Way Out West, Part Two: The South Platte River

I’d known about the South Platte for years, but never got the itch to go fish it, until I did — and now I am faced with a matter of difficult settlement: my favorite trout water is almost 2,000 miles away.

It’s so easy to fall in love with the South Platte. Since it’s a tailwater, it’s a viable fishery year-round. It’s got so much productive water that you could very likely stumble into fish (and if you know how to read water, you could quickly become a dangerous machine). In addition to being cold — I didn’t take a temperature, but it had to be high 40s-low 50s — the water is clear enough that the eagle-eyed among us can sight fish for trout. And the trout — ah, the trout — are fat and feisty and fantastic. Plus, there are lots of them. Subsurface invertebrates are everywhere and provide the trout with a daily smorgasbord. It’s almost like someone imagined, then created a trout theme park fantasyland. Really, it’s that good.

Early morning on the first day. Cam might be contemplating the fish at his feet, or the sheer beauty of his surroundings. These streamside boulders are typical of the South Platte in Cheesman Canyon, and sometimes these behemoths are in the river proper. Along with the smaller boulders, it makes for the kind of structure trout love. On both days, my experience was: find one fish, and there are a bunch more close by. I think we saw a half dozen other anglers on Wednesday. Friday, the “crowded” day, maybe twice that many. I fear that western anglers would be mortified by the hordes on eastern streams.
Afternoon on the first day. The water is at 250cfs and running with breathtaking clarity. It was easy to pick out fish, especially if you knew where to look (on day one they were holding in riffly moving water 1-2 feet deep). This slot extended far down the glide past where I was standing when I took this photo. Both Cam and I hooked fish along the entire length of this wrinkled water center stream.
Day two. The water is up to 300cfs. Our guide, Chris Steinbeck of the Blue Quill Angler, said that Thursday morning the water had some color, but cleared up after noon. I think I liked this height better; having no experience to compare to, I’d call this flow medium. Here’s what’s so wonderful about the South Platte: there are fish everywhere. Compare to the Farmington, where there are vast stretches (especially now) of unproductive water. I caught more brag-book trout in an hour on the South Platte than I might in a month on the Farmington. If you can read water, and make adjustments like weight and indicator position, and perform quality drifts, there’s no reason why you can’t do likewise. Cam doesn’t fly fish, and he stuck over a dozen trout on day one.
I believe the river is so productive because of the high percentage of viable water. The analogy I came up with was the South Platte is like a high-gradient northeast wild brookie stream, times 10 in size. See what I mean?
A so-ugly-it’s-beautiful golden stonefly from Chris’ Friday sampling. We also came up with midges and baetis and PMD nymphs. There were a couple stray salmon flies flitting about over the course of both outings. Not shown: scuds, an important food source for South Platte trout. I creamed ’em the first day with Pat Dorsey’s UV Scud.
Compared to the Farmington and the Housatonic, wading the South Platte is a walk in the park. Absent the fast-moving, deeper sections, this was about as tricky as the footing got. (I still don’t see why the possibility of falling in should prevent me from getting into the best position to catch that fish — although I’m pleased to report that I did not go swimming on the South Platte.) Much of the river is granite sheets and smaller gravel bottom. Bottom snags were few and far between; I didn’t lose a single rig the entire trip. As you can see, the rocks are covered with this mossy vegetation, hence the substantial scud population. Clearing weeds off of flies and rigs was a constant task, although it served as a good reminder that my presentations were where they should be. Coming next: Part 3 — The Fishing.

Way Out West, Part One: Cheesman Canyon

Some of the things you’ve never done are accepted as not to be reasonably expected. You’ve never gone skydiving. You’ve never climbed K2. You’ve never dated a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.

But it seems improbable that until a few days ago, I’d never fished the western United States.

I had my chance in the form of family vacation to the Grand Canyon. We’d do our thing in Arizona, then head northeast to Colorado, where I’d have two days to fish the legendary South Platte River. For years, I’d been reading about the South Platte in books like Ed Engle’s Trout Lessons; Landon Mayer’s The Hunt For Giant Trout; and especially Pat Dorsey’s Fly Fishing Guide to the South Platte River. I’d casually said hello to Pat before, but I got to chat with him at the Edison Fly Fishing show last January. He wasn’t available to guide me, but Chris Steinbeck, another guide at The Blue Quill Angler, was. Done and done.

I have a love/hate relationship with every guide I’ve hired. They’ve all been really good, but as a night owl they’ve all horrified me with lines like, “We’ll meet at the Cheesman Canyon parking lot (over an hour drive from our hotel) at 7am.” Such is the price to pay for fishing in paradise. And paradise it was.

On the drive through Pike National Forest, there were long stretches of wildfire remnants. But you could also see the earth beginning the healing process. Nature finds a way, right? Much of the the drive was a twisting, turning route through the mountains. My wife made the comment that auto brake shops must do very well out here.
The North Fork of the South Platte winds along Rt. 285. Much of it is pretty meadow water like this, but it also has some gnarly whitewater sections. I was told this section is mostly stocked fish, perhaps why I didn’t see anyone fishing it during our drives.
That headline don’t lie! We didn’t gear up in the parking lot; we packed our waders, boots, gear, and food/water into the canyon. The first day we hiked in to Cow’s Crossing, which is a one mile one-way trek. The trail isn’t particularly steep, but it does have ups and downs and rocks and gravel that would very much like to trip you up. There are also some trailside ledges that, if you are inclined to suffer from vertigo, you should not look down! The walk in during the cool of the morning almost seemed fun. It’s the hoof out that gets you. Chris and I went way into the Canyon on the second day. It was an hour walk, one way, and the trip out had me taking frequent water and rest-my-weary-bones breaks.
There are specific access points to the bottom of the canyon from the main trail, and this ain’t one of them. I took this shot from a mark we fished on the second day. That’s a long way up!
Cheesman Canyon possesses a stark beauty, much of it consisting of dreary earth tones: rocks, gravel, truck-sized boulders, and dead vegetation melding into one giant sun-bleached brown-grey blandscape. But it’s also dotted with evergreens and grasses and lovely gems like this wildflower.
And there’s poison ivy. Lots of it. “Irving,” as I affectionately call it, is everywhere. Irving was kind enough to hitch a ride home with me, evidenced by a quarter-sized conglomeration of blisters on my left forearm. It’s ridiculous how easily it finds me.
We have this plant, mullein, in Connecticut. It’s colloquially known as cowboy (or indian) toilet paper. You can do whatever you like with any plant’s leaves, but I would advise against using Irving for this purpose.
Stay tuned for part two of “Way Out West”: The South Platte River.

Grinnin’ like a ‘possum eatin’ a sweet potato

Why is the man smiling? Heck, why is he positively ecstatic? He just landed his first South Platte River trout! (Yup. On a scud.) I’m back from a whirlwind tour of the southwest, and while it was mostly a family vacation, two days of fishing were had on Colorado’s famed South Platte River. Naturally, there will be details forthcoming, but suffice to say I have a new favorite nymphing-for-trout river. Hint: this was the smallest fish I landed all trip. Stay tuned — you’re not going to want to miss this one. (Photo by Chris Steinbeck.)