For other articles on finding fish and solitude in South Park see my blogs from October 2019: https://hooknfly.com/2019/10/07/mission-impossible-searching-for-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/amp/ and June 2020: https://hooknfly.com/2020/06/25/searching-for-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park-the-likeable-lilliputians-of-lost-creek/
With the Arkansas and Gunnison Rivers and other waters in my neck of the woods like Tomichi Creek blown out with runoff, I decided to resume my quixotic quest for solitude and fish in South Park. The big broad valley that is Colorado’s South Park, home to the old mining town of Fairplay, is known mainly for two things—its eponymous TV cartoon show and great fishing on the South Platte River and its tributaries. Problem is, just over an hour away looms the booming Denver metro area with its millions of residents, not to mention Colorado’s second largest city Colorado Springs. That means the famous stretches of the South Platte in South Park like the Dream Stream and Eleven Mile Canyon are often wall-to-wall with anglers.
Now my friends and readers know that crowds on the water are not my cup of tea, consequently I have been keeping my eyes and ears open for streams in South Park that the madding crowds have overlooked or forsaken in search of lunker fish in the aforementioned popular stretches of the South Platte. The South Fork of the South Platte has become my haven with productive fishing with lots of elbow room, just off US Highway 285 south of Fairplay.
Last fall I had a wonderful day on a stretch of public water a few miles above Antero Reservoir. The weather man says it’s going to be a balmy 70 degrees this week—very warm for this time of year in the perennially frigid valley—and equally important, the winds won’t be howling across the wide-open prairie. Let’s go!!
I’m up early and on the road from my cabin near Salida at 7:30 a.m. I have my sights set on a stretch of the South Fork called the Knight-Imler State Wildlife Area about 12 miles south of Fairplay. I drove over the South Fork on the way home from a weekend in Denver with my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly last week, and it appeared to be in good shape and eminently fishable despite the high runoff water flows in other waters in the region. And the weatherman’s prognostications are spot on today. As I open the gate to the long driveway leading to the angler’s parking lot over the ridge, I have visions of another grand day on the South Fork sans crowds.
As I pull into the parking area, I am pleased to see the good folk at Colorado Parks and Wildlife that manage this stretch were kind enough to have a bovine guide service to greet my arrival. The young cattle gape as they watch me suit up in my waders and fly vest as if I had just landed from Mars.
They scatter wildly as I amble down the hill to the water below. But when I sidle carefully up to the creek, I discover the joke’s on me.
The South Fork is running a dirty brown and high, filled to the brim bank-to-bank. Worse yet, despite the best efforts by Trout Unlimited members to fence the 25-foot state fishing easement along both sides of the river to protect it from the herds of cattle, I find the shoreline absolutely tromped to pieces by the heavy, clumsy beasts (and I am a Kansas farm boy who knows what damage cattle can do to the land if not properly tended to). The contrast between this abused landscape and the fenced private land just downstream where there are no cattle couldn’t be more stark. The banks there are covered with bushes anchoring the shoreline and there is no evidence of serious erosion that abounds on the Knight-Imler stretch.
I contemplate beating a hasty retreat, but decide to give it the old college try. I’m carrying two rods, one rigged with a dry/dropper combo and the other a heavier two-nymph rig, both that have worked well on lower stretches of the South Fork. I flail the water for over an hour, paying particular attention to quieter, deeper back eddies where a fish might find sanctuary.
I see a couple of rises close to the bank in the quiet pools, but don’t get so much as a look or bump on either rig. The air is suddenly redolent with the odor of a potential skunk!
I hightail it back to my SUV with my tail between my legs and over a snack consider Plan B. I remember seeing a post by a Colorado Springs fly shop about fishing the headwaters of the South Fork upstream from here where there were lots of beaver ponds loaded with eager brook trout. The post said it was fun but indicated there was nothing there but small fish. After a morning like I just had, what’s to lose…and small can be beautiful!!
I drive back up the highway about one-half mile north towards Fairplay to the intersection with Colorado 22—the Weston Pass road—near where the South Fork crosses under US 285. Then it’s about 14 miles over a decent gravel road to the Rich Creek trailhead where the good fishing reportedly begins.
