American Fly Fishing

Banks Lake, WA

Room to Explore
By David Paul Williams

Banks Lake, WA

It was the hottest day of the year. Sweat streamed down my back. Steam fogged my sunglasses as I scanned the water for carp. My skin crackled from the heat reflected off the coulee wall. I was thinking that a normal person would retreat to the truck, crank up the air conditioner, and return another day. But I had driven 200 miles to Banks Lake, and I was going to fish or melt trying.

Unlike me, the carp enjoyed the heat. They lazily cruised the shallows and dipped in and out of the tule stands, until one vacuumed up my Carp Woolly. Determined to rectify its mistake, that fish demonstrated how a powerful carp and 8-pound tippet are soon parted. It was an unbeatable introduction to one of the finest carp fisheries in Washington, in a dramatic
geologic setting.

Thousands of years ago, the Purcell Trench Lobe of the Cordilleran ice sheet, many hundreds of feet thick, ground into the Idaho panhandle where Lake Pend Oreille now sits. It dammed the entire Clark Fork River drainage to form 2,000-foot-deep glacial Lake Missoula. When the ice dam eventually burst, 500 cubic miles of water raced through what is now Idaho, then Washington, and on into Oregon. The 65-mile-per-hour torrent of debris-filled water, equal to 10 times the combined volume of every river in the world, scoured everything in its path.

Banks Lake, WA

The rock structure around Steamboat Rock has tons of fish-holding nooks, crannies, and holes where bass hide. Carry several different sinking lines so you can fish as deep as necessary to find fish (left). This heavy bass crushed a baitfish pattern. In Banks Lake, smaller fish make up a significant food base for smallies, so carry a variety of streamer-style flies and vary your retrieve speed until the fish tell you how they want it (top middle). The east side of Banks Lake has miles of shoreline where a few minutes of walking puts anglers in prime carp territory (middle). Wade fishing along the now-submerged Speedball Highway provides access to nearly every fish species in the lake (top right). The dorsal fin on a big smallmouth is beautiful, but mind those flesh-piercing spines (bottom right). PHOTOS BY DAVID PAUL WILLIAMS

Although it was once thought to have been a single event, geologists now believe the ice dam and flood pattern was repeated as many as 60 times. The floods left a canyon more than 50 miles long, 5 miles wide in places, and more than 800 feet deep. The first humans entered the canyon at least 11,000 years ago. Native American legends recall a time when the water-filled canyon was inhabited by terrible monsters and the canyon walls themselves ran red with the blood of warriors killed by those monsters. Centuries later, the canyon became a path for exploration.

Banks Lake, WA

One angler handles the poling duties while the other stands ready to deliver a quick, pinpoint cast to carp on a shallow Banks Lake flat. PHOTO BY STEVE MAEDER

Early explorers thought the coulee was the ancient riverbed where the Columbia River, now miles to the north, once ran. French Canadian trappers called the canyon Grand Coulee, from the French verb couler, meaning “to flow.” In the middle of the Great Depression, Congress approved building a power-generating dam on the Columbia at the spot where the ancient Columbia once flowed south. When completed, Grand Coulee Dam formed Roosevelt Lake and morphed into the key component of the Columbia Basin Project. The project included creating a giant waterstorage reservoir, filling it with Columbia River water, and flooding miles of farmland. Two more dams were built: Dry Falls Dam near Coulee City in 1949, and North Dam at Electric City in 1951—corks in a 27-mile-long bottle known as Banks Lake.

Easy Access Afloat or Afoot At full pool, Banks Lake covers about 27,000 acres, a daunting expanse that can be challenging for experienced lake anglers and intimidating for those new to the lake game. Help is available to demystify Banks. A Google search for “Banks Lake drawdown” brings up images taken after a drawdown in 2011, when Banks was more puddle than lake. They reveal the location of the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway bed, and the Speedball Highway roadbed, along the east side of the lake. Both are fish magnets at varying times of the year. The Banks Lake/ Lake Washington map by Fish-n-Map Company, www. fishnmap.com, includes the Speedball Highway route plus tons of other fishing information. The images and map help break down the lake into manageable chunks.

Partway up the lake is Steamboat Rock, a landmark used by ancient travelers, then European settlers, and then military pilots. It’s a massive 800-foot-high basalt butte, a remnant of the plateau cut by the Missoula floods. The enormous rock is just one feature of sprawling Steamboat Rock State Park, which has 26 tent and 144 RV sites, flush toilets, green lawns, shade trees, and boat ramps. The park is part of a larger Steamboat Rock State Park Recreation Area that includes 44 primitive campsites at Jones Bay and 36 at Osborn Bay Lake. Both have vault toilets, but no water and plenty of dust in the summer.

Banks Lake, WA

This smallmouth bass was a pleasant surprise while the author was targeting carp in shallow water on a rocky shoreline flat on Banks Lake. Both species will hammer crayfish patterns. PHOTOS BY DAVID PAUL WILLIAMS

The lake has numerous boat ramps. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) operates two gravel launches just off US Highway 2 on the southeast shore. Ankeny #1 has camping and a vault toilet. Ankeny #2 has a toilet, but no camping. Neither has potable water. Six miles up the lake on the east shore is Million Dollar Mile South, a gravel launch with no amenities. Three miles farther is Million Dollar Mile North, with a gravel launch, large RV parking area, and toilet. The only launch on the west side is Barker Canyon. Down a steep gravel road, it has a toilet and a concrete ramp. All WDFW ramps require a Vehicle Access Pass or Discover Pass.

Coulee City Community Park, at the southern end of Banks Lake, has a concrete ramp and a large parking area; both get plenty of use when walleye anglers are in town. The associated campground has tent and RV sites, several bathrooms with coin-operated showers, picnic tables, and fire rings. The ramp is open all year; the campground operates April through October. Steamboat Rock State Park has two concrete ramps, one on the camping side, the other at Northrup Canyon. Both have bathrooms and both require a Discover Pass. Farther north, on the west side of State Route 155, is Osborn Bay Campground, which has a concrete ramp. The WDFW has a gravel launch site with parking for only a couple of boat trailers on the east side of SR 155, just before the highway crosses Osborn Bay Lake. Farther north is Coulee Playland Resort, with a concrete ramp, RV sites, bathrooms with showers, store, and current fishing information.

Launching a powerboat from one of the ramps allows anglers to probe remote coves, but powerboats are not necessary to effectively fish the lake. Float tubes or pontoons work well, as there are plenty of small coves and bays to explore. You can easily pull off the highway, pump up a boat, and be on the water. Wade-fishing is popular as well. The end of Road J Northeast, north of Coulee City, has miles of wadable shoreline where you can encounter carp, smallmouth bass, and an occasional largemouth bass. The flats along Million Dollar, the east side of the Devils Punch Bowl, and The Poplars (at the south end of the state park) offer excellent wade-fishing prospects. The lake’s bottom composition varies between broken basalt, gravel, and mud. Where the bottom is muddy, I do the football player thing and duct-tape my wading sandals to my feet.

