GET ON THE BEAT AT UPPER TARRYALL CREEK (In South Park, Colorado)

Mid-July 2021

I am always on the lookout for a new water to sample when making my weekly drive to Denver to do Grandpa duty with my little sweetheart Aly.  I owe it to her for this latest discovery.  I have had great days fishing some private water on lower Tarryall Creek below Tarryall Reservoir.  But even though I have many times over the years zoomed past upper Tarryall Creek that flows under US Highway 285 just a few miles west of greater metropolitan Jefferson, Colorado, I never stopped to reconnoiter.    It just didn’t look like much. 

Now it’s mid July and I’m heading back to my cabin near Salida.  Aly is with me, and I am excited about the prospect of her spending the entire week with me.  We’ve already made plans to visit the alligator farm near the Great Sand Dunes National Park, do some lake fishing for rainbows, and swim in the relaxing pools at the Cottonwood Hot Springs.  However, being a five-year old, patience is not one of her virtues so I have promised we would break up the three-hour drive with a lunch break near a “haunted” house I told her I spotted, on an earlier trip. 

By “haunted,” I mean the big two-story historic but deteriorating Cline Ranch house visible from the highway near Jefferson.  I pull off the pavement and follow the gravel road to a small parking lot.  It’s odd, I think, because it only has four spaces, all of which are numbered.  After lunch, I stroll over to a big sign next to the parking area and find out I have stumbled onto a state wildlife area that has not only preserved the historic ranch but also provides several miles of fishing on the upper Tarryall.

The story of how the ranch and creek were protected from development is not only fascinating but uplifting.  It is the result of a great partnership among local, state, and federal agencies spearheaded by an old friend, Gary Nichols, the now-retired head of economic development and tourism for Park County.  Gary was one of the most innovative public officials I had the pleasure of working with during my professional land use planning career.  (For a good recounting of this ground-breaking effort, see parkco.us/650/Cline-Ranch.)  While the preservation of the ranch and home was a big win for the public, just as interesting and creative is the English-style fishing “beat” system they installed for the long stretch of Tarryall Creek in the adjoining state wildlife area.  The creek has been divided into four sections or “beats.”  When you arrive at the parking lot, you park in one of the numbered spots, and that number becomes the beat that you have exclusive rights to fish that day and won’t see another soul on the water!!  How’s that for solitude.  Now the questions is, how good is the fishing??

Of course the ghostly tour is the first priority, and Aly has a great time peering in the windows of the main house and the outbuildings to see if there are any spooks about.   Given the tattered, creepy appearance of the big home, which with its broken windows and peeling outer walls is in need of renovation, she is convinced that other-worldly spirits are definitely a possibility. 

But Grandpa is already silently planning a return trip for supernatural experience of another kind on the creek.

A couple of weeks later I am on my way to Denver on a Sunday morning and a little before 9 a.m. turn off US 285 into the state wildlife area.  It’s a beautiful sunny day with the temperatures a pleasant 70 degrees, warm for the chilly climes of South Park.  I had checked the creek’s water level before leaving home.  It stands at about 20 cfs according to the nearby state water gauge, a level I find good for most smaller creeks. (See my article on how to access and read the state water stations at  https://hooknfly.com/2021/07/23/how-to-find-stream-water-levels-in-colorado-a-primer/).  I have chosen a beat upstream from the parking area, and after suiting up in my chest waders, begin to follow the faint ranch road to the north.  The vistas of the mountains are spectacular as is the carpet of colorful wildflowers—skyrockets, wild garlic, and wood betony abound.

The history of this area is intertwined with mining.  One story of how the town was named is that some prospectors on the way to digs in California took some time to tarry here and rest up.  It is amazing how the land has recovered from the wild days of the gold mining rush of the 1860s.  This was placer mining country, and the first wave of prospectors reportedly found gold flakes as big as watermelon seeds!  Miles of the creek upstream were chewed up in search of more.  After gold was discovered in Tarryall Creek and other nearby streams a few years later, the town located just upstream from the beat I was headed to, numbered some 3,000 residents with a full complement of saloons, retail businesses, a hotel, and houses.  Today little remains. The town was actually the county seat for a while.  Its miner residents also had `a reputation for being greedy and not selling parts of their early claims to newcomers as was reportedly the custom.  As a result, Tarryall was sometimes referred to as “Graball.”  Before long the newcomers moved on and started a town they called “Fairplay” as a slap in the face of Tarryall.  

