This article covers the great fishing around Payson, including in the northern parts of Gila County as well as along the Mogollon Rim in the southern part of Coconino County and southwestern Navajo County.
Payson is the largest city in Gila County and also the nearest population center to some of the best fishing spots just across those other county lines.
Other communities in Gila County include Pine and others near Payson, as well as Globe, San Carlos, Central Heights-Midland City, Star Valley, and others farther south.
Besides fishing, other outdoor attractions include lots of great hiking, kayaking, mountain biking and camping.
Fishing in Northern Gila County
The following fishing spots are within Gila County near Payson and Pine.
This stream an hour from Payson is stocked near its hatchery weekly, starting later in April and running throughout summer and into September if water conditions allow.
Below the stocked area, this stream is managed for wild trout, including self-sustaining population of brown trout.
That dual identity offers something for every trout angler, whether you’re into fly fishing, drifting bait or casting lures.
This tributary of Tonto Creek, mentioned below, often will be scheduled for stocking with hatchery trout during the spring and up until about July, as long as water conditions are favorable for fish survival.
The areas that Christopher Creek is typically stocked are within and just below the Christopher Creek Campground south of Highway 260 and farther upstream around the See Canyon Trailhead.
East Verde River
The East Verde River is primarily fished as a mountain trout stream both above and below the Whispering Pines community north of Payson.
Given good water conditions, AZGFD will stock this stream with fresh hatchery trout weekly, starting in April and running as long as the end of August.
AZGFD has identified some 20 stocking locations on East Verde River, loosely divided into clusters in two main areas.
Spots likely to be stocked in first area, below Whispering Pines, include around three day-use areas and the trail area around the James Greer Water Wheel. You can reach all of these along the Houston-Mesa Road.
Just south, if you turn off the Houston-Mesa Road into the Beaver Valley Estates, the river tends to be stocked at several bridge crossings within this residential area. Check Beaver Flat Road and Verde Drive bridges.
A mile or more to the north, along National Forest Road 199, you’ll find additional areas on the stream likely to be stocked on the same schedule.
Check Schneider Trail just off NF-199, and, a little farther upstream, there are a handful of additional spots along NF-199 and North Rim Trail, where the roads fork at Sierra Vista Lane.
This upper area is a bit less developed and more lushly forested.
Green Valley Park Lakes
The main lake in this Payson city park is periodically stocked with trout from fall to spring, as water conditions allow.
The main lake is about 10 acres and is the primary fishing lake. The Upper and Middle lakes are an acre or two in size and across roadways from the main park.
Fishing will be best soon after the water is stocked, as this is a popular activity and these fish tend to be caught out fairly quickly.
Access to the main lake is excellent. There is ample parking on the south side off W. County Club Drive and two nearby fishing piers. A paved path encircles the lake and provides a lot more shore fishing access.
There’s also a small boat launch for kayaks, canoes and similar craft, but gas motors and water contact are not permitted here.
Green Valley Park is located on the west side of Payson. The Rim Country Museum and Zane Grey Cabin are on the north shore.
The higher mountain reaches of this year-round stream, a quick drive from Payson are nicely stocked with rainbow trout from April through September.
A very accessible section of the stream along Zane Grey Highway tends to be stocked every week from Kohls Ranch north almost to the Tonto Rim Christian Camp, a distance of a little more than two miles.
Additional weekly stocking occurs at a handful of spots farther upstream along National Forest Road 289, downstream from the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery.
In the other direction, the Bear Flat area is stocked in a few places where National Forest Road crosses the stream. Unlike the upper area, this lower stretch usually gets new trout every two weeks from April to June but not later in the season.
The Kohls Ranch area is about 17 miles northeast of Payson along Highway 260. Head north on Zane Gray Highway to fish the upper river. For the Bear Flat area, you’ll turn off Highway 260 in the Ponderosa Campground area and take forest roads to Bear Flat Road and the stream.
The lower river drops down into the valley and transitions into a warm water fishery that’s inhospitable for trout before it eventually pours into Roosevelt Lake.
While access isn’t always available, where you find it you’ll like catch smallmouth bass or other species found in Roosevelt Lake.
This river forms part of the northwestern border of Gila Couty, west of Payson.
This part of the mainstem Verde River, which includes where the East Verde River joins it, is too warm for trout fishing but can be productive for smallmouth and largemouth bass, catfish, and other species found in reservoirs farther downstream.
Mogollon Rim Fishing Lakes
The following lakes are across the county lines but are close enough to Payson to be worth the trip.
Most of the following lakes are in the extreme southern parts of Coconino County. The exception is Black Canyon Lake, which is a few miles into Navajo County.
Bear Canyon Lake
This reservoir in a canyon in the Mogollon Rim area of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest takes some effort to reach, but it will be worth the time when the trout are biting.
AZGFD stocks the lake with rainbow trout about once a month during the high season, roughly between April and September. Spin fishing with lures and bait is an effective tactic, and fly fishing also is good here.
