Southwest Fly Fishing

It's Worth the Effort
By Bryan Anglerson

Utah State Route 12 from Panguitch to Torrey is the second-most-beautiful highway in the world. Not in the state. Not in the nation. In the world. Apparently, some amazing road on the South Island of New Zealand tops it on Fox News Travel’s list. That New Zealand road must be spectacular to beat out Utah’s SR 12.
   From Panguitch heading east, the incredible highway 12 skirts Bryce Canyon National Park through red-and-pink hoodoos just as eye-popping as those hoodoos within the park. Then the highway passes through Tropic and other idyllic towns and valleys before plunging into the white-rock crags and labyrinthine canyons of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, offering breathtaking vistas. After crossing the Escalante River, SR 12 summits a ridge with the seemingly innocuous name of Hogs Back, but with no shoulders and thousand-foot drops off both sides, the narrow, winding, two-way road spikes your heart rate and causes your knuckles to turn white on the steering wheel. Your heart rate finally settles by the time the scenic byway passes through the green oasis that is the town of Boulder and begins a northward ascent up Boulder Mountain with its stately pines and quaking aspens that flutter yellow in the fall. The eventual descent from the forested Boulder Mountain drops travelers into the red-sandstone formations of Capitol Reef National Park at Torrey. It’s an amazing drive.
   Among the several trout-filled streams that SR 12 crosses, my favorite is Boulder Creek, which the highway spans exactly once—within the tiny town of Boulder. However, reaching the best fishing parts of Boulder Creek requires effort because SR 12 never routes near Boulder Creek elsewhere along its length, and even spur Jeep roads don’t ramble toward the creek. Boulder Creek offers high adventure for those who enjoy hiking, biking, fishing, and backpacking, and it’s worth the effort. That’s a mantra that I’ll repeat throughout this narrative: it’s worth the effort. It is especially important to repeat this motivating refrain while making the grueling climb from the slot canyon below the town of Boulder.

 

From Forest to Desert
West Fork Boulder Creek and East Fork Boulder Creek drain off the Boulder Top, a forested, lake-studded, mesalike expanse atop Boulder Mountain. Each of the two parallel forks is impounded in the forest high up on the flanks of the mountain to divert flows for power generation. Both creeks are dry below their respective diminutive impoundments. Where the two forks’ riverbeds join about 4 miles downstream, natural inflow has reincarnated each to a size barely large enough to support trout. Two miles below the confluence of the two trickles, the Garkane Power Plant returns the diverted water to the creek, which flows at a very fishable 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) for 4 miles within a deep and remote gorge. Unfortunately, the creek is again dewatered for irrigation at the town of Boulder. 
   Boulder Creek’s final resurrection materializes several miles south of town and parallel to the Hogs Back. Below town, the creek changes out of its forest clothing and puts on raiment of a red-rock-desert slot canyon. From its second rebirth near town, Boulder Creek flows another 12 miles southward through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to join the
Escalante River.
   Around 2007, the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) completed half of a cutthroat restoration project on the upper forks of Boulder Creek. After placing barriers to prevent upstream migration of nonnative trout, the DWR successfully treated the West Fork of Boulder Creek with rotenone, a natural piscicide. Nevertheless, some concerned citizens objected to the use of poison, and the project was halted with only the West Fork restored to native cutthroat habitat, leaving the East Fork with nonnative trout.

 

