Fly fishing the deep dark canyons of the southwest has become something of an obsession of mine.
Combining the best parts of canyoneering and true back country navigation with technical (and highly productive) fly fishing, “fishyoneering,” if you will, is the ultimate backcountry experience for those of us who live along the canyons of the Southwest.
However, fishyoneering is not a novice friendly endeavor and is certainly one of the most dangerous things you can do outside. As such, there is little written on the subject. I have decided to attempt to fill this void here with a guide that will provide a reasonably experienced outdoorsperson with the baseline information they will need to get started. But first, a caveat: I have been fishyoneering for about two years now, and I would not, by any stretch, consider myself an expert on the subject. Since I can find almost no other information on the topic, I’ve decided to share what little knowledge I have. Thus, think of the following as hard earned advice, not set in stone rules.
With that out of the way, lets ask a simple question: what is fishyoneering?
The simplest definition I can come up with is that fishyoneering is a type of fly fishing that occurs in narrow canyons AND requires swimming OR technical climbing. This, obviously, leaves a lot of variation. I’m not much of a climber myself, so I have chosen to focus on fly fishing in canyons which are most easily traversed by swimming when the creek completely fills the space between the sheer canyon walls and does not require rappels or climbs beyond simple scrambles. Hopefully the more technically minded of you will step in and provide more information on that side of the sport.
Since the remainder of this guide will focus on traversing rarely visited canyons, I should also state the obvious: fishyoneering is an absurdly dangerous endeavor. To be clear, we are talking about swimming relatively long distances with gear (including in your hands) while fully clothed in the middle of nowhere. If you are going to attempt this type of thing you need to be very experienced outdoors, physically fit with excellent swimming skills, able to put up with slipping off of moss covered boulders all the time, and perhaps most importantly, willing to let hundreds (thousands?) of dollars of gear sink to the bottom of a giant pool rather than die trying to save it. You will also need to be a good trip planner and map reader, as there are no trails in these areas. In short, proceed with caution and at your own risk.
ON TO THE GUIDE.
LOCATION AND SEASON
Fishyoneering requires canyons to be canyoneered. All the usual suspects along the along the edges of the Colorado Plateau are in play, and, as far as I can tell, they all have fish. My personal experiences have been focused on the creeks along the edges of the Mogollon Rim, though I assume most of these lessons will be applicable to other systems. Streams in this region usually start as a trickle, often times only ankle deep along most of their reach. However, they descend quite quickly and can offer reasonably deep (3-4 feet) pools. These parts of the creek often contain small trout, difficult casting, and cold water. However, the deepest pools, especially those with overhead cover can hold good fish.
These streams grow as the descend, and at around 5,000 ft of elevation the real fun begins. With enough water in the system to start cutting through the weak sandstone, the streams develop into long fast riffles punctuated by deep slow pools. This generally remains trout country, especially for renegade rainbows who have moved down from the summer stockings up stream.
As you move further downstream the pines will give way to sycamores and stream banks will look more like a jungle than a forest. This is the sign that it is time to transition to bass gear and give up on the idea of avoiding swims all together.
Climate-wise, fishyoneering is not a year round activity. From late fall to spring the weather is simply too cold to safely undertake such trips. In the early summer (e.g., May-June), the water will have warmed enough to be traversed, but air temperatures can be cripplingly hot. Later in the summer (e.g., July-August), monsoon season and the chance of flash floods. Another window of opportunity is after monsoon season has wound down in late September or early October. A notable exception to this seasonality is Fossil Creek (which I have written an extensive guide to fishing HERE). This creek only requires swims to get to a few of the very best fishing perches, and thus is not technically fishyoneering, but is fed by a perennial warm water spring that keeps things fishable in all but the coldest of days, as six-week old Henry can attest:
Personally, I believe the best season is May to early June, keeping a close eye on the weather forecast at all times. Never, never, undertake a trip like this with even a small chance of rain. No fish is worth dying for.
Fishyoneering is a odd activity undertaken by very few people. As such, we will have to pick and choose from gear made for other things.
Apparel-wise, we are going to be picking from a particularly wide variety of makers. For footwear, look for shoes that drain quickly, stick well while wet, while also remaining comfortable for long hikes. My favorite outsole material thus far is Vibram Megagrip, which combines excellent grip with reasonable durability. Because wading canyons means you will be tripping on often unseen submerged boulders, I also prefer a shoe with a substantial outer shell. Currently I am using my beloved, but no longer available, Arc’teryx Acrux FL (review HERE). Outside this discontinued shoe few options remain. A dedicated canyoneering shoe, such as the 5.10 Canyoneer, is an option, but one I have no experience with. Everyone’s favorite fly fishing couple, the Jensens, have also recommended the Orvis Ultralight wading boot for hiking/wet wading. These will probably be my next shoe once the beloved Acrux’s give up the ghost. One type of shoe I would not recommend however is the sterotypical water shoe, which, in my experience, lack the stability, durability, and protective outter required for these types of trips. Regardless, remove the insoles, wash, and dry your shoes after each outting or they will take on a stank that smells like a combination of river slime, fish, sweaty feet, and mildew.