Banks Lake, WA

Banks Lake is an outstanding carp fishery, with lots of shallow-water habitat for sight-fishing by boat or by wading.
PHOTO BY STEVE MAEDER

Fish-Filled Phenom Banks Lake fly anglers generally focus on smallmouth bass and carp, largely because these species are abundant and outstanding targets, but also because few anglers seem to be aware of other species in the lake. In the years I’ve fished Banks Lake, I’ve never seen another fly fisher target rainbow trout, walleyes, yellow perch, black crappies, lake whitefish, burbot, largemouth bass, bluegills, kokanee, or channel catfish.

Banks Lake is filled with carp feeding on extensive flats, cruising the edges of lava fingers jutting into the lake, and hanging in the many bays and coves. They are everywhere and can be caught any day from April to October, except when they gather to spawn. Warm spring weather can find the fish spawning in May. A cold year will delay the spawn until July. It’s easy to detect when carp are spawning: they swarm together and churn up the water in a boisterous display of mating behavior.

The hot summer months offer the best fishing conditions. The spring winds have died and the sunny, cloudless skies provide good sight-fishing conditions. The combination of massive numbers of fish, excellent sight-fishing weather, and clear water make Banks Lake my first choice for carp fishing.

Banks Lake carp run up to 15 pounds, with most about half that weight. You need 7- to 8-weight rods to handle these powerful fish, particularly because they tend to race into the nearest tule patch (tules are dense freshwater reeds). Use 1X or 0X fluorocarbon tippet, a long leader, and a size 8 Black Cherry, or any fly constructed with rubber legs, marabou, and rabbit. Olive, tan, brown, black, and burnt orange are productive colors for the fly body. Polarized sunglasses and a wide-brimmed
hat are essential.

Smallmouth bass, like carp, are everywhere in the lake. Head to Barker Flats on the northeast shore in May, and expect to have plenty of company, because the smallmouth and those who pursue them reliably show up. The old roadbed comes through Devils Punch Bowl, water easily accessed from Steamboat Rock State Park. The road enters at the south end of the Punch Bowl and runs at varying depths along the east shore, then exits at the north end of the Punch Bowl before disappearing into the Northrup Canyon rocks.

Banks Lake, WA

Carp are not the fastest swimmers, and they don’t jump, but they make up for their lack of agility with brute force, so step up to a 7- or 8-weight rod and prowl the extensive flats along the shoreline for sight-fishing excitement. PHOTO BY STEVE MAEDER

Smallmouth love the drowned roadbeds in the spring and early summer until the hot weather drives them into deeper water. If the roadbed is covered by a few feet of water, the fish will be on each side of the road. If the roadbed is deep, the fish will be on top of it. The railroad bed fish follow the same pattern.

Osborn Bay Lake, accessed from the WDFW gravel launch, has some great smallmouth structure along the SR 155 riprap, and rocks along the far shore. Tucked away from the main lake and protected by the surrounding topography, it can be fished when the wind whips Banks Lake into froth.

The upper third of the lake has more weedy structure favored by largemouth bass. Jones Bay, Kruk Bay, and Osborn Bay Lake are good choices. If you want to target largemouth, look for coves and shoreline filled with tules and cattails. There is great largemouth bass habitat around the Osborn Bay Campground and along the Electric City airport shoreline.

Banks Lake’s bottom contour constantly varies. An area may have a 4-foot-deep hump, then plunge to 20 feet. That rapid depth change means carrying at least two rods—one rigged with an intermediate line, the other equipped with a long type 6 sinkingtip or sinking line. If room allows, take a third rod with a floating line for fishing top-water flies, because the bass will take a top-water bug any time of day. The bass key on crayfish, yellow perch, and kokanee. Bennett’s Baitfish in perch or smolt colors are good imitations. Try working a Hoffman’s Chickabou Crayfish along the bottom, but bring plenty, as the basalt substrate gobbles flies. Use The Hamster on top.

Banks Lake, WA

Fish-eating great blue herons and many other waterbirds thrive at Banks Lake. PHOTO BY STEVE MAEDER

May is prime time for Banks Lake bass. That’s when they have moved into their prespawn pattern. October is also excellent, because that’s when kokanee fry are stocked. Try to be on the water when it has cooled to 60 degrees and the bass begin their first of two fall feeding binges. The second binge happens when the water temperature drops another five degrees.

Expect to find plenty of average-size bass and a few ranging up to 5 pounds. In the bass tournaments, the big-fish winner is usually 4 or 5 pounds and the winning team averages at least 3 pounds per fish.

The WDFW has worked to develop a rainbow trout fishery at Banks Lake, annually stocking about 1,000 catchable-size trout. They can grow up to about 20 inches. The same baitfish and crayfish patterns that smallmouth eat work for the rainbows. Damselfly and dragonfly nymphs prevail along the tules and cattails; in November, the rainbows are 10 to 15 feet deep,
eating perch.

If you really want to stand out in a crowd, target walleyes. These toothy critters come shallow in the spring, looking for a rocky, cobble bottom where they can spawn. The smaller males (14 to 18 inches) check out the sites first, followed by the bigger females (some as heavy as 8 pounds or more). Immediately after the spawn, the fish hang near the spawn sites and feed aggressively. According to WDFW research, walleyes of all sizes dine on the abundant kokanee as well as crayfish. The best fishing is in early morning, late evening, and even at night. I use a Chartreuse Caboose matched with a Kokanee Fry or brown D-Dub’s Rabbit Bugger on a sinking-tip line with a short leader ending in 6-pound tippet. Walleyes tend to feed near the bottom, so I try to keep the fly a foot or so off the substrate. In the spring, that means water 8 to 14 feet deep. Use a slow strip-and-pause retrieve coupled with intermittent quick pulses.

Another Banks Lake fish that rarely sees a fly, and turns Banks Lake into a year-round fishery, is the lake whitefish. These weigh as much as 5 pounds and emerge from the depths when the water is coldest—December through February. A fly-fishing friend and I took a page from the gear-chucker book and fished weighted sparkly flies on long 4-pound-test leaders. The north end of the lake across from Coulee Playland and the kokanee net pens south of Coulee Playland are two popular spots. Sadly, the big numbers of lake whitefish bring out poachers—WDFW enforcement officers are always catching bad guys breaking the law, typically by exceeding the 15-fish bag limit, snagging fish, or even using gill nets.

Crappies don’t get much love from fly fishers, but they are fun to catch on 3- and 4-weight rods. Early in the year, the fish move into flooded brush and vegetation. As the water warms, they retreat into deeper water. Carey Special, Chum Baby, and White Lightning are good patterns.

