FISHING WESTERN TAILWATERS – PART I By Dick Landerman

FISHING WESTERN TAILWATERS – PART I

By Dick Landerman
April 4, 2005


Author Playing Fish on Provo River

I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world. Within a few hours’ driving time from my home there is a handful of the best fly fishing waters in the world. I’m thinking of the South Fork of the Snake River, in southern Idaho, and our own Green and Provo Rivers right here in Utah.
When I first moved to Utah and the west several years ago, my first impression was: this is a pretty dry state (I’m not referring to the state’s liquor laws). Then I became acquainted with the many productive fly fishing waters and changed my mind.
Ever since the Great Depression, the U.S. government has been actively involved in a massive water conservation project, building dozens of dams to capture the west’s most precious commodity: water. With water, you have communities, farms, industry. Without water, you have a desert, a dust bowl.
Many of the dams were needed, well-planned, ecologically sound structures. But many more were not in that class. In recent years, there has been a rash of public interest lawsuits sponsored by groups like Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited and so on, challenging the soundness of the policy behind certain dams. Some dams were being built in response to selfish business interests, such as logging and mining, without thought to factors such as the dam blocking the annual migration routes of steelhead and salmon.
What do the dams do? They capture and conserve water; they control spring runoff from melting snow; they provide a dependable downstream source of water to towns, business interests, and farmers. They also provide hydro-electric power in many cases.
But one of the remarkable effects produced from these dams is the “tailwater effect.” Tailwater is essentially the downstream effect created by the dam. These effects include: first, a steady flow rate of water, measured in cubic feet per second (CFS). If you’re interested in how high or fast the water is flowing below a dam, you can go online and find the local hydrology reports. You can also contact local guide and fly fishing shops for stream reports.
Second, the water temperature tends to remain constant in tailwaters. Typical would be a surface temperature ranging from 44 degrees farenheit to about 50 degrees, year-round. This is important as it, with oxygen, impacts the food source for trout. Then, you have a greater supply of oxygen, or oxygenated water. Oxygen fosters and stimulates plant and animal (nymphs, larvae, scuds, snails, minnows, etc.) growth. The more plant life, the more animal life. The more food source, the more trout.
This theory has been proven by numerous stream surveys of fish below these dams made by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, numerous state fish and game agencies, and private research efforts. It is not unusual to find as many as 10,000 trout per mile! The research has also shown that trout grow faster in size in these food and oxygen-rich environments. You’ve heard rumors of monster browns in the Green River, the South Fork of the Snake? Gi-normous rainbows below the Navajo Dam on New Mexico’s San Juan River? True.
Enough of the technical stuff. Let’s talk about the fishing. I’ve broken this report into three parts. In this one I’ll talk about the Provo River, which is closest to my home and most accessible for a wading fisherman. In Part II I’ll talk about the Green River. Part III we’ll study the South Fork.

The Provo River starts high up in the Uintah Mountains about 85 miles east of Salt Lake City. It begins as many small trickles from various springs and gravelly channels of spring runoff water, all coalescing eventually into a recognizable stream. Around the 9,000 foot level, you will find many small to medium sized Cutthroat and brook trout. Nine inches is probably the average, but don’t be surprised by the occasional 12” lunker. The Utah Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) plants several thousand catchable rainbows at that altitude each spring.
This section is a fast-flowing freestone stream, lots of pocket water opportunities, maybe 15 to 20 feet across in some places. Best tackle is a light rod, say 7.5 feet number 4-weight; most casts will be under 30 feet. These trout aren’t leader shy, so a standard 7.5 foot leader in 7x will serve, and fly patterns are standard, too: Adams, PMDs, caddis, blue quill, BWO; attractors such as yellow Sally, Royal Wulff, and red or yellow Humpies, all in size 16 to 20s.
The Provo continues its flow westward down the slope of the Uintas, and there’s a nice, fishable, state park called Soapstone Basin, where I have caught some nice rainbows and browns in the 15-18” class, mostly on the above patterns, but also with small beadhead nymphs. Also a few brookies will happily come to your fly. You will have to pay a one-time access fee of US$6.00 to park.

