Per-spi-ca-ci-ty: The quality of having a ready insight into things; keenness of mental perception; shrewdness
With the epic runoff this year and most rivers and streams blown out till mid-July or later, smart anglers are turning their attention to beaver ponds, many of which remain fishable. But truth is, beaver ponds can be honey holes any time of the fly fishing season and loads of fun.
They are usually lightly fished and often hold scads of eager fish plus occasional lunkers. Did I mention the wildlife that abounds around them??
But they can be challenging, often calling for a distinctly different approach than the waters that feed them.
I still remember clearly that first beaver pond I met in Colorado as a novice teenage fly fisherman. I saw trout rising everywhere in a picture-perfect pond featuring a big beaver lodge in the middle, and promptly spooked them to the next county as I confidently walked up to the shoreline and started casting. Bass and bluegill never did that in the Kansas farm ponds where I had practiced learning this new art. Like most small mountain trout waters, stealth is critical, and even more so on the often clear, shallow, and still waters of beaver ponds. But as experience taught me over time, there is much more to successful beaver pond angling than stealth. They are not all alike, sometimes differing dramatically on the same creek. They can also vary radically from year-to-year, sometimes disappearing completely as high flows bust them up or silt fills in the best holding water.
Here Today…Gone Tomorrow
Never fear! Here are some tips on solving the riddle of these unique and intriguing waters that I have gleaned over the years in the school of hard knocks.
My annual birthday backcountry fishing trip continues, this time with a trek into the upper La Garita Wilderness to fish the headwaters of Cochetopa Creek high along the Colorado Trail. The last couple of summers I have explored the stretches below and above the Eddiesville Trailhead that leads into the wilderness and had a blast catching lots of frisky browns and brook trout (See my July 2015 article on fishing Cochetopa Creek for more detail.). But what really intrigued me was when I bumped into another angler on one of those trips who claimed there were some big cutthroats higher in the wilderness area, beyond the first mile I had hiked up into. Now we all know that, present company and readership excepted, anglers are a mendacious lot, obscuring secret spots and misdirecting others to barren waters. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist as the tale had a ring of truth to it.
So I am on the road at 7 a.m. from my mobile fish camp at Dome Lake high above Gunnison, Colorado, for the 20-mile, hour-long drive to the Eddiesville Trailhead.
It rained last night, a godsend in the midst of this terrible drought, and at least the dust has settled on Forest Service 794, a wash-boardy, circuitous gravel road that crosses several creeks on the way.
I pass an historic marker that reminds me I am on an old 1874 toll stage route that navigated over the jagged peaks of the Continental Divide to the gold mines in the remote San Juan Mountains miles and miles to the west. Just when I think I am quite the adventurer the sign serves notice that I shrink in comparison to the hearty, tough souls who trail-blazed here years ago. It’s hard to comprehend how they built this road hundreds of miles by hand with mules and horses over this rough terrain. It was supposed to become a rail line, but was eclipsed by other equally daunting routes to the north and south.
It’s an endlessly scenic route, with the pyramid of Stewart Peak a prominent landmark looming in the distance and grand vistas revealed at every bend in the road.
However, when I make the first ford over Pauline Creek, I am aghast to find that it’s barely a trickle. Then I cross Perfecto, and find one of my little favorites is actually dry!! As I make my way up higher, Chavez Creek is almost dry, and while Nutras is gurgling along fairly well, Stewart Creek appears to have given up the ghost. Will Cochetopa have any water???
As soon as I arrive at the trailhead, I bail out of my SUV and hightail it to the nearest overlook… and breathe a sigh of relief. Cochetopa appears to have a decent flow, certainly enough to float a trout. So I pull on my waders and wading boots and set out on the hike up into the wilderness.
I intersect Cochetopa Creek after about 1.3 miles. It looks beautiful in the morning light, with perfect temperatures and just a light breeze greeting me. The fishing gods are smiling on me.
After a brief breather and a tremendous display of willpower to refrain from jumping in the creek and start fishing, I continue another mile into the wilderness, hoping I have ventured far enough to run into some cutthroats.
When the valley narrows, and trail veers away from the creek, I bushwhack down the slope to the creek and break out just below a sweet-looking little stretch where the water emerges from a willow tunnel and plunges over a small boulder into an alluring pool. I have seen a few grasshoppers in the meadow above, and when I check under rocks in the stream, I find them chock full of small mayflies and a few caddis nymph cases.
