Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tragic Beauty and the Perfect Hamburger

The North Fork of the South Platte River is a sad story, one that deserves attention but more importantly demands correction. I spent the day today getting acquainted with a river system that I'm sure will haunt my dreams long after this day is over.

This is perhaps one of the most beautiful stretches of river in Colorado, located just a stones throw away from Metro Denver. Surprisingly, it's given very little angler attention despite the abundance of public access. My guess is that it suffers from the glory of Cheeseman Canyon and other more recognized waters along the main stem of the South Platte that are located very close by.

The North Fork has gained a reputation as being a privately restricted river, a myth that couldn't be further from the truth. All totaled, there are 42 miles of the North Fork and only 17 of those are private property restricted. To the studious fly angler its reputation is a blessing. For the health and well being of the river, it's a curse. This potential fly fishing paradise needs a bright light shining down upon it and help in a very big way.

The tragedy that exists for this river is that it has been damaged by the mining community for many years. In fact, the North Fork has been on every EPA 303(d) list (for water quality impaired streams) since the first one was produced in 1992. Dissolved copper is identified as the primary pollutant to the river.

Fortunately, for the very survival of the river, there is a grassroots foundation of river lovers and trout anglers who are
striving to save the river by improving and maintaining the management of the river’s riparian habitat, channel habitat, water quality, and instream flows, the North Fork-South Platte River Foundation. If you are so inclined, I encourage you to visit their resources page to learn more about what is happening to the North Fork, what is at risk, and how you can get involved to return this once fabulous stretch of water to its original state of bliss. One drive along its shores will prove just how important it can be to the ecosystem, recreationalists, local communities, and fly anglers.

I set out today to learn more about the North Fork and was captured by its beauty, not to mention welcomed by a few people I met along the way. The trout fishing was excellent, despite the high water conditions. As compared to the main stem of the South Platte, conditions were tolerable although the water was certainly off color and high. Now that the river has peaked, in only a couple of weeks this little gem of a stream is going to shape up nicely. I can't wait to go back!

Along my journey, I happened along a travelers bar and grill called Zoka's in the town of Pine Grove and spent a good amount of time getting to know Kurt Blackwell, the restaurant's owner. Holy crap! This one's on the radar for every trip to the river from now until forever. What I expected to turn out to be little more than a greasy spoon that would contribute to a good case of heartburn ended up being a gourmet meal and quite likely the best hamburger I've ever had. Kurt has a wonderful chef on hand and changes the menu frequently, although the Zoka burger is a mainstay and well worth the trip. In addition to lunch and dinner, on the weekends they provide breakfast for those early travelers to the river with all kinds of exotic food for your enjoyment. Take a look at this menu!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Fish in a Salad Bowl

An old college buddy of mine dropped by quite unexpectedly from Florida on some personal business this past week. Somewhere in the fog of remembrance about fraternity shenanigans "back in the day," more than a few beers, and the obligatory guitar riff jam session, we got the wild idea that we should do some fly fishing. We made a plan for the following day and off we went to Elevenmile Canyon.

The river was flowing perfectly at 100 cfs, a sacrificial lamb offered up by the water board in the midst of raging runoff conditions throughout the state. As is expected this time of year, everybody and their brother got the memo about the one perfect flowing section of river in the state, so were joined by the brotherhood of fly anglers on what turned out to be a picture perfect day on the river.

Tom, my fraternity brother, is a very accomplished professional photographer. So, instead of fishing, he spent most of the day shoving his camera in my face and barking out orders that had little to do with likely holding spots for fish and more to do with lighting, drama, backdrop, and storytelling. Despite the artistic platitudes, I managed to catch a number of fish.

Most fish were caught earlier in the morning on either a Barr's Flashback BWO, #18-22, followed by my old standby the Grey Loop Winged RS2, #22-26. We caught several fish, some Cutthroat, plenty of Rainbows, and a number of beautiful Browns. Sizes were garden variety for Elevenmile Canyon but the regularity of takes was rewarding.

Sounds like a great report, right? Well... there was the matter of all the free flowing moss in the river, a true exercise in persistence and patience to say the least. We had great fishing, but with every cast if there wasn't a fish on, you were cleaning salad off every drift. Still, am I really afforded the opportunity to complain with fish like these?

The moss hatch broke out at around 11:30 a.m. and got progressively worse as we moved downstream. By 4:00 p.m. the ratio of stabbed fingers while removing crap from my fly versus that of fish caught tilted decidedly in the wrong direction. It was time to roll, so we packed it up and headed back to the BBQ, some beer, and the guitars.

Quotes for the day:
  1. "Man, this fly fishing thing requires a lot of brick-a-brack doesn't it?"
  2. "For the benefit of photography, can you please move to that other side of the river?"

Friday, June 4, 2010

Extra, extra... look all around you!

Holy cow! I had an opportunity to meet Tim Romano of Boulder, CO at a local TU chapter meeting recently. He is a contributing photographer to The Fly Fish Journal. If you appreciate great fish porn photography, this is one magazine that's sure to capture your attention. There are very few advertisements, which I found most excellent. The stories were real and the photos inspiring - the kind that want to make you run out and buy an airplane ticket to TDF without hesitation and worry about the consequences later.

