to fish is when you are there. Following a nice dinner we retired for the night mixed with apprehension and anticipation. The apprehension was concern for the weather. Dreams of trout supplied the anticipation.

More than most places, Lee’s Ferry has provided anticipation. I know I am not alone either. On my first pilgrimage there more than two decades past, a friend and I stayed at the campground. He woke me in the middle of the night with cries of “Mike! Mike! Did you see him! Did you see him! Get the net! Hurry!”. After realizing he was dreaming of big trout, I zipped back up my sleeping bag and went back to sleep.

The anticipation is still contagious to this day. I woke early on Monday and could not get back to sleep. With a couple hours to dream about fish of my own,  tying up some zebra midges was in order. The vise, thread, bobbin, beads, hooks and wire did the trick. It was breakfast and ramp time in the blink of an eye.

Four Mile Bar, Lees Ferry

Four Mile Bar

We met Tyson Warren at the ramp and were off to Four Mile. Being a weekday with a poor weather forecast, there were few boats on the river. As Tyson and Norris headed up to wade the bar, I headed to the channel. Every time I looked upstream, it seemed like Norris had one on. I was doing pretty well at sticking them on a zeeb, but they kept popping right off. After losing four in a row, I checked my hook. Sure enough the point was broken off. I must have damaged it pinching down the barb. Like the fifth dog in The Gap the day before, the fifth hook-up was the winner and I got it to hand.

One thing I have learned about fishing Four Mile, is the day goes fast if you are not paying attention. The two other boats which were on the river had come up and then gone back down when the wind started kicking up. We were pretty much alone on the river; two anglers,  one guide, and hundreds of thousands of trout. Some of these had worked there way up into the shallow channel and when the wind was not ripping the surface I could sight cast to them. Occasionally seeing one move to the side when my fly was in the vicinity  I would raise my rod and be fast to a hard fighting fish in current. The current was picking up with the rising water too. Before lunch the entire bar was covered which was washing insects into the water. Outside of fishing the foam eddies and the summer cicada season, this is one of the few opportunities to fish up top at Lee’s Ferry. So we threw foam terrestrials for a while and each brought a couple more to hand.

After lunch we headed upstream for a pleasure cruise. The wind was blowing too hard for drift fishing and the bars were submerged. So we just enjoyed the ride and Tyson’s history lessons. Afterward, we headed back to Four Mile and worked the back channel for an hour or so. It was a little more sheltered. Norris was on fire hooking up on almost every cast. I did not do nearly as well, but still enjoyed every minute of our fleeting day.

Back at the ramp we bid goodbye to Tyson and settled in for the long trip back to Phoenix. It was nearly dusk as we approached The Gap and storm clouds were on the horizon. We were tired and did not play the game, but did count the dogs just for sport. We saw two and they were both lying down.

Norris with a fish on at Four Mile Bar

Four Mile Fight

Big Fish

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

-Moby Dick, Herman Melville

I have spent most of the summer kicking around small streams catching mostly small trout. It has been a great time and I am not sure of a stretch in recent memory where I have enjoyed fly fishing so much. The wonderful habitat,  wild trout, and dry flies are in many ways what the sport is all about. I don’t think I have even used anything heavier than a 4 wt in months.

At some point though, I found myself wanting to catch some bigger fish. I am not sure if it just to prove to myself I still could or something deeper and more biological. Maybe it is just ego. I mean, after all, when you get back from fishing the first thing asked is if you caught any.  Assuming you answer in the affirmative to this, the second question is invariably “any good ones”?

Brown Trout

Jimmy Crain releases a Brown trout

And by “good” they don’t mean small wild fish; they mean big ones.

