South Platte

November 20th, 2006

Tributary Three
Hiking to Prime Water
By Carl Pudlo, Colorado

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find;... Luke 11:9

Many times the Gentleman of the South Platte would talk of the pains he had taken to find the different places where he frequently fished the reputable river. He would refer to sources he had found in books, libraries, maps, and inhabitants of the South Platte River basin region. It was not until he told me the following story that I realized fishing also consists of doing your homework, reading maps, reading resource books, and talking to the local people...

"Mid way into the fall of 1991, a friend informed me of a place on the South Platte where two of his acquaintances often fished. He related to me a story of the twenty-four inch rainbow trout they had caught using spinners on light tackle. Hearing about large rainbow trout on this stretch of the river really piqued my interests. I immediately got directions, and had determined in my mind that I would find this part of the river and fish there. Since it was getting close to winter, I never did fish that stretch until the following summer.

When springtime came, I started looking for reasons to find the prime water area described to me by my friend the previous fall. This water lies north of Lake George just downstream from an area campground. Just downstream is a large understatement. Accessing the prime water requires a two-mile hike around private land. The trailhead lies just before the entrance to the private land consisting of many homes in a planned subdivision. To enter the property, either you own land within the subdivision, or you have the right connections. Since I had neither the land ownership, nor the connections, hiking was the only way to access this prime water. At the trailhead, there is room for three or four cars to park. I found a reason to look for the prime water late in the spring. It was necessary for me to get my younger boys out of the house for some exercise. It seems the younger boys' exercise for the day consisted of finding ways to annoy their older brother and sister, not to mention their mother. A hike to the prime water seemed in order.

We took the twenty-two mile drive from Woodland Park on a warm spring morning. The sun was bright and the day was unusually warm for springtime. From the parking area, we started the two-mile hike. The trail starts with a moderate incline. From the incline, you can see the South Platte both upstream and down. The river looks more and more like a snake winding its way through canyons as a hiker gets higher and higher on the trail. The river alternates in appearance from viewing points hundreds of feet above. The ripples of the river are white like snow. Where the river takes gentle turns following the contour of the canyon, the river appears deep gray. When I hike the trail to the prime water, I occasionally stop and sit to enjoy distant rippling rapids.

On this day, I could not even get one mile into the trail. It seems the boys' interests were more inclined to annoying anyone who was near them, rather than hiking. A distracted youngster is never held accountable for drifting into the fascinations of the hike. A rambunctious child is more interested in throwing stones, finding walking sticks, and asking endless questions about the surrounding area. I was doomed from the beginning of the hike to a time of answering questions, and keeping the boys from throwing stones that might find other hikers on trail switchbacks below us. Time with the boys is never lost time. I had the opportunity to try to instill in the boys the same love I have for the majestic mountains and scenery of Colorful Colorado, and I had the opportunity to find the trail for which I was searching.

Late spring and early summer rolled around, and I still had no chance to get back to the prime water trailhead. As fortune would have it, I got the chance mid summer not only to hike the entire trail but also to fish the, so far, mysterious prime water section of the South Platte. It had been a common custom for my family to take an extended vacation during the summer to visit family and friends in Wisconsin. Since I had limited vacation, I spent only a short vacation in Wisconsin with family, and came back early to Colorado for two weeks of bachelor living. It was at this time that I took the opportunity to camp and fish at my leisure for one weekend during the year. I remember packing on a Friday after work to get to another often-frequented fishing hotspot. I spent the night fishing and then planned to rise very early Saturday morning and drive to the unfamiliar trail and hike to the fishing hole I had been dreaming about for the last nine months.

The hike started at 5:15 in the morning. The beginning moderate incline follows the slopes of the many valleys and canyons formed by the hand of God. The trail moderately rises and levels as the sounds of the river diminish, informing you of the trek leading away from the river. I am always awed at the rock formations encountered at blind corners. The precipitous drops into the various valleys and canyons continually remind hikers to be cautious. Often one can see signs of wildlife along the trail, if not the actual wild life itself. Frequently I think of redefining the trail to shortcut through the valleys to where I see the trail continuing on the opposite mountainside. The strain of hiking the trail keeps me from free lancing a new trail. My view of the path would often lead to a more strenuous hike than simply sticking to the existing path.

After hiking for more than forty-five minutes, the river sounds return as witnessed by the echoes of the ripples off the surrounding rocks. The trail approaches the river again, but the river is nowhere in sight. The course begins to descend at a much steeper rate than the ascent. By this time, arms are weary from hauling waders, fly rod, and any other fishing paraphernalia, the heaviest of which is the wineskin that carries water. High altitude and dry conditions sap the moisture from a body as if in a desert. The body sweats and cools as the sun occasionally shows its intensity through the canopy of ponderosa pine. Finally, the sound of the river begins to get overpowering as one navigates the last hundred yards of steep, rocky terrain. At the bottom of the trail, the hiker breaks out into a small opening and sees a house just upstream and across the river from the trail. Every time I reach this point I think to myself how much effort would be saved if I could just drive to the house that stands opposite me. Then I remind myself that more than half the fun of fishing is getting to the water that so pique my attention.

