Southwest Fly Fishing

Seven Facets of a Blue-Ribbon Gem
By Bryan Anglerson

Which Utah river starts in the Uinta Mountains, is full of trout (including some large browns in its middle and lower sections), runs through scenic mountain valleys, is impounded by two reservoirs a dozen miles apart, and ends up flowing into a major city along the Wasatch Front? Sound like the famous Provo River?
   Could be. However, in this case, it’s actually the Weber River. These twin rivers—the Provo and Weber—begin just 4 miles from each other, flow down adjacent drainages, both run west into the Kamas Valley where they nearly bump into each other, then continue westward to the Wasatch Front. They are trout fisheries on par with each other, but the Provo gets all the fame and press while the Weber remains a hidden gem.
   The Weber River comprises seven distinct stretches and holds four primary species of trout. Conditions in the cold headwaters are ideal for brook trout and native Bonneville cutthroat, and the two species thrive in these highland waters. Although cutts inhabit nearly all stretches of the river, they are found in high densities only in the headwaters above Oakley where they do not compete with brown trout. Thanks to conservation efforts, a resurgent population of fluvial Bonneville cutthroat is making a comeback in the lower Weber River despite competition with brown trout. Finally, a few rainbows move into the Weber from Rockport Reservoir, but brown trout dominate all sections below Oakley.

 

Headwaters
The Weber is born of snowmelt near the border of Utah’s High Uintas Wilderness, only a 75-minute drive from Salt Lake City. Although the river’s watershed begins just outside the designated wilderness, it drains 150 square miles of forest identical to the official wilderness and is roadless. The Weber’s beginning shares a quad-divide with three other blue-ribbon rivers: the Bear and the Duchesne join the Green River and go on into the Colorado, while the Provo and the Weber dead-end into the Great Salt Lake. The Duchesne, Provo, and Bear all begin mere yards from the Weber’s nascent trickle.
   Eighteen years ago, I first searched out the Weber’s genesis and followed it downhill until it grew to fishable size. While my Boy Scout troop was occupied in four-hour merit-badge classes, I explored the Weber’s headwaters alone. Hiking west from the Mirror Lake Highway (aka State Route 150) from the Pass Lake Trailhead in early July, I found that the path was soggy with snowmelt, which was sheeting down the slopes in places and forming rivulets as well. The trail parallels the Weber along the south side, but the river is not often visible. When I judged that I had hiked far enough that the stream might have grown large enough to support trout, I bushwhacked to steal a glance at the water and, in a small pool below, saw five small cutthroat finning in feeding lies.
   The streamside brush was so dense that the only place that I could possibly cast from was the opposite bank, upstream of the feeding fish and at close range. I decided to test the theory that disturbed fish will resume feeding in 7 minutes after being disturbed. After I waded through the pool scattering all the trout, I sat down to wait in the only location from which I could cast. I looked at my watch and remained still. Right on schedule, the trout reclaimed their feeding lies. With as little movement as possible, I floated an Elk Hair Caddis down to them. I hooked and landed two before the others wised up and hid. I then waded upriver a short distance, enticing brook trout from under overhanging grasses along the edges.
   The trail continues downriver for 7 miles through remote wilderness, eventually leading to a cabin community called Holiday Park and a Forest Service trailhead, which can only be reached by driving 19 miles up Weber Canyon from the rodeo town of Oakley. After spring runoff subsides, I like to hike up the 7-mile trail paralleling the Weber’s headwaters from Holiday Park to watch wild, indigenous cutthroat spawn while I target brook trout and cutts that are not spawning.
   I never have hiked all the way through because of the hour-long shuttle drive. The hiking trail stays inconveniently away from the river. Anglers must roll the dice and randomly pick where to bushwhack to the water. Scouting on Google Earth can help find likely holes. Be prepared if you venture in because in the past 10 years, a pair of lost women and a lost Boy Scout died from exposure in the Weber’s headwaters region.

