Chasing Lake Powell Stripers
Chasing Lake Powell Stripers. Our epic Lake Powell kayak fly fishing expedition chasing striper boils on a 100-mile journey through Utah’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area was something of a dream…
“Time passes and the old dreams, the old memories, go under to a dark place—not gone, just hard to get to.” – C. Gregory Crampton
As darkness envelops the walls, flittering thoughts of the day surrender to thoughts of tomorrow and what will be. My gaze has moved from the flames in front of me to the crimson contours of the canyon rim—the intricate details cloaked by darkness and its ancient story hidden for another night. Beyond the crackling fire, the silence is overwhelming. A feeling of great emotional connection overcomes me, enhanced, I’m sure, by the myriad of watered-down beers I’ve consumed. It’s a feeling somewhere between insignificance in a vast wilderness and exuberance from the extraordinary experiences of the past few days. To put it bluntly, it’s warm and fuzzy. During the planning stages of this trip we had allotted seven days to kayak the 100-plus miles of river and lake. And, after averaging about 20 miles per day, we should reach our take-out tomorrow—a full day earlier than expected. The silence is broken when Ryan mentions that we’re drinking the last beers of the trip. Little does he know I stashed a couple for tomorrow, our final day. It’s hard to believe it was only a few days ago we had embarked on this journey…
- DAY 1: MUDDY WATER
- DAY 2: CLARITY
- DAY 3: MEANDERING
- DAY 4: NOT ALONE
- DAY 4: THE BOIL
- DAY 5: PERSPECTIVE
- DAY 6: CLOSING THE GAP
- EXPEDITION MAP
- RECIPE: LAKE POWELL CEVICHE
Tuesday, Day 1: Muddy Water
Rising from the Depths: Chasing Lake Powell Stripers. Fresh off a festival hangover, we had just jetted down from Telluride. It took a mere 3 hours to drive to the put-in on the lower San Juan River within Utah’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It was late morning and we were on the brink of a formidable journey. Separately, Ryan and I had fished Lake Powell by kayak many times before, but never like this. There was quite a bit of water to cover. No doubt we would likely be faced with a some new, yet welcomed, challenges. Such is life on a true fly fishing adventure.
It’s late September. We came to this place to chase striped bass. Normally found in deep water, these fish will sometimes exhibit aggressive surface behavior. We planned this trip with high hopes of encountering one such behavior called “boiling”. It’s a unique and very exciting behavior exhibited by the lake’s healthy population. This cooperative feeding technique involves a school of predatory stripers aggressively surrounding a school of shad, moving them up the water column. Humpback whales display a similar behavior (“bubble net feeding”) with herring, sandlance or capeline in temperate waters during summer months. Their ultimate goal is to trap their prey at the surface. As a response to the onslaught the tiny, silvery fish instinctively form a dense bait ball. To put it simply: each fish is hoping their buddy gets eaten and not them. With stripers, the feeding frenzy that ensues has the appearance of boiling water—hence the name. When, where and how long each event occurs is a mystery for eager anglers. Ryan and I were aware that our low-speed kayak pursuit on this massive body of water stacked the odds against us for zeroing in on this phenomena. Most anglers on Lake Powell increase their odds by covering a lot of water via motorboat with chum at the ready and spin gear in hand. What we did have in our favor was the season. Fall usually translates to tepid waters and the stirrings of these big fish rising from the depths. Prior to this trip I had only seen one boil… and it was from a distance while I was fly fishing from shore. Ryan had never seen one. Needless to say there was heavy anticipation.
The heat bordered on extreme as we double-checked our gear at water’s edge. Autumn cooling trends have brought temperatures down to the mid-80s Fahrenheit. There was no wind to speak of. The sky was clear. The sun beat down on us like a heat lamp on hot dogs. We packed the kayaks with fly fishing gear, various other camp gear, way too much food and 66 cans of the finest 3.2% beer Utah had to offer. To move them you would’ve thought they were loaded with sand bags. I questioned whether they had the all-too-important characteristic every boat should have: positive buoyancy.
The San Juan was alive! It definitely looked ominous. Recent storms had severely cut the banks and muddied its waters. If that wasn’t foreboding enough, a large sign posted imminent danger: “Dangerous Waterfall Ahead. Do Not Proceed. Take All Craft Out Here.” I interpreted it as: “Are you guys sure that you want to do this?” Still, we overflowed with excitement and anticipation. Nothing could deter us from getting into that heavenly water. We struggled to inch the boats through the sticky, red clay and into the milk chocolate. With wide-brimmed hats shading our ear-to-ear grins we began our journey. The current grabbed us. There was no going back.
