It’s been a wonderful summer and fall with family and friends in Colorado. The trout have been more than cooperative. A lot of good memories etched.
But the arrival today of little slate-colored juncos at my cabin to be followed tomorrow by sub-zero temps and snow signals it’s time to think about island time in the Florida Glades…and soon! Then again maybe time for a couple more backcountry outings before I hit the road.
It’s been a rewarding year writing my blog, and as of September 1st the number of views and visitors just surpassed all of 2017! 50,000 views and 20,000 visitors are in sight for 2018. As well as providing an admitted excuse to go fishing and explore remote places, my main goal is to help reinforce and build the constituency to preserve and protect these wild and wonderful places. An added and very satisfying benefit has been connecting with people and making new friends around the USA and the world—readers from over 50 countries. One example—a fellow from Australia is planning to come over and kayak fish with me next year!! But I think most gratifying and unexpected have been the heartwarming stories from readers like the young college student who wrote to say she had been searching for the name and location of the lake where her grandfather, who had recently passed away, took her fishing as a young girl. She wanted to revisit that special place as a tribute to him. She couldn’t find it until she happened to read my article on Island Lake in Colorado, and when she saw my photos knew that was the place. Brought tears to my eyes as I thought of the fishing trips I’ve been taking with my little granddaughter Aly and her Daddy this summer. Other readers shared happy memories of having fished, in their younger days, the creeks and lakes featured in my blog. In doing so they have enriched my life and made me determined to share more stories of special places in the coming year, knees willing and the creeks don’t rise!
I am always on the lookout for a new, scenic, out-of-the-way creek overlooked and rarely visited by other anglers, where there is solitude and hungry fish. But sometimes the little gems are hiding in plain sight. That’s the case with the upper reaches of Tomichi Creek, just over Monarch Pass from my cabin near Salida, Colorado. I have hustled by the creek many times on the way to fish fabled waters like the Gunnison River or my favorite backcountry streams like Cochetopa Creek. As you come bombing down the twisty, turny U.S. 50 from one of the highest paved vehicle passes in the USA, you descend into a lovely valley where gorgeous little Tomichi Creek flows through private ranchland–visible and within a stone’s throw of this major highway. But awhile back on my way to Cochetopa Creek, I noticed a sign on a fence along the highway declaring special access, so I turned around and took a look. I was surprised to find that the Colorado State Land Board owns a full section along the road called Daley Gulch near the hamlet of Sargents, and it was open to fishing. I tucked away that information till a year later when I was hankering for a mid-week trout fix but had to be back home for a conference call by 4 p.m. Oh those pesky clients! I figured if I left early and was on the water by 8:30 a.m. I could fish till 1 or 2 p.m. and make it back to the office with ease. Now this was admittedly a long shot–a little like the Trifectas and Daily Doubles I used to bet on at Arlington Park in Chicago. The creek is very small as it flows through Daley Gulch, and with public access so close to a major highway I expected it probably got plenty of pressure. But with high hopes, that evening I rigged two rods, got the waders and boots out, set the alarm, and hit the rack with chubby trout dancing in my head.
Day 1: Daley Double On Tomichi Creek–See my July 2016 article on fishing Tomichi Creek at Daley Gulch
Day 2: Tomichi Creek: Hidden In Plain Sight—The Lower Canyon Section—See my June 2018 article on fishing Tomichi Creek below Sargents, Colorado.
Day 2.5: Exploring The Tomichi Creek Headwaters
After a good half-day of angling for scrappy brown trout in the canyon stretch of Tomichi Creek below Sargents, Colorado, I decide to drive up to the headwards—about 9 miles north of the town. The colorfully named U.S. Forest Service Snowblind Campground is my destination for a late lunch before I explore the upper reaches of the creek.
The turnoff for County Road 888 is just over a mile north of Sargents off of U.S. 50. Then it’s a scenic drive through the Cross Bar Ranch, a well-tended working spread. I nearly bump into a momma cow and her calf as I salivate over the picturesque creek wending its way through the valley.
The ranch is reportedly owned by a millionaire businessman out of Miami, and there is no fishing access for the public until you reach the campground, about nine miles from the U.S. 50 turnoff.