The road is endlessly scenic, but lined with no trespassing signs. It’s sad to see that former working ranches have been carved up into multiple subdivisions, an increasing hallmark of the Rocky Mountain West, but at least the homes are built on large lots and sited unobtrusively. A caveat: Don’t be tempted to jump out of your vehicle and fish any of the streams along the way, especially the alluring beaver ponds the last few miles. It’s all private, all the way to the trailhead.
I cruise into the Rich Creek trailhead lot about 1 p.m. and my jaw drops further than it did this morning when I first caught site of the muddy torrent at Knight-Imler. Despite being a weekday, the lot is jam packed with vehicles. The only glimmer of hope is that it looks like most of the crowd is there to hike. Finally about a mile or so up the road the valley broadens, and I start to see beaver ponds. When I near the Weston Park campground, now closed, I spy a couple of huge picture-perfect beaver ponds. However I continue upstream to reconnoiter. As I bump up the road, rough in spots but passable for low-slung, 2WD vehicles, I see campers here and there dispersed along the river but no one fishing. At about a mile and a half above the Weston Park campground I finally can’t resist the siren’s call of another beautiful beaver pond, this one replete with a big beaver lodge and a few dimples on the calm water.
I suit up in chest waders and take along my wading staff…and soon glad I did. While most of the ponds I explore today have surprisingly firm bottoms that allow wading along the edges, they are too deep in spots for hip waders. Also, the shorelines of the ponds are usually boggy and that’s when a wading staff is a big help. I will leave the wet wading in these frigid waters to the young turks. If you do wet wade, however, be sure to have tight-fitting shoes with gravel guards as there is enough deep muck in places to fill them up with mud.
I’m using a four-weight, nine-foot rod that allows me to lay out long casts often necessary in beaver ponds. My dry is a bushy #18 Lime Trude attractor with a #18 red Two-Bit Hooker as my dropper. I start fishing in the deeper water just above the dam where I normally find the biggest fish lurking. But today I get nothing there, a scene that will be repeated throughout the day, even around beaver lodges that are usually trout magnets.
After a dozen fruitless casts, out of the corner of my eye I spy some risers in the shallows at the top end of the pond on either side of the river inlet (at the right side of the photo two above). I gingerly work my way around to the upper end through a marshy bog, my wading staff keeping me on an even keel. I take a careful step into the pond and promptly spook a couple of decent-looking fish that had been sunning in six inches of water under some brush along the shoreline. That will be the pattern for the day—finding most fish in the shallows, especially where there is some current. A slow, stealthy approach will be essential. I won’t catch anything in deeper water all day, not even the depths around the beaver lodges that are normally honey holes. My hunch is that the fish were sunning themselves, seeking out some warmth as well as the chow line the moving water provides.
I let the pond rest for a minute, then proceed gingerly towards a couple of fish that are feeding in a crystal clear run below the inlet. I cast upstream above them and let the dry float their way. BAM! With no hesitation one smacks the dry. The colorful little guy puts up a good tussle, cavorting around the shallows.
Despite all the rumpus, his buddy doesn’t seem to mind and nails the nymph on my next cast. For the next half hour I fool a dozen or more 6-10 inch willing and feisty brookies in the pond. Half take the dry, and half the nymph, with the dry being preferred by the larger fish. When the action dies down, I walk up the shallow river and probe a couple of likely looking spots but come up empty. I don’t see any brookies at all in the river, again a pattern that repeats itself all day. The river appears barren. I turn and begin wading back across the upper part of the pond towards my SUV. Fortunately, no one is there to witness me sinking knee deep into the muck-a-mire that looked like a firm sandbar. I begin to lurch forward in a full-frontal fall, saving myself from a complete dousing at the last second by plunging my arms forward through a foot of water into the mud. Without the wading staff to help with the extrication, I might have become a permanent fixture in the pond!
I hobble back to my vehicle dripping pond water and proceed forthwith downstream to the next picturesque pond where the action continues unabated in the shallow stretches near the inlet. Again, the trout are all small, but make up for their lack of size with willingness to please. Finally my growling stomach signals it’s time for lunch.