West Fork Boulder Creek
The most fishable stretch of the West Fork Boulder Creek is its headwaters above West Fork Reservoir, which diverts all its water through a pipe to the East Fork’s Kings Pasture Reservoir from which it enters a penstock pipe to the power plant.
   The trail to the West Fork’s headwaters is a dirt road built atop a pipe trench that runs from West Fork Reservoir to Kings Pasture, following an elevation-level contour around the nose of a ridge between the two drainages. The road is off limits to unauthorized motorized travel. On a phone call to the power plant, I was denied “authorization” for motorized travel; consequently, I elected for pedal locomotion. Four miles of easy mountain-bike riding takes about 15 minutes or less, but the ride westward toward the reservoir seems longer than the return trip because of my eagerness and anticipation of tangling with the West Fork cutts. Hiking the 4-mile dirt road takes 90 minutes unburdened or two hours with heavy backpacks. It’s worth the effort.
   The reintroduced Colorado River cutthroat trout are thriving in the West Fork above the impoundment. They grow to 15 inches and even in September, they retain their gorgeous spawning colors. In my estimation, spawn-colored cutts are among the most beautiful trout.
   The streambed along the West Fork is blanketed with an unnatural quantity of boulders and rocks because of an earthen dam failure at its source on Boulder Top Mountain. In 1938, Spectacle Lake’s dam failed, and the torrent carried rocks for miles down the West Fork, denuding the riparian zone and carpeting the small drainage with a boulder field. The silver lining to the disaster is that the creek is easier to fish because it’s less encumbered with streamside vegetation. Anglers hiking up the West Fork above the reservoir can fish 2 miles of creek before hitting the steep headwall defining the Boulder Top mesa, a flat expanse crowning these mountains.
   Also, I have fished up the West Fork from its confluence with the East Fork at the crossing of Forest Road 166, 4 miles below the reservoir. By the time the West Fork gets to this access point, springs and tributaries have restored the creek’s flow to a small yet fish-supporting volume. The fish barrier to prevent nonnatives from entering the West Fork is just below the FR 166 crossing; therefore, trout in this reach are native cutts. Although the creek here is diminutive and overgrown, its rocky structure offers ample holding lies for its abundant small trout. Specialty casts are required and the fish are easily spooked, but the challenge is enjoyable.

 

East Fork Boulder Creek
In late June six years ago, I took a group of 16 men and teenagers backpacking up the East Fork Boulder Creek from Kings Pasture Reservoir. It’s worth the effort. When we arrived at the upper meadow tucked picturesquely against the headwall, we were rewarded with the scene of a spectacular waterfall thundering 700 feet from Boulder Top, cascading down its scree slope, and washing over hundreds of spawning Colorado River cutthroat, which were uninhibited by our presence. I did not know about the impressive waterfall, and its discovery was purely serendipitous. I had been hoping to find cutthroats, but pessimistic knowing that the eradication of brook trout and reintroduction of cutthroats had been thwarted.
   Years later, I learned that in that very meadow in the 1980s, a remnant population of Colorado River cutthroats was “discovered” after they were believed to be extinct within the Escalante River watershed. The discovery excited wildlife officials and triggered a drainage-wide hunt for additional remnant populations in neighboring tiny headwaters, eventually hastening a conservation-and-restoration program for the south slope of the Boulder Mountains.
   At the meadow, we left the spawners alone and headed downstream expecting to catch brook trout, but we found only cutthroats. Although there is no physical barrier, the cutts maintain a dominance of the upper meadow and the nonnative brook trout have not made any ingress there. However, the remainder of the East Fork down to Kings Pasture Reservoir is dominated by brook trout. Below Kings Pasture Reservoir, all the water from both forks flows unseen through a penstock pipeline that snakes downhill alongside Forest Road 165 to the Garkane Power Plant, leaving the creek beds dry for miles.

 

Below the Power Plant
After the penstock flow from the reservoirs turns turbines to generate electricity, the water—no worse for wear—dumps back into the creek deep within a remote, heavily-forested gorge. The reborn creek enjoys a 4-mile run before it is again dewatered for irrigation at Boulder. The largest trout live in this remote section and thrive unmolested. 
   A jeep trail atop the towpath berm of the power plant’s tailrace canal conveys anglers to the crest of the deep gorge. This road is a narrow two track, and I always fear a vehicle coming the other way because there are few places to pass, and backing up would be difficult and unwise. At the end of the canal, there is a denuded swath of ground through the evergreens where a pipeline was buried to drop the tailrace water to the creek. I hike down and up this corridor.
   Although fishing the gorge requires a steep hike, it’s worth the effort. Unlike the headwaters, this section of Boulder Creek is home to large rainbow trout and brown trout. The streambed structure is boulders, and anglers will realize that the creek is aptly named.
   I recently fished both headwaters plus this gorge section on the same day to accomplish a four trout species grand slam. However, I hadn’t left myself enough time in the gorge, and I was losing light. Resigned to hiking out in the dark, I continued to catch large rainbows until I couldn’t see my fly. I was worried that I might miss a take because I was uncertain where my fly was, but I needn’t have worried. While I squinted in the general direction of my fly, an 18-inch brown trout leapt 2 feet from the water while taking my fly. I turned on my headlamp to release it and then hiked out.

