Southwest Fly Fishing

By Ken Proper

“I always keep an eye out for arrowheads,” Jackson Streit said as we walked a hillside adjacent to the meandering Middle Fork. Like a gem hidden in plain sight, it flows from the top of Hoosier Pass and the Mosquito Range along Colorado State Route 9 to the town of Hartsel and joins the South Fork to form the famous South Platte River. I was embarrassed to admit I’ve traveled the highway many times and never fished the Middle Fork.
   Jackson, the owner of Mountain Angler in Breckenridge and author of a No Nonsense Guide to Fly Fishing Colorado and Fly Fishing the Blue River, continued, “My shop offers guided private water trips on several South Park ranches, but we’ll fish on the public stretch of the river in the Badger Basin State Wildlife Area at an historic ranch and an old stagecoach road. Big trout migrate up the Middle Fork from Spinney Mountain Reservoir. It’s a favorite and I’ve been going there since the late ’70s.”
   He advised stealth was important and large browns would be hidden under the cutbanks of the many oxbows of the
twisty fork.
   Every four or five years, Colorado has an August monsoon and the historic hay fields of 9,000-foot South Park may not be spared. The skies were overcast, it rained a little bit, then the sun would shine brightly only to be covered by dark clouds again. The old adage, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a little while,” was never truer than on that day. Cloudiness caused the fish to rise to Blue-Winged Olives and the hatch would abruptly stop in the sunshine.
   Jackson carried two rods, one for dry flies and the other for weighted streamers. We cast streamers perpendicular to deeper water while standing in the grass a few yards away from the opposite shallow, sandy, cobble rock banks. We worked our way to the end of a bend, crossed the river at a shallow riffle, and then again fished from the shallow side to the deeper bank to the next bend. A cast, a pause, and a quick strip of the line brought surprising, violent strikes that we had to be ready for because an angler only gets one chance for a brown trout. With dry flies, we cast upstream with a more traditional dead drift to
rising rainbows. 
   The headwaters of the Middle Fork drain from several 14,000-plus-foot peaks on the eastern side of the Continental Divide at Wheeler Lake in Platte Gulch. Forest Trail 408 begins at Montgomery Reservoir and climbs along waterfalls that act as natural barriers preventing the upstream migration of nonnative trout. Consequently, cutthroat trout flourish in this basin.
   The old town of Montgomery was established in 1861, two years after the Colorado gold rush began. By 1862, it had three hotels, 150 cabins, and the largest dance hall in the region. Town folk named 14,286-foot Mount Lincoln after President Lincoln and sent him a bar of gold. Now, much of the ghost town remains lost under the water of the reservoir, but impressive abandoned mining structures line the trail to
the lake.
   The Middle Fork River flows from the reservoir through the Placer Valley, Fairplay Beach, South Park, and five state wildlife areas. It gains strength from numerous small creeks and offers anglers many miles of public water. Like the arrowheads and gold, it has been hidden in plain sight for a long time. Fly fishers just need to keep an eye open for it.

 

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