June 01, 2014
When work recently beckoned me south from my home in Montana, to Arizona, I threw my fly rod in the car . . . and planned to fish in Colorado along the way.
Now, after a chance encounter on Arizona's Black River, I find every excuse to make it back to the Grand Canyon State.
Located in east-central Arizona, the Black River flows through the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, and the San Carlos and Fort Apache reservations near the towns of Eagar, Alpine, and Fort Apache. Tucked away from large population hubs such as Flagstaff (about 180 miles to the northwest) and Phoenix and Tucson to the west and southwest, the Black River drainage has every conceivable trout niche: from small mountain stream fishing on the East and West forks, to dredging and dry-fly fishing deeper pools and pocketwater for browns and rainbows.
Apache trout inhabit its upper stretches, rainbows and browns dominate the middle sections, and you'll find browns in the lower reaches, alongside a healthy mix of smallmouth bass.
For me, the pulsing run of a Buick-size brown—the mainstem Black has some more than 20 inches—screaming downstream into the darkness now provides the incentive to come back year after year. And I may even fly over Colorado to avoid wasting time getting there.
Upper Main Stem
The upper 35 miles of the Black River—from the confluence of its East and West forks to Paddy Creek on the San Carlos Apache Reservation—flows through a deep, bedrock canyon, with beautiful pocketwater separating long turquoise pools. Old-growth pine and red rock cliffs accent the experience and can make it hard to concentrate on the fishing, which is a bold statement considering browns and rainbows up to 25 inches reside there.
Forest Road 25 leads to the main stem and crosses the river at a bridge, creating two options: Fishing upstream toward the forks or working the water downstream approximately 12 miles to where the river enters the Fort Apache and San Carlos reservations.
From the FR 25 bridge, a well-developed trail runs along the river, providing easy hiking. Even in spring, the river can be comfortably wet-waded in rubber-sole boots or a pair of old running shoes, perfect for making good time on the trails and fording the many shallow crossings.
On the upper Black, there's simply too much ground to cover in one day, meaning the sections farthest from the road, just above the reservation lands and high up toward the forks, receive the least pressure. Overnight camping, at any of the numerous undeveloped sites on the river, is the best way to access these seldom-fished areas and provides ample opportunities to fish after dark for the Black's largest browns.
Another way to reach these far-flung stretches is to bushwhack from forest roads located on the canyon rim. With near vertical slopes and shoddy game trails defining a typical hike in, these routes are not recommended.
Wherever you fish, an Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests map (www.fs.fed.us/r3/asnf/maps) leads to productive water and helps navigate the maze of forest roads that crisscross the plateau. The map also clues you into big fish. Look for areas where the meanders are tightly grouped. On the upper Black, these are places where the river has bounced off cliff walls and gouged deep, fish-holding holes.
Lower Main Stem
Once in the reservation section, the approximately 30-mile stretch from the confluence of Paddy Creek to Bonito Creek offers a good mix of brown trout and smallmouth fishing, as the Black begins a slow transition from high-mountain stream to desert oasis.
The San Carlos and Fort Apache reservations flank the river on the north and south, and access is limited. As you journey downstream, the trees change from evergreen pines to a combination of deciduous Arizona sycamores and cactus, and the brown trout morph into smallmouths.
The best-looking and most untouched water on the lower main stem lies at the northern end of the reservations, near the national forest boundary. Access difficulties result in minuscule fishing pressure, and as the river transitions between warm- and coldwater fisheries, it has the effect of steroids on the brown trout. (The only successful trip I've managed cost me $600 in vehicle repairs that I would gladly pay again!)
Because the canyon walls through this section are steep and treacherous, the only reasonable access is via an extended backpacking trip 13 miles in from the Wildcat crossing on FR 25, or roughly the same distance from Boundary Ford within the reservation.
The lower section continues downstream until meeting the Salt River. A maze of logging roads and access points exists throughout the reservations, and tribal maps are the best means of navigating the area. Visit blackriveraz.com for a list of all the lower river access points.
Trout and bass tactics work equally well through the warmwater sections of the Black, with dead-drifted beadhead nymphs my favorite. With long stretches of slow water between the riffle sections, a day of fishing involves extended walks, or just pull poppers for smallmouths until dusk.