 

Off the Hogs Back
Access to Boulder Creek gets even more challenging below Boulder, which serves as a sudden transition point for the area’s topography. Upstream of town, Boulder Creek flows off the mountain through a thick evergreen forest. But below town, the water passes through a red-rock desert slot canyon.
   Although it looks daunting from atop the Hogs Back, a hike to Boulder Creek is not as difficult as it seems for those with excellent navigational skills. This remote section is the territory of 13- to 17-inch brown trout. While wading upstream through marginal water, anglers will scatter smaller browns, but hookups are generally with the larger trout in prime feeding lies within the best holes. The sand-colored streambed offers occasional opportunities to sight-fish for trout, but usually the browns blend in with the black basalt rocks carpeting the deeper holes, making prospecting appropriate. 
   Boulder Creek flows through a canyon one drainage east of the Hogs Back, requiring a down-up-down hike through
Dry Hollow and over the ridge separating the two drainages. It’s worth the effort. Both drainages offer a few navigable slopes interspersed between vertical canyon walls. Planning routes in and out beforehand is paramount. From home, I use Google Earth with its tilt-perspective function to identify slopes to hike and to select my routes in and out, dropping pins or adding waypoints. Also, several passable low saddles can be scouted from atop the Hogs Back.
   From the bottom of a slot canyon, everything starts to look the same; consequently, expert navigational skills are required. I take three navigation tools: my iPhone with a topo map app with the local 7.5-minute USGS series already downloaded (iPhones have built-in satellite GPS that pinpoints your location with neither cellular coverage nor wifi); a Garmin GPS handheld unit; and most important, an iPad with the area’s Google Earth satellite images stored in its cache for use offline. To prepare the iPad from home with a wifi connection, I clear its cache then scroll around the entire area slowly and methodically allowing time for the most-detailed close-up satellite images to download and store. I double check the cache’s images by going offline and make sure all batteries are fully charged before forays into Boulder Creek’s slot canyon. Fortuitously, there is an abandoned path carved into a cliff face along the Hogs Back. Chipping the path from the rock face must have taken much effort, but I have no idea what it might have been used for. The curious dugway is not on maps, but it can be seen on satellite imagery. The start of this path is extremely difficult to find without a GPS waypoint. The long, one-directional switchback beats a steeper climb in and out of Dry Hollow.
   Do not be tempted (as I was once) to follow Dry Hollow down to its confluence with Boulder Creek. The verdant bottom of Dry Hollow is not dry, and its thick brush is virtually impassable. It’s not worth the effort. Furthermore, Dry Hollow’s perennial creek drops into Boulder Creek’s canyon through a harrowing and steep narrows slot with plunge pools. I became cliffed-out above this narrows with my only reasonable option being to slide down the twisting slot and wade through a series of plunge pools. One deep pool required a 20-yard swim after I plummeted in over my head and lost my hat. Fortunately, my William Joseph fishing backpack kept all my electronics and camera gear perfectly dry despite being completely submerged. Water only penetrated the outermost pocket where I had worn a hole from the sliding. Within that one leaky pocket, my first aid kit got soaked and my ibuprofen turned to mush, but everything else stayed dry.
   Prior to plunging into the final pool, I watched a 20-inch brown and a 14-inch brown feed at the tailout of the pool. I had no chance at them because they did not stick around after I fell from the slot into the water.
   In the desert heat, I welcomed being soaking wet as I waded and fished upstream. After spooking large trout from the first few decent holes, I learned the appropriate level of stealth and was able to see the next brown trout before it saw me. I stalked and sight-fished it, hooking the 16-incher on the first cast. Prospecting the prime lies in the best holes was equally rewarding and effective for brown trout ranging from 12 to 17 inches. My largest trout, a 17-inch brown, came from a blind cast around a bend. I deduced that the hole would be deep and rocky, so I curved a cast to drop my fly around the bend and out of sight. I lifted the rod sideways when I heard the take, and the fish was on.
   Carefully monitoring my progress and my location on my multiple mapping tools, I noted all important landmarks. I came upon my planned exit up a navigable slope and over a low saddle sooner than I would have liked, but quitting a bit early would ensure I got out in daylight and would allow for a more leisurely climb.
   By the time I arrived back at my Jeep atop the Hogs Back ridge, I had earned an appetite. There are few restaurants in between Escalante and Torrey, and both are in Boulder. I chose the Burr Trail Grill. For this particularly memorable meal, I suspend the maxim that even a mediocre dinner after an exhausting day outdoors seems at the moment to be the best meal ever because in this case, it really was among my best meals ever. That’s not just my hunger talking.
   At the table, I inquired about the singular form of the noun “spare rib” on the menu. I was told that, despite the Burr Trail Grill’s singular restroom being erroneously labeled as “restrooms,” plural, the menu listing was indeed correct about the singularity of the rib. Slow cooked and served with sweet potato puree, roasted corn hash, and house cornbread, the succulently marbled rib was perfect in portion and unsurpassed in taste. The rib entrée is so memorable that I can’t even recall the flavor of the famous homemade pie I savored as dessert.

