Getting A Leg Up By Going Downstream: The Cochetopa Creek Test

Late September 2020

Like most fly anglers, when I get to a favorite stream or river, I invariably immediately start working upstream in the traditional fashion, coming up behind the trout that are facing into the current.  But increasingly as our waters become more and more crowded, I find it often pays to go against the grain and head downstream first where there is usually less pressure and work my way back up.  A prime example of that is a recent outing I had on Cochetopa Creek high in the La Garita Wilderness Area north of Gunnison. 

I’ve set up my mobile fish camp at Dome Lake State Wildlife Area, just few miles off of CO 114 between Gunnison and metropolitan Saguache. 

Mobile Fish Camp

This location gives me access to miles of one of my favorite small waters, Cochetopa Creek. On this trip in late September, I have decided to fish the upper stretch of Cochetopa near the La Garita Wilderness Area. The lower section near Dome Lake is very low due to the drought gripping this area, running less than 15 cfs, and the water is warm. I’m hoping to find better conditions upstream in the high country where the nights have been cold with snow a couple of weeks ago. It’s about a 25-mile, one hour drive from Upper Dome Lake to the trailhead at Eddiesville. I have fished up from the trailhead into the wilderness area many times, hiking a mile south to where the trail intersects Cochetopa Creek. I usually cross paths with a few hikers and occasionally some anglers, although rarely do I fish without seeing a few boot marks on the shoreline. Only once in the past have I gone downstream from the trailhead, about one-half mile, and it was productive, especially in a string of big beaver ponds that were teeming with brown and brook trout. This time I decide to go contrarian again and walk another mile or so further downstream.

I’m up early and on the road at 7 a.m.  My SUV thermometer registers a balmy 29 degrees, and I have to scrape ice off the windshield. 

BRRR!!

But the hour drive is so scenic, the aspens peaking, framing the scenic mountains along the Continental Divide, that I soon forget the icy temps. 

When I arrive, a couple of hikers have pitched tents at Eddiesville, a stopping point along the Continental Divide and Colorado Trails, but fortunately none are anglers. I also breathe a sigh of relief when I see the creek has adequate water and is flowing nicely, low but definitely fishable. And thanks to the frigid nights and snow melt I will find it is ice cold.

Just Enough Water!

I suit up in my lightweight waist-high waders, my Simms Vapor wading/hiking boots, my trusty wading/hiking staff, and of course my fly vest loaded to the gills then start hiking down the trail by 8:30.  The going is slow because I am stopping every 10 minutes to soak up the gorgeous scene and snap a few photos of the sun rising, bright yellow aspens, and snow-covered peaks. 

The trail is relatively flat with only a few moderate up and down stretches until at about one mile I come to a barbed wire fence and gate.  Below there, I begin to hit a series of rocky, rugged, steep stretches high above the creek that is flowing fast, straight, and shallow in a narrow section below. 

It doesn’t look too inviting from a piscatorial perspective so I continue downstream, making liberal use of my wading/hiking staff to keep my balance and prevent my aging body from sliding in the loose gravel and down the steep slopes.  My objective is a broad meadow Google Maps promises another half mile further on where the creek twists and turns in a serpentine fashion–which usually signals deeper pools at the bends where the fish can hole up in safety and feast in the slower moving water without expending a lot of energy.  It’s about 10 a.m. now, and the sun is up higher and quickly warming the air into the 70s with light winds—a perfect Indian summer day.  To my delight, as I round a bend in the trail I see a big beautiful beaver pond below with fish dimpling the surface and a few actually jumping high out of the water to snatch a meal. 

Beaver Pond Utopia

  This is a pleasant surprise since the usually reliable Google Maps doesn’t show any beaver ponds in the vicinity.  This I think must be fair compensation for what happened recently to me on nearby Nutras Creek (See my blog article from July.) where Google Maps promised a series of a dozen or more beaver ponds, all but one of which I found to be blown out after hiking a couple of miles along the creek.  I decide to stow my lunch near the pond and hike down another 45 minutes to near the confluence with Nutras Creek, then work my way back up.   

It’s 10:45 when I spy a pool below the trail in the meadow that screams fish.  I descend, and as I come up from below the pool, can see a couple of decent size trout finning in the crystal clear water at the tail end of the pool. 

