The Sweet Trio Of Creeks Of Stewart Peak

July 2020

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.

Stewart Peak Looms Over La Garita Wilderness

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.

Google Map Promises Beaver Ponds Along Nutras Creek

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. 

Trail On North Side Of Creek

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. 

Creek And Beaver Ponds Just Downstream From 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.

Remnant Beaver Pond

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.

Phantom Beaver Ponds On Google Maps

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. 

Big Old Beaver Dam No Longer Holds Big Pond

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.

Shallow Remnant Beaver Pond Still Holds Plenty Of Fish

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. 

First Fish Of Day–A Wee Brookie

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.

A Fat “Lunker” From Beaver Pond

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.

Creek Brookie

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. 

Productive Run Below Beaver Dam

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.

Remnant Beaver Ponds Above Road

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.

Grand Finale Brookie

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 Creek: 

https://hooknfly.com/2017/08/06/return-to-chavez-creek-high-above-gunnison-colorado/

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 Creek:

https://hooknfly.com/2015/08/27/the-perils-and-pleasures-of-pauline-creek-that-is/

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.

Birthday Fishing Trip Part Deux: Grizzled Grandpa Garners Rare Double

Late July 2020

For Part One Of My Annual Birthday Fishing Trip, see: https://hooknfly.com/2020/07/27/spry-sly-septuagenarian-scores-birthday-slam/

It has been my tradition over the last decade to take a solo multi-day fishing trip into the Colorado backcountry to celebrate my birthday.  Helps clear the mind and get back closer to nature and the beauty of the world.  This year I set up my mobile fish camp near a high-mountain lake and fished some old standby streams and some new waters for five days.  To make things interesting and test my angling skills, I always try on one day to catch and release as many fish as my years on the planet.  As my years pile up, it becomes more of a challenge.  But this year, my first day out was a smashing success, and I was able to reach my piscatorial goal and even exceed it while scoring a nice slam—cutthroat, brown, and brookie in one day.  OK, OK I won’t mention that monster cutthroat that got off . He was aided by a rascally brookie that helped him escape by hitting the trailing dropper on my two fly-rig while the big boy was cavorting about with my dry in his mouth.  At least I landed the little brookie!

Now the pressure is off and I can relax even a little more on my second day out.  I’m on the road early for the long drive to the trailhead.  The temperature outside is a balmy 38 degrees.  The weather report is for the monsoon rains to abate today, but as I drive down the bumpy gravel road the rain is spitting on my windshield, and dark clouds are hanging low over the nearby ridges.  Suddenly, however, as the sun begins to peek through, the clouds start to lift and a blazing, big rainbow appears.  Got to be some big trout at the end of that rainbow!

Somewhere Over The Rainbow…

By 8 a.m. I’m at the canyon rim overlooking the small creek that I have never sampled, far in the backcountry.  I scouted it out last summer, but this time around the hike down looks a little more daunting.  Could be my knees talking.  But then I see a few cows in the meadow below and figure if they can scramble down so can I.  After a little searching along the rim I find their narrow path that snakes down to the valley floor. 

The Cowpath To Paradise

Once I get about halfway I see I can detour to a gentler slope that emerges at a series of beautiful serpentine bends in the creek that shout “trout!”

I stow my lunch box under some bushes and take off downstream with my new Temple Fork BVK rod that the company was gracious enough to offer me as a replacement when I lost the top section of my favorite TF Lefty Kreh rod when bushwhacking along another stream back in June.  It’s an ultra-light, 4# fast-action 8.5 foot fly rod made out of some new high-tech graphite, weighing less than three ounces.  It has the power to make long casts that are often required in small creeks when the water is skinny and  ample backbone to handle bigger fish in tight quarters when they bolt for brush in undercut banks.  I’m rigged under a 5X leader with my old reliable #16 Royal Coachman Trude as the dry with a #18 Tung Teaser that worked well yesterday trailing a couple of feet below on 5x leader material. 

My aim is to walk downstream about a mile and work my way back up for lunch, then after lunch explore upstream.  Of course who can resist taking a couple of casts in the alluring pools on the way down.  Certainly not I!  The first one, a big pool at a serpentine bend in the creek, I approach carefully from below.  While the water is at a decent level—maybe 20 cfs—it is very clear so any careless wading will quickly alert the fish.  The water is shockingly cold as it was yesterday so happy I am wearing some waist-high waders that are made for hiking.  I make a cast off to the side of the current to get a feel for the new rod and BAM! nice brownie slams the dry.  He’s a fat 13-incher that will be the typical catch today. 

