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.

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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Perfecto Creek Perfection Near Gunnison, Colorado


Perfection is a road, not a destination.”

Late July 2016 near Gunnison, Colorado

I am always on the lookout for a backcountry creek, preferably in a remote canyon or wilderness area, featuring great scenery, abundant wildflowers, and eager trout.  I love that feeling of discovering an untrammeled piece of our planet Earth or at least one that is very lightly trodden.

I have had my eye on a little stream called Perfecto Creek and its partner Chavez Creek since last summer when I crossed over them to fish the headwaters of Cochetopa Creek high in the La Garita Wilderness imageArea south of Gunnison, Colorado. With a name like Perfecto, imagehow can one resist??  Where the gravel U.S. Forest Service road crosses over, it’s barely a rivulet, but I spied some big inviting beaver ponds not too far below.  And with some topographical map and GIS sleuthing, I find that just a mile down downstream Perfecto is joined by Chavez Creek then paired up they descend into a canyon on the way to a rendezvous with Pauline Creek (See my article on Pauline Creek from 2015.).  That may mean enough water to float some decent-sized trout.

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