Angles for all Anglers
One of the most appealing aspects of the Black is the variety of effective flies and techniques. You could carry three rods, one for drys, one for nymphs, and one for streamers, and use all of them.
From the confluence of the two forks, the upper Black alternates between deep, cliff-backed pools, long riffled runs, and boulder-strewn pocketwater, and you must change flies and tactics accordingly. Moreover, all the major trout species in the river play by their own rules.
The following is a list of water types and methods that consistently produce on the Black.
Pocketwater. The straight sections between the riffles and cliffs are littered with boulders of all sizes. These intricate networks of currents are where most of the Black's rainbows reside. Fishing nymphs through the labyrinth catches fish, as well as snags. I mostly fish drys and let the rainbows come to me.
I prefer patterns that float high and long in the water, and allow me to manipulate them around, between, and over boulders. Reach casts, curve casts, and mends are key to placing your fly precisely adjacent to boulders, where rainbows materialize out of the shadows. With their aggressive takes and powerful runs, most Black River rainbows run a deceptively large 12 to 14 inches.
Riffles. As browns prefer the safety of depth, and rainbows the shelter of rocks and pockets, the Black's vulnerable Apache trout—averaging 8 to 12 inches—often get pushed into shallow riffles.
The Black's riffle sections are perfect for short-line nymphing techniques. Apaches are not the most discriminating fish, so most attractors work. Use weighted Hare's Ears or Prince Nymphs, with a 7-foot tapered leader and no indicator. Most of the river's Apaches are hatchery-bred and strike with disregard.
As night sets in, browns also move into the riffles, perhaps to snack on Apache trout. Browns tend to hold at the riffle head, just below where it breaks from the deeper pool. A down-and-across presentation with large streamers works well. Before you pick up and recast, work your fly back up through the riffle with short strips followed by quick pauses.
Pools. The enticing deep pools of the Black are why I leave Montana and drive to Arizona to go fishing. By late summer, a step in shallow water provokes a fireworks display of fleeing crayfish in all directions. The river's browns grow large and thick on this supply of protein, but like most large browns they are nocturnal feeders. Holes that go fishless during the day come alive with prowling 20-inch+ browns at sunset.
Heavily-weighted streamers with a healthy dose of rubber legs create strong vibrations that help the browns hunt even after dark with their lateral lines. The most successful presentation is a cast made up-and-across. Strip your fly with moderate speed to give the impression of a crayfish that has been swept into the current. This frequently triggers a take on the first cast.
I fish a sinking-tip line and 2X tippet cut down to 4 feet. My favorite pattern, a Clouser Crayfish, seems to have the right combination of size and shape to entice smaller fish in the 18-inch range, as well as monsters.
Fly placement is more important than fly choice. Cast tight to the cliff walls, and work pools from top to bottom. These fish grew big by being cautious, so even at night take time to approach the water carefully. Turn off headlamps, step lightly on river rocks, and limit your false casting. To fish effectively—and safely—scout the water in daylight to plan your approach in pitch black.
If you are uncomfortable with night fishing, it's still possible to dredge up a beast in daylight hours. Use a full-sinking line with a short leader and heavily weighted fly. Cast to the head of the pool from below and let the whole setup sink to the bottom. Retrieve with short 4- to 6-inch strips and be patient. A long retrieve might bore you to death, but the jolt of a big brown has amazing resuscitating qualities.
The Black River has neither prolific nor predictable hatches. This may disappoint match-the-hatch junkies, but opens the door for experimentation.
While the fish don't key on any specific hatch, they also don't spurn the opportunity to take a dry fly. High-floating patterns such as Royal Wulffs, Humpys, and Stimulators are effective and easy to see in all the Black's different water types. I prefer bright colors, especially yellow, which may resemble grasshoppers. Small sizes (#12-16) are appropriate for the Black's large population of juvenile fish.
After taking a few fish on these general patterns, I like to experiment with terrestrials. Streamside vegetation such as grasses, shrubs, deciduous, and coniferous trees all overlap along the river's course.
With all this vegetation, a variety of terrestrials fall into the Black. Grasshoppers and ants are common, with beetles and crickets other popular snack items. My favorite patterns are #10-14 deer-hair hoppers with yellow bodies, Rosenbauer's Parachute Beetles, Quick Sight Ants, and Dave's Crickets.
