Day One Fishing The Hidden Waters Of Saguache Park: The North Fork Of Saguache Creek

August 2019

Photos By Fran Rulon-Miller and Chris Duerksen

For my earlier adventures fishing the Middle Fork of Saguache Creek, see my articles from the summer of 2017 and 2018.

As my readers and angling friends know, the Middle Fork of Saguache Creek, coursing out of the high peaks of the La Garita Mountains in south central Colorado, is one of my favorite fishing haunts.  Because it is a fetching, secluded water with very cooperative fish, I usually look no further when I venture into the broad expanse of Saguache Park about two hours south of Gunnison, Colorado.

But earlier this summer when I was scoping out a new stretch of the Middle Fork on a topo map that I had not yet fished, my eyes wandered to some of its obscure tributaries like the North Fork, Johns Creek, Bear Creek, and several others.  All looked a tad hard to access which usually means good fishing.  So I resolved to give them a try, the first on my list being the North Fork.

The dozens of times I have fished the Middle Fork over the last decade I often forded the little North Fork just above Stone Cellar campground with hardly a second glance.

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The Red Dropped Pin Denotes Start Of Hike Along The North Fork

It’s overgrown and only a few feet wide at that point, nothing to really pique my interest.  But my topo map reveals that just upstream in a canyon away from the road or any official trail it looks less brushy with some interesting twists and turns.  Who can resist!!

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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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Middle Fork Saguache Creek Headwaters: Serenity Plus A Slam

There is certainly something in angling that tends to

produce a gentleness of spirit and a pure serenity of mind. 

Washington Irving

July 7, 2017 

img_3285I’m spending a week in my mobile fish camp at Dome Lake in the high country between Gunnison and Saguache, Colorado.  I have strategically arrived after the hubbub of the July 4th weekend when yahoos of all sorts manage to congregate and shoot off fireworks, even at 9,000 feet.  Now it is quiet as I rouse early and hit the road at 7:30 a.m.  My destination is Saguache Park–a big broad valley framed by the spectacular La Garita Mountains about 30 miles to the south over the Continental Divide.  It’s in the lower 50s as I set out, but the sky is clear, and the sun is already warming things up–supposed to reach 75 today!

My route,  CR 17FF,  is a bumpy but decent gravel road that can be navigated by most vehicles, although on the other side of the pass I’ll shift into four-wheel drive to ford Saguache Creek in a couple of places to get to the headwaters.  The omens are all good–especially the lone antelope that scampers across the prairie as I creep by.

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Good Omen Antelope
In 30 minutes I crest the pass over the Continental Divide and take in the stunning scene, then descend towards the creek. That first view of the water as it plunges into a long canyon gets my angling juices really flowing.   There’s good fishing down there, but I am headed the other way up into the headwaters of the creek that springs out of the La Garita Wilderness peaks.

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Saguache Park And The La Garita Peaks
This whole area is infused with Ute Indian lore.  Saguache, the name of the creek, is a shortened form of “Saguaguachipa,” which is a Ute word said to mean “water of the blue earth.”  The Ute encampments near the present-day town of Saguache to the southeast were near springs where blue earth was found.  To me, it could also refer to the color of the water itself, which is a slightly off-color, milky blue at times, especially down lower.  Saguache Park is home to large herds of elk and mule deer, which I have crossed paths with during previous sojourns.  The valley is a broad grassland flanked on the southern slopes by ancient forests of towering spruce and fir.

I turn west past the primitive U.S. Forest Service Stone Cellar Campground that has a pump for water, an outhouse, but not much else, then the first ford.  Easy for my high-slung SUV, but not recommended in the average passenger vehicle.

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First Ford Over The North Fork Saguache Creek Just Past Stone Cellar Campground
Next is the  Stone Cellar Guard Station, a popular rustic cabin that can be rented from the USFS, and then past a working cow camp that is active in the summer.  The twisty, fishy-looking bends of the Middle Fork that parallels the road beckon, but I stay the course.  Wilder water lies ahead.

In about two miles I come to the second ford, much wider and deeper.  I say a little silent prayer and lurch forward into the water.  The stream bottom is solid, covered with gravel, and I make it through without any problem.  If the flows were any higher as they could be earlier in the summer or after a deluge, I might be forced to turn around.

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Second Ford….Middle Fork Saguache Creek….CAUTION!
A few miles ahead, the road diverges south and up from the creek which heads into a canyon past Table Mountain towards the massive San Luis Peak, a fourteener.  Using Google Maps, I detect what looks to be a spot where I can bushwhack into the canyon.  That’s the key here–to get away from the road and find a stretch that takes some effort to get to.  I park under a copse of aspens, gear up in my waders and start off across a broad grassy meadow towards the creek about 1/2 mike away. 

