Three Perfect Days On Cochetopa Creek–Day One

Dome Lake
Dome Lake

August 20, 2015

Day One:  I’m in my little travel trailer a.k.a mobile fishing camp parked next to Dome Lake located in a high country state park near the Continental Divide, not too far from Gunnison, Colorado.  I drove up early this morning, sorely in need of a multi-day injection of nature and zen trout fishing time on one of my favorite waters—Cochetopa Creek.  It’s mid-August, the rain has finally stopped, and the streams are clearing and fishable.

Cochetopa CreekMaybe 15 feet at its widest, Cochetopa Creek arises at the foot of an imposing 14,000 foot+ mountain, San Luis Peak, in the La Garita Wilderness area south of Gunnison.  Miles below, the creek squeezes out of a canyon stretch into a vast open sagebrush and grass valley called Cochetopa Park.  There it meanders for a good 10 miles with gentle runs and S-curves before plunging into another canyon and joining Tomichi Creek which flows into the big Gunnison River, a fabled trout water.  Cochetopa Creek is loaded with healthy, eager fish and steeped in history.  In other words, my kinda place!

Cochetopa is a Native American word meaning buffalo pass, and indeed nearby North Cochetopa Pass is one of the lowest cuts over the Continental Divide in Colorado—”only” about 10,000 feet.  Just like the cattle you’ll see there today, it’s easy to imagine big herds of buffalo grazing here in the broad, lush, nearly treeless valley then migrating south over the pass towards warmer climes in late fall.  The valley was an important hunting and campground for the Ute Indians, and later a main government agency for distributing food and goods to Utes when Chief Ouray and his tribe were herded onto a reservation here in the 1870s—a silent reminder being a road sign directing you to “Old Agency” where historic buildings still stand.  Later it was a main gateway for mountain men, explorers, army troops, and miners coming from the east.  A rugged stage route was actually carved from the town of Saguache to the east over North Cochetopa Pass, through the valley, and over the Continental Divide again to the lucrative mines miles away in Lake City and the San Juan Mountains.  The infamous Alferd Packer came this way after supposedly chowing down on his fellow miners to survive a bitter winter stuck in the rugged mountains to the west.

Coleman Lease SignBut today the scene is perfectly idyllic, and the only cannibals are the hungry brown that abound here.  The State of Colorado has established a wildlife management area and acquired easements on the historic Coleman Ranch to allow fishing on the lower stretches while the canyon and upper waters are all public—literally over 30 miles of delightful small stream angling where it is not uncommon to fish all day without seeing another soul or boot mark on the bank.

After setting up my new little Lance travel trailer, replete with a solar panel that allows me to run the interior LED lights at night without worry of draining my batteries, I head out early afternoon to one of the nearby well-marked state-designated access points along County Roads NN-14 and KK-14.  I climb over the stile that straddles the barbed wire fence, dodge a few gaping angus cows and their calfs, and step gingerly through the marshy meadow towards the creek a quarter mile away.  The meadow is wet with irrigation and pocked with holes courtesy of heavy cattle having tromped through it.  Distracted by the alluring waters ahead, I step in one of the potholes hidden by the tall grass and do a very graceful, slow motion fall on my side, rod held high to avoid breakage.  “Help, I’ve fallen and cant’ get up.”  The old TV ad rings in my ears as I struggle to right myself.  Fortunately no one is around to laugh at me as I regain my composure, no broken bones and fly rod intact.

The fish aren’t real selective here, but not stupid.  I have found stealth is the key, casting from a kneeling position or back from the bank to avoid spooking the trout.  As I creep up to the stream, I breathe a sigh of relief, seeing it’s back to normal level—about 50 cfs at the Parlin state water gauge downstream (Google “Water Talk Station Codes” for stream levels throughout Colorado.) .   The temperature is a near perfect 70 degrees, and the wind is light.  The only disconcerting note is the smoke from wildfires in California and Montana that has wafted into the valley, partially obscuring the blue sky and peaks to the west.

royal trudeBefore plunging in, I have learned to sit and quietly watch the first couple of pools to see if anything is rising or flashing below the surface, indicating a trout feeding on nymphs down under.  Nothing much is going on so I tie on my trusty, handsome Royal Coachman Trude, with its swept-back wing a good all-around pattern here where caddis flies and grasshoppers abound (The fly is a classic one, created and named decades ago in England after the Royal Family’s horse coachman.).  To the Coachman, I tie on a #16 beadhead green caddis nymph as a dropper that will dangle under the surface two feet behind.  This combo dry/dropper rig has never failed me here…and it comes through again.  On my second cast, I hook a fat 13-inch brown trout on the nymph, a good-sized fish for these waters.  A 14-incher is a big one, and anything over 16 inches a monster.  Ten minutes later I’m surprised as a  gorgeous 17-inch Cochetopa Brownbrownie nails the nymph in a deep run.  Luckily I’m using my five weight fly rod so I manage to keep him away from the snags protruding from the undercut bank, then utilizing my blazing speed in waders, manage to cut him off before he gets too far downstream and uses the current to break off.  The fishing (and catching) is steady for the next three hours.  I find the trout—mainly brownies with an occasional rainbow or cutbow thrown in—mostly in deeper holes and in slow runs along foam lines near the bank or hiding in small slow-moving back eddies where the current spins back upstream.

Back Eddy With Foam
Back Eddy With Foam

Many anglers overlook these lies as too tiny to hold anything.  But big trout can sit in these back eddies where they don’t have to fight a heavy current and pick off morsels that drop out of the current at their leisure.  The casting is easy thanks to the cattle that keep the grass and willows along the banks chewed down in most places.  Again the key is to stay low.  If I approach a pool too quickly or clumsily, especially if I am in the water and wading up from below, inevitably I send trout in the skinny clear water scurrying for cover.  Most are smaller, but occasionally I spook a big boy, then softly swear at myself for being the proverbial bull in a china closet.

By the time my growling stomach sounds the dinner bell at 5 o’clock, I have caught and released two dozen fish, with about 10 being twelve inches or more. Madame x Most have come on the dropper.  I haven’t had to change flies at all.  What a relaxing way to fish.  Out of curiosity, I did switch the Trude dry to a yellow Parachute Madame X with rubber legs, a great grasshopper imitation—and it produced as well as the beloved Royal Coachman Trude.   Other nymphs that I’m partial to on the creek are a size 18 micromayfly and red two-bit hooker.  I’m back at the camp by 5:30 p.m. for a glass of wine and hummus with pita bread.  Ah, the good life.  I hear an owl hoot and coyotes howling as I nod off.

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