The San Juan River is Lake Powell’s largest tributary. Other than the “San Juan Worm” fly pattern, the river is most commonly known to fly fishers for its trophy trout found in the tailwaters below Navajo Dam in New Mexico. It carves its way through 400 miles of the Southwest and drains nearly 24,600 square miles of Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Ryan and I would be covering the last 55 miles before entering Lake Powell proper. Research did not produce much useful information on this first leg. Other than some dated online aerial imagery, we were going to have to wing it. The canyon was broad and sweeping. It was exposed to the wind and peppered with low-lying vegetation. We were kids in a water park drifting down the lazy river. Awestruck at the beauty, I couldn’t wait to see what was around each bend. It was eerily quiet accept for the droning hum of insects coming from beyond the tamarisk-covered banks. We even startled a lone coyote as it raced from the water’s edge while glancing back in disbelief. I thought I heard the faint sound of dueling banjos.
I imagined Norman Nevills running the San Juan 75 years ago. He knew it like the back of his hand. Nevills ran an unusual business for the time. Using plywood boats, he guided wide-eyed, paying passengers down these very same serpentine river canyons. He was a pioneer in the industry, setting the line for countless others to follow. The San Juan River was his livelihood. His remarkable river career was cut short when, in 1949, he perished in a plane crash.
Passing through various braided channels, we occasionally ran our kayaks aground. The tainted water offered few clues about its depth and passibility. We took caution and gingerly negotiated the tiniest of rapids, often forced to make short stops in order to scout ahead by foot. Then, it happened: Ryan tipped his kayak at the bottom of a rapid. The yard sale was open for business! His cargo floated everywhere. After frantic recovery efforts, the last item in view was his 8-weight rod. Only the rod tip showed as it was about to disappear. With the grace and determination of redneck noodling a catfish, he flung his body into the murky pool to snatch his prize. This first faux pas was an eye opener. Minimizing blunders, however minuscule they might seem, would be wise. The excitement called for a celebratory beverage… the first of our long journey.
The canyon progressively narrowed and the landforms gained in prominence. Silence gave way to a new, ominous sound. We inched closer to the source and finally eddied-out to find a beefy, 20-foot waterfall. However reluctant we were to pull our boats from the river, portaging was our only option. Half an hour later, sweaty and exhausted, the boats were back in the water below the falls. While admiring its power from below we noticed a fish tail here and a fish tail there. This malty tail-out had life! Ryan then spotted a dorsal fin. This, the largest waterfall in this lower section of river, seemed to be a formidable velocity barrier for migratory fish moving up from the lake. I gave it a go and cast a black streamer a few times into the brown, foamy froth. But, it was all-for-naught. The water was just too muddy. We continued on.
The intensity and radiance of the day eventually softened as the hours snuck up closer and closer to dusk. After thirteen miles, weary eyes and achy back muscles, we stopped at an expansive sandbar and called it a day. Coyotes, weasels, raccoons, ringtail cats, and shorebirds had all explored the beach in recent days. Their tracks were everywhere criss-crossing the beach’s entirety. What truly heightened our senses were the wide, claw-less paw prints of a mountain lion.
The air quickly cooled. The day rapidly transitioned into night. The desert sky unveiled a brilliant, starry scene, a scene it’s been hiding all day. It reminded me of the first time I slept outside without a tent in the high desert of California. I was maybe 8 years old… a youngster exposed to the elements. I remember being scared. I remember the fear of being eaten alive by something with fur and large teeth. I also remember the fear fading… falling prey to the power and enormity of the night sky. I remember following the Milky Way with my eyes as it stretched overhead from horizon to horizon without obscurity. The stars were vivid and bright. The darkness was black and infinite. That was the moment when I realized a powerful truth: the universe was vast and that we were a part of it like a tiny granule of sand on a wide, expansive beach. In that moment I had reached the ultimate sense of place, a clarity I had been robbed of while growing up under the air and light polluted skies of Southern California. I didn’t get much sleep on that long-ago night. However, on this, our first night of the trip, I was out cold.