Banks Lake offers a lot of options, though smallmouth bass and carp are the prime targets for most of the lake’s regulars. But taking all species into consideration, the combination of remarkable scenery, myriad species, and plenty of easy access makes Banks Lake a year round destination.


David Paul Williams is an attorney, freelance writer, and author of Fly Fishing for Western Smallmouth.
He lives in Bellevue, Washington.

Kinnickinnic River, WI

A Natural Beauty Hiding in Plain Sight
By Jeff Erickson

Kinnickinnic River, WI

The Kinni is nicely proportioned for fly anglers, often running around 100 cubic feet per second. It’s small enough to readily wade and reach all the water, yet large enough to create casting lanes and hold larger trout, especially in the lower reaches. ALL PHOTOS BY JEFF ERICKSON

For me, coming of age in the Twin Cities, northern Minnesota was the promised land for fishing and outdoor recreation. On Friday afternoons as the clock made its tortoise-like creep toward 5 p.m., coworkers routinely gathered around, asking each other, “Where you going this weekend?”

The usual answer was “up north,” meaning a lakeside cabin in Minnesota or Wisconsin, a state park or national forest campsite, or perhaps the rugged Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. “Maybe catch and fry up a few walleyes, if they’re biting.”

From an angling perspective, the walleye was and remains the upper Midwest’s omnipotent king. The crown prince would likely be razor-toothed northern pike. Others in the royal family include largemouth and smallmouth bass, panfish, and—for eccentrics with the patience of Job—shark-like muskies. When I was a kid, trout were relegated to the piscatorial periphery; for a time, as my interest in fly fishing grew, I thought I might have to venture to Montana to finally catch one.

Gradually, I learned that wasn’t true. Browns and native brookies finned in watercress-fringed spring creeks in southeastern Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. And—as I was confidentially advised by a high school biology teacher—there were trout riches much closer: in the Kinnickinnic River, just across the Saint Croix River border, near River Falls, Wisconsin. Despite being on the fringe of a major metropolitan area, the diverse Kinnickinnic was and remains one of the Midwest’s best trout watersheds.

Because of the Kinni’s inherent productivity and decades of conservation work, trout stocking was discontinued in 1974. Parts of the stream support more than 5,000 trout per mile.

Kinnickinnic is a Cree and Chippewa word referring to a popular smoking material composed of tobacco and the inner bark of willow or dogwood trees. Locals wisely dispense with the tongue-twisting full name and simply say “Kinni.”

The Kinni was originally famed for prolific native brook trout; browns were introduced in the 19th century and eventually established thriving populations. Due to the stream’s inherent productivity and decades of conservation work, stocking was discontinued in 1974. The Kinni can support more than 7,000 trout per mile—exceptional numbers— gradually tapering off below River Falls to under 2,000 near the mouth as the water warms and slows.

The Kinni is really two streams in one, each offering wonderful but distinctly different opportunities. The stream rises from springs in bucolic, rolling farm country 30 miles east of Saint Paul, just north of Interstate 94. Between I-94 and River Falls, the upper river is fed by a profusion of additional spring water; compared to the lower river, this reach is colder, slower, and more intimate, with stable flows and exceptional water quality. The bottom is mainly silt, sand, and gravel, with abundant aquatic vegetation. Wild brookies thrive in the headwaters and icy tributaries. Most trout in the upper river, including browns, are less than 12 inches long, although larger specimens haunt the depths.

For decades, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has done an excellent job of securing public access along this reach. Anglers can reach the river from locations off State Route 65 north of River Falls, and from a network of local roads branching off from the highway. There is private land where public fishing is not allowed, but in many respects the Kinni is a people’s river.

River Falls is the dividing point between the 15-milelong upper Kinni and the 8-mile-long lower water. Below two small hydroelectric dams in town, the Kinni has incised a twisting gorge en route to the Saint Croix River. The river below town rushes over limestone rubble and through fallen trees—prime fish habitat—below forestclad bluffs.

Several primary public access points deliver anglers to the lower Kinni. At Glen Park in River Falls, hike past the lower dam to the forested valley below. A trail below River Ridge Road west of town affords similar access. A path follows the main river for at least a mile downstream from the dam; you can bushwhack farther downstream to find more solitude. In the less heavily fished middle gorge, hike down to the Drewiske Family (formerly Jackson) Preserve, owned by the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust (KRLT).

Two small hydroelectric dams in River Falls mark the transition between the upper and lower Kinni. Discussions are underway to possibly remove the dams, which would decrease water temperatures in the lower river, making it even more trout friendly.

The Kinni coulee, below River Falls, is a popular reach, where the river flows through a wild, pristine corridor, a haven for approximately 40 rare plant and animal species. White pines tower over the stream along limestone cliffs, along with pockets of prairie and oak savanna on ridges. On spring days, riverbanks undulate with wildflowers and tiger swallowtails, and anglers hiking out in twilight glimpse whirling bats and glimmering fireflies.

Warmer water below River Falls allows denser populations of minnows, leeches, and crayfish, so browns over 14 inches aren’t unusual. Aside from the prospect of bigger trout, the lower river offers a wider, scoured-out floodplain that allows more casting room, with flows often averaging around 100 cubic feet per second (cfs).

Near the mouth, Pierce County Road F crosses the river at Kinnickinnic State Park. Anglers park here to access prime water near the bridge. Below County Road F, the Kinni runs a couple more miles through the park before joining the Saint Croix River, but this reach is slower and sandier, with increasingly less trout habitat (but no doubt sheltering some lunker browns under massive logs). The Kinni’s delta offers excellent smallmouth bass fishing and beach camping for boaters.

Of the Kinni’s tributaries, the South Fork arguably offers the most. You can access the lower South Fork glen from River Falls, where the small stream cascades over waterfalls and below moss- and fern-clad cliffs, obscuring the fact that you are in the heart of the city. The waterfalls prevent the upstream encroachment of brown trout; native brook trout preside upstream. Marty Engel, retired DNR fisheries biologist and current KRLT land stewardship director, says the best reaches hold 4,000 to 5,000 trout per mile, “the only significant Class 1 brookie population in the watershed.” Earlier in his career, Engel worked on securing the South Fork Fishing Access upstream from River Falls, offering plenty of room to roam. He says the KRLT and its partners will pursue more South Fork access in the future, making this little gem even more attractive.

Kinni Techniques and Strategies
Doug Swisher—coauthor of the groundbreaking flypattern book Selective Trout— honed his skills on the Kinni. “The Kinnickinnic,” he says, “is one of my favorite spring creeks. It has everything you could ask for: it is challenging, scenic, productive, and easily accessible. It was the home of my early fly-fishing schools.”

Before it slides into the Saint Croix River—a federally designated Wild and Scenic River and smallmouth bass haven—the Kinni loops through the forested bluffs of Kinnickinnic State Park.

