John Merwin Fishes America’s Best Tailwater: Utah’s Green River
The trout are swimming in air, or so the surreal clarity of the river makes it seem. By a trick...
The trout are swimming in air, or so the surreal clarity of the river makes it seem. By a trick of light and my polarized sunglasses, it appears that there’s no watery surface or reflections to separate the fish from my floating fly. A trout spirals slowly upward, its open maw showing white, and in my excitement I pull the fly away before its mouth can close. Missed him. Too hair-trigger.
My guide, Gordon Tharrett, is laughing at me. “You have to let them take it,” he says. “But that’s okay. You’ll get plenty of shots. Just look along the riverbank.”
From the bow of Tharrett’s drift boat, I can see fish along the bank every 3 feet or so. Some are finning and rising occasionally at the grass edges; others poke nose-down in the aquatic weeds, grubbing for scuds. In a nearby eddy, another dozen fish swim in slow, lazy circles. I have never seen so many trout at once outside of a hatchery. It’s almost silly.
We’re on the Green River tailwater below Flaming Gorge Dam in northeastern Utah, which offers some of North America’s best trout fishing. Unfortunately, as with many tailwater fisheries, everybody knows about it. Fortunately for us, we’re here in spring, which is the off-season. In high summer, recreational rafters and fishermen seem to occupy every inch of water. Trying to fish this river in June through August brings to mind the words of Yogi Berra: “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” But early and late in the season (March and April, and then again after Labor Day), there is a modicum of solitude and the fishing is extraordinary.
Half a dozen drift boats and rafts were already being launched at the spillway access near the dam when Tharrett and I made ready to put in that morning. Traffic, yes, but a far cry from the crowds that mob this four-lane ramp in July. Flaming Gorge Dam towered 500 feet behind us, and the thought of all that water looming overhead was very unnerving. Once we were afloat, Tharrett solved the crowding problem by rowing us into a back-water and anchoring. “Let’s wait a few minutes,” he said. “We’ll let these boats go on ahead of us, then we’ll have this section to ourselves all day. The trout don’t care.”
The canyon was named by John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who began his famous 1869 exploration of the Colorado River by floating the Green. “The river…enters the mountain range…by a flaring, brilliant red gorge,” Powell wrote in late May of that year. “We name it Flaming Gorge.” Powell’s party drifted the Green to its junction with the Colorado and beyond in what became an epic adventure of discovery, smashed boats, and death.
Much of Powell’s route is now under Flaming Gorge Reservoir, but the lower 7 miles or so of his course runs through a pristine gorge and the first fishable section of the tailwater below the dam. The canyon walls are spectacular: brick-red sandstone rising as much as 1,200 feet above the river in a towering jigsaw puzzle of fractured ledges and scrub juniper. Our drift boat seems infinitely small in a place belonging to golden eagles and mountain lions but not to men.
Tharrett pulls the oars, moving the boat downstream and dragging me back from my reverie. “This part of the river is called the aquarium,” he explains, “because the water is so clear and the fish numbers are highest here. Lots of people drift the middle with small nymphs or scud imitations under a strike indicator. That’s a good way to take trout, but today we’ll fish the banks with small dries. Pay close attention to the riverbank, and you’ll see fish holding very tight to the grass and rocks.”
I miss a few more strikes, and then I finally get the rhythm and start hooking fish. While there are pods of trout milling about in the backwaters or in the slower, mid-stream currents, many more rainbows and browns are stacked up within inches of the shore. Rises, when I see them, are very subtle and tight to the grass, as if the trout were trying to conceal their feeding. The fish don’t seem easily spooked–they’re accustomed to seeing lots of river traffic–but an errant cast or a dragging fly gives them instant lockjaw.
By late afternoon we’re in some faster broken water about 2 miles above our takeout at the Little Hole access area. “Time for a streamer and some big browns,” Tharrett announces. He pulls us to shore so I can switch to a heavier outfit for throwing a bigger fly. Tying on a white Conehead Woolly Bugger about 3 inches long, Tharrett gives me some very good advice: “When a brown whacks this thing, he’s trying to stun it at first. Then he’ll come back again to pick it up. When you first feel a hit, don’t lift your rod to set the hook. Keep stripping the fly until you feel the weight of the fish.”
I cast across the current and retrieve the fly in fast, short strips. Whack! The golden underwater flash of a very big trout ignites, and I quickly raise the rod to strike.
My guide shakes his head, and I explain that old habits of striking fish are hard to break. “I know,” he says. “If you want to catch one, do it right.”
So I cast and miss and cast and miss through an embarrassment of willing trout before I am finally able to follow a whack with a strip instead of a strike. Then there’s the heavy weight of a surging fish and I am whooping in loud relief and Tharrett is laughing. An 18-inch brown flops briefly in the net before being released.
I turn and shake Tharrett’s hand with a profound thank-you. “Uncle,” I tell him, cranking in my line. “I’ve caught plenty of fish today. I’ll quit while I’m ahead.” We drift out of the canyon shadows at Little Hole where the gorge, and our day, ends, although the broadening valley below beckons with another 9 miles of fishable water. At the put-out, there are several anglers wading waist-deep and casting toward midstream. I am tempted to point out that the fish are behind them along the bank, but I let it go. I’ll be wading tomorrow, stalking the river’s edge like a heron and catching those fish myself.
