Monday, January 9, 2012

Grand Canyon--Trout Not Wanted Here, January 2012

With the arrival of January and 2012, I figured I had better get the fishing season started off in the right direction, in more ways than one. This is the first entry I have posted in some time, and reflects my intention to publish current and future fishing expeditions in a timely manner. Moreover, I will be updating the site with trips preceding this year, starting with July 2010, so for those interested, stay tuned.

I began the year with a trek back into the Grand Canyon via the Bright Angel Trail in the first week of the month, to pay my respects to the stunning landscapes, the sweeping Colorado River, and of course Bright Angel Creek. As with every trip here, I was again struck by the immensity and grandeur of the place. Cliff formations seemed to loom and spread outward indefinitely in bold hues. Both of these images were taken in the vicinity of Indian Gardens, en route to the river below. The weather was marvelous, mild and sunlit throughout the trip--one of those times that an angler needs to find an excuse to get away and zen out on the water if possible, particularly in the winter.

Eventually, I made it down to the mighty Colorado--a section of Silver Bridge spans the river below. The river was running high and turbid from dam releases above, and runoff from sediment-laden upstream tributaries. Regardless of these conditions (or perhaps because of them), some fish could be coaxed to a streamer, given the right holding water and fly presentation.

Right around the corner, I was greeted once more by lovely Bright Angel Creek. This is the view downstream through the campground. As the picture attests, the campground was not full--the middle of winter offers a measure of solitude that is hard to find much of the rest of the year at this location.

I made the trip here for a few reasons, among them checking in on the current state of the trout fishery in the creek and river immediately downstream. As the following photo illustrates, a weir was in place across Bright Angel, just below the lower bridge crossing and campground.

A National Park Service sign pictured below informs visitors of the ongoing trout reduction program in the creek. This subject is deserving of discussion, and has already been covered by anglers on other blog sites, notably 111 Degrees West, The Trout Zone, and I will try to refrain from devoting too much time on the topic, particularly since the sites above write at least as eloquently about the subject as I could. Suffice to say, trout reduction efforts were reinstated in Bright Angel Creek in the fall and winter of 2010 after a short reprieve in 2008 and 2009, in the name of native fish restoration (particularly for the federally endangered humpback chub). Reduction efforts include the weir that captures brown and rainbow trout migrating up from the Colorado River to spawn in the creek, and electroshocking "treatments" upstream from the weir approximately two miles to the vicinity of the Phantom Creek confluence. These efforts are focused primarily in October-early February to coincide with brown trout spawning activity (although electroshocking is also periodically applied in the stream in spring and summer), and all trout (rainbows and browns) captured with these methods are killed by NPS staff and used for consumption.

Okay, so here is my soapbox for a paragraph, and then I will resume with writing about the fishing trip itself. For my part, I find it hard to stomach the reduction efforts, a response due in part to my admittedly biased personal perspective as a fly fisher that loves wild trout, even if they are introduced, nonnative species in the Grand Canyon. However, my reaction also stems from my perspective as a wildlife conservation professional, that sees a project aimed at attacking the symptoms but not the cause of an ecological problem--namely, trout are thriving in an altered, tailwater system that does not favor the long term survival of native species like the humpback chub that evolved in a turbid, warm water Colorado River unhindered by dams. Given that dams along the Colorado (and particularly Glen Canyon Dam upstream of the Grand Canyon) have no likelihood of being removed in the foreseeable future due to their numerous benefits to people, and agencies like the National Park Service have a mandate to protect and restore endangered species, trout are the easy target in the short term. Certainly, the humpback chub is a unique species, and deserves conservation and restoration efforts, but without the proper habitat (i.e. a restored, free-flowing Colorado River without dams), its long term existence is doubtful, regardless of whether trout populations are reduced or not. Consequently, I can't help feeling that the current management practices on Bright Angel Creek are a significant waste of time and resources, both for humpback chub and previously one of the finest wild trout fisheries in Arizona.

But enough of my personal convictions and opinions on the matter. The Glen Canyon Dam Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan (LTEMP) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is in the process of being prepared through the Department of the Interior, and public comments from the public are being accepted through the end of this month (January 2012). Regardless of how people stand on the matter, I would encourage folks to visit the site and contribute their suggestions on how the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon should be managed in the years to come.