The stream’s educated trout have had ample opportunity to scrutinize parades of fake flies, and learned from the experience. Precise presentations and imitations are important. Nonetheless, there’s a treasure trove of trout; anglers with their mojo working often enjoy spectacular action, and the trout aren’t always that picky.

Hatches and strategies in the Kinni’s multifaceted, 240-square-mile watershed vary, particularly between the upper and lower portions. Be adaptable: walk the banks in the afternoon and you may see scant evidence of trout; return for the evening hatch and the same water may be boiling. In either case, light rods and long, fine tippets are appropriate unless you’re chucking streamers on the lower river. Brian Smolinski, owner of Lund’s Fly Shop in River Falls, observes, “Kinni trout are extremely spooky. If you can catch fish here, you can catch fish anywhere.” Stealth should be every Kinni angler’s mantra.

The abundance and diversity of Kinni aquatic life is impressive, including at least 20 species of caddisflies. To help navigate this profusion, pay a visit to Smolinski at Lund’s; he has the pulse of the Kinni and other local trout streams, and offers sage advice about choosing the right flies, which might include a series he developed starting with the prefix “B Smo’s.”

Beyond caddisflies, three of the most important hatch groups are midges, Blue-Winged Olives, and light-colored mayflies commonly known as Sulphurs and Light Hendricksons. Blue-Winged Olives and midges spark earlyseason surface action in March and continue to hatch throughout the season.

In April and May, Grannoms trigger excitement on the Kinni. The river’s most abundant caddisfly, the Spotted/ Speckled Sedge spurs summer-long surface activity. Smolinski swears by a caddisfly pattern developed by a shop employee, the Bread and Butter Caddis. “That thing just cleans up,” he says. He also likes a pattern called Skip’s Wet Soft Hackle, which, he says, “Looks like anything—just a simple fly—but is really deadly.”

The Kinni can fish well any time of year, but according to Smolinski, “May and June are pretty awesome, with caddis, Sulphurs, March Browns, and Blue-Winged Olives.” Low-riding spring-creek-style mayfly patterns will boost your chances during the hatches, although fully hackled, old-school Catskill patterns work in the faster water. Simply drifting a small Pheasant Tail or Hare’s Ear Nymph before a mayfly hatch is productive, with Rusty Spinners tempting post-hatch fish. “Nymphs and streamers work too,” says Smolinski. “Everyone’s happy!”

Brown trout were introduced to the Kinni in the 19th century and eventually established thriving populations.

Summer afternoons on the Kinni are often sweltering, so it’s time to focus on mornings, afternoon shade, and evenings. Beginning in late June or early July, morning Trico spinner falls demand attention. Ant, beetle, cricket, and inchworm patterns take fish even during midday heat, particularly in the shadows. They can even work when a more realistic imitation fails during a hatch. On July and August evenings, Slate Drakes or Mahogany Duns may provide spinner action on the lower river.

Stoneflies don’t play the prominent role they occupy in brawling Western rivers, but they are present, fishable, and biological indicators of high water quality. Little Black Stoneflies provide early-season action. Several species of Little Yellow Stoneflies occur from April through June. And formidable-looking Giant Stoneflies also prowl the lower river, in relatively small numbers.

Tiny Blue-Winged Olives can appear throughout the summer, providing a bridge to autumn. If a small dun doesn’t work, try a Rusty Spinner. Early fall is a fine time to visit the Kinni, as hardwoods explode with color, and hoppers and other terrestrials entice fish, mixed with fading hatches of Tricos and caddisflies. Blue-Winged Olives—seasonal bookends—reassert themselves. Autumn also provides the opportunity to test a hook-jawed, lower river brown’s anger management training with a streamer.

Because of the river’s fecundity, fly anglers often spot Kinni bugs they can’t identify. That comes with the territory, so cover your bases by bringing an ample selection of nymphs, emergers, cripples, duns, and spinners. But you can keep it simple, too: an Adams with a Prince Nymph dropper often works magic. And scuds pay dividends all season, as these crustaceans are plentiful. One pattern that triggers a scud response but works well generally is the Lund’s Pink Squirrel. “We sell more of these than anything else,” observes Smolinski. He has also developed a variation—B Smo’s Pink Princess—that shows a bit of Prince Nymph wings. “There are multiple reasons it works so well,” he says.

A Conservation Showcase
The entire Kinni watershed is part of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 16-county Minneapolis–Saint Paul, MN–WI Combined Statistical Area, with an estimated 2019 population of over 4 million people. Saint Croix County, which includes the upper Kinni watershed, grew from a sleepy 29,164 people in 1960 to an estimated 90,687 in 2019. Between 2000 and 2010, it was Wisconsin’s fastest-growing county. Often, this kind of population growth might serve as a death knell to a superb trout fishery, but the Kinni has become a national case study on how to preserve a great trout stream in a rapidly growing area.

The Kinni was once famed for prolific native brook trout. Brown trout predominate today, but wild brookies still thrive in the headwaters and icy tributaries, such as Parker, Kelly, Ted, Nye, Rocky Branch, and South Fork Creeks.

Development in and around River Falls has led to concerns involving thermal impacts and contamination from nonpoint source runoff from streets, parking lots, and other surfaces. A thunderstorm can quickly wash pollutants and sediment into the river. If the storm occurs on a hot day, the deluge of warm, unfiltered runoff from roads, roofs, and parking lots gushing from storm sewers increases flooding and creates a thermal spike, harming aquatic insects and trout. Impervious surfaces also inhibit infiltration of precipitation into aquifers, affecting springs. Solutions include maintaining wetlands and native vegetation buffers; utilizing retention basins, infiltration swales, and rain gardens and barrels that store, filter, cool, and slow the release of stormwater into aquifers and streams; and employing pervious pavers and permeable concrete on sidewalks, driveways, and parking lots.

Even with these protective measures, flooding remains a concern, one likely exacerbated by climate change, which appears to be bringing more frequent, intense storms. A dramatic example of extreme flooding on the lower Kinni occurred on June 28 and 29, 2020, after the River Falls area received more than 7 inches of rain in 24 hours. Before the storm hit on the 28th, the river was running around 160 cfs. By the 29th, the Kinni peaked at more than 5,000 cfs.

Regionally, the storm washed out bridges and roads, damaged houses, and killed a man who was flushed off a road. While this would have been a major storm under completely natural, undeveloped conditions, there’s no question that impervious surfaces contributed to the flow spike, in spite of all the good work River Falls has done.

Cataclysmic floods might seem tailor-made to devastate the trout population, but that’s not always the case, especially over the long term. Young trout and eggs are vulnerable to being swept downstream, but adults are adept at sheltering. According to Engel, “A river and its fisheries may survive a catastrophic flood in good shape over time,” even benefiting from new habitat creation. “But repeated huge floods can be very damaging,” he adds. “Trout populations can handle the loss of one year class. Multiple floods can wipe out several year classes, making recovery much more difficult.”