For Clothing look for quick drying options that provide excellent sun protection. Abrasion protection is also nice, but in my opinion it is worth sacrificing for quick drying. Currently I have settled on RailRiders Cool Khakis for pants and their new Sahara Sun Hoody. Both these loose a little durability relative to my favorite hiking options (VersaTac Lights and Adventure Top, for pants and shirt respectively), but they dry faster and\or breathe better. I recommend pants and shirts with long sleeves, as they will protect your from the sun and the variety of pokey plants trying to poke you. That being said, any reasonably modern (read: thin and synthetic) modern outdoors clothing will work.
Packs are somewhat more complicated. Water is very heavy, so you want the pack to drain as quickly as possible after swims. Grommets work well as drain ports.
More importantly, for reasons that should be already apparent, your pack needs to float. This can be accomplished by either filling the pack with good dry bags (I’ve good luck with those from both Sea to Summit and Osprey) without the air squeezed out or by throwing some pool noodles in the pack and dealing with everything inside getting wet. Dry bags work really well. However, they will eventually pop a leak, and you never know when that day will come. Another option is the new class of submersible backpacks, which remain very intriguing but absurdly expensive. I usually use a combination of dry bags, doubled (tripled? quadrupled?) zipplocks, with a pool noodle shoved in the pack for additional insurance. Before your first trip, find a swimming pool, jump in with all your gear, make sure your gear floats, and try a swim before doing so in some deep dark canyon far from help.
Finally, the fun stuff: tackle. Regardless of where you are on these streams, expect extremely tight quarters and the possibility of big fish. This suggests short rods (under eight feet) of reasonable strength will be best. I’ve discussed these types of rods at length HERE and HERE, so I wont make you suffer reading all that again. Instead, suffice it to say that I believe a 7 foot 4 weight is essentially perfect, especially when paired with a line that handles single-handed spey casts well.
On the most fundamental level you will have two choices when running a stream: from downstream up or upstream down. Running the stream from bottom to top will give you the best traditional dry fly fishing presentations, while running from top to bottom will give the best opportunities for swinging. Generally speaking, the relative locations of the trailhead and stream will put this choice beyond your control. I prefer swimming downstream to up, and when given the choice will happily trade presentation for ease of swimming.
One of the benefits of fishing places that are hard to get to is that the fish aren’t very picky. Obviously fly selection will vary considerably based on what you are targeting. For trout I tend to use nymphs of all types in the early summer, especially classics such has Copper Johns or Princes, transitioning to mini-hoppers or mini-hopper/droppers as temperatures warm up. For warm water species it is worth remembering that fish in these streams will generally be smaller than their river cousins, so keeping fly size reasonable is of great concern. A small bead head wooly bugger or semi-seal, especially when jigged slightly, will catch just about anything that moves. Or, if you insist on topwater, mini-hoppers or pan fish sized poppers can be successful.
In case the proceeding paragraph didn’t make things clear, let me be blunt: fishyoneering does not present any great fishing challenges beyond casting in incredibly tight quarters. These fish aren’t fished much and require little convincing to take a hook. This is a journey, not a destination game, and therefore I encourage you to be as creative as possible in your presentations. The rewards can be excellent.
I am a firm believer, however, that you should support local fly tiers whenever possible. Ben, at Arizona Wanderings, and Jake, at 928Flies, are my favorite local sources for high quality flies. In particular I love Ben’s mini-hoppers and Fry Creek specials and Jake’s flash back hare’s ears and streamers (which you can order through his contact page). I don’t get kickbacks or discounts from either. This is just my honest advice.
To summarize, fishyoneering is a dangerous activity that requires you to climb or swim through long, dark, cold canyons in the hopes of catching generally small, generally dumb fish. By any reasonable measure, it is a dumb thing to do. There are easier ways to catch bigger fish.
It is also the pinnacle of the Arizona outdoors experience. Much like combing hunting pack rafting serves to remind you of the great scale and diversity of skills places like Montana or Alaska require, combining fly fishing with canyoneering directly connects you to the impacts of water in the desert while testing your ability to succeed in a wide variety of outdoors endeavors. Until we find a way to move mountain biking and quail hunting into the fray, fishyoneering is the most diverse outdoors activity you can take on in the Southwest.
There aren’t many people who value this kind of diversity, but I am one. I hope the information that I have given here, as a novice to other novices, will be helpful in bringing more into this strange little sport. I also hope that together we can continue to fill in the blanks, especially when it comes to fishing the more technical creeks that fall outside my knowledge base.
Until then, have fun and stay safe.
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Max Wilson is a born and raised Arizonan with a love for all that is beautiful and strange about the Southwest. He studied at Arizona State University, where he received his PhD in ecology. He writes here at Lesser Places, occasionally for Backpacker, and even more occasionally for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.