On the Lower Provo

The Lower Provo River is either the most under-rated or over-rated river in the West, depending on who you ask.

  • By: Maximilian Werner
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The Lower Provo River is either the most under-rated or over-rated river in the West, depending on who you ask. If someone were to ask me, I’d say complicated questions invite complicated answers. I should confess right now that historically I have not shared the prevailing view of the Lower as the preferred section of the Provo. Ninety-nine percent of the time I have been happy to fish the Upper and Middle sections of the river. This begs the question of how it is possible to have such differing views of the same stretch of river. Although some people might argue it is merely a matter of subjectivity, evidence suggests it all comes down to the angler’s core values.

Last week I went fishing on the Upper Provo. It was either there or the Middle. I hadn’t even considered the Lower. Although on that particular day my preference was for the Upper, neither it nor the Middle section represents a departure from my core values of scenic beauty, solitude and diverse angling opportunities. Now before the legions of devout Lower anglers rise up and rattle their rods in dismay, I concede that criterion one and three are arguable. But there is no arguing the second criterion. At the risk of sounding misanthropic, let me say it flat out: Solitude does not exist on the Lower Provo. Just the opposite is true. In fact, a recent study found that the Lower Provo gets more angling pressure than any western river. Of course the Upper and the Middle also get pressure, but I can fish those sections for an entire day and still not see a single person. 

Beauty is a slippery concept, especially when it’s applied to the Lower Provo. It’s not that beauty doesn’t abound on the Lower: It’s that the beauty is consistently overshadowed by the crudest expressions of human baseness and stupidity. Although I am unaware of any data that proves the people of Provo City use the river the most and are therefore its primary polluters, common sense tells me that such data must exist. If I am right, I would like to use this opportunity to shame those folks. Except for the confluence of the Salt and Verde Rivers just east of Phoenix, I have never seen a river strewn with as much garbage as the Lower Provo. I fish along side piles of domestic beer cans, monofilament, shredded inner tubes, Styrofoam bait containers, and cigarette butts. Not surprisingly, the closer one gets to the city, the more pervasive and outrageous the littering becomes.

The Lower’s aesthetic problems are further compounded by Highway 189, which runs adjacent to the river. In some places, the traffic is so close I could probably touch it with my rod. Thus the pollution on the Lower isn’t just material, it’s audible I’m not trying to be a downer here, but everything I’ve said needs to be. One can only speculate about why this unseemly aspect of the Lower doesn’t make it into the magazine articles and on the Web Sites. But it is as plain as the nose on my face. If anyone thinks I’m being unfair, I challenge him to walk the banks of that river and then tell me he doesn’t feel outrage, embarrassment and sadness at the sight of so much garbage. I hear people come from all over the world to fish the Lower. I don’t doubt it, but it means that the world is my witness and all Utahans are the poorer for it.

Truth is, last summer I had basically given-up on the Lower. My friend Metcalf and I made the drive down there and had one hell-of-a-day. Neither of us had fished there for a year or more. Without the benefit of memory, we thought only of catching our fair share of the thousands of trout that inhabit each mile, some of them rumored to be 20 inches or more. I had also forgotten about all the people and the trash. The Lower is a multiuse river, so in addition to seeing thousands of anglers over the course of the year, the river also sees hundreds of tubers and kayakers, the frequency of which significantly intensifies during the hot summer months. I’d like to believe that the higher number of users translates into greater environmental stewardship, but I’m afraid the facts don’t support that conclusion.

Whatever the case, every outdoor enthusiast—regardless of how inclusive or exclusive his politics—has to draw the line somewhere. By day’s end, I had only caught one trout. Metcalf had caught one less than that and had dropped his full fly box in the river. Added to that was the human invasion. After about the twentieth time a cluster of tubers floated by me on the river, screaming and carrying on as they drifted right over my line, I had had enough. Not five minutes later, Metcalf walked out of the trees shaking his head in disgust. I joined him on the trail and we walked to the car.

I had already broken down my rod, so all I had to do was kick off my boots and waders. As I leaned on the hood and waited for Metcalf, a tricked out pickup truck came rumbling down the road. Radio blaring, I could hear it coming from a long way out. After the truck pulled into the parking lot and the dust had rolled on, I could see it had been lifted so the chassis was a good three feet off the ground. I watched with amusement as this wiry little dude wearing nothing but OP shorts and slip-on Vans threw out a rope ladder, climbed down and stood with his hands on his hips, looking at the river the same way a hunter looks down the barrel of his gun. I put him at about eighteen. A couple seconds later, the passenger door opened and out popped who I assumed was his girlfriend. She was a cutie. Watching them together, I was reminded of my own lazy days of summer, lying with my girlfriend on the banks of my favorite swimming hole. And for the moment I was happy.