Wednesday, Day 2: Clarity
Rising from the Depths: Chasing Lake Powell Stripers. It turned out to be a lazy morning. Ryan brewed the coffee while I manned the corned beef hash. It sizzled and splattered. I actually welcomed the tiny flashes of pain brought on by the oil droplets searing my flesh. That familiar aroma wafted. Breakfast was oh so good. It would be our first and last greasy meal of the trip. The calories would be a much needed energy boost later on in the day. The morning’s temperatures increased by the second. The skies were once again clear and the winds were slight. The moment was blissful. A late start and we were on the water again. As currents collided we found ourselves paddling through islands of suspended debris composed of driftwood, live branches, plastic bottles, pieces of Styrofoam, etc. Our river was becoming a lake. The water would soon clear. It appeared we must, reluctantly, say goodbye to our friend, the current.
As the sediment settled and the water cleared, we started to catch fish. There were smallmouth bass, and lots of them. We trolled and landed one after another, mostly along boulder-strewn shores. Our eyes were focused on finding striper boils. We found only tranquil water. The canyon deepened and the water volume increased. It was late afternoon as we entered the largest and deepest canyon yet. On the opposite side and just a few miles ahead was a houseboat parked at an expansive beach, its occupants hidden. It was late afternoon and the challenging headwinds made our next decision an easy one. Our seventeen-mile day would culminate at a less-than-ideal spot. But, it was the only place protected from the south wind. The only reasonable tent site appeared to be the central toilette for the local wildlife. Piles of new and old scat filled with crawfish remains littered the area. The culprit was nowhere to be found. I’m sure he or she wouldn’t mind us hunkering down here for the evening. The winds would eventually die and, after a quick meal, we crashed out to the sounds of rising fish.
Thursday, Day 3: Meandering
Rising from the Depths: Chasing Lake Powell Stripers. With a slight concern about the wind, we decided to get underway early. The winds did pick up, but only topped out at 5-10 mph. We continued to catch smallmouth bass. Accept for the splashy rise from an occasional lunker, the stripers eluded us. The valley eventually bottlenecked and became a narrow slot canyon. Walls rose straight up on either side. The canyon narrowed and deepened. The terrain intensified. Great monoliths surrounded us as our course unveiled a new canyon maze. The landscape seemed to morph together into a hodgepodge of layered rock and shadow. We found ourselves within a complex network of goosenecks that would eventually, on the following day, lead to the terminus of the San Juan River and to the entrance of Lake Powell proper. By plane, it was only few miles. By kayak, however, it was more than twenty. The power and intimacy of our surroundings brought an air of calm.
Vertical faces climbed from the depths. The water seemed prime for stripers. Nothing but smallmouth bass were interested in our flies. Ryan had a couple big strikes, but no take—no telling if they were stripers. The meandering course and the repetitious, one-two, one-two rhythm of the paddle sent my mind wandering. My earliest childhood memory popped into my head…
It was late summer, 1980. I was 4-years-old. We were camping on the shores of Lake Powell. It was dry and hot. Unbearably hot. All of that changed in what seemed like an instant. A sand storm, without warning, overtook our lakeside camp. The sky had quickly darkened from a brilliant blue to a pea-soup brown. Visibility was zero. An onslaught of wind and sand relentlessly pelted our flimsy cab-over camper. We’d taken shelter inside—my two older sisters, my older brother and I. Against our wishes, our father had gone out into the storm hoping to rescue our inflatable raft that had been taken by the powerful gusts. Terrified, I cried as any child would. I had never seen weather like that before. It seemed as if, at any moment, our once impenetrable fortress would be ripped to papery shreds. The wind roared and whistled. The feeling of helplessness overwhelmed me. After about 15 minutes the wind abruptly ceased and the storm was gone. My dad soon returned, out of breath and spirits deflated. Wherever that storm had gone it had taken our raft with it…
Thirty-four years later, I find myself surrounded by the same sandstone formations, drawn back to this place time and time again. I can’t define the connection. It’s a part of me, like the fine red clay caked to my skin. It’s in every morsel of food I eat, every seam of clothing I wear, every pore on my body. It has apparently found it’s way into my soul. It’s a feeling I keep to myself on this two-man expedition. With thoughts flowing I wonder if Ryan had found a similar connection. As I heard him crack the first beer of the day, I had my answer and quickly followed suit.
