Fly-Fishing in the Desert

The Arc of the (Desert) Line

By Joe Zentner

For a long time, fly-fishing intimidated me—the grace, the beauty, the expertise (I thought) it must take to master the sport! Purists flock to fly-fishing – it’s fishing in the most natural approach – no worms, minnows, bobbers or spinning lures. The objective, simply stated, is to mimic insects gliding by and hatching on or just below the surface of the water, tricking fish into devouring your artificial offering.

When I tried fly-fishing for the first time in 1959, on the Guadalupe River in Texas, the experience changed my preconceived notions. After an hour or so on the river with an expert guide (my father), I was fly-fishing adequately, if not entirely proficiently. It was indeed graceful and beautiful, but a person didn’t have to be a superb caster to catch a fish big enough to fit nicely in a skillet.

Fly Fishing in the Desert

Many an angler, reveling in the beauty and stillness of the great outdoors, has let out a sigh and whispered something akin to English writer and iron merchant Izaak Walton’s classic dictum: “I have laid aside business and gone a-fishing” (The Compleat Angler, 1653). Something about fly-fishing attracts some of the most high-profile people, for example, securities broker Charles Schwab, style maven Martha Stewart, Ford executive Bill Ford, banking tycoon Hugh McColl, and retired media mogul Ted Turner.

Several factors have influenced fly-fishing’s popularity, including the fact that more people are reaching the age of 50, when they (may) have more disposable income and can afford to pursue relaxing activities. The allure of facing nature with a fishing “wand” and the enjoyment of mastering an art form have combined to convert many people to fly-fishing. Participation is at record levels, and sales of fly fishing tackle increase every year.

What Is Fly-Fishing?

Undeniably fly-fishing has a certain cachet. From the Norman Maclean book-turned-film A River Runs Through It, to the Howell Raines memoir Fly-Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis, to the provocatively titled Sex, Death and Fly-Fishing by John Gierach, the sport of fly-fishing is awash in metaphors. It’s also about wading through water and trying to fool a fish into believing your man-made lure is really a tasty bug.

To a beginner, fly-casting may look complicated.

Fly-fishing ties in well with the environmental movement. It requires an appreciation of weather and water conditions, as well as an understanding of what’s hatching, what’s running, and what fish are biting on a given day. In fly-fishing, you try to match as closely as humanly possible what fish are eating. The sport’s long-held practice of catching, then releasing fish, is considered good sportsmanship and is certainly, particularly from a fish’s point of view, fish-friendly.




Fly-fishing is the oldest form of sport fishing. Historians note that the technique – or a version thereof – was “invented” when primeval man first caught a fish by tying feathers to a sharpened curved bird’s beak and then tossing the “lure” into the water, fastened to the end of a stout vine.

By the time Dame Juliana Berners wrote The Treatyse of Fisshynge with an Angle in the Boke of St. Albans, around 1496, artificial flies were already being hand-tied in fine detail. Izaak Walton further refined and romanticized the fishing technique. It is significant that Walton, one of the literary founders of fly-fishing, was not an aristocrat. Still, the sport’s image has long been linked to social stature and wealth.

Europeans, in particular the English and the Scots, brought Walton’s fly-fishing sophistication to America. Great fishing rod builders, such as Hiram Leonard of Bangor, Maine, catered to the gentry by building custom-built rods and charging considerable sums for them. This expensive equipment did help to establish the image of fly-fishers as being a cut above, at least financially, while anglers of more modest means tended to view this breed of humans as pompous snobs.

It is amazing how many different kinds of fish one can catch in the desert on an artificial fly. They include trout, northern pike, walleye, and even carp. Angling for bluegills, crappies, and every manner of panfish ranks high on many fishermen’s “fun-to-do” list. Largemouth and smallmouth bass rank high on the desert fly fisherman’s list of favorites.

Fly rods have definite advantages. Take bass fishing as an example. A lightweight floating bait may look more like “real” bass food than a hard plastic lure. Think about it: what looks more like an insect hitting the water? A 1/4-ounce crankbait smacking the water with a big “kerplunk,” or a nearly weightless cork-bodied bug that lands softly as though it drifted down from a tree, leaving only a tiny ripple? After using spinning gear for years, my first season using a fly rod convinced me that bass couldn’t resist the instinct to strike feather-light bugs.

