South Platte River in February
by: Justin Hood
Normally just an hour south of Denver, lies some of the best trout fishing in Colorado. Beginner and veteran anglers alike can find success in the tail waters below Cheesman Lake. The fishing ranges from moderate to technical, depending on the time of year. This particular stretch of the South Platte River receives a fair amount of fishing pressure but there is generally enough river to find some elbow room. Home to a portion of Colorado’s 168 miles of Gold Medal trout waters, this river is amazing year round. One of the few spots that remains open-water throughout the four seasons. It’s one of my favorite places to fish.
I left out of Golden this morning at 9:00 AM. The main highways were in decent shape and traffic was light. I made my turn off at Pine Junction, heading south on 126. I took in the beautiful “wintery” mountains from there. I arrived in Deckers, CO at around 11:00 AM or so, and stopped by the Flies and Lies Fly shop. When I pulled up the ice built up on the truck’s undercarriage, made it look like a low rider with running boards. I think I could have made better time, traveling on ice skates. The roads weren’t terrible, but bad enough to keep the commuter cars on the main road.
I had read Bernie’s website, but had to go in and see if there were any updates on the fishing conditions. He gave me some advice on what to use and told me that the whole river is fishing decent. I always like going into that fly shop, they are true trout fishers in there. They seem to always want to follow you out the door when you leave as if to say, “Can I go with you?”.
The sun was shining just long enough to make me start sweating in my winter gear, as I rigged up. I tied on your typical nymph setup with a 7.5 ft 5X leader, non-toxic split shot, and tippet. I was fishing dual flies, one a clear-beaded Black Beauty and the other a pink San Juan Worm. Shortly after rigging up, my camera took a swim. I got the memory card out of it before it was ruined too.
Fishing started out very slow below the Platte River Campground. I caught two suckers and decided to move up stream. The water is warmer up towards the Deckers Road bridge, I thought maybe that would make a difference. I moved into my favorite spot, pulled off, and ate a sandwich.
With the truck parked 30-40 feet above the river, I scanned the waters for movement. I saw a couple of smaller fish working the same slot just below me. I watched them while I ate. The two small fish were sipping on nymphs near the bottom until a Bald Eagle roosted on a pine tree just upstream. I wasn’t fast enough to see it, but both of them must’ve grabbed a gear and left the area. I then realized how “spooky” the fish were. When I finished my lunch, I geared up and hiked down into the river. I could tell then why they were easy to spot. The river had silted in and that stretch was about 30 inches deep at the deepest run. The river being wide, it must be an easy living as an eagle right about now.
I fished my favorite stretch and came up empty handed. I tried various colors and sizes of nymphs, emergers, stones, and worms. Nothing seemed to produce any results. I was very careful with any movement I made in the river. I moved slow and methodically, and fished each run thoroughly. I went back to Bernie’s setup and hooked up on what looked like a decent sized brown. He and I would have been a decent match except for the fact that he knew where he was going. I didn’t. He headed straight down the river and through a log jam that hasn’t moved since last summer’s “flushing flows”. He took with him, my bottom fly. I quickly retied and was back in business. I couldn’t spark any more interest in that 1/8 mile stretch.
I hopped in the truck, waders and all, and drove up past the bridge. There is always a plethora of anglers in between the Wigwam private waters and the Deckers Road bridge. Today was no exception. Snowing in sideways with the wind, and covered up with fishermen. One guy had his Weimaraner with him. I wasn’t the only one there that was less than impressed with the “fishing dog”. It’s never a good idea, today was no exception. As luck would have it, the only spot open enough for me to get into was the one the fishing dog had vacated. I grabbed my rod and nearly sprinted to beat others to that series of ripples and runs. I waited a while, mainly just holding my territory, and just soaked it all in. By now, the snow was coming in so hard that I could not see past the bends in the river on either side of me. I could hear other anglers within 75 yards of me, but I couldn’t see them. My first cast was a dud, as it generally is. It landed at the far edge of the ripple with my split shot making the blood-curdling “KERRRPLUNKKK” dead center of the seam. I picked up my rod to take another stab at it, just knowing I had messed this up, and set the hook on an 11 inch cut bow. The water was cold and the little fish didn’t have a lot of fight in him. I made my retrieval as fast as I could. He’d hit my top fly so I didn’t worry about breaking off my 7X tippet. He spit the hook out just as he slid into my net. Realizing there may be more in there I can’t see, I flicked the net sideways without even lifting him out of the water. Set free to grow another ten or eleven inches. My second cast couldn’t have been anymore beautiful. I blame the wind. Made several long drifts, meanwhile the snow was getting a little wetter and a little heavier. Bigger flakes equates to getting back over between Oxyoke and Scraggy peaks before the road gets too bad. I stood in one spot and caught three more fish. All of them small browns between eight and ten inches. When the angler upstream headed out, I took his spot. I moved about sixty yards upstream and made another horrific cast. I saw three or four decent sized black torpedoes dart in every direction, away from my indicator. “This isn’t good” I said under my breath. Inside, I was kicking myself as I was in denial about the size of one of those retreating Salmo trutta lacustri. I stood there deciding whether or not to roll up when fish immediately stated moving right back into the slot. I found it odd, but undoubtedly the trout knew the incoming snow storm would put a damper on mealtime. I let them get settled in, and watched them in amazement for a few minutes. I made a decent cast, again I blame the wind, and put my indicator about two feet in front of the first fish. I swore I saw him stick his tongue out at me as my flies drifted past him. I moved slowly and positioned myself directly downstream of the three fish. I made a cast at the top of the run and stripped line as I made my drift towards me. As soon as the flies hit the water, my indicator sunk and I set the hook. My reaction was late or the line angle was wrong. I put the rod tip right back down and continued the drift. It sunk again. I set the hook and my 5wt rod made a light howl as the eyelets redirected the, now gusting, wind through them. The fish never left the run. He must have figured out I was standing there because he would not come towards me. The line just circled in about a three foot radius. I couldn’t turn him. I couldn’t pick his head up. I just kept tension and waited for him to tire. The opposing pressure lessened within a couple dozen seconds. Then I realized I had caught two fish, simultaneously, on two flies. Something I have never done before. When I turned the smaller fish, on the top fly, the larger fish darted for the bottom again. That only seemed to give the smaller fish his second wind. They fought me, they fought each other for around two whole minutes. In the back of my mind, I wondered how to net two fish to remove the hooks. I got them both turned and stripped them back to me. I netted the smaller fish and threw slack into the line. My barbless hooks immediately lost their grip. I twisted my net and in an instant I had caught and released two fish. Simultaneously. I decided that was good enough for me. An awesome day out on the frigid tail waters of the South Platte. I wonder what is in store tomorrow, I'm fully addicted now. I may be wearing my Sunday clothes under my waders tomorrow. If I leave at the end of church services, I could be there by 1:30.….
Buy South Platte Digital Fishing Maps. Available on cd or as download. Click here for info or to purchase.
Buy an ebook on CD: Fifty Colorado Tailwaters: A Fly Fisher's Guide Click here for info or to purchase. Includes the Cheesman section of the South Platte
Click here to buy the topo map from Trails Illustrated, map 135. Maps are produced by National Geographic Maps
Info on the Gill Trail from Pike National Forest
Info on Other South Platte areas:
- The "Dream Stream" - South Platte River below Spinney Reservoir
- Elevenmile Canyon
- Deckers Area
- Cheesman Canyon