We continued to follow the narrow goosenecks round and round. Finally, with more than twenty miles under our belt, we made camp at a sight that would make early Mormon settlers jealous. It was a flat, spacious sandstone slab with great tent sights and a central kitchen area. There were accessible cliffs for diving, a clear pool for swimming. We eagerly set up camp and then hit the water again to catch some appetizers. I soon returned with a couple decently sized smallmouth. After a while Ryan returned a bit disheveled. He was sopping wet and laughing hysterically. He had, apparently, tipped his kayak a second time and sent himself along with some gear and a few beer cans into the water. How? Well, let’s just say we both learned an important new lesson: from this moment forward one must paddle his kayak to shore, step from the kayak completely… and, only then, shall one proceed to urinate. After his blunder he still had the good spirits to whip up some delicious ceviche.
Lake Powell Ceviche:
- 2 small mouth bass
- 2 limes
- 1 small can of Herdez salsa
- a hand-full of fresh cilantro
- Clean fish and cut into small chunks
- Put raw fish chunks into bowl
- Add fresh-squeezed lime juice
- Marinate the fish in the lime juice for 45 minutes
- Add salsa and cilantro
- Enjoy with tortilla strips and can(s) of beer
Friday, Day 4: Not Alone
Rising from the Depths: Chasing Lake Powell Stripers. Our earliest start yet had us kayaking in darkness. Not only did we have some distance to make up, we hadn’t caught a striper yet. We were hoping for first-light striper boils. The sunrise was polarizing. Its intensity was doubled with the near perfect reflection on the glassy surface. The moment was interrupted seconds later by a bass boat, then another. Later, a fleet of Sea-Doos zipped by. With the weekend approaching and us being only a couple miles from Lake Powell proper we had apparently arrived at boat-a-palooza. It was clear that us wayward kayakers were an unexpected surprise to these enthusiasts as a couple of them motored by too close for comfort sending wake after wake. We were tossed around like drift wood. One boat in particular stopped to chum the water at one spot. Then he motored off. After five minutes he returned to the original spot to check for feeding stripers, I assumed. The crowded water made one thing very clear—we would have to say goodbye to yet another friend: serenity.
After limited fishing success for the morning, we finally entered the heart of Lake Powell. It was still early. The volume of water had noticeably increased, as did the size of the canyon. The wind increased out of the south. With following seas we headed north and covered a lot of water in a short amount time. The more water we covered meant more time fishing for stripers, God willing. But, it was our third day without encountering a single striper boil.
Breathtaking works of art were displayed in all directions. Ancient sand dunes, petrified in time appeared as huge, rolling, white mounds. There were iron-rich, fault-sheared, sandstone monoliths with faces as flat as skyscrapers. There were jagged, finger-like spires now weathered down by the elements. This area even experienced glaciers nearly 20,000 years ago. The masses of moving ice imposed their will on a very large scale leaving behind classic U-shaped valleys, piles of rubble and polished stone. The scene before us was truly surreal. I’m convinced Salvador Dali must have been here and experienced a moment like this. All this remarkable beauty, but my thoughts shifted elsewhere: to what was hidden below our kayaks…
“When the Colorado River was a river, Glen Canyon was a place…” – Jared Farmer
Ryan and I are both 38 years old. We are a part of a generation that knows only Lake Powell. We never got a chance to witness what was here before. However amazing this place is now, it was equally and, in many ways, more amazing prior to the completion of Glen Canyon Dam more than 50 years ago. These waters conceal a rich past. The Colorado River Storage Project effectively implemented the construction of a series of dams along the Colorado River. In 1956, the Bureau of Reclamation was approved by Congress to build Glen Canyon Dam. Construction on the dam began in 1960. It was thought that regulating the river would provide irrigation for agricultural lands, produce hydroelectric energy for local towns, create jobs, and provide accessible recreational opportunities and revenue. On January 21, 1963, the high-pressure gates were shut and Lake Powell was born. The waters began rising from the depths and the true Glen Canyon would become a memory. Lake Powell became the future. There’s a great story hidden below—a story remembered by few, forgotten by most. The lake covers a myriad of ancient cultural sites. But without a doubt, this lake also provides a platform for new memories not soon forgotten. At capacity the river is backed up 186 miles to the Northeast and covers an area approximately 161,390 acres in size. Its waters create 1,960 miles of shoreline—more shoreline than the west coast of the United States south of Alaska!
