Southwest Fly Fishing

An Angler’s Perspective
By Will Jordan

In the decrepit old brown building that housed the park concessionaire’s Human Resources Department, I interviewed for an eight-dollar-an-hour job. It was a major departure from the post-college job I’d envisioned landing. I could have earned more waiting tables back in Flagstaff or slaving away in a corporate high-rise in Phoenix. But this felt right and it was.
   I accepted the job and for the next four years, called Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) my home.
   I was fortunate to experience the Grand Canyon as few others do. Some five million people a year visit the park, yet less than one percent ventures below the rim. And for good reason. Getting to the bottom of the mile-deep chasm is a
daunting proposition.
   I started with day hikes on the corridor trails, making trips to Indian Gardens and Skeleton Point. My confidence quickly grew and I began securing backcountry permits for overnight trips to Monument Creek, Horseshoe Mesa, and Bright Angel Campground. I learned a great deal about the canyon along the way—its geology, its human history, its flora and fauna. But on some topics, I was a slow learner. I logged hundreds of miles before I started taking a fly rod on hikes. I had no idea what I’d been missing.
   I began fishing the Grand Canyon just prior to a shift in fisheries management practices in the park (more on that later). My first experience fishing in the canyon came on Bright Angel Creek near Phantom Ranch. I had a two-night backcountry permit for the streamside campground and, having heard that the creek might hold a few trout, took my fly rod.
   The first night, it rained heavily and the next morning, the creek was running high and muddy—unfishable. But the skies cleared and, by the following morning, so had the creek. I rigged my rod with a single beadhead nymph and worked my way up the North Kaibab Trail, fishing likely-looking pockets and pools. As a nod to nostalgia and a life spent fishing, I still have the tattered old fly that took so many trout that day.
   Bright Angel Creek remains my favorite fishing destination in the canyon, particularly along its upper reaches, but it’s one of many high quality fishing destinations in the park. The Grand Canyon has been home to trout since the 1920s, when the National Park Service (NPS) began stocking tributary streams with browns and rainbows. For decades, these were isolated trout streams, tributaries of the Colorado River before dams. In the 1960s, Glen Canyon Dam was completed, ushering in a new era. The river below the dam was transformed into a cold, clear tailwater, famously known among anglers as Lees Ferry. Tailwater conditions continue downstream, where the river remains cold enough to support trout for hundreds of miles. The Colorado’s once-isolated cold-water tributaries within the park formed a vast network of prime trout habitat with extraordinary results.
   River runners and backpackers catch trout throughout the canyon, from Marble Canyon to Diamond Creek on the Colorado River and in virtually any and all cold-water tributaries without barrier waterfalls. Rainbows predominate, but browns can be occasionally caught throughout the system. The majority of the catch consists of trout ranging from 12 to 16 inches.

 

The Colorado River
The river itself is a fickle beast. It’s massive, commonly running anywhere from 5,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 20,000 cfs. The dam-controlled river is managed first and foremost for energy generation, resulting in drastic daily and seasonal flow fluctuations. Within a given 24-hour period, changes of 5,000 cfs or more are common. Besides its sheer size and disruptive flow regimes, the river presents other challenges for anglers. Along its upper 61-mile run through Marble Canyon, it is relatively predictable and consistently productive, but below the confluence with the Little Colorado River, all bets are off. From this point downstream, the river’s fishing quality is at the mercy of the Little Colorado and any number of tributaries prone to flash floods.
   The Little Colorado is an ephemeral desert river that carries significant sediment at high flows. Anglers planning a trip to the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon should monitor the U.S. Geological Survey gauge on the Little Colorado near the confluence. The little river’s lower end has a perennial base flow of about 250 cfs issuing from Blue Springs; a gauge reading higher than that amount is a good indication that the Little Colorado’s inflow is discoloring the Colorado. With a spike as little as 400 cfs, the little river can muddy the Colorado to the point of being unfishable. Historically, the Little Colorado runs high during the summer monsoon season (July through August) and during spring snowmelt (March through April).
   Another important consideration when planning a trip is that, as a general rule of thumb, trout densities in the Colorado River through GCNP are higher upriver and lower downriver. A notable exception is found in the vicinity of river mile (RM) 134, where the influence of a major cold-water tributary, Tapeats Creek, provides a much-needed boost to flagging trout numbers.
   The Colorado River through GCNP offers more than 200 miles of river to explore. Anglers fortunate enough to take a private or guided raft trip through the Grand Canyon have ready access to the entire river. Backpacking anglers, though, are limited to just 10 well-established, rim-to-river trails and the relatively short stretches of water they reach. Beyond these options, additional trails and routes to the river are either too obscure to recommend (for example, Royal Arch Route) or are located far downriver, where trout densities are relatively low (such as Havasu Creek).
   Beginning upriver and progressing downstream, the following trails provide access to the Colorado River from the South Rim: Tanner Trail to Beamer Trail (18.5 miles, RM 68 to 61), New Hance Trail (6.5 miles, RM 76.5), South Kaibab Trail (7 miles, RM 87.5), Bright Angel Trail (9.5 miles, RM 88), Hermit Trail (9.7 miles, RM 95), and South Bass Trail (7.8 miles, RM 108). Trails to the river from the North Rim include Nankoweap (11 miles, RM 52), North Kaibab (14 miles, RM 87.5), North Bass (13.5 miles, RM 108), and Tapeats Creek (11.4 miles, RM 134).
   Anglers are often shocked by the size and ferocity of the Colorado. It is daunting water to prospect with a fly rod. The river is characterized by powerful rapids, big eddies, and long stretches of flat water. Most successful anglers focus on the pocket water adjacent to rapids, side channels, tributary mouths, and—more often than not—evening campsites.
   The Colorado through the Grand Canyon is the domain of 6- and 7-weight rods. Nymphing with an indicator on a long leader tapering to 3X is the bread and butter technique here. Small midge larva, pupa, and emerger patterns are effective when water clarity is in the 3-foot range or better. Aquatic annelids (worms) and roe (eggs) imitations are effective as well and can save the day if water clarity is poor. Dobsonfly larvae (hellgrammites) are present in the river, making a dead-drifted black Woolly Bugger with a smaller midge, worm, or egg pattern trailing behind an effective fly.
   Leaders typically need to be heavily weighted for the big water of the Colorado; size BB and AB split shot is essential for success. If you want to mix it up a bit or if streamer fishing is your preference, a flashy minnow pattern affixed to a short, stout leader and a 200- to 300-grain sinking-tip line is productive. During summer months, the presence of cicadas in riverside vegetation gives anglers the opportunity to fish large dries effectively, but trailing a small nymph beneath the dry fly provides good insurance.

