Slam in the Southwest
When people think of cities with great urban fishing opportunities, Phoenix, Arizona is probably not high on the list.
After all, it's absolutely huge, bursting with people, in the desert, and is ridiculously hot in the summer. I always knew there were some large lakes outside of town where you could launch a boat and target fish like bass and stripers, but in the urban zones I never thought much was going on. Then I visited back in 2013 and it opened my eyes.
I was heading to the ICAST show in Las Vegas that summer, but rather than flying into Vegas directly, I decided to book my round trip ticket to Phoenix. The plan was to visit a friend in town, then drive to the show while doing some sightseeing on the road trip up and back. All I packed for the trip were my clothing and necessities, along with a laptop and notepad. Fly tackle? Hah! "It's Phoenix in July....I don't need one!"
Shortly after landing, I picked up my Fiat 500 rental car (which all 6-foot 3-inches of me fit into surprisingly well) and hopped on the freeway to fight my way through the 5'o clock gauntlet to my friend's house. The home just happened to have a pond behind the backyard and was situated in a neighborhood full of similar ponds—which I already knew prior—but what could possibly be in them? Maybe some catfish and ducks? Well, yes and yes, but there was much more. This was one of those times I wish I would've spent more time on Google beforehand.
After parking and greeting my friend, I of course went to check out the local waters. Besides geese and yes, catfish and ducks, what I saw in all of the ponds were tilapia, huge grass carp, koi, common carp, panfish, and largemouth. Being shallow, relatively clear, and full of fish, the ponds were totally perfect for fly fishing. Not glamour species to be sure, but I was wanting a piece of that action! If only my 5-weight wasn't 2,000 miles away! I certainly wasn't going to buy a combo for the limited time I'd be in Phoenix, so I just stuck to sightseeing and work—but vowed to return in the near future, ready to fish.
When I returned home to Florida, I did some intense research on urban fishing around the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. This really intrigued me.
I found out it's a fishery that is indeed enjoyed by many local fly anglers, but I had somehow been mostly oblivious to it. I love fishing in beautiful, pristine areas as much as the next guy, but discovering fishy urban spots also really piques my curiosity. I had to go back and explore asap.
In summer 2015, I made the trip back to Phoenix, but this time came prepared to fish. I knew exactly what I wanted—a carp "slam." This would consist of catching a koi, common, and grass carp all in the same day. When most fly anglers say they want to catch a slam, they are usually talking about catching the "big 3"—bonefish, permit, and tarpon—in the same day. Also commonly referred to as a "grand slam," the achievement is certainly brag-worthy and is the result of some serious angling skill. While I have yet to really focus on attempting a grand slam, I knew the lowly urban carp slam was easily within reach!
Since my prior trip, my friend had moved to the heart of Scottsdale—no more backyard pond! However, that was no issue since I wanted to explore waters in this area, too. So, the first day I initially started scoping out random ponds I had found on Google Maps. What I instantly discovered was that the ponds were super tough. In a few hours of effort I lost a nice largemouth bass, had a good shot on a tailing common carp, casted to uninterested grass carp, and came across a lot of tilapia that seemed to spook if I blinked. Not good.
Clear, still, hot, shallow water under intense, bright sunlight is not the best recipe for a fish extravaganza. It was more of a recipe for total skunkage. It just wasn't happening, so I knew I'd have to regroup. I abandoned the ponds and went to a canal access point that also looked good on Google Earth. Phoenix canals were supposed to be full of grass carp, so I had to see for myself.
This canal in Phoenix wasn't like the typical freshwater canal here in Florida that has more natural-looking banks lined with rocks and plants. No, this one was lined with steep concrete walls and was basically as urban as it gets. What it lacked in beauty, it made up for in current and depth—two things I knew would help me in these tough conditions.
While I didn't see any fish at the starting point, I slowly made my way towards a bend in the canal. Before I even got to the bend. I could see the unmistakable signs of over a dozen grass carp holding right on the surface on the far bank as they munched plant matter, bugs, or whatever else they feed on. I had intel that suggested they loved to eat green foam hoppers and I could see why....they were all literally right on the surface and feeding!
The fish were holding far out and I was without a tropical fly line, so the 100+ degree heat was really doing a number on my casting. It would take several false casts (and curse words) to deliver the fly to the fish, but once it was in there and drifting naturally the bites came easy. I was able to nab about three grass carp on the dry fly including one of SERIOUS size before they got wise to me and disappeared. I know grass carp would be the toughest part of the slam, but I now had a legit spot to easily catch one. I decided this was where I'd start my attempt at the almighty carp slam the following day.
