View Full Version : South Fork White River - Colorado

08-26-2011, 10:59 AM
Its been an incredibly hectic and relatively fishless twelve months...

If not for Hans, I don't believe I would have fished at all since last August. Health issues and a change of employers had taken a toll on my fishing opportunities and ambitions. Thankfully the nightmare of the last year was behind me and I had been eagerly awaiting the day that I finally sat on the airplane headed to Colorado.

After fighting our way through the Denver Airport (and a very inept Hertz staff), Bass Pro Shops, REI and two stops to Wally World for supplies we couldn't bring on the plane, we finally made it up to our first campsite, 10,500 feet up in the Flattops above Glenwood Canyon. We were treated to a cloudless sky and endless stars (unfortunately, it was to be the one and only time on this trip).

The first day of fishing was fantastic. We hiked down into our favorite small stream and were immediately into fish. The three of us managed to catch over 100 Brookies and Cutts in under three hours of fishing. Most were in the 9-11 inch range and all were feisty. My youngest son, with his new St. Croix (thank you LRO) caught over 50 fish (the most he had ever caught on one trip, much less-one day). With huge grins on our faces, and much anticipation for the days ahead, we quickly trudged the 1200' ascent back up and out of the canyon. That evening we scouted out a few lakes/ponds but didn't manage to catch any fish. We headed back to camp and were greeted by an evening thunderstorm (the first of many to come) that sent us all off to bed early.


The next day we broke camp and drove down into the South Fork of the White River Canyon. The original plan had been to car camp near the trailhead and then hike downstream into the wilderness area to fish. Unfortunately there were no suitable campsites to be found near the trailhead, so we decided to load up our packs and head downstream until we found a place to camp. Thankfully we were able to find a beautiful site within a short distance and quickly setup camp. That evening on the river we found a pool just beyond the campsite and quickly caught a half dozen cutts and brookies, before the rains came again.


The third day we hit the river before noon but had a devil of a time finding a rhythm with the fish. I managed three fish (a brookie, a cutt and a rainbow) on three different patterns across a span of four hours. The sun was high and the fish were skittish. We rested in the mid afternoon and around 5p I headed downstream to try my luck on some new water. I hiked nearly two miles downstream to a spot some locals had suggested as the clouds again gathered, then darkened. I dropped down to the stream from the trail just in time to have the first clap of thunder sound overhead. I immediately caught the fish of the trip, a beautiful 14" Rainbow that slammed a yellow stimi and quickly stripped line off my reel. Spending most of my time chasing small fish on blue lines, that was a new experience for me. It took a few minutes to bring him back from his downstream runs.

As I released the fish, I realized that the sounds of thunder were quickly intensifying. And lightning could now be seen bouncing along the top of the canyon walls off to the west. Two casts later I caught a second rainbow in the 12 inch range with nearly as much fight as its cousin. And still the thunder rolled. Realizing that I was nearly two miles from camp I was conflicted in what to do. Clearly the fishing was outstanding, but at what price? If I stayed, at best I would get soaked, but who knows how long the storm would go on and with nighttime approaching, how hard would it be to make it back to camp, in the dark.

I cast again, as if hoping that a lack of catching fish would persuade me to pack it in. Instead an 11 inch brookie slammed my next cast (at least the fish were getting smaller...). I had hooked three fish in less than 5 minutes of fishing, "surely I should keep fishing" I thought to myself as I fought the brookie closer to me. Thankfully, the fishing gods decided they should trick me no more...As I applied tension to the brookie to coax him toward me, he lept out of the stream and into a willow completely tangling my line in an unimaginable mess. I quickly freed him and slipped him back into the water, but the tangled mess of fly line screamed at me: "Come to your senses!! The fish will be there another day. Get out while you can."

I broke down my rod and wrapped the tangled mess up around it and high-tailed out of the stream and back up onto the trail. The 30 minute hike was a "hair raised on the back of your neck" experience. As I walked through the open meadows of the canyon floor I could see the reflection of the lightning behind me in my glasses. 1-2-3-4-crap...I couldn't even make it to 5 most times before the thunder would roll loud and menacing above me. Do I run to tree cover and wait it out (however long that will be into the dark), or just keep walking?? I opted to keep walking although somewhat slower and slightly crouched position (like 4 inches would matter if a bolt o lightening happened in my direction). I was the tallest object for most of the two miles of the canyon floor. Thankfully most of the lightening stayed on the upper reaches, and although I was completely drenched by the time I made it back to camp, I had found high-country fishing nirvana, if only for a few minutes. Those few minutes and the beauty of that canyon made the entire trip.

