Matt Dickerson: Chasing game in mountains
With the quickly waning daylight, my chances of bagging any wild quarry that day were rapidly declining. Creeping along the dirt road, I glanced at the pale November sun kissing the top of the snow-dusted ridgeline to my left. I turned and looked to my right, where my shadow stretched across the dry brown grass toward the opposite ridgeline, still bathed in gold.
I saw the does first. Several grazed their way across the open, paying little heed to my approach. Then I noticed that a good-size spike-horn, pausing now and then to look in my direction, but more concerned with staying near the does than with getting away from me. I spotted the two bucks last. The farther one was a big muscular boy with bulging shoulders and an impressive rack sporting at least eight points. The closer one may have had a smaller rack, but he looked every bit as heavy and proud. Both sat on the ground, perhaps to give their legs a rest from carrying the heavy weight atop their heads.
Rarely, if ever, have I stumbled upon even one such impressive creature, let alone two during the month of November. Harvesting it, however, was not on my mind. I was chasing a different quarry with my fly rod, which I had already put away. Anyway, even the strongest salmon leader in my fly line collection could not have held back that big buck. And what sort of fly would have attracted him? An acorn fly? It would not have appeared realistic up at 9,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, in a treeless plain well above the elevation reached by oaks.
It was the second herd of mule deer we had passed in 30 minutes walking along the river to the car, and then driving out the dirt access road. We had also seen wild pronghorns and wild mules, and 30 minutes later we would have to stop the car to avoid running into a big herd of elk cross the road.
A work-related trip to Oklahoma City gave me the opportunity to puddle-jump to Colorado for a couple days fishing with a friend on the famous South Platte River. I had met Rick 10 years earlier while fishing for Great Lakes salmon on the Milwaukee River between research trips to Chicago and Milwaukee. Rick and I had stayed in touch via social media, but this was only our third time fishing together and our first on his home rivers.
Our first stop was an afternoon on a stretch of the South Platte known as the Dream Stream: a six-mile section snaking its way between two reservoirs. Despite the extreme weather at that elevation, the nearly constant temperature of the water coming out from the bottom of a dam made for an excellent year-round fishery, famous for big rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout, as well as kokanee salmon. Unfortunately, our fishing was hindered not so much by the heavy winds and freezing temperatures, but by an inexplicable turbidity in the water bringing visibility to just a few inches. The Dream Stream proved more of a Nightmare River, and I caught nothing.
The next day made up for it. We had most of the day to fish, and Rick brought us to the next section downstream: another catch-and-release tail-water that tumbled and cascaded down through a state park in Eleven-Mile Canyon. As we drove up canyon, we scouted several places we wanted to fish. We even stopped at one and spotted fish feeding. But it turned out we never got back to any of them. When we pulled out at the last parking at the top, we found a run so full of big fish that we never had to leave.
In one sense, conditions were no better than the previous afternoon. The temperature hovered a little below freezing until early afternoon, and the guides on my rod kept freezing over. The wind, gusting at times up to about twenty miles per hour, didn’t make things easier. But unlike at the dream stream, the water was clear, the sun was shining, and fish were feeding.
We spent all day sight-fishing for fish 16-22 inches long with tiny midge and mayfly nymphs. The first run I fished was a pool with a swirling eddy behind a fallen log. I could see big fish, but I struggled to get a natural-looking drift and the fish weren’t taking. Rick landed two below me. So I moved downstream of him to a shallower run with a more regular flow. I spotted a nice cutthroat-rainbow hybrid in shin-deep water where a riffle dropped off into a pool. It took me about twenty minutes to get it to snatch my fly, and less than two seconds for it to break off that fly.
I hooked a couple more there over the next two hours, including a big brown that looked beat up from having recently completed its spawning, but it wasn’t until the afternoon when I moved back upstream, crossed over the river, and started fishing from the other side that I really started getting into them. In one 10-yard stretch I hooked eight fish in two hours. Most were rainbow trout, but a couple definitely had some native cutthroat trout genes.
Shortly before it was time to go, I returned to the spot where I had hooked and lost my first fish. I spotted the same fish in the same spot. Using a different fly I was able to entice it a second time, and this time I landed it. Before snapping a couple photos and releasing it back into the wild, I was able to retrieve not only my new fly it had just taken, but also the fly it had broken off me five hours earlier.
It proved one of the best and most fruitful November days chasing big game in a long time.