Cast Away Your Worries At Bear Canyon Lake Or First Crossing

COVER STORY

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Stars of yellow columbine bloom along the path to one of the Rim Country's best-kept secrets: Bear Canyon Lake.

The deep lake is less popular than the three nearby Rim Lakes, because the only access is a 13-mile drive down bumpy dirt roads and then, a steep walk to the shoreline.

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Dorothy Matts and Gary Stabnau enjoy a beautiful day fishing at Bear Canyon Lake.

"We have not caught anything yet, but it is a beautiful day and it is great to be outside," Dorothy Matts said from her fishing spot at the bottom of a steep bank.

The adage, "a bad day fishing is better than a great day at work," rings true, because Matts, a real estate agent in Show Low, was one of several people casting for trout from the rocky banks on a lazy weekday afternoon.

"We pretty much cleaned out Willow Springs and we caught three T-shirts at Woods Canyon," she said.

John Limbacher and his son, Eric, on a Father's Day campout, could not find a spot they liked at nearby Woods Canyon, so they decided to take a look at the more primitive lake.

"We came down here and I thought this lake would be pretty nice," young Eric said.

"I've been catch-and-release fishing once or twice," he added, before father and son headed down the trail to plan a prime fishing spot for the next day's adventure.

Rainbow trout, arctic grayling and brown trout all live in the lake.

Canyon Creek Hatchery stocks the lake with fish every couple of weeks.

"There is a healthy population of hold-overs because Bear is a deep canyon lake, so fish that were stocked in previous years, were not caught and have had a chance to grow," Rory Aikens said. Aikens does the weekly game and fish report for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which can be found at the Web site www.azgfd.gov/artman/publish/cat_index_28.shtml

Cast 10 feet off the bank and your line can go 30 feet down.

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You say the Rim Lakes are too far a drive? Easy access to the babbling waters of First Crossing make it a fine place to relax over a long lunch or enjoy the sunrise or sunset. It is just 7.1 miles, about 15 minutes east, down Houston Mesa Road.

By July and through August, fish in Bear Canyon are typically more active than their Woods Canyon cousins, because of the depth.

"Catching them may be more difficult," Aikens said.

Elevation at Bear Canyon is 7,600 feet above sea level, making its daytime summer temperatures between the mid-70s and 80s -- a delightful break from triple digits in the Valley and the upper 90s in Payson.

People who plan to fish or just float, must carry their boat, canoe, kayak, float tube and gear down the .2 or .75 mile trail, in order to launch into the deep waters of the 60-acre lake.

Rustic campsites (with rustic toilets) set amidst aspens, oaks and pine trees are within about a quarter-mile of the lake's trail access.

Campers need to bring their own water and pack their own trash out.

The lake has its name for a reason -- this is bear country.

All food should be stored inside vehicles and trash should be put in refuse containers.

AGF recommends hikers should hike in groups when possible and make noise. Bears do not like surprises.

Dogs should be on leashes, because they antagonize bears.

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Joe Gore (left) and Joe Wilson (right) from Phoenix left their campsite at Woods Canyon Lake to try out the trout fishing at Bear Canyon Lake.

From out on the lake in his float tube, Aikens said he has seen elk, wild turkey, and every animal, except bears, come to drink.

"I saw a pair of magnificent bull elks fighting on the shoreline once," he said.

Bear Canyon Lake is part of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.

Getting to Bear Canyon Lake

The turn-off onto Forest Road 300 and the Rim Lakes is approximately 30 miles east of Payson on Highway 260. There are several vista points that give a magnificent view to travelers. Just past the turn-off to the Woods Canyon Lake and store, the FR 300 becomes a graded dirt road.

To get to Bear Canyon Lake, travel 13 miles down F.R. 300 to F.R. 89. Take F.R. 89 three miles, through the primitive campgrounds to one of two parking lots with only walking access to the lake. The east fork will take you to the top of a .75-mile trailhead. The west fork takes you to the top of a .2-mile trailhead. The lakeside is steep, but the trails switchback eases the transit some.

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