 

Thousand Peaks Ranch
Downriver from Holiday Park for the next 7 miles, the Weber River snakes through a large private ranch. Jans Mountain Outfitters manages the fishing program on Thousand Peaks Ranch for the owner. Anglers can buy annual memberships, which are limited in number but are not sold out. Jans maintains 14 beats with parking spaces and trails to the river. In addition, Jans staffs a fly shop on the ranch where members can get lunch for one dollar. Anglers interested in a $2,500 annual membership can call Jans Mountain Outfitters (see Notebook). 
   Because the river here meanders through a wide valley, Thousand Peaks contains more than 10 sinuous river miles along its 7 miles of gravel road. Beaver dams and moose are plentiful through the ranch’s boggy valley, and the fish habitat is excellent, with classic riffle-run-bend structure at the upper beats, transitioning to pocket water on the lowest five beats. The river through Thousand Peaks Ranch offers 8-inch brook trout, 13- to 16-inch native cutthroat, and an occasional beefy rainbow. Fish biologist and Jans guide Kris Clemons reports members catching rainbows up to 22 inches on the ranch. Though rare, grayling sometimes migrate downriver from lakes up Dry Fork near Holiday Park.

 

Cabin Stretch
Weber Canyon Road becomes paved where it leaves Thousand Peaks at the mouth of Smith & Morehouse Creek side canyon. For the next 9 miles, the Weber flows through cabin communities. It straightens and hurries through upper Weber Canyon in a near-constant riffle providing pocket water with an occasional deeper run.
   Cutthroat are the main quarry here with some cuttbow hybrids persisting. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) continues to plant a small number of sterile triploid rainbows in this stretch in an agreement with landowners who allow public access. Additionally, formal free walk-in access sites are available to anglers who must register. Although much of the land is private, access is generally good.
   As Weber Canyon Road approaches Oakley, the cabins, the river, and the cutthroat all grow larger. Multimillion-dollar second homes sprawl across the river bottom and encroach on the water. In some places, its course has been altered, but most of it retains enough meandering to provide the structure fish need. Cutthroat up to 16 inches live here, but they are not pushovers.
   Hatches are not consistent; I have most success prospecting the medium-deep pockets and edges. Recently, after flogging the middle of a long, deep, gorgeous-looking run with both a dry fly and then a nymph, I finally saw a rise just inches from the far bank. With anticipation, I made a third pass, targeting a 6-inch zone along the opposite bank. Using a curve cast to combat the faster current in the middle, I was able to buy an extra second of drag-free drift in the slower water near the bank. That extra second was enough to fool a 14-inch cutt and a 13-inch cuttbow.

 

Peoa to Rockport Reservoir
Immediately upon leaving upper Weber Canyon and entering the Kamas Valley at Oakley, the Weber River is stolen and temporarily ruined. No fewer than seven diversions take water for agriculture and irrigation. To compound the loss, a major canal removes most of the remaining flow and channels it 9 miles southward into the Provo River. Farther down, agricultural and irrigation groundwater is returned to the river system. Traces of fertilizer seep from agricultural operations and infuse the river with nutrients that grow aquatic plants, aquatic insects, and fish. At Peoa, the entire Weber River is reincarnated as an off-color brown trout factory.
   From the river’s tea-colored rebirth at Peoa downstream to Rockport Reservoir, anglers have a good chance to stretch their measure tapes to 18 or 20 inches. Brown trout thrive on the abundant insects and baitfish while remaining well hidden in the cloudy water. The lack of visibility helps anglers. True, you can’t see the trout, but because they can’t see you either, a meeting is more likely.
   One Labor Day morning before sunrise, I drove 40 minutes from my home in Salt Lake City then hiked 30 minutes over a hill to the Weber River; I was casting before sunrise. In the first hole, a 17-inch football vaulted out of the water as it gulped my dry fly. After a dozen more casts, I had netted a small brown and a decent rainbow that both took a green Copper John dropper. Almost ready to move on to the next hole, I made a final cast straight upstream and, as the bushy Parachute Hare’s Ear floated back to me, I was about to pick up when the water exploded at my feet. After a battle, I released a 20-inch male brown. From another hole, I hooked a 17-inch rainbow on a nymph. I made it back home by 11 a.m., just in time to fire up the grill for the family’s Labor Day BBQ. 
   Rainbows in this stretch swim upriver from Rockport Reservoir, where they are stocked. Some sterile rainbows retain the urge to spawn, and rainbow trout surge into the Weber River in March and April. Unfortunately, the river near the bridge on State Route 189 has access issues. Landowners in this area have tried to prevent anglers from legally using the river by posting fraudulent signs and by stringing barbed wire across the stream to prevent floating. A lawsuit brought by the Utah Stream Access Coalition (USAC) attempts to establish the Weber River here as an historical “navigable river of commerce.” Whatever the district court rules, the loser will appeal to the Utah Supreme Court, which has previously ruled in favor of stream access by the public.

