As the sun dips behind the sandstone walls of Marble Canyon, the temperature dips, too. It’s 4:15 p.m., and Dave Foster stands in waders in the middle of the Colorado River, water up to his waist. We are upstream from Lees Ferry, at a spot called 4-Mile.

Other boats have gone already, but Foster’s is anchored near a boggy beach covered in the shells of invasive mussels. Silence bounces and strains and echoes and settles in every direction. The river is the only soundtrack for the midges that swarm and dance around our heads. The insects — small, non-biting, mosquito-like flyers — are a staple in the diet of the trout that populate the river here. But today, the fish aren’t biting.

Foster scans the water. He casts his line again. He watches the drift.

“Well …” he trails off.

Fly fishing is often a conversation in single syllables. It’s more nods and head shakes and the quiet contemplation of shadows and riffles than it is a symphony of dialogue.

Foster changes flies, casts again, feels a take, resets.

“I’ve spent a lot of time right here,” he says. “I don’t see a lot of fish. I’m going to try another spot.”

Foster has spent the majority of his time on and around the river since the 1960s, when his mother inherited nearby Marble Canyon Lodge. Photograph by Scott Baxter.
Foster has spent the majority of his time on and around the river since the 1960s, when his mother inherited nearby Marble Canyon Lodge.

The fishing here has gone a lot like this lately. Populations of trout seemed somewhat healthy during the summer of 2023, but they began to drop off in the fall. Foster is concerned about it — for most of his life, he’s made his living as a guide — but he’s also hopeful the conditions will change.

There are a handful of factors contributing to a reduction in the Colorado River fishery. Climate change, higher water temperatures and irregular flows — a product of the cycle of releases from Glen Canyon Dam — are a few. Bureaucratic management by multiple agencies is another. An abundance of invasive smallmouth bass and green sunfish, which thrive in warmer water and threaten rainbow trout and endangered humpback chub, is yet another. Combined, these factors threaten a place that many anglers in Arizona have long considered one of the finest places to fish.

Still, “Even on the toughest days,” Foster says, “you hope it’s going to get better.”

For a half century and more, Dave Foster’s life has centered on the river. In 1959, the year he was born, his maternal grandfather died. It took years to sort the estate, and when it was all done, Foster’s mother, Betty Jane, an attorney in Southern California, had inherited Marble Canyon Lodge.

Betty Jane’s father had purchased several trading posts from Lorenzo Hubbell Jr., son of legendary trader John Lorenzo Hubbell, in the late 1940s — and Marble Canyon Lodge was among them. According to her 2019 obituary, “She became a fixture and celebrity of Northern Arizona and was loved by travelers, river runners and the Navajo people of the area.”

Foster’s father was also an attorney, a “real mover and shaker” and Walt Disney’s right-hand man — among his accomplishments was negotiating the acquisitions of the land that became Florida’s Walt Disney World. Dad worked a lot, so, every summer, beginning when Foster was 7, Betty Jane would load Foster and his brothers, Don and Steve, into the family station wagon and head east to the painted landscape of the Colorado Plateau.

Fishing excursions through Foster’s company, Lees Ferry on the Fly, are centered around his custom Koffler jet boat. Photograph by Scott Baxter.
Fishing excursions through Foster’s company, Lees Ferry on the Fly, are centered around his custom Koffler jet boat.

“I really thank my mom for turning me loose at such an early age in this place,” Foster says. “It’s got to be one of the best playgrounds on Earth for a 10-year-old kid. And the truth of the matter is that this playground provided the framework for my entire life.” 

During those early trips, Foster was too young to work, so he and his brothers would go down to the river and fish. They’d shoot soda bottles behind the lodge. And they’d throw things off Navajo Bridge. (Don’t get any ideas — the practice was, and still is, strictly prohibited.) When the kids were old enough to work, they did so at the gas station or in the restaurant at the lodge. 

