Walk-N-Wade: 2018 Spring Break Report
By Geoff Roach, Club Member, March 2018
Child rearing conditioned Tam and me to take a week’s break in March. 2018 is no exception though our daughter, a university freshman, spent spring break as an all-expense paid intern at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in DC. We loaded backpacks (and fly rod) and set off for Utah/Arizona canyon country. Our forty mile Paria River canyon hike would culminate at Lee’s Ferry, Colorado River.
March is a good time. The chance of flashflood in the slot canyon environment is lower than in July/August when thunderstorms can mean a swim for dear life, or worse. The Paria is cold now, 46 to 50 degrees. There are 300 river crossings. Good news for the angler! Over 3 mm neoprene knee socks we wore cheap hiking shoes - a size and half larger than we’d normally wear – and gators to avert the river’s sediment. The hiking shoes double as wading boots, fitting over wader booties, at Lee’s Ferry for angling so there is no wading boot transport from PDX!
Once past entry petroglyphs and a century-old “cowboy signature”, Navajo Sandstone walls rise and pinch. The narrows are 400 foot vertical cliffs, tightening in places to 6 feet wide. At mile 7.5 Buckskin Gulch joins. Buckskin is the world’s longest and narrowest slot canyon – 15 miles, 400 feet deep and 3 feet wide in many places. Our first evening was spent 10 miles in at Fault Crack 1 of 4. These are nearly perpendicular strikes to Paria canyon caused by uplift. Fault cracks tend to hold springs bubbling reliable drinking water. Despite hiking wet, the Paria is undrinkable. It is consistently America’s highest sediment laden river. I’d expressed to a friend, before setting off, my desire to connect with a ringtail cat. I had become acquainted with the animal 35 years ago. A ringtail took a fancy to our food cache this night. I watched until it depleted our gorp to alarmingly low levels.
Our second evening was at Wrather Canyon (mile 20.5) furnishing a spring and beautiful camp. Beavers of Paria are industrious. All mature cottonwoods close to the river’s course here are deeply girdled – keep this in mind during campsite selection should the wind blow. Four miles further are spectacular petroglyphs. The Paria is unlikely to ever have been heavily inhabited, like nearby Grand Gulch. For Native Americans this was a major transportation corridor connecting the Paria Plateau highlands and Grand Staircase environs with Colorado River country, including the Grand Canyon. The corridor also funneled an important prey, bighorn sheep, making it possible to corral fresh meat. The terrain here and accompanying petroglyphs support this. Last reliable water is mile 25 and we refill a two day supply.
Our final evening is a dry camp and our last day held extreme weather. Heavenly thunder and lightning squalls dazzled us. Low clouds burst over the rims of high country canyons carrying rain, snow and sleet. Moments later striking shafts of warm sunlight reigned as clouds parted. We took our time, buried in gear as needed, not wanting our trek to end. But, when we popped out at Lee’s Ferry and tossed our packs in a car we’d stashed there, the trip was not over!
We set up at Lee’s Ferry campground in a pounding windstorm.
At 10:30 AM the next morning, I slipped on waders and hiking shoes – perfect match, grabbed my pre-built Lee’s Ferry fly box, rigged the 4 piece, 9 foot, 5 wt fly rod I’d stowed in the car, and headed for the DIY section of the Colorado River.
Lee’s Ferry is just below Glen Canyon Dam. The Colorado is gin clear here. It runs a constant 48–52 degrees and is considered a quality rainbow trout fishery. I had learned it is primarily a nymphing river that has dry fly moments. Mid March is a good time. By the time I was wading, the near-spring sun trajectory allowed light into all nooks and crannies to warm the river and activate an important fish food - midges. The hatch in March will occasionally bring fish to the surface.
I was not alone and the fishing is odd. It’s a huge river, akin to nymphing the Columbia or the lower Willamette. Riffle habitat is few and far between. I had to use steelheading guile to politely work my way into position on a superb riffle where the Paria and Colorado join. Once there, I stayed. It afforded great wading and fish were active. People came and went. Fishing up or down on someone appeared well within the etiquette of the place. I did not mind – I was casting in a magnificent high red cliff place, on a beautiful cloud and wind free, 65 degree near bluebird day. Bugs were coming off and fish were on the bite – no worries!
Angler pressure made no difference. There was a moment when a parachute Adams style #18 purple haze produced gorgeous dry fly takes. But, nymphing was the bomb! Winning combo, consistently across the day, was an olive mini leech and chironomid dropper. Pink, red, orange, black chiros worked. Neither purple nor blue produced. I was easily at thirty fish to hand; all respectable in the 12-18” class. Some were strong and crisply beautiful; aerial in fight. Others were just coming off the redd. Warning! The river’s dam-controlled rise and fall are dramatic. Thankfully, I started on a high tide and watched the river drop. The bite stopped during the changeover. Once stabilized, it was back. The DIYers here are accomplished high stick nymphers, and there were many new recruits too. I favor a longline nymphing technique to extend the dead drift, though more line on the water means strikes are missed. I was quite productive and several anglers popped by to inquire about the style. It was fun to swap info.
Tam had made another hike out of this day and we caught up at 5:00 PM. We headed for Kanab, Utah, via the Juniper Ridge Saloon – on the AZ side of the border – for steak and quality tap beer (Utah is getting there on the beer front, but stay in AZ for beverages), then a shower and a bed. Saturday, with grand walk-n-wade memories front and center, we toured Zion National Park and then we were Vegas bound for a flight home. 2018 Spring Break is in the bag.