I’m on one of my frequent summer trips to fish remote creeks in and around the La Garita Wilderness area south of Gunnison, Colorado. For several years on these outings I crossed over three small creeks that feed into one of my favorite waters, Cochetopa Creek, miles downstream. All three have one thing in common—they spring from the flanks of mighty Stewart Peak which, along with nearby San Luis Peak, towers over the wilderness area.
But honestly, all three looked too small—often barely a trickle—to hold any fish at all. Nevertheless, several years ago I rolled the dice and decided to sample Chavez Creek and found out how wrong I was. The next year I tested Pauline Creek and had a further awakening. Both were loaded with fish, some bigger than 15-inch bragging size. But I never got around to sampling the third, Nutras Creek, always flying by it as I hustled to the nearby Eddiesville trailhead where I could hike in to fish the headwaters of Cochetopa Creek. I should not have been surprised Nutras Creek would turn out to be another small stream delight—beautiful water, great scenery, carpets of wildflowers, and eager fish with nary a boot mark anywhere. It lived up to its meaning in Old Spanish—”providing nourishment.”
The article that follows below recounts a recent day on Nutras, just outside the boundaries of the wilderness area. I have provided links to my previous articles on fishing Chavez and Pauline Creeks at the end of the blog.
I’m up early and on the road to Nutras at 7:45 to cover the almost 20 miles from my mobile fish camp at Upper Dome Lake. It will take me about one hour to reach the Nutras Creek trailhead on FS 794 (County Road 14DD), a decent gravel road suitable for high-clearance 4WD and AWD vehicles. As I climb higher and round a bend in the road I come face-to-face with the stunning pyramid mountain that is Stewart Peak.
It is one of the biggest 13ers in the state at 13,983 feet, and although 31 feet shorter than nearby San Luis Peak, it dominates the landscape being closer to the road.
As I explored the terrain via Google Maps before this trip, I discovered that not only do Chavez and Pauline Creeks spring from Stewart’s rugged volcanic flanks, but Nutras as well. To further whet my angling appetite, using Google Maps I spied a series of more than a dozen big beaver ponds above and below the access road (FS 794) that looked very promising.
I couldn’t find much more on-line that was written about fishing Nutras, except a post from an old guidebook that mentioned the fishing was “good to very good” for brookies “6-14 inches.” Now that’s hard to resist!
As I drive up FS 794, I cross over Pauline and Chavez Creeks and find, not surprisingly, they are very low given the serious drought gripping this part of Colorado. But in the past I have noticed Nutras consistently had a better flow than Pauline and Chavez, and when I get to the trailhead I see it still holds true.
Springing from the south flank of Stewart and Baldy Alto peak, the water is clear and the flow a decent 10-15 CFS. In the past I have seen vehicles parked at the trailhead, mainly hikers, but today I have it to myself.
My game plan is to hike downstream about two miles to a second in a series of beaver ponds below the road that show up on Google Maps and fish up from there. I’ll have lunch at the trailhead then fish above the road hitting five big beaver ponds that Google Maps reveals.
I’m hit the trail by 9:00 a.m., suited up in my waist-high waders and carrying an 8.5 foot fly rod. The trail is on a slope above the north side of the creek, but gets fainter as it penetrates the valley below, sometimes disappearing altogether.
It’s an easy descent into the valley with plenty of shady spots to provide a respite from the bright sunshine this morning. I resist the urge to hit a small beaver pond and inviting stretch of creek water a few hundred yards below the road.
Soon I start up an incline that peaks at a barb-wire fence then descends to the first beaver ponds. But my jaw drops when I see that only one beaver pond is visible, and it is partially blown out and shallow.
The ones supposedly just downstream from the first are gone, breached or destroyed several years ago judging by the height of the meadow grass and bushes above what’s left of the dams. I quietly chastise Google Maps for not updating the satellite images on line. This has happened to me before on other creeks courtesy of outdated Google Maps information. However, just as I am about ready to turn tail and head back upstream, I think I see a rise dimple the surface of the last remaining pond. That persuades me to continue downstream another mile or so to a second alluring string of beaver ponds showing up Google Maps, while fishing the creek along the way.
As I continue my march, the path fades in and out, now more of a game trail than one for hikers. But at least there is solitude and gorgeous abundant wildflowers to savor. Soon I come upon a stretch of creek below another blown-out beaver dam that features a nice plunge pool that surely must hold fish. I sneak carefully down to the creek and lay out a long cast from a kneeling position….and draw a goose egg. Second and third casts, same result. Puzzled, I decide to wade in and see if I can scare any fish into revealing themselves. I spy a few mini three-inchers scurrying for cover, but nothing of catchable size. Unfortunately, this pattern—no bites and mini-fish, will be repeated all the way down to the next set of beaver ponds. Or should I say former beaver ponds. As I round a bend in the valley and climb higher on the slope for a better view, I can see every one of the ponds promised on Google Maps is gone, deceased, departed, defunct.
Suddenly I catch the distinct odor of Mephitus mephitis, AKA a pesky polecat! Is a skunk in the offing? With tail between my legs, I do an immediate about face and head back to that lone pond back up the trail where I think I saw a rise.
My disappointment is salved somewhat by one of the most prolific wildflower displays I have seen in this year of the drought.