After snapping some photos of the striking wildflowers, I get back to business.  But now I am starting to wonder exactly where my beat starts.  Finally I see a small white sign in the distance to the west near some bushes, about where the creek should be.  I head that way and am relieved to see it reads “Angler Access” with a faint path leading into a thicket of brush.  After a little bushwhacking, I stumble my way onto some water.  But it’s dead looking with barely any flow, certainly not the 20 cfs I expected. 

Deadwater Creek??

I look downstream and see a small beaver pond, so head that way, making my way carefully through the tall grass.  I’m carrying my four-weight, 8.5-foot rod rigged with my old reliable Royal Coachman Trude in #16 with a beadhead caddis dropper.  I carefully come up from below the little dam and peer over into the pond.   I don’t see any fish, but try a few casts that turn out to be fruitless.  I mount the dam and continue wading upstream in the shallow water, but don’t see any trout at all.  Damn, I think!  I have been hoodwinked. 

I decide to turn back to the road but as I do, hear the loud noise of what sounds to be a waterfall.  I grit my teeth and turn west for some more bushwhacking, and low and behold soon find what turns out to be the main channel with the promised good flow.  I look upstream and see several good-looking pools between fast-running stretches.  Then the fun begins!

The Real McCoy At Last!!

In the first pool and on the very first cast a fish unceremoniously clobbers the dry, and I feel the tug of a good trout.  Unfortunately my usual lightning-quick reflexes seem to have momentarily deserted me and I flub the strike, managing to prick the trout in the process.  Fortunately he must have had a buddy close by because soon I am onto a nice plump and scrappy brown trout that also inhales the dry. 

Let The Fun Begin!!

I continue upstream, and pick up another couple of brownies on the Royal Trude in the fast runs.  But oddly when I get to the tempting deeper pools, I strike out, nothing apparently fooled by the caddis larva dropper.  I double-check the creek rocks and find many more mayflies nymphs than caddis so switch to a #18 red Two-Bit Hooker that imitates the mayflies.  That changes the odds, and I start to pick up some bigger fish subsurface

I’m having a good time when I come to a gigantic, six-foot high beaver dam with a huge pond backed up behind it.  Fish are rising steadily all over—it looks like beaver pond nirvana.

 

I stealthily climb part way up on the dam and loft a cast towards one of the risers.  He immediately inhales the dry and the fight is on.  Second cast, same result. 

But then things go dead.  I get follows and nips at the Trude and dropper, but no connections even though the trout continue to rise up and down the long pond.

I flail the water a little longer, then finally decide the risers must be targeting small midges or mosquitos.  I quickly substitute a #20 dark mayfly dry for the trailing mayfly nymph–a double-dry fly set up.  Although microscopic, I can see the mayfly dry that sports a white foam top post for visibility as well as better floatation. 

The Ticket!

With renewed confidence, I move up to the upper section of the pond.  I spot a riser and drops a cast above the ring he’s created in the water.  The trout attacks the little fly as if it hasn’t eaten in a week and puts up a worthy battle before sliding into my net.  I definitely have punched the ticket as several more beauties quickly follow.

Beaver Pond Gold

The fast action continues for 11”-13” trout as I wade out into the pond and work the shoreline and then the inlet creek.  I spot a good fish rising at the edge of deep run in the inlet creek 30 feet upstream just below where a rivulet drops its water into the creek.  I kneel so as not to spook the fish I know are there and drop the flies in the current several feet above the pool. 

Lunker Lair!

The two dries float into the deeper water and immediately a big trout slashes up and devours the little mayfly.  It’s a big one, maybe pushing 15-inches.  He runs downstream but I put the brakes on him, my rod bending perilously.  He reverses course and heads back to the safety of his home pool…and the snags lining the shoreline.  I run up the creek and try to head off the critter, but he makes it to a submerged branch at the top of the pool before I can turn him.  Undaunted, I plunge into the deep pool, thankful for my chest waders.  Miraculously, when I reach down and grab my line, I can still feel the trout gyrating about.  I start to untangle my leader from the snag and just as I think I have him, the line goes limp.  He’s broken off! 

