Saturday, April 12, 2014

Fishing in the desert - central AZ

With snow still on the ground in Illinois, Ruoxi and I took advantage of an opportunity to travel to Phoenix, AZ for a friend's wedding. We took Thursday and Friday off so we could make it a four day weekend and see the sights around Phoenix and enjoy some desert fishing. Neither of us have fished in the southwest, so this was quite the experience!

On Thursday we headed northeast out of town to the Salt River. The scenery was fantastic, but the water, being much lower than usual this time of year, was barely flowing. Our first stop was the Water Users Rec Site just downstream from the Stewart Mountain Dam. We could see our target fish, Sonora and desert suckers, in the shallow pools off the main river. To our surprise, they were more interested in spawning than eating tasty pieces of nightcrawler carefully placed in front of them. Any time a big female would get comfortable in a spot, a rowdy bunch of males would rush in, surround her, and vibrate until she couldn't take it any more and bolt away.

Lower Salt River - Water Users Recreational Site

With limited time before the sun went down, we kept moving to see if we could find suckers willing to bite. Heading back towards the city, we stopped at the Blue Point Picnic Spot. The water was extremely low, just a few inches in depth. We saw a few dead suckers in the riffle and move on again.

Lower Salt River - Blue Point Picnic Spot

Our final location for the day was a pool recommended to us by our friend Dave, who lives in the area and is experienced at catching desert and Sonora suckers. Despite having nothing more than a trickle feeding the pool, we could see that it was quite deep and full of fish.

Lower Salt River - the sucker pool

Before we put lines in the water, we enjoyed watching the wild horses hanging out on the opposite bank. They kept a close eye on us whenever we made any sudden movements.

Around this time Dave showed up to join us. While he set up two more rods, I took an interest in the Sonora suckers feeding on the rock wall below our feet. I put a piece of nightcrawler in the feeding path of one of the big females, and a few seconds later she moved towards it and my bait disappeared. I set the hook, fought the fish quickly, and with Dave as my net man we brought the fish out of the water for a photo op. Thanks for being my photographer Ruoxi!

Sonora Sucker (Catostomus insignis) - new hook & line species #213

On Friday we stayed in town. Ruoxi had some work to get done, so she took her laptop to a Starbucks and I investigated some of the parks and canals nearby. The canals were full of common carp, and the park ponds were in rough shape due to the lack of rain.

Greenfield Park - Mesa

One of the places I wanted to visit was close by, the Riparian Preserve. It has a fishing pond, and then a series of ponds and surrounding habitats closed to fishing. Apparently there are some native fish in the closed ponds, but I didn't find out what they were.

Riparian Preserve - Gilbert

The fishing pond in the preserve had bluegill, largemouth bass, catfish, grass carp, and tilapia. I'm guessing they're blue tilapia, but there are a couple of species that are nearly identical. I tried a tiny piece of worm on a microhook with no luck. I bought some bread from a convenience store nearby, and tried a small wad of bread wrapped around a microhook, also with no luck. The fish were just too spooky.  I now have a lot of respect for anyone with one of these tilapia species on their lifelist.

Tilapia (Oreochromis sp.)

Since the tilapia were not cooperating, I hiked through part of the preserve. I almost forgot I was in the middle of town. There were a lot of neat desert flowers that attracted butterflies and hummingbirds.

Some of the preserve ponds were barely holding on with small amounts of murky water at their centers, while others were bone dry. I hope there weren't any endangered native fish in Pond 2!

Ruoxi finished her work, and the two of us went to one final spot for the day, a canal with a booming population of grass carp. I've tried to catch grass carp in the Illinois River a few times with no success, so this looked like a promising spot to finally add one to my lifelist.

South Canal - Gilbert

I still had the bread wad / microhook on my line, so I tossed it out in the canal. I had the bait about 2 inches below a bobber so I could see the fish coming up to bite. I thought my first fish was a nice sized grass carp, but when I saw its mouth I realized it was a common carp instead!

Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio)

My next fish was a grass carp, but it broke my line! I put on a slightly larger hook, and soon had another grass carp on. It was quite a bit smaller, but Ruoxi was able to net it and get it to shore. Size doesn't matter when it's a new lifer!

Grass Carp (Ctenopharyngodon idella) - new hook & line species #214

On Saturday we met up with Dave again and drove a few hours north to Fossil Creek, a beautiful clear stream that has been restored to support natives such as roundtail and headwater chubs. Fossil Creek was recently opened to fishing, making it a dream destination for anglers who don't want to catch the stocked bass and bluegill that are everywhere else in the country.

Fossil Creek

We had to check out several access points before we could find fish. We finally found them in a stretch pretty far upstream from the creek's confluence with the Verde River. The water was several feet deep here with a few small boulders providing cover. The chubs took interest in our presentations, but weren't committing. After downsizing to a very small jig they cooperated better, and we were able to catch a few. Based on the upstream location and the habitat, I'm adding headwater chub to my lifelist. Experts cannot visually tell roundtail and headwater chubs apart in Fossil Creek, but there is a consensus that the two species prefer different habitats and that once you go far enough upstream, all of the fish will be headwaters.

Headwater Chub (Gila nigra) - new hook & line species #215

I was pleased to find some recently hatched fry hanging out in shallow water sheltered from the main flow of the creek. You can see the shadow of one of the larger fry in the lower left of the picture below, but there were also hundreds of tinier fry that were too small to pick up with the camera.

With headwater chub out of the way, we headed downstream to a deep pool that Dave suggested we investigate. We could see dozens of larger chubs schooling in the pool. They were much easier to fish for than the ones at the upstream spot. Because of their preference to hang out in the middle of the pool and their generally larger size, I'm calling them roundtail chubs.  Many of them had spawning tubercles and bright orange coloration around their head and fins.

Roundtail Chub (Gila robusta) - new hook & line species #216

It felt good to successfully catch the two species of chub in the creek.  We put away the fishing gear and spent our remaining time enjoying the scenery.

Before we left, Ruoxi talked me into jumping into the pool, and I'm really glad that she did.  The water was cold, but on a warm sunny day it felt pretty good!  I took my waterproof camera with me.  Without goggles or a mask I couldn't see anything clearly, but I swam around snapping pictures anyway.  Most of the pictures were terrible as expected, but a few turned out pretty well!  I'll finish the post with some underwater shots of the roundtail / headwater chubs of Fossil Creek.  I hope people get to experience these native fish for years to come.