C. Gregory Crampton knew Glen Canyon intimately. As a professor of history at the University of Utah, he was commissioned to conduct historical studies of the canyon prior to the completion of the dam. Between 1957 and 1963 he made 13 trips by boat through the, soon-to-be, lost labyrinth. His team took photos, collected data and identified as many sites as they could in their limited time. In his words after the flooding, “There it is. If we regret that it is there, it needn’t get in the way of enjoyment of it.”
There were others who were lucky enough to experience Glen Canyon in its former glory. Some left with only memories. Some documented their experiences through photography. Others wrote about what they saw. In 1959, just prior to dam construction, with small inflatable rafts and only a gas-station map to guide them, Edward Abbey and Ralph Newcomb set out to explore Glen Canyon from Hite (currently the northernmost settlement on the reservoir). Their mission was to “find out what was down there.” They found “an Eden, a portion of earth’s original paradise.” Abbey went on to write about those experiences in Desert Solitaire.
In 1896 Major John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran for whom the lake is named, took up a great challenge. His goal was to survey and map the largest unexplored area of the trans-Mississippi West. The area was the canyon wilderness of the Colorado River. Powell called it “The Great Unknown.” During his first of two expeditions down the river with able-bodied crew and wooden boats, he gave the name “Glen” to the magnificent canyon, referring to the green glens and the cool, fern-draped pools of the shady side canyons. “On the walls, and back many miles into the country, numbers of monument-shaped buttes are observed. So we have a curious ensemble of wonderful features—carved walls, royal arches, glens, alcove gulches, mounds, and monuments. From which of these features shall we select a name? We decided to call it Glen Canyon.” Powell eventually published a journal about the journey: The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons.
Lake Powell kayak fly fishing expedition chasing striper boils… success!
Rising from the Depths: Chasing Lake Powell Stripers. It was mid afternoon and we were in a deep, spacious channel maybe a half mile wide with a 500-foot face to our left and a gradually sloping shoreline to our right. The water was glass. The entrance to Escalante Canyon, one of the lake’s largest tributaries, was about a mile ahead of us. That’s when Ryan’s eyes lit up. With fervor he declared: “I think I just saw a boil!” Ryan jokes a lot. It was day 4. Poor taste wouldn’t begin to describe a joke such as this at this point in the trip. I believed him. At least I desperately wanted to believe him. We raced more than 200 yards to where he thought the activity had taken place then promptly checked our fly rigs to make sure they were ready for action. We’d traveled too far to be unprepared for this moment. As long as there was an abundance of baitfish in the water, a boil was likely to happen more than once. The stripers were lurking somewhere down deep. Hopefully they were still on the hunt. As we scanned, Ryan mentioned that the boil took place in the sunlit water, close to the edge of the huge shadow being cast by the large monolith nearby. We focused our search along that shadow line in both directions. More than 10 minutes had passed when Ryan’s eyes lit up once more. I knew that look. His gaze was directly over my shoulder. My head was on a swivel. About 100 yards away, clear as day, was a small patch of agitated water—classic signs of a striper boil. Sure enough, it was next to the shadow’s edge in the light of the sun. I took off, full tilt, headed for the action. Ryan was still rigging up his gear. I was a mere 50 yards away and closing when the action simply turned off like a light switch. The stripers dove. The boil lasted maybe 15 seconds. I missed it.
My kayak’s momentum slowed to a stop and I waited. My eyes were intensely focused on every detail of the scene before me. A houseboat, circa 1970, rumbled by. It had that distinct 70’s, mustard-yellow paint job and that classic 70s box shape, streamlined back then I’m sure. It blasted Snoop Dogg for the whole world to hear… my mind on my money and my money on my mind… Then, I noticed some peculiar splashing in the boat’s frothy wake. It was beginning of another boil! I put paddle to water and, this time, approached to within 20 yards of the fish. Then, just like that, it stopped abruptly before I could even begin a back cast. My excitement waned and my frustration mounted. How long would this game of cat and mouse last? Ryan was now making his way over. He was still more than 50 yards away when, not 10 yards from my kayak, the surface began to writhe. The activity spanned an area no more than 30 feet in diameter. Hundreds of tiny, silvery shad began to break the surface followed by very large tails attached to, presumably, very large fish. I could make out large flashes of moving white objects below the surface. The shapes darted in all directions. My heart raced knowing the action could end at any moment. I cast a Clouser minnow into the boil and promptly stripped it back. Nothing. The activity began to slow. It appeared the stripers were starting to dive to the safety of the darkness below. There was just enough time to get another crude cast into the boil. This time, however, I mimicked a cripple shad and allowed the fly to drop below the surface for a second before stripping the line in. There was a white flash and, with a vigorous jolt on the line. A striper took the fly. Fish on! The turbid water dissolved as the boil ended. Ryan arrived on scene. With my 6-weight rod severely arched, I desperately tried to maintain line tension while not allowing the fish to dive too deep. Minutes later I grinned in triumph and held one of Lake Powell’s finest: a large Lake Powell striped bass. Ryan shot the obligatory “hero” photo—fish cradled in hand and shit-eating grin on my face, only for the purposes of documenting the trip of course. Still holding my breath, I released the fish back to the murky depths. I exhaled in triumph as if I had just reached the summit of a high mountain peak after a 4-day trek. With the anticipation of another boil, we patiently lingered there another half hour. The stripers remained in their deep-water refuge. Having apparently seen the last boil, we decided to continue northbound to find a campsite while the light was still in our favor.
