July 9, 2017
Last summer I made my first foray into the La Garita high country south of Gunnison, Colorado, to explore the hidden waters of Chavez Creek and its tributary,
Perfecto Creek. (See my blog “Perfecto Creek Perfection”—July 2016). I had a banner day, catching dozens of frisky browns and brookies—but didn’t get to sample the waters down in the canyon where Chavez empties into Pauline Creek or the good-looking stretch above the confluence with Perfecto Creek. On my way back to the SUV last summer, I scouted that upper stretch and was surprised to see some big brownies scrambling for cover alongside scads of smaller brookies. I vowed to return! So here I am, up early and
driving the back road that snakes away from Cochetopa Creek and my camp site at Dome Lake State Park. About nine miles after I cross Cochetopa Creek, I ford Pauline and Perfecto Creeks on Forest Service Road 794 then veer left on Forest Service Road 740-2A, a faint dirt track that dead ends at an old corral above Chavez Creek. From the top of the hill neither Perfecto nor Chavez Creek are visible in the grassy meadow below. If I didn’t know better, I’d think no way there is anything down there deep enough to float a trout.
The meadow is lush and wet, filled with some of my favorite wildflowers, but I hustle by anxious to get a peek at one of the tempting holes where Chavez bends back on itself. It’s a beautiful, sunny morning so I creep up slowly to the creek, doubly careful not to cast my shadow on the water. Because the creek is so narrow, I decide to forego a dropper and just cast a single dry fly—my old standby #16 Royal Coachman Trude. I throw a short curve cast that lands upstream of the dark water at the bend and, holding my breath in anticipation, watch the fly as it floats gently in the current down the foam line into the hole.
There’s a flash of gold, and the fly disappears in a swirling splash. I’m onto a good brown that dives back into his lair. I can feel him gyrating on the end of the line, then he shoots downstream towards me but immediately reverses course when he spots me. Then it’s just a matter of patience, keeping him away from the undercut banks and nasty snags. I’m happy I have my nine-foot, #5 rod to keep him under control.
A quick pix and release, and the fly is back on the water. It’s immediately smacked by a smaller fish that turns out to be a chubby, football-shaped brook trout that I find predominate in the upper creek. Then another, and another, and another before the pool goes quiet. I walk up to the next bend and the scene is repeated, this time a nice brookie gobbling the fly first, followed by his little buddies. Then a decent brown.
It’s a little past 9 a.m. now, and I start to think I should head downstream to the canyon above the confluence with Pauline Creek that I can see on my GPS. But can’t resist one last pool that looks particularly alluring. The Trude lands lightly on the water, and is immediately chased by three brookies. One finally gulps it down and puts up a good tussle. Next I make an errant cast that goes over the pool into the streamside grass beyond. I give it a gentle dug so as not to snag the fly, and it drops gently into the pool…and is immediately inhaled by a good brown. When I finally decide to take a break for a snack around 10 a.m., I have caught a dozen trout out of this hole, so I dub it the Big 12 Pool. I’ve barely fished a half-mile of upper Chavez, but the siren’s call of the lower remote canyon beckons me.
I start back downstream, hop over Perfecto Creek, and locate the faint game trail that leads to the canyon. It’s mostly easy going as the trail stays on the gentle slope above
the creek and its entangling willows, alders, and spruce. I stop to admire one of my favorite wildflowers, the showy Mariposa Lily, then wind through a large stand of young aspen quaking in the breeze. It’s about a two-mile hike to where the canyon
walls pinch in, just above the confluence with Pauline Creek. I’ve dropped my lunch off about half-way down from Perfecto Creek and decide to start working back up. I spy a good-looking pool at the canyon bottom, and start carefully picking my way down a notch in the walls where a feeder rivulet has cut a path to the creek. Despite it being dry, the going is a little tricky as I traverse back and forth across the slope.
And the canyon floor so pleasant from above, is in reality a lush tangle of bushes and vines that I have to hack my way through to get to the stream. I’m gritting my teeth and ready to let out the proverbial primal scream, but finally stumble through the last thicket. The payoff is a fabulous-looking stretch where the creek runs up against a big boulder then slides into a can’t-miss pool.
Chavez has the added water of Perfecto Creek down here, so it’s much wider and there is less call for pinpoint casting. On goes a dropper, a #16 Tung Teaser that is a good imitation of the numerous mayfly nymphs in the stream. I whip my flies on a long cast above the boulder, and watch them float naturally down into the pool. A big silver-sided trout zooms out of the depth and nails the dry—looks to be a good rainbow or a cutthroat, maybe 14-inches—and is just as quickly off. Curses!! I definitely deserved that fish after making like a mountain goat to get here not to mention thrashing through the nasty brush. Fortunately, my bruised ego is soothed on the next cast when a nice 13-inch brownie nails the nymph.
