By Dave Webb
At least once every winter, when northern Utah is chocked by cold and snow and gloom, I like to escape to sunshine, mild temperatures, red rock and big rainbows — I like to fly fish the mighty Colorado River at Lees Ferry.
The Colorado is a big river, compared to others in the southwestern U.S. It gushes clear and cold from Glen Canyon dam, providing ideal trout habitat in the Lees Ferry area, which is just above the Grand Canyon. The scenery is gorgeous, classic deep canyon country, almost as spectacular as the Grand Canyon itself. Wildlife is abundant along the river corridor; fishermen occasionally see eagles, condors, mountain sheep, deer, mountain lions and a host of other creatures. Taken together, the package makes for a world-class adventure.
There is some opportunity for anglers to walk the banks of the river and get into fish. But, to reach the prime spots, you need a boat. Jet boats are the preferred mode of transportation but other power boats can also navigate the river. The water level fluctuates, meaning you always need to be alert to avoid rocks and gravel bars, and it is always a good idea to carry a spare prop.
Because it is a big river with limited access and tricky boating, the Colorado can be intimidating to anglers making their first visit. The river provides plenty of nutrients and so the big rainbows are well fed; they can be finicky at times. The fish readily take flies – but only when the right fly is presented in just the right way. The river gets considerable pleasure and the fish are smart. To catch them you've got to find where they are feeding and then match what is in the water.
In such a situation, I prefer to fish with a guide. On my fist trip, back a few years ago when I was a beginning fly fisher, I had the good fortune to take a mid-winter trip with a guide from Lees Ferry Anglers. It was a wonderful experience that helped boost my skill level and confidence. Well worth the money. After that one trip I felt confident to fish the river on my own.
It took me about 8 hours to drive the 360 miles from Salt Lake City. I elected to go down U.S. 89, which is the most direct route, and I think it's the most scenic. But that choice probably cost me an hour because hundreds of deer were feeding along the highway and so I had to slow down. Herds were crossing the road in front of me. I love to see deer as I travel, but not that close up.
It was late when I arrived at the Lees Ferry Lodge, where I had reserved a room. In fact, it was almost midnight and the place was closed for the night. What I didn't see wee a note on the front door saying my room was unlocked and waiting for me. So, instead of a comfortable sleep on a real bed, I stayed down at the campground and listened to it rain off and on all night long. (The campground is nice, with flush toilets and covered tables.)
They say it only rains about five days a year at Lees Ferry. Unfortunately, the day I was there the area picked up a good share of its yearly precipitation total. A front would cross, bringing sheets of rain, then it would clear a little and the sun would shine for a few minutes. Then another front would cross.
The climate at Lees Ferry compares to that of St. George. Both are close to 3,000 feet in elevation. So winter days are generally mild. The temperature of the water coming out of Powell ranges from 42 to 48 degrees year-round–ideal for trout growth and ideal for wading. Late winter is a popular time to fish the river because of the usually pleasant conditions and active fish.
But the weather certainly wasn't pleasant during my first trip. The raindrops stung my forehead as we powered our way upstream. I was soon chilled to the bone. It was a relief to get out of the boat and into the water. We tied on orange scuds and yarn strike indicators and waded out to fish a gravel bar.
I was cold, wet and stiff, and the wind was blowing rain into my face. Difficult conditions. I had a terrible time casting. My guide, Jeff English, gave me a few pointers, showing me how he could flip the rod back and forth and send that scud anywhere. Jeff is good. It was enjoyable just watching him work. But, despite my best efforts, my casts weren't making it. So we decided to bag the fly rods until conditions improved. We got out spinning gear and went to work catching fish.
When Jeff said "spinning gear" I imagined Rapalas or Mepps or spoons or something. I was surprised when he pulled out small, orange marabou jigs. I had fished jigs for trout in lakes, but never in a river. They proved to be very effective, and could easily be used in a similar manner on the Green, the Provo, the Weber or other fairly large streams.
We concentrated on a stretch of slow water, casting up near the bank and then working the jig back toward the boat. We let the jig sink until it was close to the bottom, then popped it a couple times, reeled in couple feet, and let it sink again. The idea is to keep the jig just above the moss, and make it dart like a minnow.
