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.
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.
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.