History Of The North Platte River
The first white men to see the North Platte River were probably
trappers. Jim Bridger, no doubt, crossed the river more than a
few times in his search for adventure and beavers. All of the
famous trails west traveled the broad Platte Valley through Nebraska.
This was the super highway over which 300,000 pioneers headed
west. From this highway branched the trails made famous by history
and western movies . . . the Santa Fe, the Oregon, the Cherokee,
the California, the Mormon, and the Overland, among others. All
of these trails, except the Santa Fe, crossed the North Platte at
some point. Technically, all of them were "overland" trails as
opposed to making the trip west by sea.
How trout arrived in the North Platte River is one of the great
mysteries of Western American fly fishing. Certainly, no state
agency stocked the river. The first trout, rainbow and brookies,
appeared before Colorado or Wyoming became states, and there
were no government hatcheries in the area at that time.
One widespread folk tale about the origin of North Platte trout is
that in 1871 or 1872, a westbound Union Pacific train was held up
at Fort Steele due to some obstruction along the line. Along with
other freight, the train carried a large shipment of small trout from
an eastern hatchery consigned to some western destination. During
the delay, dead fish began appearing in the cans in which they were
being transported. The crew, now knowing how long the train might
be delayed and wanting to avoid a load of dead fish on their hands,
backed the train the short distance to the bridge over the North Platte
and dumped all the fish, rainbow and brook trout, into the river.
This is an unlikely explanation. There were at least 20 fish hatcheries
in Colorado and Wyoming by the end of the Civil War (1861-1865),
but they were privately operated and cultivated mostly cutthroat trout,
native to the area. Until the Intercontinental Railway cut through South
Pass, Wyoming, in 1869, it would have been difficult, if not impossible,
to transport rainbow trout from the West Coast, where they are native,
to eastern hatcheries. Assuming it would take several years to develop
a breeding population of rainbows, the 1871-72 time slot does not work.
And why would rainbows be sent west of the Rockies Mountains when
that fish was already on the West Coast?
Another tale has a Mr. Finfrock, a Laramie, Wyoming pharmacist,
planting fish from a private hatchery into Dale Creek, a tributary of
the North Platte. We will probably never know how trout came into
the river. What is important is the result. For over a million years,
the perfect trout stream had been waiting for a small inoculation of
fish to make it into the exceptional fishery it is today.
The townsfolk of Saratoga, Wyoming, on the banks of the North
Platte River, decided to have a party in 1907. The party became
known as the "Railroad Days Celebration and Fish Fry." A local
newspaper claimed that local anglers brought in 3100 trout to feed
visitors on that occasion. In 1910, an article about Saratoga appeared
in The Outing Magazine entitled 'The Greatest Trout
Fishing Town in the World' by C.E. Van Loan. The author told of
"a blowout they had over at Saratoga" during which 4000 pounds of
trout were caught for the visitors' fish fry. He went on to say it "took
some of the boys two days to catch that mess."
In about 30 years, the Platte had become a world-class trout fishery.
The river still provides excellent fly fishing, and it is still evolving as
a trout fishery. It is great fun to think that it may not yet have reached
its full potential. With proper management of the fishery, it could very
well continue to improve. The golden years of fly fishing on the North
Platte River may be yet to come. Those of us lucky enough to
experience the fly-fishing tomorrows on the Platte may be able to
say to future generations of anglers, "Hell, I was there."
The North Platte River is formed by the confluence of Grizzly and
Little Grizzly creeks. Both creeks run out of the Rabbit Ears
Mountain Range at elevations of nearly 9,000 feet. Rather quickly,
Roaring Fork Creek adds its water to the growing North Platte as
it flows onto the floor of a broad high mountain valley known as
North Park, in Colorado. Within North Park are the towns of
Walden and Cowdrey. Near Cowdrey, three other tributaries
enter the North Platte. The Illinois, the Michigan, and the
Grizzly Creek, the Michigan River, and Roaring Fork Creek all
have fishing access points that can be quite good fly fishing for
smaller trout. Fishing these high mountain streams will require
some bushwhacking through willow-chocked meadows. The
fly pattern isn't too important, and nymphing is all but impossible.
Luckily, these trout are particularly susceptible to dry flies.
Early summer is the time to fish these tributaries. The water will
get too low to fish by the end of summer in most years. One of
my favorites is the Michigan River below North Michigan Reservoir,
where there are also some excellent campsites. The fish are small
but willing. I would not take waders I valued much into these areas.