Typical Provo Brown

The river continues west several miles past the pretty little farm town of Woodland. Most of this stretch is private water, but wadeable. You should ask permission of landowners before fishing here. If you are lucky enough to wangle permission, this stretch becomes more of hatch-matching water for dries. However, most of the time, the Provo from here on down, is nymphing water: Hare’s Ear, pheasant tail, various beadheads, Prince, Copper Johns, etc. Spring is also a good time to try a Glo-Bug with a San Juan Worm dropper, size 12-16.
A few miles west of Woodland, the Prove dumps into Jordanelle Reservoir, which is shaped in a “Y”, each fork being approximately two miles long. Jordanelle is about a 35 minute drive from Salt Lake City east via Interstate I-80, and then south on U.S. highway 40. The Jordanelle state park is accessible on its west side from U.S. highway 40, and is complete with boat launching ramp, picnic area, campsites, toilet facilities and fish cleaning station. As with many dams in the west, it is an earthfill dam. In the reservoir itself, there are opportunities for wading the gently sloping shores, as well as fishing from boats or float tubes. You will find an abundance of browns, rainbows, yellow perch, bluegill, and small mouth bass. Because it’s a state park, the standard $6.00 daily access fee applies.

Upper Provo Cutthroat

Below the Jordanelle, the real tailwater fishing begins. The Jordanelle, as intended, controls water levels and flows. Typical flow is usually around 1200cfs. Sometimes, if there’s an unusually heavy snow pack in the mountains, outflow from the dam may be increased for a couple weeks in late spring to equalize water supply between Jordanelle and the reservoir downstream, Deer Creek (discussed later herein). The Provo River continues on downstream from Jordanelle, wandering lazily through several small farms, and about a mile and a half below the dam, it runs under highway 40.
Although the stream runs entirely through private lands, a recent effort by a coalition of several interest groups (US Fish & Wildlife, Utah State DWR, Fly Fishing Federation, Trout Unlimited, and several local groups), has made the stream accessible to fishermen. As a result of this joint effort, there are now several nice gravel access roads, leading to graveled car park areas, complete with toilet facilities and footpaths to the river. The area immediately below Jordanelle is considered wetlands, so the footpaths became a necessity.
The land the Provo winds through here is relatively flat, valley land, but water volume remains fairly constant through the year, except in “dry” (drought) years when downstream farmers of necessity draw down their “shares” of water for irrigation purposes. But the whole water conservancy program tries to run a fair balance between water needs of farmers, municipalities and sportsmen. I have never witnessed any serious drawdown yet. Or any fistfights over water rights.
As with most tailwaters, the section from immediately below Jordanelle, to where the Provo runs under US 40, seems to be one the most productive in terms of larger fish. In the winter months, best action is from nymphs or large wet or streamer patterns: wooly worms, leech patterns, bunny patterns, Zonkers, Muddler Minnows, etc. Other favorite wet patterns of mine are partridge & orange, partridge & yellow; pheasant tail, Blue Zulu (killer!); and snipe & purple. Fish them singly or in tandem, trying various combinations of sizes and colors for a new look the fish haven’t seen yet. You can do as I did, and get them all from Ron Sharp’s website, Flies Online.
For the dry fly aficionado, there are frequent midge hatches through the winter months, but be prepared to downsize your leader to at least a 7x, and increase the length to about 11-12 feet. Best patterns are size 22-26 tricos, RS-2, WD40, cream midges, BWOs. Try a dry with a trailing emerger pattern. Another one of my most productive patterns has been a “crippled” or challenged baetis emerger fished solo. Tiny nymphs as droppers behind the midge dry patterns also seem to work well. Try patterns such as the zebra midge nymphs in olive, red, brown, or black.
Late spring brings a series of hatches: First the BWOs; then March Browns, Green Drakes, red quills; small, dark stoneflies. Then, by early summer, there is a dependable evening caddis hatch. Early in summer, the caddis flies tend to be sulfurs in this section; then by mid to late summer, they phase through olive, tan and sometimes black, in various sizes.

