Tour of the South Platte
One of the great things about the South Platte is the ability to fish numerous sections of water with each having its own unique set of characteristics. For the urban angler, you can fish the Denver South Platte near the confluence. However, if you’re looking to ditch the noise pollution there is Deckers, the Dream Stream, Eleven Mile Canyon and Cheesman Canyon all within roughly two hours of the city. The FlyCast crew recently had the opportunity to explore some of the South Platte’s most cherished waters so it only seemed fitting to present some of its key traits and how to have a productive day on one of Colorado’s most prized water systems.
Denver South Platte (DSP)
While this stretch has been nicknamed the “Confluenza” for its semi-dirty water and the occasional dead body, activist have worked tirelessly to clean up the water and restore aquatic life habitat. I am always impressed at the number of anglers on the water and the fish it produces. Like most of the South Platte, the DSP holds numerous large trout mainly in the Rainbow variety. As the weather continues to warm, dry fly fishing will improve and that isn’t to say it hasn’t been good as of late. Be on the lookout for the sporadic Midge hatch and make sure you have some BWOs and Griffith’s Gnats in your dry fly arsenal. However, you’re going to want to spend most of your time sub-surface. We recommend having some sort of attractor pattern as your first fly like a Psycho Prince Nymph, Leech pattern or a San Juan Worm. Behind your first fly, go with a small Baetis pattern like the Juju Baetis. The DSP is also known for its’ carp fishing and with spring upon us, productivity will only continue to improve. Walk with a light foot and keep out of sight as these fish spook easily. Try your luck at a Crayfish pattern and strip it slowly through the water for one hell of a fight.
In the last several days, flows on the DSP saw a substantial increase reaching as high as 700 cubic feet per second (cfs), but have since tapered off to roughly 200 cfs. This is a great opportunity to have a productive day as increased flows will have stirred up nutrients on the river bed leaving fish a greater quantity and variety of food.
Deckers South Platte
Deckers holds a special place in my heart. Not only have I had countless days on the water with incredible friends and family, but it is the place that I truly fell in love with the sport of fly fishing. About an hour southwest of Denver you will find the small town of Deckers consisting of only the essentials: Fly shop, liquor store, convenience store and diner in that order. Stop in to Flies and Lies and say hello to the locals. These guys are the real deal. One of the owners told me he gets over 300 days of fishing in at Deckers every year. Don’t be scared off by the hordes of anglers as there is plenty of water for all. Yes, there is the occasional thoughtless and terrible excuse for an angler that will poach or walk through your hole, but if you are patient, you’re in for a good day. I love Deckers for a number of reasons, but especially for its variety of water. It has everything from deep pools and runs to tricky pocket water holding medium to large trout. Personally, I prefer flows slightly above 100 cfs as it opens up a number of holes and spreads the fish out. However, flows currently sit at about 61 cfs which means trout will congregate in the slow moving deep pools and runs. If you have a keen eye, sight fishing can be very productive and play to your advantage. You’ll want to stick to the tried and true sub-surface rig using very small nymphs, worms and eggs, but be on the lookout for the occasional Midge and BWO hatch as temperatures rise.
Eleven Mile Canyon South Platte
The Eleven Mile Canyon is quickly becoming one of my favorite Colorado tail waters. Located up the Canyon just outside of Lake George, Colorado, this section is notorious for its’ steep cliffs, large boulders, and awesome views. It has a number of the same characteristics as Deckers in that there are a variety of water types (deep slow moving pools and runs to pocket water). While it is slightly further from Denver the additional drive time is made up for with lighter crowds. The comparatively warm winter has made for some awesome days on the water and productivity only continues to improve. We’ve had the most luck with a micro-nymph rig. MVP flies consist of the olive RS2, Black Beauty, WD40, purple Baetis and Trout Beads. That being said, this time of year can make for some incredible dry fly fishing. While the trout are finicky and selective, especially in frog water, we’ve seen some impressive Midge hatches which have led to some incredible dry fly fishing. If you’re hard of sight, put on your spectacles and fish the smallest BWO, Griffith’s Gnat, or Matt’s Midge you can find.
