Mid-May Near Buena Vista, Colorado
I’m wild again, beguiled again….
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered…am I.
1957 Classic Frank Sinatra Song
It’s that time of year in Colorado when the runoff starts, wiping out most of my favorite creeks. It’s then my thoughts turn to beaver ponds that actually seem to get better with the higher flows. For almost 25 years as I drove from my cabin near Salida, Colorado, to Denver I sped by little Trout Creek along US Highway 285 just east of Buena Vista, not paying much attention to the new beaver ponds popping up here and there close by. With each trip I became more intrigued, and my appetite was further whetted when some recon on Google Maps revealed over a dozen in a short two-mile stretch. I finally resolved to stop and give them a try in 2021.
Then to stoke my curiosity further, I heard from the good gentlemen at my local fly shop in Salida, ArkAnglers, that before a flash flood hit the canyon a decade or so ago, some sizeable brown trout called the waters home. Now thoroughly bewitched, I planned an exploratory expedition.
It was a warm spring day in May when I took the bait. The view from a turnout on US 285 made it look easy, some of the ponds literally a stone’s throw away, and what appeared to be a decent jeep trail paralleling the creek below. Duck soup!!
I bumped down the dirt road into the canyon, parked my SUV, and began to suit up. Daydreaming of trout to come, it took me a while to realize I had driven over a big ant hill and was under an attack by a voracious army of big black and red denizens thereof. They were already advancing to the top of my waders when I broke for freedom, slapping wildly at the truculent critters. My quick retreat to the front of the SUV was fortunately successful. As I caught my breath, I hatched my plan of attack: I would walk down the trail about a quarter mile then work my way back up to the SUV for lunch, then continue upstream in the afternoon.
Soon I was hustling down the two-track trail carrying two rods. One was a 7 ½ foot three weight good for casting in tight quarters in channels between ponds and the other an 8 1/2 foot four weight good for longer casts required on big ponds. It was easy going. When I rounded a bend a marmot scurried across the road as he objected to my presence. Then I came face-to-face with the WALL—an apparently impenetrable thicket of eight-foot high willows probably more effective than that other, more famous one of recent vintage. With a barbed wire fence and very steep slope to my right, there was no way of getting around it so I plunged forward holding my rods high above my head pointed towards the sky and all the while muttering to myself.
After several minutes of bushwhacking and increasingly loud protestations I finally broke out into a little clearing and spied a narrow bench just above the willows that was not completely overgrown. I clawed my way up the steep slope and continued my journey. Soon I was at the big beaver pond I had targeted from the highway turnout above. It was picture perfect, framed by the towering Mt. Princeton in the distance.
And I noticed a swirling mass of midges hovering over the water so I tied on a red #20 red zebra midge below a #18 black caddis dry. All systems appeared to be go!
As I waded in carefully, I snipped off a cattail for my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly who loves to blow mightily to scatter the fluffy seeds. But as I got closer my excitement started to wane—most of the pond except for a few feet of dark green water above the dam was shallow, only a foot or so deep in most places. I took one more stealthy step out into the pond and was surprised by three nice brownies, that had been hiding along the shoreline, jetting by at light speed down to the dam pool. I figured that would end any hope of fish out of this pond, and it did. Despite a couple of dozen casts towards the dam pool and upstream, I came up empty.
Undeterred, I finally started up through the firm-bottomed upper end of the pond to target the pool below the dam above. I knelt in the current and pinpointed a cast right into the plunge pool where the water spilled over the brushy obstruction, then watched my fly float jauntily down in the current. Five casts later I was still skunked.
I moved up slowly and peered over the dam and saw one little dink rise to take a midge. Swallowing any semblance of pride, I targeted the Lilliputian. My flies landed gently near the riser, but did not rate even a look. More casts, same result. I then mounted the dam carefully to scope out the pool, but even though it was an alluring green and least three feet deep, there was nary a fish in sight.
I carefully slithered into the pool to continue upstream and moved towards the water’s edge to work up to the next dam and pond just above. I jammed my trusty wading staff into the shoreline muck and pulled my old frame up. Unfortunately, my legs slid in the opposite direction and I executed a nice full-frontal dunking. Fortunately the water was sufficiently shallow that I did not take in any water down my waders, only managing to coat myself with mud. It would be the first of three graceful dunkings I would accomplish during the day.
Impervious to the ignominy, I continued upstream. After two more unproductive ponds, I began to wonder if there were any fish here at all. I decided one more dam and pool and then it might be time to fly the white flag. This pond was a little different. There was indeed the nice deep, but small pool just above the dam, then a long stretch of shallow water, and a short run below the dam above. I worked the deep pool with several casts, but it was no dice again. I then mounted the dam and threw some long casts towards the shoreline in the shallow midsection, hoping that some trout might be sunning themselves there as was the case in the first pond. Not to be, although I did manage to hang up my line several times in the damn dam sticks and twigs.