I retreat back to a nearby sandbar and rerig with a small black #20 dry and carry on resolutely upstream where I spy a beautiful foamy run along an undercut bank that looks promising.  It lives up to its promise:  I quickly catch and release three healthy, feisty brownies that are intent on getting into the snags that line the undercut shoreline.  This time I am able to winch them away before disaster strikes and bring them to the net. 

release the third one, I hear a branch snap upstream and look up to see a big moose within a stone’s throw staring intently at me.  Then I see she’s with a calf.  Anyone who has come face-to-face with a momma moose with a calf knows the next step is to look for a tree close by that one can scale quickly if and when she charges.  I spy a likely candidate, but fortunately before I turn tail and run, she apparently decides a rickety old septuagenarian must not be much of a threat and ambles off into the brush with her offspring.  Nothing like a close encounter of the moose kind to get the adrenaline flowing.

Close Encounter With Mama Moose!

I continue on upstream for another half hour, catching browns steadily all the way, most on the tiny dry trailer but several on the Trude in faster water.  Finally my stomach is growling for an RC Cola injection so I pause for lunch on the banks of a big, deep pool at a bend in the creek.  As I munch my lunch, I sit quietly and observe the trout that are rising sporadically.  A couple that are feasting at the head of the pool in a tricky lie under some overhanging branches naturally look the biggest.  Naturally!

Reenergized, I slide carefully back into the water and with a bit of luck drop an overhead cast just above the risers.  Immediately there is a loud slurp and the tiny trailing dry disappears.  Fight on!  This skirmish is easier than the battle before lunch as the big boy shoots downstream for the alleged safety of the deep pool.  But this gives me a lot of room to maneuver without any apparent submerged snags to worry about.  Soon a muscular browning nudging 14-inches comes in for a quick release.  I repeat the sequence and right on cue another good one gulps the tiny dry and succumbs after a good battle.  Three more good brownies follow suit rising from the depths of the pool to feast on the tiny dry. 

I continue upstream with steady action both on the Trude and his tiny companion in a sequence of alluring pools.

Then I run smack dab into another big beaver dam that I can barely see over.  In the broad pond above I catch sight of risers here and there plus another big dam above that.  

Reason To Return

But it’s going to take a high-wire act to scale and walk the dam then a slog through a mushy marshy shoreline to proceed above that.  I check my watch and it’s 2 p.m. by now.  I know I better be heading back to the SUV so I can beat the Sunday traffic returning to Denver that routinely clogs US 285.  It’s a painful decision to leave this early, but there’s always later in the week when I return to Salida via the same route.

Now the challenge is to find a path out through the marshy terrain, thick brush, and tall grass back to the ranch road.  I mush through the marsh then come to a side channel that’s flowing out of the upper beaver pond.  I step in to test the bottom and promptly stumble on a big 15-inch brown trout that swims away insouciantly.  After some false starts, I finally find a faint game trail that eventually leads me out without further insult or injury. On the way back I can’t but help pause to take more photos of the wildflowers and mountain peaks. 

It’s been a rewarding day catching a couple of dozen healthy, pugnacious browns in only five hours.  I’m glad I took my 4-weight rod to scrap with the muscular trout and that I wore my chest waders to navigate the beaver ponds.  Now I can’t wait to sample the other three beats of Tarryall Creek

Searching For Fish And Solitude In South Park: The Likeable Lilliputians Of Lost Creek

June 2020

For my earlier articles about seeking fish and solitude in South Park, see my blog from October 2019 and May 2020: https://hooknfly.com/2020/06/07/on-the-road-to-riches-finding-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/ and https://hooknfly.com/2019/10/07/mission-impossible-searching-for-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/

Undaunted, I continue my quest for fish and solitude in South Park, Colorado, a vast National Heritage Area whose waters like the South Platte’s Dream Stream and Eleven Mile Canyon attract hordes of anglers like moths to the proverbial flame.  Now admittedly they do catch some trophies, but also find at times six-foot social distancing is a real challenge to achieve.  Not exactly my cup of tea. 