So I tie on a #16 Royal Coachman Trude, my old reliable, to imitate the hopper and a #18 Two-Bit Hooker as a fake mayfly nymph. I am using a nine-foot, five-weight rod I find performs well in these small creeks when a big fish hits and runs for snags under the banks. It will soon prove its mettle.
On my very first cast just below the boulder, a substantial fish flashes out and nails the trude. He proceeds to dive under the boulder and gyrates off the hook. Hmmm…looked suspiciously like a cutthroat, so maybe the guy wasn’t pulling my leg last summer. I flip another cast towards the boulder, and am fast onto another decent fish on the nymph. But this one is a brookie.
A couple of casts later, I score a double—two brookies, one on the dry and one on the dropper. Maybe I was only imagining that first one looked like a cutt. Anyway, that double signals what will be an epic century-club day, landing and releasing dozens and dozens of eager fish who act like they haven’t had a meal in weeks.
Fortunately, only a couple of pools later the truth emerges, and I am smiling. I land a beautiful cutt—not a big one, but hope springs eternal.
As I work upstream, I find the best bets are the pools gouged out by the rushing creek below blown out beaver dams. Indeed, the first one I come to I see a trout feeding.
I sneak into position, launch a long cast, and SLURP, he sucks in the trude. I can tell immediately from his flashy colors that it’s a good cutthroat. After a respectable to-and-fro battle, he slides into my net, pushing fourteen inches. A quick release is followed by a celebratory jig on the bank! Yahoo!!
The further I move upstream, the more the cutts predominate. Sometimes the stunning scenery detracts me from the mission at hand, but I snap out of the daze at the next run below another blown-out beaver pond. There I spy a good-sized trout sucking down mayflies in the quiet water below. On my first cast, he studiously ignores the dry, but on the next, can’t resist the nymph. The pool explodes as the finned critter realizes he’s been pranked with a fake. To my surprise and elation, it’s a nice brown trout—completing another La Garita slam (See my July 2018 articles on fishing Saguache Creek in the La Garita Wilderness just over the Continental Divide a few miles.). It turns out to be the only brownie I catch all day, a bit odd since only a mile downstream the browns are plentiful.
It’s snack time, so I sit on the bank and soak some rays while taking in the picturesque setting. But not for long! I see on my GPS there are some big beaver ponds just ahead, so gird for battle. Beaver ponds are always an interesting, and often frustrating, challenge. I sneak up on the first one and peek over the dam. It’s a gorgeous big pond, with trout dimpling the surface in every direction. It doesn’t take long before I am fast onto a frisky little brook trout, followed by many others.
I continue to cast to risers, with long throws often required. But what fun, including a couple more doubles.
And as I emerge from behind the dam and skirt the shoreline, I spot some foot-long plus brookies cruising the shallows just below the creek inlet. I throw another long cast at a big boy in the crystal clear water, and he jets over to nail it before the little tykes can grab his meal. Another good tussle and quick release.
After my beaver pond delight, I continue upstream, catching more 12-13 inch cutts and brookies. When I finally glance at my watch, I’m surprised it’s almost four o’clock. Maybe time for another pool or two, but I can’t tarry long because it’s at least an hour back to the SUV and another to the mobile fish camp.
Around the next bend I find yet another blown-out beaver pond with a nice deep pool below. As I creep into casting position, I spook some small trout at the bottom end of the pool, so decide to loft a long cast over them before they tattle on me to their brethren.
And no sooner does the trude alight on the water than something big inhales it. The fish thrashes and churns the pool, but finally comes to the nest, a handsome 15-inch cutthroat, the biggest of the day.
The cutt quietly poses for a quick photo and soon is finning his way back to his hideaway. I am thankful once again for having brought a five-weight rod with enough backbone to throw long casts as well as handle the big fish in tight quarters filled with snags.
I can see some more pools upstream that cry out to be sampled, but resist the urge and head back to the trailhead. Fortunately it’s a fairly flat hike, perfect for a newly-anointed septuagenarian. Next year I’ll venture up even further into the wilderness to check it out those pools and beyond…assuming the old body holds up!
There is certainly something in angling that tends to
produce a gentleness of spirit and a pure serenity of mind.