The pavement ends about three miles up followed by six miles of a decent gravel road. The county road crosses Tomichi Creek just before it reaches the campground. Up here at about 9,000 feet elevation, it is rollicking little mountain freestone water, with canyon walls starting to pinch in and spruce and pines covering the slopes.
The campground is a so-called “primitive” one because it has only vault toilets and water. No 50 amp hookups for those roughing it in 40-foot RVs! But a nice little travel trailer or tent would be just perfect in this well-laid out facility. The bonus is that Tomichi Creek runs right through the middle. There were plenty of open sites this day, so I got get one right next to the creek for my lunch break.
Very relaxing and just what I needed after the ordeal of having to land all those fish earlier in the day.
After lunch I reconnoiter upstream. A mile or so up the road I pass the well-tended White Pine cemetery then in another mile the former ghost town of White Pine, now a little village of summer homes.
There is a lot of history up here, mostly related to mining. Silver was discovered in 1878, and a boom let to the creation of White Pine, named for the dense stands of pine on the surrounding slopes. The boom peaked in 1884 when the town had almost 1,000 people, a newspaper, three saloons and several hotels.
It’s hard to imagine all that development shoehorned into this cramped valley. Indeed the tough topography made building a challenge and transportation in and out a travail , not to mention deadly avalanches. When the Silver Panic hit in 1893, White Pine soon became a ghost down. There was a revival in the early 1900s when the Akron Mining Company drove an almost mile-long tunnel into nearby Lake Hill and pulled out coal and zinc. The mine continued in operation until the 1950s, supplying critical metals like zinc, lead, and copper in two World Wars. When the mine closed, White Pine again faded.
Of course what got left behind was a legacy of pollution and scars upon the land, a story repeated throughout Colorado and the West. Toxic sediment from a huge pile of waste rock and mine tailings that abutted the creek near White Pine for years damaged the trout population in the Tomichi. Downstream the Tomichi Mill site on the stream was also heavily polluted.
The fish—browns and brookies—were still there, somehow managing to survive, but the long-term future of any aquatic life in the upper Tomichi was dim. That is until the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. EPA teamed with other agencies and Colorado Trout Unlimited in 2015 to clean things up. This award-winning $1.5 million major earth-moving and remediation project, has recently been successfully completed and things are looking up and the results are promising. The photos below depict the heavy earth moving required and before and after conditions. (These project photos are from an excellent 2017 article on the remediation efforts by Jason Willis, the Trout Unlimited project manager, available on-line.).
Not that things are completely hunky dory. When I start to explore a promising stretch of the creek below White Pine, I find very few bugs in the water—almost no mayfly nymphs and a few caddis nymphs here and there. Further downstream around Sargents the predominant bug is still the caddis which can withstand pollution better than mayflies, indicating that heavy metal pollutants are likely still present courtesy of the upstream mines. But the fish are there in the headwaters, as witnessed by electroshocking done prior to the remediation project.
This is no stream for beginners, especially between the campground and White Pine. Rarely will you flip a cast longer than the length of your leader. The creek is mostly fast-moving water with tiny pockets where the fish hide.
My first little brownie flashed out lickety-split to nail my #16 Royal Coachman Trude, but any bushy high-floater will do. I also get one on a small #18 green hotwire caddis nymph trailing a foot under the dry—any longer dropper will just result in more snags in the willows and assorted trees and brush crowding the creek.
You will get snagged and probably break off a fly or two, and you will be tempted to scream epithets, but it is still fun. And just remember there are some sizable brownies that rarely see a fly hiding underneath the thicket. Did I mention there are also several miles of beaver ponds on Tomichi Creek above White Pine that I have yet to explore….let me know how you do!
