Fossil Creek is a crown jewel of Arizona fly fishing.
A crown jewel of Arizona fly fishing that no one fishes.
The obvious question when writing a fly fishing guide is Why? The even bigger question when putting a fly fishing guide on the internet is Why give it away for free? The answer is simple:
These fish, the roundtail chub, are the heroes of this story. Hard fighting, tenacious, and kind of goofy looking, they are a shining example of what could have been had we not allowed all of our native wonders to be replaced with ever and ever more small-mouths and rainbows. Chub are also a could-be. The chub of Fossil Creek persist for a reason, the hard (and sometimes unpopular) work of the Arizona Game and Fish Department who decided this place and it’s fish were worth saving. It is commendable work that I hope to see more of.
However, I am just a guy with a blog and I don’t have much say in fisheries policy. As such I’ve decided to help the only way I can, by opening up the knowledge I have gained over a lifetime of fishing this stream in hope that if anglers show the powers at be that we like fishing for these goofballs that they help us get more of them. Yes, I will probably lose a little bit of my Garden of Fishing Eden, but progress has never come for free.
On to the fishing.
Fly fishing, like any outdoor activity, can be dangerous. It is your responsibility to be sure that you have all the appropriate gear and knowledge prior to undertaking any trip. Be sure that others know of your travel plans and how to find you should anything go wrong. Specific to this guide, I will describe wading in areas with strong complicated currents and slippery rocks. Do not attempt any wade unless you are confident in your ability to recover from a slip, including swimming in deep pools with complicated currents. I also will show pictures of people jumping into pools off cliffs. Do not attempt this unless you are sure of the depth of the pool, your jumping ability, and swimming ability in confusing currents. You and you alone are fully responsible for the actions you take outdoors.
Fossil Creek is located between Camp Verde and Strawberry, Arizona, below the Mogollon Rim. It’s crystal clear turquoise waters are fueled by springs upstream, which keep flows prodigious and comfortably warm year round. It is very very pretty.
Because it is very very pretty and reasonably accessible (more on that below), it is also unbelievably popular with the six-pack and a boombox crowd. Recently the Forest Service has elected to limit access through a permit system during the summer months, which has greatly improved area. Luckily for us fly fishers, access is not managed, at least under the current management plan, during the far less popular winter months and day drinkers don’t like to wake up early. Management plans are fickle things, however, and you are advised to check by with Coconino NF and AZGFD before making any firm plans.
Access is easiest using Forest Road 708, just outside of Camp Verde, which will allow you to drive directly to the fishable areas. “Easiest” is a relative term and you should be warned that FR 708 is long, heavily used, and washboarded to the point that it will shake the fillings out of your teeth. A high clearance vehicle is recommended. Additionally, it is possible to hike in from the Strawberry side. While this is a wonderful (and steep!) hike, I do not recommend it for anglers as the legally fishable areas are directly along FR 708.
Once you arrive at Fossil Creek, you will be able to choose from several parking lots in the fishable area. My personal experience is that the upstream areas fish the best, roughly from Fossil Creek Bridge to the end of the Waterfall Trail, and that fishing improves the further upstream you go.
As mentioned above, chub, both roundtail and headwater, will be the general quary here. These native fish fight like the devil (for their size) and can get fairly big. Specifically in Fossil Creek, the vast majority of fish are in the 4-6 inch range, though fish in the 8-12 inch range are also quite common. The largest fish I have ever personally caught was near 14 inches, and I assume this is about the maximum size you can currently find in the system.
Fossil Creek has a fishing season limited to winter months with some additional restrictions on tackle. This blog does not offer legal advice, so check the yearly regulations for up to date information before heading out. As a personal note, I am providing you help here. In return I expect you to respect fair chase principals and all applicable regulations. If you aren’t going to do so, stop reading.
WHO SHOULD FISH HERE?
One thing that is unique about this fishery is that it is almost impossible to get skunked. You are going to catch fish here.
These fish are often quite small, in the 4-6 inch range. This makes Fossil Creek an excellent place if you are trying to get your kids their first fish on the fly.
However, vegetation tends to grow directly to the water’s edge and pools are often too deep to wade in all but a few places. Catching the bigger fish requires a willingness to get wet, good line control, and a careful understanding of the currents of plunge pools. As such the people who will be most successful at Fossil will have good wading skills and at least intermediate casting ability. On the upside, if you screw it up you will just catch one of the little ones instead.
