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Over the Rainbow in Trout Country

On a stretch of river in the Grand Canyon at Lees Ferry, fly-fishing and scenery claim the senses

June 16, 2002|WILLIAM BOOTH | WASHINGTON POST

LEES FERRY, Ariz. — It all appears so wild and true. The water is big and cold and clear. The fish are the color of vacation sunsets. You can see them, shouldering into the current, ready, able and wily.

It's all a trick.

The lovely ecosystem at Lees Ferry, Ariz., is about as phony as the jungle ride at Disneyland.

But what do I care? I want to go fishing.

I had heard about this spot for years, the stretch of river in the Grand Canyon where you can stalk rainbow trout with a fly rod. I treated myself by stopping on the way home to Los Angeles after covering the Winter Games in February in Salt Lake City.

It was pure gluttony.

So I don't really mind that the federal beavers at the Bureau of Reclamation dammed the Colorado at Glen Canyon in the 1960s and that the desert river now rises and falls each day with the push of a button, based on the operation of electric turbines needed to power air conditioners in Phoenix.

Or that the river here is dam- released tail water as clear as gin and 47 degrees year-round only because it decants from the bottom of the Lake Powell silt trap.

Or, finally, that the cold-water species of rainbow trout were planted here only for my enjoyment.

The fish are here to be caught. They're wild but not native. Chosen for their good genes, vigor and fast growth, they were poured into the river by the Arizona Game & Fish Department, along with their food, the gammarus shrimp that serve as a primary resource for the trout.

Before the dam, the river was silty brown and warm. There were catfish--no trout--and what is now Lake Powell was Glen Canyon, which writer Edward Abbey compared with the Taj Mahal and the cathedral of Chartres. Then the canyon was drowned and buried in mud.

Abbey's tough and poetic eulogy, "Desert Solitaire," is sold in the gift shop at the Foster family's Marble Canyon Lodge, and I bought a copy. I booked a day on the river, ate an appalling haunch of fried steak under cruel gravy at the cafe, and went to sleep in the motel, reading Abbey and listening to the couple in the next room, who sounded as if they were bowling.

*

Up before dawn, last bit of moon, and I walked over to the fly shop, bought a license, rented a pair of waders and met young Dave Trimble, my guide for the day. He was in a rush, and you have to love that. He goes fishing almost every day, and he is still in a hurry to go fishing. We trailed his boat down through boulder fields and reached the Colorado at the old site of Lees Ferry, where the pioneers crossed in buckboard wagons before the automobile bridges were built. You can still see the ferry cable on the shoreline. Those were hard and capable people.

We were going upstream through Marble Canyon to work the 15-mile stretch between Lees Ferry and the dam, the section where motorized fishing boats are permitted to chase the trophy trout. At the put-in, another group was loading rubber rafts to begin its trip downstream into the Grand Canyon, a journey that takes about a week in motorized rafts.

It was cold enough to make me miss my gloves. (If you go now, be prepared to be hot. Temperatures last week were in the high 90s and low 100s, but that 47-degree water will keep you cool, and the outside temperatures don't affect the fishing.)

The sunlight had only just begun to reach the top of the red stone canyon walls a thousand feet above us. When Maj. John Wesley Powell descended through these canyons, the first white explorer to do so, he sometimes felt as though he were passing through a "terrible and gloomy underworld." But Powell never knew what lay around the next bend.

Trimble powered the aluminum outboard skiff up the river, careful to keep to the channels. He looked happy driving his boat, and I hoped I looked happy too. About five miles from Lees Ferry, we pulled up to a gravel bar and tossed out the anchor. Time to get out and fish.

*

Fly-fishing has, unfortunately, taken on an elitist cast, no pun intended, and the sport today wraps itself in needless arcana and expensive ritual. To fly-fish well takes practice and thought, not fancy pants. To fly-fish badly, as I do, is as joyous a way to goof off in the outdoors as anything invented.

Trimble, however, was intent on catching trout.

He knew all the ruses. We waded out to the edge of a riffle, a mini-rapid that some anglers insist on calling a "feeding lane." On this early spring morning, Trimble decided that the trout might want to eat something called a midge.

He rigged up a beadhead nymph, a lure that looks like black lint plucked from a baby's bellybutton. Wrapped around a barbless hook, it was a tiny thing, and Trimble attached a BB to the line to help it sink a few feet.

Trimble pointed. The river was thigh-high and freezing. I cast and began shaking more line out of the reel, a technique called mending, so the nymph sank, bumping the bottom, and the line floated along in the current, nice and easy, in a way that is pleasing and natural-looking to the discerning fish eye.

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