“Perfection is a road, not a destination.”
Late July 2016 near Gunnison, Colorado
I am always on the lookout for a backcountry creek, preferably in a remote canyon or wilderness area, featuring great scenery, abundant wildflowers, and eager trout. I love that feeling of discovering an untrammeled piece of our planet Earth or at least one that is very lightly trodden.
I have had my eye on a little stream called Perfecto Creek and its partner Chavez Creek since last summer when I crossed over them to fish the headwaters of Cochetopa Creek high in the La Garita Wilderness Area south of Gunnison, Colorado. With a name like Perfecto, how can one resist?? Where the gravel U.S. Forest Service road crosses over, it’s barely a rivulet, but I spied some big inviting beaver ponds not too far below. And with some topographical map and GIS sleuthing, I find that just a mile down downstream Perfecto is joined by Chavez Creek then paired up they descend into a canyon on the way to a rendezvous with Pauline Creek (See my article on Pauline Creek from 2015.). That may mean enough water to float some decent-sized trout.
It’s mid-July, and after a couple of epic days of fishing on Cochetopa Creek, I am ready to head further into the wilds to explore Perfecto. To rest up my weary fly-casting arm, I sleep a bit late and hit the road at around 9 in the morning. It’s another mediocre day in paradise, a bright bluebird sky under a warming sun. I am camped at Dome Lake State Wildlife Area and head up Forest Road 794 towards Stewart Peak. After I cross over Cochetopa Creek, it’s approximately 9 miles and a half-hour drive on a wash-boardy, but decent and very scenic road to the crossing over Perfecto Creek, then up the hill and a left turn onto Forest Service Road 740-2A. In the distance I see my destination—an old corral and cow camp. The topo maps for the area are out-of-date, showing jeep trails that lead directly to the creek, but these access points are blocked off. I park next to the corral along a fence that protects this sensitive wildlife management area
below. The terrain leading to the creek and valley below is fairly open and not too steep, so I suit up in my waders and wading boots for the one-half mile hike to the water. I pass the cow camp cabin and then head through the open forest of spruce and aspen. There is no formal trail, but the walk is not difficult as the trees give way to open sagebrush and meadow. I big hawk soars overhead and greets me with a warning SCREE, SCREE. Maybe a Swainson’s Hawk? Or a Ferruginous Hawk? Hard to say, but he’s definitely the security guard for the creek, sounding an early warning of an intruder to his fellow critters.
When I reach the bottom of the slope I am delighted to find a field of wildflowers—columbine, mountain paintbrushes, and monkshoods–nodding in the wind in a pristine wet meadow that cattle have not tromped into submission. Now I like a good steak, but there’s no denying how those clumsy, heavy animals can tear up fragile high country terrain. Now the big question is whether Perfecto has enough water to hold fish. I can hear it gurgling, but it’s invisible until I am right on top of it…then my heart sinks. Damn, did I drive all the way up here for this….almost completely overgrown with tall grass and too narrow to make a cast. I decide to withhold judgment and press on towards another quarter mile to the confluence with Chavez Creek. I can see into the canyon below which is not too deep or steep, but the willows just ahead look fairly impenetrable, especially in waders. I plunge into the thicket, and a few epithets later emerge and breathe a sigh of relief—the creek is much wider, has a good strong flow, and is clear…and I immediately spy two fish finning under a bush just upstream. My fly rod—a 5-weight, 9 footer is already set up with my usual exploratory rig—a size 18 Royal Coachman Trude for my dry fly with a green beadhead caddis nymph as a dropper. I carefully flip the flies under the overhanging brush above the
pool and watch the big one jet forward and nail the dry. He zig zags around the pool with the smaller one in hot pursuit. Suddenly I am onto to both of them, the little guy nailing the nymph. He eventually wriggles off, but I am smiling and laughing at this auspicious start. As I bring the trout to the bank, I am surprised to see the brownie is a foot long and very fat—which means the creek must have some abundant insect life. There is no state water flow gauge on Perfecto Creek, but Cochetopa Creek where its water ends up is flowing at a healthy 50 CFS at Parlin. So my timing appears to be good—lower water in August and September would make the fishing tougher here in this already shallow stream.
Now I poke my way downstream, looking for gaps in the streamside willows that will allow me to flip my fly into likely looking pools. In every decent lie with a little depth, I get immediate strikes, sometimes the same fish hitting on successive casts when he misses the fly the first couple of floats. It’s grand fun to watch the little beauties—all brook trout now—rocket out of their hiding places to nail an easy meal. I soon nip off the nymph as the trout seem perfectly happy to chase the dry fly—this makes casting much easier in the tight quarters. I also put on a larger size 14 Trude, since the fish don’t seem to shy away from the bigger fly which floats better in the fast current and is easier to see. It’s like being back in the 1960s when I fished Colorado as a teenager. Any big showy fly will work, not just a minuscule offering that is a perfect imitation of specific insect our more educated contemporary trout often demand. Like those days, every pool or run with any depth holds three or four fish, and they are not shy as long as I stay low and don’t wave my fly rod out over the water. Where the creek widens as it cuts through the remnants of an old beaver pond, I quickly learn to resist the urge to step into the water for easier casting, because as soon as I do, I see the wakes of frightened trout scattering in every direction. I let things settle down and soon the trout are feeding again.
The brook trout are all small—6 to 12 inches, but chunky and hard fighters. While seemingly at home here, they are exotics, having been introduced from the East over a century ago and out-competing our native cutthroat in many of these cold high mountain creeks. They are actually char, not trout, but who can complain after seeing their beautiful coloring and eager, hungry nature. Not I!! Virtually every competent cast in a good-looking pool results in a strike or multiple strikes if the first one misses. I can even skitter the fly downstream on the surface like a struggling insect, and often a gullible one will give chase. Fun to watch them snapping at the fly in hot pursuit.
