I am always on the lookout for a new water to sample when making my weekly drive to Denver to do Grandpa duty with my little sweetheart Aly. I owe it to her for this latest discovery. I have had great days fishing some private water on lower Tarryall Creek below Tarryall Reservoir. But even though I have many times over the years zoomed past upper Tarryall Creek that flows under US Highway 285 just a few miles west of greater metropolitan Jefferson, Colorado, I never stopped to reconnoiter. It just didn’t look like much.
Now it’s mid July and I’m heading back to my cabin near Salida. Aly is with me, and I am excited about the prospect of her spending the entire week with me. We’ve already made plans to visit the alligator farm near the Great Sand Dunes National Park, do some lake fishing for rainbows, and swim in the relaxing pools at the Cottonwood Hot Springs. However, being a five-year old, patience is not one of her virtues so I have promised we would break up the three-hour drive with a lunch break near a “haunted” house I told her I spotted, on an earlier trip.
By “haunted,” I mean the big two-story historic but deteriorating Cline Ranch house visible from the highway near Jefferson. I pull off the pavement and follow the gravel road to a small parking lot. It’s odd, I think, because it only has four spaces, all of which are numbered. After lunch, I stroll over to a big sign next to the parking area and find out I have stumbled onto a state wildlife area that has not only preserved the historic ranch but also provides several miles of fishing on the upper Tarryall.
The story of how the ranch and creek were protected from development is not only fascinating but uplifting. It is the result of a great partnership among local, state, and federal agencies spearheaded by an old friend, Gary Nichols, the now-retired head of economic development and tourism for Park County. Gary was one of the most innovative public officials I had the pleasure of working with during my professional land use planning career. (For a good recounting of this ground-breaking effort, see parkco.us/650/Cline-Ranch.) While the preservation of the ranch and home was a big win for the public, just as interesting and creative is the English-style fishing “beat” system they installed for the long stretch of Tarryall Creek in the adjoining state wildlife area. The creek has been divided into four sections or “beats.” When you arrive at the parking lot, you park in one of the numbered spots, and that number becomes the beat that you have exclusive rights to fish that day and won’t see another soul on the water!! How’s that for solitude. Now the questions is, how good is the fishing??
Of course the ghostly tour is the first priority, and Aly has a great time peering in the windows of the main house and the outbuildings to see if there are any spooks about. Given the tattered, creepy appearance of the big home, which with its broken windows and peeling outer walls is in need of renovation, she is convinced that other-worldly spirits are definitely a possibility.
But Grandpa is already silently planning a return trip for supernatural experience of another kind on the creek.
A couple of weeks later I am on my way to Denver on a Sunday morning and a little before 9 a.m. turn off US 285 into the state wildlife area. It’s a beautiful sunny day with the temperatures a pleasant 70 degrees, warm for the chilly climes of South Park. I had checked the creek’s water level before leaving home. It stands at about 20 cfs according to the nearby state water gauge, a level I find good for most smaller creeks. (See my article on how to access and read the state water stations at https://hooknfly.com/2021/07/23/how-to-find-stream-water-levels-in-colorado-a-primer/). I have chosen a beat upstream from the parking area, and after suiting up in my chest waders, begin to follow the faint ranch road to the north. The vistas of the mountains are spectacular as is the carpet of colorful wildflowers—skyrockets, wild garlic, and wood betony abound.
The history of this area is intertwined with mining. One story of how the town was named is that some prospectors on the way to digs in California took some time to tarry here and rest up. It is amazing how the land has recovered from the wild days of the gold mining rush of the 1860s. This was placer mining country, and the first wave of prospectors reportedly found gold flakes as big as watermelon seeds! Miles of the creek upstream were chewed up in search of more. After gold was discovered in Tarryall Creek and other nearby streams a few years later, the town located just upstream from the beat I was headed to, numbered some 3,000 residents with a full complement of saloons, retail businesses, a hotel, and houses. Today little remains. The town was actually the county seat for a while. Its miner residents also had `a reputation for being greedy and not selling parts of their early claims to newcomers as was reportedly the custom. As a result, Tarryall was sometimes referred to as “Graball.” Before long the newcomers moved on and started a town they called “Fairplay” as a slap in the face of Tarryall.
After snapping some photos of the striking wildflowers, I get back to business. But now I am starting to wonder exactly where my beat starts. Finally I see a small white sign in the distance to the west near some bushes, about where the creek should be. I head that way and am relieved to see it reads “Angler Access” with a faint path leading into a thicket of brush. After a little bushwhacking, I stumble my way onto some water. But it’s dead looking with barely any flow, certainly not the 20 cfs I expected.
I look downstream and see a small beaver pond, so head that way, making my way carefully through the tall grass. I’m carrying my four-weight, 8.5-foot rod rigged with my old reliable Royal Coachman Trude in #16 with a beadhead caddis dropper. I carefully come up from below the little dam and peer over into the pond. I don’t see any fish, but try a few casts that turn out to be fruitless. I mount the dam and continue wading upstream in the shallow water, but don’t see any trout at all. Damn, I think! I have been hoodwinked.
I decide to turn back to the road but as I do, hear the loud noise of what sounds to be a waterfall. I grit my teeth and turn west for some more bushwhacking, and low and behold soon find what turns out to be the main channel with the promised good flow. I look upstream and see several good-looking pools between fast-running stretches. Then the fun begins!
In the first pool and on the very first cast a fish unceremoniously clobbers the dry, and I feel the tug of a good trout. Unfortunately my usual lightning-quick reflexes seem to have momentarily deserted me and I flub the strike, managing to prick the trout in the process. Fortunately he must have had a buddy close by because soon I am onto a nice plump and scrappy brown trout that also inhales the dry.