Many of the willows have been sharpened to a razor's edge by beavers.
I carry a 20-year-old scar on my leg from a willow that easily
penetrated my rubber hip boots, jeans, and me. Old hip boots
Routt Forest Access
To reach the Routt Forest access, take Highway 127 out of Walden,
Colorado, then 125 toward Saratoga, Wyoming. This is the beginning
of the most scenic portion of the North Platte River. As you take the
125 cutoff, the Routt Forest acccess will be on your right just after
crossing a highway bridge over the river. The beginning of the North
Gate Canyon is just downstream of the access at Windy Hole, where
the river cuts through the mountain.
This section of the North Platte is designated Gold Medal water in
Colorado and Blue Ribbon water in Wyoming, each state's way of
designating its finest trout water. It is premier white-water rafting
during spring runoff. The area also offers some of Colorado's finest
hunting for elk, mule deer, sage grouse, and a variety of waterfowl.
Camping and hiking during the summer is a prime use, and there is
excellent fishing for wild trout. During the winter, the river freezes
solid. It is wonderful to cross-country ski over frozen river runs
and think of trout I met in the summer still living below. I am
hopeful we will meet again.
Except for about a half-mile bordered by the Ginger Quill Ranch,
all of the water from the Routt Forest access to Six Mile Gap is
open to the public. The Ginger Quill water is private. You can
float through, but stopping to wade-fish is not allowed. This
still leaves about 9 ½ of about 10 miles open to wade or float
fishing. It can be very good. As one would expect from a
rocky-bottomed canyon river, the water is classic pocket water
divided by deep pools and long riffles. The trout hold in the
pockets, just where you would expect to find them. Early and
late in the day, the fish will move into the riffles to feed.
Six Mile Gap to Treasure Island
From Six Mile Gap to Treasure Island, there are almost 37 miles
of river running through the canyon and out onto ranch land on
the valley floor. By Six Mile Gap, all the dangerous rapids are
behind you. The rocky canyon walls are lined with ponderosa pine,
sub-alpine and Douglas fir, Engleman spruce, cedar, lodge pole pine,
and aspen groves. Grasses, willows, and chockcherry form the
riparian zone. Black bears can be seen grazing on the chokecherries
as soon as they are ripe. During the spring and summer months, a
variety of wild flowers splatter the canyon walls and the river's edge
with color. In the fall, the aspen splash the slopes with gold. For its
beauty, isolation, and incomparable fishing, I consider this section
the crown jewel of the North Platte.
If taking large number of trout is your bag, you might be able to
do it on this section of the North Platte River in the early summer.
However these are wild fish. Don't count on running up the numbers.
These trout can humble you in a hurry.
The Encampment River
The "little Encampment River" was how Ray Bergman referred to
this tributary of the Platte in his 1937 book Trout.
Bergman fished all over America, but refers to the Encampment
no less than eight times. Joe Brooks, and American fly fishing
legend, once told me that although the Encampment might be
the best small-stream trout fishery in the world, he never wrote
about it because most of the fishing was private. Actually there
is reasonable access to this remarkable fishery despite the fact
that most of the best fishing is on private land.
Beginning in 1969, Ann and I pretty much raised our children on
the headwaters of the Encampment. There are now excellent camping
facilities at Hog Park Reservoir, but there are also many less formal
campsites along the stream. Hog Park can be accessed from the
town of Encampment, Wyoming, but a drive up a beautiful, narrow
. . . Any river can fish hot or cold, but I have never found another
place with as many nice fish. I also enjoy this natural environment.
It has been altered very little. Aside from some light pollution from
the copper mines around the town of encampment and some bank
erosion from cattle grazing practices, the Encampment is in great
There is not a lot of access on the lower Encampment River. There
is an access at the Oddfellows Camp upstream of Riverside, and a
second off the road between Encampment and Saratoga at Baggot
Rocks, where there is about a mile of water. Some of the local fly
shops may have private leases and offer a day rod fee for the right
to fish. If there has ever been a place where I would suggest a float
with a guide if you are unfamiliar with the river, this is it. You are
allowed to float through private property in Wyoming, but the
Encampment is a small stream, and landowners do patrol.
