Lunch Stop

A Green Winter: Utah Winter Fly Fishing

I landed in Salt Lake City in late March. Although skiing was on my agenda, I pointed the rental car toward something even more enticing – the Green River downstream of Flaming Gorge dam. 12,000 trout per mile, with a reputation of feeding hard year ‘round, were calling my name.

It was dark when I got to my room at Trout Creek Flies in Dutch John.   Motel rooms – no matter how spartan – are so much more welcoming with a fly shop attached and a river nearby.  Before retiring, I did some visiting with the group beside me; they convinced me to book a guided drift boat trip for one of my two days on the river. At about 9 AM the next morning, I wandered over to the fly shop for the requisite fly recommendations.  I also booked my guide for the next day. Therein lies the beauty of winter fly fishing:  leisurely, late morning starts and no need for reservations.

By 10 AM I was on the river.  It was cloudy and about 38 degrees.  But with a fly rod in my hand and moving water beside me, it felt absolutely tropical. My 5 mm neoprene waders weren’t hurting, either.  The river looked completely gorgeous – perfectly clear water slicing through red rocks dusted by white snow.  I hiked along a well-trodden path and fished as I went. However, the 12,000 trout per mile remained remarkably well hidden.  Eventually, in a side eddy alongside a faster chute, I spotted some trout finning.  They had a penchant for zebra midges and orange scuds under an indicator – not a desperate hunger, mind you – but a definite penchant that kept me busy for a couple hours.

Near the end of those couple hours, the temperature dropped below freezing and the snow started.  Although the flakes were big and friendly, my hands felt like blocks of ice.  Fingerless neoprene gloves, it seems, have a threshold of effectiveness that I was trying to cross.  I started the hike back to the car. About 5 minutes from the car, I stumbled onto the weirdest, most beautiful winter scene imaginable.  (For me, anyway.)  Trout were poking their noses into the snowstorm.  Nothing de-ices fingers, or at least enables the mind to work with icy fingers, like rising trout.  Out came the 6 X tippet and a Griffith’s Gnat.  And then a tiny emerger.  And then another tiny emerger.  And then another…  After several numb-fingered fly changes, I gave up and headed back to the car.  I should have been frustrated but mostly I was stoked with just the idea of casting to rising fish in a snowstorm.

I slept well that night, looking forward to the guide’s drift boat the next day…

During the next morning’s leisurely start, as I shuffled off to the fly shop to meet the guide, the air had a biting cold.  Being from the Canadian prairies, it was not unfamiliar. The strong wind pushing fresh snow along the ground was something else my prairie brain immediately recognized.  Back home, it’s the kind of wind that makes you sprint from your house to your car and from your car to your final destination, minimizing time outdoors at all costs.  I was thinking that this is not fishing weather, my neoprenes won’t even keep me warm, and my trip is going to get cancelled.

Nevertheless, the guide was in the shop, ready to go and perfectly optimistic, even confident.  I bought a pair of Simms fishing mitts and officially relegated the fingerless neoprene gloves to back-up duty.  I made a quick stop to throw on all the clothes I brought, including ski pants underneath my waders.  Then we set off for the river.Once on the river, I quickly forgot about the cold.  The 12,000 trout per mile were definitely showing themselves.  Through the clear water, as we slid down runs, I spotted schools that were quite content to let the boat drift right over their heads.

The guide had me throwing a heavily weighted, green Woolly Bugger with an 8 weight floating line and a 10 foot leader.  The drill was to let it sink as deep as possible.  In the deeper, slower water it sometimes pulled the last few feet of line under.  The fish certainly liked it.The action wasn’t non-stop but it was certainly steady.  Every five minutes or so I dipped my rod in the water to melt the ice in the guides.  After every third or fourth dip, I seemed to have a fish on.

They didn’t seem to prefer any particular location.  Some were in deep eddies, some were along steep banks amongst boulders, some were at the base of riffles and rapids, and some were right in the riffles and rapids.As the day wore on, around 2:30 PM, the sun came out and the air lost its bite.  (Notice I didn’t say it got warm.) A long, shallow run in full sunlight had some regular risers.  We were almost at the take-out point but the guide rigged up a BWO dry on my 5 weight. It was time to exact some revenge on the picky risers from the day before…

On my third or fourth cast, a 12” brown slurped down the fly.  It was not a huge fish, but definitely special, considering I had woke that morning to the remnants of a winter storm.  I unhooked it with great care – maybe even reverence – just as the guide beached the boat. Later that evening, as I drove away from the river and toward the ski hill, I was already planning my next winter trip and thinking about replacing the skis with an extra fly rod…

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