Evening PMD Hatch on Provo

The Provo also gets regular evening PMD hatches. They tend toward sulfur to bright greenish bodies, sometimes almost lime in color, size 18-20s. Just grab a fly out of the air or off the water or a bush to match size and color.
Summer, deep summer, in July and August, brings very hot weather. The trout turn sulky and nymphs again should do the trick. On cloudy, stormy summer days or evenings, you can turn to terrestrials such as beetles and ants right after a storm. Early morning and late evening, cicada, attractors and hopper patterns work. Try dropping a Copper John below the attractor, such as a Yellow Sally (locally called “Mormon Girl”) or a hopper for some hot action. Occasionally I use a copper John with a size #18 silver or olive scud pattern as a dropper, with a small split shot for weight, if needed.
Summer is also a good time to swing weighted woolly worms or black or purple leeches, as well as wet flies. Try throwing the fly as close to the bank as possible, let it sink, then start it drifting down and across; don’t be afraid to give it a few twitches to imitate escaping action.
Fall again brings regular BWO and PMD hatches, size 16-20s. But the coloration of the bodies on the BWOs tends more toward dun or tan with cream stripe effects. I have found that a blue quill pattern, size 20, works very well. And then there are the dependable, old Adams patterns that sometimes will work during a BWO hatch.
Except for the occasional hatches that bring fish to the surface to feed, Provo trout are best described as bottom dwellers. The best nymphing technique on the Provo is “bouncing” your nymph along the bottom to get the lure down in the water column in front of the fish. This method will require some split shot or similar weight; a strike indicator is very helpful . The takes can sometimes be vicious, but more often are very tentative, so give a slight twitch to your line if you see any hesitation in the drift.
For variety, try wet fly fishing. This past winter I had some really good success throwing a hare’s ear soft hackle #12-16 with a trailing beadhead, soft-hackled pupa nymph, sizes 16-20. This pattern is called simply, “le Bug,” and is tied in several colors (olive, tan, sulfur, gray, black) by a good friend of mine in Idaho, Steve Beck. I fish this rig wet, no weight, with a 7-foot 4x leader/tippet, and throw only a short length of line for control, up and across, as close to the opposite bank as possible, allowing dead drift but with an occasional twitch or slight upward pull on the line, imitating a nymph trying to rise to the surface. At the end of the drift I give it the classic Leisenring Lift, then cast over again with sort of a swing toss. Don’t try to do any false casting with this rig or it’s certain disaster.
About a mile below highway 40, the Provo runs under a state highway and on downstream for three or four miles more, through meadows and farmland, until it empties into another reservoir, Deer Creek Reservoir. Again, this section of the river is accessible to fishermen, but it’s all catch & release, artificial lures only. This entire area is still under reclamation by the above described coalition, and work is still slowly progressing.
The stream through this entire section, known as the “Middle” Provo, is characterized by many bends with tempting cutbanks, riffles; long, fairly shallow, gravel-bottomed runs flowing into slight rapids flowing over gravel faces, into yet another riffle. By far, the fish you’ll catch here are browns. Catching a rainbow here is rare; they seem to have been crowded out by the huge population of browns. In fact, the catch & release program has been so successful, Utah DWR is encouraging anglers to take and keep up to four trout under 13” in this section.
I have discovered that some of the best fishing is found right at the point where the water falls off the face of the gravel bar and flattens out. The fish lie with their noses right against this spot, waiting for food to fall off the gravel face.
If the fishing gets slow, use your camera to capture some of the prettiest mountain vistas this side of Switzerland. A few miles to the west towers the snow-capped Mount Timpanogos, so named after a Ute Indian princess, her profile seen lying in a death pose. There are also many small farms in the area, with livestock peacefully grazing in lush meadow grass along the river, reminiscent of calendar scenes from Europe. In fact, the nearby town of Midway hosts “Swiss Days” every year in early September.
