Might as Well Face it You’re Addicted to Chub: Spring Fly Fishing on Fossil Creek

Chub are not the most elegantly named fish.


But they live in a place that looks like this:


Take wooly buggers and simi-seals with reckless abandon.


And, pound-for-pound, fight harder than any trout.


Objectively speaking, chub fishing is some of the best fishing in the Southwest.  Even better, it ticks all the boxes that us surly backcountry fly fishermen purport to love: tight quarters, good sight fishing, aggressive fights. If you love small stream fly fishing, it really doesn’t get much better than this.

Yet nobody goes chub fishing. And I mean nobody. Just last week I was in my two favorite fly shops (Desert Sportsman in Scottsdale and Orvis on Camelback) talking to sales people who I see out on the water all the time. In both cases when I brought up chub fishing, I got blank stares in return. And not the I disagree with you but you don’t want to argue with a customer blank stare. The are you even speaking English right now because I don’t understand WTF you’re talking about blank stare. It was kinda embarrassing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, especially as I’m working on my review of Mark Spitzer’s new book Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West (SPOLIER ALTERT: It’s really really good). Just a couple of hours from Phoenix is one of the best fishing opportunities in the Southwest; yet, even good fishermen, experienced fishermen, know nothing about it. Some research was in order. It was time to go fishing.

I rolled into the Irving Trailhead at Fossil Creek about an thirty minutes before dawn. Fossil Creek is a warm spring fed, crystal clear, travertine creek. The water is the perfect temperature year round and underwater visibility is measured in yards, not feet. These factors, mixed with easy access by car and a lot of Instagram fame, have taken Fossil Creek from moderately overused when I was a kid, to cataclysmically over used today. Thank the Lord, USFS finally instituted a permit system for the summer months a couple of years ago, and are considering more restrictive permits in the future. I for one hope they just shut down the road completely and make people walk a few miles to the creek– preferably from Strawberry side only, where the hike is steep. 30 packs are heavy after all and this just might scare the yabos off. If you have to implement a trash service to keep people from abandoning their empties, then so be it.

On this point, I couldn’t believe that the parking lot was half full of cars a full 30 min before dawn. Methinks that people aren’t exactly respecting the no camping rules USFS has in place. A problem for another day I thought, as I worked my way down to my favorite pool. ENOUGH OF THIS RACHEL MADDOW LENGTH RANT, ONTO THE FISHING.


Three fish in the first five casts, it was clear this was going to be a good day. I started feeling cocky, and decided to set the tripod timer to see if I could catch one on camera.


BOOM. Trying to match the catch to the 10 second timer was an adventure, but on the second try, I actually pulled it off. Half an hour in and I’d already lost track of the daily fish count, I decided I’d harassed the fish in that hole enough.


Up stream the pools were shallower, but the sight fishing was absurd. AZFGD recommends you “walk along the shore line to pick and choose amongst thousands of fish for one you’d like to catch.” This is not an exaggeration. Fish were easy to come by, even after I lost my last beloved simi-seal and had to move to a wooly bugger.


Further upstream I decided to try some different habitat. I’d never tried really fast moving water before, so I decided to give it a shot.


I didn’t have as much luck here, and in the distance, I could hear the masses beginning to gather at the trailhead. I needed to get out while the getting was good.


So why isn’t chub fishing more popular? Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe it is that the bite is only strongest right at dawn– on all my trips things REALLY slow down after about 9AM– and that gives the fishery a bad wrap? Maybe it is that no one realizes these guys can get fairly big and fight hard? Or maybe it is that people don’t even know that Fossil Creek is open for fishing for a huge chunk of the year?

My money, however, is that the answer lies in plain old snootiness. Trout are regal, bass are tough, and even the catfish have a certain mystery to them. Chub, on the other hand, are chub. Just plain, old chub. Most anglers (stupidly) feel like chub are somehow beneath them.

And that’s a damn shame, because the Fossil Creek chub season is perfect. It is a winter option for the wet-wading addict, a perfect place to teach your kid the wonders of small stream fishing, and an excuse to buy that new 3 weight you’ve been dreaming of. Don’t believe me? Go once, catch a ton of fish, and trust me, you’ll be an addict.



Fly Recommendations: Dark colored bead headed simi-seals and wooly buggers seem to work well. The more flash the better.

Chub fishing at fossil creek is only open from the early fall through late spring. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the Arizona fishing regulations and read the AZGFD guide for the fishery before you go.

USFS also requires parking permits during the summer months. You can read more about the permitting process HERE.

Disclaimer: This post, and all posts on LesserPlaces, may contain affiliate links– links that allow me to receive a small kickback at no additional cost to you when you shop through them. This is how we keep the lights on. 

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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.


7 thoughts on “Might as Well Face it You’re Addicted to Chub: Spring Fly Fishing on Fossil Creek

  1. Great post Max. I mentioned to you through IG (wanderingrimcountry) that this native fish is on my list…. I will go get um and right away. Thanks for the insight in this post and hoping my midweek trip helps to avoid crowds there. I’m not worried about fishing crowds… they are few and far between these days.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Kim! I mean every word of it– this really is as good as it gets. You’ve got to go soon though, parking swithches to permit only in a couple weeks and the fishing season shuts down completely sometime in April. You should have the place almost to yourself in the middle of the week though, and I found most people we’re sticking to the trails, not the stream heading upstream from Irving TH. Have fun!!!


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