For over twenty years now I have traveled from my cabin near Salida to Denver and back for work and now more often to see my #1 sweetheart granddaughter Aly.  Every time I whizzed by a sign on U.S. Highway 285 near Kenosha Pass beckoning me to the Lost Creek Wilderness. 

Lost Creek Campground–Gateway To Lost Creek Fishing

The preserve, a vast 120,000-acre sanctuary, was created in 1980 in Pike National Forest by the 1980 Colorado Wilderness Act.  Parts of it had been set aside as early as 1963 as a protected scenic area.  It takes its name from the small stream that flows for miles in a wide valley then mysteriously disappears into a jumble of rocks and boulders, only to reappear miles downstream as Goose Creek.    This is not your typical Colorado high-mountain wilderness with jagged peaks covered with snow well into summer.  Instead the more gentle landscape, most of it below treeline, is marked with random knobs, domes, pinnacles, and arches. 

The Gentle Wilderness

There was never much mining or logging here, again in contrast to many other wilderness areas, just mostly grazing.  In the late 1800s there was a uniquely western half-baked reservoir scheme to dam Lost Creek underground where it intersects Reservoir Gulch.  Not surprisingly, the enterprise failed, a few remaining structures testifying to the folly.

Fortunately before it disappears, Lost Creek seems to offer the prospect of over five miles of fishing in a picture-perfect setting.  I figure it’s high time to explore the creek.  My on-line sleuthing finds a lot of information about hiking in the miles of trails in the wilderness, but very little about fishing the creek.  A couple of posts do mention eager brook trout, and that’s enough to tip the scales in favor of some additional on-the-water piscatorial research.

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On The Road To Riches: Finding Fish And Solitude In South Park

For other articles on finding fish and solitude in South Park see my blogs from October 2019: https://hooknfly.com/2019/10/07/mission-impossible-searching-for-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/amp/ and June 2020: https://hooknfly.com/2020/06/25/searching-for-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park-the-likeable-lilliputians-of-lost-creek/

May 2020

With the Arkansas and Gunnison Rivers and other waters in my neck of the woods like Tomichi Creek blown out with runoff, I decided to resume my quixotic quest for solitude and fish in South Park.  The big broad valley that is Colorado’s South Park, home to the old mining town of Fairplay, is known mainly for two things—its eponymous TV cartoon show and great fishing on the South Platte River and its tributaries.  Problem is, just over an hour away looms the booming Denver metro area with its millions of residents, not to mention Colorado’s second largest city Colorado Springs.  That means the famous stretches of the South Platte in South Park like the Dream Stream and Eleven Mile Canyon are often wall-to-wall with anglers. 

Now my friends and readers know that crowds on the water are not my cup of tea, consequently I have been keeping my eyes and ears open for streams in South Park that the madding crowds have overlooked or forsaken in search of lunker fish in the aforementioned popular stretches of the South Platte.  The South Fork of the South Platte has become my haven with productive fishing with lots of elbow room, just off US Highway 285 south of Fairplay. 

Public Access Areas On South Fork Of The South Platte

Last fall I had a wonderful day on a stretch of public water a few miles above Antero Reservoir.  The weather man says it’s going to be a balmy 70 degrees this week—very warm for this time of year in the perennially frigid valley—and equally important, the winds won’t be howling across the wide-open prairie.  Let’s go!!

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Mission Impossible? Searching For Fish And Solitude In South Park

For a second Mission Impossible in South Park see my May 2020 article: https://hooknfly.com/2020/06/07/on-the-road-to-riches-finding-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/

Late September 2019

The big broad valley that is Colorado’s South Park is known mainly for two things—its eponymous TV cartoon show and great fishing on the South Platte river and its tributaries.  Problem is, just over an hour away looms the booming Denver metro area with its millions of residents, not to mention Colorado’s second largest city, Colorado Springs.  The result is evident every day on two Colorado fishing groups I belong to on Facebook.  While anglers show photos of nice browns and rainbows on famous stretches of the South Platte like the Dream Stream and Eleven Mile Canyon, more and more they rail about the crowds and report increasing incidents of near-fisticuffs over prime fishing spots.  To make matters worse, access to private waters that were formerly open to the public for a modest fee, through programs like the now-defunct county sponsored South Park Flyfishers, is shrinking.