Deer Creek Reservoir, another state park, is stocked with rainbows. Several years ago DWR stocked small mouth bass, and this water provides some of the best such fly fishing in the state. Deer Creek is shallow on the north end, very deep on the southwest end. It’s about 3.5-4 miles long, with several shoreline spots accessible to wading anglers and float tubers. The north end with its shallows and reeds and other aquatic plant growth, is one of the best spots for small mouth bass fishing. Surface poppers are effective here; let the popper sit still to the count of ten, then twitch and hold on. Redeyes can also be found along the rocky points on the west side; fish wooly buggers (I know, I know: “bugger” is a bad word to you UKers; call them wooly “boogers” if you like) and large nymphs, deep with a slow hand-twist retrieve, or “troll” them behind a float tube. Good way to cool off in the summer.
The next choice section, harboring perhaps the largest sized browns, is the mile or so directly below Deer Creek. This section, known as the “Lower Provo,” runs for about seven to nine miles south and west toward the Utah Valley city of Provo, following one of the prettiest canyons in Utah. The river becomes more of a freestone stream again through this section, with many choice riffles and runs, as well as cut banks. An old narrow-gauge railroad, the “Heber Creeper,” still in operation for tourists, follows the twisting stream line for about half the distance of the canyon. The rail line terminates at the turnoff to Sundance Ski Resort, owned by actor Robert Redford.
Again, patterns in this section are pretty much the same as the Middle Provo. This section, because of its accessibility to Provo City, is fished more heavily than the upper two sections. In fact, it’s probably the most heavily fished stretch of water in the entire state. Consequently, the fish seem to have acquired advanced degrees in artificial fly identification. Stealth, lengthy leaders, smaller tippets (requiring softer strike techniques) and smaller sized patterns are the rule.
That said, large browns can be tempted from their deep lairs under logs and banks using large streamer patterns that seem to work best in the early morning hours before sunrise, or just about or after dark. For those interested in fishing after dark with mouse patterns, care is the watchword.
Speaking of stealth, I have also found a surprising number of trout, large and not so large, that lie up close to the banks, so tread carefully as you go along. In fact, if you can, try casting far back on the bank, allowing just a short section of leader and/or line on the water. Avoid wading except where necessary.
On the subject of wading, due to the abundant plant life, the Provo’s rocky bottom can be slippery in places. I highly recommend at least felt soles (I prefer studded felt soles, myself). A wading staff is useful in some spots.
One last mention about the water downstream from Provo City: the river slows down, then terminates in a shallow, natural freshwater lake, Utah Lake. At the estuary of the Provo River, some of the choicest walleye fishing can be found. The lake also is home to several varieties of warm water species: rock bass, white bass, large mouth bass, and carp; also, panfish and channel catfish, which are very good eating.
If you’re in the area and decide to fish the Provo River, Salt Lake City has an international airport and is accessible by several major airlines, especially Delta Air Lines connecting through JFK, Atlanta or Cincinnatti, Ohio.
Salt Lake hosts several fly fishing shops and guide services: Orvis; Western Rivers Fly Fishers 801-521-6424; Fish Tech Outfitters 801-272-8808; High Country Flyfishers 1-800-397-1629; and Jans Mountain Outfitters in Park City 435-649-4949.
But perhaps the most knowledgeable guide on the Provo, is Bob Ingle, owner of Clearwater Flyfishers. Toll free 1-866-321-5268. www.clearwaterflyfishers.com. He lives and operates his shop within a stone’s throw of the dam at Jordanelle.

NEXT: FISHING THE “AQUARIUM” – THE GREEN RIVER

Dick Landerman, 62, is a former lawyer (“I used to be a lawyer until God found out and I was so ashamed, I quit.”). He now owns a private merchant banking company, Robertson Cartwright & Co., where he devotes only such time necessary to pay the bills and support his fly fishing addiction. In addition to being an avid fly fisherman (averages at least 40 days a year on the Provo River), he writes about fly fishing; soon to publish his first book of fly fishing essays: THE FLY ROD CHRONICLES, and his first novel, CATCH & RELEASE. He also buys, sells and collects bamboo fly rods. He lives in Salt Lake City with his wife, Janet, who teaches high school French, and an overweight Pug, Simon.

Sincere thanks to Dick for putting this article together and for letting me use it