Black River – An Enduring Place – AZ Fishing Hot Spot
by Greg Black
Introduction to the River
I was about to turn 16 years old. This was 1975. In my high school in Snowflake, Arizona, driver’s education was a class you could take for credit in high school. The person who taught the class was head football coach, assistant track coach, and most importantly, an outdoorsman. For most of my driving hours required to get a driver’s license, I was instructed to drive on two-rut roads.
We would stop at all the tanks that were created to provide water for the many cattle. I would take off my shoes, grab a net, and wade into the dirty water. Without fail, the net always produced a number of live waterdogs (the larval form of salamanders). These were then deposited in a large barrel in the back of the pickup truck, and I was instructed to drive to the next water tank.
When it was determined that enough waterdogs had been caught, we scheduled my first trip to Black River, Arizona, a river on an Apache reservation in Arizona. I had often heard about this place and the great smallmouth bass fishing there. To get a couple more hours of driving in, I drove to the top of Black River canyon. The waterdogs were to be used for bait to catch these smallmouth bass.
A Timeless and Enduring Place
From that first trip, I fell in love with Black River and have been there dozens of times over the years. In the early years, I found out that the effort it took to catch waterdogs was not necessary at all. The primary diet of the bass in the river was, and still is, the crawdads that are thick in the river. The river also has a few hellgrammites whose centipede appearance has kept me from using them for bait very often.
The river quickly became known to me as a 100 fish per day place. I have achieved that many times over the years. At one time, it was suspected that the bass were stunted because there were so many of them there. In the late 1990s, while I was a professor in San Antonio, Texas, I even took a group of students to the river as part of a leadership class. The most fish I ever caught in a single day at Black River is 166 in early September of 2000. My latest trip to Black River was in 2016 and the fishing is still excellent, though I have doubts if it is still possible to regularly catch 100 fish per day. That makes it over 40 years of fantastic fishing at Black River.
Black River, like many remote places, offers some serious wildlife safety challenges. Over the years, I have encountered black bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and have been stung by scorpions. If there was ever a place where bear safety procedures should be followed, it would be Alaska and Black River. Though I have only seen bears at Black River twice, I have never failed to see fresh bear tracks there, sometimes within yards of our tent and over our tracks we left the evening before on our way to bed! Check out a future blog for safety in bear country.
It is always a good idea to carry bear spray whenever in bear country. Bear spray could also be a deterrent to mountain lions and other wildlife, as well as humans who may give you trouble. Lisa and I would normally carry bear guns into bear country also, but since this river is on a reservation, I carry only the bear spray.
On one trip about ten years ago, we were taking a break in the middle of the hot summer day to swim in the river. We had been making noise and commotion, so it was surprising to look up and see three mountain lions on the bank just watching us.
The evening after that mountain lion encounter, it was taking a long time to cool off in the evening, so we left the doors to the tent unzipped to get more circulation. We were just beginning to doze off, when a single scorpion was somehow able to sting both Lisa and I several times. The only deadly species of scorpion in the United States is found in Arizona. Luckily, the one that stung us was not that species. However, it still caused diarrhea and muscle spasms around the sites of the stings.
Many of my friends from high school still live in Arizona and get to go to Black River much more often. A few years ago, a bear broke into one friend’s vehicle and tore it up pretty badly. Just this past spring, another friend was fishing there and was approached by an aggressive bear. It was the first time he had ever taken bear spray with him, and he was glad to have it that day.
This is one place we will visit again, and again. It is that good and remains remote with few visitors. Located in Arizona’s Whitemountain Apache Reservation.