First Honey Hole

I kneel to keep a low profile, and on my very first cast a 13-inch brownie nails the #18 sparkle caddis nymph that trails under a #16 Royal Trude dry.  Ten minutes and five fish later, I sneak up further to make a cast in the riffle that cascades into the head of the deep pool. The Trude slides quickly into the pool where a big trout rises slowly from the depths, scrutinizes the dry, then turns up his nose and disappears from sight.  I quickly try another cast, and get a nice drag-free float.  Just as I am about to pick up the fly and recast, the Trude suddenly disappears, and I set the hook into the big boy who seconds earlier had impudently ignored the dry fly.  He turns tail and bores deep towards some submerged snags along the opposite bank, but with my rod bending perilously, I coax him away.  After a couple more strong runs, he’s in the net, a beautiful, muscular 14-inch plus fish that will be the biggest of the day.  I see the brownie has fallen for the nymph.  Not a bad start! 

Big Brownie Starts The Day Right

From there my plan is to hopscotch past the shallow, fast stretches where I don’t see any fish, to concentrate on the deeper runs and bend pools, all of which prove productive for chunky, healthy 11-13 inch browns. By noon I am back at the big beaver pond where I carefully work towards an elevated spot covered in bushes just below the middle of the dam.

Approaching Beaver Pond From Below To Avoid Spooking Fish

Here I can peer over the top without revealing too much of myself and still home in on the fish that are rising steadily all over the pond.  No sooner does my first cast hit the dark green colored water in the middle of the pond, and the Trude is unceremoniously yanked under.  It’s a scrappy 12-inch brownie that’s inhaled the caddis nymph. 

Beaver Pond Brownie

For the next 15 minutes I cast to risers, catching three more between several long-distance releases while only uttering intermittent profanities when my line gets snarled in the tangle of sticks and other detritus at my feet the busy beaver employed in their construction efforts.  When the action slows I creep gingerly south along the top of dam with the help of my wading staff to the shallow section of the pond that luckily has a firm enough bottom for me to wade across and up to the inlet where a couple of fish have been rising steadily.  Here the creek is flowing with a good current creating a deep run along the north shoreline of the pond.  I spot some good fish finning in the depths, so I stay back from the shoreline and throw a long cast across the pond into the current on the north side.  The Trude floats jauntily over the hole where the trout are holding.  One immediately rockets up and nails the dry. He’s a stout brownie pushing 14-inches.  I take several more out of that run on the nymph then move up higher.

Beaver Pond Magic

 Now I cast upstream into the creek just above where it empties into the pond.  As the Trude slides into the deeper, slower water, it disappears, and the fight is on.  After a good tussle, I find to my surprise it’s a handsome 12-inch cutthroat, the first I have caught in the creek anywhere less than a mile and a half upstream of the trailhead. 

Browns and brookies are the rule until then.  I manage to fool a couple more browns at the head of the pond, then my growling stomach reminds me my lunch is stowed back downstream under a bush near the dam.  I walk upstream a few yards and cross over to the north side of the pond and work my way along the shoreline past the beaver lodge where I fool several more brownies while scaring the daylight of many more that are putzing around in the shallows and in a skinny arm of the pond.

After lunch, revitalized by my RC Cola energy drink and a cooler full of victuals, I continue my approach of skipping the fast, shallow runs and concentrating on the bends and plunge pools.  As I walk along a game trail that parallels the creek, I do spook some fish in the shallow stretches that are hiding along the banks or under the long strands of dense vegetation midstream.  However, the strategy pays off with steady action for the next hour including another 14-inch brown and a nice brookie to boot that completes an unexpected slam. 

Around 3 p.m. I sight a good-looking plunge pool far upstream, so hop out of the creek and start to follow the game trail again, bypassing a long shallow stretch. As I near the pool, out of the corner of my eye I catch some movement up on the slope just ahead above me and hear some cracking of branches. I think bear, but see it’s a huge bull moose. He’s making his way down to the pool I was aiming for. I yell “hey Mr. Moose” to make sure he knows I’m nearby—moose reportedly have very poor eyesight to go along with their truculent nature. He slowly looks around and finally spots me waving at him. The big guy gives me the once over then turns and thankfully proceeds nonchalantly back up the slope to the main trail. He’s coal black and at least six feet at his shoulders with massive horns, the biggest moose I have ever seen, including those in Yellowstone and Alaska. When he finally disappears down the trail I decide that’s a sign for me to vamoose back to the trailhead.

