About this blog

This blog is all about fly fishing for native trout. On it I cover trip reports, fishing tactics, conservation, the latest news about native trout species and much more. This site provides a companion to my web page Nativetroutflyfishing.com.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Defying expections

If there is one thing that I have learned about sea-run cutthroat it is that as soon as I think that I have them figured out, they will go and do something completely out of the ordinary and catch me off guard. This was one of those days.

Since I hadn't fished with Zach since July, he decided to join me on a day of scouting out new beaches in search of cutthroat and possibly some coho salmon. While the tidal conditions weren't too favorable for checking out standard beaches, since it would be high tide most of the day, we decided to concentrate our efforts on some estuaries. We decided to start our day at a local estuary that is rather well known, but that just doesn't seem to get any fishing attention. Usually there is a reason for a publically accessible beach not getting fished, but I thought that this might be an exception to the rule.

I beat Zach to the estuary and upon walking down to the water a school of about 40 coho and another 5 or so pinks swam by about fifteen feet off shore. A very good sign!! I hurried back to the car to grab my rods (6wt & 8wt) and rigged one up with a hot wire comet and the other with a small attractor pattern. Zach arrived not to long after I started fishing and although the salmon would show up in front of us about every 10 minutes or so, we could only get a few fish to even look at our flies and none to bite. Then the cutthroat showed up. I spotted the first cutthroat off to my left about 20 feet away, tossed my fly a few feet in front of him. At first the fly seemed to spook this fish, but then he noticed that it appeared to be edible and charged forward to get his "meal". I set the hook and after a quick battle I brought the little cutthroat to shore.
My little cutthroat

Over the next half hour we got a few more cutthroat including one nice 15" fish that Zach caught, but before long we decided that it was time to go check out the next spot. The second estuary that we fished was a bit more off the beaten path, but unlike the first one the salmon just didn't seem to be around yet and without the salmon the cutthroat didn't want to hang around either. We only spent about an hour at this spot and never once saw any sign of fish so we hit the road to another spot that was just as fish deprived as the second estuary.

A great little fishing spot, just missing the key ingredient... the fish...

Since we had met at the first beach anyways, upon arriving back there decided to check things out again. Walking out to the water we immediately saw a small cutthroat cruising the shallows. After a couple more minutes of scanning the water we spotted several other much larger fish between 15" and 20", all just sitting in one to two feet of water, something that I rarely see sea-run cutthroat do. The prospect of sight fishing to these cutthroat had us running back to the car to grab our fly rods. On his first cast Zach caught one of the smaller cutthroat, but I had bigger fish to fry so I set my sights on the largest cutthroat. This was sight fishing at its best and I tossed my hot wire comet right next to the 20" fish that I had spotted. While my fly landed within a couple feet of the 20" fish, there was also a 17" cutthroat holding behind this fish and he wanted my fly more than larger fish. As soon as the comet hit the water, this cutthroat charged over and inhaled hit. Like most sea-run cutthroat that I have caught, this fish put up an exceptionally fight for its size, making several strong runs and jumping a number of times before coming to the net.
The 17" cutthroat

Zach and I spent the next half hour sight casting to number of cutthroat, although we didn't catch any more as large as the 17"er we did get a number of smaller fish before the fish followed the tide out of the estuary.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Eastside Redbands

Last week I headed out to a small stream on the eastern slope of the Cascades, which I have been meaning to check out for the last several years. The research that I had done on this drainage showed that it was rather rugged and home to populations of native Columbia Basin redbands and westslope cutthroat. Being that the was located a little further east on the rain shadow of the Cascades, it took on a little be more of an arid Rocky Mountain feel. Also due to being a bit further east summer still had a bit stronger hold on the region and it was already in the low 80's when I arrived. Perfect wet wading conditions. Like usual I rigged up my 2wt with an attractor dry and a small size 16 bi-color prince nymph dropper. Being early fall the creek was low, but working my way upstream I quickly found and nice pool with fish rising along the basalt cliff edge.

A productive pool on the creek

Most of these fish ended up being juvenile salmon, which are slowly starting to repopulate the streams of the Yakima River watershed. These little fish were extremely aggressive and made it difficult to get my fly in front of any trout, but after a handful of casts my dropper went under with a little to much force to be a salmon fry and sure enough I hooked into a nice redband. For their size these redbands are exceptional fighters seemed to be bent on spending as much time out of the water as in.

A picture perfect Columbia Basin redband

Each pool seemed to have several decent redbands in it and the creek had just the right combination of pools and deeper pocket water to keep me occupied. At the head of one of the may basalt rimmed pools I placed a cast right along a perfect looking seem and was caught off guard when a solid 18" redband cruised up and grabbed my dry fly. I got a good hook up, but the combination of the swift current at the head of the pool and my light rod gave the fish the advantage and within short order he was able to shake me loose. After combing the pool for any other unusually large, which of course there weren't any of, I continued upstream and continued to catch the more standard sized 8-10" redbands.

A rugged section of the creek

Finally I got to the point where the shallow to deep water ratio got to low and the creek was to shallow to fish for an exceptionally long stretch so I decided to head back downstream. As I started to work my way back toward the car a nice October caddis hatch kicked into gear and the redbands started looking up a bit more. I put a size 8 stimulator on and started catching a few fish out f each of the pools that I had thought were already fished out. I never did see any of the westslope cutthroat, but the feisty little redbands continued to keep me occupied until I found my way back to the car.

