Late August 2018
As I went slip sliding away down a crumbly, gravely steep slope into Wildcat Canyon, a couple of titles from two of my favorite movies conflated in my head: “ Secondhand Lion” stars in “No Country For Old Men.” That seemed like an apt description of the fix I had gotten myself into.
I could hear my destination roaring below, a remote section of South Platte River about an hour’s drive west of Colorado Springs. But it had been a long time since the thought now running through my mind had popped up…that I might not make it down there, so treacherous was the last half-mile. And me in my waders and heavy wading boots, wearing a loaded fishing vest and toting two rigged fly rods plus a small ice chest. A slightly addled angler by any measure.
Then I came to a ledge that I had to jump down. Steadying myself with my wading staff, I landed square on both feet to the chagrin of my aging knees. As I turned around and looked up, I thought how the hell will I get back up that one. Ed Abbey’s similar predicament memorialized in his Desert Solitaire came to mind. He had scurried over a ledge in a dry wash and realized he couldn’t get back up or go down. He ended up spending a night there until he figured out a way to extricate himself. It was some comfort that I had my emergency satellite phone in my fishing vest, but didn’t relish the thought of a night perched in some crevice trying to stay warm.
The hike along an old abandoned jeep trail had started pleasantly enough. The first mile or so could not have been more serene or bucolic, the proverbial walk in the park bathed in sunshine among groves of stately Ponderosa Pine and Quaking Aspen, then an open meadow. The grade was very modest, hardly discernible.
The next half mile was more challenging, first the trail disappearing in an overgrown brambly stretch that played havoc with my long fly rods, my epithets coloring the air as blue as the Colorado sky. Then it was doing some high hurdles over and hopscotching around numerous downed trees scattered like pick-up-sticks over the trail, courtesy of the devastating Hayman fire over 15 years ago, the largest in state history.
That was but a warm-up act for the final half mile that definitely put the wild in Wildcat Canyon. Without my trusty wading staff to prop me up, I would have either plunged head-long down the ravine the trail followed or just turned back.
I continued my mountain goat imitation successfully, and as I caught my first glimpse of the South Platte, all concerns started to vanish.
True, from time-to-time during the next six hours the words of a cautious angling friend, who has navigated into remote canyons with me, would enter my head: What goes down doesn’t always come up….or something like that. But all I could do now was to absorb the stunning scene before me—the clear waters of the river plunging headlong down the canyon, playing hide-and-seek among huge–and I mean house-sized boulders.
I quickly stowed my ice chest in the shade along the river and headed downstream, figuring if anyone else were already in the canyon they would work upstream in the traditional way. I clawed through a thick stand of shrubby willows along the bank and waded into position below a deep, swirling plunge pool. I was using a big #16 Royal Coachman Trude dry to imitate some of the grasshoppers I had seen along the trail with a small #16 green caddis nymph as a dropper. All was tethered to my fly line with a nine-foot 5X leader. Ten casts later I was still skunked. Not the fast action I had anticipated for such a remote water. So I checked some of the rocks in the river for insect life and was surprised to see only a few tiny mayflies and caddis—not much food for the big trout I was hoping for. Then I noticed that the water appeared to be high, lapping into the streamside vegetation, and it was a little discolored, maybe the result of rain earlier in the week. I had checked the Colorado Water Talk stream flow website last night, and the river was running about 125 CFS, which is only a fourth the usual flow of my home water the Arkansas this time of year. However, the canyon is very narrow here, constricting the river and making it a torrent in spots. And in any case predicting water flows in this pristine canyon is difficult because, incongruously, it is part of a massive man-made plumbing system that provides the Denver region with water. Releases from several big reservoirs upstream can dramatically alter flows depending on, among other things, how many lawns are being watered 100 miles away.
What to do now? I remembered reading a short blurb by another angler who had hiked into the canyon several years ago. He had ended up using a San Juan Worm, a simple looking fly that can be a killer when water is high and off-color, but one I rarely use. I scrounged around in one of my fly boxes and was relieved to find a couple of bright red and pink ones. No trout has ever explained why red and pink is attractive, but who am I to reason why. I tied on the SJ Worm as my lead nymph below a couple of BB split shots to get to the bottom in the deep plunge pools coupled with a round bubble strike indicator above. A #16 red Two-Bit Hooker dangled from the SJ Worm. I heaved the heavy rig into the head of the plunge pool, just to the side of the strong current. The bubble floated into the hole and promptly disappeared. I set the hook, and a small but energetic rainbow vaulted out of the water a couple of feet, eliciting a surprised “whoa” from me.
For the next hour I worked downstream, thankful I had my wading staff and chest-high waders. In places, big boulders blocked one side of the river, forcing me to cross over then wade carefully downstream or bushwhack along the overgrown shoreline to the next likely spot. As the sun climbed in the sky and shone brightly—the weather was perfect—I expected to see more fish in the shallows warming themselves. It was not to be. All the fish I caught were in deeper runs, often in fairly fast flows. I experimented with a variety of flies, but those that were red or orange clearly had the upper hand over the standard green caddis and mayfly nymph patterns. I only had a few looks all day on the RC Trude and grasshopper patterns even though there were plenty of hoppers along the shoreline. Go figure. But by 1 p.m. I had caught and released a dozen fish, all healthy and feisty. The three biggest—two browns and a rainbow—went about 13 inches.