I find that Nutras is fed by many small rivulets, each creating a haven for three of my favorite wildflowers—mountain bluebells, monkshoods, and elephant heads. Even the drier slopes are ablaze with red skyrockets. At least it’s going to be a good ecotour if not a productive fishing trip.
Soon I am back at the shallow pond, a mere shadow of what must have been a magnificent water judging by the size of the dam.
As I sneak down from the trail I see a couple of showy, splashy rises that confirms the pond does indeed hold some fish despite being very shallow. I carefully approach from below the dam and peer over the edge and smile when I spot 20-30 trout schooled up in the middle—only about three feet deep—and others rising and feeding actively along the edges and below the creek inlet. I tie on an attractor dry, a #16 Royal Trude, and a #18 Tung Teaser nymph below.
I throw a long cast to where I see some trout feeding at the inlet and as soon as the flies hit the water something smacks the nymph before it can sink. The fish is small—a 6-inch brookie—but puts up a valiant fight.
Next cast produces a colorful, bigger fish. For the next half hour I catch about a dozen more alternating as my targets the school in the deepest hole, the inlet, and fish cruising the edges.
Half succumb to the dry and half to the nymph. Great fun, but finally I worry the remaining trout into retreat. The skunk has been avoided with an exclamation point!!
Given my success in the pond, I decide to try the good-looking stretch of creek below the dam, but no dice again. I don’t even see a fish! And by now my stomach is growling so I tip my hat to the pond brookies and climb back up to the trail and start upstream towards the road, admiring the abundant wildflowers on the way.
However, before I reach my lunch, I get sidetracked by a rise in the creek a few hundred yards downstream of the road. The creek here is slower moving and has more bends where fish can hide out in deeper pools. I carefully bushwhack down and promptly spook the fish that was rising, but he’s at least bigger than the three-inch Lilliputians I saw earlier in the day.
Soon I come to a very enticing but tricky pool where the creek flows through a narrow slot between two bushes. The water is deep enough that I can’t see the bottom. I luck out and thread the needle with my first cast, laying the dry/nymph rig just below the opening. The dry is immediately pulled under as a nice brookie eats the nymph. He puts up a good fight, another colorful 10-inch plus fish.
The next pool and run below an intact beaver dam are filled with eager brookies, a half a dozen or so succumbing to the lure of my flies.
Then I add another half dozen in the shallow pond above as I execute a high-wire act tip-toeing across the top of the dam to reach the deeper areas, saved twice by my wading staff from a cold dunking when I misstep off the dam and start sinking in the muck.
Once off the dam, I continue upstream and catch a few more in the stream right below the road—all healthy, feisty 6-10 inch brookies.
By now it’s almost 1 p.m. and with my wrist aching from the tugs of the behemoth brookies, I decide it’s lunch time. Up to now it has been a beautiful sunny day, but the afternoon monsoon clouds start to pile up and spitting rain just as I set up my folding chair for lunch. I retreat hastily to my SUV. Fortunately as I finish eating, the rain lets up. I decide to walk up the trail to higher ground to do a little reconnaissance and get another surprise—all but two of the beaver ponds shown on Google Maps above the road are gone.
Upon investigation I discover one is stagnant, not longer being fed by the creek, and the other is only two-inches deep! My only option is to try the stream, and it soon produces a 10-inch beauty.
I continue working upstream, but the creek narrows and is soon overgrown by bushes, making casting an adventure. I trudge on, and am about to call it day when I spy a hidden pool where the creek makes a bend to the south. Then I see a big trout—at least 14-inches—finning in the crystal clear water. I can’t tell if it’s a brookie or cutthroat, but it is by far the biggest fish I have seen all day.
The fish has positioned himself right at the bend, perpendicular to the creek stretch where I am wading up from below. I have two choices now, either throwing a tricky curve cast around the bend so the flies alight above him, or climbing out of the creek and sneaking up from behind through a tangle of branches and thorny bushes where he is less likely to see me. Not being partial to some serious bushwhacking this late in the day, with great confidence I decide to throw the curve cast. Before the flies can alight, the bruiser immediately sees me as I wave my wand back and forth. When I look again he is long gone to who knows where. I have to smile, gallows humor I suppose, scaring of the best fish of the day. Because I don’t fancy bushwhacking through more of the tangled vegetation above in pursuit of his brethren, I decide to call it a day.
As I trudge back through the wet meadow to my SUV, I start comparing Nutras in my mind with Chavez and Pauline. Certainly the brookies here can’t match the size of the fish in those two streams, but the scenery and carpets of wildflowers make up for any deficit. And I’ll always wonder what it would have been like if those big beaver ponds were still intact. Or maybe I should have hiked downstream further to where Nutras feeds into Cochetopa Creek in a canyon below. Perhaps next time!
Below are links to articles on fishing the rest of the Stewart Peak creek trio:
Chavez originates on the northeast flank of Stewart Peak and picks up water from its tributary tiny Perfecto Creek. Above the confluence is good fishing for brookies with occasional brown trout, and below there are big beaver ponds and stream stretches harboring some sizeable brown trout as well as a smattering of rainbows and cutthroats.
Pauline springs from the north side of Stewart Peak and is also fed by water from Baldy Chato mountain. Below FS 794 and its confluence with Chavez Creek you will find some extensive beaver ponds and pools that hold nice browns and rainbows, but require a short, but steep hike to the water below.