“To those devoid of imagination a blank space on the map is a useless waste; to others the most valuable part.”–Aldo Leopold
Late July 2018
Note: For more information of fishing upper Saguache Creek, see my July 2017 and August 4, 2018, articles
It’s the second day of my annual birthday wilderness fishing trip. After a banner day yesterday, I’m champing at the bit to get back to Saguache Creek in the La Garita Wilderness Area south of Gunnison, Colorado. Visions of trout cavorting in beaver ponds danced through my head last night.
Speaking of last night, heavy rains continued late into the evening, so as I navigate back to the wilds, my route on the gravel and dirt CR 17FF is much sketchier today, eroded and etched from the torrential runoff. I’m getting nervous, fearing that the creek may be muddy and blown out, but won’t find out for another hour when I get near the Middle Fork trailhead.
Forty-five minutes later I’m fording the North Fork of Saguache Creek just above its confluence with the Middle Fork, and it’s running clear—but that stream drains a different valley. Ten minutes later my jaw drops. The Middle Fork is running much higher and is a sickening milky color at the second ford.
I get out of the SUV and assess my chances of running the creek without getting stuck and decide it looks passable, but hard to tell with the murky water. I gun the Xterra, shift into four-wheel drive, and plunge in. Not to worry. It’s not as deep as I feared. But the rear end fish tails as I navigate the steep incline above, so I shift into four-low and take it easy the rest of the way. The road is a mess, with muddy sinks at every water bar along the remaining three miles, but I muddle through.
Fifteen minutes later I’m parking near the Middle Fork trailhead and walk with trepidation to the canyon rim to take a peek at the creek…and let out a big YAHOO when I see it is running clear, maybe a little high, but clear! Game on!!
In a few minutes I’m suited up and traversing down the slope to the big meadow below. An army of small green and tan grasshoppers greets me, confirming my thought to try some new flies today, namely a Lime Trude. This pattern resembles my favorite Royal Coachman Trude, but has a flashy lime green body similar to some of the little hoppers that abound streamside. Importantly, it’s easy to see on the water with the big white wing. And based on my experience yesterday with the bothersome, grasping willow and spruce branches, I am eschewing the dropper once again, even though I will be fishing beaver ponds where a sinking fly is often the ticket for larger trout.
I reach the valley floor and walk downstream about a quarter-mile to the stretch just below the big beaver ponds where I left off yesterday afternoon courtesy of the rain. When I get to the first pool I see that while the creek is clear, it is definitely higher, which is actually a good sign—it means more cover for the fish and likely will trigger a feeding spree with the extra goodies washed into the water by the runoff.
While I am certainly no infallible piscatorial prognosticator, my hunch proves correct. No sooner does the trude alight at the tail of a shallow run than it is pursued ardently by two brook trout. For the next 45 minutes the action is fast and furious. The short quarter-mile stretch below the beaver ponds produces a couple of dozen browns and brookies, one of the brownies pushing 14-inches.
Then I come to the outlet of the first pond and do a double-take. Swimming lazily around the clear pool is a big 16-inch plus brown trout surrounded by at least a dozen of his smaller buddies. With snags in back of me and in the water between me and the pool, it will take more than a little luck to even get the fly close to him. But after a couple of botched efforts, I somehow thread the line and fly across the pool just ahead of the bruiser. He starts towards the fly slowly, but then one of the little guys jets forward and nails the trude. As soon as I set the hook the pool erupts, fish darting hither and yon…except for the big trout who takes up the chase apparently hoping to steal the meal from the small one. Alas, he catches sight of me and flashes away. I land the lesser fish, then let the pool rest and work my way to a better casting position. Things have settled down, and I can see the giant back in his favored position. But try as I might, only one Lilliputian brookie takes my fly even though I thrash the water with a dozen casts. The others just flat out ignore the fly as it floats by them overhead or to the side. So after one last refusal, I take some delight in plunging into the pool and scaring the daylights out of recalcitrant crew.
Which brings me to the first beaver pond, a big one with a couple of inlets of creek water. The dam itself is old, grown up with grass, and not active, which means I don’t have to worry about a lot of sticks and branches snagging my fly line.
It’s also very shallow and very clear—-I can see a couple of dozen fish, mostly small, finning in the deepest part that is a long cast away to the right. The good news is that among them several decent-sized fish are rising steadily.
The best way to fish a beaver pond is to stand below the dam and cast while keeping a low profile. Line control is very important—the normal procedure in fly fishing of stripping line out and letting it fall at your feet in readying the cast is a recipe for cursing and frustration when it comes to beaver dams. The numerous sticks and branches that the pesky critters use to weave their barriers will clutch, grab, and entwine a fly line in a flash resulting in gnashing and grinding of the erstwhile angler’s choppers. The recommended approach is to strip out as little length of line as possible and keep it looped on your hand….or clean out a spot below by breaking off the potentially offending limbs. Having said that, neither is fool-proof, but the risk/reward calculus in fishing beaver ponds can be very high in these waters.
I am also flouting standard practice in only using a dry fly. Often the biggest fish in a beaver pond will be ensconced in the deepest, darkest hole (if there is one) and come to a fly on the surface only in the early morning or evening when a modicum of darkness provides cover. But what the heck, sometimes it feels damn good to defy conventional wisdom. So I feel vindicated when in this first pond I fool a half-dozen trout with some long-distance casts—most go only about 10-inches, but then I trick a 12-inch beauty—big for a brookie up here.