I take one more fish then decide I better get back to the mission.  I am aiming for a beautiful pinnacle that juts up downstream from the valley floor in the distance.  I’ve gone about a half mile when I hear cattle moowing then start to see a steady stream of them going the opposite direction from me.  Then more and more bellowing and finally I hear a whinny. A cowboy soon appears with two border collies.  I’m in the middle of a full-fledged cattle drive!!  After the cattle pass the rugged looking old cowboy and I chew the fat for a while. 

He apologizes for interrupting my fishing, but I tell him I’m headed further down.  I tell him I know, having been raised on a farm in Kansas with some cows, how tough a job it is tending the critters.  He smiles and answers he agrees but wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world—lets him be in the great outdoors every day.  I tip my hat to this sign of the Old West as he trots off. 

As I proceed downstream I stumble on the site of what I am told is one of the cowboys’ favorite pastimes when they take a break from the trail—a cow pie Frisbee field.  I am told tossing and catching these enormous organic Frisbees is a true physical feat and I can see why. 

Cowboy Frisbee Equipment

Unfortunately these contests have been temporarily banned here in Colorado due to Covid19.  Maybe next time I’ll get to see the real thing.

In other 15 minutes I’m at the palisades and am greeted by a swarming flight of cliff swallows.  I soon see why—they have created dozens of little mud houses on the sheer cliff.  Talk about homes with a view! 

It’s a treat to watch them wheeling and dealing in the air, then returning to the nests to feed their young.  I decide to start fishing in a nice run a little further down the faint trail and immediately catch a couple of browns, then just as I am congratulating myself on my piscatorial perspicacity I hook and lose near the shoreline what looks to be a 16” plus cutthroat. 

Nice Runs And Pools Below Palisades

For the next couple of hours I proceed back upstream, catching two or three fish out of every likely spot—most are 12-13” fat and healthy brownies with an occasional 14-incher. About half are on the dry and half on the numph. Some of the larger ones are in the shallows warming themselves in the bright sun, and the fish get bigger as I work back up.  I score a couple of doubles—two fish on one cast, one on each fly.  One double results in a wild fight as the fish are both 13 inches and have a mind to go in opposite direction.  I get several browns that go 14-inches, then just before lunch see one rising tight against the bank just below where a nub of brush sticks out in the run.  I kneel and make a perfect cast upstream in the current, and as the fly whirls past the little protrusion a big brownie rises like an apparition and gently sips in the fly.  I’m mesmerized watching the take, but finally snap to it and set the hook.  All hell immediately breaks loose as the big brownie jets upstream with me in hot pursuit—this old coot stills has some wheels!  He reaches some rapids at the head of the pool and immediately reverses course and jets by me the other way.  He heads back to his hideout in the undercut bank that is loaded with snags, but my rod is up to the task, and I’m able to horse him away from danger.  A minute later after a great tussle, I slide him to the shoreline. 

15-Inch Brownie Caps Good Morning

I think this is a good conclusion to a great morning, and my stomach is making noises, so I walk up to a nearby big rock formation with overhanging ledges that offer some shelter from the bright sun, the temperature now pushing 75 degrees. 

Ledges At Foot Of Rock Formation Provide Shady Lunch Spot

Now to get my lunch.  Fifteen minutes later I am still looking for that pesky lunch box.  I start to think maybe some animal got it or that a stealthy cowboy is now feasting on my victuals.  I thought I knew exactly the bush I stowed it under, but how they are looking all the same.  Finally after walking a quarter mile back downstream I spot a little bit of red under a bush that I walked right by earlier in the morning.  There it is! Note to file:  Tag the bush or tree where lunch is hidden in shade with short piece of bright orange construction tape.

Lunch is a relaxing affair under the ledge.  When I finish I lounge for another 15 minutes rerigging my flies, substituting a caddis nymph with sparkling mylar ribbing for the Tung Teaser and then kicking back and watching the puffy cumulus clouds drifting overhead.  It’s an activity that every angler should engage in a few times each season.  Makes you feel like a kid again and helps recharge the batteries.  Can you see the cloud that looks like a happy elephant??

