Grand opportunities

Scott Willoughby/The Denver Post

From the overlook at Horseshoe Bend, the scenery and solitude of the Colorado River in the upper reaches of the Grand Canyon are stunning. Fishing on the river is peaking as temperatures are ideal for spring midge hatches in the tailwater fishery created by Glen Canyon Dam below Lake Powell.

By SCOTT WILLOUGHBY
The Denver Post

LEES FERRY, Ariz. (AP)

It’s safe to say that the vast majority of folks at the Lees Ferry boat ramp arrive with visions of grandeur and anticipation of the unrivaled adventures found in the legendary rapids of the Colorado River below.

Lees Ferry is best known as the launch point for the Grand Canyon, a historic river crossing that continues to serve as the only overpass for 277 miles between Lake Mead downstream and Lake Powell above. Among fishermen, however, it’s the 15-mile segment upstream of Lees Ferry that holds the allure. And the ride has been nearly as bouncy through the years.

“You could call it the biggest tailwater on the Colorado River,” said Terry Gunn, owner of Lees Ferry Anglers and a guide on the river since 1983. As a result, Gunn – like the river – has pretty much seen it all.

Currently, the Colorado River between Lake Powell and Lees Ferry is seeing something of a fishing renaissance, a return to its blue-ribbon heyday when large rainbow trout filled nearly every nook in the riverbed and anglers traveled far and wide to hook up with a trophy in one of the most stunning places to wet a line.

Gone are the glory days when most fish were measured in pounds instead of inches, yet, according to creel studies conducted by biologists from the Arizona Game and Fish Department, “Lees Ferry is providing some of its best fishing in a decade or more.”

Gunn and his stable of guides can corroborate the claim, having witnessed the ups and downs of the Lees Ferry fishery since rainbow trout were introduced after the completion of Glen Canyon Dam in the mid-1960s. With 83 reservoirs in its upper basin and 10 reservoirs in the lower basin, the Colorado River Basin is considered the most heavily regulated river system in the world. And the colossal dam in the heart of it all – Glen Canyon – has been something of a water-management experiment since its origin.

Halting the flow of the warm, turbid river at Lake Powell, the dam releases cold, clear water from the bottom of the reservoir that provides hydroelectric power and establishes ideal conditions for a sport fishery below. Along with the trout, midges, mayflies, caddis flies, scuds, cladophora algae, snails and crayfish also were put in the river.

During its first decade, the fishery remained largely undiscovered as the nutrient-rich river grew massive trout upward of 10 pounds. Hitting its prime in the 1970s, the section was designated a blue-ribbon trout fishery by the Arizona Game and Fish Department in 1981. Erratic river flows attributed to artificial floods, drought and scientific studies led to corresponding rises and ebbing of the fishery over the next two decades. Bolstered by healthy runoff in recent years, the river once again looks to be living up to its potential.

“It’s a pretty good time to be a guide at Lees Ferry right now,” said Capt. Tyson Warren, an 11-year fishing guide with Lees Ferry Anglers. “It makes us look like gods.”

Warren, who retired from the Air Force to spend summers guiding the Rio Grande and San Juan rivers with Wolf Creek Anglers near his home in South Fork, grew up in Flagstaff, Ariz., and returns to the vermilion cliffs of that state each spring to savor the scenery and spectacular fishing of Marble Canyon and Lees Ferry. With water temperatures holding consistent in the mid-40s below the dam, midges make up the primary food source for trout these days, and the proper mix of warming nights and sunlight on the canyon floor create optimal fishing conditions until Warren returns home May 30.

“Right now is the most popular time, and the midge hatches are about to really pop. But the fishery is open 365 days a year, and because the water temperature is so consistent, you have as good a chance of having a great day in January as you do any time of year,” Warren said. “The summer season is growing among people who don’t mind the heat, since the cicada hatch is our only real dry-fly fishing.”

The reality that no man steps into the same river twice is emphasized over a day of fishing at Lees Ferry, as hydropower demands dictate the amount of water flowing through the channel. The advantage is that anglers actually have the opportunity to scout the riverbed for potential holding areas before they are covered with water, then drift a cast over them as the river rises and fish move into prime spots.

By beginning the day early, fishermen can cover a wide variety of water without ever moving more than 100 yards. Although fish react to midges, San Juan worms, egg patterns and small woolly buggers, changing flies essentially is optional once the bite is established. The downside is that the fishing often turns off when the river begins to recede, typically by 2 p.m.

It’s an odd game, where the weather report for Las Vegas or Southern California can have as big an impact as the weather in nearby Page, Ariz., because of the power demands for air conditioners. But after so many years on the water, Warren essentially has a flow chart imprinted in his mind that tells him what spots fish best at given river levels.

When the fishing is on, 50-plus fish is not an unreasonable expectation of a day. With an estimated 20,000 fish per mile, finding fish longer than 20 inches remains possible, although it takes perseverance.

Gunn has confidence that his favorite fishery will continue to improve for at least another year, thanks in large part to last summer’s extended runoff that stirred up nutrient-laden sediment upstream. He has seen the impact before, the dramatic increase in aquatic vegetation and organisms, and the resulting crop of large and healthy fish.

But just what the long-term future of the fishery holds is anybody’s guess.

“I keep waiting for the bubble to burst, to have a bad year,” Warren said. “But right now, it’s about as good as it gets.”

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