Complete Guide to the Best Trout Fishing in Arizona

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If you’ve never been to Arizona, you might have a hard time imagining it as a trout fisherman’s paradise. But Arizona anglers know better. 

Arizona offers a unique wealth of fishing opportunities, from crystal clear mountain streams to pristine high country lakes teeming with trout. If you think this state strictly as cactus-studded deserts, it’s time to start rethinking it.

Here in Arizona you’ll find rugged canyons and the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest in the United States. Arizona has six national forests totaling more than 11 million acres.

Through it all, rivers and streams flow like arteries. And in those rivers and streams, trout flourish. One species can be found nowhere else on earth, and others have been introduced with amazing success.

Many of Arizona’s best trout fishing opportunities lie within the White Mountains and along the rugged Mogollon Rim.

The headwaters of many of the state’s waterways are located in mountain forests well above 6,000 feet, keeping their waters crisp and cool all year.

Whether you’re a fly fisherman or a bait-and-bobber enthusiast, trout fishing in Arizona offers an experience that will keep you coming back again and again. 

Arizona Trout Species

Arizona lakes and rivers are home to eight types of trout. Only two species—Apache trout and Gila trout—are actually native to Arizona, but wild, reproducing populations of rainbow, brook and brown trout have taken hold here.

Additional populations of cutthroat and tiger trout, as well as arctic grayling, are supported by stocking.

Rainbow Trout

The most abundant trout species in Arizona, rainbow trout were first introduced to the state in 1898. Today, more than 1 million of these fish are stocked in Arizona every year, and wild populations also flourish in many rivers.

Rainbow trout have an olive or grey back, pink or reddish lateral stripe, and an abundance of irregular dark spots. Arizona’s 15-pound, 9.12-ounce state record was caught at Willow Springs Lake.

Apache Trout

Native to the high-altitude headwaters of the White, Black and Little Colorado rivers, the Apache trout is one of two trout species native to Arizona. It’s also the official state fish, and is found nowhere else on earth outside the Arizona state lines. 

Apache trout were considered endangered for many years, but have been largely restored to their native range.

Identified by their olive-yellow body color with a yellow-gold belly, they seldom grow longer than 10 inches in the small streams they call home, but are capable of reaching 20 inches. 

Gila Trout

Arizona’s second native trout species, Gila trout are found only in Arizona and New Mexico. They’re one of the rarest trout species in both states, and are federally listed as threatened.

They have a yellowish gold or copper color, with a profusion of small dark spots mostly on the upper body, and can reach up to 18 inches.

In Arizona, native Gila trout can be found in a handful of streams in the Agua Fria, Blue, Lower Gila and Verde River drainages. Additional populations for sport fishing are also stocked in select lakes and reservoirs.

Brown Trout

Brown trout are not native to Arizona—or to the United States, for that matter—but have been stocked in the U.S. since the 1880s and Arizona since 1931.

Browns can withstand higher temperatures than most trout, and are the largest trout species in Arizona, occasionally surpassing 20 pounds.

Brown trout typically have a golden-brown coloration, with many dark spots and a few reddish spots, usually with a light halo around each one.

Wild populations have taken hold in many lakes and rivers in Arizona, particularly in the White Mountains and around the Mogollon Rim.

Brook Trout

Native to the Eastern U.S. and Canada, brook trout in Arizona are most common in lakes and streams in the White Mountains and on the Apache Reservation where they have been stocked.

Brookies typically reach about 12 inches in length and have a dark olive-green color with yellowish vermiculation (worm-like markings) on the back and dorsal fin.

Cutthroat Trout

Cutthroat trout can be found in a handful of lakes in the White Mountains, where they have been stocked, but are rare elsewhere in Arizona.

Like rainbow trout they are native to other parts of the West and have similar appearance and habits to rainbows, but cutthroats can be identified by the telltale red or orange slash on their throats. They typically reach about 20 inches.

Tiger Trout

Tiger trout are newcomers to Arizona waters, having been stocked here for the first time in 2015.