The water at the point where the trail reaches the river is a stretch of over one hundred yards of straight, fast moving water. During the mid-summer, the depth in this stretch averages three feet or more. I never wanted to see how deep the water got. It would be too easy to slip on the rocky bottom, bounce against a large submerged boulder and go for an unwanted swim. The banks are lined by large ponderosa pine trees and scrub oak. Openings in the brush are the desired spots for flipping a fly across the stream and along the deep banks. The fish can hide anywhere since the water appears uniformly deep from bank to bank. It is best to stand in these openings where a back cast is not interrupted by the streamside brush. Roll casting is a necessary skill along with the ability to wade near the bank in water that is broken by all sizes of submerged rocks.

Since this was my first venture to this area, I walked the first hundred yards taking in all the visual and audio stimuli emanating from the river and canyon. After the long first stretch, an island almost fifty yards long and twenty yards wide separates the river. The water was high, and I could not fish the fork of the river across the island. I started fishing from a clearing about twenty yards upstream from the fork in the river. First order of business was to put on the waders and thread the line into the fly rod. I suggest never taking a two-mile hike through mountainous terrain wearing waders. The heat generated in the waders is intense. I have never taken the hike in waders. I just want to point out I have the sense not to hike in waders! Finally, I got to the streamside where I began to strip out the fly line. Being the uncharacteristic fisherman that I am, I just throw ten feet of line out to midstream so I can continue to strip out the fly line. As expected, the marabou streamer drifted down to the bank only twelve feet downstream from where I was standing. While still stripping fly line out, the water erupted with an attack on the streamer that left me with my jaw dragging on the water. Stunned by the immediate and unsuspected response, I set the hook very late. I was surprised the fish was struggling at the end of the line. I had hooked a trout that started swimming anywhere and everywhere in front of me, trying to escape the hook imbedded in its mouth. After a short struggle, I landed a sixteen-inch rainbow trout. I looked at the trout in amazement. The tail did not have the usual fan shape, but instead looked as if deformed by parasites eating away at the tail. I believe that was the first fish I ever encountered that had Whirling disease. I had not known at the time, nor was there any Department of Wildlife information published that would alert me to the Whirling disease dilemma that had gripped the South Platte River. I returned the fish to the water, knowing that if I had kept any fish, I would have a two-mile hike carrying extra weight. This definitely was a day of catch and release.

I fished the fork of the river on my side of the island. This was straight, fast water, broken only by huge protruding boulders. Submerged boulders are easily identified by the water as it backwashes over the boulder. I concentrated on fishing the front, back, and sides of boulders, both protruding and submerged. Along this stretch, I was able to connect on two more rainbows about twelve to fourteen inches long. I was pleased with the fishing. There was no cloud cover, but the early hour of the morning kept the sun from directly shining on the river. The river is in a canyon with steep climbs on both sides of the river. Coupled with the moderately thick cover of Ponderosa Pine, sunlight would not descend upon the river for at least two hours. As long as the sun was not directly shining on me, the temperature condition was cool and comfortable. I can always judge when it is time to quit fishing this stretch, the sun will shine directly on me and make the heat intense, a most uncomfortable situation.

Where the two river forks join after the island, the river takes a gentle right turn. The rocks are ever present, and the outside bank is deeply undercut. There is no way of wading the inside corner when the water is high. I was content to fish the undercut bank by casting the streamer I was using to midstream and letting the line drift back to the bank. The flow of the water is slower around this curved bank. The brush and trees along the bank still make roll casting a necessary skill. Rocks near the bank are accessible with a little jump, if only to get away from the brush on the bank for casting purposes. It was at one place like this about midway through the curve that I was able to jump across to a boulder and fish from there. I was able to cast upstream, downstream, and across stream. Fifteen feet downstream sat two huge boulders with an obvious deep wash between them. This appeared as an excellent place for a trout to lie in wait of unsuspecting food. I was right. On my first cast, I let the streamer drift about a foot deep. There was no swirl when the fish attacked the streamer, but an unmistakable jerk alerted me this was a good fish. The deep bend of my fly rod also showed the signs of a significant fish. Unfortunately, I was late on the strike. The fish pulled steadily for about 10 seconds, and then spit the fly back at me. I could not help but feel the fish was laughing at me as I stood there watching the water wash by the many rocks around me. It was safe to say someday I would return to this spot and reflect on the fish that got the best of me that day.

During that morning of fishing, I remember catching six sturdy fish; the smallest was a twelve-inch brown, the largest about sixteen inches. They were all chubby, well-fed fish. I estimated those six fish to weigh approximately eight pounds, quality produce for a three-hour span of fishing. The river along this stretch offers a diverse set of fishing challenges. The deep pools with the muddy bottoms, the fast, rocky-bottomed straight-aways, and the gradual bends with undercut banks, all contribute to a fishing experience unrivaled in the South Park area. The backdrop of formidable canyon mountainsides adds to the richness of fishing this section of the South Platte. Prime water has its beauties and its associated cost, the cost of finding the prime water and accessing it." ~ Carl Pudlo, Colorado

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