Ski, snowboard, and fish adventures near Salt Lake City
While most of us are still hunkered in our homes—tying flies and anticipating spring hatches—Utah trout anglers enjoy an early spring in February and March. When these warmer months usher in the season's first midge hatches and trout rise to dry flies, winter still clings to the peaks and precipices of the Wasatch Mountains.
This mixed weather gives locals and visitors the chance to ski powder at world-class resorts, and chase wild rainbow and brown trout on the nearby Provo River.
Depending on the ferocity of winter storms, December and January can be great for winter activities like skiing and snowboarding, but hit and miss for catching local midge hatches. By February, dry-fly fishing opportunities on the Provo River increase. The most pleasant part of the day—the 10 A.M. to 2 P.M. window—produces the best fishing. Hatches become more consistent during prolonged warm fronts and toward the end of the month, as afternoon temperatures inch upward into the mid to high 50s. Winter water conditions are typically low and clear, and small patterns (#20-26) are the best producers.
On both the lower and middle Provo, February midge fishing provides solitude and dependable dry-fly opportunities. Regardless of snow-piled banks, when the midafternoon bugs start, you'll see rising trout: singles in tricky currents and long flat slicks, bank feeders, and pods of a dozen heads in the tailouts and faster riffles.
Although midge fishing is infamous for its technical traits, this "secret-season" fishery is different. In early spring, before the crowds arrive, 5X tippets and a #18 Parachute Adams catch fish. But for the inevitably tough trout, be prepared to drop down to 6X or 7X tippets and smaller flies. Marking and then resting a fish for a half hour or more is also a good strategy.
By late February and into March, midges are joined by the hotly anticipated Blue-winged Olives. BWOs signal the official start of spring and, on Utah rivers like the Provo, Green, and Weber, represent one of the best and busiest hatches of the year. Be prepared to share the water—everyone gets the memo—the secret season is over.
Lower Provo (Canyon Stretch)
After several days snowboarding Utah's quality powder, some time off fishing the Provo feels like a cold beer in a hot, dry desert. If you use Salt Lake City as a base, the lower Provo River tailwater, below Deer Creek Reservoir, is within easy striking distance (about 60 miles—the middle Provo is closer).
Cascade Mountain lies to the south and Mount Timpanogos to the north, and the meandering road upstream from the Olmstead Diversion area provides easy public access to the special-regulations canyon water. Several pull-offs line the canyon road, offering quick bank scrambles to good water.
Despite the highway, which never strays far from the water, the lower canyon is a stunning stretch of river, home to mostly brown trout, with rainbows and cutthroat thrown into the mix. The trout average 12 to 16 inches, including healthy populations of 18- to 20-inch fish.
Steve Schmidt, owner of the Western Rivers Flyfisher shop in Salt Lake City, is a longtime Provo River angler and a well-known environmental watchdog. Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) road-widening projects over the years have not permanently impacted the river thanks to activists like Schmidt.
"With the road project on the lower, we almost lost much of the riparian corridor in the special-regulation section," Schmidt says. "At one point, they had the road alignment actually in the river, but we were fortunate to win our case and force UDOT to realign the road through the canyon. After almost 20 years of negotiations, we were able to get the road moved from the river and establish a wider stream corridor."
Recent trout population estimates below Deer Creek Reservoir remain high, at 3,000 to 3,500 fish per mile.
In February the Provo flows low and clear—about 100 cubic feet per second (cfs)—but can rise to more than 1,000 cfs later in the spring. The lower stretch provides idyllic wading at winter levels, and the trout are concentrated where you'd expect: below riffles in the deeper holes and buckets and, when afternoon temperatures warm the water, on the surface in riffles, slicks, pools, and along the banks.
Targeting midge risers requires a stealthy approach, 12- to 16-foot leaders, and upstream and downstream reach casts. The midging fish often feed in pods, and you can pick off single risers from below and work your way up to the lead fish.
Accuracy is paramount; get close and land your fly anywhere from 8 to 18 inches in front of your target. Because this isn't a blanket hatch, trout will move a few inches to take your fly, as long as it's the right size and color and your drifts are perfect.
Rising browns and rainbows key on #18-24 and smaller midges, and take a variety of offerings, including Parachute Adams, Double Midges, and CDC Midges. When the trout aren't rising, sow bugs (gray, brown, olive, and pink), San Juan Worms, BWO nymphs, and midge larva patterns are effective for scouring the bottom for larger trout. Nymphing often produces the lower Provo's biggest fish.
The middle Provo is the comeback story of a historically battered and now restored river. In recent times, tons of silt has run through the river thanks to area construction projects, but it has rebounded strongly over the past three years.
This tailwater starts at Jordanelle Reservoir and runs approximately 10 miles through the Heber Valley before pouring into Deer Creek Reservoir north of Charleston. After World War II, the Bureau of Reclamation dredged and channelized the middle Provo for flood control, leaving behind a muddy ditch. Jordanelle Dam was completed in the early 1990s, and the Provo River Restoration Project (PRRP) commenced in 1999 to bring the river back to its "natural" state.