State officials also report green sunfish, which typically are small but fun to catch panfish. Some sources mention other species of trout and additional gamefish.
Bear Canyon Lake sits at a little over 7,500 feet of elevation, and access is usually available from around April to November.
The lake is about a mile long but only covers about 60 acres because it is only a few hundred feet wide in its long midsection, although wider at the north and south ends.
The easiest access is in the Bear Canyon Lake Recreation Area near the dam on the north end, but you’ll still have decent hike down to the lake from where you leave your vehicle.
There is no boat ramp, but you can carry a kayak or similar human-powered craft to the undeveloped northwest shoreline to launch. Fly anglers will appreciate having a float tube the keep their backcasts away from the tree-lined shore.
Anglers with good feet also can hike in from a trailhead near the southern end.
Bring what you need as there is some camping in the area but little else in the way of supplies. Be prepared to pack out your garbage.
It’s a little off Forest Service Road 89, about an hour northeast of Payson or two and a half hours southeast of Flagstaff. The last stretch is dirt road.
Black Canyon Lake
This 78-acre reservoir on the eastern end of the Mogollon Rim at times has offered good fishing, but do check this one out before making the hour-long drive east from Payson.
The reasons: AZGFD stocking reports don’t always show Black Canyon making the cut, and low-water conditions at times can leave the boat launch high and dry.
Additionally, wildfire swept through here in 2002, with charred trees still standing in areas around the lake. As a result, the reservoir is still only open to day-use activities.
While we’d like to see this location live up to its potential, some of the lakes you’ll pass along the way might be better options until conditions improve.
C.C. Cragin (Blue Ridge) Reservoir
This 275-acre reservoir in the Coconino National Forest, at the west end of the Mogollon Rim area, offers spring and summer trout fishing.
It’s usually stocked with hatchery rainbow trout once it’s full and the snow is pretty much melted off, often in the late spring to early summer period. That’s when trout fishing will peak.
The winter weather can be quite harsh here, especially from December to February when snow may cover the road and ice too thin to safely walk on may at times cover the surface.
This is a good place to bring a small fishing boat, which will give you better access to the lake’s long, twisty arms. There’s a launch at the main public access from Forest Service Road 751. Note that the max motor size is a 10 horsepower, so leave the big boat at home.
You can find some bank fishing access but expect steep shorelines to limit your options.
You’ll likely do best using light line and smaller hooks and lures in the clear water, AZGFD advises.
The lake is a roundabout hour and a half’s drive north of Payson and over two hours south of Flagstaff.
The reservoir now serves as a water supply for Payson as well as a draw for anglers.
Chevelon Canyon Lake
Here’s another lake that will try your endurance but can pay off in some particularly big trout at the end of the trail.
Chevelon Canyon is known for both brown and rainbow trout. The hatchery rainbows are typically stocked a couple times each year, and the browns are wild.
This is a remote location and seldom crowded, but the price you’ll pay is that you’ll need to hike down to the lake shore. Veteran anglers here often carry a float tube to reach more and larger trout.
Both lure and fly fishing are effective at Chevelon Canyon Lake.
AZGFD notes that some Little Colorado suckers are in the lake. If you happen to catch one, release this protected species unharmed.
You can find U.S. Forest Service campgrounds in the area.
Chevelon Canyon Lake is fairly remote, so bring everything you need.
The lake is about an hour and 20 minutes driving northeast of Payson and more than two hours coming southeast from Flagstaff.
This small pond off Highway 87 at times is stocked with hatchery trout in the spring, when conditions allow.
The tank is located right on the south side of the highway about 20 minutes from Pine. From Payson or Pine, take Highway 260 to 87. It’s 3.5 miles past that intersection.
This beautiful 75-acre mountain lake in the Coconino National Forest can be quite good for trout fishing, especially soon after it gets stocked. That usually happens a few times from May to early summer, which is peak fishing season.
Fishing may pick up again for the surviving trout as the water cools off in the fall, and that’s when the surrounding aspen trees will burst with color.
You can fish with a small boat, but only an electric motor may be used beyond human-powered watercraft.
Parking and bank access is along the north side of the lake, near the dam.
Knoll Lake Campground is just up the road from the lake.
Long Tom Tank
This spring-fed lake, located just northwest of the Forest Lakes Estates community, is fortified with regular plantings of hatchery rainbow trout from late spring into mid-summer.
AZGFD also notes that bass and sunfish have been planted illegally here, but trout fishing is the main game.
There’s a modest parking area but little else in the way of amenities, although there’s a store a couple miles away along the highway and several types of overnight accommodations in the area.
The lake is just off Canyon Drive and Forest Service Road 237C on the west side of Forest Lakes Estates.
Willow Springs Lake
This 158-acre reservoir in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest is a great place to catch trout in the spring in summer, whether you like to fish from shore or a small boat.