Sterile hybrids of brook trout and brown trout, they have been stocked in Woods Canyon Lake, Willow Springs Lake, Carnero Lake and Becker Lake. Coloration varies, but an orange belly and dark maze-like pattern on the back and sides is typical. 

Arctic Grayling

Arctic grayling are not native to Arizona, nor technically are they trout, but they are closely related to trout and salmon.

Native to much more northerly places, grayling have been stocked in a select few Arizona lakes since the 1940s.

These days they can be found in Lee Valley Reservoir and a few small White Mountain lakes, where they are easily identified by their oversized dorsal fins. 

Best Trout Fishing Lakes in Arizona

Trout are stocked in lakes and reservoirs all over the state, including several that are conveniently close to major cities like Phoenix.

However, many of the very best trout lakes in Arizona are located in the northeast corner of the state.

Big Lake

One of Arizona’s highest elevation lakes, Big Lake is nestled in the White Mountains at about 9,000 feet.

It’s one of the most popular fishing lakes in the eastern part of the state, offering rainbow, cutthroat and brook trout along with a limited population of Apache trout

Big Lake is a man-made reservoir spanning 450 acres.

With its picturesque mountain views and an abundance of open, undeveloped shoreline, Big Lake is popular for summer camping trips as well as fishing. The Forest Service operates the Apache Trout Campground within walking distance of the water. 

Rainbows are the most common species at Big Lake, and there are plenty of fish to go around. Bait and bobbers in shallow water are the go-to tactics in fall and spring when trout are freshly stocked.

For shore anglers, the best bet is to look for rocky points with access to deep water. A wide range of lures, including PowerBait and Rooster Tail spinners, can be effective. Look for brookies and cutthroat trout in sheltered coves. 

Fishing is generally open on Big Lake from April to November, but be sure to check specific dates when planning your trip.

Boats under 10 horsepower are permitted, and rentals are available. This is also a great float tube lake, especially for fly fishing.

There are abundant insect hatches here during the warmer months, so bring a variety of flies and be ready to match the hatch.

Working wooly buggers and nymphs along weed beds is a pretty solid catch-all tactic, with dry flies being more effective around dawn and dusk.

Chevelon Canyon Lake

A beautiful lake nestled in the rugged landscape of the Mogollon Rim, Chevelon Canyon Lake is the ultimate destination for trout anglers who want to get away from it all and fish in solitude among the mountains and the pines. 

Chevelon Canyon Lake spans 206 acres and sits at about 6,000 feet. It’s a walk-in lake. Getting to the parking area often requires four wheel drive, and from there it’s a further 3/4-mile hike up to the water. 

That tends to weed out anybody who isn’t serious about catching trout. You won’t see many casual weekend anglers here, despite the lake being within 3 hours of both Phoenix and Flagstaff.

Chevelon Canyon Lake is stocked twice a year with fingerling rainbows, and also harbors some big wild brown trout.

Anglers tend to catch a lot of rainbow trout in the 10- to 16-inch range, and there’s always a chance that a big bruiser brown will take the bait. 

Live bait is prohibited here, which makes Chevelon Canyon Lake the domain of fly fishing, for the most part.

Mayfly and midge hatches in spring and summer provide some great surface action, and a caddis fly imitation can almost always get takes when fish are rising. You’ll see trout dimpling the surface when the surface bite is on.

If you don’t see much surface action, try a nymph or streamer. Fathead minnows hatch in September, and throwing minnow imitations can score some good-sized rainbows this time of year. Brown trout start staging for their spawn in October.

The shoreline of Chevelon Canyon lake is entirely undeveloped, with a lot of trees close to the bank. That can make casting a challenge, so choose a shorter 5-weight fly rod, and be prepared to do a bit of wading.

Willow Springs Lake

Another Mogollon Rim gem, Willow Springs Lake lies just under an hour away from Chevelon Canyon Lake within Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. It’s a 150-acre reservoir surrounded by tall pines and heavily stocked with trout. 

