Catching Fish on the South Platte - NOT!
Submitted by Michele White (Murray), Tumbling Trout Outfitters
Doug has never taken me to the South Platte. We drive by and he looks straight ahead. I see all the fishermen focused on the River and imagine myself doing better than them, though I've never actually seen anyone with a fish on, which should give me a clue about the nature of the South Platte.
Last week I decided to go fish there. When I made this announcement to Doug, he was moved to give me rare advice. These days, he doesn't much interfere with my fishing exploits. He told me the fish are not spooky there, that they will stay put in one place, but they are terribly finicky about the type of fly and the presentation. He told me to take his fly box, the one with the world's tiniest flies. The cat was sleeping on his vest, so I left it behind, confient I would have something adequate in one of my fly boxes, even if it were just a midge nymph. I was feeling cavalier.
Fortunately, the sky was overcast. I almost turned back because black clouds were rolling around and rattling my car windows with thunder. I'm not a big fan of lightening. Neither are the dogs who accompanied me. I was grateful to see the storm move off as I descended on the confluence of Horse Creek and the South Platte at Deckers. Summer storms in the mountains are often furiously dangerous, but also very short lived - something to remember when you need to rally your spirit and hang in there for a while.
I stopped at the Flies & Lies fly shop and listened to an x-golf-pro clerk give a map tour of the South Platte to a trio of visiting businessmen who were astute to fly fishing in Colorado before returning home to Texas. After the short lecture, I opened my boxes of flies and asked the clerk if any of my assorted caddis dry flies or nymphs would work. (I'd been fishing the Arkansas' wonderful caddis hatch for weeks until a rockslide closed Hwy 50). He sold the guys from Texas some San Juan worms and a bunch of Snickers bars. Then, he pointed at my tiniest gray mayflies and midge nymphs and told me, "These should work. They're not too big." He said their names, things, like "RS-2", I think. (He might have said "PMS", for that matter. It took me 3 years to realize a Trico is a three-tailed mayfly, as opposed to a Tricop, which is a formed-padded bra.) I noted which flies he pointed at. Before I left he added, "This ain't like fishing the Arkansas". I didn't know what he meant by that.
I drove down river. The rain had made Horse Creek muddy, but the dark water of the South Platte was clear not too far below the confluence. The guy at Flies & Lies told me it would be so. A rental car with Texan businessmen tailed me. I intended to go to the Platte River Campground about 5 miles further on, but every bend in the Platte called to me. Though there are definitely a lot of people on the South Platte, which is famous for its fishing pressure, there is still plenty of room with vacant bends to fit yourself in. I pulled into a parking area after less than 2 miles of scouting. The Texans followed me.
In anticipation of the South Platte's reputation for finicky fish, I put a long leader from 4x to 5x to 6x tippet. We don't own any 7x, (Doug doesn't believe in it), or I would have used that, too. I selected a Trico Parachute dry fly simply because it was tiny, gray, and had a nice piece of white sponge on it's shank near the eye in place of flaring, to simulate the wings of a mayfly dun. The sponge made it easy to keep track of on the dark water. With apprehension, I approached the bank. The Texans arrived and began the pre-fishing ceremony of shuffling and rummaging through gear in their trunk.
Ed Dentry, author of "Blue Ribbon Rivers of the Rockies", warns in his book not to crash into the water and start casting, but rather, to watch the river. I had a nice over view from the bank, as it was steep at this bend and set back from the braided river below me. I could see where I would be if I were a fish. Foamy lines made veils of lace on the seam between faster and slower water. Sandbars divided the river into a flat, deeper current and a bumpy riffle about knee deep. There were a couple quiet holes behind submerged boulders. I saw no rises. No lips or fins or backs or expanding rings in the water where some slippery animal had just been. Yet, abundant mayflies were dancing in the air and gliding around on the surface -- lots of them. I decided I better get in the water before the Texans thought I was just there to write stories.
My fishing experience on the South Platte that first day was not significant, other than I was the only one I saw who got some hits. I began to see subtle rises - the kind you see when fish are delicately feeding on mayflies. I angled them. I cast in their feeding lane just upstream of them. I didn't hook anything. I changed my flies about 20 times, using varieties of gray, brown, and green mayfly patterns of assorted sizes. Later in the afternoon, the lightening returned and fish crowded around me sticking their faces full out of the water. I could have shown them the insides of my fly box and asked them what they prefer. "Uhhh - got any sixteens?" "Go fish…"
The dogs were fret with fear from the lightening. An elderly guy who looked like he could catch fish was hovering like a heron to get on my bend, so I relinquished the water to him. I sat in my waders behind the steering wheel of my car and waited for the worst of the weather to pass. One of the Texans approached me and asked me where I guide (was this a fly-fishing pick-up line?). I was in a stupor, holding a limp sandwich in my lap. I told him I don't guide and I apparently don't catch fish either. Then, I showed him which flies brought hits and told him I was skunked. Later, I heard one of them yelling, "Fish-ON! Fish-ON!", with an element of hysteria in his voice. I decided it was time to go home.
Doug was eager to hear how I did. Obviously, he expected me to catch a fish by miraculous intervention. My normally healthy ego was deflated and Doug handed me a book, "Fly Fishing the South Platte - An Angler's Guide", by Roger Hill. I flipped though it and read pieces of information about crawling to the bank, casting accurately, avoiding peripheral fish vision, adjusting the weight of the sinker, etc. The author uses 7x tippet and fly sizes in the teens and 20's. He outlines the South Platte trout and hatches situation like a blueprint.
His information wasn't new to me. Doug and his regular fishing comrades occasionally describe fishing details to the point of verging on fanaticism, though they don't enjoy fishing that way. I utilized some of these techniques when fishing small, clear creeks and enjoy the success, but I'm not a fan of fishing at that scale of detail. Roger Hill's detailed instructions are exquisitely detailed, but his tone about technique is condescending. He criticizes the novice fisherman for being a dunce. His Zen-like approach and personal knowledge of fishing the South Platte is awesome. But as a professional sportsman and author, he seemed kind of persnickety. The more I read, I decided this guy is probably weird. "I'm going back there tomorrow with a bunch of worms and I'm going to kill a fish - bite its head right off." "Better not", said Doug, "Lures and Flies only. You're going to upset somebody if you kill a fish, too." I was just kidding, anyway…
Next day, Doug and I went together. I came, I saw, I didn't catch fish. They flapped their tails and splashed at me. Doug caught fish. Multiple fish. As finicky as they are, Doug proves you don't have to be smug to catch a fish on the South Platte. I remind myself, the Texan business guys caught fish the previous day, too, and they seemed kind of novice. Definitely not persnickety.
I didn't use worms. I didn't kill a fish. I got mad at Fred (one of the dogs) just for hanging around me too close. I lost lots of gear (nymphs, RS-2's, PMS's, etc.). But, I was close. I was real close to catching a fish. I will return there, eventually, because I know I can catch a fish on the South Platte if I follow the fine details of Roger Hill's book and fish like a freak.
All text and graphics Copyright © by Michele White (Murray), Tumbling Trout Outfitters. Photo copyright CFN. No reproduction, linking, or copying without permission
Resources - Plan your trips:
Buy South Platte Digital Fishing Maps Click here for info or to purchase. Available as download or cd.
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 topo maps for this area. You need map 135 for the South Platte in Cheesman, Deckers and Waterton Canyons. Maps are produced by National Geographic Maps
- The "Dream Stream" - South Platte River below Spinney Reservoir
- Elevenmile Canyon
- Deckers Area
- Cheesman Canyon