The 18th week on the road for Fish America brought me through Utah on my way to fish Arizona. This photo was taken on the road from Moab, Utah.
The jutting red rock formations look like they might puncture the slate gray sky, and for a kid that grew up kicking around the Northeast, first Upstate New York, then New Jersey and then Cape Cod, places like Utah and New Mexico are almost surreal. The size and scope of the country is something unfathomable to someone who spends two decades on the East Coast. It feels as if you’re driving through a postcard that’s alive.
If you find yourself in Utah, Arches National Park in Moab is a must-stop. It’s one long winding loop of incredible scenery, with various trails and hiking paths throughout.
And of course, you can’t cross the country without stopping at perhaps the world’s most famous hole in the ground. Heading south across the Utah/Arizona border, I stopped at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The drive to the National Park in the fall is surprisingly scenic, with foliage of every hue along the way.
There are, of course, no words to describe the Canyon itself. It’s something you’ve just got to see.
After the sun goes down, light hangs in the air and shadows play on the Canyon walls and it’s impossible to pull yourself away before complete darkness. Snowcapped mountains on the horizon transform into purple shadows then silhouettes as the last light leaves the sky.
After pulling myself away from the North Rim of the Canyon, it was onto Flagstaff, Arizona. Why? Because it was there.
Built around historic Route 66, Flagstaff is one of the coolest towns I’ve had the privilege to visit on my trek across the country.
Seemingly built for outdoorsmen, every corner has a hiking, biking or climbing shop.
You couldn’t walk a block without running into another store selling sleeping bags, tents, backpacks and field guides.
Of course, it didn’t take me long to find Flagstaff’s fly shop. Babbitt’s is one of those cool, small-town fly shops that have a character all their own.
At Babbitt’s I ran into Corey Slater, a Seattle-born NAU grad who was working the counter. We got to talking about fly-fishing everywhere from Hawaii to India. Both former Division I quarterbacks that loved fishing, we had a lot to talk about. Alright, maybe Corey’s role as quaterback at NAU surpassed my athletic career that ended as a shooting guard on a Syracuse University intramural basketball team, but I still talked him into showing me some of Flagstaff’s water later that week on his day off.
Corey’s two-year-old bernese mountain dog, Bear, sits on the shop’s stoop, never straying far, and lures in potential customers.
Before investigating Flagstaff fishing, I headed up to the South Rim of the Canyon. I was told it was night-and-day different from the North Rim, and it is. With gift shops, souvenir stores, and busloads of tourists, the South Rim is much more crowded than is the North Rim, even in the fall.
The view is not diluted from the number of eyes that are falling on it though, it’s every bit as breathtaking. The Colorado River is viewable from vantage points along the South Rim.
Standing at the edge of the Canyon gives you a sense of your relative size in the grand scheme of things. The crowds and clatter and hum of traffic fade away at the Canyon’s edge, and you get the same sense that so many thousands of people must have when they first stared down these steep rock walls.
The dusk seems to hang longer in the air in the desert than it did back east. A faint orange glow falls on everything and hangs like a moment of light suspended in time. It feels as if you’re looking at the evening on the horizon, from underneath the night. The heat leaves in a hurry. It feels as if someone turned the furnace off, and the warmth from the land pours out the diamond holes of light that are punching themselves in the ink-blue sky.
The difference in the land is amazing and unsettling. You realize how far you’ve come, and how far you’ve yet to go. When you move away from each place a day at a time, the total sum distance you’ve traveled only occurs to you at moments like this, when the light hits your jeep right and lends perspective.
There isn’t much stopping in the Arizona desert. There are just lit-up cars, pouring like liquid light along the highways, to and from places unknown.
The next day would bring Corey and I to Lake Mary, one of the Flagstaff area’s more popular angling destinations.
Our initial target was pike on the fly. We hoped the cooling fall weather would have these predators on the feed. Upper Lake Mary is known to hold its share of water wolves. We’d be throwing big bugs like this one, and leach patterns, in an attempt to pick a fight with a pike. We whipped the water to a froth on Lake Mary without a follow, so we headed to nearby Ashurst Lake, also known to produce some big pike.
Corey was heaving his big bug from a rock perch, while Bear scouted the surrounding water for fishy activity. Ashurst is a shallow and rocky lake with plenty of vegetation and would seemingly be a pike-like piece of water.
But Ashurst, like Upper Lake Mary, failed to produce any promising signs of pike despite repeated efforts. So, like any die-hard pike fishermen would, we went to plan B, re-rigging for rainbow trout. We switched out six-weights for four-weights, and tied on some nymphs.
Lower Lake Mary, pictured here, was at a lower water level and had more plant life. The shallower of the two portions of the lake, unlike Upper Lake Mary, has no pike and therefore sustains a healthy population of stocked rainbow trout that might otherwise be quickly consumed in the Upper Lake.
Throwing pheasant-tail nymphs with a super-slow retrieve was the tactic on Lower Lake Mary. Corey has fly-fished everywhere from Hawaii to Arizona and graciously contributed a significant chunk of knowledge to my ever expanding but still limited wisdom of long wand waving. He also took the time to help improve my slowly progressing casting form.
And it paid off. The lower portion of the lake had good numbers of willing and ready rainbows ready to attack a nymph.
These fish were active and feeding in the cooling, shallow water, and were concentrated in a hole not far from shore.
A painstakingly slow strip and soft hookset turned out to be the key with the nymphs.
The brightly colored and spirited fish were a good reminder that while running offshore out of Cape Hatteras is thrilling, and stalking bonefish on an Islamorada flat can stop your heart, there are few experiences as purely enjoyable and rewarding as catching a handful of trout on the fly on a beautiful October day. There was nothing name-brand, high-tech, intense or dangerous about Tuesday afternoon in Flagstaff on Lower Lake Mary: Just a couple fly rods, a box of nymphs a soft October sun and some hungry trout. And I couldn’t think of anything that was missing.
We released the rainbows. Corey explained that some hold over, and in the spring you’ll find trout to 20 inches in some of the Lake’s deeper holes.
Flagstaff isn’t known for it’s fly-fishing, but that also means that on a day like we had, you’ll often be the only ones on the Lake. And when you’re catching trout on every other cast, it’s hard to complain.
All totaled we caught and released at least a dozen rainbows between 10 and 14 inches on four-weight fly rods. Not bad for a busted day of pike hunting.
If You Go…
Babbitt’s Flyfishing Specialists
15 East Aspen Avenue
Flagstaff, Arizona