The Utah Bucket List

Fishing on the Green River

The biggest mistake anglers make while fishing the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam is not looking up every once in a while.

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Clear water, gorgeous view

The Salt Lake Tribune

The biggest mistake anglers make while fishing the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam is not looking up every once in a while.

Fly fishers at the world-renowned destination often become so focused on watching their fly and the thousands of fish it is floating over, they fail to notice the amazing country surrounding the river.

Fishing on the Green River

Photo by Francisco Kjolseth

"The landscape makes you want to discover what is around each corner. It just keeps driving you on and on," said Steve Schmidt, owner of Western Rivers Flyfisher, one of seven permitted fishing outfitters on the Green River. "The water is so clear it makes you want to see what is around that rock and see what is sitting in that riffle."

Explorer John Wesley Powell came up with the name Flaming Gorge in 1869 after observing bright sunlight on the deep red and orange canyons of the Green River corridor in northeastern Utah.

If anglers could lift their heads every once in a while they would see that Powell's name for the area was quite appropriate and worth the glance, even if they do miss a fish striking their fly. (No worm bait is allowed on the Green, an artificial-only fishery.)

State officials report an average of 15,000 trout per square mile in the upper sections of the Green, which can prove as frustrating as it is exciting because the fish are so visible in the emerald water.

But the Green River corridor from the dam to the Colorado state line (some 30 miles) is more than canyon country and it should be experienced by more than anglers.

'Dean of the Green'

The portion of the Green River flowing from Wyoming to Colorado through Utah — widely known as Red Canyon — is much different today from Powell's time.

The landscape changed dramatically when construction on the Bureau of Reclamation's Flaming Gorge Dam began in 1958. The dam was completed late in 1962, and the reservoir would eventually stretch for more than 90 miles flooding the Green River corridor in Utah and Wyoming.

The dam also altered the river below the reservoir and turned what had been water too warm and silty for trout into one of the finest cold­water fisheries in the world.

"I've seen it go from sand beaches everywhere to the rocks we see today. The amount of structure we see is phenomenal," said Emmett Heath, who caught his first trout on the Green before the dam was completed.

Heath, who would eventually become known as "The Dean of the Green" for his guiding skills on the famed river, can't begin to figure out how many people he has floated down the Green, but most of them had similar experiences.

"The most common thing you hear is the beauty. They never saw anything quite this beautiful or water this clear," Heath said. "I always point out the structure under the water as it is also really out of the ordinary."

While he can still put clients on fish and cast a fly on a pinhead while sitting in the front of a dory, Heath has turned his eye in another direction in recent years.

"I carried a rod around enough. Now it is a camera," said Heath, who lives in Dutch John, a town created to support workers on the dam and now mostly used as a base for people providing recreational services at the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.

Heath's images include his favorite scenery of the river and its canyons, but he also finds various forms of wildlife to add to his ever-growing collection including: bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain elk, mule deer, moose, black bear, otter, beaver, muskrat, blue heron, bald eagle, golden eagle, osprey and various waterfowl.

"I tell people every day that they may have a cat [mountain lion] watching them," he said.

Wild and scenic

The stretch of the Green between the dam and Colorado is recognized as three sections: A, B and C.

The A section runs for seven miles from the dam to the Little Hole Day Use Area (which is accessible via paved road). The Little Hole National Recreation Trail runs along the river in the A section and is not only popular with anglers, but also hikers and wildlife enthusiasts.

Camping is not allowed on the A section, which is dominated by steep red cliffs and is the most scenic of the three sections. It also includes the greatest concentration of trout, predominately rainbow and brown.

The B section of the Green runs for nine miles from Little Hole to Indian Crossing Campground. This section has canyon country, but it opens as you travel downstream. The B section is accessible by trail from Little Hole for about two miles and camping is available at designated camping spots along the way.

Fishing on the Green River

Photo by Francisco Kjolseth

The only Class III rapid comes about four miles into the B section, where Red Creek joins the Green. Most boaters get out and scout this rapid before attempting it.

The C section is the least-visited part of the river. The surrounding lands are more open and the frequency of catching fish can be considerably less, but the reward is often larger fish.

Recognizing the values of the Green in northeastern Utah, several groups are working on making it the first state water to receive protective designation as a Wild and Scenic River.

The Utah Rivers Council got a campaign started in 2007, picking the Green as the most likely to make the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System program, which protects rivers from development. In more recent years, Trout Unlimited has been working to get a designation to serve as possible protection from threats like a proposed pipeline above Flaming Gorge that would remove 81 billion gallons of water annually from the Green River system and carry it 560 miles to the Front Range of Colorado.

"We are not out to make drastic changes to how it is managed. We want to codify in specific language to keep it like it is," said Charlie Card, northeastern Utah coordinator for Trout Unlimited's Sportsman Conservation Project.

For Card, protecting the Green is more than a job. It's about protecting what he loves.

"I never really planned on this river being a source of employment," said Card, who worked as a fishing guide on the Green before landing with Trout Unlimited. "This is my home river, and being able to add protection of the Green as my job is a great way to give back a little to a place that has been so significant in my life."