August 23, 2016
Earlier this week I had a delightful day on the lower section of little Archuleta Creek just above where it joins with Cochetopa Creek 20 miles or so southeast of Gunnison. (See my article titled Day 1 on Archuleta Creek.). Yesterday I drove over the Continental Divide to beautiful Saguache Park and fished the headwaters of Saguache Creek. The brown trout and brookies were ravenous. So after a long day of fishing and driving over rough backcountry roads, I
am lollygagging about and staying close to camp on Upper Dome Lake. Around 10 a.m. I decide to take a stroll out on the rock-faced earthen dam to see if any fish are rising in the lake….and they are! But even more intriguing, I see dimples on the surface of the water below the spillway, a very short section of Archuleta Creek that flows into Lower Dome Lake. In all my times fishing and camping up here, I have never seen anyone fish this stretch below the lake, hidden in plain sight! I retreat post haste to the mobile fish camp and rig up my fly rod with a tiny #20 black midge dry fly that has done well for me in the lake and the creek. I double-time it back to the dam and creep down the rocky slope towards the lake, not wanting to spook the rainbow trout that are rising all along the shoreline. A good-sized one cruises insouciantly in front of me, picking off small bugs on the surface, apparently oblivious to my presence above. I carefully loft a cast so that the microscopic fly alights gently five feet in front of him. He spots it, jets forward, and WHAM, he’s on!!
The colorful rainbow is strong, and shakes his head on the surface like a bulldog, then bores deep. Soon he’s at the shore, released, and swimming back to the chow line. I catch a couple more, then decide it’s time to head down to the creek on the other side of the dam. The slope is steep and covered with loose rocks, so I traverse back and forth across its face carefully, then keeping a low profile walk the short distance to the inlet where it flows slowly into Lower Dome Lake. I pause to scope out where fish are rising upstream then ease carefully into the cold, clear water. Most of the feeders are tight against the bank making little rings as they gulp down something I can’t see on the water. It will be a challenge getting the fly close to them with the overhanging grass along the banks. Last time I fished here, the little black midge fooled a dozen or so chunky brook trout, so I have some good mojo…which soon dissipates as the trout repeatedly ignore my offerings for the next half hour even when my cast is spot on. Finally I hook one in midstream, but he shakes off. Another hit follows, and another miss. I’m starting to smell a skunk…a fishless day…and think of pulling out and heading up to the section of Archuleta Creek above Upper Dome where it flows through a wide open meadow. Got to be better up there. Time for a break to think it over. Wonder where all those hungry brookies went that jumped my fly eagerly last year??
As I sit on the shoreline and gobble down some peanuts and beef jerky, I notice what look to be multiple swirls in the water way up near the spillway. It’s hard to tell because the creek there is flecked with foam churned up by the water cascading down from the lake. I figure it’s on the way back to the trailer anyway, so I might as well give it a go. Nothing to lose but the skunk.
Sure enough, as I get closer, I can see risers everywhere, sometimes with dorsal and tail fins breaking the surface. Looks like they are feeding on something just under, not on, the surface. Then I see their prey—teeny red midge larvae wriggling up to the surface. They are picking them off before they can make their escape. I break open my fly box, praying I have something that will imitate the little critters because I sense the trout are being very selective, having refused my floating black midge. I breathe a sigh of relief when I spot three flies wedged in the corner of my fly box that will do the trick–sizes 20-22. Lilliputian!! I tie one on that will sink just below the surface along with a small white floating bubble as a strike indicator. Then I wait till I spot a riser. He’s only 15 feet in front of me, buried under the foam. His tail breaks the surface like a mini-shark as he gulps down a wriggler. I flip a cast out ten feet upstream of the riser and watch the little bubble float slowly down his way. The bubble hesitates ever so lightly. Am I hung up on the moss on the bottom?? I give my line a slight tug, and a big fish erupts out of the water, tail-walking across the surface. He zings downstream with me in hot pursuit; I know that the gossamer 6X leader that I have to use in this water, where the slow flow lets the trout inspect the fly carefully, won’t stand much strain. I’m thankful I’m using my five weight fly rod with enough backbone to keep him away from the shoreline that is loaded with vegetation and snags. After a good fight, a hefty, vibrantly colored 16-inch rainbow comes to the net. Four more follow in quick succession, but I miss a very big one that jumps and throws the little hook. Wow, what a surprise. I’ve only caught foot-long brookies in this stretch of the creek in the past. These muscular rainbows must be coming up out of the lower lake, where they can grow big. By now it’s noon, and the stomach is growling. A few trout are still rising, but I am thinking of that hidden meadow stretch above Dome Lake….the lure of new water that I have never fished before is too strong.
