“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake”…Wallace Stevens
Late July 2018
Photography By Jody Bol
CAVEAT: As of early June 2019 the North Fork road has reportedly been closed due to an avalanche that covered it in debris. Call ArkAnglers in Salida, CO for latest information.
For more information on fishing other waters in the North Fork Valley (Island, Arthur, and Hunky Dory Lakes) see my blog articles from 2016.
The rugged North Fork of the South Arkansas River Valley is loaded with a bevy of beautiful lakes and streams. I’ve explored its remote high mountain lakes—Arthur, Island, and Hunky Dory—and was rewarded with some gorgeous cutthroats, but ignored the large North Fork Reservoir at the upper end of the valley. I’m not a big fan of waters where you can drive up to the shoreline, walk a few feet, and settle in a lawn chair to fish. But in this case, boy, I didn’t know what I was missing! I discovered a proverbial movable feast replete with a smorgasbord of big fish and stunning carpets of wildflowers all in the shadow of breathtaking scenery. It’s particularly well-suited for family outings. But the reservoir is a body of water that takes a while to figure out. Here are some tips to connect with its finny denizens
North Fork Reservoir: Morning Manna
I am up early and meet my photographer Jody Bol in Poncha Springs at 7:30 a.m. Soon we are bouncing up the rough 4WD drive road to the reservoir in my trusty old red Xterra SUV. My Hobie pedal kayak is lashed securely to the roof rack. The plan is to circle the lake in the morning, fishing the shoreline, then in the afternoon unload the yak and circumnavigate the lake again farther offshore.
The turnoff to the reservoir onto County Road 240 from US 50 is about 11 miles west of Salida at the hamlet of Maysville. CR 240 starts out as a smooth, winding scenic paved road until at about four miles, just past the public Shavano Campground, where it shows its teeth, become a gnarly track suitable only for high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles with good four-ply tires.
As the photos illustrate, ignore this warning at your own peril. It will take you about an hour to cover the last six miles.
Like many high mountain valleys in Colorado, while the North Fork seems rugged and untouched, it has a long mining history. Just before you cross Cyclone Creek about halfway to the reservoir, it’s relaxing to take a short break and nose around the remains of the old mining town of Shavano just north of the road. Founded in 1879 at an elevation of 11,000 feet, it was a silver mining town with a three-story mill, stores, and a scattering of cabins, but lasted only a few years.
Up above the reservoir is a bigger mining operation featuring what some claim is the longest mining tunnel in the west, dug under Pomeroy Mountain to the other side of the Continental Divide. That’s on our list of things to see later in the day.
Finally after an hour’s bone-jarring ride, we arrive at the campground on the southeast corner of the reservoir, managed by the Salida District of the U.S. Forest Service. It has finally reopened after being closed down for a couple of years due to problems with the restrooms and danger from the beetle-killed pine trees.
It has nine primitive campsites featuring picnic tables and fire pits, with the toilets located nearby. That’s it. No potable water, no electrical hookups. Still there are only a couple of open sites, and some brave and slightly crazed souls have even managed to haul up their small, aging travel trailers. Sites are $16/night and available on a first-come, first-served basis. (For up-to-date details, see the Pike and San Isabel National Forest website.)
The reservoir is operated by the Salida-based Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District under a permit from the US Forest Service that addresses issues such as adequate water flow in the North Fork below the dam. It supplies water to the towns of Poncha Springs and Salida. The lake itself sits at about 11,400 feet and is modest in size—about 600 acre feet with a maximum depth of about 25 feet when full.
The setting is incredibly scenic, with big peaks looming in every direction. If it weren’t for the rock dam on the east side, I’d swear it was a natural lake. The shoreline varies from gentle and lined with wildflowers and tree stumps on the north and west to steep slopes on the south side with big boulders just below the water’s surface. The dam blocked at least five creeks including the North Fork and Island Lake Creek. It’s very low this year—down 1.5 feet in just the last couple of weeks, exposing a lot of usually submerged lake bottom. It’s stocked annually with rainbows and reputedly occasionally with grayling.
