“They say you forget your troubles on a trout stream, but that’s not quite it. What happens is that you begin to see where your troubles fit in the grand scheme of things and suddenly they’re just not such a big deal anymore.”
Noted Angling Author John Gierach
Note: For more information on fishing the Middle Fork of Saguache Creek, see my July 2017 article and Day 2 of this July 2018 blog.
Day 1–Late July 2018
I’m on my annual week-long birthday wilderness fishing trip, having just turned 70. I am hoping to celebrate with numerous and out-sized trout while getting a sorely needed dose of nature and solitude. This year may be especially challenging given the terrible drought gripping south central Colorado. The landscape is brittle dry, the grass crunching underfoot in usually green rangeland. My favorite streams are low, and some are even dry! But fortunately, when I check the State of Colorado water level website (www.dwr.state.co.us/SurfaceWater/default.aspx), I find Saguache Creek, south of Gunnison, is holding its own running at about 25 CFS, only half normal flow but still fishable.
As in the past, the base of operation and exploration is my mobile fish camp I have set up at Dome Lake State Wildlife Area in the high country between Gunnison and Saguache, Colorado. Last summer I ventured 20 odd miles from Dome Lake over the Continental Divide and fished the Middle Fork of Saguache Creek above the primitive Stone Cellar Campground. It was a great day, but ever since I have been hankering to go beyond road’s end and fish the miles of water bordering the pristine La Garita Wilderness Area.
It’s a brisk 49 degrees when I fire up the SUV, but the sky is clear, and the sun is already warming the air. The weatherman says it’s going to be a beautiful day with a slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Just a few miles from camp, a small herd of graceful antelope scamper across the road—always a good omen!
Day 1 On The Middle Fork Of Saguache Creek–Boulder Hopping And Bushwhacking To A Slam
I bounce down CR 17FF, which has clearly been improved and regraded since last summer into a surprisingly smooth gravel road that can be handled by most vehicles–although on the other side of the pass I’ll shift into four-wheel drive to ford Saguache Creek in a couple of places then navigate some gnarly stretches to get to the wilderness waters. In 30 minutes I crest the pass at over 10,000 feet and take in the stunning view, then descend towards the creek.
This whole area is infused with Ute Indian lore. Saguache, the name of the creek, is a shortened form of “Saguaguachipa,” which is a Ute word said to mean “water of the blue earth.” The Ute encampments near the present-day town of Saguache to the southeast were close to springs where blue earth was found. To me, it could also refer to the color of the water itself, which is a slightly off-color, milky blue at times, especially down lower. Saguache Park is home to large herds of elk and mule deer, which I have crossed paths with during previous sojourns. The valley is a broad grassland flanked on its southern slopes by ancient forests of towering spruce and fir.
I swing west and drive past the Stone Cellar Campground, which is empty, another good omen since it means fewer anglers in the vicinity. Then it’s over the first ford, the North Fork of Saguache Creek, which is running low and presents no problem. In about two miles I come to the second ford, much wider and deeper, over the Middle Fork. I pause to take in the stunning view—the aptly-named Twin Peaks (honest) in the La Garita Wilderness Area looms over the scene.
Because the creek is running so low, it presents no problem as I plunge ahead, but caution is the word here because the creek can become a torrent after a summer deluge, much faster and deeper. I would not recommend going any further unless you have a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle—the road gets very rough and can be a muddy quagmire after a good rain.
Today the road is dry, but bumpy, especially in the steep forested stretches as I drive the 3.5 miles from the ford to the Middle Fork Trailhead, the gateway to the expansive La Garita Wilderness Area.
It’s taken me almost exactly an hour to drive the 20-odd miles from Dome Lake. I walk to the edge of the canyon and smile broadly—below is a beautiful clear creek bathed in bright sunlight wending its way down the valley, sporting big “S” bends that create deeper holes that big trout love, with a sprinkling of some big alluring beaver ponds, again often the lair of some hefty fish. A hearty “YES” echoes down the valley, and I hustle back to the SUV and begin the ritual of suiting up in my waders and wading boots, fly vest, and other essential paraphernalia.