Rainbows are the main species here, but Willow Springs Lake is also one of the lakes in which the Arizona Game and Fish Department has been stocking tiger trout in recent years.

The Forest Service operates a boat launch and fishing access site, as well as a nearby campground.

Willow Springs is a fairly easy lake to fish. There’s a lot of readily-accessible shoreline, and fishing from shore with bait and bobbers is often productive. Plenty of trout are fooled by spinners and spoons as well.

Spring and fall provide the best near-shore action, but summer anglers will do well to look a little deeper.

Boats with motors up to 10 hp are permitted, and it’s worthwhile for fly anglers to try leech and crawdad patterns along with the usual bead head flies and wooly buggers.

You’ll see a lot of rocky habitat at Willow Springs Lake, extending from the shoreline well into deep water. Rocky points are often the best spots.

Much of the lake has a steep rocky shelf that quickly drops to about 60 feet, and almost always holds fish. There are some good-sized bass here too, so don’t be surprised if a feisty smallmouth takes the bait.

Becker Lake

Becker Lake is one of the oldest reservoirs in the White Mountains, originally built in 1880. It’s managed as a trophy trout lake, with tight regulations intended to maintain the quality fishery.

Only artificial lures with a single barbless hook are permitted, and the fishing is strictly catch and release.

As restrictive as those rules may sound, the result is that Becker Lake consistently produces giant rainbow trout. There aren’t many lakes with higher numbers of 18- to 20-inch rainbows.

Shore access is somewhat limited, making float tubes the best way to get out on the water. There’s quite a bit of weed growth near shore, and the outside weed edges offer some of the best fishing.

Nymphs are usually the most productive flies on Becker Lake, and some fat rainbows are caught using midge and Prince Nymph patterns beneath a strike indicator around the outside edge of the weed beds.

Small Panther Martin spinners and Kastmaster spoons can yield good results for spin anglers, but be sure to remove the treble hook and replace it with a single barbless hook.

The 107-acre lake is surrounded by Becker Lake Wildlife Area, and offers some beautiful scenery. The landscape is wide-open, and the lake can be prone to strong midday winds. Float tube anglers should try to arrive early to beat the wind. 

The fishing tends to peak in late spring and early summer, but water quality declines as it heats up. In addition to rainbow trout, the Arizona GFD stocks some tiger trout here as well.

Woods Canyon Lake

Fairly small lake at 55 acres, Woods Canyon Lake is a picturesque high country lake at the edge of the Mogollon Rim. Rainbows and tiger trout have been stocked heavily.

For the most part, Woods Canyon operates as a put-and-take lake with lots of 10- to 12-inch trout. But there isn’t a winter kill here, which means that some of those rainbows survive multiple years and can get much bigger.

The Lake is surrounded by beautiful scenery within Woods Canyon Lake Recreation Area. It has several nearby campgrounds, and is a convenient day trip from Phoenix, Flagstaff or Prescott.

That being the case, this lake can get extremely busy in summer, and the fish here are heavily pressured.

Try to fish Woods Canyon Lake before Memorial Day. Much later than that, and all the weekend anglers will have beaten the water to a froth and spooked every fish in sight.

If you do visit in summer, focus on deep water. Bait on a sinker rig is often the best bet this time of year. In spring, you can find trout closer to shore and they’ll be willing to bite on any number of flies and lures.

There is often good fishing at Woods Canyon Lake when there’s still a bit of snow on the ground in early spring. Look for trout dimpling the surface in shallow coves and throw nymphs or leech patterns.