There were a few other stops along the way (and a whole bunch of rain), but nothing compared to those few minutes...


I also apologize for the lack of fish pics in the post, but after dropping my camera in the water on 4 separate occasions over the last few years (and still being too cheap to buy a waterproof one), I have shied away from carrying it with me on the water...These last two pictures are of RMNP



08-28-2011, 01:34 PM
Pete, sounds like, and looks like you had a great trip. I fished that same area back in 2005 ..this year we went to Gunnison ....Beautiful photos Thanks Bob

08-30-2011, 11:52 AM
Great report! I was laughing about your "internal discussions" about whether to stay or leave from the good fishing ... have had those same discussions with myself before. The description of the trip back to camp was pretty funny ... knowing that you made it back ok.

Just curious, from someone that has only fished east tn streams and the Caney Fork, how did you decide on where to go for your "out west" trip?

08-30-2011, 04:15 PM
JoelO, when we fished it in '05 it was recommended to us by some friend that elk hunt in that area. The problem we discovered was that so much of the White River is privately owned and that really hurt our trip. There is some public sections on the river but they are poorly (if at all) marked. I would not go back to the White unless I planned staying in the Flat Top Wilderness area but you about need pack horses to get to the "good" places.....Gunnison area has considerably more public water and it is marked really well so you know where to fish and where not to.....my thoughts !!

08-30-2011, 10:55 PM
Joel, there are lots of places to go fishing out West that are all awesome. For me it comes down to time and money. I want to get somewhere quickly and not spend an arm and a leg. For me, Colorado fits that well. Frontier Airlines now has great (and cheap) service out of Knoxville to Denver. I can fly out at 9:30a ET and be fishing in the Flattops by 3p MT, for less than $230.

As far as picking particular spots, you need to do research, research, research (which to me is almost half the fun). One of the best investments you can make are the Trails Illustrated maps (the same ones we talk about for here in the Smokies). They are an excellent way of getting to know where the blue-lines are in a particular area and what is and what isn't public land. I have way too many on them:biggrin:. There are 4 of them for the Flattops (NE, SE, NW and SW). If you come in from the Dotsero corner of the Flattops Wilderness (I-70 before Glenwood Canyon), and travel up Coffee Pot Rd, you can access Deep Creek, Grizzly Creek, Heart lake, White Owl Lake, Deep Lake, Buck Creek, Doe Creek and the upper end of the South Fork of the White River (around Budges Resort). In other words, lots of water all in close proximity (you could even fish Gore Creek and Eagle River on your way down I-70 from Vail).

Bob, I completely agree about the NW side of the Flattops (and the whole west side of the White River NF, for that matter), public and private land mix together all over the place and its not well marked. Like many of the larger rivers, the White River doesn't have much public access water once it gets to be a major river. That's what's so great about the Gunnison area, there is a lot of great access to big water. There are a few areas in and around Creede and South Fork, where you can fish the Rio Grande, as well.

However, I tend to stick to blue-lining as much as possible, and the best way to insure that you are on public lands is to fish inside of a Wilderness Area. The three that I have spent the most time in (in CO), are the Flattops, the Wemuniche and South San Juan Wilderness Areas. The Wemuniche and the South San Juan are better fishing (IMO) than the Flattops, but are much harder to get to from the Denver Airport (they are at least a 5-7 hrs drive depending on where you are going, whereas the FT Wilderness is less than 4hrs from DIA). The only other problem with Wemuniche and South San Juan is that they tend to get a lot more rain than the Flattops (although that was not the case this past week). I spent 36 hrs in a 2 person backpacking tent in 2008. Monsoon season can be really tough. You will get wet in Southern Colorado. If you plan on it and prepare for it accordingly, there is no reason why you can't keep fishing.

In addition to the TI maps, I also use the Forest Service Maps for the national forests that cover those wilderness area, as well as the Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer for Colorado. Mine is a very dog eared copy that I've had since 1991. I've made all sorts of notes in it over the years and have highlighted all of the streams that seem to be worth fishing (and have been told by others are worth fishing-there is still a stream that DK turned me on to that I will get to one day, as well as a few that DD has shared indirectly and directly with me).

