South Platte

December 25th, 2006

Tributary Six
The 16 Inch Summer
By Carl Pudlo, Colorado

"The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out." Proverbs 18:15

After listening to the man of the South Platte River for more than an hour, I had to take my leave. I remember the many experiences he had related to me, experiences I had not yet encountered because I was so new to the South Platte River and fly fishing its many contours. After he related to me the next story, I realized fly-fishing was not just a sport; it is an experience of growth. As a child learns to crawl, then walk, and then run, so a fisherman must evolve to higher levels of the experience of fishing, first catching fish, then competition, then big fish, then enjoyment, etc. The Patriarch of the South Platte taught me it is the normal growth of a fisherman to experience the different levels of fishing, as in a graduation from elementary school, to high school, and then onto college. He taught me not to be concerned about the level of expertise of fishing...

Trib six

"As fishing goes, one graduates to different levels of fishing as experiences in piscatorial pursuits begin to abound. When I first started fishing, my only concern was to catch fish. As I grew older and hopefully wiser, I wanted to catch bigger fish, then specific kinds of fish, and now, I enjoy a very limited type of fishing, trout fishing on streams with a fly rod and hand tied flies. This growth to a specific type of fishing enjoyment is an educational process, an evolution to a point where just catching fish is no longer a concern of an experienced fisherman. As a fisherman traverses this evolutionary journey, he begins to enjoy other aspects of fishing that never occurred to him as an inexperienced youth. Experience teaches the fisherman that catching fish is only a bonus to the intangible parts of a fishing trip; the scenery, the fight of a good fish, catch and release, and the many sounds often overlooked. As part of this growth, it became a tradition in our household during the summer of 2000 to release fish under sixteen inches, and only keep those over sixteen inches for an occasional cuisine of seafood.

The sixteen-inch summer produced only five or six fish. It started on a cool evening in early June on the usual stretches of the South Platte River, along the banks of Happy Meadow Campground. As usual, I was out with my sons, Alex and Zachary. Tradition tends to play heavily in our fishing expeditions in that all of us fish our favored stretches of water. Zachary and I fish in the same general area, around a place we refer to as Zachary's rock. Alex likes to fish the slower deeper water further downstream. Fishing for the evening was typical for early June. Evenings are pleasant while the sun is still casting its warming rays, but as the sky begins to darken, the chill of the cooling air necessitates the use of an extra sweatshirt or jacket.

The chilly air had gotten the best of both Zachary and me. It was dark to the point where I could not tie on a fly without the use of artificial light. Zac and I met at the truck and discussed the fishing events as we removed our waders and put the fly rods away. We traveled downstream, straining our eyes in the dark trying to find Alex. We met Alex by the islands, a place where the river is broken into three branches by two small islands. Alex was waiting for us along the road. In his hand was a plastic shopping bag. The bag stretched with the weight of some good-sized fish. When Alex reached us, he displayed two brown trout, both 17 inches long. We had decided earlier in the year that we would release anything less than 16 inches. This was an opportunity for Alex to bag a nice meal for some future evening. Later that month, we went back to the same area. Alex had caught a 20-inch trout for the third trout we kept during the season, and later in the summer, Zachary had the fortune to catch a 'keeper' trout.

Most of our fishing when we go out as a group is along the South Platte at Happy Meadows. This section of the stream allows for anglers of all levels of ability to have a chance at hooking a nice trout with the fly rod. The fifth and last trout that we kept through the entire summer was a fat 16-inch brown trout that I had caught, and it was along a stretch of the South Platte in Deckers, CO. Deckers is a small village, a village with one building, a fly shop and convenience store. This little burg is a major center of fly-fishing activity. People come to Deckers from everywhere along the Front Range. The South Platte is year-round open water from the dam at Cheeseman reservoir almost all the way up to Denver. It offers some of the best winter fly-fishing in the state.

On one occasion during the summer, I had the opportunity to get away by myself for some fishing. The boys were busy with something, and everyone else had plans. I decided to break the routine of Happy Meadows and try something else. The section of the South Platte I fished that evening has special rules, only 2 trout may be kept, none of which can be less than 16 inches. The section I fished is just upstream from the "Flies 'n Lies" fishing shop. I consider myself a somewhat unorthodox fisherman in that I will fish stretches of water where most fishermen will not venture. The particular stretch of water I fished is a small 'pool' of rapidly moving water. It is anywhere from 6 inches to 4 feet deep under normal conditions. The bottom is rocky and slick, and the water is cold. I rarely see anyone fishing this pool of water. I surmise it is the fear of fast water that keeps people away from the pool. Fishing fast water is a fun exercise. I call it an exercise because when you are wading in the fast water, it takes sound footing, strength of leg, and nerves of steel to avoid the fear than resounds from the water crashing through the rocks.

I always approach this pool from the upstream side on the far bank; the water is slowest and shallowest there. You do have to walk about 60 yards from upstream to get to the optimal spot from which to make precision casts. In fast water, precision is not the pre-eminent of factors when fly-casting. I started fishing the pool with casts upstream, allowing the marabou streamer to drift past and around rocks. I would fish the fly downstream as far as possible without snagging submerged rocks or sticks. I remember thinking how I would like to get further into the main current of the river in order to cast to the far side of the pool. This would maximize the time the fly spent in the water and possibly increase the success of my fishing endeavors. When I finally got to what I thought was the optimum place in which to stand, I tried to make the best cast I could into a looping area of a backwash just before the water takes a three foot drop into a narrow chute. As I retrieved the streamer through a slower part of the backwashing pool, the trout struck. It was not the longest fight I have had with a trout; neither was the trout the most ferocious. Nevertheless, the strong current gave the trout an advantage.

This fish ended the first of our 'sixteen inch' summers. Now, the 16-inch rule is a custom and a tradition. As consumers of a seafood delicacy, at times we take fish for the pleasure of the feast. The one thing I remember about the inception of the 16-inch rule is the camaraderie built with the beginning of new traditions, and the changing of outdated traditions.

To be continued... ~ Carl Pudlo, Colorado

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