An October caddis eating redband

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

September in the Southwest: Part 4 Rio Grande Cutthroat

Day 9: Wednesday September 9th 2009: The weather was clear once again when we left Santa Fe in the morning, headed for a small creek in the headwaters of the Pecos drainage. It took us a little over an hour of driving to reach the trailhead that would provide us with access to a small stream that was said to hold a population of large spotted Rio Grande cutthroat.

The view of the valley from the trailhead

After rigging up our gear we made our way down to the creek, which ended up being a bit smaller and brushier than what I had hopped for. We decided to head upstream hoping that maybe things would thin out a bit or that we could find some decent pockets to fish. Within the first five minutes I found a nice little pocket along an undercut bank and watched a nice looking fish grab my dropper. The fish didn't have anywhere to go, but as I went to net him my size 18 copper john came loose and he darted off downstream. For the next half mile of stream, I only spotted a handful of fish, all of which were either holding in impossible to fish spots or would spook before I could even get close enough to cast to them. Derek faired no better, but I was dead set on catching one of these fish so I continued to work my way upstream. The further upstream that I got the more fish that I saw and I did manage to rise a few but couldn't get any solid hookups.

I finally came to a pool that had a fairly open angle to cast from, some good cover to allow for a stealthy approach and most importantly two good-sized cutthroat holding in the tailout. I didn't want to take any chances here so I sized up my cast and tried to aim for the larger of the two fish. My first cast was a little short but my next cast was right on target, upstream and slightly to the right of the larger fish. The larger cutthroat slowly cruised over to my fly, took a quick look and changed its mind. I was thinking that the fish had found something wrong with my fly, but before I decided to pick up my fly to make another cast the fish turned back around, swam over to my fly and nipped at it before changing its mind again and turning away. However just as quickly as this fish decided to refuse my offering it changed its mind once again and this time confidently slurped my dry fly. I allowed a second of pause before setting the hook and was tied into the fish. This time my hook up was solid and after a short battle I was able to bring the beautiful cutthroat to my net.

A large spotted Pecos strain Rio Grande cutthroat

While photographing this cutthroat I noticed that the clear blue sky that we had started out with was now blanketed with scattered clouds, but I really didn't pay too much attention to it. Instead I continued upstream and found a nice deep pool where I caught another slightly smaller cutthroat and hooked a couple of others, before the now all too familiar sound of thunder told me that it was time to head back to the car.

The Pecos River tributary

Stormy weather once again

It was pretty impressive to watch how fast this storm built up, as by the time that we got back to the car and put the gear away it was right on top of us. By the time that we hit the road, it was just beginning to pour down rain, but a few minutes down the road we were able to leave bad weather behind us. The rest of the day was spent in the car getting to Denver, Colorado where I would be picking Blake up to head to Fly Fishing Retailers Show.

Day 10: Thursday September 10th 2009: I picked Blake up at the airport in Denver at 9:30AM for a full day at the FF Retailers Show. Our goal for the show was to look for some new products that would fit in well with the line up of gear at the Gig Harbor Fly Shop. Our main interest was in finding some saltwater ready rods and reels that would complement the current line up of Echo and Scott rods and Ross and Lamson reels. I will say this; it ended up being a very long yet productive day of looking at gear and meeting with reps to discuss their various product lines. We looked at products from a number of companies, such as Abel, Sage, Hatch, Galvan, Winston, Loop and Nautilus to name a few.

We also checked out new products from several of the brands that the shop already carries, such as the new Lamson Vanquish, an amazingly light big game salt water reel that is bound to leave most fly fisherman drooling. There was also the new Ross Evolution LT reel and some new 4 and 5wt switch rods by Echo, which have some serious potential as great beach setups for the Puget Sound cutthroat fishery. However the most impressive products that I saw for the day were a couple of Scott rods, one new to their line up and one not so new. The new rod was the S4S, a faster action saltwater version of the Scott S4, which would go on to be beat out the new Sage Xi3 and VT2 for the 2009 FF Retailers Choice Award. The S4S was most impressive indeed and would be a great rod for casting shooting head lines for cutthroat and salmon on the Sound. The not so new product that caught my eye was the Scott F series 6' 1wt rod. With my day on the brushy little Rio Grande cutthroat stream in New Mexico still fresh in my mind, this short but durable little fiberglass rod was looking VERY appealing, and is likely to sneak its way into my rod line up in the near future. Even with a full day at the show we still didn't get to look at nearly everything that we had wanted to, but at the end of the day it looked like Winston fly rods and Nautilus reels will be the most likely candidates to appear at the fly shop.

After the show came the party at Bubba Gumps and Drake Magazine film festival. The party was cool as there was plenty of free food and drinks to go around and lots of great people from the fly fishing industry to talk too. Blake and I talked with several shop owners from around the country for a while, then I ran into Teeg Stouffer from Recycled Fish, a non-profit group that promotes catch and release ethics and a lifestyle of stewardship for our fisheries resources both on and off the water. Of course we got talking about a variety of fisheries conservation topics and before I knew it, it was already time for film festival. The film festival was held at a small bar/ club a few blocks away from Bubba Gumps and highlighted some great upcoming films for this next year, with everything from trout, tarpon, Dorado, bass and Taimen. The introduction to the festival was hilarious and probably one of my favorite parts, the video can be viewed here. Short clips of most of the featured films can be view on the Drake's website as well here.

