Exploring Wyoming's Upper Green River

Tailwaters often overshadow other sections of blue-ribbon streams, and for very understandable reasons. Upstream reservoirs create ideal conditions for the survival and growth of fish. Water temperatures are cool and forage is plentiful. Dam fed rivers can have several thousand trout per mile and relatively large specimens. This is the case on many storied Rocky Mountain rivers, including the San Juan in New Mexico, the Big Horn in Montana, and the North Platte in Wyoming. They all offer big fish and big numbers. They also offer big crowds during peak season and sometimes even before and after. The sometimes excellent fishing found on other parts of a stream typically goes ignored by the greater angling community.

One of fly fishing’s most famous trout streams falls into this same category. Utah’s Green River flows from the 500-plus foot Flaming Gorge Dam, creating the perfect tailwater. There are big fish, literally hundreds of thousands of them, on three sections of river running some 25-plus miles. This is bucket list material for most fly fishers. You can tell when you fish it. Sixty launches every couple of hours at the dam is not unheard of on a standard weekday. There can be even more on weekends and holidays.

The Green’s headwaters are approximately 190 miles further upstream in Wyoming. It is true freestone. You will not find thousands of trout per mile. You will find several hundred. You will also notice far few anglers. It is possible to fish the Green and see only a couple fellow anglers some days. For most, this tradeoff – fewer fish but fewer anglers – is worth it.

The upper Green River Basin was originally dominated by Colorado cutthroat, the watershed’s sole native trout. The introduction of non-native fish, harvesting, and agricultural development have reduced their number to the point that they are rarely caught. Today, the Green is brown trout country. They were stocked within the drainage throughout the 20th century. There is also a healthy number of rainbows, as well as some non-native Bear River and Snake River fine-spotted cutthroats. Brook trout exist in small numbers.

No matter what reach you find yourself on, there is a sincere intimacy to the Green River. The gradient is moderate in most places, between seven and ten feet/mile. Other parts are even more docile – along the lines of four feet/mile. Wading is easy, as is navigating the stream with almost any form of watercraft.

Tucked in the Wind River Range and shadowed by iconic Square Top Mountain, Green River Lakes acts as the headwaters to its namesake stream. The Lakes are a big draw for anglers in pursuit of browns, brookies, and lakers. The river is a big draw as well. It meanders through an endless series of open meadows. Undercut banks are the name of the game here. Gentle riffles and submerged riffles also provide worthwhile water to target. The first 25 miles below the mouth of Lakes are within Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF). Forest Service Road 10091 (reached via State Route 352) parallels much of the Green in this area. If you are a believer in public lands and the access they give to fly fishers, this is the place for you. A march to the river from numerous pull-outs is generally less than 15 minutes. It is by far the most scenic part of the Green River in Wyoming.

Once the Green leaves BTNF, it enters wide swaths of private ranchland. Public access here is a bit trickier. Wyoming does not recognize a high water mark law like that in Montana and other parts of the West. The land owners actually own the riverbed. That means wade fishing, even dropping an anchor from a drift boat, is considered trespassing. In some parts of the State, landowners could care less. This is not the case on the Green. Ranchers take it seriously. Knowing boundaries is important. When in doubt, don’t bother wading or even dropping anchor on what might be private land. And keep in mind that intermixed with these ranchlands are a substantial number of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and state-managed parcels that give anglers the same amount of access as what is found in the National Forest. These parcels are often clearly marked and offer the same superb fishing as what is found in BTNF and while floating through private land.

