The fishing on the South Platte River is rising from the ashes.
[by Phil Tereyla]
A GIANT SMOKE PLUME BARRELED TOWARD THE HEAVENS. The mountains appeared to act as the only barrier between my hometown of Colorado Springs and some distant war zone.
I could only imagine what was happening in the high country while I drove home the afternoon of June 8, 2002. The local news quickly informed me that it was the start of what would become the largest wildfire in Colorado history. The Hayman Fire shuttered the lives of the locals, the landscape, and the surrounding ecosystem; burning more than 137,000 acres of forest and over 100 homes. While the effect of the tragedy largely had a human face to it, the Deckers and Cheesman Canyon sections of the South Platte River also suffered severely.
Whether you’ve fished it or not, most fly fisherman are at least familiar with the short, celebrated Cheesman Canyon stretch of trout water in central Colorado. What they don’t know is the fire nearly wiped out the excellent fishing that continued downstream, near the small towns of Deckers and Trumbull, along Colorado Highway 67. In fact, before the Hayman Fire took its toll on the landscape, this section of the South Platte River was a first-class destination for amazing numbers of trophy rainbow and brown trout.
But after that June, spring runoff and hard summer rains washed excess amounts of gravel and sediment into the river, which sits about an hour from both Denver and Colorado Springs, blanketing the once fertile river bottom, destroying the bug life and trout that made the river famous.
Somewhat like a star athlete who recovers from serious injury, 13 years later, the Deckers portion of the South Platte River is showing glimpses of its pre-fire glory. Following the fire, water that once held between 2,000 and 3,000 fish per mile was holding barely half that population due to the amount of sediment and substrate that washed into the river from the burn scar following heavy summer rains. But in 2013, anglers rejoiced when fish counts revealed over 1,700 fish per mile downstream of Deckers, and an average increase in the size of fish as well. For the first time in a long while, it feels like the river is on the rebound.
One of the primary catalysts for the return of the fishery has been the reemergence of prevalent bug life, which also suffered following the fire. Aquatic insect life has thrived with each passing year as more and more sediment washes downstream during the runoff season, exposing prime habitat.
HOOK: TMC 3761, size 16 to 20.
THREAD: 8/0 black.
WEIGHT: Nickel bead head, size to fit hook.
TAIL: Pheasant tail fibers.
ABDOMEN: Black thread.
RIB: Copper wire.
WINGCASE: Pearl mylar.
THORAX: Peacock herl.
While the Deckers’ portion of the South Platte will likely always be overshadowed by nearby renowned Cheesman Canyon, natural reproduction and stocking efforts have the river full of life once again. Not only have the numbers of fish significantly increased, the size of the rainbow, cuttbow, and brown trout that call the river home are on the rise—and if you’re extremely lucky, you may even find a generously-proportioned brook trout that washed in from one of the small tributaries.
Because the river is just a short drive from population-dense cities like Colorado Springs and Denver, the fish residing in the Deckers mileage are often subject to heavy angling pressure. To fool fish, anglers must use fine tippets and do their best to maintain a pure dead drift when fishing dries or nymphs. Flows will vary from season to season because of releases from the dam at Cheesman Reservoir. An ideal range is typically between 100 to 400 cfs, though the river fishes well at levels as low as 50 cfs or as high as 800 if approached with the mindset that you must adjust your tactics to any given situation.
While most fish in the Deckers section average 12- to 18-inches long, there are now regular opportunities to find fish eclipsing the 20-inch mark. It’s taken years for the river system to heal enough to where it could support large trout again. But they’re there, and finding them is the hard part. Here’s a brief look at the hatches, water conditions, and tactics that will help you get started in the right direction.
Spring is an exemplary time to fish the Deckers area. The water begins warming after a long, white winter and the fish become more active. Fishing deep runs early in the morning and switching to riffle water during the warmer hours can bring the dedicated angler fantastic rewards.
Towards the end of February, midges remain the main food source and blue-winged olive nymphs begin to move around on warmer days. As spring comes on full force in March and April, rainbows begin to spawn and an egg pattern trailed with a size 22 or 24 Barr’s Emerger or Craven’s Juju Baetis will fool fish day after day. While midges are comparatively smaller the rest of the year, the bugs of early spring are slightly larger, and you can get away with fishing single or cluster patterns as large as size 18. Typical midges on the South Platte rarely get larger than a 22 or 24, and this short burst of oversized midges can bring out some of the water’s larger trout. Concurrently, golden stoneflies begin to find their way into the drift and for the most part, anglers can have spectacular results with a simple size 8 Pat’s Rubber Leg as the lead fly on a nymph rig.
Dry flies and streamers are also effective during the warmer days of spring, and at times, some anglers are surprised how dense the midge and blue-winged olive hatches can be on some days. A Parachute Adams or your favorite blue-wing pattern in sizes 18 to 24 should be your first surface selection. You can choose whatever appropriate dry-fly during these hatches, though I recommend spending some time observing the naturals and selecting a fly that is the same size as those on the water’s surface. Deckers trout will rarely feed on an imitation that is larger than what is on top of the water, so if anything, downsize your dries.
While fish will willingly rise in the slicks and pockets that slide around the river’s picturesque boulders, streamers require more work. Small Slumpbusters and other small streamers in a size 8 or 10 can get aggressive fish to react and chase a larger food source. One of my favorite signals that it’s streamer season comes from the fish themselves. It is not uncommon to see Deckers trout chasing one another in an attempt to show their dominance. Watch for it carefully, and when you see it happen, start chuckin’ and duckin’.
Summer is by far the most popular time to fish and explore the Deckers area. But because there’s so much water and space to spread out, anglers can still find solitude and tranquility, even during the peak of the season.