Finally the action moves further up the feeder creek inlet, forcing me to shift tactics. I have to get closer, which means low-crawling over the dam onto the grassy shore upstream. As I do, I notice an even bigger brookie in the shallows, seemingly oblivious to my presence.
I make a short cast and BAM, he takes the Lime Trude without hesitation. After I release him, I throw several more long casts from my new position towards the inlet flow and score several more brookies.
For the next hour I hopscotch upstream among the beaver ponds and short creek runs between them. Some are deep, others shallow, and the creek is braided with many channels. All are loaded with fish, both browns and brookies. In the shallow ones I find some big browns sunning themselves in the open, but of course they immediately spot me when I raise my head ever so slightly above the dam to cast. In the deeper ones I usually manage to net a couple before I spook their brethren. I have my best luck at the inlets where there is some current, and the fish are all facing upstream, rather than cruising around as they do in the ponds, and can’t spot me as easily.
Then I come to the mother of all ponds. A big, deep affair with several fish rising within casting distance. In these larger beaver ponds, I always make my first cast parallel to the dam into what is usually the deepest water where the biggest fish often hang out.
The fly is immediately sucked in by a midget brookie who proceeds to tear around and scare the daylights out of anything nearby. GRRR! But as I fume, I spot some good-sized trout rising steadily in the creek inlet upstream.
It’s too far to cast so I do a careful high-wire walk along the dam to the east shoreline and then low-crawl through the head-high willow bushes to get into a good position to cast. As I emerge from the willows, I immediately set off a panic among the dozens of fish below me. I kneel down and wait a few minutes, and breathe a sigh of relief when the fish above start to feed again.
I target a couple that are slurping in treats hard up against the bank, and lay an accurate, long cast right above them in the riffle. The trude swirls down in the current, manages to slide by the overhanging bushes, and BLAM, a good fish nails it. Fight on!! The trout tears downstream towards me, then reverses course when he spots me and jets upstream. Soon a good 14-inch cutthroat trout slides into my net. Yippee! Another Colorado slam—a cutt, brown, and brookie in one day. And the fun is just beginning. On successive casts I get a good brown and a colorful brookie—the first time I have ever scored a slam in one pool!
Twenty minutes later I have hooked and landed 15 more fish including another gorgeous native cutthroat and a big 15-inch brownie. When things finally quiet down, I sidle to the shoreline and collapse in a heap of happy angler to recharge with a pepporoni beef stick and some almonds.
That’s the last beaver pond for awhile, so it’s back to stream fishing. The creek has narrowed again as I work upstream and has a bit less water being above where several small rivulets add their flow. But wherever I can find a run with some depth or a bend in the creek that creates a deeper pool, the browns are there and eager. Most run 12-to-13-inches and are strong fighters, but another fifteen-incher surprises me as he erupts from a swirling bend pool to nail the trude.
By now it’s nearly 2 p.m., and the sun is beating down and things are heating up. I decide to shed some clothing and strip off my long-sleeve fishing shirt and polypro T under it, reveling in my bare-chestedness in the mountain air with no prying eyes. Visions of Vladimir Putin, similarly bare-chested and buff, riding over the ridge float through my mind. No wonder Agent Orange couldn’t resist him at Helsinki! What a hunk!!
I relax sans shirts and soak in the sun for a bit, then hear something buzzing nearby. I look over at my fishing vest where I have stuffed my red undershirt and see a huge hummingbird hovering, then landing on what he must think is the biggest wildflower he’s ever seen.
He isn’t in the least bit afraid of me, looking me straight in the eye as if to ask where’s the nectar. But as I reach for my phone to snap a picture, he darts away. This serendipitous, albeit brief connection, will be the highlight of the day for me. Sometimes lollygagging pays dividends.
I relax for a few more minutes then head upstream, around the bend, and higher into the wilderness. My GPS shows some intriguing looking water punctuated by more beaver ponds. I net another couple of brownies at the foot of a steep slope with unusual spires created as rainwater barrels down through soft compacted volcanic fluff left over from millions of years ago.
Then I intersect with a faint trail and follow it about a half-mile upstream. Where it turns away from the creek and angles higher on the slope, I plunge down into the willows to see what I can see.
When I finally emerge from the tangle, I discover some sweet looking small pools that yield more brookies and browns in tight quarters.
By 3:30 p.m., I have had enough of bushwhacking and catching fish as well as uncooperative spruce tree branches so head back downstream. I finally stumble on a big hidden beaver pond, but make the mistake of approaching it from upstream rather than circling and coming up stealthily from below the dam. And damn, I pay for that mistake. As I approach the water I see a big school of out-sized brown trout finning in the shallows, several of which are larger than anything I have caught all day. But of course they see me too, sparking a frenzy of fear and fleeing. I make a few casts when things quiet, but it’s futile. I’ve put them down for the day. Ah, just another reason to return to this fabulous little creek!
I am definitely a happy guy as I hike back to the trailhead. One last look over my shoulder at the Twin Peaks, as I already start to plot my return trip…supposedly there’s a scenic waterfall a couple of miles upstream and some big fish that rarely see a fly.