American Fly Fishing

They Say Size Doesn’t Matter
By Stephen Collector

Anglers tend to operate from the position that bigger is better. Big river equals big fish. Big flies equal big fish, etc. Bigger is better is our national mantra. A small unnamed creek in northern Colorado has been, over the years, the contradiction. What happened on the tributary was contradictory to every assumption I’d previously made as an angler. The veritable fly in the ointment. No pun intended. Are rules meant to be broken? How was the best fish of the day to come out of what I consider
a trickle?
   By my count, using the Environmental Protection Agency’s MyWATERS Mapper, I see 27 tributaries to the North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River between Eaton and Halligan Reservoirs. To me, these are just blue squiggly lines on a technical map geared toward hydrologists, not anglers. The North Fork of the Cache la Poudre River, locally called the North Fork, is, of course, a tributary of the Cache la Poudre. It’s approximately 59 miles long and rises in remote northwestern Larimer County in the rugged foothills of the Roosevelt National Forest east of the Medicine Bow Range in northern Colorado. Flowing generally east through a series of low mountain ranges, it is reached by a rural road known as the Cherokee Park Road. In 1848, a group of Cherokee crossed through the county following the North Fork of the Poudre to the Laramie Plains on their way to California along a route that became known as the Cherokee Trail.
   The North Fork is about 30 feet wide; its flows vary from deep pools and broad runs to riffles and plenty of pocket water. Submerged rocks and boulders form an uneven river bottom that can make for challenging wading. In addition, parts of the moderately sloped streambed are layered with silt. At an elevation around 7,000 feet, the middle unit area is a wilderness setting in what feels like a high-desert environment complete with cactus, juniper, and rock formations that would seem more at home in Arizona than just south of the Wyoming border. Most of the trout are browns with some rainbows, typically 10 to 14 inches long. By mid-July, you can wet wade the stream. There are plenty of caddisflies, and patterns to match terrestrials produce well near the shore. Golden Stoneflies (Hesperoperla) are common; patterns that imitate them can produce larger fish.
   According to one of my earlier fishing journal entries, my first encounter with the North Fork was in mid-July of 1981. At that time in my life, without kids, I could have made the point that, in the words of writer Thomas McGuane, I’d “ruined my life through sport” like one of my heroes, the artist and sportsman, Russell Chatham.
   My companion, Bob Johnson, an Austin native and United Airlines copilot, accompanied me on a hot and windy day. From my journal: “River fairly low and clear, water warmish. No hits in the pools. Then using a number 8 Joe’s Hopper in fast water hooked a fat 12-inch rainbow. Moving upstream along banks in fast water caught and released an 8-inch brown then hooked and lost a larger brown. Caught a few more nice browns up in fast pockets. Had a good fish break me off on the strike. Changed to a number 12 hairwing Rio Grande King on a dropper and a Letort Hopper on the end. Caught several more browns and fine 15-inch rainbow, which took the hairwing wet at edge of a pool. Caught about 18 fish. A very fine day with the average fish 12 inches. Tremendous amount of hoppers. Watch out for rattlers. B.J. saw one.”
   With such a positive outing, the North Fork had a new place on my mid- to late-summer schedule, and if it didn’t rain, which wreaked havoc on the water clarity, a good day was pretty much a lock.


