Snowfield and Stream
A Winter Fly-Fishing Trip to Sundance Mountain Resort
Timpanogos is the backdrop to these legends, a shapely ridgeline approaching 12,000 feet. Shimmering white snow grace its summit for several months out of the year. Below, chilly mountain streams rush down the canyon.
Through the years I’ve attended plays at the outdoor amphitheater and enjoyed bluegrass festivals. I joined a guided night hike to look for owls in the winter and hiked on, and around, the resort. Not too long ago, I attended a screening of the 25th anniversary of the movie “A River Runs Through It,” hosted by Robert Redford, director and producer of the flick that changed fly fishing forever — and founder of Sundance Mountain Resort.
I had never stayed at Sundance because my home in Salt Lake City is only an hour from the resort. I decided it was time to give the legendary resort a try and take advantage of the quick access to the Provo River from Sundance.
I invited my fishiest fly fishing friends, Heidi Lewis (Read: "The Story of Utah Women Flyfishers") and Lani Murakami, to come along for the adventure. We tapped Brian Wimmer, fly fishing and activities ambassador at Sundance Mountain Resort, to serve as guide to the river and the resort.
Sundance Mountain Resort is, after all, an Orvis-Endorsed Fly-Fishing Lodge.
Quick Access to the River
Skiers and snowboarders, of course, flock to the mountains of Utah for the frozen form of H2O. Anglers set out in Utah with intentions of experiencing a different kind of winter thrill by hooking into trophy trout. (Read: "Fly Fishing the Uinta Mountains")
Visitors to Sundance in Utah County can experience the rush provided by the liquid and frozen forms of water in the same day, centrally located on the Wasatch Front and, for visitors to the state, under an hour from Salt Lake City International Airport. Kind of amazing when you take a minute to consider Utah is the second driest state in the nation.
“People come walking into the fly shop still wearing their ski boots and ask us to take them fishing,” said Brian Wimmer. “Other people stop when they see us in the shop and ask if you can fly fish in the winter. I tell them because they came ready to ski they probably have the right clothes to stay warm and the fish need to eat to survive.”
The ski lift may be closer, but the Provo River, one of the best fisheries in Utah and the country, is mere minutes down the road from Sundance. And the fish, as it turns out, are more than willing to take a fly even as some of The Greatest Snow on Earth® is stacking up along the banks of the Provo. (Read: "Finding Solitude on the Provo River")
“Some people have been wanting to try fly fishing for a while and are excited they can do it while on a ski vacation,” Wimmer said. “Some of have even extended their trips so they could spend more time on the river.”
A Glass With Butch Cassidy
After checking into our rooms, we headed to the Owl Bar for food and drink and to plan our time on the river the next day — the typical way many fly-fishing trips get started. In our fishing lifestyle clothing we stood out among the people who had been skiing at Sundance all day.
The Owl Bar, a restored 1890’s bar, was moved from Thermopolis, Wyoming to Sundance. It's rumored to have been visited by Butch Cassidy’s Hole-in-the-Wall Gang (Sundance founder Robert Redford played the Sundance Kid in the 1969 movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid").
We certainly felt like outlaws enjoying the amazing food at the Owl while our families were doing homework and preparing for work the next day back in Salt Lake.
We planned an early breakfast at the Foundry Grill, so headed for our rooms. I could have called a Sundance driver to deliver me the short drive up the canyon to the room, but opted to go on foot. An inch of snow already on the ground and large, fluffy, drifting snowflakes made my walk a peaceful transition for the night. My footsteps were the only ones on the trail to the cabins. I wondered how long until they were filled in with fresh snow.
With a mind clear from the crisp mountain air and senses full of the scent of pines I entered the cabin. Cozy and welcoming. My head barely made it to the pillow before I was dreaming of big, eager trout. A quiet night with pillows holding just the right amount of fluff left me refreshed and ready for the day.
"We had walked mere yards from the highway ... but the sounds of the traffic faded away with our first casts."
Blue Ribbon and White Powder
The morning was a little colder than we anticipated so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the Foundry. We eventually met at the fly shop at the base of the ski mountain with our waders and boots already on. Those fish we dreamed of last night were waiting. Skiers sent more than a few eyebrow-raising looks as we took pictures in our fly-fishing gear next to the ski racks with the lift in the background. Ten minutes later we were standing on the bank of the Provo River in Provo Canyon rigging up our fly rods.
Several inches of snow had fallen and our tracks were the first along the river — with the exception of numerous deer hoof imprints and the lone trail of a muskrat that had ventured out of the river.
We had walked mere yards from U.S. Highway 189 — the road running through Provo Canyon connecting the cities of Orem and Heber — but the sounds of the traffic faded away with our first casts. In between casts I watched an American dipper searching for breakfast under water and tried to identify song birds by their calls as I tried to focus on the fishing. Heidi and Lani had decided, like the dipper, that the food was under the surface and were fishing accordingly.
