Fall Frolic In The Park (Creek, that is) Near South Fork Colorado

Late September 2022

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries

of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

Rachel Carson

I’m on my annual fall fishing trip to southern Colorado, my mobile fishing camp set up on the Rio Grande River in Del Norte at the venerable Woods and River RV campground.   Yesterday I finished up a day of field work for an article about nearby La Garita Creek for a national angling magazine, so I started nosing around for another creek to fish while enjoying the spectacular Colorado fall weather and scenery.

One of my standard fishing research references is the excellent guide 49 Trout Streams of Southern Colorado by Williams and McPhail.  Paging through the book, Park Creek, a tributary of the South Fork of Rio Grande near the town of South Fork, caught my eye.  It’s only a short 45-minute drive from Del Norte to the turnoff for the creek west of South Fork on US 160.  The authors have this to say about Park Creek: “A Rio Grande feeder stream, this jaunty creek is one of our favorite sleeper spots in southern Colorado.”  Case closed!!

I decided to spend the day scouting Park Creek and other nearby waters.  I took a jaunt up Demijohn Road (FR380) along Park Creek for a few hours at the end of the day to take a look and spotted two inviting stretches. 

Scouting Along Demijohn Road

The first one, only a few miles off the paved highway, called for a short but very steep hike into a scenic canyon that paralleled the good gravel road. The other, several miles further upstream in a broad scenic valley, would require a longer but less daunting hike from the road.  They promised two very different experiences with a bonus of some solitude in an area with a fair number of campers along the creek and ATV types cavorting about.

Next morning, I decided to lounge around a camp a bit since the fall sun wouldn’t shine in the narrow canyon till late morning.  That would give the water and fish a chance to warm up after a cold night.  Yesterday I spotted a couple of alluring pools in the creek with decent-sized fish fining in the current, unaware of my presence far above.  However, on further examination, I soon concluded that decent access points to the creek in the canyon that wouldn’t risk a nasty tumble are few and far between–unless you hike from the bottom or top of the canyon.  Which of course is where there would be more angling pressure. 

By 11 a.m. I’m driving up and down the road searching for a safe route into the ravine.  I finally notice a faint trail that zig-zags across the slope to the water. 

It looks doable, especially for a septuagenarian. I slide my SUV into a tight turnout and suit up. I immediately regret wearing my felt-soled wading boots—I’ve left behind at camp my other pair with good rubber treads that would have made the hike in…and out…less treacherous. Fortunately, I navigate the steep slope without serious incident, holding onto bushes a couple of times to slow my descent. Then I bushwhack downstream, following a faint wildlife trail through and around the streamside thicket. I finally emerge below a pool where I am pleased to see there are no boot marks in the shoreline sand. The creek is running clear and low, maybe 15 cfs.

First Pool Looks Promising

I check for trout victuals underneath several rocks, but don’t find many aquatic goodies. Well at least the sun is shining into the canyon by now, the temperature in the low 60s. It will reach 70 later in the afternoon. I’m using my lightweight #4 rod with a small Chubby Chernobyl as my dry and my special Dirk’s Delight caddis larva in a size 18 as a dropper. The Chubby is a good imitation for the hoppers that are still around, and as a bonus floats like a battleship and can be seen easily by aging eyes.

Chubby Chernoble At Top Flanked By Dirk’s Delight To The Right

With great anticipation I throw a good cast upstream into a seam that swirls down against a good-size boulder.  It looks very fishy, but a half dozen drifts later, I’m still scoreless.  I move up into the next small pool, but the results are the same.  Where are the fish??

Then I come to a stunning, picture-perfect pool, right out of a fly-fishing magazine.  A log lays across the creek mid-pool, creating a nice pocket.  But it’s going to take a long, delicate cast to get a good float. 

Fortunately the angling gods are with me, and my dry lands quietly just below the log, then starts to bounce downstream.  It floats a couple of feet, then disappears abruptly.  I set the hook and am onto a….little guy!  But at least it’s a fish, a chunky little brownie that puts up a worthy battle given his size. 

Little Brownie Vanquishes Skunk.

I continue upstream and fool another couple of Lilliputians on the nymph, but don’t see anything bigger and start to wonder what gives.  At least that’s what I am thinking when I spook a couple of 12-inchers in shallows below a big boulder.  I run my rig through that pool and several others without success.  The alluring deeper holes don’t seem to hold any fish.

Inviting Deep Pools Fail To Produce

Then I come to another “can’t miss” pool with a log conveniently positioned to make casting an adventure. But before I throw a long cast into the upper reaches, I make a short one into the sun-lit shallows and voilà, a foot-long brownie shoots out from the shoreline to nail the Chubby!

Beautiful Pool Produces Nice Brownie Sunning Himself In Shallows

With renewed confidence, I work the deep upper end of the pool, but come up empty.