Today, the restored middle Provo feels like a well-designed golf course, with signature trout stream features including meandering side channels, a nearly natural floodplain, new streamside vegetation—cottonwoods and willows—and abundant public access. Parking areas include Jordanelle, Cottonwood, and River Road in the upper reaches, and Midway Lane and Charleston accesses to the south.
After several years of trout-suffocating low summer flows, the Jordanelle Dam outflow is now set to a 100 cfs minimum flow, like the lower river. With the new flow regime, and the extensive, multimillion-dollar makeover nearing completion, Schmidt says the middle Provo is fishing well, and his regular river seining reveals good macroinvertebrate growth, including significant spikes in mayfly, stonefly, and caddis densities.
To date, the PRRP has cost close to $55 million, of which $42 million has been spent for land acquisition to establish the public corridor and angler access sites. Money comes from the federally funded ($3 billion) Central Utah Project.
Baseline monitoring of riparian habitat, physical features, sensitive species, and related studies are underway. For more detailed project information, see mitigationcommission.gov.
Schmidt says, "With the diversity in the habitat that Mark Holden and his [Utah Reclamation Mitigation & Conservation Commission] staff have designed, we've seen the insects rebound and diversify. It's still a young stream, but given what I've observed, the upside is tremendous for the habitat, trout, and wildlife that this river corridor supports."
Brown trout dominate the middle Provo, with more than 3,000 per river mile, averaging 12 to 16 inches, with the occasional 18- to 20-incher. Fly fishers see more rainbows from March through May, when they migrate upstream from Deer Creek Reservoir to spawn.
Last February, we found deep snowbanks but also abundant midges and rising trout—similar to the lower Provo. Wind-free, overcast days were ideal for dry-fly fishing, especially from late morning to midafternoon.
Gray or black #18-26 flies such as the Parachute Adams, Double Midge, Befus Para-emerger, Harrop CDC Midge, Morgan's Midge, Zebra Midge, Next to Nothing, and Black Beauty Emerger caught rising trout. We fished 5X tippets, but fussy trout demanded 6X and 7X. Before, after, and even during the hatch, gray, olive, and brown scud and sow bug patterns (#14-18) took fish subsurface. BWO nymphs were also productive, as were San Juan Worms and egg patterns.
To get there, take I-80 east from Salt Lake City and merge onto US 40 east toward Heber. The River Road exit leads to the Midway access. It's about a 50-minute drive through scenic country flanked by Park City-area peaks, as well as the backside of Alta ski resort.
Use 8½- to 9-foot, medium-action rods—and reels with smooth drags—to protect thin tippets and prevent small flies from tearing out of a trout's mouth. A 3- to 4-weight is perfect on both the lower and middle stretches. Go with a 5-weight for subsurface fishing—chucking nymphs, split-shot, or streamers—or if it's windy.
Frozen rod guides are normal at this time of year, especially on cold mornings and again near dusk. If the forecast is for temperatures below freezing, use Pam vegetable spray or a guide antifreeze such as Stanley's Ice-Off Paste by Loon Outdoors.
Unfortunately, frozen parts also come in the human variety. Dress in warm synthetic layers, so you can easily strip clothes off and put them back on as temperatures fluctuate through the day.
Invest in snowshoes or rent a pair for your winter fly-fishing excursions. Morning treks are easy when the snow is firm, but as the top layers soften, typically around noon, you will sink, making walking difficult. With a good pair of snowshoes you'll stay on top, making getting out at day's end safer and faster.
Along with the lower and middle Provo, you can add the Green and Weber rivers to the list of Utah winter/spring fly-fishing destinations.
The Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam in eastern Utah can provide reliable midge hatches in February, and you won't find much in the way of river traffic until March, when the Blue-winged Olives emerge. When nothing is hatching, wading anglers still find good nymph and streamer fishing.
Streamer fishing from a drift or pontoon boat is also good this time of year. Winter flows are generally steady and low, averaging between 800 and 900 cfs. The high red rock canyons of the Green keep the river out of the sun through most of the day in early spring, and as a result the Green is colder than the Provo. Be prepared. The Weber River is a long, complex system starting in the Uinta Mountains and eventually pouring into Great Salt Lake, below Ogden. Its best winter fly-fishing stretch is the tailwater below Rockport Reservoir downstream to Coalville. The Weber also has excellent midge populations, with fishing similar to what you find on the Provo.
The benefits of a late winter/spring trip are: if the snow doesn't fall, you'll often find good fly fishing on the rivers.
On the other hand, if it's a hefty snow season, the hills can be stellar, while the rivers sleep under lengthy cold spells.
As long as you arrive with an open mind and a fluid itinerary, you won't be disappointed. You may even hit pay dirt: a trifecta of midges, deep powder, and sun.
Geoff Mueller is the managing editor of Fly Fisherman.