Let the healing begin! Not only was my bewildered mind cleansed but the incessant aching in my lower back had disappeared. There’s no therapy like prosperous fishing. Unfortunately, not another striper showed itself the remainder of the day. Ryan’s hopes of landing his own began to dwindle as darkness encroached. With a mere hint of light, we found a suitable campsite nestled within miles of walled shoreline.
Saturday, Day 5: Perspective
Rising from the Depths: Chasing Lake Powell Stripers. It was another early start. We pressed on and, of course, continued our search for striped bass while getting closer and closer to Halls Crossing and civilization. Consequently, the lake’s boat traffic increased. It was a not-so-subtle reminder of the inevitable end to our trip. A break from the monotony was in order and a new perspective was just what we needed. We decided to stretch our legs and do some exploring on land. Prior to the trip, I had done a little research on the history of the area. There were quite a few Indian ruins scattered about the region. Some were nestled under various recessed cliffs within close proximity of the lake. We focused our search on a specific site found somewhere within Slickrock Canyon, a spacious little side-canyon with lagoons, beaches and, hopefully, ruins. After a muddy landing, we walked the creek’s silt bed, rambled up and over the brushy banks and found a faint trail leading in the direction of a small, natural amphitheater high atop a rocky slope. The single-track trail became a braided jumble. We continued toward the target ultimately forging up a dusty, boulder-strewn path. Sweat poured and muscles burned. Relief was finally found under the massive overhang. What looked like a small ledge from below turned out to be a spacious alcove spanning a quarter acre. The ceiling was 40 feet high. Small, even-sized boulders were randomly scattered about. A closer look revealed the base of an old wall. It was all that remained of an ancient Anasazi dwelling. During the summers, these recessed cliffs provide consistent shade and temperatures averaging 10 degrees cooler than the top of the mesa. And, during the winters, warm breezes blow up from the valley floors providing temperatures 10 degrees warmer. These locations were ideal.
The Anasazi people settled this region beginning nearly 2,000 years ago. They claimed much of the Glen Canyon area. They hunted and harvested a variety of plants in this formidable environment. It was, and still is, extremely arid, rocky and resource deficient. They mostly practiced irrigation with corn being the primary crop. They also grew beans and squash among other crops. During the same time, the Fremont people occupied the lands directly north. They, however, favored hunting and gathering to farming. Both peoples left the region around AD 1300 to join the ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians in Arizona and New Mexico. Nearly all of their abandoned dwellings have been lost, covered by the rising waters of Lake Powell. In the 1700’s, the Utes and the Southern Piautes arrived to the area—the former claiming the uplands and the latter claiming lands to the south.
When the dust settled, we hit the water once again and continued north to find ourselves at the entrance to Annies Canyon, an intimate, little side canyon. At first glance the steep walls and narrow corridors intrigued us. The vertical walls reached heights well over 100 feet. The width of the canyon was maybe 80 feet at its entrance. I could just imagine the deep, tranquil water chock-full of shad and hungry stripers. It looked perfect. We entered. Immediately after rounding the first bend a tandem of speedboats cut the corner behind us without warning. The first boat missed us by 30 feet. The second nearly ran me over. He was forced to slow most of his momentum to avoid a collision. No words were said, but I’m fairly certain each driver had a look of disdain on his face upon passing us. Was it ignorance on their part? Was it our slow speeds and, equally, slow reaction time? Either way, I had noticed a trend during this trip: there was an obvious disregard for kayakers by many motorized vessels. In retrospect kayakers must appear like specks on the water, if we even appear at all. [As a rule, complacency should never be practiced when driving a boat on any body of water, Lake Powell included. Situational awareness is crucial. In close quarters drivers (I shutter to say “captains”) should navigate cautiously and throttle down to decrease wakes near other boaters.] We shook off the near miss and continued into the canyon.