This part of the Green River extends from the Forest Service boundary down to Fontenelle Reservoir, some 90-plus stream miles. For many, it is their favorite part of the river due to the size of its browns and rainbows. Stream gradient increases, but not to the point that wading or rowing becomes difficult. Some public access sites along this reach act as boat ramps for those wanting to launch watercraft. One of the most popular is a BLM parcel than spans roughly 12 river miles just upstream of Warren Bridge (located 16 miles north of Pinedale, the largest community in the upper Green River Basin). It contains a dozen well maintained campgrounds along the river, most of which have an earthen boat ramp. These campgrounds are first-come-first-served but can accommodate a number of visitors at a time. Most of the public sites downstream of Warren Bridge do not permit camping but do allow day use for wading fly fishers and those wishing to launch a boat. Virtually all of them are accessed from the east side of the stream via Highway 191, which connects the town of Pinedale with Jackson, Wyoming, 77 miles to the north and Rock Springs, Wyoming, 100 miles to the south.

An appealing part of the Green through this long reach is the variety of water available. Submerged structure, banks, and bankside troughs are prime targets on much of it. At the same time, there are long, slow runs in places with comparatively deeper holding water. Seams and eddies are the lies you want to focus on. Riffles – the quintessential holding water on most western trout streams – vary greatly from one part of the river to another. Some are short and shallow with pools extending only around 10 to 20 meters downstream. Others are long and deep, running almost vertically with the main current. Larger riffles will obviously hold more trout, but all of them are worth fishing.

Because of the low to moderate gradient, pinpoint accuracy with your cast is not necessarily required. Fishing a dry-dropper, tandem dry, double nymph rig, or streamer tight to bank or dead center on the current line of a seam is best. However, I have seen brown trout move two feet from the “perfect spot” to take a fly. A moderate gradient allows such behavior. Trout are not expending a ton of energy to break from their lie in the same manner they would on higher gradient streams with faster currents. If your rigging happens to be a foot or two off target, yet you are getting a solid presentation, your best bet is to continue your drift until you fish completely through the intended water or another piece of holding water presents itself.

Seasons on the Green

Like many streams with headwaters in the Greater Yellowstone area, much of the upper Green and its tributaries are open to fishing year round. But almost the entire river is at or over 7,000 feet elevation. The basin retains cold air temperatures few others in the region, even in this era of a warming climate in the West. This impacts water temperatures. One can drive over Warren Bridge and other crossings during the winter months and see much of the Green frozen over. In fact, the stream gauge at Warren Bridge often flat lines between December and April because the gauge itself is frozen. Fishing the Green River is unrealistic much of the time.

The warming temperatures of spring render the stream ice free by the last week of April most years. May is the first month with consistent access and action. Resident brown trout begin to lose the lethargy that got them through winter. The old, corny term “opportunistic” is a fitting way to describe their feeding. The river is exceedingly low this time of year. The best dry fly opportunities come with blue-winged olive hatches. Their emergences are strongest during the first half of the month. Nymph imitations like Redemption BWOs and Lightening Bugs are best fished with shallow with a short leader. Despite low flows, streamer fishing with moderately sized baitfish imitations can be good with a floating line or intermediate sinking tip.

By the second half of May, caddis become a primary focus of trout. It is by no means a prolific hatch like you will find on the Madison or Henry’s Fork at the same time of year. Nonetheless, they are important and more of a consistent hatch than the blue wings that preceded them. Banks, structure, and bankside troughs are the best water to fish with caddis imitations. Eddies, seams, and riffles also provide respectable action. I generally fish a tandem dry rig with an adult pattern as the lead fly and an emerger as a trailer. Subsurface emergers – Mike Mercer’s Glass Tail Caddis is one of my favorites – can outperform more surface oriented imitations.

Snowmelt from the Wind River and Wyoming ranges generally starts to impact the Green River during the second half of May. Flows can increase 15-fold from what they were only a couple of months before. Yet there is a resiliency to the fishing during spring runoff not found on many freestone streams. Respectable action can still be had with only a foot and a half of visibility. Much of the time I will fish double or triple nymph rigs or streamers with a 3ips tip. And the duration of runoff is not measured in months like it is on other nearby freestone streams like the Snake or Salt rivers. One month is typically the extent of it. This all comes down to the accumulation of snowpack in the surrounding mountains. Expect winters with 120% or more of average snowpack to produce runoff lasting until the end of June or longer.

