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GREEN RIVER FISH SMART, FAT, HEALTHY

It's frustrating. Look down, and there they are - fish. Everywhere. Big fish by anyone's standards. Healthy fish. Smart fish.

And that's the problem. The fish on the Green River are as educated as any you'll find. Ph.Ds on flies and lures. Certainly smart enough to know the real from look-a-likes most of the time.Present a fly and watch. It can bump the noses of a dozen fish, and not one will so much as flinch a dorsal fin.

The key to fishing here, the experts will say, is simply deception. The best fishermen are masters of disguise. They can make a hook and strand of red thread - better known as a "San Juan Worm" - look and float like a tasty invertebrate.

But not everyone is that skilled.

The secret is in the drift, they confess.

"Keep it with the current . . . Not too fast, not too slow. Fish can tell," says Tom Knight, a guide for Angler's Inn.

And that they must.

The Green River is unchallenged here in Utah for quality. There is none better for overall beauty and fish. There are places with one asset, but none with the abundance of both that the Green has. Look up, look down . . . rugged cliffs, reaching mountains, green trees and clear water full of fish.

Some say the fishing is souring. There were days this year when good fishermen couldn't snag moss. Then there were days when the fish literally lined up to get at the hook, when bigger fish came after smaller fish that were going for a hook.

Others agree that slow days support the theory of smart fish.

"When regulations first went into effect, back in 1985, the fish were uneducated. It was like fishing in a hatchery. They're much smarter now. With the number of dories and hooks that pass by them every day, it's easy to see why," says Steve Brayton, project manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

The problem was the numbers were so high the fish weren't growing. Brayton says they found 7-year-old fish that did not make it out of the slot limit (20 inches). There wasn't enough food to go around.

In recent years the number of fish in the river has dropped to what he calls an acceptable level. Now, for example, there are 3-year-old fish that are pushing the slot limit size.

The fish you see in the river now are bigger and healthier than earlier generations.

There's also a change in the population structure. At one time this was strictly a rainbow water. Browns were found down-river only, from Little Hole south. Now the browns run all the way up to the Flaming Gorge dam. The reason is that browns like warmer water, so they used to stay lower on the river where waters had had a chance to warm. Under a new program, the water coming from the dam is warmer than it used to be, so browns have moved upstream.

The problem is that browns are more difficult to catch than rainbow. They're fussier than rainbows about the lures and flies they'll take. Avid fishermen like the challenge of hooking a brown, and even the not-so-good enjoy the fight of a nice brown when they can hook one. But, it has slowed things a bit.

Brayton notes that recent fish counts support the theory that fish numbers are, indeed, down. And, too, that there are more browns than rainbows. And, that because of the lower numbers of fish, they are fatter and healthier.

There are some, too, who argue that the fluctuating river levels have hurt fishing. The once-daily hatches of bugs have been flushed downriver by high releases. Hatches put fish in a feeding frame of mind. Some ate when they weren't hungry because all the other fish were eating. This lessened the need for a well-presented fly or lure.

But now there are few hatches on the river, so most of the fishing is done with nymphs. There are sections where dry flies will be taken, but generally flies left to drag along the bottom seem to do the best.

For right now, though, it's a test of skills for fishermen . . . A well tied fly cast slightly upstream, left to drift naturally, works. But, don't expect a hit on every presentation. The fish here are too smart.