I love everything about fishing. I love the feeling of the boat as it skims over a glassy lake. I love the feel of a boat as it curvets over the waves. I love watching the color of the lake change from pre-dawn’s oilslick black, to mid-morning’s jade green, to mid-day’s turquoise. I love the smell of outboard exhaust when we idle low-down and troll. I like it for the simple reason that the only time I smell that smell is when I’m fishing, and after 40 years of fishing, it’s a smell I associate only with good times.
I love anchovies and striper boils, dry flies and alpine lakes, mealworms and ice augers.
Most of all I love carefully coaxing a strong, eight pound fish into the boat on five pound test.
Yes, I love everything about fishing; everything that is, except waking up at 4:45 a.m. to go fishing.
It’s 5:30 a.m. and I’m operating solely on lizard brain as I lumber down the Wahweap launch ramp in the 10 watt light of pre-dawn, contemplating – as much as a man who’s operating on four hours of sleep can contemplate – that the red slits appearing between the layers of clouds in the eastern sky sure look a lot like the bloodshot eyes of a man who has awakened three hours earlier than his usual time: my eyes 45 minutes ago.
I’m halfway down the launch ramp when I hear a truck enter the top of the launch ramp. It’s Bill. We wave to each other as drives by. He does a U-turn at the bottom of the ramp, and backs his boat into the lake eight inches away from the dock. Before I’ve reached the dock he’s hopped out of his truck, pulled his free-floating boat into the dock and lashed it tight to the cleat. It’s the sort of execution of experience that gives a man confidence in his guide.
I reach the dock at the same time Bill is hopping back into his truck. We nod to each other.
I walk across the dock and step onto the boat and, while Bill’s driving up the ramp to park, I find a dry spot for my camera bag. It’s a comfortable 22 foot powerboat. Obviously a fisherman’s boat. Every cupholder and cubby has two or three pair of needle nose pliers tucked into it. And I notice that Bill already has five or six rods ready to go, lying out of the wind and foot traffic in the gutters along the gunwales.
By the time Bill returns, the dawn has brightened to 40 watts. Enough to fire up the motor and go. And my level of consciousness has brightened from 40 watts to 80. Bill starts up the boat and backs out while turning the boat’s nose toward the deep water, and idles forward into the wakeless zone, past the houseboats tied to their moors like horses sleeping in their berths, then out of the wakeless zone where Bill punches the lever forward. And there it is, one the many joys of fishing: the rush of a boat skimming across a glassy lake, the cool dawn air blowing through my hair.
I love fishing on Lake Powell, but as much as I love to do it I don’t go out often enough to know it inside and out. That’s why I hired Bill McBurney from Ambassador Guides for the day. He takes clients fishing on Lake Powell 300 days a year. He knows it on a level intimate enough to know where the fish are, what time they’ll be feeding on top, what time they’ll be resting, and what time they’ll be feeding at depth. If I was going out alone today, even though I’m a fairly competent fisherman, I wouldn’t have the first clue the best place to start. Bill does. And as he and I converse, Bill takes us across Wahweap Bay and through the Cut. By the time we reach Warm Creek Bay my consciousness has not only risen to 100 percent, but is gassing off excess fumes. It took an hour and a half but I’m finally awake.
We turn right in Warm Creek Bay and left at the river channel. By the time we reach Padre Bay it’s full daylight and Bill and I scan the placid waters for striper boils. And we find one. In mid-conversation Bill simultaneously throttles down and changes course, and says, “Right there!” pointing to a backyard-sized patch of boiling water, caused by Striper bass driving shad to the surface of the lake. As the shad leap to escape and the stripers leap to catch them it causes the affected area to appear to boil.
Bill kills the motor as we reach the edge of the boil and hands me a rod pre-baited with rubber bait molded to look like an anchovy.
“Just cast it across the body of the boil and reel it in and you’ll catch one,” Bill said.
This much I know. I’m what you’d call an avid fisherman with a desk job. I really like my job but it still doesn’t match the satisfaction I get from a day spent fishing on the lake. So when I fish, I fish with deep-rooted enthusiasm.
Bill takes up a rod of his own and casts with a vigor and enthusiasm nearly matching my own. Even though he’s on the lake 300 days a year he’s usually too busy helping clients to do much fishing of his own. But today I’m his only client, and a fairly competent one who doesn’t require a lot of help from Bill, so he baits a rod of his own and for the first time in months fishes along with me.
And, as is typical with Striper boils, he hooks one on his first cast, and it’s a bigun by the looks of it. And two seconds later I hook onto one. We net them, remove their hooks and toss them in the well, but in the short time it takes us to do that, the boil is over.
Bill has been a licensed guide since 1979. He knows Lake Powell nooks and bays and hidden coves better than just about anyone. He knows the habits and patterns of its fish. He grew up fishing in Florida, back when it still had wild creeks filled with fish and alligators.
One of his first professional guiding businesses was taking clients on fishing expeditions through the Grand Canyon in 1982 and 83, but then the National Park Service decided that fishing trips through the Grand Canyon wasn’t how they wanted to utilize the resource.
A few years later he opened a flyshop and guiding service at Lees Ferry Lodge taking clients flyfishing on the stretch of river between the Glen Canyon Dam and Lees Ferry, and after a few years of that, he moved his operation onto Lake Powell, where he’s been ever since.
