Fishing in Arizona: The Complete Guide for 2024

Apr 17, 2024 | 9 minute read
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Baked red earth, arid desert landscapes, a saguaro cactus standing tall against an orange sky… Hold on. Weren’t we supposed to be talking about fishing? Well, take a moment to look beyond the extreme heat and cracked earth. Soon, you’ll find that fishing in Arizona is some of the most rewarding in the US. Step away from the Grand Canyon, follow the Colorado River, and uncover a totally different perspective of the Copper State.

A view of the calm blue waters of the Colorado River in Arizona reflecting the red rocks visible on either side

In this guide, we’ll show you why Arizona’s landscape allows fish to thrive. We’ll explain how fish stocking programs and native species give anglers a unique set of options. Finally, we’ll walk you through where to go to see Arizona’s fishing at its best. Are you ready? Grab your rod and reel. It’s time to cool off and catch some fish.

Arizona Fish Species

Let’s get straight to it: there’s a lot more to Arizona than just desert. Cold water mountain streams, gushing tailwaters, mighty rivers, and huge reservoirs run through and around the baked earth. This huge variety of habitats means there’s a fish for every angler. From the mountains to the low-lying lakes, here are the most popular catches.

Trout Fishing in Arizona

An angler releases a small Rainbow Trout into the blue waters of a river lined with red, sedimentary rocks in Arizona

It might come as a surprise that Arizona’s most sought-after fish is actually a coldwater species. Not only that: there are no fewer than eight varieties of it here! 

Arizona’s Game and Fish Department is largely – but not entirely – to thank for this. They stock large numbers of Rainbow Trout every year. These imported fish have been living in Arizona longer than the state has been a part of the US, so it’s safe to say they like it here.

Rainbows aren’t the only immigrants to have built a healthy community in Arizona. Brook Trout and Brown Trout both swim the cold streams of the White Mountains. Sometimes they interbreed, creating eye-catching Tiger Trout. And some years, Arctic Grayling and Cutthroat Trout also swim the high-altitude lakes in the northeast.

The real highlight of Arizona Trout fishing, though, is the state’s elusive native fish. The White Mountain area is the only place in the world where you’ll find Apache Trout. These golden fish are critically endangered, partly because so many of them have interbred with introduced Rainbow Trout. The situation is similar for the other native – Gila Trout.

That’s a whole lot of Trout to remember. So why not make the most of all this variety with the Arizona Trout Challenge? Either catch all five species of Trout that reproduce here naturally – that’s Rainbow, Brown, Brook, Apache, and Gila – or catch at least six different Trout species in different waterways. Submit photo evidence of your catches, and you could get some brag-worthy merch!

Crappie Fishing in Arizona

A happy angler holds a large Black Crappie towards the camera in one hand and a fishing rod in the other hand on a boat on a lake in Arizona
Photo courtesy of Days In The Wild Bass Fishing Trips

Leave the mountain streams behind, and you’ll find fish that prefer a relaxed lifestyle in warmer waters. Black Crappie Panfish that originally graced lakes and rivers from Texas to Florida and up to Virginia – now thrive in Arizona. These small, tasty fish put anglers to the test in almost all of Arizona’s warm water reservoirs. And they make for a delightful treat for dinner, too!

Despite their size, Crappie are no walk in the park to catch. They attack bait aggressively and put up an impressive fight when hooked. Best of all, they often swim in large schools. Once you’ve found one, more will follow. Look for them in shallow shorelines and around submerged trees and rocks. Fish in the spring for the best experience.

Bass Fishing in Arizona

A happy angler holds a large Largemouth Bass towards the camera on a boat on beautiful blue Arizona lake that reflects the rocky shoreline in the background
Photo courtesy of Days In The Wild Bass Fishing Trips

If you’re catching Crappie, it’s quite likely you’re close to another Arizona favorite – Largemouth Bass. These are probably the most popular freshwater fish in the whole of the country, and they thrive here. 

Just like most of the other species we’ve mentioned, Largemouth Bass aren’t native to Arizona. But the state’s vast reservoirs offer the ideal habitat for them, with deep waters, lots of structure, and plenty to eat. Largemouth Bass usually bite best in spring and fall, but you can still find them in deeper waters outside of these times.

