Rainbows in the Desert

Superb fishing for trout that shouldn't be there.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The trip out of Lees Ferry Landing was only two hours old, but Peter Mathiesen had already reached a conclusion: "This is one of the most incredible fishing trips I've ever been on."

I wondered. Okay, the 15-inch rainbow he was holding was beautiful, no doubt about it. But we'd caught bigger 'bows in other places. And the number of fish in the Colorado River was impressive, long ribbons of trout weaving in the current. Once again, though, we'd seen the same thing in other locations. So I asked, "Why do you say that?"

Mathiesen was clearly outraged by the question. "Oh, my God! Are your eyes closed? Just look around." He had a point.

For starters there was the physical paradox of our legs being chilled by 48-degree water as the rest of our bodies roasted. And we faced the mental challenge of digesting the fact that we were catching coldwater trout in a blazing desert.

Most impressive of all was the sheer Technicolor reality of the scene, of watching a handful of anglers in khaki waders move through a band of jade-colored water dwarfed by the red rock walls of Marble Canyon--huge stone curtains falling from a sliver of blue sky more than 1,500 feet above our heads. Plus, we were enjoying almost nonstop action on fat and feisty rainbows that seemed to spend the entire morning with their mouths open.

All right. Mathiesen had a very big point.

"I've fished a lot of places, but this might be the only one where the landscape is as interesting as the fishing," he said. "You don't know whether to watch the fish or the scenery. It's so wild, so different. It seems unreal."

** Opportunity Born From Controversy**
Calling it unreal is likely a typical reaction for visitors to the southern Colorado River drainage, a high-altitude desert of stunning beauty--some of it natural, some not.

In 1963, a controversial dam was placed at the last bottleneck in Glen Canyon, a scenic wonder that rivaled the Grand Canyon in size and splendor. Above the dam sprawls 260-square-mile Lake Powell, a surrealistic ocean of blue water baking under the desert sky, a playground for water sports and angling in one of the continent's most arid regions. Below the dam, the river that entered the lake too warm and silty for trout escapes back into its natural channel as a clear alpine stream with a steady year-round water temperature of 48 degrees--perfect for trout.

In 1965 the federal government decided to take advantage of the change and began planting rainbows and the food those fish would need to survive. The newcomers did more than that; they thrived and began to reproduce. Soon, the tailwater fishery in Marble Canyon was one of the fishiest places on the planet, with an estimated 50,000 trout per river mile.

Trout Time
Almost 40 years later that reputation was still intact, which convinced Mathiesen and me that we should give it a look while we were visiting the area. Lees Ferry Anglers offered everything we needed: a room at Cliff Dwellers Lodge, expert advice on tackle, and 17-foot jet boat rentals. Facing a tight schedule, we opted for guide service, an eight-hour trip for two at $350. Another option for anglers with more time would be one day of guided fishing to get the inside advice, and then daily boat rental. Minutes after launching, we were motoring through a landscape that left us slack-jawed, following the river as it twisted through the towering canyon walls painted a deep purple by the rising sun.

The fishing was equally spectacular. Beaching the boat on a gravel bar, we waded near a bend in the river where the trout waited in long, deep runs. This was all nymphing, with No. 16 and 18 bead-headed zebra midges. And it was fast. Five minutes into the game Mathiesen was fighting his first rainbow, laughing with the thrill of taming a wide-bodied 12-incher.

Many more followed as the day progrressed. We fished different stretches of the river, pausing for a relaxing shore lunch in the canyon's shadows. All the trout were between 12 and 18 inches, fat, healthy--and angry at being pulled from the water. We couldn't have been happier.