So, on to the other and more immediate reasons I made the trip--fly fishing in a spectacular place, and hopefully still finding some beautiful wild trout on the end of my line. Following a fitful night of sleep at the campground, I began the next morning by prospecting with a large #4 Crawbugger on 4X in the tea-green, swirling flows of the Colorado. I drifted the streamer through a sheltered run, and received a firm pull on one cast as the fly swung back towards the shore. A large fish thrashed near the surface, trying to use its weight to break the tippet, but eventually I steered the bruiser towards shore, and brought a silvery female rainbow to hand.

The rainbow measured a solid 21" likely exceeded 3 lbs., and was reminiscent of a small steelhead in appearance and fighting ability--the Colorado River certainly breeds some impressive trout in its powerful currents.

And here the rainbow prepares to merge back into the river, to live and fight another day. Interestingly enough, the fish was relatively streamlined, and looked as if it had already spawned for the season, probably in the lowest reaches of Bright Angel Creek below the weir--from the looks of it, one less victim for the trout reduction efforts for the season.

I also ran across an older fisherman with several sons, all of them equipped with spinning outfits and rubber worm lures. I got to talking with the father for awhile, and quickly learned that he had fished the Colorado in the Canyon and up towards Lees Ferry for years, dating back to the '70s, and he provided a fascinating perspective at how the fishery has changed over the decades. He felt strongly about practicing catch and release around Bright Angel these days, given the current challenges facing the trout population--an encouraging sign. I returned up the creek from the confluence, and tied on a smaller, #10 Crawbugger to seek out more finned denizens. Sunlight had not quite found the bottom of the canyon at this point, and I was shivering from the chilly conditions.

I received the biggest surprise of the trip a bit later, in the form of a beautiful brown that taped in right at 22". The brute inhaled the Crawbugger after materializing from under a rock that hardly seemed large enough to conceal the fish. The brown charged about the stream, and yet somehow I was able to coax it to the bank in short order. Two significant points are worth noting here--the trout was healthy but somewhat slim (I guessed the fish as a female based on appearance, although that can be difficult at times with big browns), and definitely looked post-spawn. Even more intriguing was its location--without giving away specifics, I'll just say the brown was somewhere above the weir in the creek, meaning it had managed to negotiate the weir barrier to spawn, and had also avoided electroshocking. The tenacity of the fish alone made the brown deserving of release, although I wouldn't have considered keeping such a marvelous specimen in any case. I returned the big trout to the crystal clear Bright Angel Creek, and could only hope that the brown would continue to persist amidst the current management climate of trout eradication in this beautiful place.

I grabbed a quick breakfast at camp, packed myself a lunch, and proceeded up along the stream, warming up with the sun's rays that had finally penetrated the base of the Canyon.

Bright Angel Creek never ceases to be awe-inspiring in its beauty, and the simple, seemingly contradictory fact of a rushing cold stream flowing through thirsty canyon country.

Trout were relatively scarce along the lower stream through the campground and near Phantom Ranch, no doubt due to the trout reduction activities, and yet some fish could still be found, including a few that looked an awful lot like run-up rainbows from the Colorado River, such as the chunky 14" specimen in the photo above. Again, I suspect a few hardy fish managed to jump over the weir barrier rather than pass through it.

This lovely run produced a fine 13-14"rainbow that again lashed out at the Crawbugger.

And the 16" rainbow shown below was a classic spawner landed a short ways upstream of the creek confluence with the Colorado, that probably stood a slim chance of survival with the weir to greet it above. Regardless of its fate, the rainbow was a good one to end the day on, as darkness settled against the creek's music.

I started the following day early again, and wandered down towards the dull roar of the river.

This sweeping curve of the Colorado reflected the early light of the sun on the cliff tops, hundreds of feet above.

Trout from the river appeared in unexpected places, and utilized even small stretches of spawning habitat, including this scrappy 15" male rainbow, complete with a small kype and vibrant splashes of red on his gill plates and flanks.

I hiked up along Bright Angel Creek for much of the afternoon. The picturesque pool below screamed out trout, and yet appeared to be barren when I cast through the run.

The trout population did indeed seem lean along the lower two miles of Bright Angel Creek--the electroshocking efforts in the stream extend just upstream of the Phantom Creek confluence (shown in the image below), based on discussions I had with the Park fisheries biologist I ran into near the end of this trip. The biologist explained that Phantom Creek also experienced massive flash floods this past September that deposited large amounts of silt and debris in lower Bright Angel, causing significant fish kills of its own.

Some of the silt deposits were evident at the confluence, along with runs downstream that had been reconfigured. Ironically, the flash floods also appear to have created some new ideal-looking stretches of fine gravel for spawning.

Remarkably, I found a few small browns and one fat rainbow still present in Phantom Creek up to a terminal falls just upstream from the Bright Angel confluence.

I continued to make my way upstream along Bright Angel Creek, beyond the upper extent of trout removal activities, and soon the fishing improved dramatically for resident fish. The fish were somewhat smaller than their downstream counterparts, but vibrantly colored and demanding of a stealthy approach, particularly the good ones. Above, a foot-long rainbow fell for a #10 orange-bodied Neversink Caddis from a little plunge pool.

The fishing up in this section was a delight--dry flies, spooky trout in every lie affording cover and relief from the insistent currents, and a rushing canyon stream that embodied the simple joys of fly fishing.

The stream photo above shows a more detailed view of the preceding image. A good fish rose quietly in the soft water against the pink-hued boulder in the foreground. A decent hatch of #18 BWOs had been sputtering along throughout the afternoon, so I flicked a #16 gray parachute sparkle dun up into the foam line. Moments later, the trout sidled over and took the dry in an unhurried fashion.

A dark foot-long brown came to hand shortly after, and posed for the camera before release.

Another perfect-looking run spilled against a cliff wall, and I cast a #10 Neversink Caddis into the sheltered water at the head. The fly bobbed in the slack water, and then disappeared when a trout exploded on the attractor. This fish also materialized as a pretty 12" brown, but with more girth, few spots, and a pale golden sheen.

Every turn in the creek beckoned further exploration, but eventually the skies darkened with another approaching evening, and I hiked back down to the campground for my last night along Bright Angel for this trip.

I spent the next day making the ascent up and out from Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River--the trail is swallowed up in the immense landscape.

I reflected on the current state of the Bright Angel fishery as I trudged upwards--despite the cards being stacked against them, at least some of the trout were finding ways to persist, and somehow I managed to land the two best fish I have caught to date from the Canyon. Once again, I felt fortunate beyond words just to be able to be in such a magnificent place, and find some beautiful wild trout no less.

Here is a photo of me taking a break at Indian Gardens on the hike out--weathered, tired, and content, and happy too because Regan met up with me at this point, to make the final trek upwards together. I took a picture of her as we got above the rest area, shortly before we headed back into the perpetual shade during the winter in the upper several miles of Bright Angel Trail.

And here is one final image that Regan took as we approached the South Rim, sunset painting the cliff formations in reds and golds. A great trip, and quite the beginning to a new fishing season.


  1. Great to see you back Iain and what a great looking trip. My wife and I have been talking about taking the trek down in there this coming fall and I am really looking forward to it. Thanks so much for sharing.


  2. Thanks for the kind words Ben. You will love Bright Angel, it is a beautiful, awe-inspiring place, and fall is a great time to be there. Let me know if you want any suggestions on the trip, and I'll do my best to steer you in the right direction!


  3. Iain,

    I have fished BA numerous times--and as you detail, it is a special and marvelous fishery. The Trout Reduction Program is very frustrating, to say the least. As you discussed it makes little sense (if any) even from the standpoint of preserving the chubs. What isn't discussed is the fact that governmental officials (both state and federal) are responsible for the introduction of rainbows and browns into BA initially (stocking efforts date back to the 1920's for browns and as late as the 1960's for rainbows). So, what about stewardship/responsibility for species that we (the government) are responsible for introducing in the first place? This just adds to the frustration, imho. Thanks for the write up.

  4. After the spawn I figure there are 4,000,000 trout between Glen Canyon Dam and Hoover Dam. Federal agencies have been removing trout for almost a decade without making much of a difference to the trout fishing. This is evidenced by Iain's report and others that talk about the high numbers of trout they have caught.

    Joe D

  5. Nice to see you again this year Iain! I really enjoyed your blog post and photos, and I'm glad you enjoyed your trip! I'm extremely passionate about the place and its fisheries as well. The issues are extremely complex, and I'm glad to see the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management link you referenced. Its more likely the larger fish you caught between the weir and Phantom Creek came downstream after spawning rather than jumping the weir (based on jumping abilities of trout).