And these aren’t the only Bass species you can find here. Smallmouth Bass enjoy the same cool waters as prized Rainbow Trout. Meanwhile, Striped Bass have also been living in the Colorado River and its reservoirs ever since they were stocked in the 1950s. These monsters can reach well over 50 pounds but you’re more likely to find some in the 10–15 pound range. Their strength, taste, and relaxed bag limits make them seriously fun to target.

What else?

Most of the other fish in Arizona have arrived here from across the US – and even the world. Bluegill, a popular Panfish, live in lower-altitude ponds and reservoirs. Channel Catfish patrol the beds of warm-water lakes and rivers. And Northern Pike and Walleye bring a taste of colder climates to higher altitudes. 

Unfortunately, the situation isn’t so good for Arizona’s native fish. The changes to their habitat and the competition that came along with these new arrivals, have made life hard for them. That’s why you don’t hear much about fishing for Colorado River’s native Pikeminnow or the various species of Chub that have lived here for millennia. 

How to Go Fishing in Arizona

No matter how much fishing you’ve done in the past, you’ll find new challenges here in Arizona. But you’ll also find a welcoming community and a huge variety of waterways. That means plenty of options for your fishing adventure. For instance:

Arizona Fly Fishing

A lone fly fisher casts into shallow water in a river among rocky, dry mountains in Arizona on a clear day

Fly fishers reading this guide probably already have their sights set on one species – Trout. These Salmonids are top targets thanks to their wary ways and unspoiled habitats. But bring your fly rod to Arizona, and you could come up against a whole range of fish. 

Let’s start with the Trout, though. Most of Arizona’s wild Trout streams are remote and narrow, edged with rocks and canyons, and are accessible only by foot. When you finally reach them, you’ll be in for a treat.

Because the waterways are so narrow, we suggest a short 4–5 wt rod that’s under 8 feet. This will give you the power you need to catch the streams’ larger residents without spoiling the excitement of catching a smaller fish. Arizona Peacock Lady flies are popular, as are Wooly Buggers and Simi Seal Leeches. Bring your hiking shoes and get ready to get wet!

As thrilling as canyoneering to wild Trout waters can be, it isn’t for everyone. Taking a boat out onto a massive reservoir, seeking out patches of Stripers boiling at the surface, and casting into the fray will get the adrenaline pumping like nothing else. You’ll need heavier gear for this, as well as a fast-sinking line that will get your fly to the depths that Striped Bass dive down to.

Bowfishing in Arizona

An angler holds a bow and a bowfishing arrow that's speared into a Carp on a boat close to shore at night, with palm trees visible on the shore behind him
Photo courtesy of Days in The Wild – Bow Fishing Arizona

Can’t face the heat during the day? Then take to the waters at night with a bow and arrow! Bowfishing is a great way of cooling down in the heat of Arizona’s summer – and can even help fish conservation efforts.

Yes, you read that right. Bowfishing doesn’t exactly lend itself to catch and release – you’ll be spearing a fish with an arrow, after all. But it is a really effective way of catching invasive Carp. These scaly monsters are hard to catch with a rod and reel and annoyingly eat the eggs of other, more desirable fish. Because they’re such a nuisance, you can usually bowfish for as many of them as you like in many Arizona lakes.

Canal Fishing in Arizona

An aerial view of an irrigation canal running through the middle of a sandy desert plain in Arizona with mountains in the background

We’ve talked a lot about the mountain streams and enormous reservoirs that dot the more remote reaches of Arizona’s landscape. But what if you want to fish closer to home?

Arizona’s canals do more than provide life-giving freshwater to the state’s population. They also carry most of the tempting sport fish we’ve spoken about in this guide. Catfish, Bass, Bluegills, and Crappie have all been caught in the concrete-lined canals that stretch out towards the urban jungles. These fish are even quite easy to catch, as there isn’t too much fishing pressure. Simply putting some meat on your line and letting it drift can be enough to hook a Bass, Catfish, or any number of fish cruising these waters. 