Honorable Mentions

Dozens of other Arizona lakes also offer trout fishing. While these might not be the absolute best of the best, the following hidden gems also offer excellent fishing opportunities: 

  • Sunrise Lake – A 900-acre reservoir in the White Mountains, Sunrise Lake is home to brown and rainbow trout, as well as brook trout, for which it holds the state record. Trolling with nightcrawlers is popular here, and fly fishermen do well using streamers and leeches shortly after ice-out.
  • Greer Lakes – Located just north of Greer, the three irrigation lakes collectively known as the Greer Lakes (River Reservoir, Bunch Reservoir and Tunnel Reservoir) offer great fishing for rainbow and brown trout. The lakes are stocked in May and typically harbor some big holdover fish every year.
  • Lee Valley Reservoir – At 9,420 feet, Lee Valley Reservoir is Arizona’s highest-elevation reservoir. It spans 35 acres within Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests near Mount Baldy, and offers Arizona’s best opportunity to catch Arctic grayling.
  • Reservation Lake – Home to Arizona’s 24-pound record brown trout, Reservation Lake is a deep 280-acre reservoir where trout have plenty of room to hide and reach impressive sizes. Try fishing from a float tube to reach deep water. The lake is located within the White Mountain Apache Reservation, and a special fishing permit is required.
  • Encanto Lake – Encanto Lake is probably the best trout fishing spot in the greater Phoenix metro area. Maintained as an urban fishing lake, Encanto is stocked with rainbow trout in November and December, and with warm water species like bass and catfish in summer.

Best Trout Fishing Rivers in Arizona

Trout are right at home in Arizona’s rivers and streams, many of which offer cool, clear water and the types of rocky habitat that trout love. Arizona’s native Apache and Gila trout in particular are more common in streams than in lakes.

Colorado River (Lees Ferry)

The Lee’s Ferry area of the Colorado River is arguably Arizona’s most famous fly fishing water. This tailwater fishery stretches from the Glen Canyon Dam below Lake Powell about 15 miles down to the northern end of the Grand Canyon.

If you’re looking for world-class trout fishing and spectacular scenery all wrapped up in one neat package, Lees Ferry is your place. The water that spills out from Lake Powell is around 50 degrees and crystal clear throughout most of the year. 

For a trout, that’s about as good as it gets. There’s a robust population of wild rainbow trout in this part of the river, as well as some giant brown trout. 

Seemingly any tactic can work when the bite is on, and 100-fish days are a genuine possibility.

Midges are the big insect hatch here, so any nymph fly with red or cream color can get bites. Bait anglers also do just fine with nightcrawlers. 

There is a walk-in area at Lees Ferry where anglers can access a pretty good riffle section of the river from the bank. But for the most part, a boat is required to fully explore the river. The steep canyon walls make foot travel pretty much impossible. 

If you have access to a boat, there are nearly endless holes, riffles and runs that hold trout here. Jet boats handle the river best, and booking a local guide is a great idea if it’s your first time.

Summer is the most popular season on this stretch of river, and the season brings good fishing as well as a lot of tourists. Fall provides the best fishing of all, as the crowds thin out and trout prepare to spawn. Spring can be tough due to snowmelt.

Salt River

You might not expect to find great trout fishing in the desert, but the section of the Lower Salt River below Saguaro Lake offers just that. Only a relatively small section of the river is a viable trout fishery, but cool water from the lake provides a great opportunity. 

In summer, this area is best known for swimming and tubing. It’s winter when the trout fishery becomes the main attraction, partly because the crowds thin out but also because this is when the Arizona GFD stocks rainbow trout. 

You can expect a few big holdover fish here as well as freshly stocked trout. The most popular spot to access the river is Water Users Recreation Area, but the Forest Service operates a few good sites.

Numerous mayfly and caddis species hatch on the Lower Salt River, so fly anglers have a lot of potential patterns to choose from. Midges are some of the best flies to tie on during the colder months.   

This section of the Salt River is just 25 minutes from Phoenix, making it the best trout fishing opportunity this close to the city. If you’re in town on a winter vacation and looking for a place to reel in a few chunky rainbows, the Salt River is it. 

If you have the luxury of planning your fishing trip around the weather, choose a day after a decent rain. Low water can make the Salt River tough to fish, but a little rain brings the water up and gets the trout moving.

Oak Creek

A stunningly beautiful stream that tumbles through the red rock canyons near Sedona, Oak Creek offers several miles of dream trout water. Rainbows, browns and even a few brook trout call it home, with wild fish mingling with those stocked by the Page Springs Fish Hatchery.

