Colorado Trip, 1997, I Think
I don’t remember exactly the year but sometime in the late 1990s, maybe as early as 1996 or 1997, Fred and I embarked on a dedicated fly fishing trip to Colorado. We came to know this as the Whistle Pig trip because we kept running into a species of marmot known locally as Whistle Pigs. We had creatures like that at home that we call Ground Hogs and they are known for their ability to predict the weather. Maybe we should have asked the Whistle Pigs for a prediction on our fishing trip.
This was in late May, the week before Memorial Day and we were heading up into the Rockies near Breckenridge and Vail. Our road trip was reasonably uneventful. We stopped in Colby Kansas for the night and got us a room at the local Days Inn. We were a little wired from the hours of interstate driving and wanted to do something. We asked the hotel clerk what kind of fun things there might be in Colby and he gave us three options. First – jump in the car and drive thirty miles back to the next town – Oakley, I think – where we might find something. Second – there was a big wedding in town and the reception was downtown and the clerk was sure we would be welcome to drop in. Third – we could go to Dano’s – a comedy club. He saved the best for last – Dano’s was a hoot with $2.00 beers and we had an interesting evening. Sadly, Dano’s is closed but that part of the story will have to wait.
We made it to Vail easily the next day and scouted out the town. Vail is a ski town that is somewhat subdued the last week of May compared to the height of ski season. We came to fish so that was fine with us.
We went to a local grocery store and got our supply of food for the week and purchased our fishing licenses. We also got some free information on where we should go to fish. The guy said that Turquoise Lake up in the mountains over by Leadville that was good fishing. That sounded great to us so that was our plan for the next day.
The road to Leadville and Turquoise Lake is scenic and it took a little while to get there. We pulled into Leadville for breakfast at a local café and then headed up to Turquoise Lake. We were looking forward to a good day of fishing and as we drove into sight of the lake we were amazed to see that it was frozen solid. Well…So much for free advice. We walked along the shore in a few places but there was no accessible open water. I think this was also our first encounter with Whistle Pigs. They seemed to inhabit the rocky shoreline areas. We drove up to the end of the lake where a braided stream flowed freely into the frozen lake and it was fishable. We had no idea what kind of fish we would be fishing for or the stream conditions so we scouted around a little to see what was what.
What we found was a dozen or so fish swimming in the shallow stream that were about the size of small U-boats. Most were three feet long and some were bigger. The water was only about two feet deep so these fish took up a lot of room in the small streams flowing into the lake. These were Mackinaw Trout or Lake Trout and they didn’t even seem to notice that we were running up and down by the side of the stream. They didn’t spook or take notice at all. They seemed to be daring us to even try to fish for them. Never having seen this before we were stumped because our fishing gear consisted of tiny flies and nymphs and fishing line rated for four pounds at best. We pestered them for about twenty minutes but they ignored everything we threw at them. We had no hope of landing one but wondered if we could get one to take a fly. It turns out that we couldn’t – they were absolutely not interested in us or anything we had to offer. We were practically invisible to them.
We were disheartened by our first attempt at fishing but this was just the first day and we knew things would get better. We drove back to Vail and tried fishing in Gore Creek just outside of town. We had some interesting strikes and I think Fred caught a fish but it was a pretty disappointing day. We had to be scrambling over some rocks boulders and were fishing next to the highway so it wasn’t exactly what we had in mind. We did encounter more Whistle Pigs among the rocks by the creek. We decided to arrange for a fishing guide for later in the week and in so doing we got some additional advice on where to fish.
The next day we were fishing in the Blue River, a little ways over the pass back toward Denver. The Blue River is a prime fishing stream flowing north from Breckenridge Colorado and into Dillon Lake. It continues downstream from Dillon Lake. We found an access point and enjoyed the day fishing in various spots. We had limited success but it was a great day and we were actually fishing. We caught a few fish but didn’t keep any. On our way back to Vail in the afternoon we pulled off the highway at a few spots.
