If you could fish anywhere in Arizona right now, here's where you should be for the top trout action. (May 2009)
Dry flies are now part of the mix again at Lee's Ferry, one of the state's top trout locations in May.
Photo by Ron Dungan.
The snow has melted. The hills are bare. Bugs are hatching, and big fish are moving.
Arizona offers plenty of places to fish year 'round, but one of the best times to fish is in May. Many people don't bother to fish then; they wait for Memorial Day to roll around to think about fishing. This is a mistake.
"They don't fish at the right time," said John Rohmer, owner of Arizona Flyfishing in Tempe. "Normally, they go in June, July or August, when the kids aren't in school."
But May fish are often holdovers from the previous season, which means they can be bigger.
Lower elevation lakes tend to grow too warm for trout by then. It's best to head for White Mountain lakes and streams or Rim Country waters before the summer arrives.
In May, conditions vary from sunny and warm to cold and windy, so bring plenty of warm clothes and a good sleeping bag. Here are some good prospects throughout the state.
This high country lake has a little bit of everything: rainbows, brookies and cutthroats, big fish, small fish. You can rent a boat here, so fishing deep is an option if you are willing to spend the money. But you might not have to this time of year.
It's also friendly for float-tubers and shore-, bait- and fly-fishers. A popular technique is to troll cowbells with bait at the end. Fly-fishers will want to try Simi Seal Leeches, Woolly Buggers and nymphs until the dry-fly action heats up.
Another good lake, just north of Big Lake, is Crescent Lake. This lake can winter-kill, but fish grow quickly here. The bigger problem with Crescent is that the weeds also grow quickly. Some seasons it gets too choked up to effectively fish, although suspending a fly with an indicator can help you work around this problem. If the fish have wintered over well, May is the perfect time to hit Crescent. Simi Seal Leeches in peacock, purple, gray or black can do wonders.
NORTH FORK, WHITE RIVER
The White River runs through the White Mountain Apache Reservation and holds both brown trout and native Apache trout. Small mayflies and caddis flies hatch on the river, and you can catch fish on imitations of these flies, as well as bigger dries, such as Stimulators. A Stimulator with a Pheasant-Tail Nymph dropper can be a deadly combination here.
White River can be tough to fish at times, especially on weekends when someone has fished before you. But it can also be very productive. A White Mountain Apache permit is required.
Reservation Lake has produced a record brown, and there are still a lot of good fish in there. This is because the lake is big enough to hide fish and let them grow. A boat, float tube or kick boat will help you cover more water. Work cover along the points, or watch for fish moving into the coves. Bait-fishers should have luck with worms, PowerBait or salmon eggs. Spinning rigs with Super Dupers can be deadly on this lake. A White Mountain Apache permit is required.
The upper part of the West Fork has been reclaimed for Apache trout. The Arizona Game and Fish Department, local fly-fishing clubs and the White Mountain Apache Tribe have done a lot of work along this stream and have successfully restored these native fish.
To get to the West Fork, take Forest Road 116 toward Reservation Lake on the Fort Apache Reservation. You'll come to a small stream in a meandering meadow. Park in the lot near the bridge. Walk upstream, and you'll find Apache trout.
This water is off-limits to bait-fishing, and most of the fish are small. An Adams or Elk-Hair Caddis will take fish, but so will Red Humpies, Royal Coachman Trudes and Stimulators. The water gets skinny as you move upstream, and the fish get even smaller. If you move downstream from 116, you are still in the quality water.
After half a mile or so, you'll come across a couple of fish barriers. These are off-limits to fishing. Keep moving downstream, about a quarter mile, and you can start fishing for wild rainbows and browns.
Submerged logs should hold at least a couple of fish apiece. The same patterns work here as work upstream, although here you may want to switch to a dry-dropper rig. After a few miles, the walking gets difficult, but at that point, you probably won't care. You have just walked one of the most beautiful stretches of water in Arizona.
The key to fishing this lake is to fish deep. This catch-and-release water can grow some monster trout, and it's one of the most beautiful lakes on the reservation. Buggers and Simi Seal Leeches fished along dropoffs should do the trick.
Earl Park is located right next to Hawley Lake. Earl is not a catch-and-release lake, but is big enough that fish can hide out and get big. Try trolling spinners or working flies in the shallows along the bank. Hawley has camping and is one of the most beautiful lakes in Arizona.
This can be one of the best times to hit Tunnel, Bunch and River lakes, said Mike Lopez of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The lakes are stocked in early May. Because they are irrigation lakes, water levels start to drop in the spring. They generally have a few carryover fish and can be good places to duck out of the wind.
"Early in the year, if you are looking to catch carryovers, they tend to hit better on night crawlers," said Lopez. "The stocked trout tend to hit better on PowerBait."
Most of the fish are rainbows, although all three, especially River, can have browns from the Little Colorado River.
X DIAMOND RANCH
This stretch of private water has some of the best fly-fishing in Arizona. Located downstream of the Greer Lakes on the Little Colorado River, the ranch only allows a handful of anglers on the water and charges by the day or half day. Prices start at about $35 for a half day.
The rainbows and browns can push 18 inches and beyond. Check for availability. Give them a call at (928) 333-2286.
This flies-and-lures-only lake near Springerville has produced well lately, said Cinda Ho
ward of Orvis Fly Fishers in Scottsdale. Becker tends to be good with midges, she said, and can get a little weedy. Suspend a midge with a strike indicator.
"The main problem with Becker is wind," said Howard. "It's good to hit it early, before the wind kicks up."
This is true with many White Mountain lakes. As the season progresses and water quality declines, hitting the water early becomes even more important.