Then I noticed there was a second current coming into the pond from a side channel to the north that appeared deeper than the one above near the dam. I crept slowly into casting position, and after my flies alighted delicately, starting stripping them in slowly. KERCHUNK went the caddis dry as something nailed the zebra midge. I feisty brownie soon came to the net. Never has an eleven-inch fish been so wildly celebrated.
It was then I could see that he had been lying at the bottom of a crystal clear three-foot deep pool fed by a nice flow from the north channel. Probably more fish in there I thought, which was confirmed after I took one more step to get into a better casting position and spooked a half dozen trout, including a couple of larger ones, that were ensconced five feet below where I had hooked the first.
From there, my circumstances only deteriorated, and I became increasingly bothered as the main creek channel and ponds became increasingly narrow and overgrown. Casting was next to impossible because of overhanging branches, and when I would wade up into the uncastable pools below the dams, inevitably I would scare a good fish or two. Finally I came to the end of the road….or dams I should say. Beyond this beautiful but constricted pond was another impenetrable wall of willows where the creek split into several channels and disappeared.
I carefully slid up towards the dam and unfurled a lovely cast that somehow avoided the overhang branches, possibly more a testament to luck than skill. No sooner did the flies hit the water than something nailed the midge and the battle was on. The trout romped wildly back and forth across the narrow pool as I tried to horse it away from one shoreline then the other. Finally the fish had pity on me and came to the net, a beautiful 13-inch well-fed brownie.
By now it was almost 1:30 p.m., and my stomach was growling. Fortunately I found a tight escape route through the willows where elk or deer had crashed through. Although I did snap one fly off somewhere in the tangle, I made it out and back to my vehicle in one piece. On the way I scurried up a ridge above the two-track trail I had come in on and spied what looked to be a couple of comely ponds that had been invisible from the trail.
I instantly scrapped my plan to head home and decided to subject myself to further perplexity after lunch. But an important lesson was learned: Whenever possible get up high to get a look down at the ponds and potential approaches. Google Maps satellite shots are often outdated, and as I would soon find out, the best venue on this stretch of the creek is on the steep slope south of and above the creek. It affords a birds-eye and relatively close-up view of the water and string of ponds below in the upper part of this section. Also there is no willow thicket on the south side to crash through to get to the water.
So that’s where I headed right after lunch. I strolled a couple of hundred yards back east up the trail looking for a route that would let me get to that south slope where I could get a better look. Luckily I found a break in the willows and brush than let me scamper down a short steep incline to a broad wet meadow that borders the creek. I strolled up to the shallow upper end of the first pond on this stretch and promptly scared the daylights out of a half dozen trout, several approaching 15-inches, all of whom retreated far downstream! I could only shake my head. Must have been sunning themselves—the water barely covered them. I fished the creek above but with no luck then waded across and ascended the steep south slope, relying on my wading staff to help pull me up. A stunning view downstream greeted me, revealing a series of textbook beaver dams and pools.
I continued to carefully pick my way west along the steep slope towards the last of the beaver ponds. On the way I admired the beautiful rock formations and colorful outcroppings of granite and pure white quartz deposits. I took a small piece of the quartz for Aly, what she calls a treasure.
When I neared the last pond I gingerly descended the slope, using the wading staff to slow my descent, and slipped into the water below the dam. Everything looked perfect.
My cast over the dam was delicate. I let the water settle then started a slow retrieve. A couple of short strips and something yanked hard on the line. I set the hook, and the fish went deep then ran straight towards me and the dam which would no doubt entangle the line in the clutter of branches. I lifted the rod hard to stop the rush, and the trout rolled on the surface. It was a big, golden-hued brownie that was 16-plus inches. That was the last I saw of him as the fly pulled loose.
Now I was ready for some steady action, having solved the equation. But it wasn’t to be. I flogged the water of the ponds above with nary a strike or look. I saw a few fish and a rise, but struck out completely. And as if to add to the injury and insult, I managed to work in another fall on the slippery shoreline where I narrowly avoided impaling my hand on some sharp stubby willow gnawings left courtesy of the local beaver cabal. Color me bewildered!
When I got back to my SUV and peeled off my waders, I reflected on what was one of my most challenging days of fishing in years. Yes the scenery was terrific, and it had been a nice ecotour with gold finches, ducks, geese, and some noisy, nosy red-wing blackbirds playing hide and seek with me. But maybe I should have done more reconnoitering in person from above to better understand the waterscape rather than just looking on-line before plunging in. Probably should have experimented with more flies, maybe the old reliable beaver pond offering the zug bug or even a leech or streamer pattern. But as I chastised and flagellated myself, I couldn’t help but take a gander on Google Maps of the next incredible series of beaver ponds just a short drive upstream. That’s when I started planning the return of the sly septuagenarian!