Fishing New Water: Lessons from Lees Ferry
The older I get, the more joy I get out of fishing new water. At 789 light years of age, new water still makes me feel like a kid again. On Thursday night I couldn’t sleep, so I called my buddy Wyatt and asked if he was down to make a 1 day burner to AZ to fish the Colorado in the Grand Canyon. The plan was formed. After guiding the San Juan on Monday, we would meet up and convoy to the South West’s other iconic tailwater, “Lees Ferry”.
At 8:27pm, we met at a gas station in Waterflow, NM and drove through the desert to arrive at some BLM land where we set camp. Camp consisted of parking our Subaru’s next to each other and sleeping in our respective hatchbacks. After waking up, we made some cowboy coffee and got ready to pick up our rental jet sled.
For this trip, it was important to NOT ask my buddies who had fished here for spots or even rig suggestions. I wanted to fly totally blind. I watched some youtube videos, read some online posts and decided it was time to go rogue. There is something awesome about you and a fishing buddy putting your heads together and just figuring it out when fishing new water. And put our heads together we did.
Lees Ferry is unlike anything either of us had ever fished. At a current flow of 13,500 CFS the water volume dwarfed the flow of our local San Juan, which at the time I had left was 417 CFS.
While not the broadest river I’ve fished, “The Ferry” is DEEP, crystal clear, and overall pretty featureless. Seeing it for the first time and with limited jet boat rental time, we pondered where to start. It is reminiscent of some of the steelhead rivers I used to fish in Washington. I was happy I had brought a trout spey set up.
The deeper, wade accessible runs reminded us of the deep slow sections of the Juan we fish. As a result, we were able to use similar rigs and find success on a totally new fishery to us. We spent a lot of the day telling stories, laughing, and talking smack—par for the course with good fishing buddies.
The scenery is hard to put into words or even pictures. It’s something that needs to be experienced. It was very easy to get lost in the surroundings of such a beautiful place. The big takeaway was that even though it was a massive river (by volume) we found the fish in the same water type over and over again. Riffle drops.
A riffle drop is where a shallow riffle buckets into a deep hole. I would assume this would have to do with water temps and season but can’t be too sure as I have only fished here once. I’m not sure how it fishes seasonally, but on the day we fished, that’s where the trout were. This was an important piece of the puzzle that allowed us to turn a big river into multiple smaller rivers. River inception, fishing the seams within the seams. Go ahead DiCaprio, shed a tear. The day ended with us finding a bar that we could wade out to and run euro drifts into a bucket. That little bucket produced more fish than any other spot on the river. I hope to return to it and similar runs on my next trip.
When guiding, I always tell my clients to think “trout first.” What I mean by this is: consider a trout’s overall biological characteristics. Then, use that info to present your offerings. Trout are cold blooded creatures and water temperatures have a lot to do with where they feed, hold, and spawn. The same water temps also impact the bugs that they eat. Considering these variables on a day to day basis can clue you in on where they are holding, where in the water column they may be feeding, and the type of water you should focus your effort.
Where Are the Trout?
If you had to boil trout fishing down to its simplest form, it is this: where are the trout and how do I present a fly to them?Thinking “trout first” will give you an idea where they may be. However, the river, specifically in flow and depth, will tell you how to present a fly to them. We considered these variables as we moved from trout spey, to indicator rigs, and eventually euro rigs. Then, we matched our rigs to river and found success throughout the day. Finally, we worked as a team, shared data, and found water types and river characteristics where we could duplicate success.
Fishing New Water: Don’t Let It Scare You
While new and different water can sometimes be intimidating, you don’t have to let it scare you. By thinking about where the trout could be, breaking the river down into bite sized chunks, and making adjustments to your rig based on flow, you will find success no matter where you fish. At the Ferry, instead of fishing my normal 6ft to a split shot like I do on deep San Juan runs, I bumped it out to 9ft. Instead of fishing 2.8mm tungsten beads on a euro rig, I fished 3.3mm beads to compensate for more complex currents. Understanding your day to day rigs and how they work will allow you to easily make adjustments to new scenarios.
It was a real treat to take a break from a busy spring season and explore some new water with a friend. By taking the time to relax, enjoy the scenery, and shrink a big river into familiar parcels, we were able to put some beautiful wild trout in the bag. Lees Ferry taught me to stay calm, stick to the fundamentals, and enjoy fly fishing for what it’s supposed to be, fun.