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Remote Canyon Stretch Of The Middle Fork
When I reach the canyon rim, I let out a little “wwwoooo.”  What appeared on the satellite map view to be a nice easy incline is instead a steep, snag-filled slope.   But what I see in the canyon bottom is too hard to resist–a serpentine stream with enthralling pools at every bend.  Fortunately, I brought along my hiking pole that helps me navigate the slope, which I do so very gingerly.  I vow to buy one of those new Garmin satellite phones that send out an emergency signal at the push of the button.  A fall here and it might be days before you were found.

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When I finally emerge at 9:30 into the meadow below the canyon rim, I stow my lunch and take off downstream.  My plan is to work back upstream by 1:00 p.m. or so and take a nice long dining break.  The going is slow–beaver have been at work, so I have to skirt the marsh and crash through the willows and alders lining the creek.

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I finally come to a cliff pool that looks inviting and throw a cast into the riffles above letting my trusty Royal Coachman Trude (#16) and a red Two-Bit Hooker (#18) float into the darker water.

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Cliff Pool
My nerves are on edge, expecting a strike, but nada.  Same thing at the next pool.  I’m flummoxed.  I haven’t fished up this high on the creek in over 30 years, and the last time it was lights out!  But at the third pool, things begin to heat up as the air warms.  The turning point is when I switch to a #16 Tung Teaser nymph that the fish can’t seem to resist–then it’s non-stop action for the next couple of hours for nice chunky 11-13 brown trout with some colorful brook trout thrown in as a bonus.

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First Brownie Of The Day
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Bonus Brookie
With so much water (the flow is over 60 CFS below at the town of Saguache), I switch the dry fly to a bigger size 14 RC Trude, which is easier for the old eyes to see and is a reasonable imitation for the grasshoppers that are getting active as the sun gets higher in the sky.  It also floats like a battle ship.  When I hit the proverbial honey hole about 11 a.m., both score, surface and deep.  One of the brownies goes 14 inches.

 

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Honey Hole Brownie!
By 2 p.m. I’ve netted over 30 fish and am plenty tuckered out.  Time for lunch, but the sky is threatening and starts to spit some rain.  As I look for a place to hole up, the sun breaks through, so I can kick back, soak some rays, and enjoy the cloud show like I haven’t for years.  I see all sorts of dragons, ghosts, and other assorted creatures floating by!

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Lunch Break–Head In The Clouds
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Wildflowers Like This Fairy Trumpet Abound In Canyon
In my youth, I would rarely pause more than 10-15 minutes for lunch, then it was back on the water, no time to lose.  But now I stretch them to 30 minutes and even–gasp–45.  And I take more time to enjoy the wildflowers before plunging back in.  The first pool I come to is just below a rocky outcropping, and I see a nice trout sipping something off the surface.  I make a good cast above him, and he casually plucks the dry.   In a minute a gorgeous native cutthroat trout slides into my net.  It’s a slam–3 different kinds of trout.  Now if I can get a rainbow, it will make a grand slam!

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Post-Lunch Pool
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Cuttthroat Completes The Slam
As I work further upstream, I come to one of the beaver ponds I skirted in the morning.  I peer over the dam and see a big trout, 15 inches and maybe more.  I throw a cast above him, and he moves to take a look, but no dice.

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Beaver Pond Lair Of The Big Trout

A second and third cast with the same results, then on the fourth he takes the nymph but I only prick him and then he’s gone.  Once my heart beat slows a bit, I work the deeper parts of the pool and net several nice brownies, but not the big guy.

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The action continues steadily for some nice browns till about 4 p.m. when the sky darkens again, and I see heavy rain around the peaks above, and the storm appears to be moving downstream right at me.  I decide it’s time to make a break for it and scramble out of the canyon so I can beat the downpour–which I do by the skin of my teeth, the wind starting to gust and big drops of rain splatting in the dust just as I get all the gear stowed in the SUV.  I hustle back down the road and then up and over the pass back to my fishing camp.

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Soaking Up The Rain–Indian Paintbrushes Carpet Saguache Park
It’s been a satisfying day in nature with colorful wild trout, wildflowers, and no boot marks in a pristine setting.  I feel an uncommon calmness, that pure serenity of mind that Irving wrote about.  I’ll be back…the fishing is good here on those Indian Summer days well into October.