By Brent Johnson
The Provo River below Jordanelle Reservoir appears black. The water is clear and perfect but the river is dark from moss and boulders and caddis casings. It is fishy looking and within its banks grow brown trout of the bragging kind; dark-spotted, thick fish that can snap a tippet with a quick head shake or an upstream burst. These big fish not only have "shoulders," they have hips and thighs and wear a size 16 hightop.
Directly below the dam the river runs along the base of a mountain. A steep canyon wall rises from the bank. There are no roads along the river, only trees and wetlands. Facing west, one can imagine fishing on wilderness water, far from the incessant buzz of civilization.
Downriver the water runs through straightened channels where fish habitat is less than ideal. There are only a few access points. Start into the corridor and you can walk a lot of ground before reaching an exit point. This section has fewer than usual riffles and pools, and those that exist are usually occupied by a fly caster. Call ahead for reservations. As little as five years ago a person had his pick of pools, but the middle Provo River has been discovered.
The middle Provo has provided many vivid fishing memories. In 1987 the river gave me my first 20-plus-inch fish on a fly. A year later I taught my wife to fly fish on the river, and she learned that the tippet should not be grabbed when netting a big fish. (And I learned to net my own fish for awhile.) The river has a current consecutive-year streak of producing my largest fish. This despite traveling to such big fish waters as the Green in Utah and Wyoming, Strawberry Reservoir, the Henry's Fork, and the South Fork of the Snake. Two fairly recent experiences have shown me how productive the river can be.
In September of last year, a friend and I fished a stretch of water a half-mile above Deer Creek Reservoir. The better pools were booked so we were relegated to a straight, unbroken run lined with willows and cottonwoods. We each took a side of the river and worked upstream in water that was never deeper than a foot or two. The afternoon was cloudy and warm, providing excellent conditions for caddis, mayflies and terrestrials. We took fish out of every likely lie, and many unlikely spots. Frequently changing our flies for a little variety made no difference as the fish took hoppers, beetles, trudes, caddis and blue-wing olives. The largest fish was 23 inches, taken by my friend on a hopper.
In March of this year, a warm sunny day stimulated midges into daylong activity. Beginning in the morning the fish took a size 22 Griffiths gnat. As the hatch increased, the fish wouldn't look at anything smaller than a size 14 Griffiths, and as the hatch waned later in the day, they went back to the 22. The middle Provo literally boils with fish during such hatches. In the better pools, a caster will find 30 fish within casting distance. Although we didn't tally numbers for that March day, the number of fish that found my net was easily above 50.
Among local rivers, the middle Provo has some of the most consistent and varied hatches: midges, baetis, caddis, stoneflies, green drakes and PMDs. Fishing wet often provides the best chance at the largest fish, but dry-fly fishing is almost always a possibility. The regulated flows provide excellent surface possibilities during the prime big hatch months of May, June and July. The river has become a very good water with prospects for an excellent future. There may, however, be growing pains in the coming months and years.
Re-channeling the river
The river we know today will not be the river of next year, or five years from now, and particularly 20 years from now. The channel that was straightened many years ago is being un-straightened: curved and twisted the way a river should be (and perhaps the way a fisher should be). The middle Provo isn't necessarily broken, but it certainly can be much better. In remodeling the river, however, it may be a case of one step backward before taking 10 steps forward.
A visit to the river will find areas where construction has occurred. A trip in April of this year showed scenes that were truly construction zones. Heavy machinery sat on the river, and trees had been leveled and ground made bare. One could have legitimately wondered whether anything would grow again. However, in only a few months these areas have shown significant improvement, with old growth entrenching and new growth appearing. The Utah Reclamation, Mitigation and Conservation Commission promises that not only will the river stabilize and the vegetation continue to grow, the middle Provo and its environs will flourish.
New trees and new fish
The Provo River Restoration Project Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) details the near and the distant future. In changing the course of the river, for instance, approximately 1,000 cottonwood trees and 300 willows will be razed. Although these numbers are significant and will result in a visibly altered landscape in the short-term, many of these trees had short life spans and the thinning will be beneficial. More importantly, vegetation is currently limited in many spots to the straight, narrow river corridor. The future, twisting river will have a broader corridor and a wider band of vegetation. A thousand-plus trees will be sacrificed to make room for 10,000 trees and bushes.