Close Encounter Of The Moose Kind

As I get back on the main hiking trail above the creek, I can see plainly the hoof marks he has left.  Thankfully we didn’t meet face-to-face.  Despite the fright, I guess I prefer that over boot marks, nary of which I saw anywhere on the stream all day.

Moose Track On Trail

I take it easy of the way back, soaking up the scenery–it will probably be my last outing into the backcountry this year.

By 4:15 I am back at the trailhead and popping a celebratory NA beer and eating some peanuts. My little picnic is quickly joined by my fan club of Canada Jays.

The cheeky winged little devils show no fear as they search for anything edible they can steal from me, including a half-eaten granola bar that they pick pocket out of my fly vest. But who can complain. It’s been a fabulous day with dozens of fish under a sunny sky and a double bonus of pure solitude and a slam. Going against the grain and that extra mile downstream definitely paid off, something I’ll keep reminding myself of when I set out on another creek or river. Back at camp a couple of hours later, a gorgeous sunset coupled with a good glass of wine makes for a perfect ending.

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.

Beaver Pond Perspicacity: Solving The Puzzle

For another article on beaver pond fishing see my article from late May 2020: https://hooknfly.com/2020/06/07/on-the-road-to-riches-finding-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/

July 2019

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??

img_1455-1
Close Encounter Of The Moose Kind In Beaver Pond Country

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.

Blown Out Beaver Dam

Here Today…Gone TomorrowHere 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.

Continue reading

Cagey Codger Confounds Cochetopa Cutts–Scores Slam In La Garita Wilderness

Late July 2018

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.

img_1843
Eddiesville Trailhead, Gateway To The La Garita Wilderness

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???

Pauline Creek Crossing Enroute To La Garita Wilderness
Pauline Creek Reduced To A Trickle By Drought

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.

Into The La Garita Wilderness
Into The Wilds

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.

img_1321
Cochetopa Creek At Intersection With Colorado Trail In The La Garita Wilderness

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.

La Garita Wilderness Scenic Trail
Trail Into Upper La Garita Wilderness

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.

Cochetopa Mayfly Goodies
Small Mayfly Nymphs Are The Primary Stream Insect

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.

img_1359
Chunky Colorful Brookie Kicks Off The Fun

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.

img_1343

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.

Blown-Out Beaver Pond Honey Hole
Pools CreatedAround Blown-Out Beaver Dams Are Cochetopa Creek Hotspots

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!!

Cochetopa Headwaters Cutt
Nice Cutt Confirms Rumors

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.

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Nice Brownie Completes The Slam

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.

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Biggest Brookie Of The Day

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.

Cochetopa Creek Headwaters
Lair Of The Big Cutthroat

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.

La Garita Cochetopa Cutt
Big Beautiful Cutt Caps Birthday Outing

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!

Middle Fork Saguache Creek Headwaters: Serenity Plus A Slam

There is certainly something in angling that tends to

produce a gentleness of spirit and a pure serenity of mind. 

Washington Irving

July 7, 2017 

img_3285I’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.

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Good Omen Antelope
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.

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Saguache Park And The La Garita 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.

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First Ford Over The North Fork Saguache Creek Just Past Stone Cellar Campground
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.

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Second Ford….Middle Fork Saguache Creek….CAUTION!
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. 

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Remote Canyon Stretch Of The Middle Fork
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.

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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.

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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.

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Cliff Pool
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.

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First Brownie Of The Day
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Bonus Brookie
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.

 

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Honey Hole Brownie!
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!

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Lunch Break–Head In The Clouds
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Wildflowers Like This Fairy Trumpet Abound In Canyon
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!

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Post-Lunch Pool
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Cuttthroat Completes The 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.

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Beaver Pond Lair Of The Big Trout
 

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.

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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.

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Soaking Up The Rain–Indian Paintbrushes Carpet Saguache Park
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.