It’s almost 9 a.m., and I decide to start my circuit counterclockwise to the north from the dam. Already some hearty souls are dunking bait near the dam—and that’s where most people fish. Like most mountain waters, the further you get away from the dam, the better the fishing. In a few hundred yards I run into a family of Texans who are escaping 100 degree weather in the Lone Star State. They are having a good time catching rainbows on salmon eggs and Power Bait. but are somewhat oblivious to the nice cutthroats that are cruising the shoreline in plain view in the crystal clear water, a fly fisherman’s dream. That’s the beauty of the North Fork Reservoir–something for everyone be it bait anglers, spin fishermen, or fly casters. And while the small kiddies are enjoying wading in the shallows and creeks, aspiring photographers will have a field day in the lush carpets of wild flowers that line the shore and creeks, even in this dry year.
The cutts are feeding on the surface, but studiously ignore my initial offerings—a small Royal Trude trailed by the old reliable Zug Bug nymph. When I take a closer look, I discover the delicacy of the day is a microscope floating black midge, which I imitate with a size 20 midge emerger tied below a small #16 hopper as a strike indicator since my old eyes have a hard time picking up the tiny midge. WHAM—my first cast to a cruising cutt produces a nice 13-inch plus fish.
I find the north and west reaches of lake are conducive to wading and fly fishing, not true of many high mountain lakes that often have soft bottoms near the shoreline or trees crowding the water that make casting difficult. Fortunately the North Fork Reservoir has solid, rocky bottom stretches in many places, especially at the points that are very productive spots. But a caveat—there are also some deep holes with precipitous drop-offs near shore, so watch where you shuffle. For those not into wading or fly fishing, the trout can be reached with a spinning bubble and fly, and don’t seem to be shy. The same is not true on the south shoreline which is steep and deep. The spinning bubble rig works best here where fly casting is tough because of the pine trees crowding the bank.
As I work to the south, I continue having a blast sight fishing for cruising cutts. I miss a lot of strikes and execute several long-distance releases until I realize my hook is dull—a rookie mistake. Because the midge fly is so small, a sharp hook is critical to making a good connection. I also get a lot of swirls and studious looks at the hopper, but the trout often shy away at the last second in the mirror-calm water. That can get one’s blood pressure rising, especially when the fish is a big one. TIP: While it’s fun to sight fish in the calm water, the trout can more carefully inspect your offering. I get more quick takes and hard strikes when the wind kicks up a bit and ruffles the surface. The stocked rainbows keep the action fast, and every so often a big rainbow or cutt inhales the midge. I get a big assist from my photographer who graciously acts as my fish spotter, climbing up on rock outcroppings above the lake to bird-dog the trout below for me.
On the far west shoreline, I run into young angler Teague who is schooling his grandfather Randy on how to catch rainbows. He is reeling in fish after fish using a light weight spin outfit with Power Bait on the bottom under a ¼ ounce sinker.
The North Fork is a great family fishing lake to introduce the youngsters to angling. I let my two boys use Power Bait when they were young, but was careful to forego those dastardly treble hooks that are death to trout if they are swallowed, which is often the case with bait. Earlier in the day I had rescued an injured trout from the water that was pulling a treble hook rig that he had broken off. Unfortunately, the stocker gave up the ghost after I extracted the hook from his gullet. Indeed, the number of dead rainbow trout littering the bottom of the lake is distressing. I hope anyone reading this article who uses bait will also crimp down the barb on their hooks as well as keeping the trebles in their tackle boxes. And if you happen to get snagged and break your line, please have the courtesy to pick up any line and take it with you. I saw a number of piles of mono line coiled up along the shoreline. Not only does it spoil the natural beauty of the place but is deadly to birds and other critters that get entangled in it.
I continue to get sporadic action, but when I switch from the hopper to a #18 beetle as the lead dry fly, things get hot. A couple of big bows, holdovers from last year, gobble the beetle while the cutts cruising the mouths of the creeks that empty into the reservoir continue to feast on the midge. I talk with other anglers who have had good action on a #12 stimulator dry fly on the south shoreline that is facing into the now brisk wind from the northwest.
