Livewater in the High Desert

 

 

by Scott Smith

 

Across the American West there are dozens of hallowed trout waters, all unique with a variety of species, scenery and overall experiences to offer. As our world populous grows, we as fly fishers have the need to fulfill not only the heart-pounding excitement of a powerful trout on the line but also the mind cleansing quality of serene solitude. One special drainage south of Jackson Hole has the ingredients to satiate the hard core angler as well as the river romantic - the Upper Green River and its main tributary, the New Fork River.
THE RIVERS
The Upper Green, as many like to call it, descends out of the northern fringe of the Wind River Range, some of the most rugged and beautiful mountains in the lower 48 states. Flowing in a southern direction, the Green meanders through high desert accumulating smaller streams and springs that emerge from alpine basins in the mountains. The characteristics of the alpine beginnings to the near dry desert downriver create a spectacular and remote fishing experience. Along the more than 120 miles of river is a classic freestone stream; riffled runs teeming with aquatic life and rock gardens eventually turn to a slower gradient and create prime trout habitat in the form of deep, twisting undercut banks littered with deadfall and sheltered by willows and alder. Once below Fontenelle Reservoir the river becomes one of the least known gems in the trout world, a big tailwater with heavy hatches and large trout. The New Fork River in many ways is a twin to the Green but having less public access to this river provides refuge for a strong population of large brown trout. At a glance the New Fork does not merit a closer look, but after its confluence with Pine Creek the bar is raised to a level that many rivers of the west cannot touch.
THE TROUT
Before the days of intentional trout stocking, the Upper Green was a pristine cutthroat fishery; the Colorado Cutthroat is native to the Upper Colorado and Green River. In the early 20th century brown trout, rainbow trout, and the brook trout were widely distributed across the west including the Upper Green River drainage. Over the past 80 years the non-natives have secured their place in the Green's ecosystem with healthy populations throughout the river. It was the demise of the native species that brought forth a truly amazing brown trout fishery for which this twin river drainage is now known. On any given day, the trophy of a lifetime is possible, even if you have fished in New Zealand or Argentina. Brown trout in the Upper Green average 15"- 20" with many over 22". In the New Fork River the average brown is 2-3" larger than in the Green River and trout near 10lbs are recorded each year on both streams. The rainbows of the area have seen an up and down cycle in recent years, largely due to the extended drought conditions in the region. Smaller juvenile rainbows can be found in the fast pocket water of the upper section but downriver their numbers decrease as sizes increase with a fair population of rainbows and hybrids over 18".

Healthy groups of brook trout can be found throughout the streams in the drainage. Brook trout are prolific spawners and quite aggressive; they can provide great action when the browns and bows are not cooperating. Proper catch and release techniques are strongly recommended on the Upper Green and New Fork Rivers. General management objectives are to provide a wild, trophy trout fishery; if one needed to fill their creel, harvest all the brook trout allowed and return the rest safely to the river.
THE SEASONS
The beauty of these two rivers is that they are undammed for approximately the first 80 miles; therefore the seasons play a critical role in their lifecycles. For the past 6 years the area has seen a fairly hard drought through which the rivers have favored well. However, 2006 brought one of the snowiest Januarys on record, so patterns that were witnessed in the past will be altered but generally for the best - fish love water. Because of the area's mean elevation, spring comes late and winter arrives early. In the lower reaches of the river, late March and early April sunlight can bring trout out of winter habitat and along slower seams where they may intercept the first spring hatches, a mixture of baetis and midges. The window of opportunity is best just before the big deluge of spring melt off. Once runoff begins, efforts are better focused elsewhere for nearly two months. As the flows begin to recede, summer of the Upper Green begins in mid-late June. The mountain summer swings into action around the first week of July as the river continues to drop and clear. Blends of insects continue to fatten the trout and delight anglers from dawn till dusk. By now on the New Fork River streamers are set aside and anglers can test their skills with lighter tippets and gray drake imitations that can move surprisingly large trout. In August some sections on the rivers can be de-watered from nearby ranches causing the main channel to run too warm for trout. This is when we see a migration to cooler water zones, whether it is upstream towards springs and cold mountain brooks or downstream to the deeper refuge of Fontenelle Reservoir. Even in the hottest of summers the fishing will remain consistent as long as you fish at appropriate times, very early am and late pm. Into September it's streamer time again and the heavy hitters get moody and edgy. Pre-spawn brownies can show up in very shallow water as long as they don't see you first. The rivers are quite low now and some areas are not floatable with dories. This is when private access can really pay off with quiet wading, but pay attention to the weather - if sun is forecasted, fish the Snake River in Jackson. This activity extends well into October and not only for the fall browns; the bows and cuttys respond well to streamers and the lingering hatches of baetis. Winter conditions show up often by early November with temps dropping and winds and snow increasing. The winter is a peaceful time to enjoy any river. Unmatched solitude awaits, and it is an ideal time to reflect back on the summer's bounty.