Photos By Fran Rulon-Miller and Chris Duerksen
For my earlier adventures fishing the Middle Fork of Saguache Creek, see my articles from the summer of 2017 and 2018.
As my readers and angling friends know, the Middle Fork of Saguache Creek, coursing out of the high peaks of the La Garita Mountains in south central Colorado, is one of my favorite fishing haunts. Because it is a fetching, secluded water with very cooperative fish, I usually look no further when I venture into the broad expanse of Saguache Park about two hours south of Gunnison, Colorado.
But earlier this summer when I was scoping out a new stretch of the Middle Fork on a topo map that I had not yet fished, my eyes wandered to some of its obscure tributaries like the North Fork, Johns Creek, Bear Creek, and several others. All looked a tad hard to access which usually means good fishing. So I resolved to give them a try, the first on my list being the North Fork.
The dozens of times I have fished the Middle Fork over the last decade I often forded the little North Fork just above Stone Cellar campground with hardly a second glance.
It’s overgrown and only a few feet wide at that point, nothing to really pique my interest. But my topo map reveals that just upstream in a canyon away from the road or any official trail it looks less brushy with some interesting twists and turns. Who can resist!!
I leave my mobile fish camp at Dome Lake State Wildlife Area around 8 a.m. It’s a nippy 40 degrees in mid-August, but will warm to 75. The drive on County Road 14ff is scenic, and as usual I am treated to a good luck omen—a big herd of pronghorn scampering across the road as I drive into Saguache Park. It’s a scene that reminds me of the great game herds in the Masai Mara of Kenya.
And the vista is covered with a beautiful carpet of red Indian Paintbrush and other wildflowers.
An hour after leaving camp, I am descending towards the canyon of the Middle Fork then follow the road upstream towards the Stone Cellar Campground.
Just past the campground I arrive at a gate across the road and park at the turnout above the North Fork ford.
I’m pleased to see the creek has plenty of water in it courtesy of last winter’s heavy snowpack. I head upstream, skirting the heavy brush along the creek, and stumble on a decent game/cattle trail on the north side that looks promising.
As I distance myself from the road, the heavy brush recedes, revealing some good pools and water that is cloudy but clearer than at the road. The cloudiness doesn’t surprise me. The stretches of the Middle Fork above the campground and below the wilderness area boundary rarely are crystal clear which I attribute to the geology and soils of the area. Indeed I have come to value that slight cloudiness on a small creek that provides cover for a probing angler.
I resist the urge to throw a fly and hike further up the canyon past the first fence and gate. However, my resolve disappears at the second fence when I see a few rings on the water in a pool below. The creek is less overgrown here, but I still have to pick my spots, and short, accurate casts will be the order of the day. I’m also thankful I brought my short 7 ½-foot fly rod and rigged it with a 7 ½-foot, 5X leader. The shorter leader is a godsend in the tight quarters. I also quickly decide to go only with a dry fly, my old reliable Royal Coachman Trude #16. It’s a reasonable facsimile of the hordes of small hoppers that abound here. Adding a nymph dropper might catch a few fish in the deeper holes, but it would also make me go bonkers with more hang-ups in the overhanging bushes, trees, and tall grass. It turns out to be a wise decision. I manage enough vegetative hook ups with the dry alone.
Surprisingly, I strike out in the first couple of good looking pools and don’t see or spook any fish when I wade into them. I’m already starting to have thoughts of pulling up anchor and heading to the Middle Fork. But then I come to a deep pool at a big bend in the creek. It’s a tough lie, but I manage to throw a curve cast upstream around the bend.
I can’t see my fly as it floats down, but hear a splash and set the hook. Fish on!! It’s a scrappy 13-inch brownie.
I continue upstream and as the water warms from the sun’s rays the fishing picks up. Every pool at every bend or deeper runs along an undercut bank harbors several fish, most in the 11-to-13 inch range. It wouldn’t surprise me if bigger ones were lurking there. When I hit a couple of the deepest pools and the Trude doesn’t produce, I break down and add a #18 Tung Teaser nymph that works well on the Middle Fork. Of course I manage several snags in the bushes and grass, but also lure a couple of good brownies out of the depths after they turned their noses up at the dry.
By noon I have caught and released around 30 fish and decide my experiment of the North Fork has been a smashing success. The further I ventured upstream from Chimney Rock Gulch that juts in from the north, the better the results.
There’s another couple of miles or so untouched, serpentine water above me and beyond the confluence with the Little North Fork before the creek comes close to another road, but I decide to save that for another day. The siren song of the Middle Fork is calling….