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.

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.

 

 

 

Return To Chavez Creek, High Above Gunnison, Colorado

July 9, 2017

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,

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Where’s The Water??  Don’t Be Fooled!
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

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Upper Section Chavez Creek
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.

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Day 2:  The Hidden Stretches Of Archuleta Creek Near Gunnison, CO

August 23, 2016

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

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Upper Dome Lake

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!!

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