After the film festival, Blake and I walked back to our hotel a couple miles away and Derek and I discussed our plans for the rest of the trip. Since Blake and I hadn't finished looking at everything, we decided that I would join him at the show till around 10AM and then Derek and I would hit the road, since we had over 20 hours of driving ahead of us. The drive home was going to be a little longer that it could be since Derek and I had decided to make a side trip through Yellowstone on the way back, since he had never been there.

Day 11: Friday September 11th 2009: I started the day out at the FF Retailers Show with Blake again, where we checked out a few more cool products. The Bauer Reels, especially their Rouge Reel was probably my favorite item that I looked at for the day and something that will be likely to show up at a certain fly shop in Gig Harbor in the near future. However given the amount of driving that Derek and I had to do over the course of the day I had to take off from the show at around 10:30AM to hit the road once again.

Our drive getting out of Denver was a slow go to say the least due to an extremely nasty car wreck, but once we got past that we started making good timing. The drive really wasn't all that eventful until we got within a couple of hours of Jackson Wyoming, where the combination of the Wind River Range on the horizon and Pronghorn Antelope on their annual migration through the Green River valley made things a bit more interesting. While we didn't see nearly as many antelope as I had seen last October, the front edge of the migration had definitely reached the valley and we probably spotted close to a hundred of these creatures before crossed the pass into the Hoback River drainage. We pulled into Jackson, WY at around 7pm wandered around town for a bit before heading up the Gros Ventre valley to camp for the night.

Day 12: Saturday September 12th 2009: This was our day to see the sights of Yellowstone and the Tetons before cutting the distance between us and home down by as much as possible. The only catch to our time in Yellowstone was that with our remaining drive there wouldn't be anytime to fish. Something that I always seem to struggle with when surrounded by so many amazing trout streams. Our first stop of the trip was Grand Teton National Park, which we more or less just cruised through on our way north, although we did have to stop for a couple of photos.

The Tetons

After getting out of the Tetons, we headed up to Old Faithful so that Derek could see the most famous feature in the park. When we pulled up the board walk around the geyser, it was already filled with people, which usually means that the geyser is about to go off. I didn't want Derek to miss the eruption and have to wait another hour, so I dropped him off before going to search for parking myself. By the time the I parked the car and got within a hundred feet of Old Faithful, it finally went off. This is the second year in a row that I have had such good timing. After getting the whole Old Faithful experience Derek and I did a quick hike around the Geyser basin and then headed over to the lodge to grab an early lunch.

The Firehole River in the Geyser basin

From Old Faithful, we headed over to the Yellowstone River valley with hopes of getting to see some more of the park's abundant wildlife. Between Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone we only saw around ten bison and one deer a much lower amount that what I have come to expect. We did make up for this a little bit by getting out of the car to do some hike and sight seeing through.

One of the park's many thermal features

Yellowstone Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Even after covering the drive between Yellowstone Falls and Tower Junction we hadn't seen anymore animals, so I decided to make a quick side trip up the Lamar Valley to Soda Butte Creek. This was a good call, as we saw numerous herds of bison and antelope all up and down the valley. Although it was tough for me to pass through this near perfect valley without sampling the waters, Soda Butte Creek and the upper Lamar were both crawling with so many fisherman that it was almost pathetic and eased my pain a bit. I just amazes me the increase in pressure that these streams have seen since I have been visiting the park another reason that I favor the small out of the way waters that the average angler will never see.

A Lamar Valley Bison

After heading back down the Lamar Valley, we made one more quick stop at Mammoth Hotsprings where several dozen elk had decided to hang out, before we finally headed out of the park. While I had intended on driving to the Missoula area at the furthest I really didn't feel all that tired when we drove through town at around 9PM so we decided to keep going. After having gone this far, we decided that we might as well try to get back to Derek's place in Yakima, WA and by the time that we finally pulled into the driveway at 2:00AM I was tired enough to be happy to be out of the car.

Day 13: Sunday September 13th 2009: I got up early in the morning, or at least as early as I could manage with the combination of 18 hours in the car and transitioning back to Pacific time and finished the drive home a mere two and a half hours that flew by. Even though this was my longest native trout adventure to date it went by so fast that I hardly noticed it. I have to say that I really couldn't have asked for more out of this trip as all of the pieces seemed to just fall into place perfectly and I managed to accomplish exactly what I set out to do. However after the nearly 4500 miles of driving definitely had me glad to be back home.

Monday, October 5, 2009

September in the Southwest: Part 3 Gila Trout

Day 6: Sunday September 6th 2009: The storm that we had seen hovering over the mountains yesterday had spread its arms out across the valley over night, making for cold wet conditions when we woke up in the morning. In the distance I could see some pretty gnarly rain clouds headed our way, but just that beyond was a vast expanse of blue sky. With the way that the wind was blowing it looked like both the rain and sun were going to find us, so Derek and I had the decision to either wait out the weather or to start right away and likely get soaked on the trail. We decided to wait and by 9:00AM the rain that we had seen finally hit us and for the next 45 minutes or so it poured in buckets. Then the rain finally died off and was replaced by dazzling sunlight. Time to start hiking!

