"I'll go fishing, but I'm not gonna touch a fish."
That was my 12-year-old daughter's reply when I asked if she would like to check out a new family-fun enterprise called Rancho Tonto Catch-a-Trout set right on the banks of the Tonto Creek not far from the Tonto Fish Hatchery.
As any fisherman worth his or her salt can tell you, it's pretty difficult to go fishing and not touch a fish unless, of course, you have my kind of luck. When I am standing at waterside with a pole in my hand, history has proven, I am more likely to touch Julia Roberts than an actual fish.
And that brings us to the two reasons why the gorgeous Rancho Tonto Catch-a-Trout was the ideal place to go fishing with my daughter:
1) Virtually any fishing-numskull is guaranteed to catch a fish within five or six seconds of dropping his bait in the water, since the house pond about the size of an Olympic swimming pool is stocked with about 4,000 very hungry 10-to-20 inch rainbow trout.
2) You can catch fish all day and never touch a single one. This slice of magic is made possible by a 14-year-old boy named Daniel, whose summer job is to race from one fisherperson to the next, net their catch, unhook it, drop it into a bucket and then haul the bucket to a guy who will not only clean the fish for you, but hand them back to you in a sanitary plastic bag so that you don't have to look at their disemboweled corpses until you're ready to toss them in a frying pan.
In other words, its fishing without the fuss, muss and really gross things 12-year-old girls absolutely hate about fishing.
Of course, my daughter's fishing experience also was enhanced by the fact that she thought Daniel was "really, really, really, really, really cute," and to this day giggles and blushes uncontrollably at the mention of the lad.
Also, there's a gift shop. Yes, it is fish-themed. But themes don't matter to 12-year-old girls. What they like almost as much as 14-year-old boys, I have discovered, is the opportunity to spend money and that is thoughtfully provided, too.
At first glance, snagging your dinner at Rancho Tonto Catch-a-Trout may seem a bit pricey. Visiting anglers are charged 50 cents per inch of trout they catch meaning that a one-footer rings up at $6. It's another 50 cents per fish to have them cleaned, and $1 per pole rental.
However: Deduct from that $7.50 the cost of a fishing license (you don't need one here), bait (it's free), packing ice (ditto), and the fish smell that remains on your hands for days no matter what kind of lye-, acid- or nuclear-based soap you employ to counteract it.
There are other benefits.
Physically, this is one gorgeous chunk of the Tonto Forest. But because it is a private business on private property, it is not affected by the current national forest closure despite the "Forest Closed - Do Not Enter" sign at the Forest Road 289 turnoff from Highway 260, and the U.S. Forest ranger who may stop you to ask where you're headed. You will be allowed to proceed.
According to Randy Slapnicka who now co-owns the property with his wife, Brenda, and partners Dennis and Kelly O'Neill it was originally the 1916 homestead of local legend Sam Haught. After Haught lost the land to a sheriff's deed in 1928, the property passed through the hands of six or seven owners until 1947, when it was procured and put into a family trust by John and Opal Kerr of Phoenix.
The Kerr family remained the owners until last year, when Slapnicka and company purchased the property and proceeded to turn the place into a family-fun paradise.
Thus far, they have built river-rock walls around the pond (which was created around 1930), made the property handicapped-accessible, converted an old garage into the gift store and pole-rental center, built a ramada for weddings, family reunions, corporate parties and picnic gatherings of every size and scope ... and opened it to the public shortly before Memorial Day weekend.
"Our objective was to create a mountain-park atmosphere and give people something else to do in the Rim country," Slapnicka said. "When you come to Christopher Creek or Payson, what can you do? You can hike, hike or hike. We wanted to add to that somehow. About the time that we were wondering how to do that, we heard that 85,000 people visit the fish hatchery every year and they can't fish there. So the catch-a-trout idea seemed like a no-brainer."
When you can get a 12-year-old girl who doesn't want to touch fish to agree with you, you're really on to something.
How to get there
Rancho Tonto Catch-a-Trout is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., May through September. From Payson, drive east on Highway 260 past Kohl's Ranch Lodge. Turn left on Forest Road 289 and go north about two miles. At Forest Road 29, turn right ... and there you are. For more information, call (928) 478-0002.