 

Up from the Escalante
More than two decades ago, I read an obscure report in Karl Malone’s long-defunct Utah Outdoors magazine written by its founder Dave Webb, a slot-canyon devotee, who had hiked upstream from the mouth of Boulder Creek and caught or at least observed—in addition to suckers and catfish—a few trout. That anecdote has stayed in my memory all these years, and I would recall it each time I drove through the area.
   My wife, one son, and I picked early June to backpack down the Escalante to its confluence with Boulder Creek. The air and water temperatures were ideal. I had traveled through the area just two weeks prior when the Escalante River was still high and dirty, but it had cleared by mid-June and we were able to drink the clean water after sterilizing it with a UV SteriPEN. As a veritable oasis in the desert, the verdant Escalante River corridor is pleasant, shady, and teeming with smaller wildlife of many kinds.
   The Boulder Creek confluence is more than 6 miles as the river winds downriver from the trailhead at the SR 12 bridge. We backpacked 4.5 miles and made a base camp 1.5 miles before reaching the confluence; then, from base camp, we explored Boulder Creek with only daypacks, the SteriPEN, and fly rods. For three days, we did not see another person until a group hiked past our tents on our final evening. 
   The contrast of the eponymous black-basalt “boulders” with Boulder Creek’s red-rock sandy bottom is a picturesque setting for catching wild brown trout. Its lowermost mile or two holds mostly suckers that fin in plain sight above the light-colored sandy bottom, and anglers should wade quickly past these fish and not be tempted to try to catch them. If a visible fish does not spook like a trout normally would, then it’s not a trout;
move on.
   After a few miles and where the stream bottom becomes mottled with black cobbles providing camouflage and holding lies for wary trout, the brown trout fishing begins. Streamside vegetation is thick enough that wading up and down within the creek is required, but wading must be done stealthily when approaching likely trout lairs. For the more adventurous types, there is a slot-canon narrows section 4 miles up from the mouth, plus a few “tanks”—water-filled sandstone depressions—up a
side canyon.

 

Flies, Rods, and High Adventure
Nobody has documented Boulder Creek’s insect hatches, and there are no readily available hatch charts or other information about the bugs in the creek, but it doesn’t matter. Simple attractor fly patterns are all you need. Dry flies work everywhere from the headwaters to the mouth, and I’ve never had to change out a fly that wasn’t getting hits. Eldredge’s Hellion nymph (see photo) is a great all-around attractor pattern for Boulder Creek’s deeper-dwelling or surface-shy denizens. An 8-foot, 4-weight rod has served me well on every stretch from the forest to
the desert.
   Boulder Creek is not a casual destination that you can fish quickly or conveniently while driving by with some other purpose. Rather, it demands dedication as the prime destination for high adventure. Although exploring Boulder Creek requires serious commitment and careful planning, it’s worth the effort!

 

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