Truth be told, I actually like to break up the summer into two separate, early and late periods. The early summer months of May and June provide excellent hatches of blue-winged olives and caddis. In late May and early June, the caddis hatches increase in intensity, and on some days, clouds of caddis and rising fish keep dry-fly enthusiasts busy for hours. Productive caddis nymphs include any cased caddis or Barr’s Graphic Caddis in sizes 16 or 18.
The arrival of June often means the annual arrival of runoff and high water, and fish will start to key on big stoneflies washing through the drift. This is when the river rises to its highest water levels of the year. Fish stoneflies, worms, scuds, and other attractor flies in soft pockets on the edges of the river during tough conditions. Keep in mind that while these large flies work great during high water, worms, scuds, and rubber-legged stonefly patterns are staple flies year round.
HOOK: TMC 5263, size 6 to 12.
THREAD: 3/0 tan or brown monocord.
UNDERBODY: 2mm tan fly foam.
OVERBODY: 2mm tan or brown fly foam.
LEGS: Medium brown round rubber.
HACKLE: Brown rooster neck.
BODY: Olive or red Crystal Chenille.
UNDERWING: Rainbow Krystal Flash.
OVERWING: Elk hair.
THORAX: Peacock dubbing.
The second summer season happens after runoff during July and August when trout begin focusing on pale morning duns and tricos, but don’t altogether overlook the occasional big bugs like stoneflies or terrestrials. Dry-dropper rigs with an Amy’s Ant or terrestrial dry and droppers like a size 16 Flashback Pheasant-tail Nymph and size 24 or 26 black RS-2 or Skinny Nelson dropper can lead to some of the most fun of the year.
Depending on water level and temperature, tricos can begin hatching by the middle of June on the South Platte—much earlier than the bugs that commonly appear on most other Western rivers. Because the river sits at an elevation of 6,400 feet, the summer months can be hot, and if the river level is low and slow, below 200 cfs, the water temperatures can rise into the mid to high 50s (F.) and spur large hatches of these white-winged mayflies. Into July, morning trico hatches will remain prevalent and I recommend drowned trico patterns in sizes 24 to 26, but PMDs often appear late on the same mornings, so watch what the fish prefer because they’ll change their focus accordingly. Any generic, size 16 parachute PMD or PMD cripple pattern will fool fish willing to come to the surface.
Throughout the season, trout will hold in all sections of the river. However, I recommend focusing efforts on the deepest riffles or quick-moving runs. Given the amount of gravel that washes into the river, look around the riffles and runs where other rocks or vegetation offer trout the ability to blend in.
Recreational floaters and tubers also find this stretch of the South Platte appealing. Most of the time, people try their best to avoid anglers, but there are those that could care less about the fishing experience. Plan to fish the river during weekdays if usage conflicts are a special concern.
Following the hot summer months, the cool nights of fall bring relief to the river. The summer crowds dissipate and water temperatures continue to recede, giving the trout a much-needed break from the constant bombardment of flies and tubers. Being on the river when aspens and other foliage begin changing colors can be the ultimate form of meditation and release from the stresses of everyday life.
Morning trico hatches continue into September, and as cool morning temperatures begin to last closer to midday, blue-winged olives become the main food source as tricos dissipate. By the end of September, brown trout begin their annual spawning ritual and once again egg patterns like apricot Nuclear Eggs trailed with a size 18 to 24 blue-winged olive nymph become the rig of choice. After that, hatches of blue-winged olives and midges intensify, and fish will begin to feed heavily in an attempt to prepare for the upcoming winter.
In October, the brown trout are in full spawn mode, morphing into a brick of yellow and orange colors. All the brown trout in this stretch of the South Platte are completely reliant on natural reproduction so allowing paired fish to finish spawning is essential to the continued rebound of the fishery, so please don’t fish over redds. Instead, target the aggressive, non-spawning fish with small streamers.
Forget the Skis
Winter on the Deckers section of the South Platte can provide some of the most tranquil days on the water for anglers willing to forfeit a day of carving fresh powder on the slopes. Extremely cold nights make winter fishing on this stretch best between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the winter sun has the day at its warmest and the fish are their most active.
HOOK: TMC 100, size 14 to 24.
THREAD: 8/0 olive.
SHUCK: Brown Z-lon.
BODY: Tan Superfine or Antron dubbing.
WING: Natural deer hair.
However, the amount of open water is largely determined by the amount of water released from Cheesman Dam and weather patterns. When the dam is releasing minimal amounts of water, typically around 100 cfs, and cold, winter weather takes over, the river stretches farther downstream of Trumbull can freeze over. However, checking these areas after a string of warm weather or after dam outflows increase can lead to superb fishing to trout that possibly haven’t seen an artificial bug for days.
As with most winter fisheries, focus on deep, slow holding water with nymph rigs, though be prepared for some occasional surface-feeding activity. The South Platte’s proximity to the Front Range and open skies can provide for some nice warm spells and coerce a few midge hatches. Black Beauties, Brassies, Miracle Midges, and other favorite midge patterns in size 22 to 26 become the typical fly selection for nymphs. Go to Griffiths Gnats, Parachute Adams, or your other favorite midge dry fly on warmer days when there’s surface action.
The devastation of the Hayman Fire greatly affected not only the residents of the burn area, but the face of the landscape as well. The ability of the Deckers section of the South Platte River to bounce back in recent years has been nothing short of phenomenal. While it’s still not back to its status as a legendary fishery as it was in the pre-fire days, there are plenty of beautiful, hungry, and big fish to be caught by anglers of any age or skill level.
Phil Tereyla lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado and guides full time on the South Platte River. Visit www.addictiveanglingcolorado.com for more information about Phil and the South Platte.