North Platt, Wyoming

The North Platte River is a place of quiet solitude and renewal for many of the anglers who have fished its waters. I am a restless angler, inclined to move on even when the fishing is good. It does surprise me a little to realize how often my old truck heads north to the Platte. I know that the fishing on this river is the equal of any other place I have cast a fly in my wanderings through the Rockies. I also know that it isn't just the fishing which draws me to the river. I head there for all the reasons love rivers. To calm an anxious mind in its moving waters. To send my troubles downstream. To delight in the wildflowers along the banks and on the canyon walls. To lose myself in the fishing. To be, for a time, a part of the circle of life in one of "the last, best places."

Author's wife Ann working a nymph through a riffle

The North Platte River flows through a variety of country from its headwater in the North Park area of northern Colorado. It runs out of the Medicine Bow Mountains in a northwesterly direction into Wyoming, makes a vaguely fish-hook-shaped sweep near Casper, Wyoming, then proceeds in a southeasterly direction into Nebraska. There, the river meets its sister, the South Platte, near the town of North Platte, Nebraska. Together they form the Platte River, which eventually flows into the Gulf of Mexico. This article will focus on the 140 miles of prime trout water from the river's headwaters to the tailwater below Alcova Reservoir known as Gray Reef. [For MAP of the North Platte click here.]

Although I will try to share with you what I have learned over 30 years of fly fishing this great river, I admit that I am still learning. This is a river with many faces. It ripples through mountain meadows, dances over steep canyons, and drifts through high arid plains. At each transition, it becomes a different river. Uncovering the secrets of the North Platte has been an adventure spiced with the joy of discovery for me.

History Of The North Platte River

Stone shucks 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?

Wild Rainbow

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 Canadian.

Michigan River

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 are perfect.

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.

Wild Brown

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 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.

Fall on 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 canyon road.

Bighorn sheep in the North Gate Canyon

. . . 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 shape.

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. 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.

Variety of scuds from the North Platte 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.

North Platte 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 here.
For the FLIES for North Platte, click here.
To ORDER North Platte direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From North Platte, part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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