Off to a rainy start

The hike started out relatively flat, traveling through a land of prickly pear cactus and scrub brush thickets, but before long we reached the ridge and started the long uphill climb. Given the terrain that we were hiking through, there was very little in the way of shade on the climb up the countless switchbacks to the top of he ridge. However around mid-day we made it to the "top" of the ridge, where pine trees seemed to have a little bit of a better hold and provided us with a little protection from the sun.

The Gila Wilderness Area

The "top" of the ridge was most definitely not the end of out uphill climb, as the trail wound along the backside of the ridge for several miles before beginning its decent into the canyon on the far side. The terrain up in the high country of the Mogollon Mountains made it easy to see why this region was designated as the first wilderness area in the nation. The combination of pine trees, cacti and rugged peaks made this some of the wildest country that I have ever encountered. The weather seemed to match the wild character of the land and where we were worrying about the unforgiving sun one minute, the boom of thunder in the distance gave us something else to worry about the next . As we rounded a bend a it became apparent that a thunderstorm was building in the distance and from what it looked like, we were heading straight into it. With a massive storm standing right in our path, we were a bit anxious to get to the creek, however the trail seemed to linger on the top of the ridge for much longer than what we had hoped.

Black clouds... A great sight when you are miles into the back country

Finally we reached the rim of the canyon and started our decent to the creek. It was quickly evident that this side of the peak received much more precipitation, as the cacti started fading away and pines and oaks dominated. A little over half way down to the bottom of the canyon the storm finally caught up with us, but only long enough for us to get all of our gear waterproofed before the sun took over again. However the clouds hanging overhead made it evident that this was just a short break from the rain and that we should get the move on. When we reached the creek, the sun was still out and we quickly scrambled to find a decent place to set up camp. The tent had probably only been up for about ten minutes when the main front of the storm hit us and the down pour started. While the storm raged we took refuge in the tent and I prepped the fishing gear for when things finally calmed down.

After a half an hour of rain, the sun finally won out again and this time it appeared that the worst had passed us by. As such we grabbed an early dinner, got the fishing gear ready and headed down to the creek. It became evident that we were in the right place, as after a quick scan of the creek, I had already spotted a couple dozen fish.

Can you spot the Gila trout??

With the high numbers of fish I wasn't too surprise to be rewarded with my first Gila trout on my first cast, or when my second cast was equally rewarding. All that I knew was that this was more then what I had been hoping for over the past six months of careful planning.

The reward for months of planning - the Gila Trout

With good numbers of trout in the creek I had Derek cover the first stretch, while I headed a few hundred yards upstream to see if I could find any fish. Once again it didn't take long to find the fish as the creek seemed if anything to be slightly overpopulated with Gila trout ranging from 5" to 8". The water in the creek was fairly low and most of the pools seemed to be a bit shallower than expected making a stealthy approach difficult at times. While I wouldn't quite go as far as calling these fish overly spooky, they definitely were a bit on the cautious side and scarring the small fish that held in the shallow tailouts could put the larger fish at the head of a pool down or at least make them more difficult to catch. Before long Derek caught back up to me and we decided to just take turns fishing each pool as we headed upstream. Derek had no trouble getting into a few trout as we made our way up the creek, although all of the fish seemed to fall into the same size range.

Derek with a Gila Trout

I kept hoping that as we headed upstream we would run into a few deeper pools that might hold some larger trout, but the creek seemed to just maintain its character of pocket water and shallow pools. About 3/4 mile above our campsite we came across a log laying across the creek with a sizeable trout holding under it. I got a decent cast in just above the log and a nice 10" Gila trout cruised out from under the cover and grabbed my fly. I got a good hook up on the fish, but as I went to net him, he tossed my fly. While I wasn't happy about losing this fish I made a mental note that I would have to return to try for him again in the morning. We continued working our way upstream, catching Gilas in just about every likely looking spot before the sun finally started to sink behind the ridge line and it was time to head back.

Evening on the creek

We made it back to camp just before dark and grabbed a quick bite to eat before turning in for the night on what had been a long day of fishing and hiking.

Day 7: Monday September 7th 2009: We awoke in the morning to clear blue skies and a full day of exploring the canyon. After a quick breakfast, I had already made up my mind to head back upstream to get another shot at the 10" Gila that had managed to shake free. Derek decided that he wanted to check out the creek downstream of camp, so I started to make my way towards the spot where I lost the trout. Along the way I caught a few more Gilas in the 6-8" range, but nothing larger. Finally I arrived at the log and while I couldn't see any trout holding near it I knew that there had to be something there so I placed a cast right along the side of it and the "big" Gila came out and grabbed my fly again. I had him on for a couple of seconds before he got a good head shake or two and once again threw my fly. I was a bit frustrated at this point, but figured that he might have some neighbors and as it turned out I was right. While they weren't as big as the fish that I seemed to be unable to catch, I did manage to catch two trout at around 8" each, with one on my dry and the other taking my nymph dropper.

Not the big fish that I had hoped for but a none the less beautiful Gila

The creek near our campsite

After once again failing to catch the "big" Gila trout I decided to head back downstream to see what Derek was up to. I found Derek not to far from our campsite and he was pretty excited about a couple of deep pools that he had found not far downstream. About a quarter mile below our campsite the canyon walls closed in and sure enough formed a couple great looking about 10 foot deep pools that appeared to be loaded with trout.

