Looking to break my January skunkfest I decided to hit the Cheeseman Canyon despite all warnings of tough hiking and slow fishing conditions. The flows were reported as average and the water was ice-free…at this point open water was what I craved. Ice fishing had been so dismal and as weeks past I became more desperate for fish. I have always wanted to fish the Cheeseman Canyon section of the South Platte River but other waters seem to push this place down a notch on my “must fish” list. There was a small file of info accumulated from websites and info from a few fly guys that tolerate my questions to some degree I consider this an extreme honor and privilege by the way).
In hindsight it was clear that I was not prepared for such educated fish and such a difficult journey. Occasionally people enter the Colorado wilderness ill prepared and pay for that ignorance with their lives…admittedly this was one of those moments where I wasn’t positive that I was going to ‘rabbit out with a whole skin’.
The Day Starts
With the early wake up and head out I reach the parking area an hour after sunrise. My only hope was to haul up to the dam and fish the least-pressured water of what is arguably the most pressured trout water in Colorado. That was the plan. As soon as I saw the crystal clear water that plan went right out the window. The water is so captivating and beautiful. Every flat spot, eddy, rock swirl and rollover dam looks like an equally amazing fish will come out on every single cast. That is the siren song of Chesseman Canyon. Each pocket of water looks so inviting that you have to fish every inch. Catching fish…that is another story.
Starting at the edge of WigWam I worked my way upstream. In some of the larger holes I could see the fish setting in the current. One fish was a glorious cutbow trout about 18-inches and stocky. It was so close that I could see the multitude of spots on the top, almost reach out and grab it. After a few casts I knew the fish was on to me and moved on. Sometimes I would see fish. Sometimes I wouldn’t. Very few times they even came close to my presentation. It was exciting just to see them but damn…these fish have PHD’s they are so educated. Usually I can spin to win on just about any slip of water with success. Not here. Not this day. Absolute lock down shut down no go city!!!
Some of my research had indicated crossing the river to get better vantage and cast direction helped greatly by some accounts so the waders were bought along. This was a blessing at times and a curse at others. In hindsight, waders were merely an option. I could have done just as miserable without them. In truth the waders slowed me down overall and the further I walked the heavier they seemed to get. It was very cold in the morning but warmer temps were expected by midday. For most of the day I was comfortable and the waders helped that. The terrain wasn’t all that bad starting out. My research pointed out that the last two miles would be the most difficult. Some reports stated that it was “difficult but do-able” others said they were in and out-half day, no problem. Some close-ups on Google Earth and I was like…”Eh. Piece of cake. Half day trip. Maybe hit Waterton on the way back.”
Futility and Time Wasted
Hours past and I had made my way past a lot of water. Sometimes I could walk high above the water on large rocks and spot fish down below. Then move down to the back or front of the hole and work the water without spooking fish with my presence. Cast, cast, cast, cast, nothing. Time and time again the lure came back with not so much as a thump or tug. So I decided to start picking apart the lesser likely sections. This is a great tactic on every other slip of water…why not here. More casts, precision casts too not just some sloppy floppy water slapping either.
“No time to get frustrated.” I told myself. “Gotta keep moving.”
The canyon seemed to grow the further you move upstream. The rocky terrain gets very tricky around the shoreline for the last few miles. Some areas you practically need mountaineering gear to reach. This is where the trail by the river fades and I had no choice but to look for a better road.
My research had concluded that the last two miles were the most treacherous and the trail would become noticeably more difficult. When I got to a large rock formation that swallowed the trail following the river one could easily claim this was indeed the halfway point. The entire trail had been mired with rocks, trees and somewhat challenging terrain but here the road just flat out disappears on you.
“Now what do I do?” I mutter in mild sweat and even more desperation.
From here I proceeded to climb over the rock outcropping in an attempt to get back down to the river. The stone was immense and too difficult for me to risk a fall so I wound up backtracking and taking another route. Eventually I ran into a trail higher up. A smooth road compared to the rocky shoreline of the river trail that had faded into nonexistence. Soon I ran into signs marked “Gill Trail”.
By now I had covered a lot of ground and expected to the see the dam around the next bend. Or the next bend…or the bend after that maybe. My legs were starting to ache. I decided to forego any more fishing until I reached the dam. But the siren song was too alluring. I found myself poking at this hole and that all along the way burning precious minutes and daylight. Finally I had to literally pry myself off the water and focus my energy on the trail and only the trail.
“No fishing til I reach the dam.” I said with sheer determination.
(Above: Some turns in life are more treacherous than others. No matter where you are it always pays to keep your eyes and feet working together. You don’t want to know how far down the fall is from this shot.)
My heavy feet clomped along the trail fueled by the desire to make something out of this trip. If nothing else maybe some worthiness could be salvaged from the adventure by simply seeing the dam with my own eyes. As I climbed a steep vertical section and past the next bend the dam was finally in sight. It was a sight of muffled triumph however as the dam itself was still a long distance from the rock point where I stood.
“Oh man…” That was about all the air my breath and frustration could afford.
There were still a few thousand steps that would have to be made before my stupid pride would allow me to turn back. Looking at the blue sky from the slim narrow of canyon opening above me it was difficult to gauge even roughly what time it was. But I knew it was past midday. Well past midday from the way the shadows seem to grow across the base of the canyon where sunlight had greatly illuminated things earlier in the day. The sparkle on the water was fading and time was no longer my friend. I had begun scolding myself for wasting so much time on the heavy pressured fish in the low section.
