Arizona Has No Rivers

There are no rivers in Arizona, surely. A river in the desert? I think not. But there is a river. Not just any river, THE river. The Colorado River. This massive river seems to arrive out of nowhere. As you drive up through the washes, flats and narrow draws on northern Arizona’s high desert the last thing you expect is a river, a dirty cattle tank or a seasonal trickle maybe. A small spring, maybe one or two springs, maybe. But a river? Not that. And that river runs cold and clear and deep. If you took some time to observe that river you’d also notice it is full of trout (unless you are the Game and Fish and in all the wisdom of a government agency you decided to stock this already packed body of water with some finless triploids.. But thats a story for another day). 

It is an often forgotten corner of Arizona when it comes to fishing. Why it is forgotten I cannot imagine, but I’d have to guess more than anything it is because it is far away from Phoenix. I couldn’t be more glad it is.

Fog and a river in the desert
Toothy creatures
Winter colors
White tips and red fins

When I fish Lee’s Ferry I am often reminded of a conversation I had with a fly shop employee in Dillon, Montana about fishing in Arizona. The guy kept warning us about how careful we had to be and that all these streams in Montana would be “more water than you guys will have ever seen.” And while he is right there are more rivers and creeks up there than we had fished before. He was wrong about the scale. The Colorado at low, winter flows is similar to most all of their rivers at flood stage. And the Colorado changes 3,000 cfs on a daily basis. In addition to this you can walk along rivers in Montana and eventually find a spot that you could cross the river. The Colorado River does not give that option in Arizona. Lee’s Ferry is the closest thing to a “crossing point” we have between the dams. And crossing there is not even close to an option. It still makes me laugh in my head as he asked what the closest we had to a “real river in Arizona”. And we were able to respond, “The Colorado River, ever heard of it? Its that one little trickle that drains the Southern Rockies, ever heard of em?” And the fly shop manager in the back glaring daggers at his uninformed employee trying to “big shot” us into how macho the Montana rivers were. But I digress, back to the topic at hand, the red hot fishing on our “little Arizona water”.

Kayla with her first of many
No playing this fish, get em in and get em off
One last dive
Purple eye shadow
Another spotty rainbow
A less spotted variety

Colorado River rainbows have got to be some of the most diverse in a fishery I have had the chance to fish. I’m sure it is the result of stocking every conceivable type of fish into a river that you possibly could, but the result today is incredible. Will the fish be chrome? Spotted? Red? Cutthroat-y? Light green backed? Dark colored? Pink? I have no idea what color phase of rainbow I will catch on each cast, and there is something pretty rad about that.

Big spots, pink stripe
Fish and fog
Fat and pink sided, almost out grown the net.

After a red hot morning we were joined by our friend Nelson. If anything his arrival seemed to only bring more fish to the net. The ferry has the reputation of being a finnicky place to fish. The fashionable thing to say about the area is “it has got some great fish when it’s fishing”. What does that mean? A river that has good fish until it doesn’t? That catching trout here is on the whim of some higher fishing power? That some days they are in the net, other days no such luck? I agree and disagree with this. A more accurate statement would be that good days at the ferry must be earned. The first couple of trips to the ferry for the uninitiated often come up with only a few fish or empty completely. What fly to choose, where to fish and how to fish is something that takes time to figure out on this river. That is why this is my favorite river to fish.

Pink sides, washed out and out of focus river, a common photo for me…
A beautiful Lees ferry specimen in its winter best
The strangest catch of the day, half rainbow, half dolphin I think?
Big flat forehead, I was told by someone with more info than me that this fish likely had a birth defect or potentially whirling disease, but I like to think that it is that way because it is.
Kayla and I with the “dolphin-trout” that at one point during the fight I was pretty confident and excited I’d hooked a chub, but alas it was a strangely shaped rainbow
Nelson midstory, neither the story nor the fish were allowed to get in the way of the other
Last fish of the day was a dandy for Kayla!

Another “halfday” in the books and we were headed home around noon, all fished-out and content to relive an incredible morning on the car ride home.

9 thoughts on “Arizona Has No Rivers

  1. Same thing as trying to explain to people that there is, in fact, snow and mountains in AZ! And no one can say that Lee’s Ferry isn’t an absolutely stunning location to fish. Have you ever hiked up the Spencer Trail to look down on the river from above? Miss it! – Laurel, Ryan Rosenfeld’s girlfriend 🙂


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