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Crawling along the riverbanks

MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY often tell me that I have the best job in town, and to be perfectly honest, I agree with them. There are the obvious benefits of being a biologist: working outdoors, seeing new things, traveling to new places and making a positive difference in the world. But as a fisheries biologist, I also have the opportunity to meet a lot of talented, interesting people who care about the same thing I do. When we exchange fishing stories and techniques, it really helps me grow as an angler.

I met a passionate and accomplished fisherman recently, and he told me, “If you want to be a good angler, you can’t have an ego.” I could not agree more with that sentiment. In this post, I won’t pretend to have every answer to every question, or act as though I am the best angler in town. I’m just excited at the opportunity to share some of my insights about fall and winter fishing on the Ogden River.

Utah’s newest Blue Ribbon fishery

I am lucky to live in Ogden City, just a few minutes away from the Ogden River. The Ogden River is a tailwater fishery that starts at the outlet of Pineview Reservoir. Fishing for brown trout in the Ogden River can be fantastic. Average fish densities can reach upwards of 6,000 fish per mile of stream. Yes, you read that right: there are tons of fish in the Ogden River.

The upper reaches of the river run through the scenic confines of Ogden Canyon and are confined by steep canyon walls, roads, dwellings and other elements of human infrastructure. With such rigid and narrow boundary conditions, the Ogden River naturally — and in some cases unnaturally — finds geomorphic stability through a series of steps and pools.

This photo of Ben fishing the Ogden River is a good example of the step-pool morphology described in the post.

We call this a step-pool morphology, which means that the upper reaches of the Ogden River are comprised of a long series of pools, followed by short and steep cascading steps or falls that divide the pools. There are many exceptions to this, of course, but this reach of the river has relatively few gravel bars and does not have the typical run, riffle and pool sequences that many anglers expect in a river. Coincidentally, this is also the reach of river with the highest densities of brown trout, although the step-pool morphology is not the sole reason for those population levels.

After plunging down the narrow confines of Ogden Canyon, the river approaches Ogden City. Historically, the mouth of Ogden Canyon was an area where sediment (including pebbles, gravel, cobbles and boulders) accumulated. These types of areas, also called depositional zones, can be very dynamic and can result in multiple channels that are often braided and can shift with little notice.

Such dynamic conditions were not conducive to the settlement of one of Utah’s largest communities, so over the years, the river has been slowly and artificially constrained. As a result, the step-pool morphology that occurs in the upper canyon reaches of the Ogden River also extends, to a certain degree, into the lower reaches of the Ogden River — all the way into portions of downtown Ogden.

Ogden City officials, along with a long list of project partners (including the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources), spent nearly four years and $6 million to restore a 1.1-mile section of the Ogden River right in the heart of downtown Ogden. As a result of those efforts, 16.53 acres of in-stream and riparian habitats will be protected in perpetuity, 6,200 cubic yards of non-recycled garbage and 4,500 tons of recycled litter was removed from the river channel and banks (including 2,500 automotive tires!), and numerous cross-vanes and boulder clusters were placed in the stream channel to improve habitats. That 1.1-mile reach of river (located downstream of Washington Boulevard) is now Utah’s newest Blue Ribbon fishery!

The fish of the Ogden River

During some parts of the year, the fish in the Ogden River can become overcrowded, territorial and stressed. Fall and winter months are the most territorial periods for fish in the Ogden River. Due to irrigation demands, flows in the Ogden River are reduced significantly after October 15, so the entire fish population is crammed into a smaller space, and competition for that limited space can be intense.

This is the time of year when fish are eager to store fat reserves for the coming winter months. They’re also preparing for the upcoming spawning season. All of this is physiologically taxing on fish, so they feed readily in the Ogden River during the fall and into the winter.

DWR technician Seth Green holds a brown trout that was captured during a survey prior to restoration in downtown Ogden.

One might think that a lot of fish crowded into a small space is the perfect recipe for fast fishing. In my opinion, however, it is that combination of low flows and overcrowding that leads to challenging, yet highly rewarding fall and winter fishing conditions in the Ogden River.

My first attempts to fish the Ogden River years ago were frustrating experiences. The dense and overhanging riparian vegetation made casting difficult, especially for an inexperienced fly fisherman. The low and clear flows made fish spooky, selective, drift-savvy and leader-shy. But worst of all, the obvious abundance of fish that I could see but could not catch was driving me crazy!