By 2:30 p.m., I am back in the vicinity of my lunch cooler, the location of which I have marked with a bright orange clip-on marker attached to a nearby spruce tree along the creek. I have found that if I don’t mark the spot, I often end up wandering around in search of my lunch, certain that someone or some critter has absconded with it. I have caught and released dozens of fish, many 12-13-inch brownies and a few brook trout in the mix.
After a leisurely 30-minute break, I am back on the water and hit the middle section of the creek where the canyon walls recede and the valley widens–one beautiful beaver pond after another gracing the landscape. On my trip last year, I caught some good ones in these ponds and saw a couple that looked to be over 18 inches—big fish for a little creek.
The ponds are tricky to fish, most lined with willows and alders along the dam and fly-eating spruce on the shorelines. At about 5:30 p.m. I come to one where I see fish rising steadily within casting distance. I gingerly tiptoe along the dam, nearly sliding off the tangle of logs and branches into the water. I finally find a spot where I can plant my feet and make a good long cast, carefully avoiding the bushes behind me. A nice brownie immediately sucks in the dry followed by a second on the nymph.
I end up getting two more before whatever they were rising too disappears. I decide to let my flies float all the way to the dam, where the current splits, flowing east and west along the dam face, leaving a little spot of quiet water where they part. It’s a dangerous technique because of all the snags underwater along the dam. The dry bobs slowly down the current then pauses momentarily where the current splits. I am about to pick up the line to avoid snagging the nymph when a giant brown trout—20-inches, maybe more, jets from his hiding place under the dam and inhales the Trude. I set the hook and he dives. I haul back and turn him away from the snags, and he zooms the other way towards the creek inlet that’s peppered with sharp rocks that will saw off the gossamer leader in no time flat. With nothing to lose except my dignity, I plunge into the pond up to my waist. The muck sucks at my boots meaning I can’t run after the trout as planned, so I haul back on the rod in a last-ditch attempt to turn the bruiser…and to my surprise he circles and heads back towards me and an open stretch of water 25 feet above the dam where I can fight and tire him. Slowly but surely I draw him closer. He’s a real monster, one of the biggest trout I’ve hooked into on such a small stream. These beaver ponds are fertile!
The big brownie makes one last attempt to reach the snags along the dam, but I turn him again and break out my net. I ease him towards the net, his head up out of the water so he’ll slide in easily. But he’s a smart old devil, and when he feels the net, slips behind me and between my back and the dam. My rod bends perilously, but of course I’m still mired in the muck, not the most mobile of anglers at this point. I try to turn and swipe at him with the net again, but he dives, rockets past me, and shoots under the dam….then with a sickening thwang, my leader snaps.
I stand dejectedly for a minute, then extricate my wading boots from the muck, and retreat towards the shoreline along the dam. I scramble up on the dam, but the sludge on my boot soles makes for slick going and to my chagrin I find myself sliding backwards slowly into the pond. I grasp at the willows, but they fail me and soon I’m face down on the dam, my lower half dangling in the water. Talk about insult to injury. Thankfully there are no witnesses to my plight; I finally claw my way to the shoreline and assess the damage. Fortunately my rod survived the ordeal.
I think maybe this is a sign to head home—it’s after 6 p.m. by now, and it’s an hour walk back to the SUV and then another hour back to camp. But I think to myself, why not fish late tonight. I can sleep in tomorrow. So instead of hitting the trail, I make my way up to the inlet where Chavez Creek tumbles into the pond. It looks fishy, but shallow.
I pitch a long cast above a jumble of rocks in the stream and let the flies drift slowly back towards me on the edge of the fast current. The dry disappears. Snag I’m thinking, but when I lift my rod I feel the weight of a good fish hooked on the nymph. It’s a big brownie!! He blasts off towards the pond, but I turn him and after a good fight, I net a 16” brownie. No doubt the fishing god’s have smiled on me and blessed me for not giving up. By the time I catch a few more out of this run, it’s pushing 7 p.m. Time to go.
The walk out is pleasant, not too steep and with a nice breeze to keep things cool. I round the last of the palisades at the top of the middle section and descend into the meadow at the foot of the hill where I’m parked. As I hop back over Perfecto Creek, only a few feet wide at this point, I think I catch sight of a good-sized trout, it’s head breaking the surface upstream to gulp in an edible . Was it an apparition? I snip off the nymph to avoid it tangling in the thick streamside grasses and cast the dry up above where I think I saw that rise. It’s a narrow channel but my line descends and splits it down the middle. A good-sized brownie erupts on the surface, sucking in the fly on the way up, then cartwheels back into the water. After a brief wrangle, the trout comes in for a quick photo and release. Perfecto Creek was not to be outdone!By now the sky is clouding up and spitting a little rain. I pick up the pace and make it to the SUV before a little downpour hits. I hit the road and as I cross Pauline Creek a few miles back towards camp, I look back down into her canyon where she’s joined by Chavez–where I had been fishing—and am treated to a glorious rainbow. I know what’s at the end of that one!