Laughing Elephant Cloud Formation

I’m back on the stream around 2 p.m. and fish till 3:30.  It’s hot now by mountain standards—and the water has warmed a tad.  I have good steady action and get a couple more nice muscular 14-inch browns and several surprise cutthroats. 

Nice Afternoon Brownies

Finally I say to myself for the fifth time, this is the last pool.  No sooner does my fly alight then the water explodes in a double hit.  It’s utter mayhem as the two trout dash up and down the pool.  Usain Bolt would have been proud of my speed scurrying up and down the shoreline, splashing as I go.  When the duo finally come to the net I am amazed to see that the two fish I have caught are different species—one a brown and the other a cutt, both about 13 inches.  While doubles are not uncommon, even on small stream, they are still unusual and a pleasant surprise.  But in all my years of fishing, this is a first, a real rarity—two different kinds on one cast.

Brownie-Cutthroat Double Caps Great Day

With a smile, I release the two beauties and think what better way to end the day.  Also as I check the sky out, I see the cumulus clouds are starting to bunch up and darken.  Time to start the hike out which turns out not to be as bad as I anticipated. 

Up Up And Away We Go

My wading staff helps me weave back and forth across the steep slope, and then I hit the cattle trail to speed to the top.  Huffing and puffing, I come out a few hundred yards from my SUV and pause to look back into the canyon. 

Homeward Bound

It’s been another fabulous birthday trip adventure replete with lots of fish, great scenery, and solitude–with a little excitement thrown in being in the middle of a cattle drive.  I am already thinking about my next outing on little Nutras Creek, one of the few I haven’t explored in the La Garita Wilderness area.  I’ll take one day off to rest the old body then off I go again!!  Join me!

Spry, Sly Septuagenarian Scores Birthday Slam

July 2020

It has been a tradition of mine over the last decade to take a solo multi-day birthday fishing trip into the Colorado backcountry.  Helps clear the mind and get back closer to nature and the beauty of the world, and no reminders of Covid! This year I set up my mobile fish camp near a high-mountain lake and fish several old standby streams and some new waters for five days.  The annual monsoon rains started early this summer—thankfully, because we are in a serious drought—and rain has been hanging around off and on with more in the forecast. 

Daily Monsoon Rains Make Fishing Dicey

I need to get in a full day on the water to reach my annual benchmark—to catch and release as many fish as my years on the planet—72!  I’ve been successful each year, but as the years pile up, it becomes more of a challenge.  Will the rain relent?  Will the angling gods smile once again on a grizzled old codger?  

Can Cagey Old Codger Do It? Hope Springs Eternal!

Will my knees hold up when I hike into the canyon where the small stream I have my sights on flows?

Here goes!  Come on along where the rivers love to run.

On The Cusp Of 72–Years And Fish

Did I fool 72??  See for yourself!

Out In The Country….Where The Rivers Like To Run

I made the grade just after lunch. Most appropriately #72 was a native cutthroat, a feisty little beauty.

Number 72–A Beautiful Native Cutthroat

Of course the proverbial biggest fish of the day gets away just as I am thinking of how I will be bragging to my fishing buddies. I am working up a narrow section of the creek between two broad meadow stretches. Instead of deep bend pools, I am suddenly hopscotching over rocks between fast-running plunge pools. I come to one featuring a big boulder that splits the current with a swirling deep hole of water behind it. Perfect spot for a big one….and it is. I drop a short cast right behind the boulder, and as my Royal Trude pirouettes around the pool it suddenly, but not unexpectedly, disappears in the maw of a big trout. The battle is on. It’s a full minute before I get a glimpse of the leviathan, a big colorful cutthroat that is pushing 18-inches! The biggest fish I caught earlier in the day was 14-inches. Slowly I persuade the big boy away from his hideout and then keep him from running downstream where he will surely break off. I keep applying pressure oh so carefully and have him almost to my net when suddenly my line is jerked sideways. Another fish has taken the trailing Tung Teaser nymph. This of course spooks my trophy who takes off running pell mell downstream in the opposite direction. I watch helplessly as my prize pulls loose. I am left with a lilliputian eight-inch brook trout. The skies turn a darker shade of blue as epithets careened off the rock walls.

