Fishing for me has been a progression of the various means and ways to get fish out of the water, from a boat or on the shore. I have tried all kinds of baits including worms, salmon eggs, marshmallows, waterdogs, shrimp, stink baits (that’s a story all by itself), dough balls, grubs, corn, baked beans, lunch meats, chewing gum, chicken livers, grasshoppers, crickets, mealy worms, hellgrammites gathered form under rocks at creek side, minnows, crayfish (crawdads), and parts of other fish. I think I have tried them all. But fly fishing is my favorite.
When my brother Rick and I were in our early teens, our Grandfather gave us an old tackle box he acquired with some other junk from a house he purchased. He was more interested in the property for a future retirement home for his church than the buildings on it. The junk he found in a stand alone garage that was filled to the rafters with stuff. The old saying •one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” was again proven correct as my grandfather passed all the junk along to people who would appreciate the treasure. Rick and I were recipients of this old tackle box that was someone’s fly tying kit. To us, it was a treasure. To our Dad, it was junk and he didn’t want to see feathers all over the place. Rick and I fashioned a few flies out of the materials that caught our eye as we probed through the small, brown bags labeled in pencil as to the contents inside. We would clamp a large hook in the kit’s homemade tying vise and started tying. Knowing nothing about the art of tying flies, the products of our imagination looked like something out of an old ·9″ rated, science fiction movie. I could almost imagine the title •Miniature Mutated Birds, with Sharp Stinger On Attack.”
My first real experience with fly fishing was with my friend Mark Tomich. We had been on many fishing and hunting adventures and were both open to any new opportunities to get out of doors. We were planning our next fishing trip when the subject came up about fly fishing. I can’t remember which one of us heard about a class being given by the Arizona Fly Casters Association, but we both agreed to go. It started out as a casting class at one of the local urban lakes in North Phoenix. We both got a kick out of fly fishing the correct way and decided to become members of that organization.
In addition to teaching the techniques of the art of fly fishing, the Arizona Fly Casters were involved in many conservation and reclamation projects around the state in conjunction with the Arizona Game and fish various National forest Service Districts. At our first official meeting they were talking about Canyon Creek and planning a project to improve it for a more suitable habitat for trout and fly fisherman alike. This was to be accomplished by forming pool using natural resources as large & small boulders, rocks and fallen pine tree trunks. Wire mesh, cables, anchor, steel beams and concrete products were also used but normally hidden from view.
It would be a fisherman’s paradise. Some of the creek would have a maximum bag limit and another area would be reserved for artificial lures only and catch and release only. The latter is where you would be able to catch and release large trophy trout. This all sounded exciting.
We also signed up for fly tying classes and both made the investment of buying the tying tools and supplies. Some of the old timers had tying benches and fishing boxes full of hooks, hackle (feathers) and other supplies. Since we would use specials spools of thread, I stopped in at the Singer Sewing Center at a local mall to see what kind of sewing kit boxes they would have. I found the perfect box to begin with a top tray that had spindles to hold the various color and weights of threads, compartments to hold the bobbins made specifically for tying, scissors, tweezers, and other tools. A second tray held the sharp hooks of various sizes and shapes, specialty wraps, foil, head cement, beads and bangles. The bottom of the box held the fly typing vise, a dried rooster neck full of all size of reddish brown hackle, a patch of elk hair, a patch of mink fur, several peacock hurls, and an assortment of loose hackle of various colors, shapes and textures. Our first pattern we were taught to tie was a wooly worm on a number twelve long shank hook and the second was a peacock lady. We were so proud of our accomplishments and couldn’t wait to try them out in the high country.
Our first trip as members of the Arizona Fly Casters was up to Hawley Lake in the White Mountains. Along with us we had Steve White and his friend Dave Fischer (pronounced Fis ch er). On our way through Payson, we decided to take a side trip to the Pine Creek and The Natural Bridge which are up toward the Strawberry/ Pine area. The little Pine Creek created the Natural Bridge by erosion over thousands of years and is a spectacular sight to see.
We didn’t fish there even though it is stocked with trout. After our hike we walked across the top the bridge that is covered with meadow grasses and bordered on the river side by wild strawberries. They were a little tart so we didn’t eat too many. Walking through the grass, we kicked up swarms of grasshoppers. The boys went nuts trying to catch them for bait. They were swinging shirts, jackets and towels trying to knock them out of the air. Somewhere I have film of all this excitement.
After I grabbed the twenty year old kids and threw them back into the van, we were off to Hawley Lake. We found an excellent campsite just past the dam. I was setting up the camp kitchen while the boys set up two tents and gathered fire wood. After we had everything squared away, we did a little fishing. I lead the boys to a special fishing place marked by a large embedded boulder where my wife, Carol, had caught several fish on previous outings. She had discovered this special productive fishing hole on a weekend outing with an old friend, Ken Dotterer and his wife, Ruth who is my second cousin. On that trip, Carol was catching all the fish and had to show Ken and me exactly where to cast our lines. We both were very appreciative of the instruction and did catch fish there.
