Lee’s Ferry Fishing

By Bill Becher

10-hour drive from L.A. puts you in the Grand Canyon and on the Colorado River angling the crystal clear water for rainbow trout

Imagine fishing in the Grand Canyon on crystal clear water for rainbow trout whose bright red bands echo the colors of the cliffs that tower over you. I did this at Lee’s Ferry, Arizona, a unique tail water fishery below Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River.

A typical Colorado River rainbow from the Lee's Ferry stretch of water in Arizona.

A typical Colorado River rainbow from the Lee’s Ferry stretch of water in Arizona.

The drive from LA takes about 10 hours, so if you leave early enough you can get in a taste of fishing at the “walk-in” section of the river in the late afternoon. Most fishing on the 14-mile stretch of water between the put in and the Glen Canyon Dam is accessed via boat, as we did the next day.

My fishing buddy, Larry Garfinkel , and I left at first light from the dock at Lee’s Ferry with our guide, Jeff Parker of Lee’s Ferry Anglers and his dog Otis, a nine year old German shorthair pointer. It’s a bit of a drag race to find the best spots on the gravel bars that line sections of the river. As we speed upriver we watch vees of ducks, buffleheads and golden eyes, wheel out of our way. I’m a bit apprehensive about whether we’ll find good sections to fish.

The river winds through deep red canyon lands rimmed by 1,000-foot high sandstone cliffs. One shaded section, known to locals as “The Icebox”, never sees the sun all winter. The water is stacked with fish, as many as 40,000 per mile according to some reports.

We chat with Parker, 34, who has been guiding for eight years. He guides the Boulder Mountain area of southern Utah in the summer, and Lee’s Ferry in the winter. His dog Otis goes with him on all of his trips. Parker says Otis is a great chuckar dog, and can spot fish too.

The scenery of Lee’s Ferry provides as much entertainment as the fishing action.
We watch as the rising sun paints the canyon walls a copper shade, which is reflected on the clear, slightly greenish water. This is Larry’s first trip here and he’s suitably impressed. Our guide cuts the motor and we glide onto a gravel bar. Otis hops out, eager to look for fish. Parker carefully sets the anchor on shore. The river starts low in the morning, but power generation to meet demand during the day can raise the flows substantially in a short time.
Soon Larry’s into fish. A lot of fish. He’s watching his yarn indicator above a cheese colored egg pattern and a “zebra midge”, a small copper bead on a size 18 hook wrapped with black thread and thin copper wire. He sets the hook on the slightest hesitation of the indicator and is rewarded with beautifully colored rainbows from 14 to 16 inches. Larry’s on his way to a 40 plus fish day.

Most of the fish don’t fight too hard, perhaps because the water is cold, a constant 46-48 degrees all year round, as Larry is to find out later when his waders fill with water after a misstep. But the color of the fish is amazing, the normally “rainbow” pink strip along the lateral line is a brilliant crimson.

Trout were first stocked in 1963 after the building of the dam, and are able to reproduce in the Colorado. According to Ambassador Guide Service’s Bill McBurney, the area we are fishing hasn’t been stocked in the last four years. The abundance of scuds and insects means that the fish grow rapidly.

A trout-pointing dog isn’t required on the Colorado River, but it couldn’t hurt either.
Meanwhile Otis is patiently waiting further downstream. He holds a point. Sure enough, he’s spotted some rainbows feeding leisurely on the emerging midges.

Parker sets me up with a dry/dropper combination. The dry fly acts as an indicator, and supports a zebra midge, egg, or scud pattern. Arizona fishing regulations only allow two hooks, so Parker bends down the hook on the dry fly so he can suspend two offerings. I cast and see the dry fly hesitate as it drifts and set the hook.

I’ve got a wriggling, colorful rainbow on the end of my line. Otis follows the fish into the shallow water. Fortunately he’s a pointer and doesn’t try to retrieve my fish. But he does check it out carefully.

We stop to eat lunch and hear the sputtering sounds of canyon wrens, they sound like they’re running out of gas. Lee’s Ferry and Marble Canyon are home to golden eagles, peregrine falcons, an occasional bald eagle, blue herons, and California condors.

In 1996 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Peregrine Fund released six condors nearby in an attempt to preserve this nearly extinct species. Adult condors weigh up to 20 pounds and have a wingspan of nearly 10 feet. But we aren’t lucky enough to see a condor today. Parker has seen condors, and also bobcats and fox, and the occasional cougar track.

I’m having a good fishing day, though it’s hard to imagine having a bad time here, the scenery alone is worth the drive. Having “reasonable expectations” is important for clients to enjoy themselves, according to Parker. He says that folks don’t always get 40 fish, and that 20 is a good day. He adds that people need to be aware of the temperatures, which can range from zero in the winter to a 110 in the summer.

Parker takes us to a spot where we can view petroglyphs created over a 1,000 years ago by Anasazi Indians. We see a tribal symbol and drawings of animals; perhaps they were sketches of the big horn sheep that still walk down to the water in summer when it’s hot.

Much later, in 1871, John Doyle Lee (for whom Lee’s Ferry is named) became the first permanent non-Indian resident of the area when he established a ranch on the valley floor near our put in. Ferryboats operated across the Colorado here from 1873 to 1928. Most of the early Mormon emigrants from Utah, heading to Arizona, crossed the river at this site.

Now the area draws many fishermen, especially in the winter. This can lead to some crowding, but we experience first hand the cooperation among the guides when Parker invites a party from a rival guide service to fish below us after they ask if we mind. That’s key, according to Parker, “If they ask politely I say okay.”

We’ve brought our own gear, but if you want to travel light Lee’s Ferry Anglers can rent you boots, waders, rods and reels. Parker encourages people to call or email the shop to find out what to bring and what to wear in each season, and find out what flies are working. He’s even emailed patterns to fishermen who like to tie.

That night we stay in an RV at the campground a few miles from the launch point. We go on our own the next day in an 18-foot shallow draft rental boat from Lee’s Ferry Anglers. It has a 45-horse jet drive outboard, so we don’t have to worry about loosing a prop on a gravel bar, but won’t win the morning race to choice spots.

We do well, despite our leisurely upriver cruise, and find some good spots in the morning. About noon the river suddenly rises and gobs of green muck float down as the fishing slows. We cruise back downriver, enjoying the scenery, and are careful not to miss the takeout, the next one is 226 miles downstream.

When we turn in the boat that evening we find out that the energy emergency in California has caused the dam’s operators to crank up the flows to almost double the normal rate, which spoiled the fishing. Deregulation strikes again.

Lee’s Ferry is located off Highway Alt. 89 on the west side of the Colorado River in Marble Canyon, approximately a 10 hour drive from Los Angeles, or a five hour drive from either Las Vegas or Phoenix. There is a commuter flight service to nearby Page, Arizona. The National Park Service charges an access fee, payable at the machine at the entry kiosk.

Current Arizona Fishing License Fees are Non Resident one day $12.50, five day $26.00

Fishing regulations
A valid Arizona Fishing License is required. Only barbless flies and artificial lures allowed. As of January 1, 1999, the daily bag limit is two trout under 16 inches. All trout over 16 inches must be returned to the water immediately. The possession limit is four fish. Possession of live fish is prohibited. Catch and release of all trout is encouraged.