Generations of local conservationists have worked tenaciously to preserve their beloved river, what KRLT executive director Charlene Brooks describes as “a remarkable story of restoration.” The first stream-improvement projects were started in the 1940s by the River Falls Rod and Gun Club, cooperative work continuing today between landowners, local governments, the DNR, Trout Unlimited (TU), the University of Wisconsin, and other partners. The Wisconsin Legislature designated the Kinni an Outstanding Resource Water, the highest protection classification in the state, in addition to its DNR status as a Class 1 trout stream. As a result of these efforts, the upper Kinni today is running significantly cooler than it did in the 1940s, when it had degenerated into largely a put-and-take fishery.

The 23-mile-long Kinni offers a diversity of water. Here, an angler enjoys a perfect early summer day not far from the town of River Falls.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the Kiap-TU-Wish Chapter of TU established monitoring stations to document how development was affecting the lower Kinni, generating specific baseline data rather than relying on conjecture. The monitoring demonstrated that runoff was having both thermal and chemical impacts. During summer storms, stream temperatures could rise 10 degrees in just 20 minutes as warm, dirty runoff hit the river. The data collected established a foundation for moving forward with the city and other partners to develop solutions.

In 1994, River Falls completed a stormwater management plan, working with TU and others. Two years later, the city established a utility fee to pay for stormwater management projects, the assessment to be based on a development’s amount of impervious surfaces. In 2002, River Falls implemented a stormwater ordinance that applies to new development and specified redevelopment; it requires that the first 1.5 inches of precipitation from a storm infiltrate into the ground. Overall, the ordinance prevents more than 90 percent of precipitation on affected parcels from pulsing into the river. Work on these efforts is ongoing.

Founded in 1993 and based in River Falls, the KRLT has been a major player in Kinni conservation efforts, helping to preserve more than 2,800 acres of land in the drainage, including 9.5 river miles. The land trust’s mission statement says, “We work in cooperation with landowners, private organizations, and governmental units to conserve the resources we value— clean water, wildlife, recreation, natural areas, wild trout, scenic beauty, and family farms.”

Progress continues. An exciting new project is the purchase of a 44-acre forest tract on a popular reach on the lower river. The acquisition will protect 3,000 feet of shoreline where the Rocky Branch joins the Kinni, and will close a gap with other community river properties. The closing date was January 1, 2021. Brooks says, “Our organization has more capacity than it has had in a long time. We have a great group of supporters, both local and from out of state.”

Meanwhile, another community-led, nonprofit organization—the Kinni Corridor Collaborative— is tasked with implementing the Kinnickinnic River Corridor Plan, which has been approved by the River Falls City Council. One issue on the horizon is the likelihood the River Falls dams will be removed—the lower dam in 2026 and the upper dam possibly in 25 to 30 years. Smolinski observes, “Temperatures continue to go up in the lower river as sediment levels rise in the reservoirs.” If removals are accomplished, it will eliminate heat sinks and significantly reduce water temperatures in the gorge. This will continue decades of many positive trends: “The lower river has improved dramatically since the 1960s,” says Engel, noting that in the distant past River Falls’ raw sewage was dumped directly into the river.

That the Kinni remains one of the Midwest’s finest trout streams hasn’t happened by accident. The key is shaping how development occurs, sustainably. In the face of relentless housing and business pressure, it is uncertain if the Kinni’s superb trout fishery will survive without ongoing conservation measures and intelligent land-use planning. It’s worth fighting for. As Brooks observes, the Kinni exudes “a remarkable beauty that a lot of people don’t expect, with well-intact resources, close to an urban area.”

In Wisconsin and Minnesota Trout Streams, Joe Humphrey and Bill Shogren offer these accolades: “These marvelous miles are the precious jewels of the fly-fisher’s memory. We’ll give 2 hours of our lives, anytime, to fish our separate 100 yards of the Kinni on a sultry summer evening with rising expectations when the bats begin to play.”

And, in an age when there is much to be disillusioned about, decades of Kinni conservation work offer grounds for hope. As a KLRT motto states, “Cold, Clean and Free . . . Forever!”


Jeff Erickson is a Midwest-raised, Montana-based freelance writer and photographer, and a frequent contributor to
American Fly Fishing magazine.

Upper West Branch Susquehanna River, PA

Fly Fishing in the Heart of Coal Country
By Ralph Scherder

Upper West Branch Susquehanna River, PA

Populations of wild brown trout are expanding steadily every year, and the future looks bright for the upper West Branch Susquehanna River. All Photos by Ralph Sherder.

As evening settled in, rings left by feeding trout pocked the stream’s smooth surface. Tiny mayflies fluttered in the air, one even landing on the back of my hand. It was like nothing I’d ever seen, with a white body, brownish thorax, and tiny, cellophane-like wings. The closest I came to matching it was with a size 20 Light Cahill, but it wasn’t a Cahill. The trout knew my fly wasn’t a match, too, and several came up to inspect from below, only to deem it inedible.

Upper West Branch Susquehanna River, PA

I didn’t know it then, but that evening I had encountered my first hatch of the Angler’s Curse. Although Angler’s Curse has nothing to do with the occult, sometimes it can feel like it. These mayflies (genus Caenis) are small, ranging in size from 22 to 28, and when trout decide to key on them, anglers are frequently humbled. That’s the nature of fly fishing, of course, and the Angler’s Curse is just one of the intriguing experiences offered by the West Branch Susquehanna River.

Mention of the West Branch Susquehanna River may summon images of a wide, sprawling river that empties into the main branch Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania. But upriver—way upriver, above the Curwensville Dam—it’s a different story. This is where the West Branch Susquehanna River originates and wild brown trout rule.

The West Branch rises on the west side of the Alleghenies in northwest Cambria County and flows in a northerly direction for nearly 40 miles before turning eastward and beginning its 200-mile march to the main stem. Those first 40 miles are especially intriguing because they’ve undergone a serious transformation in recent years, and they provide an abundance of opportunities for trout enthusiasts.

A River Rebuilt
The upper West Branch is a comeback story that is, thankfully, becoming rather familiar in Pennsylvania. As millions of dollars are being invested to correct the environmental damages of decades ago, many of the once-polluted waterways, especially in this part of the state, are being reestablished as viable fisheries.

Upper West Branch Susquehanna River, PA

In this part of Pennsylvania, where coal was once king, train tracks and trout fishing go hand in hand.

Historically, Cambria County represents the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal mining heritage. Commercially operated mines opened here in the 1840s, with large-scale mining beginning in 1856. According to the Johnstown Area Genealogical & Historical Society, the county was home to 130 significant coal mines by 1901, and those mines produced 16 million tons of coal annually throughout the 1910s and 1920s. Only after the Great Depression did those numbers decline, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that coal mining ceased to play an important role in the county’s economy.