Bahia Honda State Park in the Lower Florida Keys is routinely on lists of the ten best beaches in the USA, and coupled with its well-appointed seaside campgrounds, crystal clear waters, and scenic historic railroad bridge, it’s not surprising it is one of the state’s most popular parks. But what about the fishing?? Can tarpon, snapper, permit, and barracuda find happiness among the sun worshippers who throng to the white sand beaches of Bahia Honda Key?? And what havoc did Hurricane Irma wreak on the island? I fished around Bahia Honda a couple of years ago and had shots at some nice permit and caught scads of voracious barracuda. I’m back on my annual May trip to the Keys and decide to spend a couple of days wade and kayak fishing here, circumnavigating Bahia Honda in my kayak as well as sampling the waters of nearby Spanish Harbor and Ohio Keys. What I discovered was both shocking and encouraging—Irma drastically reshaped the landscape and the fishing. The Good News: The fishing is as good as ever!
On my fishing trip yesterday, on the cusp of Father’s Day, I thought a lot about my Dad, Benjamin Franklin Duerksen. Now how many men do you know named after that Founding Father! I am sure he was smiling at the fun I was having catching those frisky trout. He gave me my love of the outdoors—we spent many days and nights on the banks of the Little Ar-Kansas River near my hometown in Kansas fishing with worms and frogs for channel catfish, bullhead, and anything else that would bite. Dad was also a pro at noodling—illegal handfishing for big flathead catfish. Even Mennonites have vices!!
We later graduated to minnows and lures in lakes and chasing white bass, crappie, and anything else that would bite. On those exciting overnight trips to Kanopolis Reservoir, 60 miles away, we just slept in the big old 1951 DeSoto car, Dad in the front seat and me in the back.
We also spent a lot of time bird watching, especially on Sunday. After Sunday School he would head out into the sandhills in the DeSoto with my sister Susan and me while Mom was fixing our dinner (noon meal). I still have my first Audobon bird book…a prized possession.
Dad was a simple, laid-back Mennonite farm boy. He played football in college at 5’8” and 150 pounds, married Mom the day after she graduated from high school in 1942, served on the crew of a B-17 bomber in the Army Air Corps in WWII (which was highly unusual for a Mennonite kid given Mennonites are a pacifist religion). He came back home to farm with his father after the war, then started teaching in the 1950s to supplement the farm income when a couple of wheat crops got hailed out. He taught math and social studies for over 30 years in nearby small-town grade schools, sometimes serving as principal, always coaching basketball and baseball. A couple of years he coached my Cub Scout baseball team to the regional championship. We sat in front of the radio and listened and went to a lot of Hutch Juco and Wichita State basketball games together back then. On special trips to Kansas City, we watched the old KC Athletics at Municipal Stadium—still remember seeing Mantle and Maris hit back-to-back homers in 1960, the year Maris broke Ruth’s record. I got us into trouble when I jumped onto the field after the game to run the bases. Fortunately he rescued me before the umps could corral me. Thankfully he continued to farm so I got to spend a lot of time with him every summer driving tractor, hauling wheat to the mills, plowing fields, planting wheat in the fall while listening to the World Series on my transistor radio. Not many boys get to spend so much what we now call “quality” time with their dads. Not saying at the time I fully appreciated the dawn-to-dark work regimen during plowing season!
Dad was very easy-going. I only saw him lose his temper a couple of times and the closest he came to cussing was saying “by damn!” But he was also very competitive—never ever did he let me beat him at ping-pong or checkers, although I could best him on the b-ball court in H-O-R-S-E. He still shot a two-handed set shot of his day so I called jump and hook shots which he had trouble with. Mom was the day-to-day disciplinarian in the family, but believe me I remember well each of the three spankings I got from him. The worst was when as a teenager I was disrespectful of my Mom. Yikes!! Lesson learned!!
Dad never pushed me in sports or academics, and indeed he didn’t say a word when in my junior year in college I switched my long-time plan to be a doctor and instead went to law school. But I think I got his slight nod of approval the day after my graduation from law school, which he and Mom had driven to Chicago to attend. He was leaning back in a big easy chair in our apartment when he looked at me and asked, “So how much does a young lawyer make these days?” That was an unusual question from a Mennonite–they don’t dwell much on money. I answered, “About $16,000.” Which was about twice what he was making as a teacher after years in the classroom. His response? “Hmmm, I guess being a lawyer isn’t so bad after all.” I still can’t stop laughing when I think about that!! Thanks, Dad, for everything. Miss you.