Winter On The Weber River
October 04, 2010
Forty minutes from Salt Lake City lies a winter trout paradise. These browns are so big you'll hook 'em, but never net 'em. (January 2008)
If you see surface action in the winter, it's most likely chironomids -- midges that resemble tiny mosquitoes. Hatch sizes are generally in the No. 20-24 range.
Photo by Mike Barlow.
Winter grips Utah in a vise. Storms streak across the Great Basin and pound the Wasatch Front, dumping mountains of snow.
Schools close, pipes freeze, tires spin and fog, smog and exhaust clog the Salt Lake Valley.
Maybe that's why I am standing knee deep in the Weber River.
Winters are long in Utah, and I need the open air. Come January, there is almost always a break in the weather: a period of two to three weeks of cold, still air with no storms and brilliant sunshine. Skiers complain as the snow gets harder with each passing day. Ice-fishermen huddle around holes at Strawberry Reservoir. And me, I put my bamboo fly rod, a thermos of soup, hand warmers and my seldom-worn waders into the back of the car.
On one recent day, there was no one else there. It was barely 32 degrees, but the sun felt warm. There was no hint of a breeze, only the quiet ripple of the water and the hiss of the line in the air. Snow hid in the brittle stalks of tall brown grass along the banks. The cottonwood trees stood stark and still in the winter sun.
A brown trout surfaced. I watched the spot, waiting for the fish to return. There was a swirl and then the head, dorsal fin and tail of the big brown appeared, as it lazily took a bug.
I retrieved my line and removed the Hare's Ear, Brassy and indicator. Along the bank there were tiny insects, midges, about a size 20.
I never fish with anything I can't see, so I tied on a No. 16 Renegade and a No. 20 Black Gnat.
The fish rose again. I cleared the ice from the eyelets of the rod tip. (Perhaps I had overestimated the temperature.) The line whipped above the sunlit water. Thin silver crystals of ice shimmered in the air. The fly landed just above the feeding trout and floated high on the ripples.
The surface erupted as the fish struck. I raised the rod tip, pulled down firmly on the line and felt the weight and fury of the brown.
The bamboo rod bent in a tight arc. Instinctively, my left hand loosened the drag on the Pflueger Medalist and the fish made his run upriver.
But line was no match for this fish. I maintained pressure just below its breaking point, and winced in anticipation of the snap of the line. The fish fought current and line as the nail knot slid through the eyelets. I was out of options. It was up to him.
The fish turned, and I stripped backing and line into the water. He stopped in calm water to gather strength, and then charged upriver again.
Wet frozen fingers are a poor excuse for a drag with a fish this large, and I applied little pressure, waiting to get back on the reel.
The line slipped through my fingers, and the drag took over. I began to reel and felt him moving reluctantly downstream, toward my net.
Then I saw him, as he swam sideways across the river. He was an enormous brown, still with plenty of fight. He spotted the net and made a swift short run -- twice, three times. Then he came to the steady pull of the line, and I slid the net beneath him.
* * *
The Weber River traverses 125 miles of northwestern Utah from its headwaters in the western Uinta Mountains.
The river cuts directly through the Wasatch Mountains before being consumed by the foul-smelling, cloudy brines of the Great Salt Lake.
Along the way, its flow is interrupted by Rockport and Echo reservoirs. They create miles of open tailwater. Below the reservoirs, the river winds through cattle country, encroached upon by sprawling development of the Salt Lake Valley.
The river could be divided into three segments:
'¢ Headwaters above Rockport Reservoir,
'¢ Blue Ribbon tailwater between Rockport Reservoir and Echo Reservoir, and
'¢ Lower tailwater, below Echo Reservoir.
The headwaters are the prettiest part of the river, as the stream carves its way through the subalpine vegetation on the western end of the Uinta Mountains. Unfortunately, most of the easily accessible headwaters area is private property, with few access points. There's one small stretch of open land that offers good access above Rockport Reservoir, and another near Weber Canyon.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources plants triploid rainbows in Smith Morehouse Reservoir.
