South Platte

November 5th, 2006

Tributary Two, Swimming the South Platte
By Carl Pudlo, Colorado

A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it. Proverbs 22:3

As I listened to the Gentleman of the South Platte, I had no hint that he possessed a remarkable and dry sense of humor. It became very evident when he told me the second tale of his adventures of fishing the South Platte River. Though I had not experienced as many of the contours of the river as my new companion had, I was able to picture the river in my mind with ease as he described the many facets of the famous and dangerous river. His next story alerted me to the fun and the folly of fishing the South Platte Riverů

"I cannot remember the first few times I swam the South Platte. As an angler, I tend to concentrate on where the next cast will go, or where that last rise had occurred. Myriads of conditions cause my concentration to falter when wading. I have taken falls that are simple as well as complicated. I have tripped on six-inch diameter rocks under the surface that would send me sprawling headlong into the river. Strong currents have driven my legs against rocks wedging my feet. This traps me into a position where I have no choice but to twist, turn and contort myself before succumbing to the cold water. I have stepped into soft muddy bottoms and tried pulling my foot from the suctioning mud until losing balance and boot, dropping into the water for another taste of swimming. I have misjudged the size of rocks as I tried to step over them to get to another pool. I have tried to catch myself by grasping for a nearby rock, only to have my hand slip into eighteen inches of water. I would finally regain my balance by assuming the position of a football guard; thus leaving one arm completely soaked. I could describe many other falls that would make the ESPN highlights for football follies look serious. Whenever I swam the South Platte, I was sure not to tell anyone about it. I always hated the embarrassment of having to relate the reason why I came home wet and cold. Neighbors could always tell when I had taken a dip. The obvious clue I had been swimming instead of fishing was the drying waders on the clothesline. It was not until my favorite companions began to accompany me that I began to accept swimming going hand in hand with fishing. When my companions started fly-fishing the South Platte with me, the sure question everyone asked after the fishing was, 'Did you take on any water?'

As with any mountainous region, there are steep and dangerous inclines along the rocky terrain as well as the gentle inclines. Rivers have their own unique contours to navigate. The South Platte varies from places where the river meanders along meadows before it empties into a reservoir, to places where it crashes through narrow gorges defined by immense rocks. Places exist where people can wade casually through wide flats and suddenly find themselves in a twisting bend, surrounded by rocks where the accelerated currents make wading difficult. Quiet, deep pools are only feet from a sudden drop into fast water and cascading waterfalls. All along the different stretches of water are the ever-present obstructions that can puncture waders as easily as it can wrestle away a newly tied fly from the end of a brand new tippet. Underwater obstructions include logs, rocks, grasses, and mud. Shore obstructions appear as scrub oak, ponderosa pines, and dead trees. Barbwire fences cross the water, fencing cattle within their grazing range. The riverbed varies as much as the surrounding terrain. The river bottom is a gravel bed with rippling water along a wide stretch, or it may contain huge boulders surrounded by mud bottoms. The riverbed can manifest itself as a sandbar approaching an undercut bank on the opposite side or it may have large rocks along the width of the stream where the rocks are exposed or submerged. No matter what the river bottom contains, one thing is certain, it is a source of wading danger and observer amusement when an unwary fisherman makes an unwise step toward an unknown obstacle and ends up underwater.

When the river runs high, peril is around every bend of the South Platte River. Normal wading paths become new adventures in the spring due to heavy winter runoff. The river may make several new course changes. Rocks serving as reference points the year before have disappeared. In early spring before the runoff, or during late summer and fall, when the water level is below normal, a fisherman can access holes that are unapproachable during high water. When the water is high, swimming the river is more common because the current is formidable. Caution may become secondary. Fishermen will take more wading chances in lower water levels just to get to the less navigated holes. Manly anglers, like me, will not use tricks for steady wading, like using a ski pole for balance. We do not want to appear as anything less than the masculine icon of the fishing world. The stretches of water holding many trout and not fished by the spinning rod enthusiasts lie in places attainable only by wading. I have found washes around rocks in areas of strong current often hold quality fish. These areas are excellent places for swimming, and oh yes, fishing. The water depth can reach four to six feet near big rocks, with the depth being even greater around the base of the rock. A fisherman can easily slide into the rock and the deep washouts around the rock because the terrain slants quickly in that direction. Regardless of the many times I have succumbed to the current of the river for an unwanted swim, I still make the same mistakes in true macho fashion.

There are many times when a wader may actually conquer the environment, even when taking chances. One particular stretch of the South Platte we nicknamed 'Boulder Canyon'. The stretch follows a sudden drop in the surrounding terrain. The plunge causes the water to gush through and around large rocks, three to eight feet in diameter. The river then curves and washes through an area of boulders the size of a large house, thus the nickname 'Boulder Canyon'. The banks of the river are almost non-existent. The terrain is steep on both sides of the river. The only way through the canyon is climbing between boulders on paths halfway up the mountainsides or wading through treacherous water. There are places where the fisherman can stand in calm water between house-sized boulders and pitch a fly into the rushing stream. I have been able to navigate through some of these calm areas between the boulders, into the edges of the main current, and fish the entire width of the stream. By staying on the edge of the current, it is possible to feel your way through the water to the less accessible areas. It is the obvious danger of the current and the surrounding rocks that forces one to take extra precautions, thus one can wade without swimming.

To be continued. ~ Carl Pudlo, Colorado

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