This is a publication not unlike Grey's Sporting Journal, but with a little more adrenalin and a lot less oil paintings. The stories are real and from all corners of the globe, and the photography is inspiring. Beautiful fish live in beautiful places. Without question, this is a new magazine that's sure to hammer that point home like a railroad spike.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Wednesday is a solitude day for fishing - Not if your plans include Cheeseman Canyon though

Wednesday is a great day to have off work if you're a fly fisherman, right? It gives you the opportunity to get in touch with nature, spend time with a good friend, or decompress from the rigors of life, giving you a chance to connect with your inner thoughts. If that's your goal, and you have Cheeseman Canyon on your agenda, you need to recalibrate your thinking.

Wow! What a party it was in the Canyon today. Best to put yourself in the frame of mind that it's a social gathering - time spent with friends, lots of them, and the chance to make some new ones, lots of them.

Kidding aside, I got an opportunity today to fish with my good friend and neighbor Jim, and was later joined by some bird hunting buddies who found some time to get away from their respective offices. We enjoyed a fabulous day on the river, despite the crowds. Fishing was tough for Jim and I, but we were both rewarded with a reasonable number of fish, a couple of them (Jim's) very respectable. What can I say, I didn't have the mojo today. I figure it's the price I had to pay for my Memorial Day brown trout extravaganza. The fishing gods always even the score.

Conditions were favorable with flows at 274 cfs. The water was reasonably clear offering excellent site fishing conditions. At the end of the day, Jim and I compared notes. Surprisingly, we took all of our fish on either a Grey or Black Loop Wing RS2 in sizes 18-22 trailed behind a Tung Poxyback Golden Stone in size 12 or Jimmy Legs Stone Fly in size 10. I lost one fish that had taken the golden stone. Our catch was mostly rainbows with a few browns mixed in. Sizes ran a wide range, between 12" (mine) and 22" (Jim's). All the fish were very well marked and healthy which made me happy.

On the way home we had a little extra time. Since the lower section of the South Platte running through Deckers had finally cleared up, I wanted to see what the extent of the damage was from the Horse Creek run off of last summer. I am sad to report this section of the river is going to take considerable time to repair itself from all the sediment that flowed from Horse Creek as a result of the Hayman Fire. Most of the prior great structure in the river is nothing more than an underwater desert of gravel and sand covering most of the stream bed. There was an abundant caddis hatch on the river though which gives me great hope for the future, but I fear the structural damage to the river will be a negative force to contend with for anglers for some time to come.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Caught without a net

I got a chance to visit the South Platte River on Monday just above Chatfield Reservoir. The flow was above average for runoff conditions (192 cfs) with water a little off color so my expectations were low. Adding further to my lackluster concentration, it was Memorial Day so I figured crowds would be heavy and opportunities to fish prime holes would be low. Two hundred yards and ten fly fishermen in, I was right. Long story short, I figured this was pretty much a walk along the river with the kids to turn over some rocks and check the conditions on the river. Armed with my Hardy LRH 8.5' #4 fiberglass hybrid and LRH reel, I figured I might pick up a dink or two just for the kids to see a few spots. Little did I know what I was in for.

Juliana, my neighbors youngster, is just learning how to fly fish. Walking along the river, we were discussing how to read water and identify prime holding spots and runs when she stumbled along a gem of a little hole with a super sweet tale out, so we settled in together to make a few casts. After about a half hour or so with no luck, we were just about to move on when I got "snagged" on the bottom. Followed by the proverbial yank yank to retrieve my rig, I was just about to grip my line, break off, and chalk this one up to another $6.00 visit to the fly shop when my line made a decidedly fishy move to the center of the river. Fish on!

It was a solid fish that acted very little like a trout. Moving with slow but deliberate motion, I concluded this was probably a carp or sucker fish. I was prepared to break it off rather than do damage to my rod which was completely inadequate for doing battle with some enormous river monster. We had had very little action up until now so I figured I'd bring the beast up to the surface for one roll before breaking off just so Juliana would have a chance to at least see a big fish. I pulled about as hard as I could to lift his head, the rod bending deep into the butt. As the fish came to the surface I recognized spots and quickly realized I was engaged with a fish of a lifetime. Once the fish realized something was terribly wrong, he screamed back down to the bottom of his hole thumping along the bottom in typical brown trout fashion; up went the heart rate as I started running through the mental checklist:
  • No net
  • 8.5' fiberglass hybrid 4 weight rod
  • reel with virtually zero drag
  • 5x tippet
  • Enthusiastic lab with leash wrapped around my legs who just realized something alive was at the other end of that funny looking shotgun
  • chances for successful landing, about 10%
The fish made several runs after every pull to the surface. With no drag I was pretty much at his mercy. The only thing keeping me in the game was the size 12 golden stonefly pattern the fish had taken instead of the # 22 RS2 I had tied on as a dropper. I don't know if the fish got bored or just gave in. Perhaps this wasn't his first day at the rodeo and realized if he just played dead he could go back to his hole, albeit with a bruised ego. Nevertheless, in the end, the fishing gods smiled on us that day and Juliana and I won the battle. A beautiful 22" 5-6 lb brown trout was brought hand, a wonderful spotted specimen. My only regret, I had neglected to account for one last item on the mental checklist - no camera. It's good to have witnesses though!