An August Outing
More recently, another friend, Leonard, an architect (and a fine one) by trade, had invited me to fish the Colorado River. In mid- to late August in Colorado, the Interstate 70 corridor can be a nightmare on a Sunday afternoon as the heavily populated Front Range sees these as the last camping/mountain weekends available before the school season. I begged out, but offered I’d be amenable to fish if we made another plan. Leonard was agreeable. At least, he made a smiling overture to mask his skepticism.
   So, on a fine Sunday morning in mid-August, I may have beat into the ground the simple fact that we were sailing along in a northerly direction at the speed limit while those westbound, I assumed, were at a crawl. Our conversation turned to the challenges around marriage, both blended and long-term, and in an attempt to avoid “unpleasantness” and not intending to offend either my editor or the reader, I’ll leave it at that. 
   We made the drive up through Cherokee Park to the Middle Unit. There is a dirt parking area with a sign explaining the regulations. Colorado Parks and Wildlife locks the gate into the unit on September 1 and entry then requires a long hike or a mountain bike.
   The recent rains of an unusually cool, wet August had me concerned that the North Fork would be muddy and blown out. Having arrived at our destination, geared up, and down on the stream, I was relieved to see we had about 20 inches of visibility. While not perfect, plenty fishable. When Leonard went to tie on a fly, he realized somehow he’d lost his reading glasses. I put him into one of my favorite holes and backtracked. His glasses lay under the barbed wire we’d slipped under earlier on our way to the stream. Soon he was fast to a fish and caught two as I watched.
   My plan was to hike down and fish our way back upstream. I caught a strong rainbow and a good brown on a size 10 beadhead Halfback. Leonard landed a brown he worked hard for that was close to 15 inches. Methodically, we worked our way up the river.
   I changed to dries and missed a small fish on a hopper. I managed to land a few modest fish, but many of the holes that in the past had produced fish didn’t deliver. I changed back to a nymph to try a long, deep pool, and a fine trout slammed my yellow indicator. Quickly, I changed to a dry fly, which was refused. I don’t want to give the impression the catching was either easy or constant. Plenty of my favorite pools disappointed. We had to work for our fish, but in the back of my mind, I knew I’d saved the best for last.
   We’d packed lunch in and ate by a deep hole up against a cliff, watching a pod of small trout rising in the foam line. I’d stored my sandwich in a canvas creel and had gotten it wet. With minor trepidation over possible Giardia, I hungrily ate it anyway. Leonard and I spoke about our kids and the pitfalls presented in today’s public school systems. Both of our experiences at the local high school had been demoralizing and we’d seen our kids suffer from a variety of issues. Our conversation drifted to haunting close-range misses on big game and, finally, to our parents and family dysfunction.
   The fishing by then had fallen off in the midday heat. But dark clouds soon formed as thunder rumbled off in the distance. Earlier, I’d mentioned to Leonard that I had a surprise for him. We waded across the tea-colored water and hiked upstream through meadows studded with cactus, the result of overgrazing.
   I don’t know what possessed me so long ago to decide to follow the small tributary upstream. Perhaps I was searching for brook trout, at one time a passion. There is an active beaver dam where the tributary comes into the North Fork. Just above the confluence, the small creek bottom is a rusty-orange color with watercress and a somewhat sandy bottom. It’s about 18 inches deep and runs modestly. If asked to guess, I’d say it’s less than 4 cubic feet per second.
   However, what’s not apparent to the casual angler is that if one were to follow the creek upstream, the water, in places, squeezes in and forms some surprisingly deep holes that are shaded by rock outcroppings and canyon walls. These deeper holes are apparently good habitat, providing the essential factors for trout survival: cool water, shelter, and food. While on the North Fork I catch the occasional rainbow, on the tributary I’ve only caught browns.
   I can recall my first foray up the creek many years ago. There was no real trail. The lower portion flowed through a small meadow. As I ascended, it got brushier with willows and the meadow began to close in. I was forced in one place up a low granite wall and it felt like a wild place. The kind of place frequented by mountain lions. Alone, I was a little uneasy back in this small canyon and kept my head on a swivel.
   Not certain what was pulling me forward, I followed my instincts. Upon reaching the first deep, shaded pool, I made an accurate cast and a dry fly tricked a 19-inch brown. That long day on the North Fork had resulted in some nice fish, but it seemed improbable that a small tributary could produce the largest trout of the day.
   One of my fishing buddies, Dr. P, who used to fish with me on the North Fork, was going to stumble up this creek on another outing and have the same experience without my input. Our later corroborations proved I hadn’t dreamed this magic spot up. Each subsequent visit produced an opportunity to catch a substantial brown and one year, I caught a 20-incher.