There are a number of great stretches throughout the Canyon. The closer you get to the dam the bigger the fish. However, consistency is highly variable especially with the bi-polar nature of Colorado weather and high angler pressure. Further downstream of the dam, the fish are often smaller, but you’ll find it to be more consistent as it gets less pressure. I’d be lying to you if I said there were only small fish as we’ve caught some serious hogs, but if that is what you’re after target the deep runs and get your flies down.
Dream Stream South Platte
The Dream Stream is one of the more renowned sections of the South Platte and is known for its trophy worthy Browns, Rainbows and the annual Kokanee Salmon run. This short stretch of water is situated between the Spinney Mountain and Eleven Mile Canyon Reservoirs in what is called the Charlie Meyers State Wildlife Area just outside of Hartsel, Colorado. The Dream is comparatively unique in that it consists of meandering water with slow moving deep pools and runs with large cutouts on the bank. I’ve been caught day dreaming scanning the landscape in awe of its beauty and the far as the eye can see views. Do your best not to be distracted as you will certainly miss fish. The nature of the geography allows for huge lake trout and Kokanee to move freely into the stream and spawn in the process. During the fall when the Browns spawn and the Kokanee run you have the unique opportunity to catch some monster fish. However, you will be joined by every generation of fly fisherman in Colorado and beyond. Be courteous to both the fish and the anglers. If you see two trout unusually close, please leave them be and move on as they are likely doing to deed and creating more trout for us to catch at a later time. If you see an angler in your honey hole give them space being careful not to stir up the water anywhere near them.
Like the aforementioned sections of the South Platte, the Dream is a tail water and provides an abundance of trout nutrients allowing us to fish year round and even at night! Again, stick the small nymph rig (size #20 and smaller). You’ll want to tie on a San Juan Worm, Egg patter or Stonefly, like a Pat’s Rubber Leg, when water levels rise as they will be stirred up from the river bed with the change in water level. During spawning season (Spring: Rainbows Fall: Browns) do not come to the river without an egg pattern. Dry fly fishing can be productive year round. However, you will have the most luck as air temperatures begin to rise. If you haven’t noticed the trend, small flies are the key. Tie on your smallest Midge or Baetis imitations like a BWO, Trico or Griffith’s Gnat.
Cheesman Canyon South Platte
Cheesman is notorious for being one of the more technical rivers in Colorado as it is heavily fished and the trout are very cognizant of your presence and imitation flies. Within an hour of Denver, the water is extremely clear and high vantage points make for some incredible sight fishing. However, it does go both ways. Be sure to stay low keeping your shadow off of the water and remember that if you are within a trout’s vision, it will more than likely dismiss your flies and leave you frustrated. Prepare for at least a mile hike through some rather tricky terrain. However, it is one of the more beautiful places you will fish and we highly recommend you give it a shot. It shares a number of the same characteristics as Eleven Mile canyon allowing you to use some of the aforementioned techniques on this tricky tail water. Like the rest of the South Platte, the smaller the better (size 20 and smaller). The tail water is fed by the Cheesman Reservoir and provides a vast variety of aquatic food sources. MVP flies consist of the Mercury Flashback RS2, traditional Emerger RS2, Zebra Midge (black), Julu Midge, Barr’s BWO Emerger, Caddis pupa and San Juan Worms. The Canyon is known for its sizable rainbow trout, but you will stumble across a number of hefty browns as well. Due to the serenity and attractive fishing conditions, Cheesman does see a considerable amount of traffic so be be patient and have some manners for God’s sake!
Warning: A number of dangerous wildlife encounters have been reported and it is always best to bring a friend. If something feels “off” it is wise to avoid the Canyon and move on to Deckers. A fishing buddy of ours was walking along the river to find a bright pool of red matter being absorbed by the snow. Upon further examination he found that the red liquid was blood and it was dripping from above. In the tree top was a deer that a mountain lion was surely saving for a later time. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but these alpha cats are very territorial and should be avoided at all costs. Bottom line: be careful and aware of your surroundings!