The head of the upper pool - note the waterfall was about 8 feet tall.

Not only did these pools look like good fishing water, but they also looked perfectly suited for some swimming. Of course fishing would have to come first though. I started out fishing my dry and dropper system and caught a handful of fish, before I decided to try one of my favorite large pool/ beaver pond techniques of stripping a zug bug. This method proved to be just as effective as ever and on each cast about ten Gila trout would appear behind my fly and follow it for a ways before one got brave enough to race forward and grab it. The fishing in the pools was great, but the only problem was the both pools had nearly shear cliffs dropping into them making getting down to the edge of the water to land fish very difficult. In the upper pool the best option was to lift the fish into a small pool above the waterfall to land them, but there were a couple of spots that I could get down to the water if necessary. In the lower pool it was lift the fish over the falls or nothing. I fished the pools for about a half an hour and did manage to catch a couple of fish in the 10" range, but both of these fish proved to be a bit photo shy and got released a little quicker than planned.

After fishing it was time for a bit of swimming and just relaxing to recover from the long trek into the creek. We didn't get to spend nearly as much time at the pool as I would have liked though, as after about a half hour of swimming the not so distant rumbling sound of thunder caught our attention and we had to head back to camp to make sure everything was rain proofed.

A rain ready camp

We hung around camp for a couple of hours to make sure that the storm was going to pass us over before I decided that I could safely head back down to the pools. I started out using the zug bug again, but only the smaller fish seemed to take notice of this. As such I decided to switch tactics a bit and put on a size 8 Jumbo John, which should look like a bit more of a substantial meal to the bigger fish. Apparently it did, because on one of my first casts with it, two nice 12" Gilas raced out from under the rock ledge to grab my fly. One of the fish just barely out paced the other and absolutely crushed my fly. This fish fought rather hard for its size and put quite a bend in my 2wt. The only problem was landing him as this was the bottom pool and there was no option but lifting him over the falls. This fish didn't want any of this and with one good headshake when he was about half way up, he tossed the hook and disappeared back into the depths. I worked both pools with the Jumbo John for some time, but not matter what I did I couldn't get any of the bigger fish to take again.

As the sun started to fall a little lower in the sky I decided to head back up to the top pool and give a dry fly a try again. Upon arriving at the pool I spotted a decent 10" Gila holding on the bottom and sporadically rising to take something off the surface. The question was what fly should I go with. I first tried one of my old standbys, the Royal PMX but I had already harassed these fish with that fly plenty and they really didn't seem too interested. Next I tried a stimulator, BC Hopper, elk hair caddis and a few may fly patterns but only the smaller fish seemed to be willing to look at them. I looked through my fly box a few times and finally landed on a small beetle pattern that I had come up with about four years ago and never gotten around to testing out. I figured it was better late than never and tossed it in front of the 10"er and sure enough he slowly rose to sip it off the surface. I held off of a second before setting the hook and got a solid connection. The fish jumped a few times, but there were only so many places that he could try to run in the pool and soon he was ready to bring to the net. Unlike the lower pool there was a nice ledge along the water where I was able to land and photograph this Gila trout. I figured that at this point I had caught more than my fair share of these rare trout and as it was dinnertime anyways I headed back to camp.

An underwater Gila Trout

Day 8: Tuesday September 8th 2009: We awoke to clear skies in the morning and what looked like perfect weather for the hike out of the creek and after quickly breaking down camp, we were back on the trail. The hike out of the canyon was rather steep, but was much shorter than what the climb to the top of the ridge on the other side had been so we made pretty good timing. Once at the top of the ridge we noticed that like each of the previous days another thunderstorm was brewing over the mountains and with the way that the wind was blowing it was heading in our direction fairly fast.

Me at the top of the canyon on the hike out - note the dark clouds in the corner...

With this thunderstorm on our heels, were in a bit of a hurry to get off of the ridge as we really didn't want to be caught in the middle of a storm with no shelter. Given our pace and the storm on our heels, it probably isn't to surprising that I wasn't paying as much attention to the trail as I should have been and almost made a fatal mistake. I was in front of Derek when all of a sudden I heard a rattling noise somewhere very close by. I could see that the route in front of me was clear, so I ran forward as fast as I could while Derek froze where he was. When I looked back I could see a huge rattlesnake of at least four feet long sitting within a foot or two of where I had just been. Derek gave the snake a wide breadth and after this close call we were a bit more cautious for the rest of the hike, although this would be our only encounter on the way out.

The big rattler - I walked just past him on the other side of the big rock - WAY TO CLOSE!!!

By the time that we reached the other side other side other ridge, it was evident that it was raining where we had been camping and was still headed our way. As such we were quite happy to beat the storm to the car a get on the road again.

The storm

After hitting the road made the six-hour drive to Sante Fe, NM where we grabbed some decent Mexican food and hotel for the night to recoup from the long hike and get ready to target the last fish of the trip the next day.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

September in the Southwest: Part 2 Apache Trout

Day 3: Thursday September 3rd 2009: Although I am not a huge fan of cities or Las Vegas for that matter, we got just what we needed out of our stay there; some recovery time. Also Derek had never been to Vegas so the stop also gave us some time to take in the sights. With the day time high being around 105 degrees F though, most of the sight seeing was pretty much reserved for the evening and night when things got a little bit more bearable.