 

The Colorado’s Tributaries
A fishing trip to the Colorado in GCNP can be planned to include other Grand Canyon trout streams, some of which are destinations in their own right and offer much different fishing experiences compared to the big river. Tributaries are more approachable, familiar, and intimate fishing and, perhaps more to the point, the best of them produce catch rates exceeding those typical on the Colorado.
   Tributary creeks support healthy populations of aquatic insects, but fly choice isn’t particularly crucial. A selection of weighted buggers will suffice and high-floating terrestrial patterns are effective when the fish are looking up. A short 4- or 5-weight rod is ideal for the frequently tight casting lanes, and an 8- or 9-foot 3X is good for pocket water. The fish aren’t leader shy and in these high-gradient streams, extra tippet strength is helpful for landing larger fish.
   There are perhaps a dozen reliable tributaries worth exploring with a fly rod during a Grand Canyon float trip. Some are long shots, but if the timing is right, many will produce trout. From a backpacker’s perspective, two or three creeks qualify as destinations: Bright Angel, Tapeats, and, a distant third, Shinumo. The rest are a gamble.
   As recently as a few years ago, Shinumo Creek was a top-tier trout fishery, but a recent project to establish humpback chubs has impacted trout populations, though they’re undoubtedly still present, particularly in remote upper reaches. Shinumo’s trout fishery is isolated from the Colorado River by a barrier waterfall a quarter mile above the mouth of the creek. The North Bass Trail provides access to the lower reaches and access is also possible via the South Bass Trail, but you need a passing raft to ferry you across the river (they might even give you a cold beer if you’re lucky).
   The most famous of the Grand Canyon’s trout streams is Bright Angel Creek, which has long offered exceptional fishing and is relatively easy to reach. Anglers arrive at Bright Angel Creek by foot, raft, and mule. North Kaibab, South Kaibab, and Bright Angel Trails all converge here near Phantom Ranch and lower Bright Angel Creek. These three trails are major travel corridors and create a disproportionately high concentration of backcountry use in this region. Even so, it’s rare to see another angler on the creek.
   Bright Angel Creek is home to good numbers of browns and rainbows. The strong resident population is augmented seasonally by fish migrating from the Colorado River to spawn in the excellent habitat. The brown trout run begins in late fall and includes some impressive specimens ranging from 20 to 25 and occasionally 30 inches. A spring run of rainbows offers fish in the 14- to 18-inch range.
   In recent years, the Bright Angel Creek fishery has suffered from a trout reduction project implemented by the NPS. Anglers who fished the creek’s lower end before these efforts will notice a drop in fishing quality, but those there for the first time are likely to be impressed. The middle and upper reaches from Ribbon Falls upstream remain largely unscathed. Anglers will find good numbers of resident browns and rainbows all the way to Roaring Springs and beyond. Access is along the North Kaibab Trail. Backpacking anglers can use Cottonwood Campground as base camp.
   As good as Bright Angel Creek’s trout fishery is, the Grand Canyon contains an even better trout stream: Tapeats Creek, arguably Arizona’s finest wild-trout stream. Few anglers have even heard of the creek because it’s about as remote as they come. The trailhead is far from any population center and located at high elevation on the North Rim, where snow begins piling up in early fall and lingers well into spring. A summer trip is inadvisable because of the triple-digit temperatures of the inner canyon and the absence of water and shade along the demanding Tapeats Creek Trail.
   Since overland access is so challenging, most visitors reach Tapeats Creek by raft from the Colorado. The creek receives very light angling pressure because most visitors go there to see Thunder River, a cascading waterfall bursting from caves in the Muav Limestone. Tapeats provides precious few miles of stream to explore, but its pockets and plunge pools teem with resident and migratory rainbows averaging 12 inches. Occasionally, they reach the vaunted 20-inch mark.

