Christmas Tree Lake -
Whenever anglers mention Christmas Tree Lake, it can mean only one thing – it’s time to talk Apache Trout. Christmas Tree, managed as a Trophy Trout Lake by the White Mountain Apache Tribe, may boast the healthiest population of quality Apache Trout on the planet. These yellowish-gold beauties are the official state fish of Arizona and one of only two species of trout native to the area. I recently had the opportunity to fish Christmas Tree Lake with Jack Dengel, Tom Horvath and Skip, Tom‘s good friend. For Jack and I this would be our first trip to Christmas Tree and in our minds it more than lived up to its reputation. The fish were big, plentiful and eager to play.
We made plans the night before to leave for Christmas Tree from Tom’s cabin around 5 am. This information is significant, because when we went to pick Skip up the next morning we found him patiently resting on a large rock in front of the gate to his property. Skip then casually approached the truck and politely said to Tom, “I thought you said be ready at 4 o’clock _______”… I’ll let you fill in the blank. It quickly became apparent to me and Jack the unique type of relationship that Tom and Skip shared. After a quick stop to the Hon-Dah Gas station for fuel and a fisherman’s breakfast consisting of microwave hamburgers and frozen burritos, we were on our way. On the one hour drive along the Apache dirt roads, we were further entertained by Tom and Skip’s back-and-forth comedic exchanges, which were reminiscent of scenes from the “Grumpy Old Men” movies. Although I’m not sure who was Jack Lemmon and who was Walter Matthau, they were amusing to say the least and the time quickly passed. Before we knew it, we were pulling up to a pristine high mountain lake surrounded by a dense pine forest backdrop.
When we arrived at Christmas Tree we found the sky overcast, the lake surface reflecting like a mirror and completely empty. I have fished in the White Mountains enough to appreciate this magical combination and I had a gut feeling we were in for a great time on the water. As we were gearing up it wasn’t long before another truck pulled up. It was the local fly fishing legend known as Chief. I had heard about the prolific ant hatch happening and therefore made prior arrangements with Chief to acquire a dozen of his killer ant pattern. I won’t go into specifics regarding this pattern, but let me just say on the water they were a dead ringer for the real thing.
Once we were on the water, Jack began marking fish on his fish finder and was the first to get them dialed in. He determined they were feeding on damsel nymphs and seemed to favor a particularly slow retrieve. However, Tom and I went straight to the bottom first. We were both dredging big buggers and with the exception of the occasional short strike we weren’t having much luck. When we originally launched, Skip was the first to break formation and head to the far side of the lake. After Jack’s hand cooled, and because neither Tom nor I had yet to get hot, we decided it was time to kick on over to check on Skip. When we finally reached the other side we found fish rising everywhere and Skip sitting in the middle having a field day. The fish were hitting midges, mayflies, damsels and those big black winged ants! I stopped short of the rest of the group, tied on Chief’s pattern, and began casting to clusters of ants. This was something new for me, as I had never fished large foam dries like this before on a lake where the fish were feeding so aggressively. Now, the first half dozen strikes or so can only be described as me having a bad case of the ‘yips’. My anticipation of the take was so high, I was literally pulling the fly from the fish’s mouths before they could eat it. Eventually, I would discipline myself to wait-for-the-take and, finally boast, “fish on”! Just like that the stink of a skunk was gone.
The next couple hours we spent sight casting to rising fish as a storm loomed in the distance. The rings from the risers were like little bullseyes and, if we could successfully land a fly in them, we were likely rewarded with beautiful, healthy, 16 – 18-inch Apache trout. Several times we had multiple hook ups at once. We joked there was obviously no shortage of food in Christmas Tree because of how chunky these fish were. As it began to rain, we feverishly continued to make cast after cast to the last of the surfacing fish. It then began to pour.
We waited out the rain on the water since there was no lightning with this front and, let’s face it, we weren’t ready for this day to end. After a good hard soaking the rain passed over and it was as if someone had just flipped a switch and we were back to catching fish. We got another couple hours of great dry fly action before the next system rolled through.
As the second storm approached we began to see lightning on the horizon. This made for a relatively easy decision to start heading back considering we all had at least two lightning rods strapped to our pontoons. On the way back, I reverted to trolling the same streamer that produced the short strikes earlier in the deeper parts of the lake. As I entered the home stretch, I hooked into my biggest fish of the day… a fat 19-inch Apache. I couldn’t have scripted a better ending to an already memorable day!
On the drive back the truck was filled with recollections from the day’s adventure (that and a few reminders of Skip’s burrito from earlier). Tom & Skip agreed. They had experienced one of their best days at Christmas Tree. Jack and I both agreed it was one of our best days fishing… period. And, we all concluded, the best fishing days are always better when spent with good company.