But by 13, Foster was on the river, helping seasoned boatmen with their journeys; engaging with tourists; loading in and offloading; and learning the rapids, beaches, side canyons and falls. In fact, that was his reality every summer during elementary school, in middle school and into high school. He was building visual memory, muscle memory and a deep affection for the Canyon and the mighty Colorado. 

He finished his senior year of high school at Central Arizona's prestigious Orme School, then studied journalism at the University of Arizona. His years in Tucson were a cycle of school and running rivers and dive trips in Mexico for three seasons, then returning to the Canyon each summer to work on the river.  

“I parlayed that, eventually, into a job with the National Park Service as a river ranger,” Foster says. “And I worked off and on [as a boatman] for most of my life. But then, in 1986, a lot of my friends started getting skin cancer, and they had been guides forever, but I was still pretty young. I said to myself, Well, I can’t be a river guide forever. That’s when I started really fishing and setting up guide infrastructure.” 

The heyday of Foster’s guiding business coincided with the release of A River Runs Through It, the 1992 film, starring Brad Pitt and Tom Skerritt, that was based on the Norman Maclean story of the same name. Foster had five guides working for him, and from the late 1980s to the late ’90s, he says, Lees Ferry was a bucket-list destination. 

“Everybody who got on my boat thought they were going to turn their lives around through fly fishing,” Foster recalls. “I’d tell them, ‘If you can’t figure out your life, you’re never going to figure out a fly cast.’
I was just joking, of course, but there is some truth to that. If you’re good at it, you can turn that corner and have it really move you. [But] fly casting is a struggle — when you first try it, it’s not that much fun. Learning to fly cast sucks.” 

But people did it then, and they do it now. And Foster is there for it all.

Foster fishes a swing  with a scud. The line is positioned in his hand in such a way that he can sense the slightest resistance if a fish takes the fly. Photograph by Scott Baxter.
Foster fishes a swing with a scud. The line is positioned in his hand in such a way that he can sense the slightest resistance if a fish takes the fly.

In 1995, high school student Dave Trimble was tying flies for a shop in Flagstaff. Foster came in to drop off an order of his book, Fly Fishing Lees Ferry, but he also needed someone to tie flies for him, so the owner gave him Trimble’s number.

“The owner told him that my buddy and I would be down in a little while to eat on that plate of cookies,” Trimble recalls. “They had cookies and coffee at the fly shop for all the retired dudes, and we’d go in there and hammer back some cookies and BS with the fly shop guys. So, that was it. That was how Foster got my number. He called me up and asked me to tie some flies for him, and that was the beginning of it.” 

By 1999, Trimble had graduated from high school and moved to Marble Canyon to guide. He worked in the fly shop and at the lodge, which was being run by Foster’s brother, so he could get company housing. Trimble started guiding at the “walk-in,” a spot at Lees Ferry where anglers can walk directly into the river, and began working toward his U.S. Coast Guard license, which he obtained in 2007. 

“That’s when I started running boats for him,” Trimble says. “Our relationship is super weird in that when I was growing up, he was my mentor and then my boss, but he’s also like a dad or a big brother to me. I’ve known him since I was a kid, but now we sit on his porch and drink beers and shoot at the little spinning target he has on a rock wall out there. He’s my best friend, but I also get the ‘boss rant’ from him. We’re hunting buddies, fishing buddies, beer-drinking buddies, business partners.” 

Foster took a hiatus from guiding in 2010, when he took a job with the U.S. Geological Survey's Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center. At the time, Trimble was working in San Diego. But then, Foster called him. “He said that the agency needed technical boat operators for electrofishing,” Trimble says. “It was 10 days of guaranteed pay, 10 nights of camping at Marble Canyon, and, as a bonus, it was during duck-hunting season.” 

Trimble had a moment during that experience. He was being called back to Northern Arizona. He knew he wanted to raise his kids there, instead of in Southern California. And two years later, he and his family made their way back. 

