I am delighted and honored that my recent piece on seeking fish and solitude in South Park, Colorado, was the lead featured article in the July/August issue of American Fly Fishing magazine. See below for a link to download the article. Now back to some more serious piscatorial research!
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.)
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.
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.
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.