Finally a growling stomach gets me to thinking about lunch. I decide to wade the point at the southeast corner of the lake extending from the mouth of the creek that flows out of Arthur Lake. I see some fish surface farther out so wade up to my belly and double haul a long cast into the wind. I can’t see my beetle or midge, but a big swirl signals a strike, and I am fast onto my biggest fish of the morning, a bow that goes 16 inches. Good fight and a jumper. He took the beetle! Time for a quick release and lunch.
North Fork Reservoir: Afternoon Delight
After a hearty lunch featuring my favorite health foods, RC Cola and dark chocolate, we unload the kayak near the dam and shove off for the west shoreline.
Especially when water is at normal level or above, the kayak or other watercraft/float tube can be a real advantage to reach the trout that routinely feed at the drop-offs at the edge of the points on the west and south shorelines. With water levels so low, today I can reach them in my waders, but that’s not the usual case. You can also cover a lot of water more quickly in a kayak versus wading. Note, however, that no watercraft with motors are permitted.
The main disadvantage of a kayak or belly boat is that you sit low in the water which makes casting a fly rod much more difficult. Also, you can’t see the cruising trout unless they rise to gulp a bug or you have a buddy doing some spotting for you from the shore. You will be casting to risers or just plain old blind casting. Both can be effective, but not as much fun as sight fishing. Also, don’t forget a net, preferably a long-handled on like those used by river float fishermen. It’s hard to handle a big trout without one.
The water has warmed up as the sun climbs, and the trout are rising steadily to midges. The foot-long stocker trout are particularly hungry, but every so often a big one surprises me. I keep my eye out for heavy rises and immediately pedal into casting position. But as is often the case at this elevation among high peaks, the wind is shifting direction every five minutes, which can make for a casting adventure. Just as I think I am position to cast to a good riser, the wind changes and blows in my face. I then have to pedal back into a better position. On the other hand, the rippling surface obscures my presence to the trout and makes them less wary. In either case, a stout 9-foot, 5-weight rod works best in the wind for making longer casts and handling the bigger fish.
After a couple of hours of good action, I am back at the southeast corner of the lake near the dam. The wind is really kicking up now, but I see some heavy swirls and rises out in the deeper water, way beyond the reach of shore anglers. I pedal into position and wait for a riser…and one soon accommodates me, revealing his position. I throw a long cast that luckily lands near his ripple, and immediately the beetle is engulfed by a big fish that zings off, towing me behind. Then he surfaces, executing a 3-foot jump that would have even impressed a Russian Olympic judge. Then another. Finally the chunky 16-inch bow comes to my boat net, an essential tool out here in the open water. A quick release and he’s back with his buddies, just as some big storm clouds kick up a ruckus with a blast of wind. Time to head to port!
I quickly load the kayak on the SUV to beat the storm, and then naturally the wind dies and the sun breaks out. Par for the course for a high-mountain water. But it also means we can explore that intriguing Pride of the West Mine and tunnel up the road a few miles above Billings Lake just below the Continental Divide.
It’s a short drive up the mountain and above tree line. The views down the valley are spectacular as are those of the peaks that loom above us. We decide to walk the last half mile on the rough one-lane track, which turns out to be a good idea so we can enjoy the wildflowers and the pikas and marmots that are noisily objecting to our presence.
The Pride of the West Mine, sporting one of the most impressive mine tunnel arched portals in the West, has an interesting and somewhat checkered history. Construction started in 1880 by the North Fork Consolidated Mining and Tunnel Company managed by Willing Billings of Poncha Springs.
The plan, according to historical sources, was to either tap the silver vein supposedly under the mountain or to reach the established mines in Hancock just over the Continental Divide and transport ore out. However, some observers speculate the mine and tunnel were never meant to make any honest earnings but simply to be used as an impressive backdrop for photos to con investors from the East to part ways with their money. Whatever the case, the arch that was built at the tunnel is a work of art worth the hike. Unfortunately, the surrounding stone buildings have been mostly demolished, although the track ties can still be seen. As a footnote, several lawsuits were filed in 1882 by local merchants who were bilked out of their goods and services and by 1884 the mines, buildings, and personal property of the mining company were sold at auction in Philadelphia. The mine tunnel is still open, but filled with water, so be careful up there. Enjoy the ruins and resist the temptation to take a souvenir or two.