Decades of mining at that level of intensity severely impaired the watershed, and it took three events to turn it around. First, many of the small towns along the river built treatment facilities for raw sewage. Second, the removal of the 18-acre Barnes-Watkins refuse pile, which contained 1.3 million tons of coal refuse and was located on the banks of, and in some places directly in, the West Branch. And third, an acid mine drainage (AMD) treatment facility was installed on Barnes & Tucker’s Lancashire No. 15 mine, which closed in 1969.

Prior to the AMD treatment facility, the inactive mine discharged almost 15 million gallons of water laced with iron pyrite and other mining chemicals directly into the river every day. Today, the facility captures the water that naturally rises from within the mine, neutralizes the chemicals, and then pumps it into the river. Since the water originates several hundred feet below the earth’s surface, its temperature when it leaves the mine is in the low 50s Fahrenheit, creating a fishery that can support trout year-round.

Over the past decade, water quality has drastically improved. In fact, the first 8 miles or so, from the plant down to the beginning of the flood control section in the town of Cherry Tree, are classified as a Class A Wild Trout Stream. In 2018, this section, combined with an additional 18 miles of river down to Dowler Junction, began to be managed under Catch and Release All Tackle regulations, and it receives no trout stockings by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC).

Upper West Branch Susquehanna River, PA

Although the section of the West Branch above Curwensville is not stocked, trout from the tributaries sometimes move into the bigger, cooler water during the summer months. This rainbow most likely came from Chest Creek, a Keystone Select Stocked Trout Water.

The main purpose of the additional waters was to protect trout as they move seasonally throughout the watershed by giving them a chance to survive and propagate. All fish here are a product of natural reproduction. Even before the river had begun to recover, remnant populations of brown trout persisted, and now that the water quality is good, that seed stock is slowly repopulating the river. The upper West Branch Susquehanna River will likely never attain the status of some of Pennsylvania’s best wild trout streams—Spring Creek and the Little Juniata River come to mind—but it’s a great place to test your skills against some fine fish.

Appearance Versus Reality
At first glance, the upper West Branch doesn’t look like typical trout water. It has a low gradient with long stretches of mud bottom. It colors quickly after a rain, but clears just as fast. Many times I’ve experienced prime conditions on the West Branch in the morning, only to jump over to the next watershed for the afternoon and find conditions much less fishable.

From fall until spring, the water carries a milky cast, likely a result of the minerals in the mine water treated at the AMD facility. It’s less noticeable during summer months. However, all year, deeper areas appear deep green. When I first started fishing the upper West Branch Susquehanna River, I was skeptical. But the more I fished it, the more I learned, and I quickly realized that looks can be deceiving.

Upper West Branch Susquehanna River, PA

On the West Branch, hatch-matching opportunities are uncommon, but a few insects, including Light Cahills, Sulphurs, and various Caenis mayflies, get the trout looking up.

The West Branch has trout-attracting structure in spades. It’s almost impossible to stand in the water and look up- or downriver without spotting a possible brown trout lair. Whether in the form of a huge rock or, more often, an uprooted tree that has fallen into the river, holding water abounds. The numerous long, deep runs and pools crowded with woody structure make the fishery both challenging and interesting.

Like most wild brown trout waters, the upper West Branch can be temperamental. Fish can get spooky, often hiding deep under the structure, and you have to work to get a fly in front of them. But this river rewards patient anglers who stalk carefully and present flies with stealth and accuracy. Work too fast or get careless with your approach and these fish will only recede farther into their shadowy lairs. Fish carefully and methodically and you can reap big dividends.

The upper West Branch also forms plenty of riffle-and-run stretches. The Class A water above Cherry Tree is a prime example. There you’ll find swifter-moving, well-oxygenated water that is easier to nymph as well as navigate. The river averages around 20 feet wide, but it still has lots of depth and woody structure. By the time the West Branch reaches Dowler Junction, it’s twice as wide and twice as deep, and the good nymphing water is more spread out. Even downstream of the all-tackle catch-and-release section, the river holds wild browns, but the slower-moving water can be more challenging because it’s also easier to spook fish.

The trout aren’t exactly finicky, except when they’re keying on specific hatches, so I generally use a lot of attractor patterns. The typical gamut of nymphs, such as Pheasant Tails, Hare’s Ears, and Copper Johns, all work well. My two favorite patterns, though, are a chartreuse Mop Fly and a black Krystal Bugger. These two colors are ideally suited for the water color, and they catch fish when nothing else will.

Upper West Branch Susquehanna River, PA

The upper West Branch has no shortage of good-looking trout lairs. It takes a deep, slow retrieve to get up under the structure to where the big fish hide. You may lose a few flies, but that’s a price worth paying.

Stocked Tribs and Blue Lines
The first time I fished the upper West Branch, I worked downstream from the bridge in Stifflertownn mid-June. The water was low and clear. I approached a nice little chute between the end of a fallen tree and a rocky sandbar and flicked a black Krystal Bugger out into the current. As it swung downstream into the swirling water behind the tree, I stripped it in, an inch at a time, and my line caught bottom, or so I thought. Turned out to be a frisky 22-inch rainbow trout that gave me a real run for my money.

Rainbow trout are uncommon in the upper West Branch, but they occasionally migrate into the river from several of the stocked tributaries. I theorized that this particular fish had come from Chest Creek, a 40-mile-long tributary that begins just south of Bradley Junction in Cambria County and flows in a northeasterly direction until it joins the West Branch near the town of Mahaffey. The first 3.87 miles are designated Class A Wild Trout water, with native brook trout the main species. The rest of Chest Creek receives multiple spring stockings by the PFBC.

Upper West Branch Susquehanna River, PA

My favorite reach of Chest Creek, though, is Section 3, which is managed under Delayed Harvest Artificial Lures Only (DHALO) regulations and part of the Keystone Select Stocked Trout Waters program. This section receives both spring and fall stockings of fish, with a high percentage of larger-than-average trout. As a bonus, the entire DHALO stretch flows through public property. In terms of looks and layout, Chest Creek is almost identical to the West Branch, possibly because they share the distinction of being located in the heart of coal country.

Surprisingly, given the troubled history of the region, dozens of tributaries along the upper West Branch, as well as immediately downstream of the Curwensville Dam, hold solid wild trout populations. Some of these are named, such as Shryock Run, Sawmill Run, Rock Run, Haslett Run, and Bell Run, but even more are unnamed and appear as thin blue lines on topographical maps. According to PFBC surveys, some 400 miles of streams in this region contain wild and native trout. They offer the full gamut of opportunities for anyone who enjoys the adventure and pursuit of small stream trout.

In addition, the stream junctions, where these tributaries join the West Branch, are almost always hot spots, especially in the summer. In the fall, fish in the West Branch often swim up into these tributaries to spawn. Many of these skinny waters serve as nurseries for the West Branch.