But that Blue Ribbon tailwater between Rockport and Echo reservoirs offers the finest fishing on the river.
Craig Schaugaard of the UDWR attributes its high quality to a guaranteed minimum-flow rate from Rockport Reservoir. This flow, between 175 and 225 cubic feet per second, ensures a healthy habitat for fish, as well as a reliable insect population.
Not so in the lower tailwater, where flows dwindle to a trickle in the winter and downstream irrigation requirements produce high-water levels for much of the summer. Fishing improves in the lower tailwater below Lost Creek, where more consistent water flows are maintained.
Over the summer, the UDWR conducted a fish survey in the Blue Ribbon tailwater. They found about 1,100 whitefish per mile, 800 brown trout per mile and 30 cutthroat trout per mile.
I would have guessed more. But as fishing guide Larry Culley from Jans Mountain Outfitters in Park City points out, "It isn't that big a river."
Rainbows are scarce, but increase in number near Echo Reservoir.
I generally fish the Weber River between the two reservoirs. Although it's lined by private property, access is good, thanks to agreements reached between the UDWR and local ranchers.
There are some monstrous trout in this stretch of the Weber River. If you're se
rious about seeing one in your net, use an 8-pound leader.
The river is a well-known fishery, but doesn't attract nearly the number of anglers as the Provo. The water is fast-moving, clear and deep, with a seemingly endless number of perfect holes tucked into the broad meanders.
The fish can be picky and often lie in smaller pockets within these holes. Finding the fish is everything on the Weber River. Once you catch one, usually you will find more close by.
To fish this section, get off Interstate 80 at Wanship about 15 miles east of Park City and follow the paved road north through town.
The road continues near the river all the way to Echo Reservoir. Anglers' access points are clearly marked. Pick your spot and go for it.
Special fishing regulations apply to the Blue Ribbon fishery. Tackle is restricted to artificial-fly or lure only, with a two-fish limit between the I-80 overpasses.
WHAT TO THROW?
In winter, I usually use tandem nymphs. The first is a larger beadhead fly, like a No. 14 Hare's Ear or Pheasant Tail, with a smaller midge tied below. The larger self-sinking fly will sink the smaller fly deep enough to find fish, without having to add additional weight.
At the same time, the combined weight of the two flies still allows you to use a small stick-on indicator that won't interfere with casting.
Culley from Jans said these setups are known to produce in the winter: No. 20 to 24 Desert Storm, Black Beauty, cream-colored UFOs and Diamond Midges.
If you see winter surface action, it is probably chironomids (midges). Adult midges look like tiny mosquitoes. Hatch sizes are generally in the No. 20-24 range. If you find dry flies that are small and difficult to see, you can try fishing the midge in tandem with a somewhat larger dry fly -- something that will float well and is easy to spot in the current.
If a big brown strikes the midge, you'll know it!
Dusty Kenner at the Trout Bum 2 fly shop in Park City started fishing the Weber when he was 7 years old. He reports excellent results with nymphs in the winter, but said that surface activity is generally rare in January through March.
Kenner said there are some spectacular hatches later in the season: No. 18-20 blue-wing olive in late March and April, No. 10-14 golden stone flies in June and No. 10-14 yellow sally in June and July.
The Weber River is famous for its caddis mega-hatches in early summer, when the bugs are so thick that you'll wish you had a headnet. I have been skunked on several occasions during these caddis hatches.
Kenner recommends swinging soft-hackle flies of the same size as the hatch to imitate emergers.
In late summer, when grasshoppers fall into the river from the hayfields, hopper-dropper combinations are effective.
In late November, huge browns from Echo Reservoir run up the river.
Mark Fasbender, a life-long student of the river, almost always fishes it dry, even in the dead of winter.
He has had success with small renegades (Nos. 16-18) in January and February when conventional wisdom dictates, "Go wet."
In the early spring when fingerlings begin to appear, Fasbender gets outstanding hookups with self-sinking streamers and Woolly Buggers. He casts these across the current and strips them slowly through the hole, like a fingerling fighting against the current.