But the story doesn’t end on that sour note. A couple of hours later I have joined the century club–over 100 fish–and have scored a coveted slam: cutthroats, brookies, and brownies. Not a bad birthday present!

Return To Sand Creek Lakes: Revenge Of The Skunked!

Early July 2020

My first trip to the beautiful remote Sand Creek Lakes high above the Wet Mountain Valley in Colorado was in 2017, a year of the big runoff. The Arkansas and local streams around my home base of Salida were blown out and muddy well into July. As a consequence, by mid-June I was going a bit stir crazy and had contracted fishing fever. I needed to chase some trout in the worst way, so I turned my attention to the high alpine lakes nearby. One in particular—Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Westcliffe—caught my eye. I had heard tales of giant cutthroats there, which were confirmed by my high country lake bible, Tom Parkes’ excellent Central Colorado Alpine Lakes Fishing Guide. He wrote “The lake has large cutthroats (approaching two pounds)…” What sane angler could resist??

My next step was to research the trail over Music Pass to the lake in more detail.  Even for a youthful septuagenarian like me, it looked to be a challenge—an up and down and up almost four mile one-way hike to nearly 12,000 feet with a good possibility of running into snow banks along the trail and around the lake.  But the lure of cruising leviathans won out. 

It was all worthwhile humping over the pass and crunching through snow banks on the trail when I got that first glimpse of the lake and immediately spotted the behemoths finning along the shoreline within casting distance.  Parkes had not been exaggerating.  That was around noon.   By 5:30 p.m. when I had to hightail it back to my SUV to beat the dark, I was skunked!  I had thrown every fly in my mountain fly box at them, had post holed through snow to reach the west side of the lake that was supposed to be productive, and had even broken out my ultralight spin outfit and thrown spinners like the normally reliable purple Vibrex at them.  The cutts studiously ignored all offerings, the boys being much more interested in chasing the girls.  Amore was in the air along with the distinct odor of skunk, something that had not happened to me in years! As I scrambled and grumbled back over Music Pass to the trailhead I vowed, like General MacArthur, I shall return.

Now three years later I am on the road from my cabin at 6 a.m. to make the Music Pass trailhead by 8. While the waters in my neck of the wood are lower and more fishable this year, the wind has been howling every day for practically two weeks making fly fishing nearly impossible.  Today it is supposed to lay down substantially.   I am resolute to avenge that ignominious skunk while celebrating my oldest son Ben’s birth on this very date, July 1, 35 years ago. 

It’s an easy drive through the little hamlet of Westcliffe until I reach the Grape Creek trailhead, but beyond that the gravel road deteriorates quickly into a bone-jarring rough track suitable only for real off-road ready 4WD vehicles with an experienced driver behind the wheel.  It takes me almost 30 minutes to cover the last three miles. 

Since my trip in 2017 I’ve turned 70 and my knees aren’t what they used to be even a few short years ago.  Could I make the long hike to Upper Sand Creek Lake again? I decide it may be wiser to head for the lower lake that requires about a mile shorter hike in, but is still up and down.  Also, the fish are also supposedly smaller.  I consult with my knees and get the green light only for the lower lake.  Sanity thus prevails. 

When I get to the Music Pass trailhead I am surprised to find six vehicles already there, reminding me the 4th of July weekend is coming up and many people are already out taking advantage of the holiday falling on a Saturday.  Fortunately most will turn out to be hikers, not anglers.  I quickly begin gearing up, stuffing my daypack with food, drink, and fishing paraphernalia.  As I get ready to hit the trail, another vehicle pulls up and two gents about my age emerge.  They begin loading up their big backpacks—at least 60 pounds—including packing fly rods.  I strike up a conversation with the two amiable chaps, Roland and George, and learn they are setting out for a week-long stay in the Sand Creek Valley to fish both lakes.  My daypack, although loaded to the gills, weighs probably a measly 30 pounds.  So that does it, I can do it if they can.

Graciously, the duo allow me to play like a wily race car driver and slipstream behind them, saving some energy. 

View Of The Wet Mountain Valley From Music Pass Trail

Still after a rugged 1.25 mile climb over a nasty trail to Music Pass, with an elevation gain of almost 1,000 feet, I am wheezing and barely keeping up with the hearty pair.

Roland And George–Intrepid Anglers!

We sign in dutifully at the wilderness boundary and decide to take a little rest.

