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.

Falling For Saguache Falls (High Above Gunnison, CO)

“Run wild and free like a waterfall”

Anancha Mishra

Mid-September 2018

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Day 2 Of The Sagacious Septuagenarian Seducing Saguache Trout–Into The Wilds Of The La Garita Wilderness

“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.

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Murky Middle Fork Muddies Fishing Picture!

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!!

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Sagacious, Salacious Septuagenarian Seduces Saguache Trout—Scores Slam! AKA Exploring The Middle Fork Of Saguache Creek In The La Garita Wilderness

“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!

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Wild Antelope Herd = Good Omen

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