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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Day 3 of Three Perfect Days On Cochetopa Creek

August 22, 2015

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.  Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into the trees.  The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like the autumn leaves.”  John Muir

Day 3:  Today I sleep late to recuperate from Day Two’s long hours on the water, the two mile hike back to the SUV, then the hour-long 4WD trek to camp.  With plenty of good winks, I am ready to explore some new water, and as things start to warm up around 9 a.m., head out to the headwaters of Cochetopa Creek high in the La Garita Wilderness area.  It’s about an hour’s drive on Forest Service 794, a wash-boardy, circuitous gravel road that ends at the boundary of the wilderness area.

Enroute, I cross over a handful of alluring little creeks—Pauline (hardly a trickle, but I’ll fish it downstream tomorrow and have a great day—see the entry entitled “The Pleasures of Pauline.”), Perfecto (aptly named, pristine and sprinkled with good-looking beaver ponds), and Nutra (more beaver ponds).  It’s a challenge not to stop and sample.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am surprised to see a sign saying 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, I see a prompt like this that reminds me of what hearty, tough souls those trail-blazers were.  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.

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