Self-Guided Float and Fish Adventure -
The Jeep shudders violently as a powerful wind gust unexpectedly catches the 16-foot canoe attached to its roof like a giant sail. Awakened from my driving daydream, I quickly regain control of the vehicle and notice several dirt devils swirling in the distance. I send a reassuring glance over to Michelle—my startled wife, who is accompanying me—in an attempt to convince her I’m still alert.
After traveling along an empty desert highway, staring into the sun’s hypnotizing abyss for hours, we are finally approaching US Highway 89A, where we will start our descent into Arizona’s Glen Canyon. In my mind, however, I am already there, and my thoughts once again begin to wander. I conjure up spectacular images of landing Lees Ferry’s world famous rainbow trout in gin-clear water as countless tiny midges waltz on the surface film. It’s a magnificent blend of memories from previous visits mixed with high expectations.
A short time passes and then there it is in all its glory: the majestic Colorado River, one of the great Western waterways and architect of the Grand Canyon. The view from Navajo Bridge gets my adrenaline pumping. Knowing the turnoff to Lees Ferry comes immediately after the bridge, I sense that we have finally arrived. With the painted rocks of the Vermilion Cliffs towering above us, we make our way down the road to the boat ramp. This site is unique because it is the only place in more than 700 miles of canyon country where you can drive a car right to the Colorado River’s bank.
Once we reach water’s edge, we scan the area and I spot a pair of familiar faces fishing the Boulder Field. It’s Jack Dengel and Joe Staller, fellow members of my local fly-fishing club, Desert Fly Casters (DFC), based in Tempe, Arizona. The early fishing report is welcoming. The walk-in area is fishing well—very well, as in a 20-fish morning, which is good news. We still have a little time, so I scramble to rig up a fly rod and join them. Soon I have my first hookup of the long weekend on a Double Zebra Midge.
Every year, thousands of anglers embark on the journey in search of Lees Ferry’s tailwater treasures. To reach the greener fishing pastures upriver, most visitors employ one of the excellent guide services available in nearby Marble Canyon. While there is no substitute for fishing with a guide, do-it-yourself anglers can certainly fish upstream by bringing or renting a powerboat or—and this is surprisingly unheard of—floating the river with a personal watercraft.
In the angling world, “Lees Ferry” commonly denotes the 15-miles of fine trout water upstream from the historic crossing near the confluence with the Colorado’s Paria River tributary, where early pioneers crossed the river to pass between Arizona and Utah. This stretch of the Colorado, located between the Lees Ferry boat ramp and Glen Canyon Dam, is classified as Class I or “flat water,” with only small disturbances on the surface. Unlike the area below the boat launch—which is the starting point for Grand Canyon white-water rafting trips—the upper section doesn’t require special permits or certification for using a personal watercraft. You simply reserve a shuttle with one of the area’s backhaul services to take your party, watercrafts, and gear upriver.
Lees Ferry fishes well all year, but spring and fall are best for self-guided float trips because of lower flows and better weather.
We’d designed this year’s itinerary to include a three day, two-night expedition that would allow a full day of fishing on the second day, and we’d scheduled a pick-up for 4:30 p.m. on Thursday to allow plenty of time for members from Phoenix to arrive. I like to assemble my boat fully in advance to make sure that I haven’t overlooked any critical components and that I have the necessary fishing and camping gear as well as appropriate safety equipment. Once I verify everything is accounted for, I begin stuffing items into dry bags (anything not stored in a dry bag will get soaked).
Right on time, the backhaul boats make their way to the boat launch area to meet us. Once we are all aboard, we begin our 15-mile journey upriver. This incredibly scenic ride to the dam takes a little more than an hour, but you can be dropped off at any of the beaches. This part of the trip is a good opportunity to have your driver point out the six approved campsites along the way.
The First 24
We part ways with the backhaul service on the beach farthest upriver, just below the dam, and are now on our own. We plan to stay the first night at “Ropes,” about a half mile downstream, giving us an opportunity to lash everything to our watercraft and make a short easy paddle before setting up camp. The new paddlers have a chance to get a feel for the river and ease any anxiety they might have.
When we reach Ropes Campsite, we find a friendly couple with kayaks already residing there. Luckily, this location has plenty of sites suitable for small bivouacs or two-person tents. We choose to set up on the far side of the campground to give some privacy to our overnight neighbors. In a short time, everyone’s tent is up and it is time to start thinking about food.
As we’re finishing dinner and readying to turn in for the night, things begin to take an unexpected downturn. The light breeze starts to increase dramatically. Before long, we’re dealing with a full-blown haboob, or desert dust storm. With 30 mph sustained wind and 50 mph gusts, we hunker down for what can only be described as a miserable night outdoors. The haunting howl of the wind, combined with the constant sand blasting from the beach, make it impossible to sleep. Several times, I venture to the water, struggling to stay upright, to check on our boats. As we aimlessly lie awake in our sleeping bags, we are all, no doubt, thinking that until this storm passes, we aren’t going anywhere. There’s a distinct possibility we may be stuck here tomorrow.
Luckily the wind begins to die down around 5 a.m. and things seem favorable for continuing our adventure downstream. But not without a setback. The water level at Lees Ferry fluctuates twice daily as the discharge from the dam causes it to rise and drop significantly. As a result, one of our group members, whose inflatable pontoon wasn’t properly secured, loses it in the rising water. Boats of any size can be lost at the Ferry, leaving you essentially stranded. If your boat does get away, resist the impulse to jump in and swim downstream after it. Much of the river, which is extremely cold, is canyon bound, making access to the shore impossible.
Fortunately for our member, his boat only gets swept across the river, where it waits patiently, swirling endlessly in one of Lees Ferry’s many eddies. With a little teamwork, we recover the runaway boat and, before long, are on our way.