Equal to the improved aesthetics of the new river is the anticipated improvement in fish quantity and quality. The EIS projects a short-term decline in the number and size of fish, but also projects a future increase of 480 percent in fish biomass. Every 20-inch fish currently in the river will have five identical friends. The future looks enticing. (Unfortunately, the EIS also projects a 450 percent increase in recreational usage, so practice the many kind ways in which you can tell someone to stop casting into your space.)
What about insects?
Insect life, as every fisherman knows, is one of the most important factors for a quality fishery, particularly a wild trout fishery. The food pyramid for fish is anchored by the small residents of the river - the mayflies, caddis and stoneflies that spend most of their lives in the water. If the insects are destroyed, the fish experience difficulties at dinnertime. The EIS does not address the inevitable impact on the fish basic food groups.
The EIS carefully considered most environmental impacts of the project - the noise, the siltation, the water flows, and the destruction of vegetation. However, absent from the report is a detailed discussion on "benthic macroinvertebrates" - aquatic insects. The EIS simply states that a positive impact is a probable result from the improvements in stream habitat conditions. Based on personal observations, I was hoping for more assurances from the report.
There is a section of riverbed that runs below U.S. 40 that, up until a few years ago, dried up in the late summer because of irrigation diversions. Water flows have been continuous in this section for the past several years, but there is a noticeable difference in insect life between this section and the section below, in which water has flowed since the channel was straightened. Caddis casings are significantly fewer, and midges, when they are hatching, do not skim the water in high numbers. However, a phone call to the Utah Reclamation, Mitigation and Conservation Commission eased concerns.
Although not addressed by the report in detail, the survival of the aquatic insects is definitely a focus of the professionals working on the project. Mike Weland, executive director of the commission, confirmed that they have been monitoring the situation and preliminary data shows excellent results.
Re-colonizing the river
The river is divided into nine "reaches" for purposes of analysis and rehabilitation. The first reach is below Jordanelle Dam, while Reach No. 9 is directly above Deer Creek Reservoir. The first reach to be reconstructed was No. 2, which was started last year and finished earlier this year. According to Weland, the location was intentional for several reasons, one of which was to allow the insects in Reach No. 1 to "colonize" the lower reach.
The restoration project involves creating a new river bed and diverting water from the existing channel into the new river. Although fish will be moved to the new river as the existing channel is drained, moving the insects is practically impossible. Rather, the project anticipates that the insects will move themselves, or more specifically, move their egg-laying to different locations. Bugs from Reach No. 1 will move downstream to populate Reach No. 2. The new colony in Reach No. 2 will extend itself into Reach No.3, and so on.
The thought conjures images of a B-grade science fiction movie in which brave space pioneers are recruited to repopulate a new planet after the old planet is destroyed. Caddis, stoneflies and mayflies will be drifting and flying from traditional river grounds to deposit eggs in areas where no insect has gone before.
A new Utah river
About 16 years ago I learned how to fly fish on the middle Provo. The river was uncrowded, and even in those days, before the regulated flows brought by Jordanelle Dam, it had spectacular hatches and tippet-testing browns. However, it was a river that was clearly in trouble. After catching several nice fish one spring, I returned later in the summer to find the stretch was mostly dry from irrigation diversions. There were several pools in which fish scattered upon my approach, but those fish were doomed to die in the summer heat. (It was ironic that the horse pasture next to the river was flooded with fresh water, while the river itself was dry.)
The river has improved since those days, and the improvements could be exponential after the rehabilitation is completed. I recently fished the newly constructed section, which provided a glimpse of the future. A new walking path winds through the cottonwood trees, providing access points to the river. The path will be extended through the river corridor, providing many access points and a unique aesthetic experience. Riffles, pools and runs are now closely connected, quadrupling the area of productive water, and young plants are taking root to stabilize the banks.
As I stood waist-deep in a new pool, I imagined what it will be like several years from now when the rehabilitation has taken firm hold and fish and insects have increased in number and size. The pool I was fishing will have 40 fish rising within casting distance and 10 of those fish will cause my hands to tremble as I tie on a fly. Insects will have streamside vegetation for resting spots, and anxious fish will have ample cover. I will be able to look upstream and see a pool boiling with fish, and I'll be able to look downstream at the same scene.
In these times of seemingly unbridled development, it is refreshing to see a plan of improvement and preservation. It is always exciting to fish a new body of water. It will be even more exciting to fish new water that is an old friend, located just outside our front doorstep.