If you're fond of big fish, long silences and tenuous, overgrown trails, consider spending a day or two on the shores of Chevelon Lake, a blue-ribbon trout lake tucked away in a narrow, winding canyon near the Mogollon Rim.
Rim Country boasts a wealth of lakes just off the road, but Chevelon Lake is one of the few that requires the investment of sweat and boot leather.
The state stocks most of the Rim Country lakes with thousands of trout every week, barely staying ahead of the fishing pressure exerted by the sweltering Phoenix masses staging their weekend escapes to the pines swaying in the breeze at 6,000 or 7,000 feet. But Chevelon Lake lies at the end of a 20-mile dirt road and a steep trail, which sharply reduces the number of anglers.
What's more, the lake sits at the end of a 15-mile stretch of Chevelon Creek, which gathers nutrients from a steep watershed and dumps it into the lake for the pleasure and edification of the trout. All of which has resulted in one of the best trout lakes in the state, protected by fishing restrictions designed to turn it into a blue-ribbon fishery producing the 18- and 20-inch rainbows that spawn lifetime memories.
Regulations restrict anglers to flies or lures, limit the take to six fish, and insist on the live release of any fish between 10 and 14 inches.
It's not actually that hard to reach Chevelon Lake.
Just jump on State Route 260 in Payson, where you'd be well advised to stop by the Forest Service office and pick up a map of the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest. Head up Route 260 to the turnoff to Woods Canyon Lake once you reach the Rim -- the long line of cliffs that forms the southernmost lip of the continental uplift that created the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains. Forest Service Road 300 runs right along the Rim, offering sweeping vistas.
Bypass Woods Canyon Lake, which is inundated with gasping desert rats every weekend, who pull out the 10-inch rainbows as fast as the state can stock them. Perhaps eight miles beyond the Woods Canyon Lake entrance, Forest Service Road 169 heads off to the right. Bear left and you'll wind up at less-populated, but still busy Bear Canyon Lake. Turn right and jounce along the excellent gravel road toward Chevelon Lake.
If you want to reach the head of the lake, where the fishing is best, turn to the right when you reach Forest Road 119, which leads to Chevelon Creek or to the head of the lake if you turn again on either Forest Road 103 or 180.
Alternatively, you can head for the dam at the head of the lake by staying on 169, and turning on the clearly marked turnoff down towards the lake. After about 15 miles, you'll find yourself at the clearly marked turnoff for Chevelon Lake. This rutted road wends its way through a striking mix of ponderosa pine and alligator juniper -- a spectacularly twisted variety of juniper which lives for centuries, grows to impressive girth, and develops an armored bark that looks like the hide of some prehistoric gator. The road leads past several undeveloped campsites, then fetches up against a barrier less than a mile from the lake. The rocky road down to the shore of the lake presents no challenges and only a few stumbles, although the toil back up is a long, steady effort.
Getting around the 200-acre lake itself is another matter, since it winds for about two miles back into a narrow, steep-walled canyon. Hikers and anglers have created a wispy, narrow, ankle-twisting trail that encircles the lake. The thread of a trail seems to vanish sometimes on the rocky slopes and eager tree branches will do their best to snap off a fishing pole protruding from a pack.
But the trail offers lots of places to stop and study the rings created by feeding trout speckle the water. The lake offers some of the best trout fishing in the state, and in 1984 yielded a 14-pound, 5-ounce brown trout. The state stocks thousands of fingerling rainbow trout in the lake annually, and a smaller number of brown trout every other year or so. The rainbows grow rapidly, feasting on the rich array of insects that live in the nutrient-rich waters. The larger brown trout also dine on the plentiful crayfish, and sometimes travel up or down Chevelon Creek where a thriving wild population of brown trout provides some of the best stream fishing in the state.
