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.
I’m standing in the ice-cold Arkansas River just after noon watching my little white bubble strike indicator bob slowly downstream. After barely making it to midnight on New Year’s Eve before crashing, I resolved to get out among some Banana Belt bad boys early in 2018 for a little fun. So here I am, decked out in my finest New Year’s costume, ready to party. It’s a balmy 46 degrees, not bad for early January at 7,500 feet.
Then wham!! Something slams into me, almost knocking me off my feet. It’s not a fish, but a big chunk of ice four feet long, one that could sink a small boat. The cold weather the last few nights has frozen up the shallows, and now as the sun shines and temps rise into the upper 40s, big pieces are breaking off and flowing downstream in the fast current. I dance around trying to evade some more chunks while keeping one eye on the strike indicator…which I notice seems to have disappeared. I reflexively lift my rod tip quickly and feel the surge of a good fish. So begins my first outing of the New Year with what will prove to be some big bad boy brown trout on the Arkansas River near Salida.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like the autumn leaves.” John Muir
Day 3: Today I sleep late to recuperate from Day Two’s long hours on the water, the two mile hike back to the SUV, then the hour-long 4WD trek to camp. With plenty of good winks, I am ready to explore some new water, and as things start to warm up around 9 a.m., head out to the headwaters of Cochetopa Creek high in the La Garita Wilderness area. It’s about an hour’s drive on Forest Service 794, a wash-boardy, circuitous gravel road that ends at the boundary of the wilderness area.
Enroute, I cross over a handful of alluring little creeks—Pauline (hardly a trickle, but I’ll fish it downstream tomorrow and have a great day—see the entry entitled “The Pleasures of Pauline.”), Perfecto (aptly named, pristine and sprinkled with good-looking beaver ponds), and Nutra (more beaver ponds). It’s a challenge not to stop and sample. I am surprised to see a sign saying 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, I see a prompt like this that reminds me of what hearty, tough souls those trail-blazers were. 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.
Day 2: After a relaxing, easy day of fishing yesterday and a good night’s sleep, I’m rearin’ to explore the more remote middle section of Cochetopa Creek. I haven’t been up there for a couple of years. Over five miles of beautiful, meandering meadow waters are bracketed by two steep canyons above and below that make access a challenge. The hearty angler can hike in on the Colorado Trail or four-wheel in on one of the rough access roads, then walk to the good water. A detailed topo/trails map is a must before venturing into this backcountry—the National Geographic Trails Map #139 LaGarita/Cochetopa Hills is a good place to start plotting your trip.
Day One: I’m in my little travel trailer a.k.a mobile fishing camp parked next to Dome Lake located in a high country state park near the Continental Divide, not too far from Gunnison, Colorado. I drove up early this morning, sorely in need of a multi-day injection of nature and zen trout fishing time on one of my favorite waters—Cochetopa Creek. It’s mid-August, the rain has finally stopped, and the streams are clearing and fishable.
Maybe 15 feet at its widest, Cochetopa Creek arises at the foot of an imposing 14,000 foot+ mountain, San Luis Peak, in the La Garita Wilderness area south of Gunnison. Miles below, the creek squeezes out of a canyon stretch into a vast open sagebrush and grass valley called Cochetopa Park. There it meanders for a good 10 miles with gentle runs and S-curves before plunging into another canyon and joining Tomichi Creek which flows into the big Gunnison River, a fabled trout water. Cochetopa Creek is loaded with healthy, eager fish and steeped in history. In other words, my kinda place!