Streamers. During the day, small, #10 olive and brown streamers work well to mimic juvenile crayfish, sculpins, or other fish. The smaller flies also keep the action continuous, as younger trout are more willing to strike these than 3-inch streamers. Patterns with Krystal Flash or other reflective materials help attract fish. Krystal Buggers or just about any commercially tied streamer works.
At night the scenario changes. Color becomes less important, and profile takes precedence.
In these low-light conditions, two factors are important: silhouette and movement. Black makes the best silhouette. Use it.
Patterns that work well are #4 Rubber Buggers, Beldar Rubber Legs, or other well-dressed Bugger patterns. Use a fast-action 5- or 6-weight rod to throw these larger flies.
Fishing the Forks
Cutting southward across elk-filled meadows and open stands of Ponderosa pine, the East and West Fork Black provide more than 20 miles of pristine creek fishing. Between the two, you'll find unnamed holes, good road access, and plenty of trout thanks to a liberal stocking program.
One of the most popular streams in eastern Arizona, the headwaters of the East Fork Black form just outside the town of Alpine. A well-developed gravel road, FR 276, parallels most of the river to just before its confluence with the West Fork at Buffalo Crossing. Along this 7-mile descent, road access is excellent—the distance from dirt to stream rarely runs more than 100 yards. The East Fork runs with a quick pace, cutting along the bottom of a small alpine valley. Pebble-bottomed riffles and pocketwater stretches snake through open meadows and timbered runs.
Easy access, high fish populations, and established campgrounds also make the East Fork a great option for families who appreciate spotting elk and hiking. Novice anglers find eager fish, with flat meadow trails.
Of course, this also means heavier angling pressure than the Black's other options. To lose the crowds, and find genetically pure strains of Apache trout, scout the West Fork. FR 68 parallels the river, but never comes closer than a mile away.
Difficult access and a fish barrier protect the Apache trout population in the West Fork's upper reaches. With a short hike, these brilliantly colored fish—olive-yellow body, with a yellow or golden belly—make for spectacular fishing.
Lower on the West Fork, access improves again, as well as the fishing for both stocked Apache trout and browns. With fewer deep pools than the East Fork, you can effectively wade midstream and cast up-and-across to likely holds.
The West Fork runs clear and usually comes back faster than the Black's other tributaries after heavy rains and runoff.
Fishing season on the forks is determined by weather and winter snowpack. Most years, roads to the East Fork open the first week of April, with the West Fork following a few weeks later. On both forks, the fish are not particularly pattern shy, so carry a full assortment of attractors like Stimulators, Humpys, and Parachute Adams.
Local guide Wendy Krueger recommends small attractor beadheads (barbless) such as #14-16 Prince Nymphs, Hare's Ears, and Pheasant Tails. Most of the trout run from 6 to 12 inches, and the smaller hook sizes tend to increase your success.
I use a 4-weight rod when fishing the forks, but you can get away with a 2-weight or less. Most areas are open enough for standard overhand casts, but a few sections are overgrown with brush and require short roll casts.
The mainstem Black is open year round to fishing, but the road systems are not. At 9,000 feet, roads can remain snow-covered and impassable until late April. The Black doesn't follow the typical runoff schedule of major Western rivers. After snowmelt in March, the water runs high for a few weeks, becoming increasingly fishable. By May the river runs low and fishes extremely well as the fish work to restore lost weight.
July brings rains to the Southwest, triggering another period of heightened feeding. This wet season continues over the course of three to six weeks, typically blowing the river out until early September.
From September until snow closesroads again in November, fishing improves by the day. Crayfish are everywhere and small, sporadic aquatic insect hatches bring fish to the surface.
Early October is my favorite time to fish the Black. The browns are in prespawn mode, spectacularly colored, and react aggressively to large streamers. Their bright orange and red hues make for an even more inspiring catch.
One reason the Black remains an outstanding fishery in a state with more than six million people is its remote location, which eliminates most day trippers.
The Black is a reasonable weekend destination, and abundant camping makes it affordable. There is lodging in Alpine and chain hotels in nearby Springerville.
The best option, schedule permitting, is camping along the river midweek, when you'll have your choice of spots and first crack at the Black's best fishing.
Cameron Chambers is a fly-fishing guide and author. He lives near Helena, Montana, and has been making annual pilgrimages to Patagonia for several seasons.