Colorado River Winter Float and Fish

The winter in northern Arizona has been an unseasonably warm one. With temperatures in the upper 50’s to low 60’s, all plans of skiing have been halted. This warm weather does allow for fishing areas I normally would not go to if the weather were colder. This combination of warm weather and no snow to ski on sparked the idea that we could hike in to Marble Canyon and float our way down to Lee’s Ferry on pack rafts.

The day came and we left early in the cold, predawn light. We made our way north to Lee’s Ferry to stash one car for half of the shuttle and then headed up to the Page area. We turned off onto a sandy road and stopped under a sandstone ridge. This trip was beginning to look a lot like all good Arizona trout fishing adventures, drive to the middle of the desert and you’re close.

Filling up on the essentials at the “trailhead”

We walked about a half mile through the desert and came to the edge of the canyon. Looking down we could see the river winding through the bottom, not yet touched by the 11 am sun (it was gonna be a cold trip). After a half hour or so of looking for the route down, we finally came to the right break in the cliff edge. Luckily the wrong spots were pretty obvious (vertical cliffs) and the right way was marked by steel posts driven into the rock.

Halfway down

The way down was steep but relatively straightforward with only two short sections to scramble down. On the flip side the hike was pretty exposed and the drop to the side was a bit heady. At the bottom of the trail we found the ropes which were helpful but you could definitely get by without them. Word to the wise, the leather gloves we brought for the steel cables were very worth the extra weight because the cables were old and no longer smooth.

Tanner descending the cables
The route in from the bottom looking up

We reached the beach at the bottom and found an opening in the thick groves of Tamarisk trees that coat the shoreline. After inflating out boats we pushed off into the main current. The river seems lazy from the side, but in many spots the water flows at a deceivingly fast pace! The plan was to paddle along until we saw a nice spot to fish and then see if we could get into any trout. We drifted through the high red rock walls for around an hour when we came to a promising looking riffle.

Drifting through the upper canyon, the route in is shown in the back

We pulled our boats on shore and began rigging up the rods. The first few passes through the riffle’s tailout did not bring much action. I figured before moving up I’d try casting one deep and before I had time to mend a fish slammed into my fly! The fish made several strong runs in the deep current giving my reel a pretty serious workout! Even after I got the fish into the shallow slow moving water along the side, the big shouldered rainbow made several more strong runs, giving my rod a workout!

The trout was using all his tricks and tried to shake the hook with a good jump and several strong head shakes. Finally, we were able to get the large fish to hand and took a second to admire its colors.

All colored up for the spawn!
Big head and a jaw just beginning to develop a small kype

After a few quick photos we sent the fish back home and he darted off into the clear water.

Shortly after releasing the last fish Tanner began shouting that he had a fish on! His fish made several strong runs before being corralled into the shallow water. After removing the hook the fish took off like a rocket!

Tanner with a good looking bow

We moved up into the riffle and before long Tanner had another fish on. This fish must have jumped at least 7 or 8 times and they were no small jumps either!

Hooked up in the riffle

Coming 2 feet out of the water with its head shaking side to side he had hooked into an angry and wily fish! After a wild fight he had the fish on shore and it was a small miracle it hadn’t shaken the hook during all its acrobatics.


A very acrobatic rainbow

After that fish came to shore we decided it was a good one to end on and that we had better head downriver towards where we wanted to sleep. The best part about doing this trip in December was that no one was up camping, the bummer was that we only had a few hours of day light in the bottom of the canyon. We began our trip downriver and away from the little riffle that had produced some great fish.

Looking back at horseshoe bend
Last sun of the day

Dark came early a little after 5:30 and we set up for a cold night. After a freeze dried meal it was time for bed, or at least there was nothing else to do but be cold so sleep sounded like the better option! The nearly full moon lit up the canyon walls almost so much so that it was almost hard to sleep until it too set behind rim.


Morning came around 7 the next day and it was cold! After some oatmeal we put on our frozen waders and hoped paddling would warm us up!

Not the most inspiring breakfast but it was hot
Frozen boots and iced up boats

We drifted down from camp and finally got a little bit of sun which warmed things right up. No more ice on the waders and a good looking riffle just downstream of us and the cold night was beginning to feel pretty worth it!

We began fishing a promising looking riffle with nice, slow pockets along the side. However, there were no takers in the area. We moved onto some different depths and flies, but still no luck! As we fished we noticed smaller fish rising all through the shallower area in riffle. While we could tell there were no large fish in this spot, the temptation to cast to rising fish of any size is always there!

The morning was turning out to have quite a prolific midge hatch and the little, dark bodied midges were coming off the water in scores! I had a couple of size 18 dry fly patterns I had been messing around with at home and figured if not now, then when?

I started with a purple haze in size 16 with no luck. I moved on to a peacock bodied wulff in size 16. This fly had a few come to the top to see, but still no takers. Finally I added a few inches tippet beneath my wulff and tied on a Scotty’s Midge I had heard about from Blue Ribbon Flies out of West Yellowstone, Montana. These flies are awesome for fooling picky fish rising to tiny, emerging midges.

As soon as I cast this combination, I had a hit on the Scotty’s, and I missed. I roll cast back into the same area and another hit, this time on the wulff! I missed again! These little fish were reminding me of some of the smaller streams in Arizona with their voracious appetites and lighting fast strikes! By my fourth or with cast I finally hooked one of the little guys and brought in a 5 or 6 inch young rainbow.

Little rainbows on dries

The baby rainbow was small, but brightly colored with lots of fine spots and its par marks still showing. Despite being relatively tiny fish for the canyon, being able to catch fish on dries in mid-December is a blast! Also It was good to see a lot of young, healthy fish in the river and it bodes well for the years to come! After a few more small fish on dries we decided to head on down to the launch ramp and hopefully be back in Flagstaff before dark.

Somehow this little guy managed to grab a hold of the Scotty’s Midge

As we drifted the last few miles in to the ferry we were lucky enough to see two condors glide lazily along the cliff walls before perching up on a high ledge. Not a bad way to end a mid-winters float!

3 thoughts on “Colorado River Winter Float and Fish

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