With my stomach growling, I decided to try a couple of more good-looking pools downstream. But on my very first cast in an extremely alluring pool, I snagged the bottom. At least that’s what I thought as I started to plunge into deep hole hoping to extricate my flies. Then the bottom started moving. It was no doubt the biggest fish of the day, boring down deep and peeling line through my hand. After a minute or so, the bruiser decided to head upstream into shallower water, and I thought, “I’ve got him!” Then without warning the fly pulled out, leaving me with a coil of limp line and a deflated ego. He was so big I was never able to get even a glimpse at the heavyweight!
Not to be defeated, I decided to head round the bend and try the big pool that showed up on my Google Maps…and was surprised to see a young twenty-something couple already flailing the water. I announced my presence and proceeded to strike up a conversation. I wasn’t surprised to learn that they had also had success on nymphs, and like me catching fish in the 12-13 inch range. But I was flabbergasted when they told me they had hiked in with full packs a couple of nights before and had been camping nearby since then. The young woman couldn’t have weighed more than 110 pounds, but both she and her husband appeared ultra-fit. One forgets the energy and strength of younger days gone by. I learned from them that they were from Colorado Springs and fish this stretch often, rarely seeing anyone, the challenging hike in being a major deterrent. That made me feel a tad better!
They were kind enough to suggest I fish the next big pool downstream where they had caught some nice fish the day before. I walked downstream and waded carefully across the river, then edged up along the bank that dropped steeply into a deep run. Looked like perfect water, and sure enough I fooled my biggest brownie of the day on the SJ Worm. I released the trout, and continued upstream to the head of the pool. The water was lapping at the top of my waders when I stepped on a slick rock and took my first good dunking of the year. As the water rushed down my legs, I glanced upstream and was thankful they kids weren’t watching me floundering to get my footing. It ended up being a major league soaking, what I took as a sign to go back upstream and partake of my lunch.
Fortunately the lunch spot was only 15 minutes away via the trail that paralleled the river on the north bank, one that entailed a fair amount of boulder-hopping. I stripped off my waders, laid them out in the sun, and wrung out my wading socks, thanking the angling gods for the warm sun to dry off in. I lollygagged on a nice warm rock along the river, and by the time I quaffed the last of my RC Cola and enjoyed the last bite of the Kit Kat, it was 2:30 p.m.
Now the big question was to hightail it back up the slope while there was still plenty of light, or fish another hour or so. I scouted out a couple of pools upstream, and couldn’t resist the tempting pools.
In the first, I had a couple of quick bites on the nymphs and manage somehow to miss both, but then the SJ Worm came through one last time in a whirling, swirling run below a gigantic boulder that squeezed the river into a tiny crack only a few feet wide. Another decent brownie!
But I couldn’t pull myself away yet, and trekked a bit further upstream around the next bend. I was just about ready to descend from the trail when I heard voices. Two middle-aged gents, who had apparently hiked in after me, had beaten me to the punch. We exchanged stories, and theirs was similar to mine—a dozen fish or so, most 10-13 inches, although they claimed to have caught a 15-inch rainbow. They graciously offered to let me fish the pool below us, but I demurred, thinking that if I left now they could find my body on their way out later in the afternoon and make sure it got a proper burial.
Don’t laugh. That thought did cross my mind. But as is often the case in negotiating steep, rugged slopes, going up and out is easier than coming down. I was able to use my wading staff to help pull me up through the rough spots and actually got back to my SUV in an hour and 15 minutes, five minutes faster than it took me going in.
And the frosting on the cake was after I shed my waders and vest and stowed my gear, the two gents I had met on the river came stumbling back to their vehicle. They were huffing and puffing mightily. We exchanged pleasantries again, and then one commented that they had expected to catch up with me on the trail but never caught sight of the scurrying septuagenarian! Nothing like a remark like that to make one’s day!
Make no mistake about it; this particular route that I took into Wildcat Canyon is a challenging one. If I do return you can bet I won’t be wearing waders, and my rods will be stowed in their cases in a daypack. Because Wildcat Canyon is so close to Denver and Colorado Springs, I am not going to reveal the exact location of the trailhead otherwise it might be inundated by anglers. You’ll have to work for it. There are other routes into the canyon that are easier, for example, from the Happy Meadows Campground near Lake George. There are also several very rough four-wheel drive trails, like one from near the town of Divide, that actually go right down to the river. A little sleuthing on-line for blogs by other anglers and map investigation with Google Earth will reveal these options, but clearly the tougher the access, the better the fishing will likely be and the less chance of bumping into other anglers. Studying the USGS 7.5″ Quads for Hackett Mountain can be revealing. The South Platte in Wildcat Canyon is a rarity—a real wilderness river and experience within a few hours of two major metropolitan areas. Let’s keep it that way…and be careful out there!!