There are plenty of options below Curwensville Dam, too. In April 2014, the PFBC began stocking trout from the confluence of Anderson Creek downstream to Porters Bridge. This 2.8-mile section offers scenic, big-water trout fishing. Huge boulders abound in the watercourse, which has lots of productive riffles and pocket water stretches, as well as long, deep runs that can stretch for a hundred yards or more. Local clubs and sporting groups also stock the West Branch Susquehanna below the dam during the winter. For updates and information regarding these stockings, contact Jim’s Sports Center in Clearfield (see Notebook). During the summer, downriver of the Curwensville Dam is a tremendous warm-water fishery, best known for its populations of smallmouth bass and tiger muskies.

Hatches and Patterns
The West Branch Susquehanna River produces a wide variety of hatches, beginning in winter with the Black Stonefly. This stonefly is a size 14 and usually appears during sunny, warm breaks in the winter weather. Surface feeding can be hit or miss, but a Black Stonefly nymph will take fish. In mid-March, Blue-Winged Olives appear, followed by the spring trifecta of Blue Quills, Quill Gordons, and Light Hendricksons.

Throughout May, heavy hatches of caddisflies are the norm. Hydropsyche (Spotted Sedge) and Olive Caddisflies are the dominant species, and hatches can occur at any time of the day.

Upper West Branch Susquehanna River, PA
Because the river has so many types of caddisflies, one of my favorite flies is the Henryville Special in a range of sizes.

In late May, Light Cahills, Gray Foxes, Sulphurs, Slate Drakes, and Green Drakes all hatch, although not in the same densities found on most other trout streams in the region.

However, on any given day or evening, insects of some sort are usually hatching.

Like the main-stem Susquehanna River, the West Branch offers a good White Fly hatch starting in mid-August. Below Curwensville, smallmouth bass and any leftover trout gorge themselves on these flies, and action can be fast and furious when the hatch is at its peak.

Of course, the upper West Branch also produces dense hatches of Caenis—aka Angler’s Curse because their diminutive size can be a challenge to match and fish correctly, especially in slow-moving water. Locals often refer to this hatch as a Light Cahill Midge, and you can encounter it anytime between mid-July and mid-September, in the upper West Branch as well as below Curwensville; it’s usually heaviest in the evenings.

Looking to the Future
Although there are small patches of public land around Cherry Tree and Mahaffey, much of the upper West Branch flows through private property. Fishing access is permitted thanks to agreements between landowners and the PFBC. The future of the special-regulations section, which includes all 8 miles of the West Branch’s Class A waters, will be determined by the way anglers treat the resource and respect landowners who generously allow access to the river. Obey “No Trespassing” signs and park only at designated access points—easy enough, considering that the entire 30 miles of regulated water is paralleled by US Highway 219 and there are literally dozens of turnouts along
the river.

In many regards, the upper West Branch is an emerging fishery still finding its legs. Barring any setbacks, it will continue to improve. Every year, I catch increasing numbers of 5- to 8-inch wild brown trout, indicating successful natural reproduction. Larger fish, up to 18 inches, are also increasingly common, and the river holds a few fish best measured in pounds.

Many parts of this underrated river are still relatively unknown and seldom explored. For instance, no stream surveys have ever been done on the section of river between Mahaffey and the Curwensville Dam. Although this stretch has traditionally been a warm-water fishery, more and more trout are beginning to show up there, too. These are all indicators that the upper West Branch Susquehanna River is a conservation success story with a very bright future.

Medano Creek, CO

A Primitive Road Pilgrimage
By Aaron Reed

Medano Creek, CO

This is the good stretch of the Medano Pass Primitive Road. Eight stream crossings—some of them floorboard deep—along with tight squeezes between boulders and climbs over jumbled cobble, make for an exciting drive to the top.
Photo by Dave Fason.

Energy levels and spirits were at low ebb as we crossed the border into New Mexico at Texline sometime after midnight in September 2018. It had been a long day, nine hours from central Texas in a Jeep stuffed with four grown men and a week’s worth of camping equipment and fishing gear.


Mason Tyndall, a senior economics major at the University of Texas, celebrates a colorful Medano Lake Rio Grande cutthroat. The Tyndall family has, for years, made a mountain pilgrimage between the end of the summer sports seasons and the start of school. Mason refers to the Medano Creek visit as a “a slice of heaven”. Photo by David Tyndall.

Only minutes after the lights of the state-straddling High Plains town faded in the rearview, I slammed on the brakes. A magnificent bull elk looked disdainfully over his right shoulder at us, then bounded up the hill on the verge of US Highway 87.

“It was at that exact moment,” Chris Barclay later said, “that I knew everything was going to be all right.”

Two years later, I wondered if the memory was manufactured—if we had been subject to some sort of collective Western hallucination. The mountains were still miles ahead of us. We were really, really tired.

“Commonly, no, you don’t see it, but it’s not like you’re seeing lights near Roswell,” Mike Atkinson told us. Atkinson, the district ranger for the Kiowa and Rita Blanca National Grasslands in Clayton, New Mexico, said that elk and even black bears sometime traverse the alfalfa fields and broken plains on their way up to the Dry Cimarron country in the northeastern corner of the state.

By the time we turned west onto Huerfano County Road 559 between Gardner and Westcliffe, Colorado, the elk tally was three, and we were all looking forward to long morning naps in hammocks slung between aspens lately turned gold with the change of seasons. That plan was foiled by the proximity of Medano Creek (locals pronounce it “MEHdunno”) and the jewel-toned fish we could see lazily rising in a pool just a dozen steps from our campsite. Sleep could wait.

“It really was the most perfect introduction to the Mountain West I could have wished for,” recalls Barclay, whose home waters are the brookie streams of the southern Appalachians. “The fish are just gorgeous. Really, really special.”

Nearly a year after that expedition, sitting in the driver’s seat, I refreshed the web page for the third or fourth time.

I was at Costilla Gas and Grocery, and the past few days of exploring Comanche Creek and Middle Poñil Creek in the Valle Vidal unit of New Mexico’s Carson National Forest had been fine—extraordinary, even—but I had my heart set on introducing my three boys to Medano Creek. A near-record snowpack and late runoff had kept the Medano Pass Primitive Road, which normally opens around Memorial Day weekend, closed, and work to clear and reopen the track was progressing slowly. I sighed in frustration and contemplated plan B. Maybe the forks of the Cimarron above Silver Jack Reservoir would be clear enough to fish, I thought.

We drove on and spent the night in Montrose. Over coffee the next morning, and more out of a month’s habit than anything else, I clicked through to the Great Sand Dunes National Park website one more time. There, in large, red type: “The Medano Pass Primitive Road is open.” I called to confirm, then gathered my boys: “Fellas, we have a change of plans. Again.”

