Late July 2017
I am on my annual birthday week expedition in search of wild trout. Sadly, most of my pet streams near Salida and Gunnison are blown out, and the 4WD trails I navigate into some of my favorite backcountry creeks are washed out from the several weeks of monsoon rains. So I am heading south towards Del Norte in southern Colorado where the streams appear to be in better shape according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources water talk website. I’ve reserved a campsite right on the Rio Grande River just outside of Del Norte and will be in the lap of luxury with full hookups for my mobile fish camp.
I’ve done some research before embarking and have my eye on little Pass Creek, just off busy US Highway 160 near Wolf Creek Pass. According to Williams and McPhail in their excellent guidebook, 49 Trout Streams of Southern Colorado,
Pass Creek is a little gem with some big fish, overlooked by anglers whizzing by to more famous waters like the Rio Grande and the Piedra. And with the weatherman predicting an 80% chance of rain every afternoon this week, another draw is that it’s easy to reach on a good gravel US Forest Service road.
I spend the waning hours of the day getting my gear ready, wondering if I can catch (and release) as many fish as my years on earth–something I’ve managed to do the past few birthdays but a feat that is becoming increasingly challenging as Father Time marches on.
Next morning at 7:30 a.m., I’m whizzing west up Highway 160 towards the town of South Fork when the first drops of rain splat on my windshield. The peaks above the town are shrouded in low-hanging clouds and the temperature is a chilly 45 degrees. I mush on undeterred. The route to Pass Creek takes me up the scenic valley of the South Fork of the Rio Grande. I’m tempted to stop and give the river a try, but a series of mega RV parks spaced along the valley keep me focused on Pass Creek. The last thing I want to have to do is dodge tourists with spin rods throwing garden hackle at stocked trout. The turn-off on Colorado 390 to Pass Creek is about fourteen miles up the winding highway from South Fork and a few miles past CO 410, the well-signed road to the popular Big Meadows Reservoir and Campground.
I catch sight of the creek and breathe a little sigh of relief. It’s running high but clear and definitely fishable. I decide to drive up all the way to Turner Ponds, another three miles up the road. The road is already pocked with puddles of water, but easy going in my 4WD Xterra. On the way, I see a half-dozen or so travel trailers and tent camps pitched on primitive sites above the river which is in a canyon most of the time, offering only occasional glimpses. It’s a handsome, scenic valley contrasting with the busy highway carved out high above on the steep slope.
Just beyond the Turner Ponds, the creek narrows and becomes heavily overgrown. I turn around just as the rain lets loose. Muddy rivulets are soon cascading down the road when I cross back over the creek and are already beginning to stain the water. About a mile back downstream I spot a good-looking meadow stretch that looks reasonably accessible–in contrast to the steep cliffs that make access difficult along most of the creek. The rain has let up, but the clouds are still hanging low, and I can see the water is starting to cloud up from the big rain I drove through.
But the meadow stretch looks so inviting–several big bends where the creek doubles back on itself with deep pools and back eddies. At 8:30 a.m. I descend into the meadow and then walk downstream a few hundred yards to where the creek plunges into narrow canyon stretch that looks unfishable, the current crashing over boulders and downed trees. Heeding the stories of big fish in the creek, I have my 5-weight, nine-foot Sage rod ready to go, rigged with a 5X leader. My dry is an old reliable favorite, a #16 Royal Coachman Trude with a #16 beadhead Tung Teaser as the dropper. The rocks in the stream are loaded with caddis cases and dark green mayfly nymphs. Some caddis are fluttering about, and I scared up a few grasshoppers in the meadow, so it feels like a good combo. With its down wing, the Trude does a good double-duty imitation of a caddis and grasshopper. The Tung Teaser is dark green and looks a lot like the mayfly nymphs hiding under rocks in the creek.
