Tips for locating water sources in Arizona

firstlite water hole

All photo credits: Josh Kirchner

Water is life. We've all heard that saying a few times or two. Here in Arizona, that statement rings true on a whole different level. Finding water can be the difference of having an action packed hunt, or one that moves at the speed of molasses and leaves you scratching your head. When I hunt or hike in other states, it seems as though water is around every corner. But in Arizona, that is not the case. Because we live in the desert, finding adequate water sources can be difficult from year to year. Whether it’s manmade stock tanks or remote springs, there is almost always a degree of homework that needs to be done in order to find good water sources in Arizona.

Google Earth

Stock tanks

google earth

So, this is an obvious one, right? Especially in this day and age. Google Earth has become almost common practice in most hunters’ initial scouting, I almost shutter at the thought of someone not using it. It is the new normal. Stock tanks are often easily visible from an aerial view, especially when they are located out in meadows. The tanks in the timber can be a bit more difficult to see, but with some time spent at the computer, easy enough to locate. I spend a great deal of time staring at topographic maps and notating the whereabouts of marked tanks. (Sidenote: there are also tanks that are not on maps.) From there, I will then refer to Google Earth in order to find the tank using satellite imagery. Most of our water tanks out here have ATV trails going to them and you can see these as well from the aerial view. This can help clear up navigation to these sources in the future. Keep in mind that just because an ATV trail goes towards a tank, that doesn't mean that it gets a ton of traffic from these types of vehicles. Also, just because a stock tank might be dry in June, doesn't mean it won't have water in September. More on that later.


black bear water

Notice the bright green tree leaves above. This is from a cottonwood tree.

While stock tanks can prove productive, springs are probably my favorite water source to key in on. Springs are usually found in more remote locations, making them harder to access. This means two things: more animals and fewer people. Just like the case with tanks, I will refer to topographic maps to notate marked springs. From there, I will refer to Google Earth to try and find the spring via aerial imagery. These are going to be a lot tougher to see from above unless you are looking at canyon bottoms, which will have water pooled in them.

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These can also be prime water sources for wary animals. Something I will do in order to locate springs from above is to pay attention to the vegetation I am seeing on my computer and/or in person. Cottonwood trees are usually dead giveaways to the presence of water and can usually be spotted fairly easily when out and about glassing and, even sometimes, on Google Earth. They are large, bright green trees that need constant water to survive. This is something to keep in mind when reviewing aerial images for unmarked springs and when out glassing the hills. If you see a bright green cottonwood tree in a drainage, you should make plans for a visit.

google earth arizona

Notice the pools of water that have formed in the bottom of this canyon. These are excellent sources of water for wary animals.

Off season notes

water hole az

This water source is almost dried up. Notice the dark coloration coming down the rocks. Come August or September, I'd bet money that more water is running through this area and that pool down below will be more substantial.

The offseason is a great time to get out and locate water sources before your upcoming hunt. Recently, I have been hitting the hills to locate promising looking water sources for an early archery bull tag that I was fortunate enough to draw this year. Right now, I am focusing on what was—not what is. Let me elaborate on that. Our moisture levels go up and down like a yo-yo throughout the year. Spring through the beginning of fall for us is usually pretty dry. By June, a lot of water sources are dried up, but not forever. Particularly, in the form of wallows. These are all dried up at this time of year but are still visible.

In August and September, our monsoons will create more water sources than we can see at the moment. For that reason, I think it's important to pay attention to these future gold mines. Just because something might be dry in the month of June, doesn't mean it will still be dry in the fall. This is how our moisture works here. That doesn't only go for wallows, but for all water sources whether it’s tanks, springs, creeks, etc. Don't write something off too quickly. Pay attention to dried up mud pits and other stuff as well. For instance, you can see dark coloration coming down through some of our rocky drainages, which is a dead giveaway to the presence of water during the wetter months.

Backpacking sites

This is a little trick that I learned when I first started backpacking with the aspiration of backpack hunting in the future. I read post after post on various backpacking sites that talked about areas that I was interested in backpacking. Here, you can find trip logs from other individuals with the time of year they were there and everything. They note water sources throughout their hikes as well as even animal sightings and vegetation they encountered in the area. This is huge for me. Not only am I getting an up on potential feed to key in on for my hunt, but I have a rough idea of the water situation. It's pure gold to know that a certain spring might tend to be dry during a certain time of year. It's also gold to know that a certain creek has flowing water year-round. This is great for finding animals, but, also, if you are a backpack hunter. We need water out there, too.

To get an even better idea of how things look, you can also find YouTube videos of backpackers hiking various trail systems through the wilderness. With these, you are not only getting verbal information but also visual. As an avid bear hunter, I find this incredibly helpful because I am looking for certain food sources to coincide with certain times of the year. Through these hiking videos, I can get a look at the vegetation, as well as what any given water source might look like and even the location of it. Using these videos, I've been able to write certain areas off and have saved a lot of time simply by watching someone hike through an area.

Boots on the ground

looking for water

Now, the most important: you absolutely need to put your boots on the ground in order to find water in Arizona. Because of our dry climate, you simply cannot trust the words of a map. While it might say that there is a spring in a certain area, that doesn't mean that it has water in it. An example of this is a recent spring bear hunt that I went on—both this year and last year. Last year, I hiked into a wilderness to scout a potential bear spot. With all of my research, I knew that once I got to camp, there should be a small creek just a stone’s throw up the trail. I was elated when it was actually there and I was able to filter water. Fast forward to this year and it was a different story. All of the water sources that were there last year were absent. We had an incredibly dry winter here and I was feeling the consequences of that. Because I didn't hike in earlier to make sure the water was there, my hunt was cut short and I had to leave. You can't survive without water. A week later, after much more research, I made a scouting trip into the spot and located a different water source that I was unaware of before. Then I was able to pack back in there and have a great hunt. I would have gotten much more hunting in had I not taken the presence of water for granted. Lesson learned.

To cap it off

gohunt water filter

Arizona offers some of the best hunting in the West if you ask me. It is a unique experience that is unlike anywhere else I have been. However, it doesn't come without a little forethought. We live in the desert, which makes me admire our animals even more. It's such a rugged landscape that they call home. I put myself in their shoes sometimes and ask myself how they do it. How do they survive out in this dry climate? They are as tough as the country they live in. That's how they do it. If you spend the time locating water here, you will eliminate a lot of country and be able to hone your efforts to key in on certain areas. Sometimes, I feel like I am scouting water as much as I am scouting for animals. I assure you, it's there. You just need to go and find it.

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