Annie’s Canyon is a complex network of passageways with three main branches. We covered most the canyon having caught nothing but eager smallmouth bass. The central branch provided not only the sole campsite in the side canyon, but the most dynamic site of the entire trip thus far. It was quiet and well protected from the elements. The passageway that led to it was passable only by very small boats. The topography was spectacularly dramatic. With lake water levels at about 50% of full pool, the site had more than likely been exposed for only about a year or so. We set up camp and promptly enjoyed some ceviche and savored a few of the remaining beers on, what would turn out to be, our final night.
Sunday, Day 6: Closing the Gap
Rising from the Depths: Chasing Lake Powell Stripers. I woke a bit groggy after an eventful evening. A freak storm blew through the area. It came and went very quickly, but not before putting the fear of death into us. A flash flood, if it were to have occurred, might’ve been the end of us. But, our kayaks, our lifelines, were still there. The only major change from yesterday was the barometer. With ominous skies looming beyond the safety of the little canyon, we picked up camp and continued our search for stripers in its protected waters.
Not far from the entrance, the canyon’s deepest channel teemed with life. Shad broke the surface all around us. However, they weren’t concentrated striper boils. We trolled Clouser minnows along the vertical walls. Stripers began to strike with fire and vigor. We both had a takes, but couldn’t keep our fish on. In a flash, as I began to let out my trolling line, a striper attacked the fly with predatory speed and ferocity. My line and leader were ripped apart. Ryan had another fish on. A minute later, he lifted it from the water in quiet triumph. I could sense a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. I eventually landed my own, yet smaller, striper. This little side-gamble paid off. With deep exhalations we knew it was time shut it down. Reluctantly, we left the little canyon and began the final 8-mile leg.
When Ryan and I embarked on this journey six days earlier, what I thought was going to be a fishing expedition by kayak became, in reality, a kayak expedition in a magical canyon wilderness… with some fishing. We planned this trip anticipating famous Lake Powell striped bass rising from the depths with power and vigor eager to take a fly. To think, we’d spent over 7,000 minutes in this magnificent place and only a few mere minutes were actually spent with these amazing fish. In reality, we were only minutes removed from not seeing them at all!
In a moment dark, billowing, electric skies exploded with light and opened up with torrential rain. In another moment blue skies prevailed and the sun doused us with warmth. We inched our way closer to the take-out at Hall’s Crossing. Silently I tried to absorb the enormity of what we were about to accomplish not letting the memory be taken by the desert wind. There was distance between our kayaks. Ryan led the way. I knew he must have been processing the past few days in his own way. The simple marina with its scanty boat ramp appeared ahead. Ryan had arrived before me and waited with the truck parked at the water’s edge—his gear scattered about. He held out two warm, unopened beers with a smile on his face.
Lake Powell’s history reaches far deeper than its own flooded canyons. Its waters continue to tell the new story.
“Whatever your knowledge of Glen Canyon and Lake Powell, don’t underestimate them. Glen Canyon was a treasure. It still is.” – Gary Ladd (Page, Arizona photographer)
Story by Brock Munson
Photos by Ryan Bonneau
cofounders • Chasing Scale
Brock is the lead writer at Chasing Scale • brockmunson.com
Ryan Bonneau is the lead photographer at Chasing Scale • ryanbonneauphoto.com
Essay resources for Lake Powell and the southeast region of Utah:
- Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1968.
- Crampton, C. Gregory. Ghosts of Glen Canyon, History Beneath Lake Powell. St. George, Utah: Publishers Place, Inc., 1986.
- Farmer, Jared. Field Notes: Glen Canyon and the Persistence of Wilderness. Western Historical Quarterly 27, 1996.
- Farmer, Jared. Glen Canyon Dammed: Inventing Lake Powell and the Canyon Country. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1999.
- Porter, Eliot. The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1963.
- Powell, John Wesley. Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries. J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah, 1875.