The next day arrived, and it was gonna be a hot one. Well, everyday there in summer is a hot one, but this one especially. It gets toasty in Phoenix, and this day was forecast to have a high of 114. Deadly heat to be sure, but with good preparation I can deal with it. Sun-protective clothing and plenty of water are not optional here.
No mystery here, I started off the morning at the canal curve where I had found that boatload of grass carp the day before. Luckily, they were still there and looked very active. Casting was a little easier since it was only about 10am and my line was fresh out of the air-conditioned car, so it hadn't gummed up too bad yet. I was able to punch my foam hopper out to the far wall where the carp were ganged up, and the fly only drifted a few feet before it was slurped under.
I've caught a few grass carp since this day (including some whoppers) and the fight is never really spectacular. In the warm-as-bathwater canals, each fish felt kind of like I had hooked into a huge clump of weeds that was just kind of wallowing around in an eddy.
At any rate, after a few initial head shakes, this particular grassie put up a lazy fight until I was able to bring it to hand. While I mentioned how the canals are mostly lined in steep concrete, I had chosen this spot because it had a little ramp I could get down to the water's edge and land the fish. Without a net or an access spot like this, I would've been screwed. There's no way I'm scaling down a steep concrete embankment and risking a fall into that water. Not happening!
After that single fish was landed and released, it was off to the next spots in search of common and koi carp. I figured all of the ponds in my friend's old neighborhood would be best since there were so many to choose from and so many fish, so I made the half hour drive out there. There was also a hint of wind starting up which is always helpful.
At the ponds, fishing was initially brutal. Lots of spooky fish, lots of uninterested fish, and lots of heat. I'm not sure which was worse. Although there were no anglers to be seen on this day, I imagine those ponds are hit hard and the fishing likely suffers accordingly. The first three ponds I fished all yielded the same result: zippo.
I moved to a larger pond with a little more depth and finally located a pod of small common carp that appeared to be rummaging on the bottom. Using a weighted black woolly bugger, it took me a couple casts to perfectly drop the fly right in the face of one of them, but when that bugger hit bottom Mr. Carp immediately nosed down and ate....hookup! That little golden nugget offered a spirited tussle for its size, but it wasn't long before I slipped my hand under the carp's belly for a safe and secure landing. Species #2 was now checked off, but a koi remained.
As a kid, I've fed plenty of koi cheerios and bread in park ponds, but never fished for them. Not wanting to try chumming them with human food in this situation, I did read that some folks reported success targeting them using nymphs. I had a few stocked in my box, but the carpiest-looking nymph in there was a scraggly olive one tied on a slightly larger hook than the rest. I figured what the heck and tied that thing on.
The koi in these ponds didn't seem very numerous so it took a lot of walking to find them. I saw a few here and there cruising out in deeper water, but each acted like my fly was invisible and just passed it on by. Not even a look or a sniff. Do these ones actually feed? I thought koi were always hungry!? I simply couldn't find a fish that didn't act like it was late for something.
As the afternoon wore on, the heat admittedly was getting to me a bit and my drinking water was nearing empty. I decided I'd rather fail my carp slam than collapse on the shoreline of a suburban pond, so I began slowly working my way back to the car.
I had parked at the corner of a pond where a small moss-covered launch ramp extended out into the water. It was there that I spotted what I was looking for, literally feet from my car. A good-sized koi was slowly cruising towards me along the top of the ramp, shimmying left and right to pluck morsels off the bottom. I had to be quick because I wanted to present the fly before the fish possibly swam off the concrete and got into deeper water.
Wasting no time, I crouched down, stripped off line, and put down a quick 20-foot cast. The little nymph sank slowly and came to rest several feet in front of the carp's path. As the fish slowly crept up on where the nymph rested, I started barely ticking the fly along the bottom. The koi made a distinct movement to the left, sucked the fly in, and I set the hook. Got him!
I was blown away by how this fish acted after the hook was set. Unlike the other two fish that day, it immediately bolted off like a bonefish in a clown suit, clearing my line and pulling off additional yardage at a rapid pace. For what it was, the entire fight was very admirable to say the least. That fish tried its best to foul me in weeds and shake that little nymph hook, but ultimately I was victorious and held my colorful prize. The slam was done!
Ok, not the most insane angling accomplishment to be sure, but I don't think there are a ton of places where all three species can be easily encountered in the same day. It's really surprising what can be available in and near major city centers with a little research and prospecting. Arizona proved to be an interesting experience and I WILL be back at some point....but maybe not in mid-summer.....