On Foster’s 62nd birthday, he sent a letter of resignation to the USGS. He felt like he had quit the river — he was out only on weekends, because of the day job — and that didn’t feel quite right. “Three days after I left that job, my wife said she’d never seen me happier,” Foster says. 

As storm clouds build, Foster fishes near 4-Mile. As the river’s trout population continues to decline, Foster is committed to restoring the Lees Ferry fishery. Photograph by Scott Baxter.
As storm clouds build, Foster fishes near 4-Mile. As the river’s trout population continues to decline, Foster is committed to restoring the Lees Ferry fishery.

Then, one Sunday, the Foster and Trimble families gathered to watch football at Foster’s home, which overlooks Marble Canyon. Trimble mentioned that he was going to start working for Marble Canyon Lodge as a guide again. (The Foster family had, by then, sold the property.) Foster, according to Trimble, looked at him and turned things upside down. 

“He goes, ‘Dude, my boat’s back there; we don’t need to work for anyone else,’ ” Trimble says. “He told me that I had helped him pay off that boat and others when I was a kid, so we’d split the permit, he’d guide his days, and I would guide mine. That was it. That was how Lees Ferry on the Fly was born. We shared his boat, and he’s never let anyone else drive that boat.” 

That conversation happened several years ago, and today, Lees Ferry on the Fly hosts guests for full-day excursions from Lees Ferry, all on Foster’s custom Koffler jet boat. 

And while Foster is a father figure to Trimble, he’s also an actual dad. Foster and his wife, Barbara, have been married for more than 25 years and have three children: a son, Jackson, and twin daughters Sonni and Marissa. The twins attend the University of Arizona, while Jackson works in the hospitality industry in Tucson. 

“With all of the guiding my dad did while we were growing up, all of the fishing trips, I think something I took away from him was this idea of how to really interact with people,” Jackson says. “And I don’t necessarily mean being everyone’s friend, but at least being cordial with everyone you meet. I think you can garner a lot of respect as a person if you’re able to do that consistently throughout your life.” 

It’s nearing 8 p.m. at Cliff Dwellers Restaurant, and dusk long ago gave way to the type of darkness that envelops only open spaces. Foster looks at the menu, but it’s an exercise in ritual, rather than practicality. He orders the fish tacos most of the time. 

He’s in his mid-60s now and tan, with gray hair — a cross between Ernest Hemingway and Jimmy Buffett. He speaks the science of the river like poetry and the story of his life in a thoughtful tide of memory. 

A few years ago, the Fosters went to Costa Rica for two weeks at Christmas. It was a beautiful experience, but it couldn’t beat the feeling of returning home. “I went upriver because I had to fish in the winter, which isn’t something I do very often,” Foster says. “I drove up and stuck my head out the window and looked out. I felt that cold river air. Man, I loved Costa Rica, but it was nothing like being at Glen Canyon.” 

He ruminates on the past, the present and the future with his flip-flops kicked off beneath the table. “I hope the day never comes that the last fish is caught at Lees Ferry,” he says. “But if it does, I hope I’m guiding the person who catches it.” 

For more information about Lees Ferry on the Fly,visit


As this story was going to press, I received an email from Dave Foster. It read, in part: “Ugh. My fishery is dying. I find myself in the uncomfortable position of trying to address the Technical Work Group of the Glen Canyon Adaptive Management Program.” The meeting was scheduled to take place on April 10 and 11, and Foster planned to be there. 

“I am going to try to get in on the public comments portion at the end of the day on the 11th and speak my piece on the fishery, its decline and the entire process that has failed regarding Lees Ferry,” he wrote. “A book could be written on this program, mismanagement, wasted money (tons), bureaucratic opportunism — I honestly don’t know where to start. I have lived it my entire adult life. I hope I get my few minutes.”

Like any issue involving multiple agencies, the issue of the Colorado River fishery is complex and delicate. If anyone can speak to it with authority, it’s Dave Foster.

— Kelly Vaughn