Fisheries Management

Fortunately, Tapeats Creek hasn’t fallen victim to trout reduction efforts. Beginning in fall 2002, the NPS, in conjunction with cooperating agencies, began an experimental project within the Grand Canyon. The rationale was that nonnative browns and rainbows are detrimental to native fish populations, particularly the endangered humpback chub.
   But predation by trout is the least of the chub’s problems. The fundamental problem facing native species in the Grand Canyon is that Glen Canyon Dam radically altered the ecosystem. The Colorado River is now too cold for humpback chubs to spawn successfully, as are most of the river’s tributaries. The last bastion of quality humpback chub habitat within the Grand Canyon is the warm flow of the lower Little Colorado
   In an effort to establish additional self-sustaining humpback chub populations, fisheries managers recently introduced chubs in Havasu and Shinumo Creeks, with plans to do the same in Bright Angel Creek soon. Whether these populations can spawn successfully has yet to be determined. Nothing prevented chubs from using these tributaries in the past, yet their presence was rarely documented. Initial trout-reduction efforts in GCNP comprised placing a weir in Bright Angel Creek to intercept spawning brown trout, which were subsequently killed. During the weir’s first season in 2002-2003, it claimed 423 spawning browns, including numerous fish between 20 and 30 inches. Since then, the weir operated sporadically but all too effectively. Biologists believe that the majority of brown trout in the Grand Canyon use Bright Angel Creek for spawning, making the weir an effective tool for reducing brown trout numbers throughout the system.
   Additional reduction efforts in GCNP include the mechanical removal of trout from the Colorado River near the Little Colorado confluence. From 2003 to 2006, and again in 2009, crews killed more than 20,000 rainbow trout between RM 56 and 66. Interestingly, after the initial depletion of this stretch, trout numbers rebounded to near pre-2003 levels within a couple of years, necessitating the 2009 follow-up. Firsthand reports from anglers in 2011 and 2012 indicated that this stretch is again fishing well, with no noticeable impact from the multimillion-dollar trout reduction efforts.
   While it sounds dire, only a small portion of the GCNP trout fishery has been affected by trout reduction. Biologists state that the system currently supports an estimated one million trout. Killing 20,000 or 30,000 thousand trout—while unfortunate—is the proverbial drop in a bucket. The Colorado River and its tributaries comprise such a large complex of premium trout habitat that, unless the system is poisoned completely, trout will be present as long as Glen Canyon Dam continues to release cold,
clear water.

 

The First Step
Anglers interested in fishing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon must start by deciding how to reach the water. A multiday river trip is the least physically demanding option and is an incredible experience in itself. Because obtaining a private permit is difficult and negotiating the rapids requires a high degree of skill, a commercially guided trip is generally the best option. A raft trip is best and, while the itinerary doesn’t always lend itself to fishing, most guides can be persuaded to try fishing from the raft and making stops at a few choice locations.
   Anglers who hit the trails en route to trout typically do so as part of an extended backpacking trip. All overnight camping within the canyon requires a NPS-administered backcountry permit. Permits for high-use campgrounds such as Bright Angel and Cottonwood are in high demand during peak season (spring and fall), but a permit can typically be obtained with planning.
   Enlisting the services of the Grand Canyon’s hardest working employees—the mules—is another option. Overnight mule rides to Phantom Ranch provide a great opportunity for experiencing the canyon. Phantom Ranch—a small lodging facility located along the lower end of Bright Angel Creek—offers cabins and bunkhouses to mule riders and hikers alike, but reservations
are necessary.
   Regardless of how you get there, a trip into the depths of the Grand Canyon is sure to leave a lasting impression. Typical Grand Canyon visitors peer over the rim and call it good. Sure, they saw the canyon, and they have the T-shirt and Facebook status to prove it, but they never really connect with the place. It’s the intrepid souls emerging from the inner canyon who leave with a true sense of the canyon’s grandeur, and among them, it’s often those carrying fly rods who are smiling the
brightest of all. 

 

Will Jordan is a freelance writer, photographer, and author who lives in Montana.

 

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