The boys look worried when at the pass I do my imitation of Red Foxx’s heart attack skit—“It’s the big one!!  I’m coming to you honey!!”  Gallows humor I’m thinking. 

It’s The Big One!!

After the hijinks, we are soon scooting downhill to the point where the trail forks—to the left leads over Sand Creek then up to the lower lake in a bit over one mile. To the right at 1.7 miles is the upper lake.

Down From Music Pass And Into The Wilds

Along the way, we bump into a couple of young backpackers who tell us they had good luck in the lower lakes for cutthroat.  I’m beaming!  Also along the way, we get a sobering wake-up call as Roland, an agile 74, suddenly takes a nasty tumble on a scree-like section of the trail.  Fortunately although he comes down hard on his back side and left wrist, he avoids serious injury.  He shows his true angling colors by immediately remarking that thankfully he didn’t land on his casting wrist! It does remind me why I carry a Garmin InReach emergency satellite phone on these backcountry trips.

As we near the fork we say our good byes as they split off to set up camp in a meadow nearby.  I continue on to the crossing over Sand Creek where I take a breather, resisting the urge to break out my fly rod and sample the scenic little water.  On earlier trips Roland and George reported they had fun catching the smaller trout I can see finning in several pools. 

Alluring Sand Creek

As I cool off in the shade, I reflect on the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which has a fascinating history including Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, and American explorers like Zebulon Pike and John Fremont.  First designated as a national monument in 1932 as a result of lobbying by local citizens worried about gold mining in Medano Creek, the Great Sands Dunes were elevated to a national park and preserve in 2004.  The core national park covers about 168 square miles, mainly the towering sand dunes, and the preserve another 233 square miles that encompasses the surrounding range of high mountain peaks and lakes, including Upper and Lower Sand Creek Lakes.  Some activities such as hunting that are prohibited in the national park are permitted in the preserve.

After a brief respite to recharge my batteries, I ford Sand Creek by tiptoeing across the top of a log jam. My smile fades soon thereafter as I encounter the first in a series of steep switchbacks that no one seemed to have mentioned in their on-line posts about the trail. I have been back from my winter hideout in Florida for almost a month, but am still quickly wheezing as I pass the 11,000-foot elevation mark. It takes me almost an hour to navigate the final mile, but fortunately am distracted by a couple of curious deer and beautiful wildflowers between frequent breathers.

Curious Mule Deer On Trail

But all doubts fade quickly when I see the beautiful lake water and the magnificent Tijares Peak towering directly above at 13,612 feet. Tijares is Spanish for scissors, an apt name for the rugged, sharp-edged, serrated mountain and line of peaks that dominate the skyline. And better yet, no one is around!!

Jagged Tijeras Peak Towers Over Lower Sand Creek Lake

As I approach the lake shore, the wind kicks up unexpectedly strong from the north, not what the weatherman predicted. But then again anyone who has fished alpine lakes knows that the winds are completely unpredictable and are likely to change directions and wax and wane throughout the day. But if I’m going to fly fish, I need to find a sheltered shoreline. Then I remember that in his mountain lakes guidebook, Tom Parkes mentions a hidden cove on the south end of the lake that just might be the ticket. Sure enough, as I trek along the south shoreline, I see the curve of the cove, its entry having been obscured by a peninsula of land that juts out into the lake.

Gimme Shelter–Hidden Cove At South End Of Lake

I hike over the peninsula ridge and immediately the wind abates…and better yet, I see trout dimpling the calm, clear lake water, and they don’t appear to be small as some posts reported.

I quickly stow my pack and start to rig my fly rod, soaking in the sun’s warming rays.  But then it dawns on me it’s going to be a challenge casting along the shoreline here crowded with spruce and pine trees.  And wading isn’t an option at this point because the bank drops off sharply into deep water.  So I also pull out my ultralight spinning pack rod and rig it with an old reliable alpine lake combination of two nymphs—a zug bug and zebra midge trailing a clear bubble.  As I approach the water to scope things out, I spy a good-sized cutthroat feeding over deep water.  He’s too far out to reach with the fly rod, so I grab the spinning rod and throw a cast 15-feet in front of the cruising fish.  As soon as the flies hit the water he jets forward at light speed and nails the zug bug without hesitation before it sinks even a foot!  As I tussle with the cutt, I think I have the ticket to success.  Surprisingly, it will be the only fish I take all day on the spin outfit or on a nymph.  Such are the vicissitudes of alpine lake fishing.