Crowds are not my cup of tea when it comes to fishing.  However, when I drive from my home near Salida to Denver through Fairplay to see my sweetheart granddaughter Aly, I see miles of water just off U.S. Highway 285 on the South Fork of the South Platte that look inviting.  I fished some of this area several years ago on the 63 Ranch State Wildlife area, public water just above Antero Reservoir.  A friend and I got there early in the morning one summer day and caught some nice rainbows and browns, but by 11 a.m., the hordes descended—we could see eight other anglers, several of whom had no clue that you are not supposed to jump into the water right ahead of other anglers already fishing just below who are working upstream.  We flew the white flag and beat a hasty retreat.

Still, I was intrigued when I tooled down Hwy. 285 and saw few anglers upstream of Antero on the miles of public water between the main public access points located on the 63 Ranch and Knight-Imler State Wildlife Areas. (Caveat:  Anglers must stay within 25 feet of the river when fishing the Knight-Imler SWA–see maps below for boundaries of both areas.)

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Public Access And Parking Areas On 63 Ranch SWA And State Trust Lands

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Knight-Imler SWA Public Fishing Easements A Few Miles North Of The 63 Ranch SWA

To further whet my angling appetite, I have heard tales of huge spawning browns migrating out of Antero Reservoir up the South Fork in the fall.  As I drive, I cook up a strategy in my mind:  Pinpoint the several designated public access parking areas along this stretch and then avoid them like the plague.  So on my next several trips I keep a hawkeye out for alternatives and discover several possible walk-in access points from service vehicle-only gates.  The next step is to find a day when the wind isn’t blowing like a banshee in South Park, an all-too-often condition.

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Wildcat Canyon: No Country For Old Fishermen?

Late August 2018

As I went slip sliding away down a crumbly, gravely steep slope into Wildcat Canyon, a couple of titles from two of my favorite movies conflated in my head: “ Secondhand Lion” stars in “No Country For Old Men.”  That seemed like an apt description of the fix I had gotten myself into.

I could hear my destination roaring below, a remote section of South Platte River about an hour’s drive west of Colorado Springs.  But it had been a long time since the thought now running through my mind had popped up…that I might not make it down there, so treacherous was the last half-mile.  And me in my waders and heavy wading boots, wearing a loaded fishing vest and toting two rigged fly rods plus a small ice chest.  A slightly addled angler by any measure.

Then I came to a ledge that I had to jump down, steadying myself with my wading staff.  I landed square on both feet to the chagrin of my aging knees.  As I turned around and looked up, I thought how the hell will I get back up that one.  Ed Abbey’s similar predicament memorialized in his Desert Solitaire came to mind.   He had scurried over a ledge in a dry wash and realized he couldn’t get back up or go down.  He ended up spending a night there until he figured out a way to extricate himself.  It was some comfort that I had my emergency satellite phone in my fishing vest, but didn’t relish the thought of a night perched in some crevice trying to stay warm.

The hike along an old abandoned jeep trail had started pleasantly enough.  The first mile or so could not have been more serene or bucolic, the proverbial walk in the park bathed in sunshine among groves of stately Ponderosa Pine and Quaking Aspen, then an open meadow.  The grade was very modest, hardly discernible.

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A Walk In the Park–No Hint Of What’s To Come

The next half mile was more challenging, first the trail disappearing in an overgrown brambly stretch that played havoc with my long fly rods, my epithets coloring the air as blue as the Colorado sky.  Then it was doing some high hurdles over and hopscotching around numerous downed trees scattered like pick-up-sticks over the trail, courtesy of the devastating Hayman fire over 15 years ago, the largest in state history.

That was but a warm-up act for the final half mile that definitely put the wild in Wildcat Canyon.  Without my trusty wading staff to prop me up, I would have either plunged head-long down the ravine the trail followed or just turned back.

I continued my mountain goat imitation successfully, and as I caught my first glimpse of the South Platte, all concerns started to vanish.

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First Glimpse–More Rock Hopping Required

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