We got a chance last week to spend some quality time at Lees Ferry with Stonefly Press partners Terry & Wendy Gunn and their son Troy! We had some business in Phoenix, and decided to take advantage of the opportunity. Turns out it wasn’t the best weather to fly into Arizona and Lees Ferry, but we didn’t know it when we booked the trip – the temperatures were supposed to rise up to a record-breaking 122!
Our prospects, though, started to pick up immediately. The Phoenix meetings went very well, setting the table for what would turn out to be an almost dream week of being trout bums. By the time we got to Lees Ferry, the weather forecast had come down to a slightly more manageable high of 114 degrees (Wendy told me later she ran 4 miles that morning – oof!).
The drive in was beautiful, with the Vermillion Cliffs still lit up against the sky as we arrived in Marble Canyon. We got to Lees Ferry Anglers in the evening, in time for dinner with Terry, Wendy, and Troy at their wonderful Cliff Dwellers Lodge & Restaurant. I have read really great reviews for the restaurant in the past (Terry would send them on occasion), and they were spot on. Everything was great – not good, but great – including the pork chop special I ordered, and especially the guacamole key lime pie that Wendy talked me into. Sounded a bit awful, but it was an absolutely fantastic dessert. We had some wine, toasted the upcoming publication of their new 25 Best National Parks to Fly Fish, and then headed to the lodge before our early morning run to Lees Ferry.
I love the set-up at Lees Ferry – lodge, fly shop, and restaurant all within a few yards apart, with a staff from top to bottom, from the fly shop, to the wait staff, to the guides, as genuine and friendly as any I can remember. Really great people, just as I would have expected after working with Terry and Wendy for the last few years. Tesla even came in and put charging stations on the property! And the best part – you can give them your breakfast order the night before, and it will be bagged and ready for you in the morning when you drive down to the water!
Despite the stifling heat that was coming later in the day, the 6am weather was pleasant, and once we were on the water, I was surprised at the cool air in the canyon. Cold even, and I suspect outside the summer season light jackets would be a necessity in the early morning and well toward noon.
The canyon is spectacular! I’ve seen hundreds of photos, including many from above the iconic Horseshoe Bend, and even featured one on the cover of 50 Best Tailwaters to Fly Fish, but nothing prepares you for the stunning beauty and soaring cliffs you’ll experience from the water. Only one other place in my lifetime has exceeded the press – the view from the rim of the Grand Canyon. Not bad company. Seriously, if you’ve ever considered Lees Ferry and haven’t pulled the trigger yet, put away the doubt and get your ass there – it’s breath taking!
And the fishing! In addition to the natural beauty of the place, the fishing is spectacular even on one of the hottest days of the year. The water is crystal clear, and after Terry got us to the spot he wanted us to drift, we were on fish almost immediately. Big, strong now-wild rainbows (I believe Terry said they hadn’t stocked the water in 40 years or so). Indeed, I think the first three drifts - the current, while smooth, certainly isn’t a slow, meandering flow - both Patrick and I were into double hook-ups. Afterward we started to alternate, but that start was epic. Terry had us fishing deep, with 11’ rods and 5x tippets. He said break-offs run about 50% of the time (probably trying to make us feel better about some of the fish we missed), but the sheer number of hook-ups make the break-offs a painless part of the experience.
On the way back, we tied up briefly with one of Terry’s guides on the river, Skip Dixon, who was guiding Tim Romano and a friend. As many of you know, Tim runs Angling Trade with Kirk Deeter, as well as doing other work for Field & Stream and TROUT magazine. Good to see him at Lees Ferry on the same day – didn’t see his camera (though I suspect it was there somewhere), but did witness some beautiful casts when we passed them earlier in the morning.
We had lunch with Terry and Troy back at Cliff Dwellers Restaurant – I had to try the cheeseburger Troy ordered the night before – before hitting the road.
The rest of the trip was a mixed bag, with some great highs and a few lows. We were heading to Denver and fishing along the way, so we stopped in Durango first. We were there at the tail end of the snow melt, but the Animas was still running fast. We spent the day visiting the Durango Visitor Center (Durango is featured in our 25 Best Towns to Fly Fish for Trout, and they provided a couple of the photos), Duranglers, and San Juan Anglers. We missed John and Tom at Duranglers, who contributed to 50 Best Tailwaters to Fly Fish, but the guys in the shop were great and San Juan treated us like family.
We went on to Silverton and gave the Animas another shot. We found some pockets and one of us landed a few nice brookies, then packed up and headed toward Montrose. We fished the Uncompaghre briefly on the way, but the flows were too much so we packed up and headed to Gunnison. We got into Montrose too late to drop in on the guys at Toads and CJs, so we slid our cards and flyers for the new national parks book under their doors and made a mental note to catch them next time, along with RIGS in Silverton. We saw a lot of shops, and unfortunately missed some shops – the goal was to both make some visits and keep a line in the water as much as possible, and we did the best we could balancing both.
Perhaps the most difficult decision of the trip was not to fish the Gunnison despite the Salmonfly hatch being on. Probably regret that call for the next ten years, but we were hoofing it and didn’t want to invest in another day on a boat. Instead we dropped in at the Gunnison River Fly Shop and spent some great time there, then headed out to visit Willowfly Anglers at Three Rivers. We snuck in a short drive back to Crested Butte and Dragonfly Anglers to see if Rod Cesario – another contributor to 50 Best Tailwaters to Fly Fish ¬- was around, and stayed for lunch before heading back toward the three rivers area.
On the way back, we dropped in on Almont Anglers across from Willowfly Anglers. Rick Smith, a former guide for Terry on Lees Ferry and an elk hunting buddy of his, was working the shop. We got in some good stories, then headed up above Taylor Park Reserve to Willow Creek.
Willow Creek was a blast! You’re definitely going to want waders – that was some gnarly brush wading and the water is flowing in every direction. You’re almost “island” hopping from run to run. Calling it a creek is a being generous – it has multiple main flows and multiple side rivulets, and the ground is fungible. But the brown trout are everywhere, the dry fly bite is fantastic, and one of us had a great time of it sight fishing. The trout stay in their feeding channel, and the key is matching the hatch. It changed twice on us in the 1-2 hours we were there, and they were hitting smaller yellow sally patterns when we left. “We” landed multiple browns, all in the 12”-16” range, with one great brown running well over 16.”
The fishing was good overall despite the conditions on the Animas and Uncompaghre, and while the highlight was our time with the Gunns at Lees Ferry, the fly shops visits were a close second! Wish we had more time to get out on the road like this, across the entire country. It’s always really cool to see our books in the shops we visit – and we saw a lot of them - and we always buy local when we’re there…sometimes even when we don’t need more flies, maps, shirts, hats, or creek shoes! Indeed we loved the trip so much, we have our eye on Durango/Silverton/Crested Butte/Gunnsion for the future, so stay tuned…