There are some considerations for targeting big fish. First, you have to fish where they grow big. Now there are quite a few places which satisfy this criteria including many of the high country lakes and streams we frequent. After this things get tricky, starting with the catching part. Although it is almost never easy to catch the big ones (I mean they are big for a reason, right?), there are times of the year when it is less difficult. These tend to be early and late in the season, before or after the smorgasbord of summer food, when the water temperatures are just right, and the stocking programs, which add a lot of cheap competition to the mix, have not yet begun or ended.  August does not fit into this scenario – the waters are warm, the fish are deep with plenty of food options and many of the waters are loaded with cookie cutters.

So at this time of year you are left with fewer options. One is to fish lakes like Christmas Tree on the White Mountain Apache Reservation where they stock larger Apaches for which you pay a high daily access fee. It is a wonderful place I have been to and will go again, but it is really not my cup of tea. Also, you could hit the road for specially managed waters like Becker Lake outside of Springerville or even head to New Mexico’s San Juan River. Both are great places too, but tend to get a little crowded and are far enough from home to make them more of a 3-4 day weekend affair.

A final option is to hit a closer remote stream which has wild, large fish. These are places which are not common and tend to be mediocre fisheries. Generally they are mid-elevation brown trout waters which are too warm for most rainbows or other trout, and are infested with crayfish. Population are small, but what few fish do subsist tend to be very hard to catch, but large, which of course is the whole point.

There is one such water a group us used to hit freqeuntly which comes off the Central Mogollon Rim . Were were much younger then, full of piss and vinegar, and also of the belief that only big fish mattered. So we hiked in there time after time, catching few, but big fish. If I were to call any of this small group of guys today and tell them “I went to the Honey Holes last weekend”, they would still know exactly where I was talking about. Their eyes would glass over with nostalgia and as soon they came back to earth, they would probably have a few names to call me for not having invited them.

I did invite another friend who had never been there before. Since it has been so long since I have been a regular, I was curious as to what we would find. Memories can make for better fishing than reality. Either way, I was pretty certain we would not catch a lot of fish so I tried to temper not only my expectations, but my partner’s as well. Of course being fisherman, this is impossible. I kept visions of two foot trout in my head and I am sure he did the same.

Roundtail chub

Jimmy Crain palms a Roundtail chub

We left the Valley early on Saturday and were hiking down the hill before it got too hot. After a hasty construction of camp, we headed upstream with rods in hand. The creek was more overgrown than I ever remember it in the past. It had changed. The old routes we used to cross the stream were choked with alder and while we occasionally used to catch a chub or two, they were thick now. I don’t even know how many we caught.

One thing  had not changed though – trout were few and far between. Eventually I could see this begin to wear on my partner. His cast had become less enthusiastic and diminished in frequency. Just after I gave him the “you gotta just keep on casting speech”, he hooked three fish in a row: a big chub, a nice brown, and a good rainbow (very rare in this water). This perked us both up enough to continue the march upstream.

It was getting pretty late in the day and I was still troutless when we arrived at the last pool we were going to fish. A little tired, I found a spot above the pool to sit and rest for a few minutes. It wasn’t long until I spotted an enormous brown trout in about 6 feet of water. You may not believe me, but this monster was in the ten pound class and larger than any fish I have caught in a couple decades. I just watched it for a while. Keeping in the same general area, it occasionally moved a few feet to suck a crayfish off the bottom.

I rebuilt a leader and tied on a crayfish fly. Nervously, somehow I managed a near perfect cast which landed softly just a hair less than ten feet and directly in front the fish. Life seemed to be going in slow motion. Casually the brown swam towards my sinking fly. I started to repeat in my head “count to three one-thousand before setting the hook, count to three one-thousand before setting the hook”.

After the longest, slowest ten foot swim I have ever witnessed the monster sucked in the fly.

“One one-thousand”

“Two one-thousand”

On reaction alone, I struck too soon. I felt him for a second before the fly popped out directly back at me. I collapsed to the ground.

It wasn’t long afterward when we had to start the race with darkness back to camp urged on by rolling thunder. We did not win the race, but it was close enough and rain had set in.

It rained all night, but that was alright.