Lure techniques are similar to this. Spin-fishermen get good results casting across current and retrieving slowly through pools. Fish tend to be in pockets and cutbanks, and small spinners are particularly effective at invading their attack positions.
I prefer smaller gold-colored or yellow-and-red Panther Martins, but others report success with Mepps and small spoons.
Whatever means you use to attract fish, don't go light on the line or the rod. There are some monstrous trout in this stretch of water. If you are seriously considering seeing one in your net, use an 8-pound leader. I've hooked fish in this river that I had no chance of landing.
* * *
Back at the river, that recent winter day, I walked slowly through the water toward the bank of the river. In winter, there's no algae, and my footing was solid. I sat down in the snow and dried alfalfa with a satisfying crunch. I took off my pack and opened the lid on the Thermos of clam chowder, allowing the steam to rise up to my face.
The river water was perfectly clear and terribly cold. But I was well insulated by the waders and long johns -- all except for my fingers, that is. I unzipped my jacket pockets and plunged my hands inside, thawing them with the hand warmers that I opened earlier in the day.
I looked out across the water and wondered how long I'd have to wait.
Not long, as it turned out.
There on the surface, I saw another swirl, not more than a foot from where I'd hooked the first fish.
The sun was high in the sky, and there was still plenty of time on this short winter day. I enjoyed the soup and allowed the Renegade to dry.
* * *
Before your winter trip to the Weber River, there are some hazards to consider. Winter fishing requires more preparation. Long johns and good socks are a must, as are a wool hat, fingerless gloves, hand warmers, and multiple layers under your windbreaker.
I always carry my cell phone -- turned off, of course -- and tucked securely inside a waterproof bag. I wouldn't think of fishing alone in the winter, and it's always easy to find a companion. There are many deep and fast holes in the Weber River. Stumbling and falling in one of these holes in the winter could be disastrous.
There are other hazards, of sorts. At some point in the past, probably in the 1950s, old cars were placed in the riverbank to control cutbank erosion. These are now the home of many a nymph and Panther Martin.
The UDWR is addressing this problem. They will dig up these old cars with a backhoe and bury them outside of the river, with landowner permission.
Finally, looking at the river, you may be tempted to float it. Don't try it! In Utah, private property includes the bottom of the river. If you float it, you would be trespassing and could jeopardize a lot of hard work by the UDRW to secure access. You will also have to navigate beneath two low-strung electric fences that cross the river. With an aluminum canoe and graphite rod, that could give you qu
ite a charge.
The Blue Ribbon stretch of the Weber River is about 40 minutes from Salt Lake City and 30 minutes from downtown Park City.
Camping is available at the Rockport Reservoir campground at the base of the dam. This is a nice facility, but is closed in the winter.
Many fishing suppliers are in the area. Troutbum 2 and Jans Mountain Outfitters have updates on fishing conditions and recommended flies at their Web sites: www.troutbum2.com and www.jans.com.
Fishing licenses are available online at www.wildlife.utah.gov.
* * *
The sun was still shining over the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains, but a thin film of cloud drifted in from the west. The sun seemed to lose its heat. I crunched slowly through the frozen hay and old snow, my car barely visible in the distance.
My son David was there, waiting. A lone fisherman stood in the hole below, changing a fly.
Off to the north, a cluster of houses had appeared where alfalfa grew not too long ago. Salt Lake City's reach has come this far. I stopped beside the old battered body of a '50s vintage Chevrolet and looked back up the river. The fisherman was still there, unmoved, focusing on some knot.
Away from the ripple of the water, I heard the hiss of passing cars on the interstate.
Winter grips Utah in a vise, holds it there for months and lets go only with reluctance. It's four full months until the thaw begins, five until the run-off ends.
All winter long, the rivers run clear and cold in the Utah mountains. Trout sway lazily in the current and see it all -- the water, the storms, the snow and the brilliant sunshine as they wait for an insect to come by.