We stopped at the entry to Copper Mountain and fished Ten Mile Creek which runs along the Interstate 70 right of way. It is a steep and fast flowing creek in that area with a few pools and some boulder clogged stretches. It looked like it might be a popular fishing spot but there was no one else around. Our luck was pretty good compared to other places but nothing we caught was very big until Fred tied into a good sized rainbow that was holding in a pool just below a small water fall. The fish took off like a shot with Fred boulder-hopping along behind trying to keep it from breaking the line. I was fishing downstream and heard the commotion and the final whoops as he managed to get the fish landed. It wasn’t huge but it made up for that with enthusiasm and was the largest fish of the day.
We stopped at Black Lakes for about an hour and tried our luck there but with no success. That evening we went to a lake in Avon that someone mentioned and just sat on the bank and pulled in a couple trout that served us well for dinner. This was not fly fishing but it worked.
Our guided trip was on the Piney River, a small stream that flows into the Colorado River at State Bridge. The road from State Bridge was a little harrowing and the walk to the river was past a few deer carcasses – mostly bones. The guides said that they were winter kill and probably were trapped in the snow. This was late May and the water levels were pretty high from snowmelt but the Piney River was fishable and in good condition. We had two guides but only expected one. I think the second one was an apprentice or just along for the day. We actually had better luck fishing without guides but it was an enjoyable experience and we learned a few things. Having four people in the water didn’t help the fishing. The Piney River was small and remote and not next to a highway or within earshot of the Interstate. That made it a special day just to be fishing and not breathing exhaust fumes. The guides provided lunch as part of the deal and it was a nice spread – gourmet chutney and pate was part of it as I recall. We fished some more after lunch. This was nymph fishing and the guides could see fish where I only saw water. That comes from experience and knowing a stream and where the fish are likely to be. Fred and I both landed a couple fish and hooked a couple more but lost or spooked most of the fish in the river. It was a great day.
We had to be thinking about heading for home but thought we would explore Red Sandstone Creek the next day. We followed the stream up into the canyon from Vail but I don’t think we ever actually fished anywhere. We tried fishing Gore Creek again but packed it up early and got ready for the drive home the next day. For our first trip fishing in the Rockies it was a good experience.
In the following few years we made several local fishing trips but Fred and I also took up SCUBA diving. Our family vacations seemed to involve trips to saltwater and a few deep sea fishing trips – which I will not report on here because I’d rather not remember them. We enjoyed the diving trips.
Colorado Trip – October, 2000
I retired (the first time) in 2000 and in celebration, Fred and I headed back to Colorado for another fishing trip. We scheduled three full days of fishing and a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park and a stop in Denver for the Great American Beer Festival.
Of course we had to drive there first. Just outside of Kansas City we ran into a bunch of traffic heading to the annual Renaissance Fair in Bonner Springs. Lots of people were trying to get back to the dark ages. Maybe it’s a Kansas thing…I don’t know. It’s funny how inconveniences like the Great Plague and pillaging hordes of Vikings can seem so appealing from the distance of a few hundred years. Of course, we were on our own nostalgia trip and made the obligatory stop in Colby, Kansas. We fully intended to check out Dano’s comedy club again but when we got there we learned that it was gone…long gone, apparently. So, what to do now? We asked the motel clerk where the fun spot of Colby was and she directed us to drive about 100 miles east to Hays or else go west about forty miles to Goodland. It looks like prospects had taken a dreadful turn for the worse since our last visit. She mentioned that Goodland had some kind or Biker festival going on. . If we stayed in Colby we had our choice of going to “Victory Lane” or (you guessed it) another wedding reception. She gave us directions to Victory Lane — we couldn’t miss it since it was directly across the street from the water tower, one of Colby’s major landmarks. When we got there it was the same place previously occupied by Dano’s but it had shrunk somehow. It had a single big screen TV with a TV show about osteoporosis. There were several tables of people all watching the TV and eating. We stopped in our tracks but since we were now the center of attention there was no graceful way to get back outside so we took our seats at an empty table. We ordered beer and looked over the menu. It was somewhat limited and the specialty seemed to be Bull Fries. We ordered an appetizer and asked about the Bull Fries. Once informed, we ordered chicken but they gave us two complementary Bull Fries as a treat. From the look of his fries, this must have been some bull. No matter how much you ate there was still a lot more. More people came in and took up a few more tables. By this time the TV show had turned into a call-in show with folks calling in with various questions about osteoporosis. The patrons were engrossed in the program and watched with rapt attention. These people are obviously starved for entertainment. It occurred to me that this was the second time we have experienced very peculiar evenings in this very same building in the middle of Kansas – only several years apart.
