Norm Maclean once wrote, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” And for an individual whose family relocated to western Montana, where he spent his formidable years growing up along the banks of the Blackfoot River, likely his words could not have been more appropriately chosen. However, if Norm’s family had moved to Arizona he might have subsequently titled his masterpiece, “A Small Stream Runs through It”. Then maybe the movie version, of his famous book, would have inspired a nation to pick-up a fly rod and head to Arizona to explore the small streams and creeks that flow through our state’s diverse landscape. Ok, maybe not. But, it may have at least inspired Arizonans’ to do that.
Arizona offers some fantastic opportunities to fish moving water despite the common misconception, “There’s no trout in the desert”, especially, if you are willing to put a little time and effort into locating these fish. Am I really going to convince anyone that fishing skinny water here in Arizona is more satisfying than fishing one of the great western rivers? Probably not, but when you factor in the close proximity to home and the ability to make a short day trip out of it, fishing these creeks should certainly have its place with any local angler looking to improve their skills. While larger trout may be the exception to the rule here, rather than the norm like our neighboring states, they are still tucked away in those secret spots forgotten by time. In other words; the spots far away from the crowds, which nobody like to talk about. You just have to work a bit harder to find these fish and keep your expectations proportional. That’s all.
Finding these “secret spots” can be the most challenging aspect of these types of adventures. You will need to utilize your best detective skills to first decode encrypted reports from your local fly fishing message board. Then cross-reference books on fly fishing Arizona trout streams, followed by further investigating the area on a forest map. Finally, you must triangulate all this information and determine the best possible access point to said spot on “Creek-X”. Or you can simply choose to befriend someone who is already familiar with an area and is willing to share their knowledge with you. I personally, find the later greatly reduces the learning curve. Therefore, I employ this method whenever possible.
This past Sunday Jack Dengel invited me to tag along with him to one of his favorite secret spots. He wanted to go in search of his elusive Walter. For anyone not familiar with Walter, he is the affectionately named 20+ inch brown trout, which has eluded Jack from this same location a couple times before. I had already heard several tales of this monster fish and, with its mythical proportions, had designated it to the same classification usually reserved for fairies and unicorns. Regardless, I had also heard reports of several 14-inch trout in this creek, which I believed to be much more plausible, so I was in with little resistance.
We left the valley at 5:00 am, which is our usual departure time for trips like this, and proceeded to travel up the hill. A short while later, we turned onto an unmarked forest road and begin to creep back into the woods. At this point my anticipation was starting to build, as it often does when I am about to explore a new location for the first time. Finally, we found a nice clearing to park the vehicle just a few hundred feet from the trail head. The sun was beginning to climb into the sky. As quickly as possible we stuffed our packs with all the necessary gear for an extended day hike: rod, reel, leader, fly boxes, tippit, nippers, hemos, raingear, dry cloths, first aid and water. Oh yeah, and don’t forget lunch!
The morning temperature was brisk. We decided to throw on our waders and boots and we were on our way. The descent into the canyon was a relatively easy hike, maybe around 800 feet down. Regardless of the difficulty level, we stepped carefully, because with wading boots even the simplest climbs can take an unexpectedly nasty turn. Once at the bottom, we found ourselves standing at the edge of a large glassy pool of water. I have to admit, this was a much larger creek than I had originally expected. My optimism began to grow. Here we rigged up our lines and made our initial casts. A few minutes later, nothing. So, it was time to move on.
After taking a short cut over the ridgeline and maneuvering across a small waterfall, we were back on the creek’s bank. We then passed over several very fishy looking pools, as we seemed to be hiking with a purpose. I joked that Jack was rushing, like he was late for an appointment. However, he assured me there was a method to his madness. The morning sun was exposing these first few pools, and in his past experience they fished better in the late afternoon when they are partly shaded. Therefore, we should work them on our way back. He also assured me there were more pools than we could possibly cover in a single day, so we were taking little risk in skipping ahead to the more productive spots.
Eventually, we came upon a particularly long pool, which Jack declared was his favorite. This section was plenty big enough for us both to fish at the same time, so we each picked an end and began to fish. Jack chose to start on the surface and I opted to start fishing from the bottom. On my very first cast, something engulfed my blood-red, simi-seal leach. A short fight later, the fish would reveal itself to be a beautiful 14-inch rainbow. This was a nice fish to say the least, especially from a small stream like this one. Then as I was releasing the fish back into the water and thinking to myself, “what a great start to the day”, out of the corner of my eye I saw something much bigger lunge from the water between Jack and me. And there he was in all his green & yellow glory, Walter! He must have been a 24-inch fish, easily weighing 5-pounds or more. We both stopped and looked at each other as if we had just witnessed a super-natural phenomenon. Then Jack’s first words to me were, “I told you so!”, followed by a big grin.
For the next several minutes, time seemed to be standing still. We took turns making calculated casts, desperately hoping Walter would slip up and take one of our imitations. But alas, reality soon set in. He had already seen us and a fish like that doesn’t get that big by making rookie mistakes.
We continued downstream working the riffles, runs and slack-water pools along the creek, catching and releasing fish after fish, but nothing that compared to my first fish and, certainly, no Walters. We did this until the sun began to disappear over the opposite side of the canyon. We then decided to start heading back, of course stopping-off at Walter’s home along the way. When we got there the door was locked and the lights were off and there was no sign of him. Well, there is always next time we thought.
Wading the pools on the way back that we had passed over earlier proved to be very worthwhile for Jack. He managed to successfully net a feisty 14-inch brown that he flushed out from an undercut bank using a streamer pattern. This was our only brown of the day and Jack’s first brown caught on this particular creek. His fish was a very fitting bookend to a very memorable day.
As is generally the case, the best fish stories often follow one of two distinct plot lines, the fish of a lifetime or the one that got away. Unfortunately, this one categorically falls into the second class. Although, Walter would once again get the better of his pursuers, the day was far from a loss. We each finished with a quality fish and more smaller trout than we cared to keep count. We both agreed that just being in the presences of a magnificent fish like Walter is a wonderful thing to behold. Knowing that Walter and others trout like him are still out there, undetected, continues to motivate us to push further and further away from the crowds to find that next secret spot.
While my short essay may pale in comparison to the brilliant work of the late Norm Maclean, hopefully it has inspired you to pick up a fly-rod and go find your very own Walter. He’s out there somewhere, hiding in a small steam in Arizona, just waiting to be discovered!