I did not catch the fish I was looking for, but somehow still found most of what I wanted. To catch big fish, you have to fish for big fish and sometimes that just has to be good enough.

When asked if you caught any “good ones” sometimes you have to say “No”.  Having a story to tell, which is all we have in the long run, has to suffice. That, and a resolution of return.

A nice Brown trout

Jimmy with Brown

The Simple Life

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Even in these mercifully emancipated decades, many people still seem quite seriously alarmed at the prospect of sleeping away from officially consecrated campsites, with no more equipment than they can carry on their backs. When pressed, they babble about snakes or bears or even, by God, bandits. But the real barrier, I’m sure, is the unknown.

-Colin Fletcher

It started for me in the United States Bicentennial year – 1976. My mom strapped a pack to my back and we headed off into the wild. I remember camping next to the creek and the fascination with the stove, tent, and trying to catch a fish.

I guess not much has changed thankfully. I still love the simplicity of carrying all you need on your back. Food, shelter, clothing……add in a little fishing gear and you have it covered.

A break and a view

Top of the hill

With the son now nine years old, I thought it was time to bring him into the fold with his first real backpacking trip.

I had just the place in mind. A few weeks previous, a friend had turned me on to a place in the upper San Francisco River drainage which has access to four trout streams. Two of them hold  brown trout. Another has hybrid native/rainbow trout as well as browns. The last  contains only the hybrids. All of the fish are wild and the area knows little human use.

On a Tuesday morning we hiked a couple miles up around a ranch and past to the confluence of two of the streams. We found a nice spot to pitch our tent with a trout stream on each side. After filtering some water, we took a break. Following the construction of a small fire ring (no other previous campsites were found) and gathering some wood, our chores were done.

Wild Brown Trout Stream

Brown Trout Lurk

We spent the balance of the afternoon working the larger of the two creeks. We caught too many wild brown trout to count, all on dry flies. As long as you kept a low profile and used a soft step they did not spook.

Matthew was still a  little nervous and concerned after counter-balance hanging our food. There was a lot of bear sign in the area. I assured him we were safer there than back in the city.  I also instructed him to watch-out for poison ivy and chiggers. This did little to assuage his nerves.

After dinner we started a small fire. I made us both a cup of hot chocolate and he finally relaxed. I knew this when he pronounced that “all I need is a warm campfire and a good cup of Joe”. I have no idea where that came from.

We slept well.

Wednesday morning came early. This was to be our big day. We had planned to hike up the creek on the other side of camp which contained both the browns and hybrids and then up a tributary which not only carried most of the water flow, but the source of the hybrids. The culmination of the trip would be a waterfall.

As we worked our way up, Matt did not want to fish much; he was more than content to watch me catch and release a score or more of trout.

Fishg a smal plunge pool

I Spy

Finally as we approached the waterfall, he peered into a pool and spied a trout on station. Asking for the rod and using the cover of the rock, he dapped the fly in the pool above the fish. I watched as it struck viciously and then popped off. Matt was crestfallen. I peered back into the pool and rather than go into hiding, the fish had returned to station. I encouraged him to try again. As I watched intently, the fly drifted past the fish on the next attempt. He gave it one more try. This time the fish jumped out of the water after the fly before it hit the surface and Matt reflexively yanked it away. This trout was hot!

The third time, the trout took the fly as soon as it hit the surface and did not slip the hook. It darted and dashed around the pool until I cupped it in my wet hand, snapped a photo, and released it.

Native-rainbow hybrid

Matt's Fish

Afterward, I could hardly pry the rod from his hands. Pool after pool he called and he caught several more on his own.

native-rainbow hybrid

Spotted Beauty

When we returned to the confluence and were crossing the stream, I spotted a fish in shallow water less than ten feet away which was somehow oblivious to our presence. Since the rod was in my hand, I flicked the fly upstream and it watched as it drifted by. “Try again, daddy”, Matt encouraged. The kid learns fast. I complied and this time the fish rose with a deliberate slowness to inhale the fly.

