Waterfalls—especially backcountry ones—are like magnets to most people, including me. Now admittedly, while I love their scenic beauty, I plead to an ulterior motive: They usually create a series of deep plunge pools below that inevitably harbor some muscular trout. So when I read mention of a spectacular falls on a remote section of the Middle Fork of Saguache Creek high in the La Garita Wilderness Area, I vowed to make the trek.
Earlier this summer I had fished up about a mile from the Middle Fork trailhead, the gateway to the La Garita Wilderness area (See my July and August 2018 articles.), but it’s another three miles to the falls, and those pesky fish kept biting in the creek and beaver ponds, so didn’t make it very far.
Now an eight-mile roundtrip hike doesn’t leave much time for angling, which meant I needed to get a very early start if I was to make the falls AND get some fishing time in the creek and the series of alluring beaver ponds below the falls that showed up on my GPS map.
I am on my annual September fall fishing expedition with my mobile fish camp parked at the Dome Lake State Wildlife Area above Gunnison, Colorado.
The weather report is for five perfect days with light winds, clear skies, and temps in the mid-70s–so if I can get on the road by 6:30 a.m., I can be at the trailhead and humping up the trail by 8:30 a.m., which should give me time to reach the falls and engage in a little piscatorial research. I set my alarm at 5:00 a.m., and doze off, counting leaping trout.
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!
“To those devoid of imagination a blank space on the map is a useless waste; to others the most valuable part.”–Aldo Leopold
Late July 2018
Note: For more information of fishing upper Saguache Creek, see my July 2017 and August 4, 2018, articles
It’s the second day of my annual birthday wilderness fishing trip. After a banner day yesterday, I’m champing at the bit to get back to Saguache Creek in the La Garita Wilderness Area south of Gunnison, Colorado. Visions of trout cavorting in beaver ponds danced through my head last night.
Speaking of last night, heavy rains continued late into the evening, so as I navigate back to the wilds, my route on the gravel and dirt CR 17FF is much sketchier today, eroded and etched from the torrential runoff. I’m getting nervous, fearing that the creek may be muddy and blown out, but won’t find out for another hour when I get near the Middle Fork trailhead.
Forty-five minutes later I’m fording the North Fork of Saguache Creek just above its confluence with the Middle Fork, and it’s running clear—but that stream drains a different valley. Ten minutes later my jaw drops. The Middle Fork is running much higher and is a sickening milky color at the second ford.
I get out of the SUV and assess my chances of running the creek without getting stuck and decide it looks passable, but hard to tell with the murky water. I gun the Xterra, shift into four-wheel drive, and plunge in. Not to worry. It’s not as deep as I feared. But the rear end fish tails as I navigate the steep incline above, so I shift into four-low and take it easy the rest of the way. The road is a mess, with muddy sinks at every water bar along the remaining three miles, but I muddle through.
Fifteen minutes later I’m parking near the Middle Fork trailhead and walk with trepidation to the canyon rim to take a peek at the creek…and let out a big YAHOO when I see it is running clear, maybe a little high, but clear! Game on!!
“They say you forget your troubles on a trout stream, but that’s not quite it. What happens is that you begin to see where your troubles fit in the grand scheme of things and suddenly they’re just not such a big deal anymore.”
Noted Angling Author John Gierach
Note: For more information on fishing the Middle Fork of Saguache Creek, see my July 2017 article and Day 2 of this July 2018 blog.
Day 1–Late July 2018
I’m on my annual week-long birthday wilderness fishing trip, having just turned 70. I am hoping to celebrate with numerous and out-sized trout while getting a sorely needed dose of nature and solitude. This year may be especially challenging given the terrible drought gripping south central Colorado. The landscape is brittle dry, the grass crunching underfoot in usually green rangeland. My favorite streams are low, and some are even dry! But fortunately, when I check the State of Colorado water level website (www.dwr.state.co.us/SurfaceWater/default.aspx), I find Saguache Creek, south of Gunnison, is holding its own running at about 25 CFS, only half normal flow but still fishable.
As in the past, the base of operation and exploration is my mobile fish camp I have set up at Dome Lake State Wildlife Area in the high country between Gunnison and Saguache, Colorado. Last summer I ventured 20 odd miles from Dome Lake over the Continental Divide and fished the Middle Fork of Saguache Creek above the primitive Stone Cellar Campground. It was a great day, but ever since I have been hankering to go beyond road’s end and fish the miles of water bordering the pristine La Garita Wilderness Area.
It’s a brisk 49 degrees when I fire up the SUV, but the sky is clear, and the sun is already warming the air. The weatherman says it’s going to be a beautiful day with a slight chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Just a few miles from camp, a small herd of graceful antelope scamper across the road—always a good omen!
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.