Arizona Fishing Guides

An Arizona fishing guide encourages a happy young boy holding a Striped Bass on a boat on a lake on a clear day
Photo courtesy of ARIZONA SPORT FISHING Charters

No matter whether you’re fishing with a fly, a bow, or a plain old spinning setup, you’ll probably want a little help in this arid landscape. A wide range of Arizona fishing guides cater to all types of anglers, all across the state. Not only do they provide the best type of gear for fishing these waters, but they’re also full of knowledge about the local wildlife, fish stocks, and fishing techniques. 

Arizona Fishing Spots

We’ve talked about how the water temperature affects the types of fish you might find in Arizona. As a general rule, if you’re after Trout, Pike, and Walleye… look up! These coldwater species love the streams and lakes high in the mountain ranges. 

Otherwise, explore the lower-elevation lakes for Bass, Crappie, and Bluegill. The desert waterways match anywhere in the United States for quantity and quality of fish. With that in mind, here are our picks of the very best places to fish in Arizona:

The White Mountains

A view across the water from a snow-covered shoreline of a lake in the White Mountains in Arizona on a winter's day with sunny intervals

The jewel of the Colorado Plateau’s “High Country” in Northeast Arizona is the snow-capped peaks, pine trees, and sapphire lakes of the White Mountains. There are over 50 famous fishing lakes and streams here, including Silver Creek, a hotspot for Rainbow and Apache Trout, and Reservation Lake, home to the 23 lb state-record Brown Trout. 

If you’ve had enough of Trout, Show Low Lake has a healthy population of Walleye and Largemouth Bass, too. But it’s the wild Brown and Rainbow Trout in the remote Black River that attract the most intrepid anglers to this beautiful region.

Salt River

The Salt River in Arizona running past craggy rocks and cacti on a cloudy day

Fancy fishing a designated cold water Trout stream – in a desert? The part of the Salt River below the Saguaro Lake’s Stewart Mountain Dam is icy cold. But it’s also a stone’s throw from the baked earth of Mesa, near Phoenix. It’s a mystery why this truly unique Trout fishery is often overlooked, especially as it’s so easy to access and is set against the jaw-dropping backdrop of the Sonoran Desert. 

The Colorado River and Its Reservoirs

An aerial view of the Lees Ferry section of the Colorado River running through yellow canyon rocks on a clear day

Most visitors to Arizona see the Colorado River from above, as they peer into the Grand Canyon. But we recommend getting close and personal with it. Fly fishers shouldn’t miss the Lees Ferry section of the river, a world-famous spot thanks to its abundant Rainbow Trout. 

Or, head to one of the river’s enormous reservoirs. Lake Mead sprawls to the west of the Grand Canyon, housing large schools of Striped Bass. Downriver, Lake Mohave offers even more opportunities for Striped Bass, as well as Largemouth and Smallmouth Bass, and Catfish. Otherwise, go up to the border with Utah. Lake Powell offers amazing Bass fishing in stunning surroundings.

Arizona Fishing Regulations

Everyone aged 10 and over who goes fishing in Arizona needs a fishing license. You can purchase annual or single day licenses, and you can choose to get a fishing-only license or a combo hunt and fish permit. 

Once you’ve purchased your fishing license, make sure to check the state’s size and bag limits. Some fish, like protected native fish, need to be released when you catch them. The regulations are detailed and vary according to each water body, so take the time to understand them or fish with a local guide who can advise you.

Fishing in Arizona: Finding Water in the Desert

A view towards a lake in Arizona on a cloudy day with cacti to the left of the photo, overlooking the water from a bank, with a small island also visible in the lake

Water is a rarity in this boiling-hot state. But where it exists, people like to take care of it. That’s why there are so many prized sport fish available to catch in Arizona – and why even the hottest of areas make fish from thousands of miles away feel at home! So come on down and explore. What better way to enjoy the Grand Canyon State than up to your knees in a coldwater stream, after all?

Where’s the most unusual place you’ve fished? Have you caught Rainbow Trout in the desert? Let us know about your experiences in Arizona by leaving a comment below! 

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Cat Tyack spends almost every spare moment she has outside. Whether it's hiking, horseback riding or fishing, she's always looking for her next adventure in the great outdoors. Having been fishing on several continents, her most memorable fishing moment was casting poppers to Mahi Mahi in the shadow of enormous oil barges in the Arabian Sea.

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