It was poetry in motion.

We laboriously made our way back to camp and by the time we arrived the sun was low in the sky. A honest tired had set in as we ate and enjoyed the fire with hot chocolate in hand.

Thursday morning we hiked out. Matt asked if we could come again someday. I sure hope so. Even more, I hope he lives a long and healthy enough life to enjoy the simple life for the Tricentennial. May America still have places so wild.



The Days of Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Young people need models, not critics

-John Wooden

Remember when the days of summer were as long as the season itself? Carefree days between grades of school?  The days before jobs, mortgages, and other pressures stole the wonder from the world?

A break from fly fishing

Streamside PB&J

Those were the days of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

I had a chance to revisit them over the past weekend with my son and his friend, both 9 years old.

We hiked along streams in the name of searching for wild trout on the fly. We found much more than that.

We saw tarantulas running into their den. Wild horses mobbed the car like groupies at a rock concert. We got soaking wet every day by heavy rain and splashed in the puddles.  Exploring an old abandon ranch headquarters of decrepit stone and log buildings, we collected rusting and rustic artifacts.

Skipping stones. Climbing over and under standing fences and downed trees. Gathering wildflowers and smashing plate-sized mushrooms. Beating logs with sticks. Chasing frogs, watching birds, catching grasshoppers. We did it all.

Oh yeah, occasionally we fished too.

Dapping a Fly on an Escudilla stream

Dapping a fly

We kept it simple. A large bushy dry, sometimes with a midge or nymph dropper will fool most wild fish if you can stay hidden enough.

In all, we fished four streams- three of the Black River and one of the Little Colorado drainages. Each held their own wonders, not the least of which was trout. We covered a few miles, but there were so many distractions from the task we covered fewer than I had planned in my narrow adult mind.

Each day, we had a peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.

I had forgotten how good they taste – maybe it was the air,  but more likely it was everything else.

I think I’ll have one now. As soon as I am done catching grasshoppers.

Apache-Rainbow Hybrid Escudilla

An exciting distraction


Sunday, July 18th, 2010

Our demons are our own limitations, which shut us off from the realization of the ubiquity of the spirit…each of these demons is conquered in a vision quest.

-Joseph John Campbell

Ask most Arizona anglers how many trout streams they can name on the National Forest portion (non-reservation) of the White Mountains in the eastern part of the state and I would guess their answer would be less than a dozen. In reality, there are far more. Taking out a map and not counting forks of the same name, I stopped listing them at 33. This includes only waters I have fished or have very reliable second-hand knowledge of. The fact is, they are everywhere.

Apache-Rainbow on Feeding Station

Trout on Station

As proved by a recent outing,  they are as different as they are everywhere.

The past few days, I passed some time fishing with Joe DiSilvestro. Joe has a keen interest in indigenous and wild trout of the West and has spent considerable time and effort over several decades pursuing these fish in their native habitats, including the White Mountains. He is also one of the finest small stream anglers I have ever seen. His bow and arrow casts shoot true, threading through tree and willow to deliver his fly to targets small as a dinner plate.

I have stomped around the streams of Eastern Arizona, and the West at large, for a few decades myself. So after a conversation, Joe and I made plans to show each other some waters one of us had fished, but the other had not.

On  mid-elevation feeders of the San Fransisco River, we found brown trout in beaver dams and plunge pools protected by New Mexican Locust and shaded by Arizona Ash and Ponderosa Pine. We saw turkey and elk.

Along two high-elevation streams of the Little Colorado River drainage we fooled Apache-Rainbow hybrids under the shadow of Ponderosa Pine, Quaking Aspen, and Douglas Fir.

Apache Rainbow Hybrid

Apache Rainbow Hybrid

From the runs, riffles, and pools of a  remote alpine stretch on a  fork of the Black River, we sampled resident Brown and Apache Trout. A Bighorn Sheep was sighted among the spruce and through the willows.