The casting can be tricky, especially where the stream narrows. Instead of my long 9-foot fly rod and 9-foot leader, which seem to have an affinity for willow branches, a smaller 7 1/2 foot, 3-weight rod with a 7 1/2 foot leader would be easier to handle. I rarely have to cast more than 20 feet, and the trout are definitely not leader shy.
After catching a few dozen fish, I decide to hike up the slope above the creek and reconnoiter downstream. As I gain some height, I am treated to a beautiful vista of the canyon below with numerous beaver ponds interspersed with open runs of fast-moving water. I spy a very faint path (or maybe it’s a game trail) that descends gently into the canyon. Inviting! The sky is beginning to cloud up and darken, but I can’t resist. Down the trail I go. The small aspen growing up in the trail testify that few people have been down this way in years. Wildflowers like Mariposa Lilies and skyrockets abound–all reflecting the drier environment here than above in the meadow. Finally I decide to cut down through the aspens to the creek. I could walk another mile or so down to the confluence with Pauline Creek and fish back from there, but I want to sample those big beaver ponds.
I emerge just below a six-foot high beaver dam, peek over it, and to my delight see trout dimpling the surface. I keep a low profile, only my upper body above the dam. It’s usually a fatal mistake in fishing beaver ponds to stand on top of the dam to cast. The trout WILL see you. I make my first cast parallel to the dam in the deeper water where the largest trout typically lie. Bingo!! A hefty brown trout nonchalantly rises from the depths and inhales the big fly floating on the glass-like surface of the pond. The water boils as I set the hook. A well-fed 13-inch brown trout soon comes to the net for a quick picture and release. Caveat: Continual line control is critical when standing on a beaver dam. If you strip the line in as you retrieve your fly or pull in a fish and let the line fall to your feet as is usual when on a stream, rest assured it will end up in a Gordian Knot entwined among all the sticks and logs. Extreme consternation and choice words will follow. Hold that line in a coil in your hand or reel in when onto a fish—not the norm when fly fishing for trout, but highly advisable.
This first pond is loaded with both browns and brookies, larger than in the stream because there is more food here and the fish don’t have to fight the current. I have a blast sight fishing for rising trout, and they rarely refuse. Now I am happy to have the bigger rod so I can make some longer cast and reach the fish. I also find that when I don’t get a strike, if I strip the fly in quickly, smaller trout will often give chase and nail it, even when it’s under water. Hungry little devils with little fear! I am actually able to wade the rim of the pond which has a rocky bottom rather than the usual muck of a meadow beaver pond—the creek is a freestone water in the canyon with a good gradient and lots of rocks that have tumbled down from above.
I continue upstream, fishing the ponds and pretty little runs between them. Fish are everywhere they should be and can’t resist the big dry fly. They are fat and frisky! Then I come to a pond that is picture-perfect—a calm, mirrored surface, a beautiful beaver lodge in the middle, and at the far end Perfecto Creek tumbling into the scene. I stop to soak it in and enjoy the quietude, a Herculean effort given the trout that are dimpling the water. I am thankful to someone’s god, Mother Nature, or perhaps the Higgs boson and big bang for creating this ethereal spot. It’s a religious experience: The orange iron-stained rock walls like pillars of a cathedral holding up a domed blue sky and scudding clouds above, the lodge an altar. Perfection in every aspect—including the big trout finning slowly around the edge of the pond. This is why I love to explore and search out these rare spots.
I finally break out of my trance when I hear a big splat on the surface close to the lodge. I cast to the riser and am immediately fast to a beautiful 14-inch brownie, the biggest of the trip. I catch a few more from the dam, and then work up the shoreline towards the creek. A large trout–pushing 18 inches–emerges like an apparition from the depths, but turns his nose up at the fly as he cruises by then disappears. My pride is salved as I catch another half-dozen chunky brownies at the inlet that smash the fly and cavort about before coming to the shore for a quick release.
I hear some distant thunder and look upstream to see the clouds are thickening and what appears to be rain over the Continental Divide. Wisps of verga—rain that isn’t making it to the ground—is coming my way. So I have to leave a half mile of the creek untouched and unexplored, at least for now. I hustle back up the slope through the dense small aspen, find the
trail, and head back to the SUV. As I pass the confluence, the sky has lightened a bit, so I decide to take a gander at Chavez Creek. I find it has a little more water than Perfecto, and is more serpentine meaning there are some nice pools at the “S” bends….and they are loaded with small 6-10 inch trout that dart for cover helter-skelter as I step up close to peer into the water. I walk up a few more bends and come to a bigger pool and am startled by the sight of a huge fish—much bigger than anything I caught today—scrambling for safety. A good reason to return!!
Now some dark clouds are pushing over the Continental Divide, and I hear thunder. Up the hill I go posthaste and head home, the big hawk back, soaring overhead, and serving as my noisy escort. As I drive slowly back to camp, I think of how my fishing friends and others ask me why I reveal these special places and secret fishing spots. Why not keep them to myself and protect them from the hoi polloi?? Truth be told, I get great satisfaction from my readers when they thank me for sharing and letting them experience these gems. I also believe that the more hearty souls who will take the time and effort to reach them means adding to the cadre who will be their advocates and help protect them in the future. I trust they will release the trout and leave few signs they have been there so others might enjoy. As I bounce down the road, I am already plotting my next little expedition, up into the canyon where Chavez Creek flows!!