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Rainbows in the Desert
Fishing for Snowbirds

Harbor Angler Report, February 18, 2018 Photo

This is what passes for a rainbow trout in Tucson, Arizona (See pic at right). To remind yourself of what a rainbow trout can and should look like, scroll down to the picture of me holding a nice ‘bow I caught in the summer off Baileys Harbor. Hard to believe they are the same species, ain’t it? (Oncorhynchus mykis, if you were wondering.) Of course comparatively, these two fish have had much different lifestyles.

As much as I love to live and fish in Door County generally and Baileys Harbor particularly, there comes a time in the dead of winter (like now) when you just gotta get away. You've watched every movie you ever wanted to, your Vitamin D levels have gotten dangerously low, and the snow just doesn’t seem as pretty as it did during that first snowfall in December. (Or was it November?) For each of the last several years before I go mad and start typing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” repeatedly a billion times on my word processor, my wife and I fly to Tucson to visit her sister and husband who generously tolerate me for the pleasure of spending some time with Pam. Not a fair trade, true. We usually stay only a week, just long enough to regain most of our sanity and to get a little color in our pallid skin.

So once a year I find myself in the southwest desert surrounded by cacti, a parched landscape and air so dry my eyeballs almost crystalize. In fact, southern Arizona is currently experiencing one of its hottest and driest winters ever. Last month was a record breaker and February is on track to set the record as well. So what does a guy with a serious angling addiction do when he finds himself in one of the least watery parts of the country? Go fishing of course! But where? There are natural lakes and reservoirs in southern Arizonian, notably Patagonia Lake south of Tucson and Lake Roosevelt, northeast of Phoenix. However, there are several more convenient, if not as “natural”, angling opportunities for fishing snowbirds. The Arizona Game and Fish Department has provided a number of “put and take” lakes mostly near population centers, through a program called the Community Fishing Program (formerly the Urban Fishing Program). This is a system of over thirty lakes, primarily around the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas, into which catchable rainbow trout, largemouth bass and catfish are regularly deposited. These are hatchery-raised fish and are pretty dumb in the ways of surviving on their own. The locals often get wind of when the AG&F truck is going to make a delivery and they get some easy fishing. Not exactly "fish in a barrel" but close. This is not a pristine fishing experience but for a guy from Wisconsin anytime you can catch fish in February wearing shorts and a t-shirt and not having to drill a hole, it's a treat.

This past trip I fished two of these Community Lakes. One is Sahuarita Lake in the community of Sahuarita south of Tucson. Now, this is not precisely a wilderness lake. In fact, you would be hard pressed to call it a lake at all. It is more what Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies would call a "See-ment pond." It is situated in the middle of a residential complex of condos and apartments. What the lake's setting lacks in natural beauty it makes up for with amenities such as pond-side benches, trash containers and, most importantly, toilet facilities. You do have to take care not to back cast into the walkers and joggers on the encircling sidewalk and the incessant barking of the neighborhood dogs does get annoying, but these are minor barriers to overcome for the opportunity to catch fish. As far as tackle, I used my light spinning outfit to cast Mepps spinners and Countdown Rapalas, eschewing the local bait of choice, kernel corn. Some anglers also used Gulp bait and worms and there were a few fly fishing anglers offering up various hairy and feathered faux invertebrates. In three forays to Sahuarita Lake I managed to "curb" several nice bass and a couple of rainbow trout that provided us with a tasty shore lunch. (Well, actually we prepared them back at the house over an electric stove, but whatever.)

The other, and less urbanized setting, was Kennedy Lake west of Tucson. Kennedy Lake is a pond dug into the surrounding desert with a backdrop of mountain scenery. It has a boat launch on one end while the shore is mostly rip-rap, weeds and a beach. Oh, and it also has restroom facilities. The water glows with an eerie blue-green tint when the sun penetrates it and the shore is littered with the detritus of many, many past fishing and picnic outings. I walked the perimeter of the lake, sending my #7 Gold Countdown Rapala arching into the sky and falling to the waters of the lake. I was rewarded with a nice bass (which I lost) and a trout that I beached. I decided to give my catch to one of the local anglers. I saw no point in "catch-and -release" as the life expectancy of these non-naturally raised fish is very short and it was only a matter for time before they would succumb to a proffered kernel of corn or the rising pond temperature as summer approached. There are, in fact, numerous people who fish these lakes. Many are obviously "regulars" with elaborate carts and set-ups designed for fishing in the semi-urban setting of the community lakes. It was very similar to the mobile fishing carts deployed by pier and beach angers on the ocean. Some of these carts were simple wagons while others are quite tricked out with rod holders, bait containers and coolers. The owners took no small amount of pride in their gear. I was a bit envious with my small camo tackle bag and plastic water bottle.

So there you have it. You now have some idea of the sorry lengths I will go to get my fix. Fishing addiction is not pretty. If you suffer for the same affliction and find yourself in southern Arizona, you now know of a way to release the pain of not fishing. Sure, I would much rather be casting for brown trout off Anclam Park, or jigging for smallies under the gaze of Death's Door Bluff, or battling a streaking salmon in the crystal waters of Lake Michigan with a red blazing sunset as a back drop, but as they say, "When in Rome....." or in this case Tucson.

Tight Lines, Bruce Smith