The next three days were pure magic. All three boys caught fish, practiced campcraft— the younger two under the tutelage of their Eagle Scout older brother—and explored the upper reaches of the creek. A very loose plan, aided by a note in a Ziploc bag pinned to a sign where the road forks, came together when a good friend from back home stopped by with two of his sons. They, too, caught fish—the youngest, his first on a fly.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
The sand dunes appear as a tan smudge on the horizon. Against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Range, which abruptly rises 7,000 feet above the high desert of the San Luis Valley and boasts four “fourteeners,” they at first look insignificant. As the miles wind down, however, the majesty of the dunes is revealed.


A healthy Rio Grande cutthroat from the middle section of the creek shows off the species’ distinctive large spots near the tail. Photo by Mason Tyndall.

These mini-mountains of sand are a popular playground and retreat. Dark skies provide outstanding stargazing, a store just outside the park boundary rents sleds and discs for the young and adventurous, and locals and tourists alike enjoy the beach created by the cold waters of Medano Creek that wash the base of the dunes before sinking into the sand.

The creek was the reason we were here, and the reason I have returned nearly every year for much of the last decade. The dunes are fascinating, and make for a fun half-day for the kids at the end of a trip, but after a stop at the visitor center, anglers will want to shift into four-wheel drive, negotiate the deep sand as they skirt the dunes, and head upstream.

The Medano Pass Primitive Road crosses the creek eight times (look for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep near the third crossing, where there is a natural salt lick; fishing picks up at this point, too) on the way to the pass at 10,040 feet above sea level. It takes a prudent driver about an hour and 45 minutes to get to the top. A curious angler, or a native trout-starved Texan, will take far longer.

Refugium
In the 1980s, Colorado Parks & Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service identified Medano Creek as an ideal location to establish a population of Rio Grande cutthroat trout. Now inhabiting only about 12 percent of its historic range, the species was the first salmonid described by a European in North America, when an expedition commanded by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado encountered the fish in northern New Mexico in 1541 or 1542.

Medano Creek likely never hosted an aboriginal population of trout of any species. A 1976 survey found only imported brown trout in the creek. But the sand dunes that prevent the stream from reaching the Rio Grande also protect the fish in it from genetic introgression, or hybridization. After removing the brown trout, in 1985 biologists transplanted native fish from two nearby creeks, West Indian and Placer, to establish a genetically pure reservoir of cutthroat.


The verdant beauty of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and Sangre de Cristo Wilderness is a reward reserved for those willing to endure the bony, charred remnants of the 2010 wildfire to reach the aspen and spruce-clad upper reaches of Medano Creek. Photo by Mason Tyndall

“It’s robust. To me, it’s a real success story for Colorado Parks & Wildlife and the Forest Service, because it’s a pretty great habitat,” says Fred Bunch, chief of resource management at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. “Thirty square miles of dunes makes a great barrier. When we do surveys there, it seems very productive.”


Medano Creek Rio Grande cutthroat, wild and native to the region, rarely exceed 13 inches (though biologists report some 17-inchers in the beaver ponds). Two- and 3-weight rods are the order of the day here. Photo by Dave Fason.

In 2010, the Medano Fire burned more than 4,000 acres of the high-country preserve. As one negotiates the rough road up to the pass, charred standing timber, downed trees, and a profusion of young aspens testify to the devastation a decade ago.


Chris Barclay casts to a likely spot in a pool on the upper section of Medano Creek. For every willow-choked reach and slot canyon on the creek, there is a broad meadow or beaver pond to relieve casting anxiety. Photo by Dave Fason

“We mobilized right away, while the fire was still burning,” Bunch explains. “Thanks to John Alves [the state’s senior aquatic biologist for the southwest region], we were able to save quite a few fish in the lower reaches.”

The restoration effort has been so successful, a coalition of agencies and nonprofits, including Colorado Parks & Wildlife, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Western Native Trout Initiative, and Trout Unlimited are in the process of restoring the other year round stream in the park, Sand Creek. After the prolonged runoff in 2019 delayed the project, the first phase of that operation—removing hybrid and invasive fish from the upper section of Sand Creek and the two lakes there— happened in September, with the remainder of the creek scheduled for restoration in 2021 and 2022. Altogether, the effort will add some 12 miles of Rio Grande cutthroat habitat. The fish slated for stocking ultimately will come from Medano Creek.

Alves notes that Medano Creek holds one of the state’s most robust, naturally sustaining pure Rio Grande cutthroat populations. “Right now, we’re using Medano as a source to repopulate our brood-stock lake. It has a lot of genetic diversity,” he says. “It took off. It did really well. It’s still doing well, even after the fire that went through there. Hopefully Sand Creek will be the same.”

Mark Seaton is a retired National Park Service employee and president of the San Luis Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited in Alamosa. Members of that chapter are providing some of the volunteer labor in the Sand Creek restoration, and Seaton finds inspiration in his experiences on Medano. “It’s just such a beautiful place. It’s definitely off the beaten track and not busy,” he says.

“If you can get a fly in the water without getting it caught in a bush, you are more than likely to catch a fish. Also, you have to want to go there to get there. A lot of people don’t care that much about catching 8- or 10-inch trout.”

August 2020


The man pumping gas next to me at the neighborhood convenience store in Georgetown, Texas, looked over and, through his pandemic mask, asked, “Been catching anything?”

My Jeep’s back window is a sticker farm, so I figured he had simply deduced I was a fellow angler.

Turned out David Tyndall had recognized me from the photo on the back flap of my recent book. After discussing the state of the local rivers for a few minutes, Tyndall mentioned that he was making an end-of summer trip to Colorado with his family and wondered if I had any thoughts on places he should put on the itinerary. I told him I’d send him an email.

Fast-forward a few weeks. I’m scrolling through Instagram and stumble across a series of photos that were unmistakably taken along Medano Creek and at Medano Lake. In a further coincidence, it turned out that Tyndall’s college senior son, Mason, was one of the founding members of the Texas Streams Coalition and someone I knew. It was a connection I had not made, initially. I asked him what he thought of the stop at Medano. “It was real cool,” said Mason. “It was off the grid. We didn’t see anybody fishing at either the creek or the lake. Not many other anglers we ran into in Colorado had heard of it. In the creek itself we caught a bunch of little cutthroats. There were fish in every hole.”

Moreover, he and his sister climbed a fourteener together—and the hike from the trailhead near Medano Pass up to Medano Lake was harder. The trail, which wends through the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, follows the creek and gains more than 2,000 feet in 2 miles. There are fish nearly every step of the way. The tarn at the end of the trail is home to Rio Grande cutthroats weighing 3 and 4 pounds.

“It was amazing,” Mason said. “I walked out onto a point and there were huge trout rising everywhere. You’re out in the middle of nowhere, kind of in your own slice of heaven, tossing a fly. It doesn’t get much better
than that.”

Rio de los Pinos, CO/NM

Legends, Miracles, and Dry-Fly Nirvana

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