Early June 2017
A week after my foray up Silver Creek above Poncha Springs, Colorado, in search of fishable waters (See my blog from late May 2017.), the sun has been shining brightly and everything has busted loose. The Big Ark stands at 2,500 CFS near Salida and even the South Fork, normally a quiet little gem near my cabin, has jumped its banks.
To make matters worse, the high country lakes are still locked up with ice thanks to a cold May in this neck of the woods. What to do to remedy this angling fever? I check the water level on Poncha Creek (which Silver Creek drains into) and am surprised to find it still stands at about 100 cfs, just a tad more than last week. That might mean Silver Creek is still fishable, and I only fished the middle section below Sheep Mountain and the Gates. So I go prospecting with my GPS and just above the guardian Gates palisades, beyond the short canyon stretch, I see lots of beaver ponds and a winding creek in what looks to be a series of wide meadows. Now sometimes what shows on the satellite view is much different when you put boots on the ground, but there really aren’t any options. So I load my daypack up for a little hike, stuffing it to the gills with fly fishing paraphernalia, waders, etc. and set the alarm at 5:30 a.m., images of icthylogical pleasures dancing in my head.
It’s 7:30 a.m., and I am cruising up Highway 285 to the Marshall Pass road that will lead to Silver Creek. I notice some of the beautiful stone bridge structures perched on a shelf above the highway, remnants of the incredible narrow gauge rail line that ran from Denver to Salt Lake City in the late 1800s that opened up the West and provided a vital transportation link for the many mines that dotted the area. How that line was carved out over such rugged country without power equipment is beyond me. Silver Creek was part of the fascinating history of this era. As I proceed up Marshall Pass Road (CR 200), I spy more of these structures along Poncha Creek. I continue past the Marshall Pass turnoff until I hit CR 47YY which splits off from the Poncha Creek road and heads south. This route was the handiwork of master road builder Otto Mears.
Mears migrated from Russia just before the Civil War and landed as a wheat farmer in Saguache over the peaks to the south. He got fed up with the poor toll road over Poncha Pass he was forced to use to bring his flour to market and got permission from the state legislature to build better toll roads that would be suitable for railways as well. He carved out a route over Marshall Pass that he sold to the iconic Denver and Rio Grande railway which built the Denver to Salt Lake City line. Sometime later he carved out a toll road that ran from the rich mines in the aptly named town of Bonanza that lies to the southeast, over some rugged country into the Silver Creek valley, then downhill to connect to the rail line that threaded its way over Marshall Pass. The Bonanza route today is marked as Toll Road Gulch and is a rough four-wheel drive adventure. Mears made his fortune selling rights-of-way to the railroads, built other rail lines on his own, and became a famous citizen in Colorado. He served as a presidential elector for Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and was later elected to the state legislature in the 1880s.
It takes me about one-half hour to navigate the five miles up the Silver Creek road, past the Silver Creek vacation home development, and finally to the Silver Creek Trailhead. It’s a moderate four-wheel drive road if you take it easy, and probably passable in dry weather in a high-clearance AWD car. I can drive another few minutes past the trailhead sign to the point where the road dead ends and the trail actually begins. The imposing palisades called the Gates loom over the scene at this point. I throw on my pack and start up the trail which runs through private land for a short distance.
I hear the creek roaring and when I come to the crossing am met with a dangerous-looking footbridge on the verge of collapse. I drop my pack and gear to test it, then tiptoe across carefully. Hopefully the Forest Service will replace it soon—there are two giant peeled logs lying nearby that have been prepped for just such a thing.
The trail continues on the north side of the creek up a moderate incline and skirts the Kismuth mine. The very photogenic head structure is in relatively good shape. The mine is of relatively recent origin compared to others in the region—it was discovered in 1912 by the appropriately named Eureka Mining Company. A small mine with only four short tunnels, it nevertheless reportedly tapped a rich mineral vein that produced silver, gold, lead, and copper into the 1930s, which may explain what appear to be electric lines running up the hill. I snap a few photos, being careful not to disturb anything as this is private property.
From there, the trail gets steep, and I’m soon huffing and puffing, my Florida lungs not acclimated to the high country yet. Several times I pause and open my Google Maps just to make sure there are really some meadows with beaver ponds not too far ahead. To my left, Silver Creek is in a narrow gorge as cascades downhill. But the water doesn’t look muddy, which is encouraging.
Finally about 30 minutes from the trailhead the path begins to level out, and I see a few small beaver ponds and some tempting looking bends in the creek. But I spot a group of young anglers below so keep on trucking. The valley narrows and expands several times, and then I see a series of avalanche chutes to the north of the creek, one with a five-foot snow drift at its base.
Past the biggest of the chutes, I emerge into a gorgeous, wide, long meadow that is full of beaver ponds!! This is what I have been looking for so stow my pack, don my waders and pick my way carefully through the marshy meadow towards a couple of the best- looking ponds.
