Trip Report: On the Hunt for Browns in the Whites

Trip Report: On the Hunt for Browns in the Whites

This past Sunday, I got the kind of last-minute invite that only a fishing addict could consider a god-send and not some sort of would-you-rather nightmare scenario. The offer? an extra queen mattress in a cheap motel hours away from home. The weather? Cold. The timeline? So last-minute you needed to be packed yesterday. The goal? Catching a monster brown trout on the fly. The allure of a hastily planned road trip that involves large fish and lots of driving is nearly impossible for me to pass up. And so without much thought, I packed an overnight bag and my fishing kit and hit the road towards Arizona’s White Mountains, once again on the hunt for a large fall brown trout.

I rolled into Pinetop after dark with a bag of Taco Bell and a backpack full of gear. After a bit of Monday Night Football, we passed out in preparation for an early wakeup.

When it comes to trout, I don’t fish much still water. I find the dynamics of moving water to be a bit more exciting to fish and tend to steer clear of the lakes, which are often more popular. Plus, I don’t have a boat and just don’t get that psyched about shore casting on big bodies of water. Admittedly, I probably also skip still water fisheries partially because they are a bit more of a mystery to me than rivers and creeks.

Despite their potential drawbacks, lakes have a clear leg up in one department, especially in Arizona: they hold some large fish. While you can certainly find some serious fish in Arizona’s smaller creeks, they typically have an upper limit on growth. Monster trout just aren’t that easy to come by in small water. White Mountains lakes, on the other hand, grow some trophy specimens. Hidden by deep water that remains cold year-round, these resident browns feast on an endless supply of rainbow stockers. By November, they’re large, full of color, and ready to smack a fly. Fish that push the tape past 30 inches are on the prowl. Or so we hoped.

Our plan was simple enough: fish this alpine lake from dawn until it was too dark to see. Compared to others, this outing came with a twist: I was able to fish from a float tube. Inflatable and shaped like a horseshoe, float tubes have a seat back that allows you to cast from a seated position. You wear your full waders and boots, and pull a pair of fins over your boots to paddle around.

At over 9,000 feet in elevation, we felt the full sting of a cold morning in November as we rigged up. Eager to see what the float tube game was all about, I splashed into the water and took a seat on my vessel for the day. We planned to head to over to the lake intake and fish the surrounding shoreline. As I kicked my way over, I quickly realized a truth about float tubes: they may be a stealthy way to fish off shore, but they aren’t designed to cover long distances. After an hour of flailing my fins and struggling to move, I had finally made it to our fishing spot, probably over a mile away.

I brought two rods, one rigged for nymphing under a bobber and another set up to throw streamers. I had a few hits on the streamer while trolling on my morning paddle but didn’t hook up with any fish. Once in position on the far end of the lake, I switched to a leech and wet fly rig under an indicator. Fishing was slow during the early part of the morning as I tried to stay in place and out of the wind.

By mid-morning, we transitioned to a shallow back bay. My buddy Kris anchored his pontoon float and let me tie off on his anchor line. We started getting eats, fast. Ravenous rainbows inhaled our flies as we netted fish after fish. On a few occasions, we doubled up at the same time. Except for a lone brookie, every rainbow we caught was slotted into that 10-12” range so common in stocked fish. For the next several hours, we sat there, through a midge hatch and a sporadic wind, and continued to smash small rainbow trout.

Despite catching probably close to 30 trout between the two of us, we had yet to net or even see a single brown. As the sun dipped below the trees, I switched to throwing streamers and we paddled out to a drop off just below the lake inlet. In the evening calm, with plenty of rising fish, I had two solid hits, but neither connected with the fish. Eventually, I did land one fish on the streamer, but it was another (albeit, slightly bigger) rainbow. Eventually, dusk arrived and it was time to head to the car. I quickly realized that kicking my way back on the float tube would likely take forever and leave me stranded in pitch-black darkness in freezing weather. Instead, I gathered my gear on shore and used the one remaining backpack strap on the tube to hoist it overhead and carry back.

After the sun went down, the cold quickly descended on the lake as we packed up gear and debriefed. A bit befuddled about the complete lack of brown trout throughout the day, we nevertheless had a solid day of fishing. I loaded up my car to the sound yips and howls. Coyotes, perhaps. Or the resident Mexican gray wolves that prowl the Whites. 20 miles down a dirt road and I was back on the highway, facing a late night drive back to Phoenix.

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