My choice of flies pays off on my second cast in a good-looking run. A slender, but hard-fighting brownie nails the Trude on a run along the bank and puts on a nice high-jumping display before coming to the net. Great start! But naturally things immediately slow down. I notice the water is losing its clarity. Maybe that’s putting the fish off. Soon I change the dry to a #16 tan foam caddis, which has a smaller profile and looks more like the caddis flies on the water–and it produces better than the Trude. But after luring a few decent brownies, it proves very hard to see for my aging eyes. The water is even
milkier, matching the color of the wing on the caddis fly offering, and the sky has darkened. So back on goes the Trude. And to make matters worse, the nymph is striking out. It takes my brain a little while to catch on–when the water gets high and discolored like this, it’s usually time for the dependable beadhead San Juan Worm, Size 16 in red. I get a good hit on the very first cast and catch a 13″ fatty on the next. As I work my way up towards the canyon stretch above, the trout can’t seem to resist the worm.
A half dozen fish later I am at the mouth of the canyon. It stretches upstream another mile or so. Now the water is starting to clear a bit, but is running hard. I switch to a bigger, bushier #14 Trude for the dry, its big white wing easy for me to see in the fast, foamy water and replace the San Juan Worm with a #16 Tung Teaser.
The flush of water and food has definitely turned the trout on, and the sun is peeking through occasionally, warming things up. It’s a balmy 65 degrees by now! Action is non-stop for the next two hours as I carefully pick my way up the creek. It’s definitely felt-sole wader territory with the slippery, angular rocks. My wading technique involves hanging onto a streamside bush as I navigate upstream, looking a bit like a drunken sailor. Even so, I have a couple of near-miss dunkings, epithets echoing off the steep canyon walls. In places the footing is too treacherous or current too strong, then I hop out of the frying pan into the fire, hacking through the thorny rose and currant bushes and downed spruce trees. No wonder I don’t see a person or even a boot mark down here all day. My kind of place!
Most of the fish I catch are brownies, with a few smaller brooks. About two dozen go 12-13 inches and they are great fighters, but the big ones mentioned in the guidebook are AWOL. The rest are 6-10 inches.
The canyon is so dazzling with its sheer walls contrasting with the lush vegetation and handsome spruce trees that line the banks of the creek with its noisy rushing waters. All my favorite wildflowers are here–monkshoods, elephant heads, columbines, mountains bells, some growing at impossible angles out of the sheer rock faces. Between the fish and the scenery, I lose track of time. A rumble of thunder jolts me out of my trance. I look at my watch and am surprised see it’s almost 2 p.m., and I have no idea how much further I have to go up the canyon to find a spot where I can clamber out. A rain squall moves through sending me scurrying under a big blue spruce for cover. Time for a snack, but before I do, I pull out my secret weapon from my fly vest. One of the savviest pieces of advice I have received about venturing into the backcountry when rain is a possibility was from a guide in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota–take an umbrella. He was right. I might look a bit like a twit sitting under that tree with a striped travel-sized umbrella over my head, but I am dry and happy. Thankfully no one is there to witness or memorialize me. As I wait for the rain to abate, I check my Google Maps and see that a couple of bends up in the creek there is a break in the canyon walls where a feeder stream flows in flanked by a moderate open slope to climb out.
That last stretch produces some hot fishing in deep pools at the bends and along some runs along the canyon wall faces. Finally I am at the feeder creek, and my fish count is somewhere around the magic number 69 caught and released. Maybe just one or two more good ones to make sure I make my birthday tally and end the day on a high note. I walk past the mouth of the feeder creek and am pleased to see one last inviting pool before the canyon walls pinch in again. The best-looking water is along the rock face of the cliff, so I bounce my fly off of it. The Trude settles on the water and bounces jauntily downstream a few feet before it is intercepted by a nice brownie. He puts up a good fight, a nice 13-incher who almost gets down below me before I get him to the net. Perfect ending to my birthday outing!
Soon I am huffing and puffing up the steep slope next to the feeder creek waterfall, but luckily the terrain flattens out and I can follow a narrow game trail through the wildflowers that like the rivulet. I hear a screech and look up to see a big osprey winging downstream with a trout in his talons! Now I see many ospreys down in Florida where I spend the winter, often gripping a mullet in their sharp claws. But this is a first–he must be quite a fisherman to catch a trout in these cascading waters. He could probably teach me a trick or two!
By 3:30 p.m. I am back at the SUV and breaking out a late, gourmet lunch–a chili-rubbed salmon sandwich with all the fixings washed down with an old-fashioned RC Cola. I am darn glad I didn’t pass up Pass Creek. And there’s lots more water here to explore…and maybe get one of those 20-inchers.