We probably covered about ten miles of trout stream in the three days and double that in terms of miles walked. Each mile was as different as our names – Joe and Mike. On the converse, many people share our names but each is a different a person. As such are  trout streams: defined by differences in flora, fauna, and topography, yet waters united in ubiquity.

In Praise of the Smallest of Waters

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.

-Mother Teresa

A small stream is Arizona is truly small. Tiny. Diminutive. Consider the East Fork of the Black River. In most places it would be thought of as a tiny stream or dismissed as a creek. Here, we call it a river. In the Desert Southwest, the size of water is  relative.

The size of trout is a relative thing too. A small trout from a big water might well be a big trout from a small water.

So then what is a small Arizona trout stream? In my book, it is a perennial flowing or even ephemeral water which contains trout (preferably wild) which you can step across with an average inseam.

Small Stream

Step Across

These waters have their fans and, in the case of waters with wild trout, these fans are often secretive fanatics. People who fish are often tight-lipped  enough, but these fanatics can take it to a whole new level. Fishing itself is an uncertain search for the elusive. A hunt for a small trout stream in water-starved Arizona is an elusive search for the elusive. Fishing for small streams to fish is thus secretive and elusive squared.

Consider me one of these fanatics to the second power.

This past holiday weekend in the White Mountains, my wife joined me on an another obsessive quest for new water. On a map, I had spied a tributary of a tributary of a tributary of the Little Colorado River. I had been looking at it on paper for several years but did not know if it held fish or not. We embarked figuring that there is only one way to find out for sure.  If nothing else, we were sure to find relief form the masses on one of the busiest weekends of the year up on the mountain.

The stream was not accessible by road, so we left town and sometime after the road turned to dirt we pulled the car off to the side, humped our day packs on, and headed out into the forest in the general direction of the stream. After slipping under a barbed-wire fence we found a long-abandoned road which gently wound down into the canyon. As we neared the creek the mosquitoes closed in on fresh meat.

Pocket Pool

The stream was running and along it was a trail. A game trail was to be expected but this was not just a game trail. This fact was obvious because it had been cleared over the years on occasion by chainsaw. There were cuts ranging from ancient to probably as recent as last year. Why would anyone clear a trail back here in the middle of nowhere? I was not sure, but had a few guesses in the back of my head.

Spooking a small herd of deer, we continued upstream along the trail. The canyon was heavily shaded by old growth Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, and Blue Spruce. I occasionally peered into the water searching for the dart of a trout, but saw nothing. Even if there were no trout, this was a pleasant hike in a pristine environment. I considered this reason enough for someone’s chainsawed-endeavor.

Birds sang and snakes slithered. The trail continued on and where the creek forked, the trail split. We chose the right turn and pressed on until the creek forked again and the path ran out. We decided to make this our turn-around point.

After a lunch in the shade of an ancient, gnarled fir and despite having seen no fish, I rigged a rod. Remember, we are acting on faith here.

I had brought the 8’3″ 4wt because it is a five-piece. I was wishing I had brought the  3 wt. 6’6″  despite its two pieces because this was not going to be a matter of casting. With the thick overgrowth, it was  a matter of just finding spots I could thread the rod through to dap.

If there were any fish in this smallest of waters, I knew they would not be very selective, so I tied on a  Wulff pattern with plenty of hackle so it would float high. Finally finding an opening, I dropped a fly in a pool much smaller than a bathtub. Instantly a trout appeared and inhaled it.

Large Praise for Small Trout

As we continued to work our way back, I dropped a fly in every spot bigger that a shoebox which I could get a rod into. Each time a trout appeared and acted with no suspicions.

While most people would not consider 6-9″ trout very large, there are times worthy of reconsideration. I felt this was one of them in the name of faith in small things.

In praise of  the smallest of waters, now I know why you maintain the path – whoever you are.

I swear to Mother Teresa:  your secret is safe.