Nearby Lyman Lake can be a good place to camp, shower and fish if you want to switch over to warm-water fishing for a while. Los Dos Molinos in Springerville has some of the best Mexican food in Arizona.
"We're trying to grow some big fish in there," said Lopez of the DFG.
There is a two-fish limit and barbless-fly-and-lure regulations are in place.
May is an excellent month to catch an 18- or 20-inch rainbow, said Lopez.
This is a big lake, and can be pretty intimidating. But it grows big fish, and when the ice starts to melt, fish can be found in shallower water, said John Rohmer, of Arizona Flyfishing in Tempe.
"Sunrise is really good in the springtime," he said. If the ice is melting, you can throw big stuff -- Buggers and Leeches, into the shallows.
"They're looking for something to eat. They just want something big."
Once the lake starts opening up, then the fish start to disperse, said Rohmer. That's when the fish key in on midges. Switch to something small.
May should still be a good time to fish this lake, however. Sunrise is another lake that can get windy, so fish it early. A White Mountain Apache permit is required.
Fish this lake as early in the season as possible to avoid crowds. Woods Canyon Lake is one of the closest Rim lakes to Phoenix. Because it is so close, it's a nice lake to fish before Memorial Day crowds arrive. Boat rentals, a store on-site and plenty of camping sites nearby are part of the draw here.
The lake is big enough for fish to grow large, and the state has been known to stock a few incentive fish -- trout big enough to get anglers excited. Most of the fish, however, are put-and-take rainbows. Normally, this is what you can expect to catch there, but Howard said that she has seen bigger fish come out of Woods Canyon lately.
"If those fish grow, you're going to have potential for something besides an 8-inch stocked trout," said Howard.
That's good news, because this lake does not typically winter-kill. You'll often see rising fish on this lake and will be tempted to go after them, but the trick to catching bigger fish on this lake is to go below the surface.
But if there is snow on the ground, walk away from the parking lot and look for fish rising in the coves.
WILLOW SPRINGS LAKE
Willow Springs is easy to get to and fairly close to Phoenix. But it doesn't have a store, so it doesn't draw huge crowds, especially early in the season. It has easy access, and can be a perfect lake to hit before the summer.
Rohmer typically fishes the lake with leeches and crawdad patterns from pontoon boats.
In May, you have the opportunity to get into some spawning smallmouths or holdover trout, because the lake doesn't winter-kill.
"I'd look for rocky points and shallow gravel areas," Rohmer said.
BLACK CANYON LAKE
This Rim lake has done well since the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. In the past, the state figured it would fill with dirt and ash, but it didn't. It actually has become a good fishery.
"After the fire, there's a largemouth population, as well as some nice rainbows," Howard said. "That lake has really bounced back, and it's doing great."
Try Simi Seal Leeches, Humpies, Midges and Adams dry flies. Most of the fish here will be stockers and not hard to fool, but you may find yourself switching baits from time to time until you get just the right fly. There are many fish in the shallows close to parking lot. You can see plenty of evidence of the fire on the drive in, and even a little at the lake itself, but the area is still fairly scenic and worth the drive.
Tonto Creek is easily accessible and is a great place for bait-fishers to dangle a worm. Try letting out line and drifting one downstream, or tosssalmon eggs or spinners in deeper pools. But Tonto is also a great place to learn to fly-fish on streams. You can't go wrong with an Adams or caddis. If that doesn't work, try a Red Humpy or Yellow Stimulator.
Fly-fishers have the advantage of being able to work pocket water, those little riffles, seams and small holes behind boulders. Each one of these can hold fish. In deeper water, tie on a nymph dropper. A Pheasant Tail should be deadly.
There is plenty of camping in the Tonto Creek area. But avoid the rush. After Memorial Day, there should be plenty of people as well.
This lake is close to some outstanding Rim views and some great camping. It's a little off the beaten path, and may offer relatively uncrowded fishing.
It helps to fish this lake very deep as the year progresses, but in May, you may have luck in shallow water. Try Woolly Worms, Woolly Buggers, Peacock Ladies or Simi Seal Leeches. Bait-fishers should have luck with worms, PowerBait and salmon eggs. Z-rays and spinners should also take fish.
Most of the fish will be stockers, but this lake is one of the prettiest lakes on the Rim.
WET BEAVER CREEK
This little stream off the road to Sedona is a good for stocker rainbows and is friendly for bait-fishers and fly-fishers. It has a few smallmouths in the lower stretches as well. As you travel from Phoenix to Flagstaff, take the Sedona exit and go right. Drive two miles, and you're there.
"I would get there early because as the day heats up people start swimming," Howard said. "If you get there early, you can fish it by yourself."
As you move upstream, you'll find a population of wild rainbows.
Stocked streams are great places to fish for people just starting out in any kind of fishing. Look for riffles, seams or deep holes and try attractor patterns, caddis patterns, spinners, worms or PowerBait. The wild fish will be harder to catch than stockers. They are also harder to replace. If you want to take fish home, take the stockers.
Lees Ferry is coming back. Years of floods, high flows and political jo
usting has scoured the river bottom, killed the bugs, starved the fish and sent many guides and anglers to other waters. In the last couple of years, the plant life and the bug life have returned, and the trout have followed.
They are not the monster trout of old -- those days are probably gone forever. But there are now consistent reports of plenty of healthy 16-inch fish in the river. This is not what the old-timers want, but it's a start. What happens next is anybody's guess, but the Ferry has been able to bounce back in the past.
"The Ferry has been really good," Howard said.
Terrestrials and other dry flies are now part of the mix, including a cicada hatch that comes off in the summer.
Rohmer said he was there for it last year.
"We caught stuff on top, and that was a blast," he said.