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Stalking Trout In the Colorado

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 28, 2002

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'd heard about this spot for years, the stretch of river where you can stalk rainbow trout with a fly rod in the Grand Canyon.

Pure gluttony.

So I don't really mind that the federal beavers at the Bureau of Reclamation dammed the Colorado at Glen Canyon back in the 1960s, and that the desert river now rises and falls each day with the push of a button, based on the scheduled 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. That's kinda weird, isn't it?

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

Before the dam?

Before, the river was silty brown and warm, and there were catfish -- no trout -- and what is now Lake Powell was Glen Canyon, which the writer Edward Abbey compared to the Taj Mahal or Chartres Cathedral, before it was drowned and buried in mud.

Abbey's tough and poetic eulogy, "Desert Solitaire," is sold at the gift shop at the Foster family's Marble Canyon Lodge, and I bought a copy from the nice Navajo lady working the cash register. 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 walk over to the fly shop, buy a license, rent a pair of waders, and there I meet young Dave Trimble, my guide for the day. He's in a rush, and you gotta love that. He goes fishing almost every day of his life, and he is still in a hurry to go fishing.

We trail his boat down through boulder fields and reach the Colorado at the old site of Lees Ferry, where the pioneers crossed in buckboard wagons before they built the bridges for the automobile. The ferry cable is still visible on the shoreline. Those were hard and capable people.

We're heading 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 is loading rubber rafts to begin their trip downstream into the Grand Canyon, a journey that can take weeks.

It is cold enough to make you miss your gloves. The sunlight has only just begun to reach the top of the red stone canyon walls a thousand feet above us. When Major John Wesley Powell descended through these canyons, the first white explorer to do so, he sometimes felt as if he were passing through a "terrible and gloomy underworld." But Powell never knew what lay around the next bend. Today, you can call a toll-free number and find out.

Trimble powers the aluminum outboard skiff up the river, careful to keep to the channels. He looks happy driving his boat, and I hope I look happy, too. About five miles from Lees Ferry, we pull up to a gravel bar and toss 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. That is too bad. 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, is intent on catching trout.

He knows all the ruses. We wade 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 decides that the trout might want to eat something called a midge.

He rigs up a beadhead nymph, a lure that looks like black lint plucked from a baby's belly. Wrapped around a barb-less hook, it is a tiny thing, and Trimble attaches a small BB to the line to help it sink down a few feet.

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

It is my experience that trout generally spend their days hidden from sight and not eating or taking artificial flies, except when photographers from fishing magazines are present. Standing in the middle of the Colorado River, chilled to the bone, Trimble points to our feet. Trout are circling around like curious house pets.

When we shuffle, he said, our boots stir up food. Why can't we just dangle a nymph at our knees? Trimble thinks that is hilarious. Because that would be cheating. So I continue casting and mending and retrieving.

The exercise begins to warm my shoulders and back. In an hour, the sunshine has crawled down to the river's edge, and now the tower walls are no longer gray Manhattan but red and purple and streaked with desert varnish, the oxides of iron paint the canyons.

Still, no fish.

I have begun to pay slightly less attention to Trimble's ministrations to the line. The boy does like to fish. We drive the boat from spot to spot. We switch flies, because a good guide like Trimble knows that the real bugs and shrimp that the trout eat change from dawn to dusk, as the river rises and falls, and living shrimp die and change colors, and so the colors of the lures must change.

From gray to olive to pink to orange. We toss the trout glow bugs, scuds, stimulators, woolly buggers and rubber band worms.

Warmth spreads now across the whole canyon, river and walls, and the scene is as bright as a Polynesian painting. Coffee poured from the thermos tastes deliriously rich. An apple explodes when I bite into it. The desert smells alternatively like hot coins, smoking sage and a deep wet musk from the river. There are wrens whistling. A hawk turns its back on us. I couldn't really care less about fishing. And so we immediately begin catching trout, which is distracting as hell.

Lees Ferry is about 120 miles north of Flagstaff, Ariz., or a five-hour drive east from Las Vegas. Guides and lodging are available through Marble Canyon Guides, 800-533-7339, www.mcg-leesferry.com. Rates for a full day of fishing, gear and lunch are $250 for one, $325 for two and $400 for three. Lees Ferry Anglers (800-962-9755, www.leesferry.com) offers similar trips.

William Booth is The Post's Los Angeles bureau chief.

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