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Colorado at Lees Ferry, Arizona  at Cabela's

Colorado at Lees Ferry, Arizona

Author: Steve Cook

The first Europeans to reach this rugged and inaccessible country were members of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition. They came here in 1776, searching for a route across the Colorado River.

Lees Ferry was the single place along the river that offered good access to both banks, but crossing the river was still very difficult until John D. Lee and "Uncle" Tommy Smith arrived in 1873 to build the first ferry boat. They christened her the Coloredo, and she became an important link between the southwest and the emerging Mormon communities of southeastern Utah.
A solitary figure is dwarfed by the immense canyon walls.
The thick, muddy water of those days has been replaced by the clear, emerald green outflow of Glen Canyon Dam, but a person is left feeling that little else has changed. The immensity of the Colorado River in its deep canyon can make a person feel small indeed. The timeless red walls rise more than 1,000 feet straight up from the surging waters of this huge river. The continent's largest and rarest raptor, the California condor, resides here. You may witness these endangered birds soaring on giant wings along the cliff tops.

The massive Glen Canyon Dam holds back the waters of Lake Powell. The dam is 300 feet thick at its base and over 700 feet tall. The reservoir of Lake Powell extends for 186 miles and took 17 years to fill completely. Perhaps it is not surprising that a dam of this stature should generate controversy as well as electricity. Some groups advocate draining the reservoir and returning the flooded canyon river to its original state; others resist changing back and look to the future opportunities of technology and power. A proposal to install structures allowing temperature control of waters exiting Glen Canyon Dam has also generated much discussion. The primary purpose would be to improve spawning of the endangered humpback chub and other native species. Colorado River trout are expected to benefit from the warmer waters and increased productivity, but some fear an outbreak of whirling disease could have a serious impact on the fishery.

Whatever your feelings about the dam, its daily operation is a key factor to understanding the habits of fish in the river below. Glen Canyon Dam supplies up to 1.3 million kilowatts of electricity and river flows are dictated, in large part, by power demands. Flows can go from about 8,000 cfs in the morning to 20,000 cfs by afternoon. Keep these fluctuations in mind when wading and make sure you don't get stranded.

Winter is the busiest time of year on the river. Guide boats routinely leave the dock before sunrise to claim prime gravel bars for their clients. As there is not much shallow water suitable for both fly fishers and spawning trout, you may have difficulty finding a good place to fish. Ask other anglers for permission before fishing close to them.

Special Regulations and Fees
The Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam to Marble Canyon Bridge (Lees Ferry):

  • Artificial lures and flies with barbless hooks.

  • The daily limit is two trout under 16 inches.

    Vehicle entrance fee for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is $5 for one to seven days or $15 for an annual permit. Boating permits cost $10 for one to seven days or $20 annually. Do not boat below the cable downstream from the launch ramp. Downstream waters are restricted to those with a Grand Canyon float permit. Rapids begin just downstream.

    Entrance and boating fees can be purchased at the self-serve station on the road to Lees Ferry, or call (520) 608-6542 for details.

    Beginning in October, Colorado River rainbows move onto the shallow gravel bars in preparation for spawning. Many anglers are drawn to the river at this time for the opportunity to sight fish for these big trout. Good polarized glasses are a must, and the most common rig is a combination of a glo-bug and a midge. Light tippets (5x) and careful casting will improve your chances of hooking these skittish fish in shallow water. Be sure to use enough weight to get down near the bottom and position yourself so that you can get the flies within a foot or less of your quarry. Streamer fishing can also be productive at this time of year. Employ sinking-tip lines and five to six feet of leader tapered down to 3x. If the prime gravel bars are full, you can find fish in deep, slow eddies while you wait for someone to leave.
  • Bobby Webb with a 20-inch rainbow he caught in mid-January at Lees Ferry.
    After spawning, fish will retreat to deeper water and try to regain the energy they expended while procreating. You will find trout in the deeper runs and especially behind gravel bars and below drop-offs. Deep nymphing is productive. Fish are actively feeding and may go out of their way to intercept larger flies. Scud imitations, San Juan worms and midge larvae are effective, as well as traditional patterns like pheasant tails, hare's ears and prince nymphs. Long, extended downstream drifts can be effective at times; just pull extra line from your reel and keep shaking "squiggles" onto the water without letting your line become tight.

    When you find fish actively feeding on midges, try a Griffith's gnat with a small midge pupa or emerger on a dropper. Reduce tippet size to 6x and make short, accurate casts to your target. Don't expect trout to move very far for such small food items.

    Fluorocarbon tippet material can give you an extra edge, and softer action, lighter weight rods can aid in gentle presentations as well as cushioning fragile terminal tackle when you finally connect.

    Regular water level fluctuations have led to an unusual fly pattern on this stretch of water. When water levels drop, scuds can be stranded on gravel bars and die. Returning water washes these dead (orange) and floating scuds back into the flow. During rising water, try fishing a floating scud pattern by itself or as a strike indicator.