I found that fishing in the Ogden River, especially during fall months, could be a lesson in humility, persistence and patience. Once I figured out how to fish the Ogden River, I was pleasantly surprised. I found a fishery that was easily accessible, close to home and jam-packed with hungry, feisty brown trout.

Catching feisty brown trout

In order to catch hungry fish, I stick with some basic strategies. I am always stealthy because fish are hyperaware of, and responsive to, even mild disruptions in their environment. The slightest disturbance can change the way trout feed, and fish are especially adept at detecting potential threats above the water surface.

In the Ogden River, if you spook just one of the many fish in a single pool, all of them may respond similarly. This usually means that fish will stop feeding for a little while, or until they think the threat has subsided. I try to scout potential fishing spots from afar, choose my casting location and various drift and presentation scenarios ahead of time. Then I backtrack and approach my chosen spots from far downstream.

I usually crouch down, or even crawl, along the riverbanks. I try to hide behind vegetation to obscure my presence from the upward-oriented vision of the fish (my wife literally laughed out loud when she read that part).

Once I have gotten myself into position, and the fish are unaware of my presence, there’s the opportunity to catch a lot of fish. (Have I mentioned how many fish are in the Ogden River?) Since the flows are low and clear this time of year, I can usually see the fish that I am targeting. So, I start by casting to the biggest fish I can see. When a fish is hooked, the fight that follows may spook other nearby fish.

This is not always the case, but if I am going to catch just one fish from that location, I want it to be the biggest one.

Once I catch the big fish, I can usually tell if the others are still feeding. If they are, I try to pick those off one at a time. If possible, once I set the hook, I try to lead the fish away from my fishing hole so that I don’t spook the remaining fish. But in order to catch those fish, I need to make sure that my cast, the landing of my fly and its presentation are perfect. That means that I need to have a soft, delicate and quiet cast and landing. This can be difficult, so I do a few things to improve my chances.

What gear to use on the Ogden River

I like to fish the Ogden River with my 3-weight fly rod rigged with a weight forward floating fly line and at least a nine-foot leader with a light tippet. I usually don’t use large, colorful or foam-type strike indicators during this time of year because their size can easily spook fish. If I use an indicator, I like the pinch-on type. Sometimes I even cut them in half in order to stay stealthy. But most of the time, in the fall and winter, I use a dry-dropper rig. Sometimes I catch fish on my dry fly, especially during the fall, but I also use the dry fly as my indicator.

With the exception of large rainstorms and subsequent pulses of runoff and suspended sediment from Wheeler Creek, the flows in the Ogden River will remain stable and clear all the way through the winter. So once I find the leader length and rig that I like, I tend to use smaller attractor beadhead nymph patterns in hook size 18, including hare’s ears, pheasant tails, copper Johns, standard prince nymphs, purple psycho prince nymphs and sow bugs.

I usually prefer patterns with 5/64-inch (2.0 mm) or 3/32-inch (2.3 mm) beadheads. They seem to give me just the right amount of weight to drift along the bottom, without the added risk of splash and resultant spook-factor of split shots.

A view of Ogden River from Ogden Canyon.

I know a lot of anglers who like to tie small, dark patterns of various mayfly nymphs, and they do quite well, too. If you like to catch fish on dry flies, then blue-wing olive patterns are your best bet in the fall. As fall turns into winter, however, the blue-wing olive hatches will subside, so I stick with standard nymph patterns throughout the winter. I augment my fly selection with a suite of midge-larvae patterns in various colors — including red, olive, tan and brown — all in size 20-22. Throughout the winter, I find myself switching back and forth between many of those flies because one may work well one day, but not the next.

Based on my description, it may sound like the Ogden River is difficult to fish. That isn’t necessarily the case, but calling it an easy place to fish isn’t accurate either. Like most good things in life, success will require patience, persistence and a good dose of humility, especially if you’re a new angler. But once everything falls into place, the Ogden River delivers the experience of a Blue Ribbon Fishery. With its easy access, beautiful scenery and unprecedented proximity to amenities and attractions, the Ogden River is one of Utah’s most unique Blue Ribbon fisheries. For those reasons, it has been and will always be one of my favorite rivers to fling a fly.

Ben Nadolski :Ben Nadolski has been an Aquatic Biologist for the Northern Region of the UDWR for over ten years. His education and professional training have focused on fisheries biology and stream habitat restoration. The protection and restoration of Utah’s rivers and fisheries is his life’s work.