Fish Creek — Big Fish & Spectacular Hiking
By Dave Webb
People often ask me: "Where can I go to catch big fish?" That's difficult to answer because so much depends on the skill and style of the fisherman. I know guys who can go to the Provo any day of the year and catch trophies. But most of us can't do that. Many people struggle to catch a couple of pan-sized planters.
But there is a place, a beautiful wild mountain stream, where virtually anyone who can nip a fly onto the water without making too much commotion stands a good chance of catching a big fish.
You've got to be willing to drive and then hike away from the road to get to this paradise. But its worth it. It's a wonderful stream, and it cuts through a scenic canyon full of wildlife and natural beauty.
I'm talking about Fish Creek, above Scofield Reservoir. The stream and its canyon combine to produce plenty of opportunity for adventure. In fact, this is an ideal outing for a family, Scout troop, or other group which includes youngsters.
The Fish Creek National Recreation Trail begins near the top of the mountain along the Skyline Drive road, above the town of Fairview. The trail runs for 15 miles, following the stream most of the way, down to Scofield Reservoir. It's a well-marked trail and easy hiking in most areas.
The alpine scenery here is beautiful, particularly in the fall, and there is a remarkable diversity of wildlife — deer, elk, fox, eagles, falcons, beavers and many other animals. It was along this trail that I came face to face with the only cougar I've ever seen in the wild. I've seen bear sign in the area but have yet to catch a glimpse of these usually shy animals.
An alternative hike would begin at Gooseberry Reservoir and follow Gooseberry Creek down to Fish Creek and then down to Scofield.
The distance is about the same, but Gooseberry Creek flows through a rugged canyon and so the hike is more intense. Gooseberry Creek offers good fishing from the reservoir downstream.
Scofield and its tributaries were treated a couple years ago to remove rough fish, and then restocked. Fish Creek was poisoned from the reservoir upstream to just above its confluence with Gooseberry Creek.
Gooseberry Creek was treated all the way to the reservoir. I visited the area on September 15, anxious to see how the stream has responded to the treatment. I also wanted to scout in the area for elk. My four year-old daughter was with me, and we had an enjoyable adventure. I can still hear the delighted squeal she uttered when she caught a fish, and I can still feel the ache of tired muscles from carrying her most of the way up the mountain.
On previous trips I have started at Gooseberry Reservoir and fished downstream, and then hiked back to the reservoir. Or I have started at the camping area at the bottom of the trail, just above Scofield, fished upstream for a few miles, then returned that same day. The problem with these approaches is that you never get past the easily accessible areas near the trailheads. And since most of us don't like to hike in the dark, we start back just before the best fishing begins.
This time I wanted to start at the top and fish my way to the bottom, camping about mid-canyon. But my daughter nixed that plan. I try to take one of my kid with me on each outing. The oldest two — a 13-yearold boy and 11-year-old girl, can out hike me without breaking into a sweat. My 9-year-old goes over the rocks like a champ, and can usually keep up. But it was the 4 year-old's turn, and she likes to look into every "snake hole" and pick every flower she sees. I decided it would take two weeks to make the hike with her, and so we revised the plan.
A dirt road comes from the Skyline Drive down along the top of the ridge above Fish Creek. I figured we would park about half way down that road, and then hike from the ridge down to the stream. It looked like a pretty easy hike, down to an area just above the Fiah Creek/Gooseberry Creek junction. Easy on the map. But not so easy with a 4-year-old.
It was a challenge just getting to the ridge. I was coming from Salt Lake and wanted to get onto the Skyline Drive road, and so I took U.S. 6 toward Soldier Summit. I turned in at the rest area where the drive road begins (just above the Skyline Cafe and service station), but found the drive closed on that end for repairs.
To get onto the Skyline Drive road you go around the rest area and head to the southwest. A dirt road takes off just above the rest area, and I studied my map to see if it might just take me to the Fish Creek Ridge. I identified it as the Starvation Road and, sure enough, it goes up the mountain. So we took it. That was mistake number one.
The northern part of the Skyline Drive is a good gravel road. I've taken my car over it many times. But the Starvation Road ia a washed out, rutty, rocky dirt road which gets really rough as it goes up the side of the ridge. I'm lucky we were in my Suburban this time — it was a challenge even for the big truck.
The Starvation Road goes over Bear Ridge and then down to Pontown Creek and eventually over to Scofield. At Pontown Creek I turned onto the Fish Creek Ridge Road, and then my troubles really began. There are a couple deep holes about halfway up the ridge where the dirt has been beaten into powder, creating a real truck trap in front of some big boulders. My truck sank up to the axles in the powder, lost traction and the tires started to spin, just before we tried to climb over the boulders. I wondered if we would ever get out.
I finally backed out of the trap and spent a half hour throwing rocks into the powder. Then, by keeping two wheels in the scrub oak above the road and the other two on the rocks, we were able to get over the boulders. That was the closest I've come to getting stuck in a long time.
We finally gained the ridge and found a trail which headed down toward the stream. On top of the ridge it's mostly open country, with stands of quakies. There was deer and elk sign all over in the brushy meadows, and I saw several spots where they had bedded down in the trees. But no animals were visible.
It was about a mile and a half from the road down to the stream. Hiking was fairly easy for about a mile, then our trail faded into the brush. We made our way out to the side of the ridge, and found it drops off steeply down to the stream. That last quarter mile was rough going.
Fish Creek is small above its confluence with Gooseberry Creek. It's cold, crystal clear water with large, shallow beaver ponds stacked almost on top of each other. The fish are easily spooked — if you don't approach softly and quietly you see startled fish dash for cover before you get within 10 feet of the water.
It's difficult to sneak up on fish when you are with a 4-year-old. Mine likes to run and jump and yell. And she cries if she thinks you are being mean, or if she doesn't get her way.
We saw a lot of fish dash for cover.
But we also caught fish. Most were 10-14 inch cutthroats. But I caught 16 and 18 inchers, and saw several others. In fact, I was surprised at the number of big fish I saw in the little stream.
Fly fishing is the most productive way to fish these beaver ponds. The water is slow but shallow, and so it is difficult to move bait through the holes. Spinners can be effective, but in the clear water it is difficult to use them without scaring the fish.
These are wild, spooky fish, leader shy, but not that diffficult to catch. Use a small bug; a mosquito, elk hair caddie, renegade, pheasant tail or other basic patterns work well most of the time. Use light tackle and fine leader. Sneak up on the holes and stand well back from the bank to cast.
You can often see feeding fish, even during the middle of the day. Cast to them, or cast near rocks, overhang or other protected spots.
There are willows, thick brush and lots of poison ivy along the stream, but also plenty of open areas. You can cast to most holes easily. You don't really need waders because you can almost always stand on rocks in the stream, and cross dry at will.
My favorite stretch of stream begins about a mile above the camping area near Scofield and extends up to just above the confluence with Gooseberry Creek. The flows are better here, the holes are deeper, and yet it is far enough from the trail head that it gets little fishing pressure. There is a good number of fish in this area, including some large fish, even though this is part of the area which was treated. I enjoy fishing with spinners, and they can be very effective in this area.
Still, I really want to start at Gooseberry and fish my way downstream, camping halfway through the canyon. That adventure will have to wait until next year. Snow usually comes early and piles deep in this country.
Copyright Dave Webb, 2005