    If you can stand the summer heat, you can find some explosive dry-fly fishing with terrestrial fly patterns. This approach is most effective when high water reaches up into the tamarisk thickets on the bank. Try grasshoppers and large cicadas.
    Hatch Chart/Availability            
    Annelid Worms
    Trout eggs              
    InsectsSuggested Fly Patterns
    MidgesGriffith's gnats (#16-20), grizzly midges (#16-20), zebra midges (#16-20), midge pupae, brown, olive, red and black (#16-22), brassies (#18-22), disco midges (#18-22)
    Scudsolive, tan, pink and orange scuds (#12-16), unbelievables orange floating scuds (#12-16)
    Annelid WormsSan Juan worms, orange and red (#12-16), red hots (#18-20)
    Trout eggs pink, orange and yellow glo-bugs (#12-16), bead-head glo-bugs (#12-16), bead eggs (#14-16)
    Terrestrials Dave's hoppers (#8-12), black foam cicadas (#8-12)
    How to Get There
    The closest cities with major airports are Phoenix and Las Vegas, both about five hours drive time, or Salt Lake City, which is eight hours by car. Anglers can get commuter flights into Page, Arizona, which is only 45 minutes from the river. Sunrise Air (877-978-6747 or has regular flights from Phoenix and Las Vegas.

    From Page, Arizona, go southwest on US 89 24 miles, then turn north onto US 89A and go 14 miles. Turn northeast about 0.3 miles past the bridge. It is about 5.5 miles up this road to Lees Ferry.
    Fishing the Colorado River's productive gravel bars.
    To drive up from Phoenix, go north 140 miles on I-17 to Flagstaff. Go northeast about 6 miles on I-40, then take US 89 north for 105 miles. Turn north onto US 89A and travel 14 miles, then turn northeast about 0.3 miles past the bridge. Lees Ferry is about 5.5 miles ahead.

    Anglers coming from Las Vegas should take I-15 northeast 130 miles. Go east on SR 9 to Hurricane, Utah, then turn southeast 22 miles on SR 59, which will become SR 389 when you cross the state line into Arizona. Continue east 33 miles to Fredonia, where you will turn east onto US 89A. Drive east 71 miles to Marble Canyon, then turn northeast and go 5.5 miles to Lees Ferry.

    There are about 15 miles of river from Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry, most of which is carefully guarded by steep cliffs. Shore anglers can only reach about 1 miles of riverbank below the boat ramp, and the best water here is the gravel bar formed where the Paria River (Piute for muddy water) meets the Colorado. The rest of this huge river belongs to boaters.

    If you are going to operate a boat here, be sure to exercise caution and consider spending a day with a licensed guide or friend that is intimately familiar with the river. While there are no real rapids, there are shallow areas that can damage propellers and leave boats crippled. Be sure your boat is adequately powered - at least 30 horsepower is recommended to make its way up the river.

    Lee's Ferry Anglers rents power boats that are outfitted for the river. These are 18-foot shallow draft river boats with 50 horsepower jet drives. You must be able to tow the boat to the river (trailer hitch with a 2-inch ball) and have boating experience. Make reservations well in advance of your trip. Current charge is $115 per day plus fuel.

    When to Go
    Winter is the most popular season here as anglers come in search of big trout spawning in the shallows. You can count on warmer weather (compared to most other trout fisheries in winter) and a lack of snow. Make sure you are prepared to dress warmly, as many areas of the canyon get very little direct sunlight this time of year.

    Early spring is wonderful here as fish begin to feed heavily in this post-spawn period. This is a great place for northern anglers to recover from cabin fever. Technical anglers will enjoy matching wits with trout feeding on the increasing numbers of midges. Summer is your best choice if you want to cast dry flies to feeding fish, but be sure you are prepared for the heat (up to 110 degrees F). Drifting nymphs through deeper flows and at the bottom of riffles is the most common method employed to hook Colorado River trout during the summer dog days.

    Early fall brings more comfortable weather in the canyon. Fishing conditions are much the same as summertime until spawners begin to show up in October.

    Area Attractions
    This portion of the river is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes massive Lake Powell. Visitors can enjoy a wide variety of water sports, including houseboating, on this strikingly beautiful reservoir. You can take a break from fishing to see the Navajo Bridge Interpretative Center where US 89A crosses the Colorado River or drive to the Carl Hayden Visitor Center near Page, Arizona, and take a tour of Glen Canyon Dam.

    There are six first-come, first-served designated campsites on the Colorado River. There is no charge for these sites, which have pit toilets. No ground fires are allowed. The other camping alternative is the Lees Ferry campground, also first-come, first serve. It has 51 campsites and flush toilets. If you prefer lodgings, Marble Canyon is just a few miles from the river.


    Marble Canyon
    Marble Canyon Lodge
    US 89A
    P.O. Box 6001
    Marble Canyon, AZ 86036
    Phone number/s: (520) 355-2225,
    toll-free (800) 726-2569

    Lee's Ferry Lodge
    US 89A
    Marble Canyon, AZ 86036
    Phone number/s: (520) 355-2231

    Cliff Dwellers
    US 89A
    Marble Canyon, AZ 86036
    Phone number/s: (520) 355-2228,
    toll-free (800) 433-2543

    Taken from Rocky Mountain Fly-Fishing by Steve Cook
    Steve Cook's new guidebook is filled with practical information about how to fish the blue ribbon waters of the American West. Complete with maps and hatch charts, the book focuses on the best of the best - the classic waters around Yellowstone and the quality waters throughout Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and Utah. The author is a professional guide who has spent years helping people learn to catch fish on these very rivers and lakes.

    For a complete fly selection click here.

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