Lees Ferry always comes back. Floods, drought, politics — any number of things can make things tough for fish on this tailwater, and in the last decade it has seen a lot of trouble. But things are more than looking up at the Ferry. To some, Lees Ferry is one of the West’s best-kept trout fishing secrets. Read on and find what you might be missing.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Once called Paria Crossing, Lees Ferry is located on the Colorado River in Arizona near the town of Page, in a high desert of saltbush and twisted juniper upstream from Grand Canyon. The section is about 16 miles of cold, clear water flows inside a deep, red rock canyon — even when the fishing is poor, the scenery is fabulous. Lees Ferry is only about 9 miles south of the Arizona border with Utah. The location is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. For years, Lees Ferry was the only safe place for travelers to cross the water. A natural slope allows safe passage from the cliffs to the river below.
Lees Ferry is named after Mormon settler John D. Lee, who operated a ferry service starting around 1871 while hiding there from federal authorities for his role in the Mountain Meadows massacre, a messy affair in which a group of Mormons and Indians killed a wagon train of settlers passing through Utah. The feds finally found Lee and executed him, and the area faded into Arizona’s historic landscape.
Many years after the area’s namesake was no longer, the Bureau of Reclamation searched the region for a dam site. Nobody knew much about it except for a handful of Navajos, catfish anglers and hikers. The Glen Canyon dam was constructed, creating a controversy that still simmers today. But below the dam, the waters of the river ran cool and clear — almost perfect trout water.
Lees Ferry is a tailwater of Glen Canyon Dam, which holds in the water of Lake Powell. Beautiful cliffs in the area are one of the big draws of fishing Lees Ferry.
Back in 1968, the Arizona Game and Fish Department stocked Lees Ferry with rainbow trout and some aquatic insects — mayflies, damselflies and scuds — and then walked away. The water was too cold for mayflies, as it turned out, but the scuds, in contrast, did well, and the trout, as expected, gorged themselves. Large fish came out of the Ferry out in those early days, but inconsistent waters flows and over harvesting brought an end to this. Then came political battles over the river’s eroding beaches and endangered fish such as the humpback chub. These days we are left with a tailwater that is still pretty good. The fish are there, looking healthy. Some are getting big.
“In general, it’s been fishing well,” said Cinda Howard of the Orvis store in Scottsdale. “They’re doing a lot more stuff from the boats, because the fish are getting deeper,” she said.
“That fishery is way underrated, as far as I’m concerned,” said Jack Houck of the Orvis store. In recent years, the fishing has rebounded, but the number of anglers on the water has not, he said. The guides, who used to practically race each other upstream to get to the best spots, drive to 4 1/2 mile bar and stop. Houck says he frequently has the whole river upstream from there to himself on weekdays.
GETTING TO LEES FERRY
From the south, traveling out of the Flagstaff area, U.S. highway 89 will take you north to Page and runs parallel for a section of the Colorado River. U.S. highway 89A crosses the Colorado River at the Navajo Bridge that was constructed in 1928. After crossing the river, you will find the Glen Canyon/Lees Ferry Recreation area.
Anglers come from all over to fish Lees Ferry, and there are plenty of excellent lodges, hotels and guide services in the area.
While Lees Ferry is remote, there are excellent services available right on the river. One popular choice is Cliff Dwellers Lodge. The Lodge is also the home of Lees Ferry Anglers if you’re looking for a full-service guide operation. In addition to experienced guides, there is also a fully-stocked fly shop on location.
It’s worth noting again that Lees Ferry is easily reached from the small town of Page that offers many options for dining, shopping and lodging.
FISHING LEES FERRY
Bait-fishing is not allowed at the Ferry, which is now managed as a catch-and-release fishery. A few anglers fish with lures from the bank in the walk-in area, tossing a line out into the current. Still other anglers have luck casting lures from a boat.
Most people fly-fish the river, and get out of the boat to walk along riffles and pools found near sandbars.
The most consistent hatch on the Ferry is a midge hatch. The other main food source, scuds, isn’t doing well these days because there isn’t much aquatic vegetation left. In any case, these fish don’t rise often. To catch fish consistently, you need to fish nymphs.
The primary flies are red and black Zebra Midges and Scuds in ginger, tan and pink. San Juan Worms and salmon eggs can be productive as well. Your most important weapon is a drag-free drift. It is also important to change your rig frequently. Add weight. Move your strike indicator. Change flies. Sometimes changing location helps.
Another key to catching fish is the extended drift. This technique keeps your line in the water as long as possible, allows your fly to settle to the bottom and move it in front of more fish. To execute an extended drift, cast upstream about 45 degrees and strip line as it moves toward you. Put a big upstream bend in your line as it passes in front of you. As you approach the end of your drift, shake some line out of your rod and let the rig drift downstream. Use a strike indicator, and if it stops, bobs, twitches, bounces or disappears, raise the rod tip. Set the hook on anything. It may be bottom, but you’d be surprised at how often it’s a nice trout. If by chance it turns out that it’s not a fish, check your fly for moss and recast.
Houck says that nymphing works, and he sometimes throws a size 16, black Zebra Midge, which is very effective. Most of the time, however, he fishes with small buggers, about a size 14. Baby Buggers, he calls them.
He fishes them because they work, and he likes fishing them better than nymphs, but it’s not the fly selection that’s important, he said.
Houck speaks highly of Lees Ferry and the possibility of anglers finding success on this body of water.
“It doesn’t matter what you use up there. I get fish every cast. As long as it has a hook on it, it doesn’t seem to matter.”
What matters is getting down where the fish are. To do this, Houck said uses a fast sink-tip line, backed with intermediate line. He casts it about 30 or 40 feet, in front of the riffle. That allows the line to sink before it gets to the fish, and allows the bait to look natural. While it might be tempting to go the easy route, experience has proven that simply using a floating line and putting on a huge pieces of split shot won’t work.
Houck said that he seldom fishes from the boat. He looks for places with weeds, dark places where you can’t really see the bottom. That darkness means there are weeds, he said. He starts with black, and then switches to olive.
One time it may be effective to fish from the boat is during the cicada hatch.
“In the summertime, sometimes there’s a cicada hatch and sometimes there’s not,” Houck said. It generally happens early in the summer, around late May, or June.
“As long as they are hoppers around, they can be effective,” Houck said, but it’s not his first choice. “If you see a rising fish, I would show them an ant before I’d show them a Hopper.” An Adams might work in back eddies with rising fish.
Because the water temperature is almost always about 50 degrees, the fish don’t change their habits much. And although there are fewer scuds for the trout to feed and grow large on, the fish are still eating, and are consistently reaching 13 to 14 inches with healthy shoulders that will put up a good and memorable fight and put a smile on any angler’s face. Fish up to 17 inches are starting to be caught on a regular basis, Howard said. A few 20-inchers are reported every now and then. The best part is that you no longer have to fight crowds to fish. There are more tourists taking river tours than anglers these days, Houck said.
“It’s very under utilized.”
Small crowds and healthy fish are music to most angler’s ears, so what are you waiting for? Give Lees Ferry a shot. It is unlikely you’ll be disappointed with what you find.
Like many taliwaters, Lees Ferry has had its ups and downs, but it is a strong and beautiful fishery that is well worth the trip from almost anywhere. The scenery of the location is unmatched and the trout are strong and plentiful. See you on the water.