After fueling up with a big lunch downed with the mandatory energy drink, a venerable RC Cola, I’m driving south around Upper Dome Lake to where Archuleta Creek feeds in under County Road 15-GG. I find fishing the inlet is best early in the summer before it gets overgrown with vegetation, usually by mid-August. Stocked foot-long rainbows dominate here, but I have seen some big holdovers cruising, picking flies off the surface this week. Resisting the urge to try to lure one of those big boys, I head further upstream where Archuleta Creek winds for several miles through a beautiful, wide-open meadow, all public water, a classic western landscape. The creek is barely visible from the road in a few places, and I have rarely seen anyone fishing here. A Colorado Division of Wildlife sign along Road NN-14 marks a good access point to the upper creek, complete with fence ladder. As I approach the creek, I am surprised just how miniscule it is—only a foot or two across in many places and completely overgrown in others. I decide to head downstream to see if it’s any bigger there.
As the creek winds and bends toward the road, it opens up a bit—still rarely more than five feet across. The best water appears to be at the bends, so I start my efforts there. Because of the tight quarters and tall grass along the banks, I decide to use just a single dry fly—I don’t want to be snagging my fly all afternoon. I can see that my casts will have to be short and accurate. The water is also clear and fairly shallow, so wading will be out in most places—indeed I find that hanging back ten feet from the creek when casting is advisable to avoid spooking the fish. At the first bend, I throw a sidearm curve cast around the bend where the fast current pours into the pool and slows. I can’t see the size 16 Royal Trude floating my way, but here a big splash and set the hook. A trout comes barreling around the corner, sees me and zooms back. It’s a scrappy brook trout aflame in fall colors. I try another cast, and the result is the same! I continue upstream, and in every fast run with any depth and in the bend pools, I pull out a trout or two. They aren’t big—mostly six-to-ten inches, with an occasional 12-inch male “brute” with a big hooked jaw thrown in. Short casts are the rule—rarely more than 15 feet! I am using a nine-foot rod, but a shorter 7 ½ foot one would be better paired with a short 7 ½ foot leader to make accurate casts easier that avoid the tall grasping shoreline vegetation. I have fun doing more “sound” fishing like I did that first pool, throwing a sidearm curve cast around a bend to a spot where I can’t see the fly, waiting till I hear a splash, then setting the hook. It’s a blast! Who needs sight fishing!!
Now I’m back up near the access point where I started. The creek narrows from here, even at the bends. It’s fun and challenging trying to hit the middle of the creek with a cast when it’s only a couple of feet wide. Still the trout are there. I decide to try one last pool at a point where the creek zig zags back to the west and away from the road. I blind cast around the bend, and hear a big KERCHUNK!! My rod bends double when I set the hook. I bail into the water and am met by a big fish heading pell mell towards and then by me. I give chase, but he’s a smart one and borrows into the undercut bank. Curses! I’m snagged, but when I grab my line to free the fly, can feel he’s still on. I slowly pull up on the line and to my surprise extricate a muscular 15-inch wild rainbow, beautifully leopard- spotted from snout to tail. He must have swam up out of the lake and taken up residence here. What a beauty and beautiful way to end the day!! I have caught and released three or four dozen fish—all brookies except for the big bow—in about three hours of time. Who knows what lurks in the creek’s untrammeled waters upstream or closer to the inlet where the big ones from the lake can swim up in search of food? Methinks a return trip may be in order!