Fat Cutthroat–First Fish Of The Day

After 15 minutes of fruitlessly flailing the water with the nymph combo, I decide to walk back from the point of the peninsula further into the cove where I see the water is much shallower. As I approach, I spy some big cutthroats cruising in the clear water, nonchalantly picking small bugs off the surface. I see one working his way towards me only a few feet from the shoreline and hastily tie a #16 foam beetle on my fly line, a morsel that has successfully tempted many alpine lake trout. The bank is lined with trees, so I have to execute a tricky cast parallel to the shoreline, leaning out of the water to give me room to execute. My efforts are rewarded as he sidles up to the fly, opens his mouth and …..darts away at the last second.

After several more casts with the beetle and no takers, I switch to a smaller #18 black ant. Soon, a nice colorful 16-inch cutt casually sucks in the fly. Now I think I’m onto the right pattern, but again a succession of fish scrutinize the ant but shy away at the last moment. Frustrated, I get down on my belly and lean out over the water to get a better look at what the timid trout are feeding on—some very, very small little midges. So I tie on a #20 black midge emerger, but still only get brief looks and no hits. I step down further to a #22 black midge dry with a white foam top that enables me to see the microscopic offering on the water.

I lay a gentle cast a few feet in front of another big cruiser and success!  He sucks in the fly without hesitation, and the fight is on.  He’s strong, but with my trusty old Sage 9-foot, 5# fly rod, the cutthroat finally succumbs, agrees to a quick photo, and is back on his way.  From then on for the rest of the day, it’s a movable feast! 

For the next hour in the cove, I hide behind the trees and wait, letting the trout come to me, often in pairs.  I target the larger ones, and net a beauty that goes 17-inches! 

Big Colorful 17″ Cutt

The only glitch is a short period where several trout come up to the midge, examine it closely, then refuse to take. I finally conduct a close examination of the fly and discover a small wind knot in the leader an inch in front of the fly. In the clear water apparently the fish can see this tiny glitch. I retie, and the fish again cooperate. By noon I have caught a dozen more beautiful cutthroats of several varieties. Some look like natives and other the more colorful Yellowstone Cutthroat that have been stocked here. Who am I to quibble?

After lunch I decide to work around to the south end of the cove where two creeks feed in. 

Hidden Cove Looking North

On the way I continue sight fishing for cruising fish in the shallow flats, having a blast trying to lay the fly in their path, close but not too close to spook them. Luckily there are no trees crowding the shoreline so the casting is easy.

Sight Fishing For Cruising Cutthroats

I’m successful about one out of four tries.  When I get to the creeks, I find smaller fish already spawning there, but the big girls and boys are cruising and feeding just off-shore, often within casting range in two-three feet of water.  By 3:30 p.m. I have caught another dozen, including a showy 16-incher. 

It’s been one of the best days I have had in years on an alpine lake, where the fish can often be extremely finicky.  It’s certainly been the most fun—sight fishing for big trout and getting to watch them take in the crystal clear water!  And the odor of skunk has definitely dissipated in the clean mountain air. 

Now it’s time to head home. Last trip it took me two hours to hike out, but now it will be closer to three. As I start trekking back down towards the fork on the steep switchbacks, my knees immediately start complaining—going down is often tougher than hiking up. So I slow down and take a little time to reflect on the 72 years I have had on this beautiful planet. Thirty-five years ago at noon in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, hospital I first held my oldest son Benjamin in my arms. Back then fathers were not allowed in the delivery room but had to wait in a little waiting room for nervous dads just down the hall. I suddenly heard a baby cry, and then a nurse appeared with small bundle. Ben squinted up at me, his expression seeming to say, “Who’s that!” Now 35 years later he’s grown into a fine young man who excelled academically at Colorado College and then studying for his master’s degree in history from Texas A&M—who would have thought I would have ever raised an Aggie!! Now he works for a law enforcement agency using his smarts to track down the bad guys. I reflect on how lucky I am to have two good boys—his younger brother Matthew is a wonderful, doting father to my #1 sweetheart and fishing buddy Aly.