A couple minutes later, I stood by in hapless daze as the kid lifted a giant, discarded tractor wheel that had been laying in the tall grass. What the hell is he doing? I thought. Then he rolled the wheel right off the bank and down into the river, where it sank. Jesus H. Christ. Did you just see that? I asked Metcalf. No, what happened? I told him what the kid had done and we both just stood there, stupefied. And you know what we did next? We got in the car and drove away. Later that night, and hours after we had gotten home from the river, Metcalf called me and said we should have done something. I know it, I said. I think a kind of mild trauma must occur when we witness things that defy comprehension: The day that kid rolled that colossal piece of garbage into the river was one of those things. It is as if that kid’s disregard killed a part of my brain. But it was more than that.

I had been seeing humanity at its worst for the entire day. I had also heard the trills of song sparrows and the whirring of the hummingbirds; I had felt the cool breezes blowing down from the cliffs, loaded with the sweet, piquant smell of sage, wild flowers and pine; and through it all I watched the Provo River, that dark, lovely, flowing home to some of the biggest and most beautiful trout this side of the Rockies. I couldn’t compute how people could treat this beautiful place so badly. And so when that kid did what he did, I was already primed to check out and give up on what now I saw as a lost cause. Giving up on the river was a mistake, I know. And I won’t soon forgive my indifference.

Perhaps that is why, almost a year since what Metcalf and I call the tire incident, I decided to go back. I wish I could say human nature had changed, but everything was exactly as I had left it. I had made the effort to get there, though, so I rigged up and headed down to the river. People are the problem. We don‘t deserve these places. Thankfully this internal dialog ceased when a prairie falcon soared into view and hovered for a few long moments before tilting its wings and cutting away on the wind. Metcalf was already on the water, fishing with another friend of ours. In anticipation of a hatch, they were sharing a fork in the river. Below them the braids joined and carved out a deep trough known as the Hoover Hole, which was perfect for my big streamer. Incidentally, that is another thing that hadn’t changed: my choice of fly.

For reasons I don’t fully understand and always manage to ignore, I have never had much success fishing streamers on the Lower. But there I was, a creature of habit, insisting on using a method that I knew had almost no chance of working. And I did that for about two hours. I reeled in and looked up at Metcalf, who was standing about 20 yards away. He wanted to know how many trout I had caught, which he signaled by holding up fingers. One? Two? Three? Four? Each time I shook my head No he got more and more excited. I let him get all the way to five before I finally held up a zero.

Metcalf walked down and joined me at the trough. I’m about ready to dig up a worm, I said, snipping off my streamer. Do you have small nymphs? he asked, his mustache see-sawing. Having had this conversation with me many times before, Metcalf knew I didn’t have jack for small flies. But on the chance that I had changed my ways, I guess he decided to humor me. How small? I asked. That’s what I thought, he said, opening his vest and producing a small, plastic tub of flies he had just purchased. He told me to open my hand and in it he placed a size 20 tungsten Bead-head Zebra Midge. I trailed the midge off a size 18 Bead-head Hare’s Ear and put on a piece of split shot and a strike indicator. Then I waded a few feet into the slack water and cast into the shallow headwater about 10 feet above the trough so my bugs would have plenty of time get down deep.

On the fourth cast I hooked into a 17-inch brown. A couple seconds later, the hen drifted into the slack water and I could see I had hooked her tail with the tungsten. When I brought her in, I was hoping to find my Hare’s Ear in her mouth because then I would know I was dialed into the feeding situation. But no such luck. I quickly released her and rolled my nymphs into the run. A couple casts later, I hooked into a fat, 16-inch bow whose skin was firm and ice-cold. I was casting and mending well and the flies were hatching, so I wasn’t surprised when again my indicator submerged. I knew instantly that I had a huge fish, and that knowledge was confirmed when a 20-inch trout—one of the rumored browns—swam into the clear slack water and then bolted.

Metcalf was sharing the run with me, but he was on the other side of the river. When I caught the rainbow a few minutes ago, it hadn’t occurred to him to cross over and take an image. I wasn’t going to let him make that mistake this time. Why don’t you get your little ass over here and give us hand with the camera?  Someday I will make it a point to ponder long and hard why it is so important to document my encounters with fish. In the meantime I enjoyed the big male’s heft. Once I brought him to hand, he relaxed, as if he knew I had no intention of keeping him. 

I still have my issues with the Lower Provo, and I will for as long as people abuse the place. But fishing there has helped me to broaden my understanding of what it means to fish well. Fishing well requires imagination. This is nowhere more true than on rivers like the Lower Provo, which suffer from the absence of imagination, variously defined. It is powerful enough to create a sweet spot in the mind as well as on the water. It can grow rainbows and harbor rumors. Some people might believe the imagination is amoral at worst and subjective at best. So maybe dumping that tire into the river was an act of the imagination? I seriously doubt it.