Time: 2:30PM – 5:00PM
Location: Upstream from the second of the twin tunnels in Eleven Mile Canyon
Fish Landed: 1
For Fathers’ Day weekend 2014 Jane and I planned our first camping trip of the year. For the last three or four years we have gone camping; however, we discovered that this is a popular choice for many fathers in the state of Colorado. Now that Jane is retired, however, we felt we were safe to secure a national forest campsite if we departed early on Friday as we would arrive ahead of those who had to work on the last day of the work week.
After a brief discussion we settled on Spruce Grove, a nice campground along Tarryall Creek in Pike National Forest. We packed most of our gear on Friday morning and then headed to the supermarket for some last minute food. Upon our return we loaded the remaining items and began our drive to the southeast corner of Park County. We camped at Spruce Grove quite a few years ago, and it remains one of our favorite campgrounds. There are 20+ campsites in total but seven of them are walk-ins in one of the nicest settings in Colorado. From the parking lot one hikes down a short path and then crosses a footbridge and encounters five sites on the north side of Tarryall Creek. Huge boulders loom over these sites while sweet scented ponderosa pines are scattered among the area. The forest floor consists of coarse natural reddish gravel.
Jane and I both had our hearts set on revisiting one of the walk-in sites, but when we arrived, we discovered that they were all occupied or reserved. Next we cruised the drive-up sites along the road that circles through the campground, and these were all reserved or taken as well. We couldn’t believe our bad fortune, or was it really a lack of planning? We resolved to make reservations for future trips or at least check campground availability.
With Spruce Grove out of the picture, we moved into crisis mode. My backup option was Round Mountain just off of U.S. highway 24 five miles beyond Lake George and one-third of the way to the top of Wilkerson Pass. We used a shortcut to avoid returning to Lake George and found Round Mountain less than .5 mile down the pass toward Lake George. We held our breaths as we entered and circled the campground, but we were relieved to discover quite a few empty sites and eventually settled on site number 13.
After eating lunch and putting up our tent, we decided to enjoy a bike ride. I was familiar with Eleven Mile Canyon, so I suggested that we ride from the entrance hut to the dam and back since it is a very gradual grade. Jane agreed, and we had a great time carrying out this plan. We began a mile or two beyond the entrance gate and probably biked a total of 14 miles. Of course as we cycled along the beautiful stream as it cascaded through the narrow canyon, I noticed that the flows were high, but the water was quite clear and many spots beckoned as high water fish-holding locales.
On Saturday Jane and I took a two hour hike into a different canyon location, although this experience was the opposite of Eleven Mile Canyon as we encountered only one other party of five during the entire round trip. In the afternoon Jane agreed to accompany me back to Eleven Mile Canyon so that I could test the waters for a few hours to see if my observations of Friday would deliver some fishing action on Saturday.
By the time we drove to Lake George and purchased some propane to break a twenty dollar bill and secure some ones to pay our entry fee it was 2PM. We drove up the canyon to just beyond the twin tunnels amidst significant weekend traffic and many fishermen. I climbed into my waders and strung my fly rod and then descended the steep bank to the river, and I was finally in a position to begin casting by 2:30PM. I spotted a pair of fishermen below the car, so I hiked up the road a short distance before dropping down the embankment thus allowing a 50 yard buffer between me and the two fishermen below.
I was convinced that the higher flows (250 cfs) would cause the fish to recognize worms and scuds in the water column, so I tied on a chocolate San Juan worm and below that added a pink squirrel that I purchased at Driftless Angler. I fished this combination with a thingamabobber and split shot, but despite covering some very attractive water, I had no success. I began cycling through alternative offerings including a beadhead hares ear and a salvation nymph with equally disappointing results.
As I was covering the likely runs, riffles and seams with my nymphs I spotted a swirl above me in some relatively slow moving shallow water, so after 45 minutes of futile prospecting with nymphs I decided to switch to dry flies. Shortly after seeing the swirl I spotted a yellow sally that launched from a willow along the river and then dapped on the surface in front of me several times. Could this be what provoked the earlier rise above me? I switched to a double dry fly set up with a Chernobyl ant and a muggly yellow sally. This pairing was as unproductive as the nymphs had been, so I removed the yellow sally and resorted to my “go to” beadhead hares ear nymph. As the day advanced into late afternoon, some gray clouds appeared and blocked the sun. This created difficult lighting conditions, so I elected to switch the Chernobyl ant for a tan pool toy thus making it easier to follow my flies on the riffled surface of the river. A bit after this change I clipped off the disappointing hares ear nymph and substituted an emerald caddis as I spotted two or three caddis fluttering about along the bank.
I chose emerald thinking it might be more visible and attract some interest. Sure enough at 3:50 as I was considering an ascent of the neighboring steep bank, a ten inch rainbow grabbed the caddis pupa as it began to swing at the end of the drift. I was resigned to catching no fish, so this was quite a windfall late in my fishing day. After I released the rainbow, I reeled up my line and found a steep path to the dirt road where I found Jane still in the Santa Fe reading her book. I expected Jane to be riding her bike down the canyon, and she still wanted to explore that option, so we agreed to drive further up the road to a point within a mile of the dam.
Jane encouraged me to fish for another hour while she planned to bike down the canyon to the pullout where we began our bike ride on Friday, and she would wait there for me to meet her. I walked down the road a bit to the same place that I’d fished in early April. During that visit I’d witnessed huge quantities of trout in the riffles of moderate depth feeding regularly on an intense blue winged olive hatch. This would not be the case on Saturday, and in fact I did not witness nor see evidence of fish during my final one hour of fishing.
I converted back to nymphs with a strike indicator and worked upstream with the emerald caddis and a salvation nymph, but you could not prove to me that any fish were present in this stretch of the South Platte River. Unlike the water I’d just departed from, this location was more similar to the South Platte River near Deckers with long riffles flowing over a granular sand bottom. It was more difficult to pinpoint likely fish holding locations, so I covered a lot of water and continually moved upstream in hopes of finding a pod of fish. This hope however was dashed as 5PM approached, and I had no success. In fact I was anxious to quit as the sky grew darker and a biting wind swept down the canyon on a regular basis.
I slowly drove back down the canyon as there was a decent amount of oncoming traffic, and by 5:20 I spotted Jane pedaling the opposite direction. I turned into a nice pullout, and we loaded Jane’s bike and returned to the campground where we made hot drinks and pulled on three layers to combat the chilling wind under overcast skies. It was definitely a slow 2.5 hours of fishing, but I managed to avoid a skunking and enjoyed the beauty of Eleven Mile Canyon. I reviewed the flows on my favorite Colorado streams on Monday, and the graphs definitely indicate a declining trend. Hopefully some edge fishing will be available within a week or two.