July 7, 2017
I’m spending a week in my mobile fish camp at Dome Lake in the high country between Gunnison and Saguache, Colorado. I have strategically arrived after the hubbub of the July 4th weekend when yahoos of all sorts manage to congregate and shoot off fireworks, even at 9,000 feet. Now it is quiet as I rouse early and hit the road at 7:30 a.m. My destination is Saguache Park–a big broad valley framed by the spectacular La Garita Mountains about 30 miles to the south over the Continental Divide. It’s in the lower 50s as I set out, but the sky is clear, and the sun is already warming things up–supposed to reach 75 today!
My route, CR 17FF, is a bumpy but decent gravel road that can be navigated by most vehicles, although on the other side of the pass I’ll shift into four-wheel drive to ford Saguache Creek in a couple of places to get to the headwaters. The omens are all good–especially the lone antelope that scampers across the prairie as I creep by.
In 30 minutes I crest the pass over the Continental Divide and take in the stunning scene, then descend towards the creek. That first view of the water as it plunges into a long canyon gets my angling juices really flowing. There’s good fishing down there, but I am headed the other way up into the headwaters of the creek that springs out of the La Garita Wilderness peaks.
This whole area is infused with Ute Indian lore. Saguache, the name of the creek, is a shortened form of “Saguaguachipa,” which is a Ute word said to mean “water of the blue earth.” The Ute encampments near the present-day town of Saguache to the southeast were near springs where blue earth was found. To me, it could also refer to the color of the water itself, which is a slightly off-color, milky blue at times, especially down lower. Saguache Park is home to large herds of elk and mule deer, which I have crossed paths with during previous sojourns. The valley is a broad grassland flanked on the southern slopes by ancient forests of towering spruce and fir.
I turn west past the primitive U.S. Forest Service Stone Cellar Campground that has a pump for water, an outhouse, but not much else, then the first ford. Easy for my high-slung SUV, but not recommended in the average passenger vehicle.
Next is the Stone Cellar Guard Station, a popular rustic cabin that can be rented from the USFS, and then past a working cow camp that is active in the summer. The twisty, fishy-looking bends of the Middle Fork that parallels the road beckon, but I stay the course. Wilder water lies ahead.
In about two miles I come to the second ford, much wider and deeper. I say a little silent prayer and lurch forward into the water. The stream bottom is solid, covered with gravel, and I make it through without any problem. If the flows were any higher as they could be earlier in the summer or after a deluge, I might be forced to turn around.
A few miles ahead, the road diverges south and up from the creek which heads into a canyon past Table Mountain towards the massive San Luis Peak, a fourteener. Using Google Maps, I detect what looks to be a spot where I can bushwhack into the canyon. That’s the key here–to get away from the road and find a stretch that takes some effort to get to. I park under a copse of aspens, gear up in my waders and start off across a broad grassy meadow towards the creek about 1/2 mike away.
When I reach the canyon rim, I let out a little “wwwoooo.” What appeared on the satellite map view to be a nice easy incline is instead a steep, snag-filled slope. But what I see in the canyon bottom is too hard to resist–a serpentine stream with enthralling pools at every bend. Fortunately, I brought along my hiking pole that helps me navigate the slope, which I do so very gingerly. I vow to buy one of those new Garmin satellite phones that send out an emergency signal at the push of the button. A fall here and it might be days before you were found.
When I finally emerge at 9:30 into the meadow below the canyon rim, I stow my lunch and take off downstream. My plan is to work back upstream by 1:00 p.m. or so and take a nice long dining break. The going is slow–beaver have been at work, so I have to skirt the marsh and crash through the willows and alders lining the creek.
I finally come to a cliff pool that looks inviting and throw a cast into the riffles above letting my trusty Royal Coachman Trude (#16) and a red Two-Bit Hooker (#18) float into the darker water.
My nerves are on edge, expecting a strike, but nada. Same thing at the next pool. I’m flummoxed. I haven’t fished up this high on the creek in over 30 years, and the last time it was lights out! But at the third pool, things begin to heat up as the air warms. The turning point is when I switch to a #16 Tung Teaser nymph that the fish can’t seem to resist–then it’s non-stop action for the next couple of hours for nice chunky 11-13 brown trout with some colorful brook trout thrown in as a bonus.
With so much water (the flow is over 60 CFS below at the town of Saguache), I switch the dry fly to a bigger size 14 RC Trude, which is easier for the old eyes to see and is a reasonable imitation for the grasshoppers that are getting active as the sun gets higher in the sky. It also floats like a battle ship. When I hit the proverbial honey hole about 11 a.m., both score, surface and deep. One of the brownies goes 14 inches.