Bridge Of Glory
At the bottom of the trail is a small head gate with a metal bridge and even a picnic table. At this very moment I took a picture and a small breather before rushing to the water and casting like a delirious madman. That may be a bit of an exaggeration but to be quite honest my desire to catch a big fish was being eroded by the need to get out of there. After 30-minutes of fishing the prime section and not so much as a snag it was way past the time to call things off. There was no lamenting in defeat or wallowing in my absolute dejection. Now was the time to focus on getting the heck out of here.
“Time to ditch these ##$%^& waders.” My voice said disgusted thinking how that pack would be coming in handy right about now. I took another moment to scold myself for not bringing extra water as well. “Dumbaxx! Oh its just 4 miles.” My voice chided on.
The choices made early in the day were turning into mistakes and that realization was sinking in. Adding to the list was the fact I had sweated my clothes on the last mile. It happens all the time and usually of no consequence for the half day trip. But now I was looking at a short time before sunset and the air temperature would start dropping severely. The damp clothing increases the chance of hypothermia and real danger zone stuff if you have to stay the night outdoors. I vented them as best I could, knowing full well that I would only sweat them again on the way out.
After having spent way too much time fishing and then another moment venting clothes I took the last swig of water and hyped myself up for the hike out. It wasn’t so much a question of whether I could physically make the hike out but how much of that 4-mile hike would be in the dark would make a lot of difference.
“Just move fast and it won’t be so bad.” I said heading out on a brisk walk.
There was no time for taking pictures or fishing on the way out. The waders were tucked under one arm, fishing rods in the other and I made my way along the trail as fast as possible. The first two miles were the most strenuous but I made my way past them fairly quickly. It was important to make it past that section with as much daylight as possible. Not having proved the Gill Trail myself it was not clear to me how easy it was the entire way and if it did in fact match up with same trail I followed in from the parking lot. The trail by the river would be much more treacherous at night but it might be my last hope should this trail die out somehow.
Another issue was the large patches of snow packed down and even worn smooth by hikers. Sometimes the snow was crunchy and at others it was solid ice. It was difficult to tell which type of ice was which until you stepped on it and by then it was too late. Even with good hiking boots I was slipping, stumbling and fumbling my way through some portions of the trail.
The sun was setting and the shadows were now shrouding the landscape in darkness. My stride had lessened greatly after covering the worst section of terrain with the fading light. My legs had begun to throb again as my clothes became damp with sweat. The high trail was much easier to travel than the one by the river but I had not proven this new trail all the way to the end. It could in fact be the Gill Trail as the sign stated but I also left room that this trail could go back to the river or be a different hiking trail leading elsewhere. After an hour of walking it was difficult to gauge exactly where I was or how far I had gone. This added to my fear The only comforting thought was the fact the river was still in sight at the base of the canyon.
“Keep on this trek and you’ll hit WigWam or the road.” I tried to reassure myself in between scolding for getting into this position in the first place. Being out on the trail after dark is never a good idea.
Several more hours pass and I swear that WigWam or the road is going to pop up around the next corner. Or the next corner. Maybe the next. My legs are hurting and my body is beyond fatigued. This is the point where I have stopped scolding myself for fishing so much early in the day and began harping on the fact I came without a pack. Some of my basic gear would have helped so much at this point. Instead I had to be a complete “Goober” and leave it all in the truck.
Soon darkness falls and I stop for a moment to catch my breath. Stiffness, fatigue and cramps start working their way up my ankles and up my legs. My limbs literally wanted to lock up right there. This was bad news and something that rarely happens to me even when working out. My body was starting to fail and pushing things into deeper into the red.
“Not good. Get up and get the #$%^ out of here.” I bark as if my life could actually depend on it “No stop til WigWam.”
If I stopped again there would be no choice but to make a fire. My legs would simply cramp up or be too fatigued to move forward. At that point the odds of me making out would lessen greatly. Too many things could go wrong. As much as my legs wanted to stop my mind was forced back on the trail. Running on pure adrenaline, fear and anger at myself I pushed forward. Guiding myself along the trail by moonlight there was once or twice where I had to stop to make sure that I had not strayed from the path. After another mile or so I turn a corner and see two lights and an open spot of river in front of it. It was pure elation to at least be sure of where I was at on the trail. The trail soon reached the sign that I had passed on the way in. From here there was still a half-mile walk to the parking lot.
This was a mix of jubilation and anguish. My legs were screaming with pain after nearly 8 miles of trail and who knows how many yards spent going back and forth along the way. But at least now I knew where I was and that made all the difference in the world. I pushed my legs across the moonlit trail until I had finally reached the parking lot at the trailhead. Just the sight of my truck brought sheer jubilation.
(Above: Taking off my boots at the truck after the long walk out. Living to fish another day was the true reward of this fishing trip it seems.)
“Man…that was only four miles?” I say with utter fatigue and exhaustion. “A complete ass breaker!”
My body flopped to the ground the second after unlocking the doors and opening the back hatch to get the extra water out of my pack. Other than fatigue and some dehydration my body was none worse for wear. I was very fortunate to do enough things right to counter the blunders made early on. Determination blinded my game plan but was what got me through to the end with some hard lessons learned. That statement sums up this trip well: hard lessons learned.
Good luck and good fishing.