The entirety of Oak Creek stretches 42 miles down to its confluence with the Verde River, but it’s the uppermost section from its spring-fed headwaters in Oak Canyon down to Grasshopper Point just north of Sedona that offers the best trout fishing. Farther down, the water is just too warm.

Rainbow and brown trout inhabit areas throughout this upper area of the river, and it’s great fly water. Technical fly anglers will have a lot of fun picking their way through all the riffles and pools.

For brook trout, your best bet is to head straight for the West Fork, with its cool, higher-elevation waters. A few brookies hang around where the West Fork meets the main stem of Oak Creek, which is a good place to start.

Both forks are very hikeable. A 4- or 5-weight fly rod is the best tool here, and a shorter model will help when fishing close quarters. Don’t be surprised to catch an occasional smallmouth bass from the rocky pools in parts of this stream.

Blue winged olives hatch along Oak Creek in early spring, followed by caddis and sedges in May or June. Small crustaceans known locally as freshwater shrimp are abundant in parts of the stream, and scud flies mimic them effectively.

Black River

The Black River meanders through the White Mountains in east-central Arizona near the city of Show Low. It’s a picture book freestone trout stream, which offers a wide range of fishing possibilities over its 114-mile course. 

Perhaps most notably, this is a great place to find Arizona’s native Apache trout. They inhabit pools and pockets in the uppermost 25 miles of the Black River, along with some rainbows that push 20 inches. 

The farther downriver you go, the warmer the water gets and the more it’s dominated by brown trout. Rainbows thin out around the confluence of Paddy Creek, and the next 30 miles or so below that are the domain of browns.

Heading into the lower and warmer reaches, the Black River eventually becomes one of the best smallmouth bass fishing spots in Arizona

Focusing on trout, much of the Black River flows through Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and is accessible via Forest Service roads and the 19-mile Black River Mainstem Hiking Trail.

The East and West Forks of the Black River also offer some great small stream fly fishing opportunities, with intimate pocket water, pebble-bottomed riffles and a scattering of deep pools. Both forks harbor Apache trout.

The terrain along the forks is mostly open enough for unencumbered overhead casts. Most of the trout here are under 12 inches, so downsizing your presentation is a good call. Try #14 to #16 Pheasant Tails and Prince Nymphs.

Silver Creek

Another excellent White Mountain trout stream, Silver Creek is managed as a trophy trout water. That means for much of the year, catch-and-release is the rule, and only artificial lures with barbless hooks may be used. 

As a result, Silver Creek harbors some of the biggest rainbow trout in the state. Fish measuring 25 inches are caught with surprising regularity, and there is an abundance of Apache trout here as well.

Both species are kept well-stocked by the Silver Creek Hatchery.

Some of the best fishing, especially for Apache trout, is the 2-mile section right around the hatchery. But walking paths follow much of the stream’s banks and provide ample access. 

For the most part, bank fishing is the only option here. Wading is difficult due to steep banks, but the landscape surrounding Silver Creek is open enough for easy casting, and the stream itself is so narrow that long casts are seldom required. 

For fly anglers, popular patterns include blood midges, blue-winged olives and leech streamers. Spin anglers can tempt trout with small spinners, but flies do tend to fare better.

The best fishing tends to be during the catch and release only season between October 1 and March 31—this is also when the creek is stocked—but get there early in the day if you want to beat the crowds.

Silver Creek is spring-fed, keeping water temperatures fairly consistent all year, including when normal statewide regulations are in place from April 1 to September 30.