Fishing the Ferry
With the sleepless night and the morning’s misadventure firmly in our rearview mirror, it’s time to get down to business. Lees Ferry is famous for its estimated 12,000 fish per mile. This year, the river seems to boast an even better than usual population, with a wider range of fish sizes than in recent memory. Most of the rainbows we net are 12 to 14 inches, with an 18-incher being the largest one. All appear healthy and strong.
A typical Lees Ferry fly selection includes Zebra Midges in various colors, and red San Juan Worms are reliable standbys. Glo Bugs and other egg patterns work at times, and big streamers do well, particularly in the mornings.
While there are some similarities between fishing upriver and the walk-in area at the Lees Ferry landing, there are many noticeable differences. As the flows change, the fish seem to move around more. This is particularly relevant in the river bends and stretches with protruding gravel bars, so you must frequently adjust the amount of split shot needed to keep your fly in the strike zone. You also have to vary your line mending direction based on the flow conditions.
Although fishing from a drifting watercraft is possible at Lees Ferry, from my personal experience, it has not proven very productive. We do pick up a couple of fish while drifting, but we have far more success by stopping to wade the gravel bars, beaches, and small riffles along the way. Lees Ferry river etiquette states that if another boat occupies a beach, you should politely pass by. Paddling upstream is very difficult and since it’s impossible to predict if a beach will be open downstream, my advice is to stop and fish any available water that looks remotely promising.
A good map of the river will help you identify the beaches that typically hold fish and provide a reference point of your position on the water. Be aware of the passing time and monitor your progress toward your next fishing destination or overnight camping accommodation. Don’t float the river near dusk or after dark because powerboat skippers won’t see you.
Nine Mile Beach
Horseshoe Bend, located in the middle of Lees Ferry, one of the most iconic and most photographed points on the Colorado River, provides three approved campsites. The swath of sand located on the very tip of the bend is Nine Mile. This long, sandy beach with a gravel bar point has a great fishing reputation and is our agreed upon camp for the second night.
When we arrive at Nine Mile, we spot Tom Horvath, another DFC club member, with a guide and boat from Marble Canyon Outfitters. Horvath and I are buddies, and since they’re at the end of their fishing day, I know he won’t mind if we beach for the night.
Horvath’s guide is Mick Lovett, owner of Marble Canyon Outfitters. The three of us share stories from our day on the water. Horvath landed lots of fish from this spot using a fly Lovett calls a Chop Special, a midge pattern tied by a fellow guide. They really seem to have this stretch of water dialed in. With our party ashore, Lovett helps one of our Lees Ferry rookies net what would be the biggest fish of the trip.
On Nine Mile just before dusk, the river begins to quiet. All of the boat traffic is gone for the evening. Then it happens: the fish start to rise, slowly at first, with a single ring here and there, and before we know it, trout are jumping and breaching everywhere. But they’re no longer interested in the midges or San Juan Worms that have been working, and the surface shows no sign of insect activity. I remember a similar evening on a previous trip when I tried everything I could think of and was left confounded, simply watching and wondering what’re these fish doing and what fly would they possibly take?
So instead of trying to match the hatch, I tie on a large foam cicada—a big insect that won’t be on the river for at least another month. But trout are opportunistic, right? The first cast results in the unmistakable splash of an aggressive fish gulping the terrestrial from the surface. I bring this gorgeous rainbow to hand and have my personal best fish of the trip.
Hungry trout continually whack the fly on just about every pass until well after dark. As the evening passes, the trout switch from taking the fly on the drift to taking it on the swing and finally under the surface as I strip it back. Casting blindly into the night sky, I’m not ready for this evening to end. But eventually, with my fly thoroughly mangled, I decide to call it a day and get a good night’s sleep.
Waking up on Nine Mile, we are faced with a major dilemma. Do we stay and fish here or head downstream? Half of the group decides to gamble and leaves in search of unknown opportunities. Three of us remain, asking why leave fish to go find fish? The morning’s progression begins with streamers and then transitions to San Juan Worms. As the sun begins to make its way onto the water upstream, we switch to midges exclusively. While we are certainly content to stay and fish here all day, around noon, we realize that we need to get moving.
Our late start from Nine Mile means more continuous paddling to get back to the boat launch at a reasonable time. Feeling satisfied with the fishing thus far, we casually paddle our way through the snaking canyon and absorb the breathtaking beauty of the scenery and wildlife. We stop periodically for short breaks and to wet a line or snap a few photos. But we’re generally diligent in continuing downriver and eventually making our way back to where we began.
They say, “All good things must come to an end.” However, in our case, because we are camping one more night at the main Lees Ferry Campground, we still have the walk-in area to look forward to in the morning.
Going It Alone
Floating Lees Ferry in a personal watercraft is more than just a fishing trip. It’s a true multisport wilderness adventure and such trips certainly aren’t for everyone. If you only want to fish or simply aren’t eager to camp in the backcounty, hiring a guide or renting a powerboat will still provide great fishing in a famously scenic setting.
Self-guided trips mean being solely responsible for your personal safety and well-being. You must be capable of paddling a long distance, dealing with any obstacles along the way, and performing self-rescue in the event of an accident. However unlikely, any accident at Lees Ferry has the potential to be life threatening. Be sure to have a solid game plan and appropriate clothing and equipment.
Verify with the manufacturer that your watercraft—canoe, kayak, inflatable pontoon boat, or raft—is approved
for the class of water you will encounter and weight you intend to carry. All boat types have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to floating Lees Ferry. Under no circumstances should anyone attempt to use a float tube.
Do your homework, learn the flow schedule, and use common sense. Wear an approved life jacket or personal floatation device at all times while you are on the water. With the proper research and planning, you should have a safe and enjoyable trip and memories to last a lifetime.