Western Field Notes #1: South Platte River

I’m no expert on this Gold Medal river southwest of Denver. In fact, I just made my first visit to the South Platte in beautiful Colorado. My introduction to the famous trout stream below Cheesman Reservoir was made, in part, by a patio view of Pike’s Peak near Colorado Springs.

Pike’s Peak, view from patio

As an easterner, I’m always struck by the redolence of cool mountain air pervading the western landscapes. That wonderful aroma of mountains and desert, accompanied by birdsong (and by traffic noises that I try to minimize), wafted in my direction, as if from distant Pike’s Peak. It’s a privileged recognition, certainly– secure, for now, from the ravages of forest fire and urban turmoil, and I saw the mountain as the hub of something new rolling my way.

The elements of nature seemed to radiate from this peak, and with them came an invitation to fish a new river nearby. So I went to tiny Deckers on the South Platte, with my better half. The exploration of these fresh environs slowly brought a sense of place I hadn’t felt since my last trip to the Rocky Mountains.

I wasn’t surprised to find a crowd of fly-fishers working the river that reportedly was moving at 150 cfs, about half of its typical summer flow. In recent years, forest fires have blackened large areas of the South Platte slopes and canyon country and diminished the greatness of the wild fishery, but I was here for better or worse and ready to fish.

This tailwater flowing out from Cheesman Reservoir contained huge quantities of grass and moss that fouled the fly hook on all too many casts. Nonetheless, the big fish were present. I’d anticipated these well-fed trout that have seen almost every kind of artificial fly imaginable and, yeah, they were finicky as hell. The South Platte isn’t widely known as a dry fly paradise, but I tied on a dry Adams as a strike indicator and then attached a nymph dropper to its hook, my best hope for the river.

What ensued was some of the strangest fishing I’ve experienced. Pods of large trout seemed to follow me like puppy dogs wherever I tried to wade. Many of these fish, about 15 to 20-inches long, hung around my toes or heel, picking up whatever morsels I kicked out accidently from the riverbed. To have a wild 20-inch rainbow poking around my feet, with other fish right behind it, felt surreal. They almost dared me to try and scoop them up with a net and, by the way, they weren’t interested in any imitation flies, either.

Well, I did manage to fool one nice trout with a tiny bead-head imitation. Judging from the lack of action that I saw in other anglers, I felt okay with my results. I made plans to return the next morning for an upstream visit to Cheesman Canyon, a beautiful mountain site where the fishing could only be better.

Actually, the next day’s fishing wasn’t much improved. It was beautiful, though, despite the burst of air temperature into the 90s (thankfully the air was clear and dry) and a heavier release of water from the upstream reservoir. I made the mile-long hike to the river through a forest of pine trees followed by a steep descent into the canyon. Once again, there were plenty of fly-fishers present who had braved the heat and the promise of a rough climb out of the canyon. The water was darker than before, and the drifting vegetation (in need of a serious flushing) plagued nearly every cast we made, no matter what fly was offered.

on the trail to Cheesman Canyon…

For me, the point of all this was to gather details from a new place (other than collecting the drift of grasses in a trout stream). Details– like the observation of a cut-bow trout in the net, of a Swainson’s hawk soaring over the canyon, maybe an American dipper flying short-winged over river rocks, or a first view of scarlet gilia blossoming along a mountain road. A fresh sense of place can be developed, enlarging the human experience, adding a new room to the house of life.

If I ever fish the South Platte again, I’ll travel closer to the headwaters above the Cheesman Reservoir where the canyonlands and higher meadows offer excellent opportunities to the visiting angler and river explorer. My next stop, however, will be on the Fryingpan River and within the mountain enclaves near Eagle, Colorado. Then on to Wyoming and Montana.

Stay tuned.

inside the canyon…

above timberline…


About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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20 Responses to Western Field Notes #1: South Platte River

  1. Bob Matuzak says:

    Sweet! Enjoy the experience!

  2. plaidcamper says:

    New rivers, odd fishing, high temperatures, and all in a spectacular setting? You’re off to a good start out west, and I will stay tuned for further adventures. Enjoy!

  3. Bob Stanton says:

    I’ve heard tales of large, usually wary trout scrounging at an angler’s feet before, I’m thinking it was the San Juan, but it may have been on the South Platte. At any rate, it’s a phenomenon I’ve only read about. Can’t wait for the next installment; I always enjoy vicariously exploring the West through your expeditions.

    • Bob, Coming to think of it, I may have heard of “fish followers” before, as well, and from the San Juan makes sense, though I didn’t it see them there on an earlier visit. Thank you much, and hoping that the home waters are being kind to your efforts.

  4. Too bad the fishing wasn’t better, I guess the fish there are have their PhD’s having observed enough fisherman to figure out that safety and food lie close to their boots! Enjoy those beautiful landscapes!

    • The fish are wild and well-educated, for sure, Mark. For me, I think it was partly a matter of poor timing. Would have preferred a fall visit, but the landscapes are beautiful when they’re fire free like this.

  5. Brent says:

    Ahh, as the temperatures and humidity climb here, I can almost smell the sage and fir by reading this. Looking forward to further accounts of your ramblings!

    • The temperatures have climbed uncomfortably the past couple of days but I’m looking forward to a mountain cool-down very shortly, and more of those wonderful smells and river views. Thanks Brent, and I hope it doesn’t get too hot in your neck of the woods.

  6. Les Kish says:

    Walt after all the years out here I’m still amazed by the false sense of lasting morning coolness. It doesn’t take long to go from comfortable to parched. Evening can’t come quick enough. That last hour is worth the wait though.

    I’ve had fish take up residence and hover over my boots while fishing spring creeks. I’ve even caught some of them. Simply perplexing. They’re smarter than hell sometimes. Other times? Well, they’re just taking advantage of an opportunity.

    • Les, Yeah I love that sense of morning coolness but, you’re right, it doesn’t take long sometimes to go right into parched mode, to be relieved by an evening sweetness.
      Good to hear about your experience with the foot-fish and their adeptness at taking food. Now I don’t have to start thinking I was imagining it all.

  7. JZ says:

    I have always heard the South Platte is tough river to fish being that the fish are so educated. Walt, I hope you found your answers to all those perplexing fish questions that river entails. Your pictures are wonderful, please keep them coming. That rock strewn stream through the canyon looked cold and inviting. A nice set-up with a dry and dropper! Hope you find gold in them there pockets. For me, I will be on Hammersly Saturday, hoping for the same…

  8. Anonymous says:

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  9. Thanks JZ. I ran into a similar situation yesterday morning on the Fryingpan, with big fish following me around, but at least there I was able to fool a number of very nice brown trout. Am currently on a tributary of the Eagle River, very high up in the mountains with fine angling for browns and brooks. Beautiful country that I hope to post some photos on, but it may be a while before I get back on the grid. Meanwhile, I’m hoping you had a fine outing on the Hammersley!

  10. Welcome to colorful, dry, hot Colorado Walt. The South Platte has the wiliest trout you’ll probably ever encounter. I hope you missed the 100+ degree temperatures while you were here. We’re usually more hospitable. Enjoy the rest of your trip.

    • Thank you, Howard. After toying with the wily SouthPlatters we hit the 100+ while staying in Colorado Springs but quickly escaped toward the cool divide near Aspen and then, thankfully, to the Fryingpan River and Brush Creek where the air and fishing were lovely. We certainly love your hospitable (and occasionally hot) mountain state!

  11. loydtruss says:

    Seeing quality trout nibbling at your feet and can’t land any would be frustrating as hell!! Glad you made a connection and landed what was probably the one trout landed there that day. Thanks for sharing

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