Early August 2018
Photography by Jody Bol
For more about fishing the North Fork Valley, see my articles from July 2016 and 2018
With the surfeit of beautiful and productive lakes in the North Fork Valley, the valley’s namesake river often gets overlooked. I’m as guilty as anyone—I fished it once some 20 years ago when my boys were youngsters, and we caught some nice rainbows. But since then I have scurried by it numerous times headed to the lakes instead. In all of those trips, I don’t recall ever seeing anyone fish the North Fork River. But when I trekked across the North Fork Reservoir Dam a few days ago and ogled the good-looking water below the spillway, I vowed to change all that.
We are on the road early, my erstwhile photographer buckled up tight for the teeth-rattling drive to the North Fork Reservoir. The plan is to fish the river below the dam and then work our way downstream in the SUV, ferreting out fishable stretches that are not overgrown.
The North Fork is a smallish, intimate creek. I can jump across it in many spots. It runs only at 5-10 cfs most of the time, and divides nicely into three sections. The upper stretch extending a half mile or so below the reservoir meadow water, more open than most of rest of river, with nice bends and some deep holes harboring some feisty, chunky rainbows. It’s perfect for attractor dry flies like my favorite Royal Coachman Trude.
The middle section features a few open meadows above its confluence with Cyclone Creek and a smattering of beaver ponds that hold some outsize brookies and rainbows. They are spooky but susceptible to long casts with small midge dry flies. Finally, the lower stretch is marked by narrow, rugged canyons with fast-flowing freestone waters and plunge pools. It can be extremely tough going but there are plenty of brookies wherever you can gain access and find enough room to cast. What more could the intrepid angler ask for? The plan is to fish the river below the dam first, then work downstream in the SUV, looking for fishable stretches that are not overgrown.
We arrive at the reservoir about 9 a.m., suit up in our waders, and navigate the moderate slope leading down to the river below the dam. We work about a quarter-mile downstream, sloshing through a spongy marsh and emerge just below a good-looking bend pool. Not a soul is in sight although a dozen people are already fishing the lake above.
My eyes light up immediately as I scan the water—a couple of trout are already feeding, gulping flies off the water. I am using a short eight-foot, five-weight rod with a 7.5-foot 5X leader, a rig that works well on small streams and in tight quarters. Because the water is low, I am fishing a single dry fly, my favorite #16 Royal Coachman Trude. It’s a good imitation for a caddis fly or small hopper. Fortunately casting in this stretch is not as challenging as elsewhere on the river with few trees or tall willow bushes lining the water. On the other hand, the water is very low and clear calling for a very stealthy approach and long accurate casts.
The two trout just upstream from me continue to feed, so with great confidence I unfurl a pinpoint cast into the riffle just above them that results in a perfect float up against the bank where they are feeding. Then I wait for my reward….which never comes. Nothing! I try again…Nada!! Several more casts and I am still skunked and waiting to hear the snickering of the cheeky photographer, who is already beginning to eye the abundant and photogenic wildflowers nearby as an alternative subject.
I quickly move upstream to the next alluring pool and again execute a flawless cast. The Trude bobs down the current and suddenly disappears. I set the hook, and a nice rainbow cartwheels into the air, then settles in for a good fight. I finally ease him into the shallows for a quick photo and release—a nice 13-inch beauty.
Next cast, same result. I am feeling redeemed and reputation salvaged. For the next hour I have a blast casting to 10-to-14-inch rainbows that are clearly hungry, catching a dozen or so on the Trude, although I have a strong hunch any showy attractor pattern will work.
Then it’s back to the SUV to explore downstream. I search on Google Maps for open meadow stretches. I find several like the one above Cyclone Creek, but they are few and far between. I opt instead for one of the roadside beaver ponds a couple of miles down the grade. As I creep towards the dam, I spot a dark torpedo up against the bank, literally within casting distance of the road—a giant brook trout that looks to be 16-inches or more. He’s swimming nonchalantly right up against the shore, picking off midges here and there. I snip off the Trude and tie on a #20 black midge dry to imitate the tiny insects, but he studiously ignores my offering several times. Fortunately, he doesn’t spook and some of his smaller buddies can’t resist. I net several 10-to-12 inch brookies and a couple of decent rainbows.
As the action abates, I notice a series of risers dimpling the surface at the far south side of the pond, so off I go mucking through the tall grass along the marshy shoreline to get into casting position. I wade out a few feet into the pond, and luckily the bottom is relatively firm, a rarity in most beaver bonds where you usually sink in instantly to your calves. My athletic efforts are rewarded with a couple of quick hits by some chunky rainbows.
Then I hear a big splash behind me where I started near the road. Thinking it must be that big brookie, I wade carefully back towards him and fling a long cast near the ripples. No sooner does the midge alight than the fish sucks it in, but I am surprised to see I am fast onto a big rainbow! He puts up a tremendous battle, cavorting all over the pond, straining my delicate leader. Finally he relents and slides into my net, a well-fed 16-incher that will be the biggest fish of the day!!
There are several more beaver ponds in the area, but as the afternoon wanes, I decide we better skedaddle if we want to explore the canyon stretches further down that I have ogled on earlier trips. The first we come to is marked by a spectacular waterfall and beautiful pools below some sheer cliffs.
The trick will be getting down to the water in one piece. We find a faint game trail downstream that is negotiable with some bushwhacking and the steadying aid of our wading staffs. It’s steep, but we make it down with only a few scratches. However the fun is only beginning. Now we find we have to wade and bushwhack upstream, ducking under overhanging limbs and climbing over downed tree trunks.
What keeps me plowing ahead is the trout I see scattering hither and yon as we make slow progress—definitely a good sign of what might lie ahead.
Finally we break out of the thicket into an open pool. I decide to go with only a dry—the Royal Trude, and a nice brookie accommodatingly gulps in the fly as soon as it hits the water.
From there till I reach the big deep pool at the foot of the waterfall every pool and run with any depth yields several 8-to-12 inch brightly colored brookies. But the honey hole looms, and it doesn’t disappoint! As I approach the cascade, wading carefully over the slick rocks, I take a few minutes to marvel at the gorgeous scene before me while I size up the big pool.
I don’t see any risers, but my first cast yields a small brook trout as does the second and third. Then the big daddy nails my fly, a 13-incher which is a monster for a little creek like this.
He’s a real beauty, showing off his colors as he swims back to his lair. For the next half hour I catch and release another dozen fish as the photographer revels in the play of light and water.
As the sun sets below the cliffs, we begin to hear the siren call of Miss Margarita back in Salida. Yielding to her overtures, we start the trek back downstream then up the slope to our vehicle. It’s been a mélange of a day on the North Fork, the river showing her many fascinating faces. And we have barely scratched the surface of the eleven or so miles she runs from the lake to Maysville. So much water….so little time.