The day started fuzzy, thanks to two too many drinks the night before and the umpteenth viewing of “The Movie” that lasted well past midnight. To be honest, I hadn’t watched it in years, not since I really started to fish obsessively, and I found myself surprised at how poorly Craig Sheffer and Tom Skerritt actually cast a fly rod. Brad Pitt seemed to know what he was doing, but it was still obvious when they were using footage of Brad versus when they were using cleverly disguised footage of his stand-in.
Anyway, I had spent the night at Tim & Stacy’s because Tim and I both had Friday off and we wanted to get an early start. My wife, Jenn, and I are juggling careers while raising our two and a half year old son, so a night spent at a friend’s house, with a day of fishing starting the next morning, feels damn near like a vacation. (The challenge, of course, is making sure these getaways even out over time for both husbands and wives.)
After loading our gear and a quick stop for a drive-thru breakfast that probably met our recommended sodium intake for the whole day, we were on the road by 7:15. I was about to remark that in our younger days we could’ve made an even earlier start, but, actually, that’s probably not true at all. With jobs that wake us up early, aches and pains that do the same, and toddlers and infants that don’t let us sleep past 7:30 even if we could, I think most of us in our late thirties probably, on average, get up a hell of a lot earlier than we did in our twenties.
Our destination was the Cheesman Canyon section of the South Platte River.
This is a tailwater stretch of the South Platte, with consistent cold flows from a bottom release dam, consistent bug hatches, consistently gin clear water… and consistent hordes of front range anglers.
Having done the majority of my fly-fishing in northwest Colorado until we moved back to Denver last October, I had no idea what to expect of the fishing or the crowds. Tim improves every time we go out, but is still developing, and had never been there either. In an attempt to be realistic, I figured there was a very real possibility we might not catch a fish all day. This stretch of river is one of the west’s most technical tailwater fisheries, period.
We found our groove on the road. I put my little old Toyota through its paces, and Tim controlled the music from his iPhone, bringing up a nice mix of stuff we grew up on that made us laugh (“Now I’m Eazy-E I got b*tches galore!”). Where the drive really starts to get spectacular is when you hit the town of Pine at the bottom of the hill, and the North Fork of the South Platte runs through rich, green bottomland dotted with horses.
Big, exposed granite cliffs and boulders start to pepper the valley, and only increase as you drive farther south. Up out of this valley, across, and most of the way down another big, wide range of foothills, and we were at the trailhead for Cheesman Canyon.
It’s a mile hike to the river, and we were on the trail before 10. Now, I’m no arborist, but I’m pretty sure that ponderosa pine dominates front range forests, and it smells spectacular. All pine smells lovely, but on our hike this morning it seemed incredibly sweet. After about 20 minutes we were by the water and getting our waders and boots on.
The flows out of the dam were at 650 cfs, much higher than normal due to runoff. These increased flows, and warmer water temps, had bugs hatching along this stretch that we were told you don’t see too often. Nothing in great abundance, except for the insanely small almost unmatchable midges, but there were baetis, yellow sallies, and some caddis coming off.
We started by sharing a fly rod and fishing together, alternating every 15 casts or so (the challenge when you share a rig is the counting part – I’m sure that my 15 casts are usually more like 20-25). But then it was clear we both had the itch to get some solo time in, so we rigged up another rod for Tim, and didn’t see each other for an hour. Unfortunately, this was when I caught my three fish – the only three of the day for both of us – and so we have no pictures. A fishing story with no pictures of fish is kind of like reading penthouse letters – your imagination can take you pretty far, but when it comes to boobies, or, in this case fish porn, it sure is nice to see some.
We reconvened after a bit, and fished together another half mile upriver. We shared pools and runs, leapfrogged occasionally, and finally wound up at a deep pool right below a perfect riffle and shelf. There were at least a dozen fish visible in this pool, all actively feeding. I had caught my fish for the day, so Tim started fishing this stretch. I lost the first rig – a san juan worm and a rainbow warrior – as I was trying to tie it back on for him after a tangle (thanks to some serious dumbf%ckery on my part), so we set him up with a copper john and a #22 disco midge. This was the ticket: Tim hooked four fish out of this hole.
The bummer is, he didn’t land one of them. We almost had a nice rainbow to net, but it popped off. I told Tim he should be stoked that he was hooking educated trout on a legendary river this difficult to fish, but he was clearly disappointed. Hell, I was, too. I wanted to see him hold that fish, get a photo, and get the skunk for the day off his back. What is it that makes us long so sincerely for the deal to be sealed? Why do we judge the success of our outings by numbers? Because, by any logical barometer, this was an immensely successful outing. Tim, who has maybe 20 days of fly-fishing over the last 4 years, connected with half a dozen fish at a wildly difficult, technical, heavily fished western tailwater. Connecting with fish in this environment requires skill, not just luck: there is fly line management and casting to consider, getting the right realistic dead drift through runs, seeing fish in those runs to begin with, knowing the right depth at which to fish your flies, having the eagle eye to recognize a take versus just another bottom snag, etc.
Tim did all of this very well, and that’s easily at least half the battle. Apparently, we need to work on the fish fighting part a little more. Only way to do that, of course, is to hook more fish, which, if he continues at this pace, will happen frequently.
Not much else to tell: we hiked out and it was hotter and felt longer than the hike in, as I guess hikes out always do. We had two iced beers back at the car, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that they tasted like happiness in a can, a divine liquid of the gods. And then we retraced our route and drove home, where wives and offspring were waiting for us, and a family meal at La Loma.
Sunshine, pine trees, clear waters, trout, two old friends, and a long day concluded with family time. Just about perfect, and an auspicious start to this blog.
Now we just need to work on getting fish pictures next time.
See the full set of pictures HERE