A dispatch from the Arizona high country courtesy of Tyler Coleman.
Everyone has their own idea of how a day on the water is going to play out. We tend to picture the biggest trout in the stream, our nets never getting dry and plenty of stories to tell when we return home. The fish, however, have their own idea of how things can go and reality can be pretty harsh at times. Getting skunked, breaking rods, losing fly boxes, flat tires on your vehicle, injuries, blistered feet, etc tend to be a more likely scenario while exploring in the high mountain terrain where you find the small streams that hold our native trout. For some reason even with that list of possible negative outcomes I live for getting out into these creeks. My passion is seeing the fish in their natural environments doing what they have always done and attempting to fool them into thinking that my fly is something worth taking a bite of.
As I boarded the plane to Arizona I had my gear and rods on my back wondering how the weather would be, if the fish were going to be active and if hiking further would help me finally find a decent size, Gila Trout. The stream is only open for five months out of the year and is exclusively catch and release so there is an opportunity for nice size fish to be hiding in its depths. I was really excited to be back in a familiar place with some good friends and unplug for the day. We had woke up hours before sunrise to make our way toward the mountains. While eating coffee and breakfast burritos we caught up on fishing stories which seemed to make the 3-hour trip only a few minutes. Before I knew it we were on a dirt road dodging potholes and cattle with high hopes for the day’s outcome. We got our gear on, rigged up our glass rods, tossed some snacks and a drink in our packs then headed upstream. There was snow on the peaks but the warm Arizona sun was shining, it was a nice day to fish. It was December so the hatches were small and far between but it seemed like there is always a chance at success with top water on small streams. I threw on a hopper and hit the first couple pools. As soon as my fly landed I saw a splash and my line was tight, a small native jewel was on the line and soon after in my net. It’s always great to break the ice on the first couple casts and especially great on the first one.
After I had caught a few small fish eating off the top I heard someone celebrating a few pools ahead so I sprinted up to see what was going on. Ricky was leaning over the water with a fish in his net so I said let me know when you are ready and I will take the picture. I was so surprised to see a fish twice the size of my first one in his hand with a small streamer hanging out of its mouth. After some quick photos, the fish was back on its way to hiding in the plunge of the pool. A few minutes later Anthony came walking up talking about his first fish, on a small steamer and it was about the same size as Ricky’s. I kept my hopper on and worked my way through the next few pools catching more small fish. While releasing one of them I saw a dark shadow holding under an overhang in the pool above. This was the first deeper pool I had came across while taking turns with the other guys. Sneaking up for a closer look I sent a quick bow and arrow cast in the foam and waited for a strike. The shadow moved as my fly drifted by but it didn’t eat and I watched as my hopper came to the tail end of the pool. With a splash, something small was on the line and it moved downstream not spooking the fish above. Another small fish and motivation to switch my fly to a small streamer like the other guys. I tied on my fly and cast into the plunge hoping to soon feel a tight line. With a little disappointment, I watched as my fly swam back with no fish attached. I repositioned a few times casting and couldn’t get the fish to move so I crawled up onto a rock and saw one of the biggest Gila trout I have seen in person. The fish wouldn’t eat for one reason or another so I headed upstream to try another pool hoping it would be hungry on the hike out.
The three of us took turns on pools and helped each other net fish for a while. We were having no problem finding fish but today were having luck finding a good amount of larger fish. I still hadn’t caught the big Gila I was looking for but we had plenty of time for that and everyone was having a great time pulling in fish after fish. At one point Ricky and I worked the same pool catching fish with every cast, we both lost count of how many we caught in that section. It was about time for some food so we found a spot to sit and relax, listen to the flowing water and enjoy the scenery.
Refueled and refocused we headed further upstream taking turns on new spots and finding more and more fish. We started to get curious just how high up the trout populations were successfully self-sustainable. This stream is a successful restoration project from combined organizations and the trout are thriving but how far up did they make it? How well are they doing? We wanted to know so we fished up as far as we could allowing enough time to make it back before dark. suddenly I saw a nice small pool with some coverage and good overhang, I got excited. This looked like a spot for nice size trout to be holding so I carefully approached the area I could make a good cast from and have enough room to set the hook. More times than I can remember I allowed myself to get overzealous about a spot and lost a fish over a simple mistake. Maybe that is what happened with the first big fish I had seen this day or maybe that fish just wasn’t interested in the flies I presented. My fly landed in the plunge with confidence and before I could blink I felt my line pull tight and saw my fiberglass rod bent like a horseshoe! This did not feel like the typical fish for the day and there was no quick pull of the line to have it at my feet. The fish bounced around the pool and stuck to the bottom, it swam through some broken branches giving me a scare as I thought for sure I would be snapped off. After a few moments, I had it in the net and was able to click a few photos for myself. I was excited to catch up with the guys and let them know I finally caught my fish nice size Arizona native trout.
With the self-created pressure of catching a good size fish like the other guys finally off my back, I felt a little relief for the rest of the day. One of the things I love most about fly fishing is there is no guarantee of a good day on the water. With or without fish it is your own responsibility to make the best out of the situation. There have been some times where I have been so frustrated with myself or the lack of fish I caught but in the end, it was only me I could blame. I caught back up to Ricky and Anthony to tell them about my catch which they were equally excited about. We pushed further up watching the sun to make sure we wouldn’t be walking back by the light of our phones again. The next few pools did not disappoint and we all landed some great looking fish. Finally, it was time to head back down the hill if we wanted to try to fish a few spots that we knew held fish that didn’t eat the first time.
The fishing wasn’t as prolific heading back down because we had already been in most of the spots. Even so, there were some fish happy to eat our flies. After a couple stops we all agreed that it was hard to even put a number on the amount of fish we caught that day and we should make our way to the truck. We joked about how we wish every trip could be like this but I feel like if it was we would lose our appreciation for them. Even though it can be frustrating to lose fish, miss strikes or get skunked I try to learn from every day I am lucky enough to get outside. The Gila trout is such an interesting species and I feel very grateful to have a place in Arizona where they are stable enough to be caught and then released.
Follow Tyler Coleman on Instagram at @thecolemancollection as he wanders the small mountain streams in search of wild trout.