We were refreshed and back on the road early the next day. Our destination was Winter Park and we managed to get there on one piece by early afternoon. Being the first of October, it seemed that road crews were working feverishly to complete various road projects before winter and had everything torn up.
Winter park was holding an Oktoberfest so we managed to get there after checking in at our place. As festivals go, this was pretty small with maybe two hundred people. They said that this marked the end of the summer season and most of the tourists were gone so the local folks were celebrating. We decided to keep a low profile. They specially imported a few people from Germany who came with huge Alpenhorns. I have no idea how they got them on the plane. So now we were being treated to music from Alpenhorns. They played several tunes but they all sounded pretty much the same. This was followed by sporadic yodeling and an audience participation cowbell tune. Finally it was time came for polka dancing. This began with two of the German performers doing the first dance and then they began selecting members of the audience to participate. There were some who actually knew what they were doing. We managed to avoid being selected for anything and quietly hid behind our huge beer mugs. All things considered, we had a very enjoyable afternoon. That evening we found a local sports bar and watched the Denver Broncos on TV – much better than the osteoporosis show of the night before.
So what about fishing, you ask…? Yes, I got off track but the next day we were back at it and seriously getting revved up to wet our flies. The weather was perfect. We headed to a local fishing outfitter shop and got our licenses and a few odds and ends and a few suggestions on places to go with public access. We noticed an old newspaper article that showed Dwight Eisenhower fishing on St. Louis Creek, which was his favorite fly fishing location. St. Louis Creek flows into the town of Fraser from the west near Byers Peak. We got a map of the area. The owner suggested that we try the Colorado River at Parshall, which was very highly rated and had some public access. He also suggested some national forest lakes that had public access but said the local streams were so low that they would not be very productive.
We tried fishing one of the high mountain lakes but the water level was about twenty feet lower than normal due to the drought. We decided to try fishing where the creek flowed into the lake but the road was blocked in a few places and we couldn’t reach the water where we had hoped. Instead, we decided to fish along the shore where an island and some rocky points made some interesting underwater structure. Being high up and on an open lake, the wind was our biggest challenge, that and no fish. We saw a few other fishermen but saw no fish. We took some great pictures and scanned the lakeshore with Fred’s binoculars for wild animals that might come down to the lake to drink. We saw a squirrel. After a while we decided to head back to town for a late lunch and hopefully wait for the wind to die down.
About 4 PM we were up and ready to go again. We thought that a drive up to Parshall would be good use of our time so we could find the public fishing areas and see what the Colorado River looked like. This was about a 40-mile drive west on Highway 40 through Granby and Hot Sulphur Springs. We crossed the Colorado below Granby and then followed it through Byers Canyon; an impressive narrow gorge occupied by the highway, the river and the railroad tracks. This stretch of the river was supposed to be good fishing but a fisherman would need a parachute or bungee-jumper system to get to the water. The town of Parshall was not much more than a wide spot in the road but it was a scenic spot and reportedly had good fishing. Just west of town we saw a parking area with some cool outdoorsy guys wearing rubber pants…our kind of people at last. It turns out that they were pros — a guide and a fly shop owner from around Dillon. They shared some fishing lore with us and we checked out the river. The Colorado was bigger here than at the canyon because the Williams Fork River flows into it near Parshall. It was wider than most of the rivers we have fished but not too deep. The current looked forceful and wading could be a challenge in places. Access was pretty good at this location and at the next parking area down the road. The second spot had a handicapped access area that was like a small deck built over the bank of the river. We tried throwing a few flies from the platform and had a couple rises by what looked like Brown trout. I hooked one about 14 inches long but it got off the hook after coming up to the surface. This looked like a great spot and we decided to come back early the next morning with all of our equipment. We drove up to a couple other access points but they were getting too far removed from the river so we decided to concentrate on the first two places.