A Special Surprise
With much anticipation now, I led Leonard up the creek. This was the surprise I had saved for him. A trail beaten by cattle cut up through the willows, though we saw no cows. As usual, progress upstream required us to wade back and forth. I could hear the music of the creek rushing over stones before I could see it and knew we were approaching the first deep, shadowed pool.
   I deferred to Leonard. With his Orvis bamboo rod, he throws a very fine loop and he began to false cast. The hot wind of the late morning was problematic. His first cast was short, as was his second. He waited for a lull in the wind, and on his third try, he reached the lower end and beautifully set the hook at the strike. A lively 14-inch brown raced around, and Leonard, grinning, soon landed and released the fish.
   Then, just when I told him no one knows of this place, his cast snagged the shrubbery and as he tried to free it, he noticed a yellow Madam X hanging from a small currant bush growing on the cliff wall. Using my 9-foot rod turned backward, I reached the reel into the branch to bend it down and successfully retrieve the fly, which I carefully put in a fly box for another day. I see it as a lucky charm. 
   After Leonard insisted it was my turn to fish, I placed a size 14 Royal Trude at the top of the little run and a sizable fish immediately struck. The hook briefly stuck the fish, but didn’t find purchase. Upon inspection of my fly, I saw the barb was broken off. I felt the familiar disappointment of losing a big fish that had risen confidently to take a fly. I’d blown my chance on my honey hole.
   In years past, I never ventured farther than the first pool, so Leonard and I, both now hungry for a new chance, decided we’d explore upstream. As Leonard fought his way through the tangle of willows, chokecherry, and river alder, he remarked, “It’s like the Mekong!” referring to the Southeast Asian jungles.
   At times, we could only wade up the stream, as the willow-choked banks were nearly impenetrable. I somehow made a cast in the tangle and caught a 12-inch brown in a fast pool. We hiked upstream and over a beaver dam. Ahead, a canyon wall shaded another lovely pool. On his first cast, Leonard caught a 15-inch brown and was now a believer.
   I held back, playing the guide and giving him the pool to work all the way up and out, but no more fish rose for his fly. Time was getting on and we decided to leave. We’d caught fish off and on much of the day—enough action to keep us both interested and motivated.
   On the hike out, while crossing a meadow, I heard Leonard yell and turned to see him jump straight up in the air. I assumed the omnipresent prickly pear cactus had barbed him but he exclaimed, “Snake!”
   There, stretched out, was a modest-size snake. I wasn’t sure it was a buzz worm, aka a rattlesnake, so I prodded it with my fly rod. It began to rattle and we had our answer. Luckily, Leonard hadn’t landed a footfall on the snake or we’d have been in a pickle. I suppose the adrenaline in his system aided the hike out and after a frosty beer back at the truck, it was decided we’d return before the month’s end.


Another Visit
Two weeks later, we were hiking down from the trailhead.This time, I’d come prepared with my camera. I also had my rod and fishing gear. Without my knowledge, Leonard took a photo of me with his iPhone. There I am, thigh high, fishing the river comically wearing a fishing vest, my goofy river-runner hat, and a heavy backpack, a camera strung around my neck, and holding my fly rod. A veritable cut-rate advertisement for the gearhead. The tributary was my goal, but we couldn’t pass up fishing the North Fork and we both landed some fine brownies. After perhaps an hour, we managed to pull ourselves away to hike up to the first deep tributary pool.
   Fighting a stiff breeze, which made casting in such tight and brushy quarters a challenge, Leonard caught a 13-inch brown. Perhaps the fish spooked the deeper top of the pool because we moved no more fish in the trophy hole. Again, we fought our way up the creek to the next deep pool and Leonard’s first well-placed cast resulted in a short strike and that was it. Try as he would, no more fish were raised though we saw several rise forms. Apparently, the fly he used wasn’t what they had in mind for lunch. We didn’t have the leisure of time for an all-day outing, but our curiosity propelled us up farther in the drainage. He was going to take some heat from his wife upon his return.
   We found long, shallow stretches that wouldn’t support trout, but then we came to another pool, which we knew would hold fish. A large boulder bordered the creek and we stealthily peeked over. Below, finning slowly, were several large trout. The flow, however, was placid, and the surface glassy calm. Leonard’s repeated casts were refused. This last pool ended our day and we reeled up. No rattlers this time, though we were looking for them.
   As we trudged out of the river valley, I was grateful to know of this secret place. We paused to catch our breath and looked back toward the west at a series of ascending mountain ridges with the river snaking off in the distance. The day was stunning and inspiring. It was a weekend and we were alone in a semi-wilderness setting.
   Who says bigger is better? I knew we’d both be back.


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