Outwitting The Wily Trout

Trip to Bear Flat to fish Tonto Creek proves photos are much easier to catch than piscines

The flow of this stubborn little creek goes through dramatic gyrations.

The flow of this stubborn little creek goes through dramatic gyrations. Photo by Pete Aleshire. |

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There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.

— Steven Wright

If I was a fish — I’d definitely want me to catch me. Here I am, standing on a flood-polished boulder below Bear Flat on Tonto Creek, casting my nymph like some kinda natural born fishing fool.

I got my floppy, ventilated hat.

I got my ever-so-cool polarized sun glasses.

I got my cute-as-a Hare’s Ear nymph.

I got my squishy, water shoes.

I got my multi-pocket fishing vest.

I got my parachute cloth shirt.

I got my surgical clamp hook removal thingy.

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Below Bear Flat, Tonto Creek chews through granite veins and plunges into Hellsgate Wilderness.

And I got my wolfish rooting section — splashing around downstream scaring all the wild brown trout up my way.

Truth be told, I’m surprised those pea-brained paragons of piscinity don’t jump right out of this deep swirl of a pool into my ever-so-stylish fish net dangling with such allure from my neck.

But they’re not.

Now, last time I offered up the fruits of my adventures in angling to my beloved readers, I explained how all the careless catch-and-release fishermen had complicated my life on the East Verde River by letting loose all those foolish young hatchery trout. Turns out, trout and other fish have pretty darn good memories. They remember places they had bad experiences — like getting caught and let loose again. They’ll avoid that spot for months afterwards. This undoubtedly accounts for my late-in-the-season lack of success haunting the no-longer-stocked fishing holes of summer.

But I got a three-pound brain, noodling constantly in the roomy comfort of my cranium. I got car keys too — and a beat up old Jeep that starts up when I want it to more often than not.

So I used my noodle and jumped in my Jeep, which actually started — which I took as a sign and portent. Off I trundled to Bear Flat, down a twisty little dirt road just before Kohl’s Ranch and the fish hatchery turnoff. Now, here’s how crafty I got, with my big, old, three-pound brain: Game and Fish stocks the heck out of upper Tonto Creek. Those fish get caught and released all summer long up there. But they only intermittently take their little, sloshy stocking truck down the dirt meanders to Bear Flat. Not many insidious catch-and-releasers make it down there during the summer, much less in the deepening chill of autumn. So them peanut-brained trout splashing about in piscine bliss got no way to get educated as to the wiles of a sly fly fisherman like my own nattily attired self.

Besides, been way too long since I took the drive down Forest Road 405 to Bear Flat, which after about six scenic miles fetches up against a beautiful little campground. Here, you can hop on the Bear Flat Trail that leads on into the 37,000-acre Hellsgate Wilderness. You can hike about five miles to the wilderness boundary and turn around, or plunge on down into Hellsgate — a jagged trail that ranks second only to Fossil Creek when it comes to generating entertainment for the search and rescue folks all summer long.

But I’m not interested in giving the lives of the search and rescue folks meaning and purpose in the off-season. I’m really focused on fooling fish. So I climb out of my Jeep, unleash Lobo, grab my fishing gear and clomp on off down the trail, mouthing my ritual prayer that the Jeep will still start upon my return. I have in mind a whole series of deep pools downstream from Bear Flat, as spring- and flood-fed Tonto Creek gnaws through granite and limestone in its desperation to reach distant Roosevelt Lake.

The upper reaches of Tonto Creek flow reliably with the outpouring of a 1,300-gallon-per-minute series of springs above the fish hatchery. But when it comes to floods, Tonto Creek can rely on water draining off nearly 1,000 square miles beneath the edge of the Mogollon Rim. Rainfall ranges from 38 inches annually at its upper reaches — to more like 14 inches down at Punkin Center.

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I have in mind a whole series of deep pools downstream from Bear Flat, as spring- and flood-fed Tonto Creek gnaws through granite and limestone in its desperation to reach distant Roosevelt Lake.

The flow of this stubborn little creek goes through dramatic gyrations. Back in 1978, stream gauges recorded a record 469,000 acre-feet — enough water to supply all Payson’s needs for about 234 years. But in 1971, the creek carried just 1,245 acre-feet, according to the Arizona Water Atlas — a roughly nine-month supply for Payson.

Mostly, the creek cuts down through bedded layers of limestone deposited on long-vanished sea bottoms — or sandstone layers left behind by long-vanished deserts. As the fitful creek chews through those layers, it sometimes comes across veins of granite — hard and unyielding molten rock that forced its way into fractures in the deep-buried sedimentary rocks. When the creek encounters these veins of hard rock, it creates sluices and waterfalls and pools. Such sculpted water features delight the eye — and the trout.

So I’m working the stream with deft expertise — taking full advantage of my three-pound brain to imagine where all the fish are hiding.

Of course, I’m not catching anything.

So I’ve got lots of time to watch the clouds cavort. Maybe even untutored trout are smarter than I figured. Read recently a study suggesting fish can count up to four. I’m not talk about that study by Dr. Seuss (One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish)… I’m talking about the experiment in the journal Cognition, which showed that fish can quickly count and compare the number of fish in other groups — up to about five. After that, they apparently just figure it’s a bunch of fish. Near as I can tell, the experiment relied on allowing mosquitofish to react to a threat by darting toward groups of fish in tanks on either side. They reliably headed for the larger group of fish. Not sure this accounts for why they’re not biting my cunning nymph, but one must seek one’s comfort where one can.

Downstream, Lobo’s having a fine old time — plunging into the creek, swimming across the pools, giving himself a big old shake on the other side. He’s looking up at me, grinning like an idiot. He’s probably been amusing the fish by telling people jokes, thinking himself so clever with his two-pound brain.

Besides, it’s getting late — which means the light’s getting good. Time to exchange my fishing pole for my camera. With piscines, my record’s mixed, but I’m 100 percent when it comes to capturing photons.

You gotta go with what works.

It don’t take a three-pound brain to figure that one out.

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