The state has capitalized on the difficult access and the rich waters to turn the lake into a first-class trout fishery. That's why anglers are limited to flies and lures and a maximum of six trout. Anglers can keep and eat fish under 10 inches, or above 14 inches. The slot limits were imposed in 1988, and the average size of the fish caught has been increasing steadily. Because of the size limits, anglers wind up catching the same middling fish repeatedly, which drives up angler success and ensures that more fish will grow into lunkerhood.
A more personal perspective
Unfortunately, photography turns out to be incompatible with becoming a dedicated fisherman. I squandered both dusk and dawn fishing prime time on taking pictures, while the trout rose in maddening numbers in my viewfinder. I fished long enough to lose the only lures I brought on snags and rocks on the bottom. However, I had the vicarious pleasure of coming across a couple happily cooking a 14-inch rainbow. She caught it. He simply looked sheepish. I nodded and tried not to look hungry, since I'd left in such a rush in the grip of such visions of pan-fried trout that I'd neglected to bring any food. Something must have showed, because they promptly offered me an oatmeal raisin cookie. I accepted graciously, doing my best not to gulp it.
I spent the night listening to the sound of the water lapping against the shore, and contemplating the plop of an occasional fish out late mocking hungry anglers. Resolutely ignoring various rustling and snuffling noises in the night, I concentrated on counting shooting stars.
The next morning, I wandered along the water's edge and discovered the most unsettling variety of tracks, including the deep, clawless pad of a mountain lion, the shambling clawed print of a black bear, lots of deer tracks and the meandering trail of a raccoon that'd set up a crayfish buffet 50 yards from my campsite. The mountain lion tracks left the shore nearby, and I wondered how long he'd watched me in the night before wandering off to lay a trap for some unwary mule deer.
I blew the cool of the morning on photography, then decided to head back the way I'd come rather than investing in the several-mile scramble necessary to encircle the long, narrow lake. Sensing that I'd lost all my lures, the trout giggled and plopped on all sides. It seemed singularly ungracious, considering how fond I am of trout.
And how hungry I'd become by then.
About Rim Country Lakes
The Arizona Game and Fish Web site includes a wealth of information about Rim Country fishing hot spots.
Most of the fishing in this area is in small trout lakes, built by Arizona Game and Fish Department during the 1950s and 1960s. The lakes are in pine forests at about 7,000 feet.
Camping is available at or near each lake from May to September.
The department stocks these lakes from April through September. The very best trout fishing is in the spring and fall. The best stream fishing is found in Canyon Creek, Chevelon Creek and East Clear Creek.
For directions to Rim lakes and streams, go to www.azgfd.gov/h_f/ where_fish_mogollon.shtml.
Stocked Rim Country lakes include:
Bear Canyon Lake: rainbow
Black Canyon Lake: rainbow, largemouth bass, sunfish.
Blue Ridge Reservoir: rainbow
Canyon Creek: rainbow, brown trout
Chevelon Canyon Lake: rainbow, brown trout
Christopher Creek: rainbow, brown and brook trout
East Clear Creek: rainbow, brown trout
West Clear Creek: rainbow and brown trout, smallmouth bass
Clear Creek Reservoir: rainbow, largemouth bass, sunfish, channel catfish, flathead catfish
East Verde River: rainbow, brown trout, smallmouth bass, sunfish
Haigler Creek: rainbow, brown trout
Horton Creek: rainbow, brown trout
Knoll Lake: rainbow trout
Long Lake: rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, sunfish, channel catfish, flathead catfish, northern pike, walleye
Soldiers Annex Lake: largemouth bass, sunfish, flathead and channel catfish, northern pike, walleye
Soldiers Lake: Largemouth bass, flathead and channel catfish, sunfish, northern pike, sunfish, walleye
Tonto Creek: rainbow, brown, brook trout
Willow Springs Lake: rainbow trout, largemouth bass
Woods Canyon Lake: rainbow, brown trout
Green Valley Lake (in Payson): rainbow trout, largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish, channel catfish