That will be the scene for the next couple of pools, the fish sunning themselves in the shallows.  I catch another 12-incher and execute a couple of long-distance releases.  I come up empty in the deeper pools and don’t see any larger fish.  The creek also gets to be rockier and tougher to navigate as I go up further, with big boulders forcing me to exit the stream and claw through the underbrush.  I also start to see a few boot marks. 

I ponder why I am not seeing more and larger fish.  Is it lack of food?  Just then I look upstream and see huge logs piled on top of big boulders in the stream blocking my route.  By the looks of the jumble of logs there have been some tremendous floods in this narrow canyon.

On other similar water like Grape Creek near Westcliffe, I have seen the results of flash floods in a narrow canyon that scour the stream of aquatic insects and fish.  Of course, my relative lack of success certainly could not be my lack of piscatorial acumen! This jumble of huge tree trunks and an impassable thicket on the shoreline convince me it’s time to throw in towel and head to big valley.  That turns out to be good decision.

There is light but steady weekend traffic on the road, a combination of leaf peepers, travel trailers, tent campers, hunters, and ATV tourists—the scenic route leads all the over Summit Pass to Summitville and beyond. The angling key is to get away from the primitive campsites along the creek just below and above the Fox Mountain turnoff that have easy access to the creek directly off the road. Fortunately, an old primitive two-track trail heading upstream from the turnoff along the creek deep into the valley has been blocked off requiring a hike to get to good water. I end up following Demijohn Road (FR380) as it turns away from the creek and tracks high above valley to the east. I find a turnout, disembark, and hike west back down to creek.

Old Two Track Near Creek Blocked–Hiking Required!
Down To The Creek…And Solitude

It’s only about a 15-minute hike traversing a moderately steep slope along a cattle trail, but it pays off—I won’t see anyone on the creek all afternoon. 

In the meadow, Pass Creek is only about 10-15 feet wide with long shallow stretches, so I start looking for a bend pool which I find a few hundred yards downstream.  I wade in carefully and loft a cast above the bend.  The Chubby swirls into a shadow, and I lose sight of it.  Then I see my line tighten and set the hook.  A nice brown trout rockets to the surface then dives deep.  After a good tussle, he relents and comes to the net for a quick photo.  Over 12-inches, he’s a good start.

A Good Start To The Afternoon In The Meadow

From there I have steady action as I work upstream, mainly against the shoreline where there is a good flow and depth to provide cover.  It takes pinpoint casting—there are lots of overhanging limbs, so I spend some time doing aerial retrievals up in branches, the result of errant casts.  I do see a few risers and manage one fish on the dry, but the dropper caddis larva is the ticket.  By 4:30, with the sun starting to dip over the mountains to the west, I have caught and released 7 or 8 fishing.  All 11-13 inches, strong fighters and in good shape, most in sunny stretches.  A bonus has been the beautiful creek-side scenery with golden leaves shimmering in the breeze.

Fall Scenic Bounty

Now the big issue is whether I should head home, having had an enjoyable day, especially this afternoon in the meadow, or see what’s around that big bend in the creek above.  I can see some rock outcroppings through the trees along the creek, which often indicates a deep run.  Who can resist!

I soon come to best looking stretch of the day at a bend in the creek where a big boulder looms over the water, creating a beautiful pool with just enough depth so I can just barely see the bottom in the shadow.  I catch sight of a sign on a tree above, a dedication to an angler who must have plied these waters.

Can’t Miss Pool

A kneel to keep a low profile and make a short cast towards the riffle above the pool.  Off target a bit, the flies bounce off the rock and alight perfectly in the shadow.  Whew!  And then the Chubby is unceremoniously yanked under and all hell breaks loose.  A big fish has inhaled the caddis larva and rockets upstream when he feels the hook.  But the water is shallow there, so he reverses course and porpoises back to his home.  Then as I creep closer to net the leviathan, he rushes downstream past me, almost slashing between my legs.  I pirouette to avert disaster and splash downstream after the cagey critter.  The epic battle wages to and fro for another minute before he sulks, and I lunge to slide the net under a beautiful 14-inch brown trout. 

Just One More Pool Pays Off!

I release the valiant fish and, deciding it’s a great way to end the day, begin the hike upstream to a game trail I can see that will lead back up the hill to the road. 

But wouldn’t you know it, as I get up higher above the creek, I can see the stream ahead runs up against a sheer rock palisade as it makes a hard turn to the south creating a fishy looking pool. I cannot resist, so descend and standing on the shoreline throw a cast over some bushes upstream below the pool. Immediately I get a strike but miss. At that exact moment, the sun dips low enough to throw the pool and palisades into a deep shadow. A cool breeze gives me a chill. I take that as a sign to call it a day. It’s been interesting. Next time, I think. Lots of water upstream to explore.