The fountain show at the Belagio

Day 4: Friday September 4th 2009: This was another driving day as we had to do a diagonal across the state of Arizona to reach the White Mountains and the Apache trout's native waters. Since we were already going to be sitting in the car for most of the day Derek and I decided to make a stop at the Grand Canyon, after all it would only add a couple more hours to our trip. I had been to the north rim of the Grand Canyon a few years ago, but I have to say that the south rim is much more impressive. Whereas with the north rim you look out across a side canyon, with the south rim you can look straight down into the main canyon several thousand feet below.

The Grand Canyon

After a quick stop at the canyon we once again got on the road and made our way across Arizona. As we began to close in on the White Mountains a massive thunderstorm formed on the horizon would follow us the rest of the way across the state. We arrived in the White Mountains shortly after dark and with a few wrong turns didn't end up finding our way to the stream until around 10PM. Being that the storm was still raging outside we opted to just sleep in the car instead of setting up our tent in the rain.

Day 5: Saturday September 5th 2009: We woke up in the morning to clear blue skies and found ourselves in a beautiful board meadow valley surrounded by gently slopping spruce and aspen clad peaks. Right through the middle of this picturesque valley flowed the slowly meandering stream that was said to hold the Apache trout that we were looking for. I was pretty anxious to get to fishing, so after a quick breakfast I rigged up the rods and we hit the water. Although though I could probably get a little more original with my fly choices I decided to start out with my old standby a royal pmx and copper john dropper, while Derek went with a hot butt caddis. We decided that we would work our way upstream towards the headwaters of the creek and upon approaching the stream I could see several schools of Apache trout fry holding in the shallows. A good sign!

The first few pools were relatively shallow and showed no sign of any catchable sized trout, however not far upstream I came to a promising looking pool that had grass overhanging it. I tossed my flies upstream tight against the bank and almost immediately an Apache trout darted out from the cover and attacked my nymph. I set the hook and got a few decent headshakes before the fish tossed my size 18 copper john. Looking back on it there probably wasn't much that I could have done to change the outcome of this situation, however at the time I wasn't to happy about this fish coming loose. This wasn't helped by the fact for the next mile of stream Derek and I only got three of four takes between the two of us. Part of the problem was that the necessary habitat just wasn't there, as it seemed that every decent looking piece of water was about half of the depth that it needed to be. We came to a point where a small tributary flowed into the creek and although everything about this spot looked great it was as void of trout as the rest of the stream. However just upstream I found a tiny pocket with an undercut bank and sure enough when I tossed my fly in a trout materialized from under the bank and grabbed my nymph. I got a good hookset on this fish and although he tried as he might to shake my fly I managed to bring him to my net after a quick battle.

My first Apache trout

There is something special about catching a new type of trout, but when compared with other trout that I have encountered the Apache trout is one of the more unique and beautiful fish that I have seen. Beyond their odd coloration and spotting pattern, for their size Apache trout seem to be very deep bodied and also have a thicker caudal peduncle than other fish that I have caught. The only hard part of catching such as unique fish is that there are only a few moments in which the admire it before it is time to set it loose and watch it swim away.

Not long after releasing my first Apache trout the ominous sound of thunder echoed across the valley and clouds began to form in what had been a clear blue sky. Even with a thunderstorm brewing in the mountains around us, we continued to work our way up the creek and before long I found another decent looking and was rewarded with another slightly smaller Apache trout that this time took my took my dry fly. After catching this smallish Apache trout I found large pool that looked very fishy, so I decided to try one of my favorite slow water techniques of swinging and stripping a nymph through the current. I decided to go with another old standby fly the zug bug, and on my first cast a big (~13") Apache trout darted out from an undercut bank and attacked my fly. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get a good hookset and the fish felt my hook meaning that I had missed my chance for catching anything in this spot.

Apache trout waters

I fished the zug bug through the next few pools, but this method is best employed when fishing downstream in relatively deep pools and soon I once again found that a change of tactics were in order. This prompted me to go back to my dry and dropper rig and with a few casts of this change I found another idea piece of water and sure enough tight against the bank there was another large Apache trout. I managed to place my flies within a few inches of the bank and the trout emerged from his hiding place to grab my dry fly. From the fight it was obvious that I was hooked into a decent fish as he was putting a good bend in my fly rod. However as with most small stream trout he really didn't have any where to go and I was able to being him to my net. At around 13" this was quite an impressive fish for a stream this size.
My big Apache trout

After getting this fish I decided that I would try to help Derek get into one as well, as he had still yet to catch one. From the looks of the weather and the ominous sound of thunder in the distance it didn't look like we had a lot of time left on our hands anyways. So playing the part of the guide I spent the next half an hour working getting the cob webs out of his casting and pointing towards some likely looking lies where I expected to find some Apache trout. Before long we found a likely looking section and he placed his cast just about where it needed to be and a nice Apache rose to it. I told him to set the hook, but unfortunately his reaction timing was a little off and he only connected with the fish for a second before it spit the hook and darted for cover. It was starting to rain and get downright nasty outside and since we had wandered upstream a solid mile and a half to two miles we decided that we better start to work our way back to the car. Of course we would be fishing a few likely looking spots on the way. About half of the way back to were the small tributary added its flow the to the stream we came upon a nice pocket and Derek finally got his Apache trout, a healthy 11"er. After releasing it the weather told us that our time on this stream had come to an end so we hurried back to the car.