The La Garita is one of the nation’s oldest wilderness areas, designated way back in 1964. It’s big—over 125,000 acres—and managed by the U.S. Forest Service. I silently tip my hat to the far-sighted politicians in Congress and to old LBJ who passed and signed the Wilderness Act, at the same time carving the La Garita Wilderness out of federal lands. What a stark and sad contrast to some who are trying to carve up and give away our public lands today.
The Wilderness Act has an elegant definition of wilderness: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” And so it is here below me.
La Garita means “the lookout” in Spanish, an appropriate moniker for the wilderness area that includes 35 miles along the Continental Divide and many high summits, most notably the 14,014-foot pyramid-shaped San Luis Peak. From its heights, you get a stunning view of the Rio Grande Valley to the east and the Gunnison Valley to the west. Many creeks spring from these mountains, including Saguache in the Rio Grande drainage and Cochetopa on the Gunnison/Colorado River side.
Oddly, and despite the size of the wilderness area, the first three miles of the trail heading upstream along the creek are technically not protected, other than being U.S. Forest Service land. I have not been able to ferret out the reason for this, but speculate that as often has been the case in other areas, the narrow finger of land was carved out to allow cattle grazing to continue or perhaps because a politically connected mining company had its eye on the area. Whatever the case, the stretch from a mile below the trailhead up to the actual wilderness boundary is real wild country with no development or signs of civilization. When you are in the creek the wilderness boundary is literally little more than a stone’s throw away to the south for the entire three miles.
I decide to head downstream first past the confluence with the Lake Fork of Saguache Creek where I can see the canyon narrows and should have some very alluring and deep plunge pools, especially with the added tributary water.
But I can’t even see the stream down there, the willows and brush being so thick, which will make for some interesting bushwhacking and tough casting. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!! The trail into the canyon is short but steep, and I am glad I have my wading staff with me to assist my aging knees in the descent. I claw through the tall bushes along the Middle Fork, keeping my rod high to avoid snagging it in the willows, then ford the creek while resisting the urge to cast into some good-looking pools. I pick my way gingerly up the steep slope leading to the bench to the west above the creek that promises easier walking across a meadow sans the bushes. I’m greeted by a few small grasshoppers, anyone of which would provide a hearty meal for hungry trout. My mind starts turning about an appropriate imitation.
From my elevated vantage point, I spot an opening in the undergrowth downstream that reveals a long, handsome pool just before the Middle Fork disappears completely into the narrow canyon. To get there, I have to scramble down another steep slope to cross the Lake Fork, a pretty little rivulet that is heavily overgrown and virtually impossible to fish. I follow the Lake Fork downstream and begin boulder hopping along the west side of the Middle Fork, which I can hear somewhere in the thicket, but can’t see. As I round a bend, I am confronted with sheer canyon walls that are impassable which means I have to bushwhack back across to the east side of the Middle Fork. I disturb swarms of small tan caddis, another potential fly to imitate. Then it’s more bouldering to get to the attractive pool further downstream that I spotted. This is dangerous territory that I wouldn’t tackle without a wading or walking pole and a satellite phone in case of a fall or injury. It’s remote, rugged country, unforgiving territory. I have started carrying a reasonably priced Garmin InReach satellite phone in case of an emergency. Never leave home without it on these wilderness treks if I am by myself.
The water is shallower than I anticipated, but I see some trout finning in the crystal clear water above me as I try to maneuver into a good casting position that will allow me to avoid snagging in the overhanging willows and alders. I’ve tied on my old reliable #16 Royal Coachman Trude dry fly which is a reasonable facsimile of both the small hoppers and the caddis flies I saw on my way in. Below it I drop a #18 beadhead Tongue Teaser to imitate the small mayfly nymphs that abound in the stream.