Five More Great Tailwater Trout Fisheries
Dam-controlled tailwaters like the one on the Green River are often excellent trout fisheries because the dams and reservoirs mitigate the temperature and flow extremes of the rivers. Tailwaters tend to be warmer than other areas early in the season and cooler in the summer, which means better fishing. Here’s a quick guide to five of the best.
SAN JUAN RIVER [New Mexico] The first few miles of river below Navajo Dam in north-western New Mexico have been regulated as special trout water since 1966. With nearly 20,000 trout per mile and many fish topping 20 inches, the fishing can be exceptional. These are heavily pressured, educated fish, so you’ll do best with small nymphs (size 20 and smaller) fished deep on a dead drift with 6X and 7X tippets. Contact the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, 505-476-8000; www.wildlife.state.nm.us
FRYINGPAN RIVER [Colorado] Tailwaters large and small abound in Colorado, but the Fryingpan in the Aspen area is a personal favorite of mine. The 13-mile stretch between the town of Basalt and Ruedi Dam holds numerous brown trout, and rainbows here sometimes top 10 pounds. Stretches of public water are interspersed with well-marked private areas; the biggest rainbows are usually in the first mile below the dam. Contact the Taylor Creek Fly Shop in Basalt, 970-927-4374; www.taylorcreek.com
LOWER SACRAMENTO RIVER [California] Shasta Dam at Redding in northern California has created a red-hot and largely unsung tailwater fishery that extends about 15 miles downstream. April is prime since flows tend to be low and the fish are more accessible. The abundant 2-to 4-pound rainbows rise freely and are extremely hard fighters. Assorted small caddis imitations take most of the fish. First-timers should hire a guide to learn the best shore-access spots. Contact the Fly Shop in Redding, 800-669-3474; www.theflyshop.com
WHITE RIVER [Arkansas] There’s almost 50 miles of trout water below Bull Shoals Dam in the northern Arkansas Ozarks, and it’s almost all good. Spring has sprung here by April, meaning that the sun is warm and the leaves are green. Locals catch abundant White River rainbows on everything from canned corn to dry flies. Guided float fishing from motorized johnboats is popular; wading fly anglers do best in shallower riffles such as those in the Rim Shoals area. Contact Dale Fulton’s Blue Ribbon Flies in Mountain Home, 870-425-0447; www.mtnhome.net/brf
GUNPOWDER FALLS [Maryland] One of the best tailwaters in the mid-Atlantic region is located in northeastern Maryland, within easy reach of both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Gunpowder Falls runs out from Prettyboy Dam a few miles west of Exit 27 on Interstate 83. In a deal brokered by Trout Unlimited, water authorities initiated coldwater releases in 1987, and the upper section now holds wild brown, brook, and rainbow trout. The action is hottest near the dam. Fishing is restricted to artificial lures and flies with mandatory catch-and-release rules. Contact Gunpowder Falls State Park, 410-592-2897; www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/central/gunpowder.html
TRIP PLANNER: THE GREEN RIVER
The closest major airport is in Salt Lake City. From there, you can drive east and north to the dam at Dutch John, Utah. Driving time is about four hours, not including stops at scenic attractions along the way such as Dinosaur National Monument.
Lodging and Guides
The Dutch John area is remote and sparsely populated, with few accommodations. A good bet near the river is Dennis and Grace Breer’s Trout Creek Flies, which has a limited number of motel-like units in addition to a superb fly shop (where you can book a day with Tharrett) and general convenience store. Breer offers guided fishing float trips ($375 a day for two anglers) plus rental rafts, drift boats, and a shuttle service for do-it-yourselfers (435-885-3355; www.fishgreenriver.com). The Flaming Gorge Lodge (435-889-3773; www.fglodge.com), which also has a restaurant, is another option. The U.S. Forest Service campground at Dripping Springs (www.reserveusa.com) is closest to the fishing action, and the agency also maintains a limited number of isolated, boat-in campsites along the river.
Fishing and Tackle
A 9-foot, 5-weight flyfishing outfit with a floating line will cover nymph and dry-fly fishing. Take a 7-weight if you want to throw streamers, too. Productive flies early and late in the season are typically small: bluewing olive emergers in sizes 18-28, GT Triple-Double dries in sizes 12-16 (see page 94), plus ant, midge, and scud patterns from size 16 downward. Spinfishermen need a 6- to 7-foot light-action rod; spool your reel with 4- to 8-pound-test line. Floating-diving Rapalas will interest larger brown trout, but small (1/16- to 1/8-ounce) marabou jigs and soft-plastic tube lures will catch the most fish. Fishing is restricted to artificial lures only. The water is cold; fleece pants under breathable waders are a must. –J.M.
THE GT TRIPLE-DOUBLE
Once in a while I encounter a red-hot regional fly pattern that begs to be fished more widely. The latest is Green River guide Gordon Tharrett’s GT Triple-Double, an elegantly simple dry fly that works wonders on the Green’s fussy trout. I often had trout refuse the most artfully tied, conventional emerger patterns, only to see them suck down one of these. –J.M.