Right about the time that we hit the road again it started raining in earnest and by this I mean it started POURING! With a good fifteen or twenty miles of dirt roads I was a bit anxious to get on the move before driving conditions got to hostile and with good reason as a couple miles out, the roads started to look more like muddy creeks themselves. However after a bit of soggy driving and a lot of hydroplaning the storm started to lift and we were in the clear again, with our next stop being on the edge of the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.

As we entered New Mexico the spruce and pine forest of the White Mountains thinned out and the countryside open up, becoming more arid dominated by small scrub pines, yucca plants and cactus. Along the way we ran into a few periodic thunderstorms, but these were nothing compared to the massive wall of black clouds hanging over the Mogollon Moutains where we would be starting our hike. By mid-afternoon we found our way to the trailhead along a rough but reasonably well maintained forest service road and started to get our gear ready. We had initially planned on starting our hike upon arriving, but the weather quickly changed our minds as it was clearly rather stormy in the mountains we would be heading into.
Storm clouds blocking our route into the creek
Some trailhead friends

With conditions less than ideal, we decided to set up camp at the trailhead and cross our fingers that the weather would improve in the morning.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

September in the Southwest: Part 1 Paiute Cutthroat

For the last few years I have felt that the array of salmonids represented on my website was strikingly incomplete due to the absence several fish. Two particular missing fish that I felt left the largest void were the Apache and Gila trout found in the Southwestern US. Since I began my native trout quest it has been a practice of mine to target several species on a single trip to get the biggest bang for my buck. However the Gila trout have long been closed to fishing due to being listed as endangered under the ESA. This meant that I would either have to make a trip just for the Apache trout and a second trip when the Gila trout were opened to fishing, or put fishing for Apache trout off and just wait to just make one single trip for both fish. I chose the second option and finally the Gila trout were downlisted to threatened in 2007 and shortly after several streams were opened to fishing. Last year planned out a trip for these two fish, however in the end life got in the way and I was forced to put things on hold for a year. This ended up not being all that bad of a thing as the state of New Mexico expanded the number of streams that were open to fishing for Gila trout and one of these new streams looked extremely promising.

Thus I began to plan another trip for this year. One of the first things that I did when planning this trip was look at what other types of trout were missing from my list of North American salmonids and see if there was any possibility of targeting them at the same time as the Gila and Apache trout. Two trout came to mind in California, the Paiute cutthroat and the Eagle Lake rainbow trout. However the Eagle Lake rainbow isn't really available to fly fisherman until late October through December, so it really wasn't an option. The Paiute cutthroat on the other hand was my last missing subspecies of cutthroat, but is closed to fishing in its native waters. However outside of its native range was another story and for sometime I have known about a couple of extremely remote refuge populations that California Fish and Game had established to ensure that this trout would not fade into extinction. While both populations require long cross country hikes to reach, one looked like it could be done as a day hike and might fit into my plans well. To round things off I decided to also target a large spotted strain of Rio Grande cutthroat only found in the Pecos River drainage in New Mexico.

This was what I decided during September of 2008 and it gave me one full year to do some research on these four fish; where I would find them and how I would go about making everything work to get to them. To say the least the shear logistics of this trip were maddening. Early on I asked my cousin Derek if he would want to join me and while he isn't the biggest on fishing, he thought it sounded fun so he was in. With Derek in I started to look into possible streams to fish and gathered info on them from a wide range of sources: other anglers, fisheries reports, biologists, online forums, etc. I also had to decide between driving and flying, which really came down to distances involved and money. If I flew I would save some time, but still have lots of driving. Plus I would have to find a central location as due to the distances between each fish, there would likely be a lot of back tracking anywhere I went. The pros and cons of flying just didn't line up, so I decided driving was the way to go. Timing was the next big issue. Normally I choose to do my fishing trips during mid-summer, however that is monsoon season in the Southwest so fall or late summer would be a better choice. I also found out from Blake that the fly fishing retailers show was during mid-September in Denver and since he said he would like me to go with him I decided to build the trip around that.

Day 1: Tuesday September 1st 2009: Fast forward several months and many of hours of planning and it was finally time to head out. We hit the road at 4AM on what would be a full day of driving to reach the trailhead into the Paiute cutthroat stream. All in all it was a pretty uneventful day with us reaching our campsite outside of Mammoth Lakes, CA a little before 8PM. Prior to hitting the hay, Derek and I got our backpacks all set so that we wouldn't have to mess with them in the morning.

Day 2: Wednesday September 2nd 2009: From all of the people that I had talked to about this hike before leaving home, I heard that it was pretty much and all day affair to get into and out of the creek. Due to this I came up with the "brilliant" idea that we should hit the trail before the sun came up to gain some time. As such for the second day in a row Derek and I got up at 4AM and guided by our headlamps and my "trusty" GPS unit we hit the trail. Now before leaving home I programmed our route into my GPS and set an alarm to go off if we went off course. Lets just say that the alarm didn't go off and at about a two miles in I noticed that we must have missed a fork in the tail somewhere and were now about a 1/2 mile to the east of where we should be. We had the choice between following the trail back to where we should have turned off or a shorter cross-country trip in the dark. We decided on the cross-country route, which while shorter ended up being a hands and knees scramble up a very steep thorn infested slope and a climb over a cliff face. I have no idea if we actually gained anytime with this route, but it got us back onto to the right trail and showed me that if I checked the GPS a little more often it could be quite useful, even if the alarm system is worthless.