Proud Dad With Ben (on right) and Matthew

I suppose most fathers ask at some point as they age what they would have done differently, how they could have done better for their children. I tried to give my boys a world view and to stoke their curiosity by taking them on trips to Africa, Great Britain, Greece, the Boundary Canoe Waters of Minnesota, and other interesting places. I was happy to pass on my love of tennis to them—both played varsity for East High, a big public school in Denver, and could handle me on the courts by the time they were seniors. Matthew even won the Denver Public Schools doubles championship. We had great fun along the way peeling around Denver in that old 1987 Corvette and lots of fun camping and fishing in the streams of lakes of Colorado and exotic places like the Boundary Waters for northern pike and smallmouth bass and the backcountry of Alaska for salmon and grayling. I hope they will always stay curious and also remember that if you follow all the rules you’ll miss all the fun.

I probably traveled too much on business in the 1990s when I was starting my land use consulting firm, having been fired with just three days notice from my job as an agency head in Denver by a new mayor. But fortunately they had a wonderful mother who filled the gaps I left and gave them much more. I think many guys in my generation were that way, putting business and work ahead of family at times, but there’s nothing like being unemployed with two kids at home to focus your attention. If I had to do it over again, I would draw brighter lines between work and the rest of my life.

My musings are abruptly interrupted as I start the steep climb up from the trail fork to the top of Music Pass.

What Comes Down Must Go Back Up! Whew!!

I finally make it with the assistance of numerous short stops in the shady spots along the route,  pausing to admire the wonderful views and wildflowers.

Shooting Stars

Plentiful Lupines

But the worst is yet to come.  The mile-long plus trail from Music Pass to the trailhead is in terrible shape—eroded and strewn with loose rocks, a sad commentary on how this wealthy nation has short-changed its agencies that take care of our public lands. 

Music Pass Trail Back To SUV—No Picnic For Old Codgers!

I nearly lose it twice, my legs slipping out from under me as the rocks break loose under my feet, saved only by my hiking pole slowing my abrupt descent.

I realize, sadly, that this will probably be the last time I will hike to the Sand Creek Lakes. My knees are just not up to it, the penalty for playing too much tennis and basketball in my earlier years. Not that I regret that, but just end up now paying the price. Indeed I will be hobbling around for a couple of weeks after this hike. I know, happily, there are still lots of remote places with fish to explore that will not require what one of my fishing buddies wryly calls a DDM—Duerksen Death March. I’m already planning that for that one in a couple of weeks, a secret little creek I stumbled on last summer with relatively easy access and just loaded with wild trout! More on that one in my next article!!

P.S.—If you want to sample the fabulous cutthroat fishing on either of the Sand Creek Lakes, do it soon.  The National Park and U.S. Forest Services have plans to restore the Sand Creek drainage, including both lakes, with native, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats.  That will mean poisoning all existing fish in the lakes and creek.  Check the status of these plans on-line before you go.

Nomenclature Nag: A Big Beautiful Trout Is NOT A Toad, Slab, or Pig/Hog

July 2020

One of the real satisfactions and enjoyment I get from my Facebook fishing groups is reading posts from young 20- and 30-something anglers like my son as they hone their fly fishing skills while catching (and releasing) some beautiful muscular trout here in Colorado. But I have to admit to an urge to scream and gnash my teeth when these young bloods refer to their trophies as Toads, Slabs, and Pigs/Hogs. I think some of this jargon may have been imported from booyah southern bass fishermen, but whatever the case it seems sacrilegious to use four words in the English language that conjure up ugliness to describe something so rare and stunning or to introduce those terms into the gentle and civilized sport of fly fishing! So in the spirit of imparting some tips on nomenclature from an irascible septuagenarian who has been chasing trout for over 50 years, I offer the following guidance on acceptable terminology for describing your trophy.

First, a short primer on what is NOT allowed:

TOAD—this is what a toad looks like:

SLAB—this is what a slab looks like:

PIG/HOG—this is what a pig/hog looks like:

Now that those pejorative descriptive terms have been banished from your youthful vocabularies, here are some suggestions for more appropriate adjectives to describe your outsized catch:  Monster, Huge, Gigantic, Gargantuan, Colossal, Titanic, Whopper.   And for those of you who want to project a more erudite, cultured aura, please consider Leviathan or Brobdingnagian. 

Thank you, dudes, for considering this rant from an increasingly curmudgeonly old codger. Please resume fishing at your earliest opportunity.