Driving back to Winter Park the sun was behind us and we could better appreciate the scenery. The willows along the river were colored a bright yellow that was amplified by the late afternoon sun. By the time we got to Fraser it was dark and we decided to stop in at the local Safeway to get some groceries for the week. We got a few necessities and grab a quick supper before heading back to Winter Park.
Tuesday began early. We wanted to get back up on the Colorado River as early in the day as possible. We grabbed a quick breakfast and packed a cheese and sausage lunch and were on our way. The drive was uneventful and we arrived at the public access area and were pleased to see that we were only the second car there. Another fisherman was heading into the river a few hundred yards upstream from where we were. We first fished near the access point where I hooked the Brown trout the night before. Fred fished about 20 yards upstream and we tried our luck with dry flies first and then switched to weighted nymphs. The Colorado is a broad river with large riffles and rocks that break up the flow. We are used to fishing smaller streams where there would be only one or two possible fish locations in a cast-able stretch of water. In the Colorado River, there were four or five possible casting targets and another half-dozen or more that you couldn’t reach. Even though the water looked shallow it was moving at a good clip and footing was slippery on the rocks. I went back to the car and got our wading staffs which helped us move around in the fast water but also presented the problem of having one more thing to hang on to.
We fished at the first spot for almost an hour and moved up and down river a few dozen yards to try other possible fish holding areas. At one point I moved downstream about 100 yards and fished a shallow riffle. There was a Caddis Fly hatch coming off the water but no movement by the fish to take a fly. After about two hours without a strike we decided to have lunch and then move to another access point downstream. The second spot was a little harder to get to the river and there were a couple of other fisherman located at the easier spots. We moved downstream a little more and tried our luck. There were a few deep pools in this part of the river but most of it was similar to the other stretch. Our luck proved to be the same as well. All the while we were at this spot the sky was getting darker and we finally began to get thunder and lightning.
We headed back to the car but got a few raindrops before we made it to the parking area. The rain held off while we stowed our gear and we visited with another fisherman who also had bad luck. We didn’t see anyone catch a single fish the whole morning. About that time the storm was moving toward us. The wall of rain was moving right down the highway. We drove on downstream and crossed over to check out another access point that also allows access to the Williams Fork River. This access was at a ranch-like area too far from the river to actually see what the fishing conditions were like. We took a couple pictures of the storm and decided to drive up to Rocky Mountain National Park for the afternoon and then maybe try fishing in the later afternoon.
The drive to the park was a little rainy but scenic. The road was wet in patches and went along Lake Granby and Shadow Mountain Lake. By this time the storms were moving into the high peaks and the sight was impressive due to the sky and shadows and the isolated storms moving up the slopes. Parts of Lake Granby were sunny and dry while other parts were getting heavy rain. Clouds were leaving long strands of rain trailing behind them as the wind took them up and over the mountains.
We passed into the national park and stopped at the Kawauneche Visitor’s Center. The ranger told us that they were getting reports of Elk and Moose along the road about nine miles into the park. We bought a couple post cards and drove up to the toll station to pay our entrance fee. There was no one there to take the fee and a sign said we could go on in for free, Fred picked up a couple maps and we headed up the valley.
The Kawuneeche Valley serves as the headwaters of the Colorado River, which is little more than a small creek at this elevation. The river still has good fishing in the park but mostly small brook trout up in the headwaters area.
As we drove up the valley road we kept watching for the Elk or Moose that the ranger told us about at the visitor’s center. There were very few people on the road and the weather had improved considerably. Finally we saw several cars pulled over along the road and there was a small number of Elk standing in the field by the river. They were pretty far away but you could easily pick out the males by their huge antlers. We took a couple pictures and then headed up the road. Shortly after this first sighting we came to a spot where cars were parked along both sides of the road. A bull Elk was standing on the left shoulder of the road and a couple females were on the right side. After a few minutes the bull crossed over and walked between the parked cars to get closer to the females. He seemed totally oblivious to the dozen or more people who were only a few feet away.