Trout often pick it up as it falls. Sometimes they hit it hard but often they just stop the jig, making it difficult to detect a strike. Watch your line. And be alert to any light tick on your rod.
My first fish was an 18-inch rainbow. A beautiful fish, although Jeff said it wasn't as fat as most coming from the river. Then I picked up a 13 incher, and then a 17 incher. Now my blood wee flowing and I felt great.
And then the sun came out. So we stowed the spinning rode and went back to fly fishing
Fly fishing was tough that day, even in the sunshine. A few people were picking up fish on the gravel bars, using scuds on the bottom or an Irresistible on top. Some also had success using tiny midge patterns.
The water flow in the canyon varies hour by hour, and that has a profound effect on fishing. The dam was constructed to generate hydroelectricity, and the flow is regulated by power needs. In the morning, when businesses are coming alive, a lot of water needs to be pushed through the turbines. The river level rises, flooding gravel bars and sweeping food downstream. Fish often go on a feed as the water rises.
As power use peaks and then tapers off, the water level drops. Fishing is tough when the water is dropping as it was by the time Jeff and I got serious about fly fishing.
We powered upstream, Jeff studying the river. Suddenly he pulled up short and said he could see fish feeding on the surface along the edge of a pool. It took me a minute but then I saw them, mouths poking up through a line of foam. We eased the boat over.
Fish darted for cover as we approached. But we anchored and sat quietly and they soon came back. There must have been a dozen or more, hanging just under the surface. Now and then they would glide up and pick something out of the foam.
We tried pattern after pattern but those fish wouldn't even look twice. We placed flies within inches of feeding fish, and they showed no interest at all.
Finally Jeff tied on a number 20 pheasant tail, put a small split shot about a foot in front, cast up above the fish and let it drift down to them. When the nymph was in the pool he controlled it with tiny strips – only about an inch at a time. That worked. A 12-inch rainbow took the nymph and battled valiant as Jeff played it to the boat.
He was the only taker. I don't know what those fish were eating but we sure couldn't match it. It's a frustrating experience to see fish feeding all around you and not be able to coax a bite. It happens to me now and then, and I was tickled to see it happen to a professional guide.
Finally we gave up. On a whim, as Jeff was cranking up the engine, I grabbed a spinning rod and threw out one of those orange marabou jigs. I kept it near the surface as I pulled it through the feeding fish. Wham! An 11 incher hit hard and hooked itself. I cast a couple more times and caught a 13-incher. By that time Jeff had the boat ready and we went upstream to try scuds again before calling it a day.
Fishing at Lees Ferry is restricted to artificial flies and lures only, and only barbless hooks are allowed. It’s catch and release fishing. Ok, the rules say you can keep 4 fish under 12 inches in length, but nobody does.
A guide really does help insure a successful trip. "I like taking people out and helping them do things they have never done before," Jeff said. "I know I'll never get rich in this business, but I do all right. I've had doctors, lawyers and CEOs tell me they would give anything to do what I do."
Spring and fall are ideal times at Lees Ferry because the weather is usually great. Most winter days are pleasant but it can be cold and stormy. The air temperature gets hot in the summer, but the water is always cold and fishing is usually very good.
"We fish 365 days a year," Jeff said.
Weekends and holidays book up fast, particularly in the spring. If you call a few weeks in advance you can usually schedule a trip.
You need an Arizona license to fish Lees Ferry.
I was raised in the St. George area and I love the red-rock country of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Fishing Lees Ferry is a unique experience– I don't know of any other place on earth where you have such good fishing in such a spectacular rugged desert setting.
Besides the fishing and scenery, I wanted to visit the area for personal reasons. The ferry was established by a man named John D. Lee, one of the more colorful Utah pioneer leaders. I happen to be a direct descendant by one of his many wives, Mary Leah Groves. It was fun to see where he lived during a difficult stage in his life.
For more information:
Arizona Game & Fish Department: www.gf.state.az.us
Lees Ferry Anglers: www.leesferry.com, 1-800-962-9755
Lees Ferry Lodge: www.leesferrylodge.com, (800) 451-2231