Fishing in Grand Canyon
If you are an avid angler, fishing in Grand Canyon can be an amazing addition to your rafting adventure. You may bring a fly fishing or spin fishing collapsible rod, as long as it is stored in a hard-shell case. Typically, fishing in Grand Canyon is best before the Little Colorado River confluence, which is the first 60 miles of the river. However, fishing in Grand Canyon is fun on the entire stretch!
Trout is often the most desirable fish to catch, but there are also bass, catfish, carp and the famous humpback chub. The humpback chub and razorback sucker are both found in Grand Canyon National Park, and are also on the endangered species list. We practice catch and release with artificial lures and flies, so de-barb your hooks and bring pliers for each fish release.
You are required to have an Arizona state fishing license. You may purchase it online in advance or call Arizona Game and Fish at 602-942-3000. Many stores in Flagstaff sell them, including WalMart.
Our very own Grand Canyon river guide and avid fly fisherman, Jerry Cox, gave us a few pointers on fishing in Grand Canyon. He said, “fishing in the main river of the canyon can be excellent! Primarily you are fishing from shore at camp in the evening or during the day when stopped for lunch or hiking. This is a tailwater fishery; however, the Colorado through the Canyon fishes more like a freestone in that the fish are not that picky in fly selection. That said, you can fish scuds and midges or just tie on a bugger until it wears out. The only hatch will be midges – fish do sip midge clusters off the surface.”
Keep a simple setup.
- 3-piece 5 weight in a hard-shelled case
- a box or two of flies
- 3- 6x tippet/leaders/indicator, gink, and nippers, bugs, scuds (12 to 16 green, pink, orange, tan)
- midges (pupa, emergers, drys [if you are fishing midges just bring ones for whatever midge water you fish at home])
- San Juan worms
- buggers (6 to 10 black, green, a little sparkle doesn’t hurt), nippers, hemostats, weight and a strike indicator.
The Park Service changes restricted fishing areas occasionally, so talk with your trip leader for the most up to date details on where fishing is allowed and isn’t while you’re on the river. To read more about fishing in Grand Canyon from the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the Monitoring and Research Center, you can do so on their website here.
Understanding how water affects fishing
While actual information on “what to throw in the water is important”, understanding the flows of the Colorado River is very important for successful fishing in Grand Canyon.
Lake Powell and its dam, Glen Canyon (upstream of Grand Canyon), controls all releases into the Grand Canyon. Flows from Glen Canyon dam are managed by the Bureau of Reclamation and have been in the realm of “normal discharges” within the past couple of years. Normal discharges are managed for the electrical grid and ramp up daily to meet demand. If you have spent time in Grand Canyon, you know that water level changes every day. Because of the daily rise and fall of water levels, if you can, you should fish when flows are on the rise- increasing discharge scrapes insects off rocks and moves food downriver, which can often increase fish activity.
In addition to the variable daily discharge, in the summer of 2022, water had been consistently discharging from Lake Powell at a level above and/or near the thermocline, which is the depth in a lake where temperature remains constant year-round. This change is due to prolonged drought in the Colorado River basin upstream of Glen Canyon Dam, resulting in record low water levels in Lake Powell. In the case of Lake Powell, water below the thermocline was consistently cold (like really cold). What this means for people fishing in Grand Canyon is that water discharging from Glen Canyon dam is more likely to be warmer than it has been in recent history. This impact is more profound in summer months as dam managers release excess Lake Powell water to meet summer electrical demands for AC units in the Sonoran Desert.
For people familiar with fishing in Grand Canyon, warmer water temperatures come as somewhat welcome relief. Temperatures in the Colorado River at Lees Ferry (mile 0 of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon) have traditionally been around 45°F and warm up only slightly throughout the course of Grand Canyon. In summer and fall of 2022, Colorado River water temperatures at Lees Ferry were in excess of 65°F, making it so wading in the river to fish without waders was significantly less painful.
Warm Water Effects on Fish
Warmer water also means changes for aquatic species behavior. Fish, namely trout, become more stressed in warmer water aquatic. Trout, especially rainbow trout, are a cold-water fish and when temperatures rise 65°F +, trout become less active, move to deeper pools, and sometimes just don’t feed. Warmer water from the dam means that Colorado River water in Grand Canyon is more susceptible to daily warming (especially in summer), meaning that trout could be less active in the heat of the day as temperatures in the river fluctuate even more.
Not all fish species think warmer water is an issue. Native Grand Canyon fish species such as humpback chub, flannelmouth suckers, razorback suckers, and others evolved in the Colorado River with warmer annual water temperatures, so a return in warmer temperatures is welcomed. The Grand Canyon Monitoring Center for Research (GCMRC) has noted local increases in native species. Unfortunately, warmer water temperatures also allow additional non-native species to survive in the Colorado River such as smallmouth bass, which were reported in the Colorado River below Glen Canyon in summer of 2022. Trout and bass both consume native fish species, however, smallmouth bass are far more predatory than even the most predatory brown trout, which poses a hazard to native fish populations.
Warm Water Affects on Insects
Aquatic insects seem to handle the changes relatively well, but they do not go unscathed. Warmer water means more variably algae growth and sometimes less dissolved oxygen (DO), both of which alter the habitat and nutrient cycling for aquatic insects (sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad ways). For fly fishers and anglers in general, insect diversity is very important. GCMRC in coordination and cooperation with dozens of stakeholders still maintain “bug flows” from Glen Canyon- these flows are generally on weekends in summer months and are targeted to provide consistent water levels so that aquatic insects can lay eggs on submerged rocks without their eggs drying up when water levels drop (fish like this management…more bugs= more food). GCMRC and others continue to monitor the effectiveness of these flows and they seem to be increasing the quantity and diversity of aquatic insects in the Colorado River.
Updates for the 2023 Season
As of the writing of this, the spring of 2023 was one for the record books- the Colorado River basin saw record snowfall and has maintained record setting snowpack. Lake Powell is set to rise dramatically in late spring and early summer of 2023. How much of a rise is hard to say as of now, but the Bureau of Reclamation and others think it might just be enough to make is so water will discharge below the thermocline once again at Glen Canyon Dam, resulting in continually cold water discharging downstream to Grand Canyon. This is good for trout, good for cold beer, bad for smallmouth bass (probably good thing overall), and is business as usual for native Grand Canyon fish (find us hiding in some tributaries).
If you’re interested in fishing on a Grand Canyon rafting trip (the BEST way to fish, we might add), you can do that on any of our rafting trips, whether on our Classic Adventures, All-Paddle Adventures, or Motor Adventures!