Desert Carping in Phoenix Canals
January 05, 2018
Ok, it's winter, and you've been painted into a corner. As a fresh water fly fisherman, you're pretty much looking at the following options for ninety days:
A: Quit job, fly to Patagonia or New Zealand. Budget accordingly.
B: Dig out every bit of fleece and neoprene you have, sprinkle ground Chipotle peppers in your socks and go fish tailwaters. If the air temperature is below what that of the water is and your rod guides ice up, sit in the truck with the defroster on and read back issues of magazines with stories on Patagonia and New Zealand.
C: Winter steelheading. See "B".
D: Stay home and tie flies. AA meetings are listed in local newspapers and online.
E: Ice fishing. See "D"
But another option exists, with blue skies, weather in the 70's and challenging angling for large, exotic fish -- usually within walking distance of authentic mexican food. Welcome to carping in the Valley of the Sun, Phoenix, Arizona.
Ryan Russell grew up in Boise, Idaho fishing for trout and Steelhead, but moved to Phoenix for family and decided to stay. Along the way, he began to explore the network of publicly accessible canals that crisscross the sprawling metro, and discovered that they were infested with big, well-fed carp of various flavors. Here, common carp, Mirror and Koi all live in close proximity to each other, alongside 40lb specimens of what are in my experience to be the most difficult fish in the country -- White Amur, or Grass Carp.
Initially, Russell got his ass handed to him. Weeks and months went by without a solid eat from fish that would be spooked by the shadow of a line in the air 75 feet away. But slowly, he began to hook up, and he connected the dots on strategy, patterns and gear. Now Ryan is a certifiably confident carp confidante, offering an open-source fly fishing hosting service where compensation is on a donation-only basis. Ryan's outfit, Arizona Fly Fishing Adventures, specializes in urban winter carping but is also deadly within a two-hour radius of the city, which includes high country trout fishing in the pine forests of the Mogollon Rim.
The Phoenix metro area is dotted with productive urban lakes as well, which are stocked to provide entertainment for the almost 3 million people who live in the city. While generally thought of as the quintessential desert oasis, Phoenix is a relatively young metropolis whose location was chosen based on its location at the junction of three major southwestern rivers that conjoin in the valley -- the Salt river from the East, the Verde from the North, and the Agua Fria from the Northwest. All three have been harnessed with large dams and reservoirs that hold Largemouth Bass, Carp and Catfish, and are stocked with rainbow trout in the winters.
The modern canal system is an outgrowth of the ancient hand dug aqueducts of the ancestral Papago Indians who farmed in the valley for centuries. Some of the canals follow these actual watercourses, and almost all of them have bike and walking paths alongside that allow adventurous anglers to traverse long distances in search of carpable quarry. The Salt River Project, or SRP as it's known locally, administers the canal system, moving water for irrigation and aquifer recharge from one part of the city to another, changing flows and occasionally draining and cleaning the channels. This means that fish will be moved from one canal to another as well, either being shooed up or down to another venue, or, in the case of the big grass carp, netted and relocated. Sterile Grassies, being vegetarian, are purchased and stocked by the SRP for the purposes of algae and weed control.
However, while the public is allowed to fish in the SRP controlled canal system, another water rights administrator, the Roosevelt Conservation District, is more protective of their holdings and prohibits public access with active patrols enforcing trespass. Checking local regulations is always a good idea, as they are subject to change, and this publication offers no warrantee as to accuracy of information. Otherwise, I'd recommend you go for it.
Russell has settled on some unusual gear and patterns for his pursuits. For one, he uses fiberglass rods exclusively for carping, feeling that the soft spine of the glass helps to protect leaders against the hard runs of large, selective fish being taken on light tippet down to 5x -- and even 6x. His flies for common carp include black mohair and rabbit Bugger looking patterns, and chartreuse Estaz / chenille worm concoctions. All of these are fished in the moving waters of the canals with only strategic stripping when the fly is in front of the fish's nose. A go-to standard for dead drift presentation are tiny egg patterns that match the constant slurry of reproductive detritus from the self-sustaining populations of common carp. Ryan doesn't use strike indicators, feeling that they have too much potential to spook fish, and relies on visually tracking the take of the fish when sight fishing or watching the end of the line in more colored water. He blogs regularly on his insights and shares notes with other carp fishing fanatics across the globe.
While certainly not the wilderness experience that most associate as a core value for fly fishermen, urban desert carping offers a chance to hone skills that can be applied to other disciplines, and the opportunity to change your mindset in approaching novel fishing challenges on your own home turf. Who knows, you might just discover that you have a unique fishery in your own back yard!