While the boys were fishing there, I walked over the hill to a spot that had a good crop of reeds from the shore line out ten feet. The tops of the reeds were about two feet above the water which made conventional fishing very difficult. I thought that with my fly rod I could cast my favorite wooly worm, the one I had tied with my new fly tying kit, over the reeds, into the water and right into a lunker trout’s territory. All I needed was a little break in reeds so that if I hooked a fish, I had a place to land it without getting it tangled. After finding the perfect spot, I peeled out about ten feet of line from the end of my fly rod and let it coil up in the water just below my feet. I then peeled out a little more extra line directly from the reel coiled it up on the ground to the right of my feet to be used as I started my dry casting where I would let out the line until my fly was just above the target. But just as I finished the last coil, there was a tremendous splash at the edge of the water. At first I thought it was a big bull frog jumping in the water, or a beaver or a water snake. I looked down to where all the commotion was coming from and saw my fly line coils disappearing. Something grabbed my wooly worm and was heading out with it. I gently grabbed the line in my fingers as it was streaming up from the ground to the first ferrule on my pole. As I tightened my grip on the line slipping through my hand I lifted my pole and set the hook. Whatever took my line was now hooked and the battle was on. I wasn’t in a hurry to bring it to shore especially due to the dense reeds. It did take one jump and I saw it was a nice trout. Gently I let it work against the bow of my fly rod. It started to wear down after five minutes of active fighting. When it was time, I pulled the line in by hand, allowing it to coil up on the water again. With your hand in contact directly with the line you are more in control. A fly reel is just for storing your line, not casting or retrieving fish. It felt great!
After landing the fish, I realized I didn’t have my trusty cord stringer with the steel ring of one end and an aluminum spike on the other that I have used many times before. The old fashion, metal stringers were too bulky to carry around and were usually stored in the bottom of my tackle box. When I didn’t have my cord stringer with me, I would select a branch from a tree or bush that split into two smaller branches of just the right size. I would then cut the one of the branches to the length of two inches to hold the fish on while the other long end would be secured under a rock near the waters edge waiting for the next addition. But this time my makeshift stringer would only carry one fish because after the thrill of the catch I was ready to head back to camp. The rest of the guys were sitting around the campfire ring with the remaining embers radiating their last waves of warmth from that morning’s fire, sharing fishing and hunting stories. When I came walking into camp with this nice trout strung up on by make shift stringer, they couldn’t believe their eyes. It was about fifteen and one quarter inches long and fat. They caught a few small ones in fishing hole I showed them, but nothing near the size of my catch. They accused me of putting them at Carol’s favorite spot on purpose while I snuck off to where I new the big ones were. They were not going to let me off the hook, so to speak, and razed me the rest of the trip.
That night instead of hot dogs, we had enough fish to have a great fish and baked bean meal along with some cold pop and Oreo Cookies for desert. I prepared the trout using my favorite camp recipe with the head and tail off. I don’t agree with leaving the tail on and eating it like a potato chip.
The next morning the camp coffee was on as the sun came up. We planned to have breakfast around eight o’clock unless the fishing was really good. At seven thirty we were had our pancakes and bacon, drizzled with the old standby, Log Cabin Syrup. There was plenty of coffee, cold milk and orange juice to go around. The cooking in the out of doors gives others the impression I’m a good cook. That’s why they keep inviting me along on these trips. They also knew that the law of camp cooking was that the cook eats last and gets what’s left over, so he better do a good job on all of the preparation.
The rest of the day, the fishing continues to be slow which gave us a chance to explore below the dam. That was usually a good place to make discoveries and really enjoy the beauty of the White Mountains. This time of year is a good time to kick up an elk, deer or even bear. They all thrive in the cooler temperatures at Hawley Lake are usually not to far away. Also osprey and bald eagles make an appearance.
That evening we were all sitting around the campfire ring that was all prepared for that night’s fire. I was cooking up some Dinty Moore Stew, a staple for my camp grub box for times with we don’t’ cat any fish to eat. As I started buttering a plate full of bread, a small chipmunk came into my territory looking for a hand out. It was eye the plastic bag full of bread. I watched out of the corner of my eye as it would move toward the bag and then run back to the safety under a boulder. It would get a little closer each run. Then suddenly it ran into the bag and grabbed a big piece of bread. At the instant, I reached over a grabbed the end of the bag and picked it up. Then the thought came over me, Why did I do that? We all sat there in amazement watching that little chipmunk tearing through one piece of bread and then another as the bag was filling up with crumbs. I could get the chipmunk out of there fast enough as all the guys were laughing hysterically. When it finally exploded out of the bag and ran to safety, I took inventory. We had just enough bread to go around except my piece was a little ragged on one edge and part of the middle. Remember the law of camp cooking?