"Fly Fishing Southern Colorado", by Craig Martin and "Hiking Colorado's Wemuniche & South San Juan Wilderness Areas" by Donna Ikenberry are two great books to help you find (and quantify the effort needed to hike to), some real gems.

I also use technology, as well. Its amazing what simple internet searches will turn up ("creede colorado fishing", for instance). Then there are all sorts of guides who post fishing reports covering the streams across the state, so you can get an idea of how the major rivers are fishing (after all, blue-lines are all tributaries of larger rivers). Most of the fishing reports also talk about the small streams in their area, at least in general terms. If you've picked a wilderness area, sometimes the best thing to do is go to one of the flyshops near the area , when you make it out there, buy some stuff and pick the owners/guides brains as to where to go...they are almost always willing to help, especially if you patronize their store.

Another invaluable tool is Google Earth. Once you find a location on a paper map that looks good, you can drill right down to a detailed terrain view and map out where you could setup camp and how far of a hike you should make. You can even get a sense for how rugged the terrain in the area is by moving from a horizontal map position to a birds eye view.

But let's simplify this a bit. The reality is, that for the most part, most blue-lines in wilderness areas will contain an abundance of frisky fish. If you are above 9000', you can usually find Cutthroats and Brookies. Sometimes even Rainbows and Browns can be found at that elevation and higher. Like streams here, the higher you go, the smaller the fish will get. But in most cases the blue-line fish will be between 10-12", with some smaller and some larger. Sometimes you will find a stream that holds lots of 16" fish, but that will be one that is a long hike to get to...to be sure. And size is not always a sign of potential performance (:rolleyes:) I've fished two small streams out there that averaged less than 3' wide and every pool had lots of 10-14" fish.

The bigger streams may hold bigger fish, but not always. The bigger streams can also get very technical, whereas most blue-lines are yellow stimi or xcaddis heaven. Don't be afraid to high stick up a stream that looks too small to hold fish of any size. I bet you'll be amazed at the size of fish that can survive out there...

That was probably way more info than you wanted...

08-31-2011, 08:49 AM
Great trip report PeteCz. I'd love to see more pictures if you don't care to take the time to post them.

08-31-2011, 10:53 AM
Wow, Pete/FNFBob, thanks for all the useful info. My brother and I love our twice a year trips to the park but I would like to explore the western states at some point. Many thanks for the pointers on researching an area.

09-01-2011, 09:52 AM
Those were some beautiful photos, the scenery must have been magnificent. Glad you were able to make the trip, and hope the new job suits you well.

09-06-2011, 12:38 PM
Unfortunately, I did not take anywhere near the number of pictures I had in years past. My son did manage to take some short videos (although in spots they are somewhat shaky...)

White River, Near our campsite:

Elk in RMNP:

Drive to Jefferson Creek:

Wish I has some fish videos to share...

09-06-2011, 01:07 PM
absolutely wonderful trip report, i totally understood your delima i have been in a few of those "catching" bonanzas and a few of those type lighting storms you did the right thing but i bet it hurt. Loved the pics and the report it will have to tide me over as i doubt i make colorado high country this fall like usual..... so thanks


09-07-2011, 08:54 AM
Okay now my choice of going to Maine for next year's trip is up in the air again. Looks like a great trip!

09-08-2011, 08:26 PM
Looked like you got some good pictures anyway, Hope to go out west next year again. Will spend a good deal on the internet this winter researching the details. Thanks for sharing.

09-25-2011, 02:38 AM
Great report...I fished in Weminuche in August, and had a ball...caught my 2 largest brook trout on the same afternoon.

09-25-2011, 09:08 AM
I was a Forest Technician one summer in college on the White River National Forest. I lived in Meeker out of the blanco district office. So the White River and Flattops hold a special place in my heart. Great report. Love the little videos too

11-28-2011, 10:12 PM
Great pictures of a truly beautiful place. My wife and fished that about 7-8 years ago. Great place to go get away from the crowds along the Blue, Roaring Fork, and Frying Pan. My wife and I had a day like you described we caught over 100 in about 4 hrs between the 2 of us. Amazing fishing! I love Colorado! :smile: