Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lees Ferry, February 2012

Lees Ferry along the Colorado has to be the most well-known fishery in Arizona, for the prolific numbers of strong rainbows it holds, to the stunning cliffs painted in bold hues looming above the river's banks. That a cold, clear tailwater could thrive in such dry country seems to offer up a significant contradiction, but one that trout anglers eagerly seek out and embrace.

I am one of those fly fishers that did not immediately take to the Ferry for various reasons, but the main factor probably just boiled down to a resistance to learning the rhythms of the river, and the techniques required to find success here. It took me awhile to really appreciate the fishery, but I felt like I finally "got it" on the most recent trip to the walk-in area in mid-February. The water flows were ideal for wading throughout the day, the weather was sunny and mild, crowds were minimal, and trout were on the move for spawning and feeding.

I began around the Paria River confluence at the downstream end of the walk-in area, and soon connected with chunky wild bows, including the two fish pictured above and below. The trout throughout the trip were tireless fighters, and used the powerful currents to full advantage.

Most of the fish landed were in the 12-14" range, with a precoius handful somewhat larger--all of the rainbows were beautiful specimens, both colorful and healthy, and fat in most cases. The trout in the photo below was one of the better trout landed over two days, stretched just past the 16" mark, and doubled over my 9' 5 wt like it was a considerably larger fish.

I used several patterns with success, including brown Crawbuggers in size 10, flashy black Marabuggers in size 4, small #20 red SJ worms, and #14 apricot-colored Otter's Soft Eggs. I generally tied one of the streamers to a 4X leader, and then attached one of the smaller flies to 12-16" of 5X. I did not use indicators (probably an antithetical practice to most Lees Ferry anglers), but instead maintained slight tension during the drifts to detect subtle takes. Egg patterns were the most consistent producers for me, although annelids had their moments, and the streamers drew some attention from a few aggressive fish, including the 16" fish pictured above.

Through it all, the Colorado River passed below striking sandstone cliffs, and multicolored hues reflected back on the currents like stained-glass windows in perpetual motion. The profusion of rich colors against the liquid music of the river put me in a trance at times, causing my thoughts to wander when casting and prospecting for trout.

Above, a lone angler worked the flats upstream of the Paria River in the waning light of late afternoon, dwarfed by the immense scale of the landscape.

I returned to the stretch the following morning, and again found some energized trout, including this 15.5" male rainbow sporting some pronounced teeth, that grabbed an egg pattern through a bouncing riffle. The photos don't do the fish justice, but it was shaped like a football, and proved difficult to subdue.

In the two days I fished the walk-in, trout feeding activity seemed to peak in the morning and again in late afternoon/evening. Early afternoons were spotty at times, probably due to fluctuating river flows, but still yielded some fine trout, particularly while wandering up towards the boulder fields near the upper section and casting to sheltered lies near the bank.

The sparsely spotted rainbow below came from such a spot, probably a male based on the rich red stripe running along its sides and gill plates, and moved for an egg pattern.

A scrappy female followed suit from the same run, also taking an egg pattern. Both of these fish were 13-14", seemingly the average good-sized bow for the trip.

The varied hues of wild trout are inevitably something to appreciate, and these fish were no exception.

So, fishing was a blast on the Ferry, and time seemed to merge together, punctuated by the frequent insistent tug of a spirited rainbow. I caught plenty, lost at least as many more, and life in the moment seemed just about right.

The light was slanted and beautiful in the fading hours of the second day, and I found myself casting on a short line up through boulder gardens and pocketwater, the ruddy pink-orange cliffs in full relief before me. I received another strike from a strong fish, and after a stubborn fight, eventually pulled close a classic-looking, heavily-spotted rainbow.

The fish featured a wide band of crimson rose on the flanks and gill plates, and measured a solid 16"--one of the prettier rainbows I have caught in the state, and reminiscent of redbands landed from rivers I hold dear in central Oregon.

And here is one final image, of a fat 15" male landed as darkness took hold--the photograph doesn't show the full extent of the bow's coloration due to using a closeup flash, but it was another stunner, and a good one to end the day and trip on.

I certainly shed my reservations about Lees Ferry on this visit, and a part of me wished that the hours would continue to stretch on and on, with trout responding in kind at the end of the line--always a sign of a good fishing expedition, and a reason to return, to be immersed in the soothing tonic of the river once more.


  1. Very nice report to see. I'll be heading up there in a few weeks with some buddies and I'm very excited to finally fish the Ferry. Good reports like this are keeping me busy at the vice. Nice photos as always.


  2. thanks for sharing, I used to make annual trips to Lees Ferry many years ago, it is a neat fishery, brought back alot of great memories.
    Have you heard of jackass wash? We used to do make the hike down and do well. It is also amazing how small you feel in such a vast place.

  3. Ben,

    Thanks for the kind words, and that is good to hear you will be heading up to the Ferry soon--it sounds as if flows will continue to be great for wading in March, and I suspect you and your friends will have a blast. I am thinking of heading back to the Ferry myself in a week or two, if time allows!


    1. Ian,

      Thanks for the good remarks, and I agree, the scale of the place is humbling, in the right sort of way. I have heard of Jackass Wash, but have not accessed the river by that route--I may have to try it some time. I have fished the river near the Ferry via Cathedral Wash and Soap Creek, and found some bows, solitude, and more rugged and stunning scenery. Good stuff.