Fly-casting on Texas' Colorado River


The term “fly-fishing” refers to fishing with feathers, silk and hair in different shapes and sizes wound around hooks, or lures designed to imitate mayflies, worms, insects, fish roe, minnows, grasshoppers, frogs, beetles and even mice. Just about anything a fish eats can be imitated with a fly. At least 20,000 artificial fly patterns exist, each tied differently and each having its own (often-fanciful) name. The two basic types of artificial flies are “dry,” which float on the surface of water, and “wet,” which are maneuvered beneath the surface. Flies weigh less than 1/64 of an ounce.

Fly rods are classified by the weight of the line they can cast accurately. The key difference between a fly rod and a spinning rod is that the former uses the weight of the line to throw the lure, while a spinning rod uses a weighted lure to pull the line.

If you’re new to fly-fishing, start with the line and buy the best you can find. Line weight ranges from numbers 1 to 14; smaller-weight lines are used for smaller fish. High-tech lines slip easily through the guides on your rod. The line is a key ingredient in successful fly-casting.

When it comes to reel size, most experienced fly anglers agree on a simple premise: the bigger and stronger the fish, the bigger the reel should be. The reason for this boils down to line capacity. All fly reels serve as a place to store line, but because fly lines are only 80 to 90 feet in length and all fish run once hooked, any reel must also store sufficient “backing,” which is the extra line attached directly to a reel behind the fly line.

However, because most freshwater fish make only short runs, considerable backing is not required. Freshwater reels loaded with 50 to 80 yards of braided Dacron are the norm. In many cases, even that is not used. And because fly lines used in most freshwater situations are also smaller in diameter than those used for anadromous (species, for instance, salmon, that live in salt water and spawn in freshwater streams) and saltwater fish and, therefore, take up less space on the reel, the backing serves more as a filler, basically just taking up space on the spool.


Fly-fishing is the easiest angling technique to learn and one of the most productive, particularly for youngsters. As Arizona fly-fishing guide Henry Pitchford has pointed out: “Give a kid a rod, a fly and a couple of casting lessons, and he’ll be catching fish within the hour.”

The first thing one needs to learn is how to cast. It’s just like spin casting, only the opposite. Which is to say, if you’ve ever used a spinning or bait-casting rod, you know that you cast a lure out and the weight of the lure pulls the line behind it. In fly-fishing, by contrast, what you’re casting is the considerably lighter weight of the fly line, at the end of which, attached by an almost invisible length of monofilament line called the leader, is your artificial fly.

To succeed at fly-fishing, an angler must understand the environment of a river, lake or stream, know what kind of insects are providing food for fish at a particular time of day, and sneak up, quietly, on the finned prey.

What creatures are fish consuming? To find out, take a foot of household screen and nail both ends to pieces of a sawed-off broom handle so that it rolls up easily and can be stored in your fishing vest. Unfold the screen. Hold it perpendicular to the current. Turn over some rocks just upstream. See what kinds of bugs from around the rocks get caught on the screen. That’s what fish more than likely are eating that day. Now look inside your tackle box for something that resembles what’s on the screen and use it as a lure.

Fish are lazy creatures at heart. All they want in life is a resting-place from which to watch – and occasionally sample – the never-ending cafeteria line of food sweeping by in the current. Often this means an “edge,” a place where fast water meets slow, where shallow water meets deep, where shaded water meets sunny, where a log or a weed bed or a rock sticks out of the water. You can fish these places from shore, from a boat, or you can wade in, but always look for an edge.

You may find it helpful to take a class from a qualified instructor before you start fly-casting. To find a class, talk to your local fly-fishing shop about its offerings, or check out your community recreation center or senior center.

Where to Fly-Fish

In Texas, the Colorado River rises in Dawson County on the Texas-New Mexico border and flows through the Texas Hill Country before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico at Matagorda Bay. Anglers can fish the Colorado for both largemouth and smallmouth bass from riverbanks.