  6. What a wonderful account and detailed photo essay. Thanks for the time you put into this. May the powers that be pull their heads out at some point in the near future. I encourage all trout fisherman reading this to voice your opinions, as I have, through the link Iain provided.


  7. I still get on here twice a week to see if anything new has come up, pretty stoked to see a new post. Can't wait to see more! Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences.

  8. Thanks to all of you that have written positive and thoughtful comments, I really appreciate it.

    Anonymous, you raise a good point about state and federal agencies playing a role in originally stocking introduced fish species into the Colorado and Bright Angel--it would be refreshing to hear some recognition and acknowledgement of these past actions by the responsible agencies in any discussion of fisheries management and stewardship within the Grand Canyon.

    Joe D., I would tend to agree that trout reduction efforts are probably not having a significant impact on total trout numbers within the Colorado River system between Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. However, it is clear that reduction efforts are having a noticeable effect on localized trout populations, including in lower Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado just below the confluence with the stream, where many of the larger spawning-age trout (particularly browns but also rainbows) have been removed in recent years. Whether or not those efforts will have a long-term impact on native fish restoration remains to be seen.

    Brian, it was good to run into you again down along Bright Angel as well, and I'm glad you liked the photos and post (you have some beautiful photographs on your blogsite by the way). I certainly appreciate your passion and dedication to Bright Angel and the Colorado, even if I may not agree with some of the management objectives and practices enacted by your you mentioned, the issues are complex, and it will be interesting to see how they evolve. It does seem more likely that fish above the weir were moving back downstream after spawning, although based on previous personal observations, I think that the jumping abilities of migrating trout are underrated...

    Kyle and Anthony,

    Thanks for the good comments, and I will be publishing more posts soon, including one momentarily!


  9. Iain,

    Great to see that you are sharing your adventures via your blog again!

    It looks like this trip provided you with a glimpse of what the fishery was like a decade ago, when browns and rainbows over 20" were fairly common.

    Did Brian mention that there is talk of translocating HBC into BA Creek, as has been done in Havasu and Shinumo?

  10. Will,

    Thanks for the comments--it feels good to be making the blog a priority again, after too long of a hiatus.

    I felt fortunate to land the two 20+" trout on the trip, especially given the current management practices in the creek. It occurred to me too that these fish were almost like a window into the past, as I know you can personally attest in your years of direct experience and time along the stream.

    Brian did mention plans for translocating HBC into lower BA Creek, similar to Havasu and Shinumo Creeks, in a discussion we had during a trip I made in December 2010, although I don't when those plans might be put into action.


  11. Hello, I a taking a 6 day trip in April on the The Tanner, New Hance and Grandview Trails. I have not fished the Gc before. We will also be at Escalante Creek and Hance Creek. Which lures would you recommend for that time of the year?
    Also, what is the lightest weight reel you would recommend?
    I see so many choices it is hard to decide.. Kastmaster quarter onces, Panter black martin gold blade 6, bugger, midges, scuds.. plus all the items you listed above. I am from Florida and a complete novice in fresh water fishing. Any advise would be great.

  12. Iain,

    A friend and I are backpacking down to Bright Angel creek the first week of May. I have never been there before. I was hoping you could provide me with info on the fly fishing there. If you don't mind helping could you please email me at

    Thanks for any and all help!


    1. Gary and Joe,

      Thanks for the comments. Joe, I sent you an e-mail with a few suggestions. The trout in Bright Angel (and in the Grand Canyon in general) are not too sophisticated--a stealthy approach is more important than particular patterns or lures. That said, I like to use Crawbuggers, although any mid-sized dark woolly bugger should do the trick, along with a few smaller nymphs and dries (San Juan Worms are also a good choice) for more selective trout in the creeks.

      Gary, I think your choice in equipment and flies/lures depends on what you would like to use--if you want to fly fish, a 9' 5 wt is a good all-around choice, particularly if you are thinking of fishing the Colorado as well (bigger water and potentially some sizeable fish that know how to use the currents). A 3 or 4 wt should suffice if you just fish streams. If you are spin fishing, any lure that resembles a small baitfish should get some attention from the fish if cast and retrieved slowly through their feeding lies.

      Hope you both have great trips, and tight lines!