I continue upstream, and pick up another couple of brownies on the Royal Trude in the fast runs. But oddly when I get to the tempting deeper pools, I strike out, nothing apparently fooled by the caddis larva dropper. I double-check the creek rocks and find many more mayflies nymphs than caddis so switch to a #18 red Two-Bit Hooker that imitates the mayflies. That changes the odds, and I start to pick up some bigger fish subsurface
I’m having a good time when I come to a gigantic, six-foot high beaver dam with a huge pond backed up behind it. Fish are rising steadily all over—it looks like beaver pond nirvana.
I stealthily climb part way up on the dam and loft a cast towards one of the risers. He immediately inhales the dry and the fight is on. Second cast, same result.
But then things go dead. I get follows and nips at the Trude and dropper, but no connections even though the trout continue to rise up and down the long pond.
I flail the water a little longer, then finally decide the risers must be targeting small midges or mosquitos. I quickly substitute a #20 dark mayfly dry for the trailing mayfly nymph–a double-dry fly set up. Although microscopic, I can see the mayfly dry that sports a white foam top post for visibility as well as better floatation.
With renewed confidence, I move up to the upper section of the pond. I spot a riser and drops a cast above the ring he’s created in the water. The trout attacks the little fly as if it hasn’t eaten in a week and puts up a worthy battle before sliding into my net. I definitely have punched the ticket as several more beauties quickly follow.
The fast action continues for 11”-13” trout as I wade out into the pond and work the shoreline and then the inlet creek. I spot a good fish rising at the edge of deep run in the inlet creek 30 feet upstream just below where a rivulet drops its water into the creek. I kneel so as not to spook the fish I know are there and drop the flies in the current several feet above the pool.
The two dries float into the deeper water and immediately a big trout slashes up and devours the little mayfly. It’s a big one, maybe pushing 15-inches. He runs downstream but I put the brakes on him, my rod bending perilously. He reverses course and heads back to the safety of his home pool…and the snags lining the shoreline. I run up the creek and try to head off the critter, but he makes it to a submerged branch at the top of the pool before I can turn him. Undaunted, I plunge into the deep pool, thankful for my chest waders. Miraculously, when I reach down and grab my line, I can still feel the trout gyrating about. I start to untangle my leader from the snag and just as I think I have him, the line goes limp. He’s broken off!
I retreat back to a nearby sandbar and rerig with a small black #20 dry and carry on resolutely upstream where I spy a beautiful foamy run along an undercut bank that looks promising. It lives up to its promise: I quickly catch and release three healthy, feisty brownies that are intent on getting into the snags that line the undercut shoreline. This time I am able to winch them away before disaster strikes and bring them to the net.
release the third one, I hear a branch snap upstream and look up to see a big moose within a stone’s throw staring intently at me. Then I see she’s with a calf. Anyone who has come face-to-face with a momma moose with a calf knows the next step is to look for a tree close by that one can scale quickly if and when she charges. I spy a likely candidate, but fortunately before I turn tail and run, she apparently decides a rickety old septuagenarian must not be much of a threat and ambles off into the brush with her offspring. Nothing like a close encounter of the moose kind to get the adrenaline flowing.
I continue on upstream for another half hour, catching browns steadily all the way, most on the tiny dry trailer but several on the Trude in faster water. Finally my stomach is growling for an RC Cola injection so I pause for lunch on the banks of a big, deep pool at a bend in the creek. As I munch my lunch, I sit quietly and observe the trout that are rising sporadically. A couple that are feasting at the head of the pool in a tricky lie under some overhanging branches naturally look the biggest. Naturally!
Reenergized, I slide carefully back into the water and with a bit of luck drop an overhead cast just above the risers. Immediately there is a loud slurp and the tiny trailing dry disappears. Fight on! This skirmish is easier than the battle before lunch as the big boy shoots downstream for the alleged safety of the deep pool. But this gives me a lot of room to maneuver without any apparent submerged snags to worry about. Soon a muscular browning nudging 14-inches comes in for a quick release. I repeat the sequence and right on cue another good one gulps the tiny dry and succumbs after a good battle. Three more good brownies follow suit rising from the depths of the pool to feast on the tiny dry.
I continue upstream with steady action both on the Trude and his tiny companion in a sequence of alluring pools.
Then I run smack dab into another big beaver dam that I can barely see over. In the broad pond above I catch sight of risers here and there plus another big dam above that.
But it’s going to take a high-wire act to scale and walk the dam then a slog through a mushy marshy shoreline to proceed above that. I check my watch and it’s 2 p.m. by now. I know I better be heading back to the SUV so I can beat the Sunday traffic returning to Denver that routinely clogs US 285. It’s a painful decision to leave this early, but there’s always later in the week when I return to Salida via the same route.
Now the challenge is to find a path out through the marshy terrain, thick brush, and tall grass back to the ranch road. I mush through the marsh then come to a side channel that’s flowing out of the upper beaver pond. I step in to test the bottom and promptly stumble on a big 15-inch brown trout that swims away insouciantly. After some false starts, I finally find a faint game trail that eventually leads me out without further insult or injury. On the way back I can’t but help pause to take more photos of the wildflowers and mountain peaks.
It’s been a rewarding day catching a couple of dozen healthy, pugnacious browns in only five hours. I’m glad I took my 4-weight rod to scrap with the muscular trout and that I wore my chest waders to navigate the beaver ponds. Now I can’t wait to sample the other three beats of Tarryall Creek