The accessible lake is stocked with hatchery rainbow almost every week from late April clear through September, so there’s bound to be something biting for your late spring or summer adventure here.
Tiger trout also have been stocked here at times.
People also illegally stocked smallmouth and largemouth bass and panfish into the lake, and bass have been found in high numbers. These fish aren’t likely to threaten any record books at a reservoir sitting at 7,500 feet in elevation, but they are fun to catch. There’s also no limits on bass or catfish caught here since they are unwanted.
That high elevation will mean cold weather for a good part of the year, but summers are hot here and you may have to fish deep water to tempt trout. That will make a boat your best option, and trolling with lures or bait with attractors is a common tactic when things get tough.
There is a boat ramp at a day-use area on the west side of the reservoir, but know that you can’t have a motor larger than 10 horsepower on the lake.
Willow Springs Lake is a little over a half-hour’s drive east of Payson and just off the Payson-Heber Highway (260). It’s a much longer haul from Flagstaff at 2.5 hours, which is even a bit farther than driving up from Phoenix.
Woods Canyon Lake
Woods Canyon Lake is easy to get to and fish, thanks to its location less than 45 minutes from Payson and the almost weekly regimen of planting the lake with hatchery trout during the spring and summer.
This 55-acre reservoir in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest has a little bit of everything when it comes to trout. The aforementioned stocked trout are mostly rainbows, but tiger trout will be planted when available.
Woods Canyon also has brown trout, which have the potential to reach some size.
This is an excellent destination for both bank and boat anglers.
Bank anglers will find plenty of access from multiple recreation areas along the southern shoreline. Still-fishing with bait or casting lures or flies will catch trout when they are closer to the shore, especially a bit cooler weather found early and late in the season.
Boaters will have an easier time of reaching trout anywhere in the lake, and trolling at different depths can be effective to cover lots of water.
However, please note that gas motors are not allowed on Woods Canyon Lake, so bring the electric motor or your paddles or oars or float tubes and have at it.
Anglers may also catch some warm-water fish that have been illegally planted here. AZGFD specifically notes the presence of bass and green sunfish.
There is a store and marina on the south shoreline near mid-lake.
Woods Canyon Lake is about 35 miles northeast of Payson. Just head out Highway 260, turn north on Rim Road, and then take Woods Canyon Road to the lake.
Fishing in Southern Gila County
The southern areas of Gila County tend to have fishing opportunities along the major river systems, especially reservoirs built on the Salt River (most notably in Roosevelt and Apache lakes).
This Salt River reservoir, sometimes overlooked near the massive Roosevelt Lake, offers very good fishing for a similar range of gamefish species.
Apache Lake is among our selections for the best crappie fishing lakes in Arizona and also makes a case in our choices for best walleye and largemouth and smallmouth bass fishing.
This reservoir also can be quite good for channel and flathead catfish, black crappie and other panfish. Several species of buffalo, plus carp and tilapia, round out the potential fish you might find on your hook.
Though beset by drought and water usage to the point where lower sections of this river entirely disappear, the river below San Carlos Reservoir at times has offered very productive fishing.
Channel catfish and the occasional whopper flathead catfish are popular gamefish here. Largemouth bass and common carp along with other warmwater gamefish may round out your catches.
State Route 77 follows the river on the Gila County side for a good distance, offering other potential access points. One place to start is the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Gila River Recreation Area.
The biggest reservoir completely in Arizona (most of it within Gila County), and among the state’s best fishing destinations, Roosevelt Lake made several of our best in state fishing rundowns.
For starters, Roosevelt Lake easily rates among Arizona’s best bass lakes, thanks to excellent fishing for largemouth bass and solid smallmouth angling.
The big reservoir also rates as a top option for catfish and crappie fishing and is among the Salt River impoundments that can produce walleye.
Bluegill and other sunfish, yellow bass, and bigmouth buffalo round out the major fishing options.
Salt River, Upper
The river above Roosevelt Lake primarily harbors warmwater species, including smallmouth bass, catfish and other gamefish you’d also find in reservoirs on the river.
San Carlos Lake
This reservoir would seem to have the potential to be one of Arizona’s largest and best fishing reservoirs, however, it rarely lives up to that potential due to drought and the resulting low water.
As a result, it often flies under the radar and likely would only be worth your fishing attention after favorable water conditions allow the reservoir to rise and kick off better fish production.
Crappie and catfish are species to watch if significantly better water conditions bring boom times. The lake still clings to the state record for black crappie set way back in 1959, and the Gila River system also is known for producing some great catfish.
Other warmwater species may also round out the fishery during favorable conditions.
If you do fish here, you’ll need to get a permit from the San Carlos tribe because it’s on their reservation.
This small lake within a recreation area of the same name is along Highway 60 in the northwestern corner of the San Carlos Reservation.
While Seneca Lake has a past record of good fishing for trout as well as bass and panfish, recent reports are hard to come by.
It might be worth exploring if you’re in the area. Be sure to check with the tribe for permit information.