I decided to go big and was throwing a streamer hoping to catch the attention of large brown trout looking for a more substantial meal. Brian covered a lot of ground looking for fish feeding on the surface — not as unlikely as many would think in the winter.
We didn’t get any sniffs at our first spot despite the fact state fisheries biologists had estimated 3,350 fish per mile in this stretch of the lower Provo River during a river sampling the previous fall. Numbers like these — two other locations on the lower Provo estimated 2,396 and 3,713 fish per mile — show a healthy population of brown trout, rainbow trout and mountain whitefish despite being one of the most popular fisheries in Utah.
The numbers also helped when members of the Utah Blue Ribbon Fishery Advisory Council were considering the lower Provo River for designation as a Blue Ribbon Fishery. Few argue with the designation. The Blue Ribbon portion of the lower Provo River includes six miles from the Olmstead Diversion Dam in the lower portion of the river to Deer Creek Dam. Part of the success of the fishery is a regulation allowing anglers to only fish with artificial flies and lures — no bait is allowed.
Why It’s Called Fishing
We have a valiant effort on the lower Provo, but with nary a rise, nor a nibble for a couple of hours, Brian asked if we wanted to explore another part of the river. We climbed in the vehicle and headed upstream. We eyed the water while driving up the canyon but agreed to head to another stretch of the Provo located in the Heber Valley above Deer Creek Reservoir. We drove to an access point along railroad tracks and pulled into a parking area, but with wind rocking the Suburban we elected to go for an early lunch and wait out the wind.
On Brian’s suggestion we returned to the reservoir to enjoy lunch from a pavilion at Deer Creek State Park. The state park provides an idyllic setting of Mount Timpanogos across the water. Poor Heidi never saw the majestic mountain — all she could see was the water.
While others took time to savor box lunches ordered from the Sundance Deli — banh mi pork, Italian dip, turkey-bacon-avocado and the Sundance veggie sandwiches — Heidi hurried through the meal and gnawed on her cookie while rigging up her rod.
“I just need to fish when I’m this close to water,” she mumbled from behind the cookie.
We all watched as Heidi started casting a streamer from shore into the reservoir. It was a stunning sight with the snow-covered Timpanogos set behind the determined angler. Not five minutes into her casting — about the time the others had finally made it to their cookies — Heidi let out a whoop and yelled for a net.
We scrambled and managed to reach her just as a lengthy rainbow trout became visible for the first time. Another whoop from Heidi and the fish was in the net, once again illustrating just how fishy she is.
Inspired by Heidi’s catch, we packed up and returned to the parking lot next to the railroad tracks.
When the Heber Valley Railroad train ran by, we waved as the cars passed and convinced a few folks to return the gesture.
The fish finally decided to cut us some slack and started to show interest in our flies. Heidi, of course, was the first to hook up. Then Lani pulled one in and Brian had a turn before I finally managed to fool a few while fishing a dry as a soft hackle and pulling it slowly through the water. We joked how four of my mini brown trout equaled one of Lani’s.
Refuge by the Fire
The wind had worn us out a bit — or maybe it was Sundance calling with promises of fine food and good company that brought an end to our time on the water. Back at the resort we once again found ourselves at the Owl. This time we sat in front of a fire pit outside and watched as skiers boarded the lift for the final time that day.
With our legs elevated and a fire to enthrall our attention, the setting proved to be the perfect place to privately relive the wonders of the river and mourn the ones that got away. Soon, the stories were shared in the group and laughs shared. We kept wanting to get up and go order more drinks through the window to the bar, but we were lazy and cozy around the fire so we let the waitress handle things.
We eventually ended up back at the fly shop and sat down to tie flies. It was fun to hear the different preferences each of us had for materials for the same fly pattern. Some of us were nervous about others seeing our final result. Or they would test the tie and watch it unravel. Others were confident with their work and promised to try it on their next trip.
Despite two solid Sundance meals already that day, we all found ourselves hungry and kept our reservation at the Foundry. We joked about heading to the spa, at least a hot tub, but it was late, and those perfect pillows were waiting to do their job. It is also safe to say the filet mignon, halibut and pork tenderloin plates at dinner made us even more sleepy.
Our dreams this night were of the ones that got away — or at least refused our flies.
We took in a light breakfast at the Sundance deli the next morning and talked about our experience. Heidi summed it up well for all of us.
“I really felt like I was on vacation only 45 minutes from home,” she said. “I really appreciated the size of the resort. It never felt crowded. The lodging was spread and very quaint. I felt like I was very far from the city.”
Our only complaint was we didn’t plan more time to take in all the resort offered.