Treasure Island to Saratoga
By far the most popular float on the North Platt is the 12-mile section
from Treasure Island to Saratoga. This is a good float by raft, canoe,
drift boat, or john boat. There are no rapids in this stretch, and the
only obstacles other than fallen trees are bridges, especially the bridge
at Highway 130. Floating under the bridge is not at all difficult, but I
once saw a canoe wrapped around one of the bridge pilings. On
another occasion, I rescued two boy scouts after a canoe wreck at
the bridge. While most of the folks on this section of the river will
be fishing, it is also favored by the weekend recreational floater.
This is one of my favorite areas during the Trico hatch, which begins
to come off in early August. Expect to find Trico spinner on the water
between 8:00 and 10:00 a.m. Most Trico spinner patterns will work.
If no hatch occurs a Beadhead Hare's Ear fished through the riffles
will usually get the trout's attention. During the fall months, a decent
Baetis hatch will appear in the afternoons. [For the
FLIES for the North Platte, click here.
Saratoga To Seminoe Reservoir
The character of the North Platee changes dramatically downstream
from Saratoga. The rivers flows out of prime westerm ranch land onto
an arid high plains desert of sagebrush and hardy native grasses. There
is much less gradient. The riparian zone can be measured in feet and is
comprised mainly of stands of cottonwoods and a few willows. The
river flows below sandstone bluffs and is prime raptor habitat. Golden
and bald eagles, American kestrels, red-tailed hawks, Swainson's hawks,
ferruginous hawks and prairie falcons may be seen along the river.
There are almost 60 miles of river between Saratoga and Seminoe
Reservoir. There are excellent fishing accesses at Foote, about six
miles downstream of Saratoga, and at Pick Bridge, about 12 miles
by river from Saratoga. Both have launch sites and camping. Foote
provides a couple of miles of public access water and Pick Bridge
more than six miles, mostly downstream. Both areas are the right
distance for a day's float from Saratoga. You can float between
Foote and Pick Bridge, but this section of river is not one of my
favorites. Wind is often a problem. The river becomes what I can
only describe as 300-yard-long pools with short riffles in between.
If the wind comes up - and it will - you may find yourself rowing
hard to get downstream.
The best fishing on this entire stretch is at Pick Bridge. There is
plenty of river to fish, and the water meanders and braids enough to
make the fishing interesting. The main hatch is the caddis; but later
in the summer, spectacular Trico spinner falls resembling huge clouds
of smoke come off the water. The trout feed heavily on the Tricos.
Small insects and a wide river make the fly fishing on the section of
water technically challenging. The presentation of a small dry fly on
a fine tippet is difficult. To make a long, delicate cast when you must
wade to the top of your waders is harder yet. It really great fun to
succeed when the odds are against you.
The Miracle Mile
The Wyoming tailwater fishery between Kortes Dam and Pathfinder
Reservoir on the North Platte is known as the Miracle Mile, or simply
"The Mile" to fly-fishing aficionados. This fishery is one of the top
big-trout producers in the Rocky Mountain region. It is fairly easily
reach, assuming that you are going there. Like most of the North Platte,
it isn't on the way to any other place. In other words, you don' just
stumble upon the mile.
The Mile is unusual in that just about all the river is accessible by
road on both banks, and all of the water is open to public fishing.
In remote country, it attracts regional fishers all year long because
it can produce some amazing trout. A trout over 5 pounds is
almost unremarkable. A fish over 10 pounds is a trophy by any
standards, but a number of trout of this size are caught every year.
I know of at least one brown trout over 20 pounds caught in the
Mile, though not by a fly-fisher.
While there are nice hatches of midges, Baetis,
caddis, and small stoneflies in spring, summer, and fall, day in and
day out, the nymph is going to take most of the fish. Scuds are
present in astonishing numbers and sizes, so scuds imitations will
work more often than not. Scud imitations in the brown-olive-Gray
spectrum are pretty standard, but so is the rusty orange color.
One of the wonderful things about the North Platte is that during
an average day of angling you often will have fished with everything.
Small to large dry flies, a variety of nymphs and emerger patterns,
and some big stuff. You may have trashed several fly boxes looking
for, and changing, patterns. At the end of the day, it'll be difficult
to say what worked best. You'll be tired. You may be happy,
frustrated, or humbled. But you won't have been bored with
the fishing. ~ Eric Pettine
For a MAP of the North Platte, click
For the FLIES for North Platte, click
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Credits: From North Platte, part of the River
Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications.
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