I have fished the creek with everything from a 6 ft 3 weight glass rod to a 9 ft 6 weight fast action graphite rod with a couple of Tenkara rods thrown in as well. In doing so I’ve come to the conclusion that a 7 ft 4 weight rod is the best possible option. Rods in the 5-6 weight range are nice for casting the heavy double nymph rigs and sinking leaders you will be using, but really limit strike indication and fun-factor on the small fish. 3 weights are really fun to bring in fish of every size, but lack power for casting heavy weight flies. A 4 weight, of any length under 10 feet, seems like a reasonable compromise, though with heavier rigs even these can be over matched.
Flies on the other hand are simple: it needs to be heavy and it needs to be flashy. Essentially any nymph with flash in the size 10-16 range will do. My favorite patterns, with links to recommended tiers, are:
- Tungsten Head Zug Bug, sizes 10-16.
- Fry Creek Special, size 10, by Ben of AZ Wanderings
- Flash-Back Hares Ear, sizes 10-16, by Jake of 928 Fly Tying
Sinking leaders are worth mentioning. As I’ll describe below, the biggest fish tend to hide in the deepest water, 20+ foot plunge pools. However, you will also fish many spots with depths around 5 feet. To deal with this I keep a few leaders in my pack, a normal leader (I prefer the furled leaders spun by Ben) and a super fast sinking short leader, such as the 6.1 ips 5 ft sinker by Airflo.
There are two main types of fishing in Fossil Creek, long, slow moving pools in the 5-10 foot depth range:
And incredibly deep plunge pools.
Tactics will differ considerably depending on which you are fishing.
For the longer, shallower pools, any standard indicator fishing method will do the job. I have not had the opportunity to try Euro-nymphing, but I imagine it would work as well. In either case, the largest problems you will face in these situations will be accessing fishable water and fish size. Generally speaking, the holes throughout the area are structured such that the sides of the creek are sheer, dropping almost immediately to the full depth of the pool, and lined with vegetation. This makes casting from the shore essentially impossible, so you will often wade along the shallower sections at the downstream end of each hole and cast directly upstream. Obviously this does not make for a stereotypical nymphing presentation, but it works as long as you keep good line control as the flies drift back towards you. These types of pools generally have incredible populations of fish in the 4-6 inch range, and a few in the 8-10 inch range, but rarely anything much bigger.
The deeper pools are generally more challenging, productive, and fun.
Attacking these holes requires some unique tactics. The big fish here live deep, very deep.
They also tend to live at the front of the pool.
To get the big guys you are going to have to get your fly as deep as possible, as quickly as possible. Because slip shot is an abomination, the first step is to use a good sinking leader, as short and as fast sinking as you can find, and heavy flies. Using the current seams I’ve drawn above as a general guide, the easiest way to get your fly in front of a big guy is to throw into the middle of the fall, front to back and left to right, and begin a swing along the current seam. You will know your cast went right if you feel it hit bottom quickly, directly at the base of the fall. Regardless, stick with your swing, and pay careful attention at the hang, as this is where simultaneous hookups like the one above often occur. Generally fish do not take after the first strip of the retrieve.
The math majors in the audience have also probably picked up on one more tip in the graphs above, it is more important, from a fish size perspective, to get the swing distance than depth right. The biggest fish are almost always near the front of the pool, but not always deep.
Your other option for dealing with these pools is less productive. Begin by wading into the shallower areas at the downstream end of the pool, cast directly upstream, and do your best to keep good line control as the fly comes back to you. The upside to this method it that it allows two people to fish the pool, one swinging as described above and the other casting and fishing the side of the seam the swinger can’t reach. The downside is that you will rarely get deep or cast far enough for the big fish. In case that made no sense at all, here is a picture of Curry and I trying a beta-version of the tactic, though we have since learned that Curry, on the far left, should be closer to the waterfall upstream.
With all this in mind you should have all the knowledge you need to catch good fish in Fossil. I intend to keep this as a living document, updating it with new lessons I learn along the way, so you may want to periodically check back. If you head to Fossil Creek, please us know how it goes in the comment’s section below. Oh, and don’t forget to have fun.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, has occasionally written for Backpacker Magazine, Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally written for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.