Pre-dawn on the trail

By the time that the sun actually started peeking over the mountains, we were about half way up the peak that we had to cross to reach the creek. With the added light, the views of the surrounding mountains were stunning and things started warming up making tee-shirts a much better choice than the sweatshirts that we had started out wearing.

Early morning in the high Sierras

The trail up the mountain was an endless series of switchbacks and when things looked to be leveling off for a few minutes it proved to be nothing more than a false summit. After this brief flat section there was another brutal series of switchbacks before the true top. By the time that we finally reached the dry creek bed where we would start the cross-country leg of our trip it was already well into the morning so we decided to take a break for breakfast before continuing on.

The cross country trek started out fairly straight forward roughly following the dry creek bed down hill through a pine and fir forest, but before long things started getting a bit more complex. While in the forested section the gradient was fairly mellow, but before long we came to a huge slab of granite where the creek fell into a fairly deep and shear faced canyon. We were forced to clamber down a few pretty gnarly cliffs before we finally made our way out across a flatter section of granite. We had probably been hiking across this slab of granite for about a half hour when I spotted what I thought for about a second was a big black dog. Of course my next thought was what in the world would a dog be doing way out here and I realized that it was a black bear. We watched as he minded his own business and clambered across the rock face in the opposite direction. Before continuing on we made sure to make a bit of noise in case he wasn't alone, but we never saw any sign of another bear.

A black bear on the way into the creek

Working my way across the backcountry

After our little bear sighting we made our way to the end of the granite slab where once again we had to do some more scurrying down the cliffs, after which our way was barred by a wall of scrub brush. Another rough scramble through the bushes put us at the creek. While I had guessed the stretch of the creek that might hold these rare trout, I didn't know for sure so I started sneaking up to the pools and try to sight any fish. In the first pool I didn't see anything, but in the one below it I spotted several small trout holding in the current. Pay dirt!!

The creek

Knowing that we were in the right place we rigged up our rods, me doing a dry dropper combo and Derek going with just a dry. I headed up to the first pool where I had spotted the trout while Derek headed downstream. Although these fish were hard to get to, they definitely were not difficult to catch and within a couple of casts I watched as one of the cutthroat grabbed my nymph. After a short battle I brought my first Paiute cutthroat to hand and although it was not very large, this spotless trout lived up to their reputation as one of the more beautiful fish in North America.

What we came for pure Paiute cutthroat trout

My first cutthroat was quickly followed by another, which took dry this time and after this I worked into to a rhythm of catching five or so cutthroat from each pool before moving downstream to sample some new water. Although the fish were quite numerous, they all seemed to be in the 5-7 range and oddly enough seemed to have very little fear of people. At first I started out trying to keep as low of a profile as possible and sneaking up on the fish. However before long I started to notice that even when the fish saw me they would continue to hold their position instead of fleeing like most trout do. I am not sure what the underlying cause of this behavior was, but it sure made fishing a lot easier.

The creek

An underwater Paiute

We fished the creek until around lunchtime at which point we decided that we had caught plenty of trout and unless we wanted to be hiking until dark we should probably start working our way back. In some ways the hike out of the creek was easier and in others it was much more difficult. The thing that made it easier was that we now had a pretty good idea of the most efficient way out back to the trail and could avoid most of the cliffs. What made it harder was that we were already worn out from the hike in and the trek back to the trail was about as steep as it gets.

The "easy" way out of the creek

The fishless headwaters of the creek

After a brutal couple of hours of bush whacking to get back to the trail, we finally reached the trail and top of the mountain at around 2pm. From here it was almost all down hill back to trailhead, so we made great timing for the next few miles until we reached the last up hill stretch between us and the car.
Derek on the hike down the mountain

Although the last hill probably wasn't all that steep, we were beat at this point and as such it totally kicked our butts. Knowing that it was all downhill to the car once we got to the top though, kept us going and at around 4:15PM we finally emerged at the trailhead. After completing the hike Derek and I grabbed a bit of dinner, hopped in the car for a six hour drive to Las Vegas, where we would have a day to recover before heading back out on the road.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Can the Big Hole Grayling be saved??

The headwaters of the Missouri River in Montana were once home to thriving populations of fluvial Arctic Grayling far from the rest of their native range. However after years of habitat destruction and introductions of non-native fish the Arctic Grayling has vanished from many of the watersheds that they once inhabited in Montana. Today one of the last strongholds for these fish is in the Big Hole drainage, however even here their populations are in a sharp decline. One of the biggest issues in the watershed has been the over use of water for farming purpose that has resulted in low flows and warm water temperatures. Now the question is can the Grayling be saved.

The Arctic Grayling

One of my good friends Jonathan Stumpf spent much of his time at grad school in Montana looking into the issues that are currently threatening the Big Hole Grayling with the prospect of extinction unless action is taken soon. His story was recently covered in New West Travel and Outdoors and does a great job of showing what is standing in the way of a successful recovery for these rare fish. Please take the time to read through his article at: http://www.newwest.net/topic/article/can_conservation_and_collaboration_save_the_big_hole_grayling/C41/L41/