East Side Story: Summer Fly Fishing the Black River

It’s been hot in Phoenix. Unbelievably, horrifically hot. Hot enough that even I finally gave in and had to make for the hills. I’ve also been feeling lazy lately, so rather than setting up some monster hike, I thought it might be more fun to do something a little more light hearted. A couple texts later, I’d conned Curry into trying out fly fishing on the East Fork of the Black River.

Around 2AM, Friday, Curry and I piled into the Subaru and settled in for the long drive. On the way up we saw an absurd amount of wildlife– one bobcat, a least 30 turkeys, and well over a hundred elk. One group of elk in particular was kind enough to stand around for a picture right at Three Forks.

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But they didn’t like me walking toward them, and just like that, they were gone.

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First fly fishing trips tend to go horribly– a mess of tangled lines, lost flies, and few fish. This time though, I was determined that things would go differently. My plan for the day was to put Curry on the best holes and fish his tail water, making sure he caught a fish on his first trip fly fishing and allowing me to keep an eye on his casts. While I was going to use a traditional rod and reel, Curry was going to use my 8 ft. Tenkara set up, a Tenkara Rod Co. Cascade. For the uninitiated, Tenkara rods are different in that they are essentially just a telescoping rod with a relatively short fly line attached to the end. Though usually use the Cascade as my ultralight backpacking kit (which it is really really good at as well), it has also become my go to set up for teaching people to fly fish. Kept short, Tenkara style rods are easy to use, instinctive to cast, and eliminate the most tedious part of fly fishing for beginners: line management.

After his first cast though it was obvious Curry was going to be just fine.

The dude’s a natural, so I gave him a little extra space to work with.

Moving downstream I found a nice piece of poket water covered with water bugs and trout actively feeding off the top. Opening up my trusty fly box I looked at all my hopers and noticed that the smallest one I had was way too big for the fish in question. But the topwater action was tempting, so I hoped for the best, tied him on, and cast upstream. Then

BAM

As soon as my fly touched the water a tiny trout came up and hit it.

BAM BAM BAM

The trout hit it again, somehow taking the fly under without ever hookin on. Finally this trout gave up and the fly drifted down steam where again

BAM BAM BAM

Another tiny trout hit the fly, but again never really ran with it. I repeated this process five or six more times before reopening my fly box, searching in vain for a smaller hopper that these little guys would have an easier time getting their mouths around.

Nothing.

Figuring I had to try something I switched to the next closest looking dry fly I had in my box and recast.

Nothing.

Then I tried another dry fly.

Nothing.

Then a nymph.

Nothing.

Then back to the first hopper again.

BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM

But the fish still couldn’t get the giant hook in their tiny little mouths.

I felt like a real idiot. See, Ben, over at Arizona Wanderings (A BLOG YOU SHOULD BE READING), makes a set of mini hopers for just such a situation. Not being much of a dry fly guy I’ve always spent my cash on other important things from him, like my super sweet quail hat (imagine THIS ONE, but with a quail). Unfortunately super sweet quail hats, despite making you look pretty baller, don’t help you catch trout.

Having sufficiently scared the fish in this hole, Curry and I packed up and started fishing our way upstream towards the car.

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A few holes later I was working a particularly promising spot when I heard Curry scream, “HOLY SHIT, I CAUGHT A FISH.” This meant trouble. For one, I was thigh deep in the stream, surrounded by slippery rocks, and at least 100 yards away. Second, I was the only person with a camera and a net. I tossed my pole out of the stream and, in an act of elegant athleticism (Editor’s Note: Max is neither elegant or athletic), climbed out of the stream without taking a drink. My last step out was a particularly big one, and somewhere in the back of my mind I heard an unsettling RIPPPPPPPP.  Undeterred, I took off running with net and camera in hand.

Curry had managed to pull in a really nice looking, but small, brookie. I handed him the net as I tried to catch my breath. As I bent down to take a picture of Curry landing his first trout on the fly the jerk managed to unhook itself and swim away. He’d kept the thing landed the entire time it took me to climb out of the stream, grab the gear, and run to him, but getting it in the net was a bridge to far. I guess this is what I get for debarbing my flies, but I couldn’t help myself from thinking, come on bro, if you had just held on a second we were going to let you go always.  

Finally calming down from the climb out, sprint, loss of fish combo, I noticed that my shorts felt particularly…loose. The rush had not been kind to the old Arc’teryx knock off shorts I was wearing, purchased in China 6 years ago and with me for thousands of miles of hiking. They had simply disintegrated, seams ripping straight across from the crotch in both directions. And so there I sat, no fish, not even a picture of a fish, in hand, out of breath, and with nothing but a (thankfully!) boring pair of boxers between me and the world.

Things could have been better, but after a quick bit of duct tape magic, we were off.

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Our initial plan had been to fish the Diamond Point Recreation Area to shorten the drive home, but upon arriving we found it closed to entry. Undeterred we kept working back towards home and fished the most upper reaches of the Black River.

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I’d heard stories about this area fishing well, but we only found the tiniest water with no real pools to speak of.

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Moving a little further downstream I got a chance to see Curry cast again. One day in and he was a straight up sniper.

With thunderheads gathering all around us, no particularly promising water in sight, and a long long drive ahead of us, Curry and I decided to call it a day. As we climbed in the car, we noticed the AZGFD fish stocking truck pulling up behind us, having just finished stocking the spots we’d fished that morning.

As we drove off, I reflected on the day: we woke up at 1 AM, drove 5 hours in each direction, lost many fish because we had the wrong flies, lost a fish because we were slow with the net, destroyed a pair of shorts, tried to fish and area that was closed, and missed the boon of a fish stocking by less than a couple hours. I was a little frustrated by the whole affair, but then Curry made a proclamation:

“I really like fly fishing,” he said.

I smiled. Mission accomplished.


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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.

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