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Rhythm of the River 

Rainbow season on the South Platte

click to enlarge An anonymous angler prepares to release the brown trout he caught.
  • An anonymous angler prepares to release the brown trout he caught.

For weeks, a friend and I had looked forward to our annual visit to the Arkansas River for the famed Mother's Day Caddis hatch. But the recent spell of hot weather led to an early runoff, which effectively put an end to our plans of casting dry flies to hungry brown trout. Still, eager to get out, we decided instead to spend a day on the South Platte near Deckers. The flow seemed good, about 300 cubic feet per second, and we figured we might get lucky with a Blue-winged Olive hatch.

The South Platte can be an intimidating place for casual fishers like myself who may get there only once or twice a year. While I've enjoyed good days on the Platte in the past, I've also been thoroughly humbled more times than I care to remember. But even during those long hours of exasperation, I have never failed to be impressed with the scenery. With its terraced riverscape and dramatic cliffs, its grassy banks and tall ponderosas, Cheesman Canyon is an exceptionally beautiful place.

We started the morning on a familiar stretch of river above Deckers. The fishing was slow for the first hour or two before things picked up in late morning. Eventually, I found a half-dozen trout stacked in a hole where I'd caught fish last year. Casting from the side, I saw a flash of white just about the time my nymph drifted through the channel. After a brief fight, I had my first fish of the day -- a brilliant 14-inch rainbow trout.

The South Platte, considered by many to be the nation's best trout stream within an hour of a major city, is challenging mainly because of the significant pressure it receives from Front Range anglers. Catch-and-release regulations have produced big trout that have learned over time to be extremely wary. What also makes this river challenging is the fact that its primary aquatic insects are quite small. As a result, anglers are often forced to fish very small flies. While the Platte can be frustrating, it can also be very rewarding. The trout tend to be big and healthy. The rainbows near Deckers are especially beautiful.

Another factor that makes the South Platte so unique is its history. Fly casters have been fishing here for well over a century now, making its tradition perhaps the oldest of any river in the Rocky Mountain West. For many local anglers, the fishing season begins with a day on the Platte in March. And this is where river advocates fought hard to defeat the infamous Two Forks Dam proposal.

Anglers can count on three main hatches during the year in this particular section of the Platte. The Blue-winged Olive hatch is the main mayfly hatch that occurs in spring and fall. A Pale Morning Dun hatch takes place usually in July. Finally, a Trico hatch extends from August through mid-September.

click to enlarge The terraced riverscape in Cheesman Canyon
  • The terraced riverscape in Cheesman Canyon

At Deckers, I enjoyed moderate success with a miracle nymph tied behind an orange egg pattern. My friend had luck fishing an RS-2 dropper tied below a beadhead Barr emerger. We also tried beadhead pheasant tails and a variety of midge pupa imitations. I used a single split shot in shallow water and added more weight in the deeper holes. We found trout in the open runs as well as in the holes and channels. All the trout we caught at Deckers were rainbows, from 12 inches to 16 inches in length.

Toward early afternoon, the activity trailed off a bit, so we decided to hike into Cheesman Canyon and take our chances with wild trout. The path into the canyon traverses a steep slope about 60 feet or so above the river. From this high vantage point, a fisher is afforded a bird's-eye view of the river below.

I remember looking down on another occasion and seeing three large trout holding in the current not far from the bank. I watched the trout for quite a while, weaving back and forth across their feeding lanes. From above, the river looked emerald in the deep channels and copper along the gravel beds near the bank. With the sun pouring into the canyon, the river was glorious beyond words.

That was 15 years ago during my first trip to the Platte. I was a visitor to Colorado then, but the image of those trout stayed with me for some time -- so much so that in the months following my departure I thought of the river often. Over time, it became clear that one day I would have to return to Colorado. And I did, this time for good.

During our recent afternoon in the canyon, bright sunshine put an end to any hopes we had of a Blue-winged Olive hatch. We suspected that the fishing might be difficult, and it was. Both of us hooked into big trout that eventually got away. Still, it was hard to be disappointed. At one point, I watched a white and black merganser fly up canyon. Blue wildflowers bloomed along the bank. A deer waded across the river. It occurred to me that I could return on a more regular basis and really get to know this river, learn more about its trout. Somehow, it seems important that we have these kinds of places to do these sorts of things.

I've often wondered what it means to come to know a place well -- a place one might even call home. In the same way, I've often wondered what it is that attracts me to fishing. As fly fishers, we orient ourselves to the various seasonal rhythms of insect hatches. We like to present ourselves at the various stages of an insect's life cycle as a way of fooling trout. This pleases us in some way. If only vicariously, we come to participate in the rhythms and cycles of nature. It all seems to be part of a larger effort to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

It's what keeps us coming back.

James McVey is a nature writer living in Boulder.


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