The Blanco River flows for 60 miles through the Hill Country southwest of Austin. Near the town of Wimberley, it is highly regarded for both smallmouth bass and rainbow trout fishing.

The Guadalupe River flows for 250 miles through central Texas. In the Canyon Lake Trailrace section, near the town of New Braunfels, it is well known for superb rainbow trout fishing.

In New Mexico, the San Juan River, in the northwestern part of the state, is well known among expert fly casters, who eagerly go after rainbow trout and smallmouth bass. Elephant Butte Reservoir, near the town of Truth or Consequences, has long been favored for striped bass.

Lees Ferry offers the best rainbow trout fishing in Arizona.

Hotspots for fly-fishing in Arizona include the Salt and Verde Rivers in the Phoenix area. They are stocked with rainbow trout in the winter months, so try to fish through April, before it gets too hot, using just about any fly, wet or dry. Lees Ferry, on the desert Southwest’s Colorado River below Glen Canyon Dam, offers the best rainbow trout fishing in Arizona. Get specific fly-fishing advice at Lees Ferry Anglers.

Knowing something about the underwater structure in a desert lake can be critical to fishing success. The towering cliffs that border much of Lake Havasu’s shoreline, on the Arizona/Nevada border, have many submerged ledges, flats and other indentations where fish feed. The fly angler who locates underwater structure will usually come away with a keeper.

In southern California, try fly-fishing the lower Colorado River for largemouth bass, Irvine Lake for striped bass, and the San Gabriel River for trout.

The Beauty of the Sport

Fly-fishing by an expert is beautiful to behold, a thing of art. It is also an easy way to catch fish. Some people would have you believe that learning to fly-fish requires the muscle control of a trapeze artist, the patience of Job, and the pocketbook of someone with the last name of Gates or Buffett. Anglers have a technical term for this kind of statement. They call it “nonsense.”

Sure, you can spend huge sums of money on fishing gear. Yes, you more than likely will have your line fall like a tangled bird’s nest at your feet a few times before you catch on to the rhythm of casting. But keep in mind what Izaak Walton, writing 353 years ago, observed: “Angling may be said to be like Mathematics, that it can ne’er be fully learnt.”

Part art form and part sport, fly-fishing is experiencing a resurgence. In streams, rivers and lakes across the desert Southwest, as well as elsewhere, fly-fishers in record numbers are seeking fish. “The participation rate in the sport has doubled over the past five years,” notes Martin Doyle, an executive with the North American Fly Tackle Trade Association, “with women making up more than a quarter of the market.”

The single most important thing to be said in favor of fly-fishing is that it gets you out of the house. Fish have the good sense to live in some of nature’s most gorgeous settings, places you might never visit if you weren’t there with a rod in your hand. In addition, there’s the simultaneous calming and stimulating aspect to the endeavor. This concept is difficult to express in words. But when it all comes together – the rhythm of your casting, the energy of moving water, the way your mind is focused yet relaxed as fly line with a tiny lure at the end becomes an extension of your will – it is magical. And it does help keep one’s mind off never-ending war in the Middle East, a root canal, hurricanes and a tax audit.

As New Mexico fishing guide Raymond Blanco has observed: “When you fly-fish, you are living for the moment—and that doesn’t happen often enough in people’s lives. When people fly-fish, they seem to forget everything. And people should do that more often.”

Some days the big ones like the look of the flies you’re presenting; other days they avoid them like the plague. But, regardless of whether or not you manage to get a fighter on the line, the desert scenery is guaranteed to send you home with a smile on your lips. And whether you eat your catch or throw it back, fly-fishing is always fun.

Dedicated fly fishers should have some understanding of what attracts fish. Mayflies are found in many aquatic habitats. They are a highly important food source for a variety of fish. Stoneflies cling to stones in riffle areas of clear, cold moving water. They are an important food source for fish, birds, bats, frogs and toads. Different species of caddisflies live in different habitats and can be found in streams, ponds, lakes and pools. They are second only to mayflies as an important food source for trout.


Explore the Colorado River - Index
Lake Havasu
Truth or Consequences
Phoenix, AZ


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