He lives in Greenehaven with his
I love fishing on Lake Powell just about any time of year but going out in autumn is my absolute favorite time to go. The summer crowds are gone and the weather is perfect.
wife Judy Franz. Bill and I run into each other at the coffee shop and various town celebrations and functions. So, even though he’s my guide for the day, the feeling is more like two friends out on the lake having a good time.
Bill fires up the motor and pilots us farther uplake, scanning the lake for the next boil. About 10 minutes later we find another one, a big one stretching out a quarter mile. Bill pulls the boat alongside it and before he’s cut the motor I’ve cast my lure into the fray and within five seconds I’ve hooked a striper. It’s a big one.
The fish runs, stripping line off my reel with a sound like someone ripping a cotton sheet. I tighten down my bail a little to slow it down. After 15 seconds it has tired enough that I can reel in a little line. But the fish, though losing strength, still fights. It runs right, back to the left, like a dog in a dog run. It makes another run for it, pulling more line from my reel in little Morse Code dashes. I let it run, let it tire itself out and when it has, I reel in some more line. Bill stands beside me, ready with the net. After another 30 seconds of fighting I work the fish near the surface where we see sunlight flashing off its chrome flanks.
“Looks like a nice one,” Bill says.
I win a little more line, enough that Bill can lower the net into the water and capture the fish. And he pulls it aboard and lays the netted fish on the boat deck and we pause for a few seconds to admire it. It’s a nice one, perhaps 16 inches long, weighing about four pounds. I remove the hook from its mouth, Bill throws it in the well with the others and we both cast out into the striper boil. And this time Bill catches and lands a nice three pound fish. By the time he’s landed the fish the boil has ended. We scan around us to see if it will reappear elsewhere but it doesn’t. Bill starts the motor and we go a little farther uplake, watching as we go for another boil.
We don’t find another one and Bill tells me that that was likely the last one of the day. With the day warming up the fish are moving back down to the lake’s cooler depths. But, Bill tells me, we’re near a rock outcropping that he thinks will provide us with some good smallmouth fishing.
Bill takes us to the area and we spend the next hour trolling for smallmouth bass, and catch two. After three hours of chasing striper boils, we have travelled quite far uplake. We’re just minutes away from Dangling Rope marina. Bill suggests we run in and grab a coke and perhaps get some breakfast burritos. I agree.
After breakfast Bill says, “It’s that time of day when the stripers have gone down deep. I think I know a spot where we’ll find them.”
The spot he takes us to is along a high cliff wall just off the main channel. Bill drives slowly along the cliffwall watching his fishfinder.
“Yup. Take a look at that,” he says, indicating the fishfinder.
The monitor shows fish upon fish, in a stratified layer 40 to 50 feet below us.
“They’re stacked like cordwood down there,” he says.
Bill pilots the boat along the western end of the cliff wall and cuts the motor. This time we rig up our rods with real anchovies. The boat is drifting east, paralleling the cliff wall. We both cast our lines behind the boat, let our anchovies sink to about 40 feet and flip the bails.
I love fishing on Lake Powell just about any time of year but going out in autumn is my absolute favorite time to go. The summer crowds are gone and the weather is perfect. Bill and I sit in our chairs beneath the biminy and watch our lines.
The next fish I catch that morning hits like the shock from an electric fence, which yanks me out of my fisherman’s daydream. Line peels off my reel, screeching like a frightened cat.
The electricity pulsing up the line, continues into the pole, and from there is transformed into goosebumps that sprout on my arms and disperse back into the ether in a static tingle of electric fizz. My pole is bent like Orion’s bow, and my line feels like it’s attached to a descending elevator. I can’t stop it any more than I could stop a dropping elevator. All I can do is wait for it to reach the basement and come back up.
I do tighten my bail a little bit, slightly slowing the fish’s escape. It’s very similar to tightening a plucked guitar string; the pitch of the screeching reel increases, heightens into a new note as I tighten down the drag.
But, there’s still no reeling it in yet. Though I have halted the fish’s run, it still keeps my line taut as a harpstring. I could have cut cheese with it. All I can do is carefully monitor the tension of the line and let the fish wear itself out a little more. After about 30 seconds I feel the tension in the line decreasing. Finally the tension has decreased to the point that I can start reeling it in, to prevent the fish from the throwing the hook.
Now, at last, begins the long, patient struggle to bring it in. This is the most critical point of the fight, the point where I am most likely to lose the fish. This is where the fish, if it finds a burst of strength or adrenaline, can suddenly turn and make another run and in so doing could snap the line. I lessen the tension of my drag a notch so that if that happens the pull, the tension, will be softened. I reel the great fish in a little closer, a little closer. Bill scooped it up with the net and hauls it aboard. My biggest fish of the day. A nice five pounder.
And then it’s Bill’s turn to catch a fish and he catches a doozy. An honest, hard-working, blue-collar fish. After several minutes of battle Bill pulls it in. And it’s a mighty fish. Two feet long, weighing eight pounds. Its mouth is as big as an open attaché case. Teeth like a ripsaw. It lays on the deck of the boat like a sleeve of chain mail; with Thor’s arm in it.
It was a great treat fishing with Bill. It was nice spending a day on the lake with a pro who knows where the surface boils are most likely to happen, productive alcoves to troll for smallmouth, and productive spots when the fish go deep during the hot part of the day.