Honorable Mentions

Arizona is home to a lot of truly excellent trout streams, including many that could be just as good as those listed above, depending on the year. You definitely shouldn’t sleep on these additional rivers and creeks:

  • East Verde River – For an opportunity to catch Arizona’s rare Gila trout, the East Verde River is one of your best options. This 35-mile tributary of the Verde River begins on the Mogollon Rim and flows southwest through Gila County. At present, it’s the only river in Arizona where Gila trout have been stocked for angling purposes rather than protected species restoration.
  • North Fork White River – A clear, cold stream that tumbles 25 miles through the White Mountains, the North Fork White River harbors Apache and brown trout. It offers excellent fly water where anglers can do well imitating the small mayflies and caddisflies that hatch on the river.
  • Tonto Creek – A beautiful rainbow trout stream in Tonto National Forest, Tonto Creek offers a lot of attractive pools and pocket water for fly fishing. It’s a great high-elevation stream for hiking, and you can find some great secluded pools loaded with big trout farther upstream.
  • Little Colorado River – The Little Colorado is a long, meandering river with several forks. Depending on where you fish, you can catch rainbow, brook, brown and Apache trout. There’s good fishing in the section around Greer, and anglers can access a lot of great secluded pools on foot.
  • East Clear Creek – A small tributary of the Little Colorado River on the Mogollon Rim, East Clear Creek is known for its self-sustaining populations of wild rainbow and brown trout. There’s easy access at Kinder Crossing, and many anglers start there and work their way down. 

Trout Fishing Tips

In a sense, trout in Arizona are much like trout anywhere. The tactics and techniques used to catch trout here are not unique, but the landscape itself is unique, and so is its climate. If you’re planning a trout fishing trip in Arizona, it’s important to understand this.

Best Seasons for Trout Fishing

In dry, low-elevation parts of the state, trout are stocked in winter, but the fishing essentially shuts down during the warmer part of the year. Summer in the desert is just too hot for trout.

Mountain lakes and rivers, however, are a different story. 

At Arizona’s higher elevations, most lakes freeze in winter. Even so, winter’s grasp is typically short-lived. Lakes thaw as early as March, and winter runoff surges into rivers and streams.

April and May are often the best time to visit the state’s lakes and reservoirs, but the high volumes during snow melt can make fishing in moving water challenging. 

Even so, streams tend to clear quickly, and high mountain waterways offer great fishing from late spring right through fall. In fact, fall is probably the best overall season for trout fishing in Arizona.

There’s great fishing up in the mountains in summer too, but you might have to work for it. In lakes, focus on deep water. In rivers, locate deep pools or head farther up toward the cool headwaters.

Trout Fishing Tactics

For fly anglers, the best advice you can get is, “match the hatch.” Each river, stream and lake has its own particular schedule when it comes to what hatches and when. Mayflies (blue winged olives), caddis, midges hatch at various times of the year depending on the location. 

Generally speaking, dry flies that imitate the adult forms of these insects excel in the morning and evening when hatching is at full force. Nymphs and other wet flies may fare better during midday. 

Fairly light fly tackle is generally sufficient. A 4- or 5-weight rod is a good catch-all, but many anglers will use something even lighter, especially in very small, high-elevation streams where most of the fish are under 12 inches.

Anglers armed with spinning tackle often have success with a variety of small spinners and spoons, including Mepps, Vibrax and Panther Martins. These lures tend to fare better in lakes than in moving water. 

In waters where bait is permitted, anything from live nightcrawlers to corn, marshmallows and salmon eggs can be effective. When fishing from shore, use a basic bobber setup and adjust the depth until you find the range that trout seem to prefer. 

In many lakes and ponds, especially those with limited shore access, a float tube is a great way to get your fly, lure or bait out into deep water. It also opens up a much wider range of possibilities for exploring the water.

How to Catch Trout

Find more tactics for catching all types of trout in our free guide, Trout Fishing: How-To Techniques and Tips.

Planning Your Trip

It’s important to remember that, even in winter and in high country, Arizona has an arid climate, and staying hydrated is very important. Make sure you bring plenty of water on any fishing trip, regardless of the season.

Sun protection is also essential. Pack a pair of sunglasses with polarized lenses and a brimmed hat. Sunblock is a good idea too, but be cautious about getting its scent on your bait or lure; it can be a major turn-off for fish.

Many of the best lakes and rivers in Arizona are located on or near National Forest land, and have excellent camping options nearby.

As always, consult current Arizona fishing regulations, seasons and licensing requirements before you go.