But despite appearances from a distance, the first set of ponds is shallow, and I manage only a couple of 6-inch miniscule brookies, both on a #16 Royal Trude dry. There is no caddis hatch going on, but are some small hoppers already active in the meadow, for which the Trude is a passable imitation. I am dropping a red beaded San Juan Worm below the dry that was the ticket on Silver Creek just a week ago (See my blog from late May 2017). Now it strikes out. I start pond hopping upstream, fishing the beautiful looking runs in between the dams. I am mystified, getting nary a strike in the creek either here or anywhere else in the valley all day. Indeed, I don’t see any fish of any size at any of the creek runs between the beaver ponds. The water is ice cold, so I figure the trout must be holed up in the deeper, warmer ponds….and that is exactly the case.
My GPS reveals many beaver ponds all the way up a mile or so to where the meadow gives way to a narrow canyon, so I prospect back and forth across the valley, hunting for ones that hold more water. By midafternoon when I get to the small rivulet that flows off the flanks of Mount Antora into Silver Creek, I have caught six or so dinks. I am admiring the dramatic scenery, majestic Antora scraping the sky at 13,275 feet, when some movement across the creek catches my eye. I stop in midstep–it’s a big momma moose and her calf.
This is what is known as a close encounter of the wildlife kind, and I start looking around for a tree to climb since she’s only a couple of hundred feet away and mom. Mama moose are big and often belligerent. But she stares at me nonchalantly and then goes back to munching the willows, keeping herself between me and the almost full-grown calf. It may also help that the wind is blowing my scent away from her. In any case, I get to watch her and her young one close up for 15 minutes and snap some photos before I decide it’s time to chase trout again. I glad to see moose up here after years of absence. Government wildlife biologists have reintroduced them in many areas of Colorado from Wyoming, and they seem to be thriving. I have seen one or two each year for the past three years, a wonderful sign and testament to their work!
I climb out of the meadow to get a better view of the valley and beaver dams, and shortly spy a pond that is not only large, but deep with lot of water where I can’t see the bottom, nice and dark. Fish are dimpling the surface all over. I angle down the slope to a narrow opening in the vegetation where the dam abuts the shoreline. By now I have ditched the San Juan Worm for a #18 Micromayfly after finding lots of tiny mayfly nymphs clinging to the rocks on the stream bottom. But unlike in the creek below the Gates, there are not nearly as many caddis. The water must be too cold.
I carefully slide into the opening and size up the willows behind me where I seem to have a narrow window where my backcast won’t snag. A brookie surfaces not more than 30 feet in front of me and sucks something in on the surface. I unfurl my line and cast carefully that way…and my line yanks back! I missed that big spruce branch 30 feet in the air where my flies now are entangled. Aarrgghh! Spruce don’t give up flies easily, and this one is no exception.
After I rerig, I wait for another trout to surface—only a few seconds. Waving my wand with even more caution, I cast above the rise and let the slow current drift to the spot…and SPLAT! A small brookie, pushing 8 inches nails the Trude and splashes on the surface. Suddenly he’s pulled under…another brookie has sucked in the mayfly nymph. A DOUBLE! Now that’s what I have been waiting for. I chuckle as the two trout pull in opposite directions, finally coming to the shore. It’s the start of an entertaining late afternoon interlude. I catch a couple of dozen trout in this pond, a few breaking 10 inches, as I work my way along the face of the dam.
When the action slows, I head further upstream and soon discover another even bigger and more alluring pond with a tempting dark section, a jumble of downed timber, and snow bank on the south shore. I decide rather than trying to navigate along the overgrown, treacherous-looking dam, I’ll circle above and work down from the shallow end. My first cast produces a double, a good omen. Over the next half hour, I score another two dozen brookies, most by sight fishing to risers. Fun!
I vow one last cast, the clock now approaching 4 p.m. with a two-mile hike back to the SUV in the offing. And a few thunderheads are booming just up valley. I skate carefully out on a big snow drift and cast to a nice brookie cruising the warming shallows…and he jets forward and nails the Trude. After a surprisingly strong tussle on my 5# rod, the biggest boy of the trip comes to the next—almost 12 inches, a relative monster in these icy waters where the growing season is oh so short. Great way to end the day! The Trude on the surface has taken about three-fourths of the total haul, a bit of a surprise since there was no active hatch. Brookies had to be thinking grasshopper.
Of course I have to inspect all of those big downed logs at the corner of the dam just beyond the snow drift, and immediately spook a giant brookie that looked to push 14 inches. Ah, a great excuse to return!
Now the thunder is closer and a few drops of rain are dimpling the surface of the pond. I decide it’s time to hightail it home so scurry around the pond, up the slope, and then down the trail. It’s an easy trek going downhill, the prominent Gates guiding my way.
By 7 p.m. I am back at my cabin, enjoying a celebratory prickly pear margarita and watching a beautiful sunset. Take that, runoff!