Max finishes his PhD, celebrates by fishyoneering

Regular readers of this blog have probably been wondering where I’ve been. Well, here is the answer:


Three days after defending my dissertation I took a nasty fall off a jungle gym while playing with Jack. When I arrived at the hospital the staff said they were almost positive I had broken the ankle but needed to do x-rays to confirm. I had to wait hours and hours to get the x-rays done, sulking worse while my ankle ballooned up with swelling. After what felt like years the doctor came in with good news: it wasn’t broken, but it was very badly sprained. I would be on crutches for 3-4 weeks, and in 6-8 weeks I would be able to do fun things again.

3-4 weeks might not seem like a long time, but it is. After about a week I got frustrated with the crutches, dug out my walking boot from an old injury and made myself figure out how to gimp along. After another week I got sick of the boot and figured out I could walk if I walked duckfooted and kept all the pressure on the outside of my foot. Three weeks in I was so stir-crazy that I fished the canal near my house. Yesterday, about four weeks from the injury, I couldn’t take it any more– I had turned in the final copy of my dissertation and I was going to do something fun, recommended doses of ibuprofen be damned.

And so at 4 o’clock in the morning I found myself driving to the Hell’s Gate Wilderness. Fly rod and water shoes in the trunk, I was going to do some fishyoneering– canyoneering to get to good fishing holes. This usually requires swimming, some scrambling, and creative route finding, with the reward being big fish in tiny overgrown streams. It is, in my opinion, the ultimate Arizona outdoors experience. And, as a added bonus, I figured the cold water would help keep the swelling in my ankle down.

Just a couple hundred yards from the trailhead I met my first obstacle, a hundred foot pool surrounded by sheer cliffs that would have to be swam. However, it being 30 odd some degrees outside and me being without a jacket, I decided to backtrack and scramble up and over the canyon wall instead. About 100 vertical feet above the creek I regretted this decision. The slope was near vertical and, like most the hills in the area, covered with a loose gravel. This required me to walk with my left hand on the hill slope, while my right, injured ankle took most of the stress of keeping me from tumbling down to the valley below. Very slowly I traversed along the slope, rod in hand, before clearing the pool and making an equally slippery descent to the other side. There I found fishing heaven.

The canyon floor was about the fishy-est looking place I have seen this side of the White Mountains. The sun hadn’t quite hit the water, so I decided to gain some elevation and do my best Dave and Amelia Jensen impersonation, patiently sighting fish. I didn’t see any monsters, but I did see an enormous number of fish in the 10-14 inch range, mostly grouped along the cut banks and beneath overhanging trees. Casting was going to be a genuine problem– the creek was wide enough that it couldn’t be bow-and-arrowed across, deep enough that it couldn’t be waded, lined with tons of vegetation, and surrounded by walls so steep that backcasts from the shore were all but impossible. But it was full of fish.

I moved in slowly and tossed a mini-hopper dropper rig into the water. Immediately a fish took my size 14 red copper john and broke me off on the tree across the creek. I tied on another CJ and two casts later.


A nice rainbow that hadn’t put on it’s summer girth, this fish punched well above it’s weight and put a good bend in my beloved 4 weight. Two casts later I had slightly larger fish that squiggled out of my hands durring the photo-op and escaped into the deep. I decided that I had bothered these particular fish enough and walked about 20 yards downstream where I found another beauty.


Long, slender and with very little color, this trout looked like it could have been the brother of the first one. I knew I could keep pulling fish out of this spot all day, but I am a restless sort, and I wanted to see what laid downstream, further from the trailhead. To avoid swimming the hole I again had to scramble up and over the gravel covered canyon walls. On the other side I found a good crossing point to the side of the creek with easier walking.


The next pool looked promising, 4ish feet deep with tons of boulders providing cover. With the broken water and poor visibility I couldn’t pick out any fish, but I knew there had to be some hiding in ambush just below the pool’s mouth. After 4 or 5 casts coming back empty, I was just about ready to quit when something big took the line. The fish set off downstream, my reel screaming as the line went out. Over the next couple of minutes I worked the fish in to see an enormous rainbow with brilliant coloring along it’s side. I grabbed my net and went to my knees to be able to reach the water from the ledge I was standing on, but just as I was netting the fish it gave one final trash, threw the hook, and disappeared. Frantic and pissed, I threw my flies back into the pool immediately. Nothing. Such is life when using barbless hooks.

Downstream I found a few more long, deep pools. To my surprise these weren’t as productive as the big pool I had found upstream, netting only one feisty little rainbow that took my mini-hopper the moment it hit the water.


My ankle was starting to give out and I was stumbling all over the place, so I decided to find a spot shallow enough that I could “ice” it in the cold water before heading back.


This spot looked about as fishy-as the first pool, with nice undercuts and good overhead cover. I’m sure I could have done better had I fished it a little harder, but even the cold water wasn’t calming my ankle down.

Back at the first pool, I found myself on the far side of the creek, which offered access to a few pockets I couldn’t reach in the morning. It was hot and the sun was beating down on the water, so I didn’t think I had much of a chance. I was wrong.

I was getting tired and starting to miss hooksets. With either a long swim or steep scramble between me and the car and an ankle that was screaming, it was time to call it a day. A good day. A worthwhile day.

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

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