After watching the elk we continued climbing up Trail Ridge Road. The weather became very changeable – sun, rain, sleet, and snow. We got up to the almost 12,000 foot level and stopped at the visitor’s center in a driving sleet storm. After a brief stop to catch our breath we tried to climb to the top of the tundra trail that led from the parking lot. We obviously weren’t cut out to be mountain climbers. The weather was getting worse all the time so we decided to head back down the mountain. Heading down hill, we stopped at one overlook and got out to walk along a trail that went out on the tundra area. We walked about 20 yards down the trail and were engulfed in a hailstorm. The ice pellets were coming down like bullets so we decided to return to the car. We were helped along in our decision by a few lightning strikes and the fact that we were the tallest things on the mountainside.
The weather improved as we continued down the mountain and soon made it back to the open valley floor. It was a little misty but there was no lightening or hail to contend with. We found out later that the road was closed for the winter right after we left the Visitor’s Center – no wonder we didn’t see many other cars on the way down.
We soon began seeing Elk again. We saw two running through the forest next to the road and we pulled into a parking area and grabbed our cameras hoping to get a picture of the animals when they came out of the woods. To our surprise there were dozens – maybe a hundred or more Elk in the grassy meadows that covered the valley floor. Bulls were trumpeting and charging other bulls that came too close to the harems. The cows seemed to have their own plans and didn’t pay much attention to all the stomping and trumpeting. Cows were wandering this way and that, driving the bulls into even higher anxiety. Tourists were lined up with cameras and video outfits. Some had lawn chairs that they dragged out of their cars or campers and there were a few volunteer rangers trying to answer questions and keep traffic moving for those who weren’t stopping. The elk were very active and noisy. We moved our car a little further down the road and got a different viewing angle. Soon there were bulls and harems on both sides of the road — in the valley and up on the hillside – all trumpeting at each other. At one point one of the valley bulls charged across the field and headed toward the road to challenge the bull on the hillside. Tourists scurried everywhere. These are massive animals, probably weighing as much as 800 pounds or more and with huge antlers. We watched the elk and took pictures until it got too dark. The elk were spreading out a little and we decided we had seen enough so we headed out of the park and head back home.
We managed to get back out the next morning but it was a little later than we planned. The weather had improved. Our first stop was Devil’s Thumb Ranch. This is sort of a dude ranch high up in the mountains that offers fishing, horseback riding and other outdoorsy stuff for a fee. This was also the only other fly shop in the area and we spent some time there talking with the fly shop guy. He said that the dry weather had pretty much killed any prospects of fishing. We were welcome to walk around the place and take pictures but we would have to pay if we wanted to try to fish. We meandered through the horse corral area – watching our step – and finally got to Devil’s Thumb Creek. The guy was right, there wasn’t much water in the creek and fishing would be a bust. We stayed and looked around at the creek for a while and then headed back to the car in the parking lot.
Hmmm — what to do, what to do. It was too early to bar hop and, being our last day in Winter Park, we were running out of fishing opportunities. We decided to go look for St. Louis Creek and try our luck there where Ike used to fish. If it was good enough for Ike it was good enough for us. The forest access road was a little hard to find but we had a map of sorts and were soon heading up the slope into the national forest. St. Louis Creek is several miles up a gravel road that is sometimes used by logging trucks. We drove up past the first creek access area to see what was higher up. Mostly trees and rough road, we discovered. We turned around and went back to the access point and parked in a camping area. We first had to find the creek – it was well concealed in a heavy growth of willows traversed with what appeared to be random trails that started and stopped for no reason. We finally found the creek. It was bigger than Devil’s thumb Creek and it had water and looked like it had fish. In fact, we could see fish. We raced back to the car and donned our fishing regalia, strung up our rods and ran back into the willows. We lost one another almost immediately during the fishing frenzy that followed. I began catching small Brook Trout near the base of a small waterfall. Fred was having about the same kind of luck a little further downstream. This was fun. The fish were small but eager and there was no one else on the water. Ike knew a good spot when he saw it. We caught about seven or eight fish before the weather went bad. Soon we had rain sleet and hail coming from all directions. We relocated each other finally in the rain. We put on our rain gear and tried to fish but it was coming down too heavy to stay at it. We were getting pretty well drenched so we decided to call it a day and head back to town. All in all it was a great afternoon – even with the rain.
We headed for home the next morning. The return trip was uneventful except for our stop at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. Every beer fan should do that once….maybe only once.