Tributary Two, Swimming the South Platte
A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge,
but the simple keep going and suffer for it. Proverbs 22:3
By Carl Pudlo, Colorado
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
"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
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
To be continued. ~ Carl Pudlo, Colorado
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