 

Famous Middle Weber
The 9-mile-long Weber River section between Rockport Reservoir and Echo Reservoir is the favorite, go-to stretch for most fly fishers. For good reason. In addition to the agricultural nutrients, this area is also a tailwater benefiting from temperature and runoff buffering, stable flows, and cool water. What more could anglers want? Tons of large brown trout? Check. Easy access? Check. Close to ample services and amenities? Check.
   With some exceptions, this tailwater flows clear and is productive year-round. It is a primarily nymph-fishing river. Although I have taken my share of Weber browns on the surface, these trout seldom rise consistently. Even during prolific evening caddisfly hatches in July, trout rise infrequently at best. Weber River browns prefer nymphs and streamers. Standard caddisfly, mayfly, and stonefly patterns all produce. Small numbers of Bonneville cutthroat trout share this section and seem to have greatest density near Echo Reservoir and the sometimes-inundated confluence with Chalk Creek, which supports a healthy population of the native cutts.
   Nearly the entire length between the reservoirs is accessible to anglers thanks to landowner agreements, DWR leases, and easements. The DWR has been successful in working with locals to secure public access, one of the criteria for state-designated blue-ribbon water. Respect for property, ladders over fences, and signs reminding anglers to pack out trash help keep almost all residents satisfied with the arrangement. Although the middle Weber can get crowded, it does not receive the pressure that the nearby middle Provo absorbs.
   Interstate 80 parallels this entire section and crosses it twice, but to reach this popular stretch, anglers must exit I-80 at either Wanship or Coalville. From both highway exits, gravel frontage roads get anglers to within easy walking distance of the river. There are so many access locations off spur roads that a printed map, map app, or Google Earth is helpful.

 

Weber Canyon
Below Echo Reservoir, the Weber River picks up several large tributaries and becomes big water. During irrigation season, heavy releases from Echo Reservoir draw rafters and tubers who float between Henefer and Morgan. Summertime’s roily water is not the best time to fish the lower Weber. This section shines with lower water levels in spring, fall, and winter. A solid population of Golden Stoneflies makes Griffith’s Golden Stoner a dependable early-season fly choice. In the fall, anglers pursue aggressive prespawn browns with nymphs and streamers.
   Interstate 84 follows the river for the remainder of its journey to South Ogden and on to the Great Salt Lake. Numerous freeway exits provide access to frontage roads and small communities. Access is decent and improving; for a map of walk-in access sites, visit www.wildlife.utah.gov/walkinaccess. 
   Winter anglers can keep rods bent all day on Weber River whitefish. Whities in both the middle Weber and the lower Weber stack up in the deepest holes, and when the browns are tight-lipped, deeply drifted small nymphs will pass the eyes and mouths of many whitefish. Hooking a half dozen whitefish from a single deep hole is common. Scuds and midges are plentiful in size 18 to 20.
   In recent years, a native fluvial population of Bonneville cutthroat trout was discovered in lower Weber Canyon. These fish seem to be spawning in tiny tributaries but move into the main stem to grow large. New regulations encourage cutthroat recruitment by requiring that anglers release all cutthroat trout.

 

Bright Future
Because of the native Bonneville cutthroat and other nongame native fish, Trout Unlimited (TU) has a full-time staffer dedicated solely to the Weber River. TU is focusing its efforts on improving fish passage and restoring or protecting spawning habitat in tributaries to the lower Weber below Echo Reservoir and in Chalk Creek and its tributaries. A consortium of government agencies and NGOs held a sold-out two-day Weber River Symposium in November 2014. Hundreds attended. It looks like the Weber River’s future is in good hands.

 

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