As I quaff my RC Cola energy drink and munch on my double-decker sandwich, I reflect on the history of Weston Pass Road, one of the highest in the country reaching almost 12,000 feet. It became known as the Road to Riches for hauling tons of gold and silver from the mines in Leadville on the west side of the pass to Fairplay and on to Denver.
Named after one Algernon Weston, a Kansas farmer who settled in the area and did some mining and ranching before becoming a judge and state senator, the road was carved out of this rugged terrain in the early 1860s. The toll road followed an old Ute Indian Trail to reach the gold and silver mines in Leadville. Following the Colorado silver rush in Leadville in the early 1870s, it reputedly became the busiest road in all of Colorado with 225 oxen teams conquering Weston Pass on one day in September of 1870. Astoundingly, at that time there were seven stage coaches and 11 freight wagons run over the pass daily by one company alone! Eight food, drink, and lodging establishments were built along the route in Park County. And I think I’m adventuresome coming up here in my 4WD SUV! Now the road bestows riches of a different kind. Another tidbit that I learned was that this area was protected as early as 1892 as part of the South Platte Forest Preserve and became part of Pike National Forest, one of the nation’s first national forests. (For a fascinating recounting of the area’s history, see the US Forest Service’s Weston Pass Auto Tour brochure online that is keyed to markers along Weston Pass road.)
By 2 o’clock I’m driving downstream in my waders to the next series of beaver ponds, these smaller with short sections of river between them. I hop out of the car, drain the floormat of water from my wading boots, and proceed to catch another dozen brookies. However, I can’t resist exploring the river again, which I am convinced must hold some fish in those tempting runs and pools. But again I don’t elicit any bites or even see any fish…until suddenly a good-size snout surfaces and snaps at the dry fly. It was so quick that I am wondering if my mind was playing tricks on me. No, it was definitely a fish and looked to be a rainbow or cutthroat. I throw another 10 casts upstream and get beautiful floats over the exact spot where I had the looker, but it’s all for naught. I continue upstream but don’t see another fish in the beautiful, clear water. Puzzling!
Now I figure that’s a sign to call it a day and trudge once again to my SUV and motor towards the Rich Creek trailhead and home. I pass by the fetching beaver ponds by the Weston Park campground, and just keep on trucking. But just as I get to the stretch where the valley narrows, I put on the brakes and whip a quick U-turn. It’s still early, the sun is still shining, and I did see some dimples in those ponds by the campground. I pull off to the side of the road just below the lower pond and start to work up.
Bingo! It pays off. On my second cast I fool the biggest brook of the day, a leviathan pushing 11 inches! Would you believe 10 1/2??
The fun continues as I work upstream, then I come to a short stretch of river between two ponds with a likely looking run along the bank below a plunge pool.
Got to be something there…and there is! I beautiful cutthroat slashes out from underneath the bank and inhales the nymph, confirming my instinct that there had to be fish in the river as well as the ponds.
After a quick photo and release, I retreat back downstream to the pond to retie my rig and as I do see a fish pushing a giant wake in the still water. This has to be something big, certainly not one of the little brookies I have been catching. I throw several long beautiful casts across the pond to the shallows on the other side, but come up empty. Talk about Loch Ness monsters!
Shaking my head, I start working again upstream and come to the plunge pool which is so deep I can’t see the bottom. I carefully cast to the side of the current in a back eddy and immediately the dry is yanked under as something gobbles down the nymph. I set the hook and instantly feel a weighty fish, my rod bending double. After a considerable ruckus I bring a nice cutthroat to my net that will measure almost 14 inches. So much for the fable that it’s nothing but small brookies up here!
The big cutthroat is a capstone for a delightful day, so I bushwhack my way downstream to the SUV and quaff a NA beer, smiling as I navigate back to the highway. Not a bootmark and nary an angler in sight all day. I know I’ll be back, especially after I get home and discover after a little more sleuthing on Google Earth that there are even more beaver bonds up the road a few miles from where I started fishing and some intriguing looking river stretches! Yes, indeed, finding fish AND solitude isn’t mission impossible in South Park after all.