Because the water is so shallow and clear, I am using a #6X fluorocarbon tippet on a 9-foot 5X leader. I carefully flip the line forward in front of me, then start my backcast…and promptly hang up the trailing dropper in one of the willows Aarrgh! Great start. Second cast, same result! GRRR. But my third cast finds its target, and immediately a trout smacks the trude as it cartwheels into the air. Talk about hungry! After a good fight, I ease a tubby 12-inch brownie to the net.
The next cast I hook and execute a long-distance release on the nymph, then follow that up with a beautiful cast into an overhanging spruce tree, which requires some fancy gymnastics to retrieve the fly. After alternating fish and snags (both in trees and on the stream bottom), I approach a particularly dastardly looking overgrown stretch and make a command decision: I snip off the dropper, going with the dry only—something that I haven’t done for years. I feel almost naked with only one fly on my line!! Then the fun really begins!!
For the next hour I have a fine time working upstream fishing one good-looking pool or run after another. And the trout—browns and brookies—aren’t shy. Most are 10-13”, but one brown pushes 14”.
They are hard fighters. The narrow stream flanked by overhanging bushes and clutching tree limbs demands pinpoint casting and patience. Occasionally one snags my fly, but fortunately no one is there to watch the spectacle of a senior citizen jumping high in fishing waders to grab an unforgiving spruce or willow branch, and bend it double to retrieve the errant lure. However when I execute properly, the results are almost always immediate. I do make a mental note that in the future I could use a shorter 7.5-foot leader instead of 9-foot that would be easier to handle in the tight quarters.
Freed from the two-fly regimen, I have a blast. It is so much easier to cast into the postage-stamp pools and narrow runs with only one fly. Hang ups are much rarer, and the fish–both brownies and brookies that predominate here–don’t seem to mind in the least, often smashing the lone trude as soon as it alights and even chasing it downstream in hot pursuit after it floats by.
By noon I have worked up past the Lake Fork confluence, and come upon an especially scenic run where the creek runs headlong against a cliff, creating a series of beautiful runs and pockets. I drop the fly into a quiet spot just out of the rushing current and it’s immediately inhaled by a hungry little guy. After a quick tussle, I am delighted to see my first and only cutthroat of the day that adds up to a slam—three species of fish in one day.
That, I figure, earns me a short break to enjoy a snack and soak in the scenery for a few minutes. The boulders here are a distinctive reddish-orange color enhanced by multi-hued lichen.
I get lost in the scene, finally jolted out of it by a crack of thunder. With all the finny action, I haven’t noticed the dark clouds rolling in over the Continental Divide. Soon a light drizzle is dimpling the water, but it doesn’t seem to bother the trout. They keep right on eating that venerable trude.
But before long, the drizzle turns into a full-fledged downpour, which has me scrambling to find shelter. I luck out—there’s a big ledge jutting out from the cliff where I can just fit under and stay dry. I hole up here for almost a half hour, finishing off the rest of my snacks and relaxing.
When the rain lets up a bit, I am back on the stream. I am not a big fan of fishing in the rain, but the trout just keep on keeping on, so I stick with it. I have donned my rain jacket and slipped on my fingerless gloves to combat the temperature that has fallen back to 49 degrees from a balmy 77 just an hour ago. Still the fish keep biting, and I keep on casting until about 2:30 p.m. when a big flash of lighting, more thunder, and the sight of a rain squall just upstream signal it’s time to go.
I scurry back up the steep trail to my SUV, making it just before the rain intensifies. I sit it out for 30 minutes, partake of a leisurely lunch, and relive some of the action with the dozens of trout I have caught. But I finally throw in the towel as the drizzle continues and head to camp, just minutes ahead of a deluge. I manage to outrun the slow-moving storm, and when I get back to Saguache Park am treated to a view of a huge cloudburst over the creek where I had been fishing.
Not to be deterred, I am already musing about a return trip tomorrow–I haven’t even begun to sample those alluring beaver ponds that I spotted just upstream from where I called it a day!!