By 2 p.m. I’ve netted over 30 fish and am plenty tuckered out. Time for lunch, but the sky is threatening and starts to spit some rain. As I look for a place to hole up, the sun breaks through, so I can kick back, soak some rays, and enjoy the cloud show like I haven’t for years. I see all sorts of dragons, ghosts, and other assorted creatures floating by!
In my youth, I would rarely pause more than 10-15 minutes for lunch, then it was back on the water, no time to lose. But now I stretch them to 30 minutes and even–gasp–45. And I take more time to enjoy the wildflowers before plunging back in. The first pool I come to is just below a rocky outcropping, and I see a nice trout sipping something off the surface. I make a good cast above him, and he casually plucks the dry. In a minute a gorgeous native cutthroat trout slides into my net. It’s a slam–3 different kinds of trout. Now if I can get a rainbow, it will make a grand slam!
As I work further upstream, I come to one of the beaver ponds I skirted in the morning. I peer over the dam and see a big trout, 15 inches and maybe more. I throw a cast above him, and he moves to take a look, but no dice.
A second and third cast with the same results, then on the fourth he takes the nymph but I only prick him and then he’s gone. Once my heart beat slows a bit, I work the deeper parts of the pool and net several nice brownies, but not the big guy.
The action continues steadily for some nice browns till about 4 p.m. when the sky darkens again, and I see heavy rain around the peaks above, and the storm appears to be moving downstream right at me. I decide it’s time to make a break for it and scramble out of the canyon so I can beat the downpour–which I do by the skin of my teeth, the wind starting to gust and big drops of rain splatting in the dust just as I get all the gear stowed in the SUV. I hustle back down the road and then up and over the pass back to my fishing camp.
It’s been a satisfying day in nature with colorful wild trout, wildflowers, and no boot marks in a pristine setting. I feel an uncommon calmness, that pure serenity of mind that Irving wrote about. I’ll be back…the fishing is good here on those Indian Summer days well into October.
Last summer I made my first foray into the La Garita high country south of Gunnison, Colorado, to explore the hidden waters of Chavez Creek and its tributary,
Perfecto Creek. (See my blog “Perfecto Creek Perfection”—July 2016). I had a banner day, catching dozens of frisky browns and brookies—but didn’t get to sample the waters down in the canyon where Chavez empties into Pauline Creek or the good-looking stretch above the confluence with Perfecto Creek. On my way back to the SUV last summer, I scouted that upper stretch and was surprised to see some big brownies scrambling for cover alongside scads of smaller brookies. I vowed to return! So here I am, up early and
driving the back road that snakes away from Cochetopa Creek and my camp site at Dome Lake State Park. About nine miles after I cross Cochetopa Creek, I ford Pauline and Perfecto Creeks on Forest Service Road 794 then veer left on Forest Service Road 740-2A, a faint dirt track that dead ends at an old corral above Chavez Creek. From the top of the hill neither Perfecto nor Chavez Creek are visible in the grassy meadow below. If I didn’t know better, I’d think no way there is anything down there deep enough to float a trout.
Earlier this week I had a delightful day on the lower section of little Archuleta Creek just above where it joins with Cochetopa Creek 20 miles or so southeast of Gunnison. (See my article titled Day 1 on Archuleta Creek.). Yesterday I drove over the Continental Divide to beautiful Saguache Park and fished the headwaters of Saguache Creek. The brown trout and brookies were ravenous. So after a long day of fishing and driving over rough backcountry roads, I
am lollygagging about and staying close to camp on Upper Dome Lake. Around 10 a.m. I decide to take a stroll out on the rock-faced earthen dam to see if any fish are rising in the lake….and they are! But even more intriguing, I see dimples on the surface of the water below the spillway, a very short section of Archuleta Creek that flows into Lower Dome Lake. In all my times fishing and camping up here, I have never seen anyone fish this stretch below the lake, hidden in plain sight! I retreat post haste to the mobile fish camp and rig up my fly rod with a tiny #20 black midge dry fly that has done well for me in the lake and the creek. I double-time it back to the dam and creep down the rocky slope towards the lake, not wanting to spook the rainbow trout that are rising all along the shoreline. A good-sized one cruises insouciantly in front of me, picking off small bugs on the surface, apparently oblivious to my presence above. I carefully loft a cast so that the microscopic fly alights gently five feet in front of him. He spots it, jets forward, and WHAM, he’s on!!