A broadening of hatches occurs from the second week of June through the first half of July. In a day on the water, it is possible to see caddis, PMDs, yellow sallies, gray drakes, and golden stones all emerging at once. Rarely does one dominate the other. This coincides with increasing visibility and receding flows. This is dry fly time. Just about every conceivable piece of holding water can produce. Brown trout, rainbows (which surge into the river from Fontenelle Reservoir and tributaries in June), and even whitefish literally go nuts on the surface. Yet it is also an “early bird gets the worm” scenario as water temperatures warm. It’s peculiar that a stream literally iced over a few months earlier can see water temps in the 60s. Many years surface feeding significantly slows after 2pm. Some years it can get quiet much earlier.

August and September can feel like the doldrums on the Green as flows continue to recede and water temperatures continue to rise. Some years it feels like no other stream in the region gets as warm. I have measured mid-afternoon surface temps at 72 degrees. There can be little by way of activity and it is no doubt harmful for browns and rainbows when they are hooked. Discerning anglers get around these detrimental effects by being on the water by dawn and finishing up by 11am when water temperatures hit the high 60s. It only offers a few hours of fishing but it can be good. Micro caddis are prevalent as are a number of terrestrials that give ample opportunity for dry fly fishing. Hanging a dropper imitating caddis and mayflies doubles your chances of hookups.

Autumn is a wonderful time to fish many streams in the Greater Yellowstone region, and the Green River is no exception. Water temperatures cool significantly after equinox. This is also the time when resident browns and those coming upstream from Fontenelle Reservoir begin to stage in preparation for their spawning run. The right kind of gravel for creating redds exists all over the river but is more predominant on the upper reaches from Warren Bridge to the mouth of the Lakes. Streamers are a favorite and can produce well into November. If you have an issue with casting to actively spawning fish, you will have to be on the ball. The wide dispersal of spawning activity makes it easy to mistakenly cast to browns you think are running or pooling, but are actually on their redds. If it looks like a redd, move on to another piece of water.

A Drop in the Bucket

The upper Green River offers terrific fly fishing opportunities for those wanting less crowds while at the same time more challenging fishing (the sheer number of trout on most tailwaters creates incredibly easy fishing that some find unappealing). Yet it is literally a drop in the bucket in terms of what the watershed offers.

The New Fork River is the largest tributary in the drainage and easily matches the level of fishing found on the Green. It originates at New Fork Lakes in the Wind River Range and flows roughly 70 miles south before joining the Green River just east of the town of Big Piney. Much more of this stream flows through private land than the Green, so access is even more limited. Float fishing is your best means to experience the New Fork. A relaxed gradient – four to seven feet/mile depending on the reach – allows for easy navigation. Fish counts are not as high on the New Fork, but most who fish it agree that sizes are larger.

LaBarge Creek flows southeast from the Wyoming Range and enters the Green River just upstream of Fontenelle Reservoir. Although it has a rather diverse abundance of trout, it is unique for sustaining one of the strongest populations of native Colorado cutthroat in the watershed. The highest concentrations are found on the reaches upstream of the Lincoln County line. This is a fun stream to fish due to the sheer variety of water. Wooded glades, beaver ponds, lush meadows, and meandering bends through arid landscapes all provide chances at hooking into good numbers of trout. A significant portion of the creek flows through national forest and BLM lands. LaBarge Creek Road can be accessed via Hwy 189 just south of the small town of LaBarge.

The Wind River Range is famous for the fishing found on numerous high elevation lakes of quaint size. The larger stillwater at the base of the range offer arguably better fishing for large mackinaw (lake trout), browns, and brook trout. Fremont, Willow, Boulder, and Soda lakes are all located to the east of the Green and New Fork rivers. Excellent fishing with streamers and nymphs is possible during ice-out, post ice-out, and again in the autumn.

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