October 04, 2010
Five years after the Hayman fire, the legendary South Platte River is back in shape — but different. (January 2008)
The South Platte used to be known for its chunky rainbows. But since the fire, you're more likely to see browns.
Photo by Matt Gray.
For years, many Colorado anglers near Denver called the South Platte home. Deckers and the infamous Cheesman Canyon were an easy day-trip for Front Range fisherman eager to tempt discriminating and sizable trout.
All that changed on June 8, 2002. That's when the Hayman fire began in a small campfire circle and soon escalated to the largest wildfire in Colorado's history. Eventually the fire charred nearly 138,000 acres, including land surrounding the South Platte River and Cheesman Lake.
The fire ultimately left many of us wondering where we were going to wet our fly lines on weekend afternoons.
"I certainly think the Hayman fire was one of the most discouraging and disappointing moments I have had during my fishing career," said Pat Dorsey, co-owner and guide coordinator at the Blue Quill Angler in Evergreen, Colo.
Without the vegetation, grass, and trees that helped hold back the soil during rains, substantial amounts of ash, decomposed granite and other debris flooded into the river. The scorched soil within the burn area created a hydrophobic environment — one that reduces the soil's ability to absorb water. Rain flowed over land, taking with it the decomposed granite and sediment, and dumped them into the river.
There was an extremely high fish-mortality rate immediately following the fires and through the subsequent summers.
Greg Cunningham of Targus Fly & Feather company grew up fishing and guiding the Platte around Deckers and has seen the river in many different stages.
"It was truly a sad time," he said. "We continued to find dead fish months and months after the fire."
However, that was a while ago, and now the fish seem to have adapted to their new habitat. Additional stockings have definitely brought the numbers back up, he said.
According to Jeff Spohn, the Department of Wildlife's aquatic biologist for the upper South Platte basin, the concern was not so much for the dead adults: Recruitment of offspring has made the recovery more difficult.
In an effort to continue the natural reproduction on the river, Spohn initiated a substantial stocking program to boost the numbers of younger fish.
The state is now stocking roughly 20,000 3- to 4-inch rainbows, and about the same number of 3-inch browns.
When the sediment starts rolling down the river, those young-of-the-year that are just coming out of the gravel start to get crushed and ground up. "That's why we are stocking the fingerlings," Spohn said.
The river is on the comeback trail, but it will take time.
"It's just going to take time and the flow of the river to move the sediment down the corridor," Spohn said. He also noted that there are many environments on the Platte that complicate the matter.
"You have to remember that we really have two complete systems going on here," he said.
There is the stretch of river from below the dam down to the town of Trumbull where the gradient is pretty high and the sediment moves through very well. At Trumbull, however, the gradient in the river drops out completely, and water will take longer to move through that area. There are not a lot of big rocks or enough gradient to keep the big holes scoured out, said the biologist.
However, time does heal, and the Platte is beginning to re-awaken. Vegetation and undergrowth are on the rise and taking hold along the once-infertile hillsides.
Dorsey has an intimate knowledge of the Platte and its ecosystem. He spends a majority of his time guiding anglers on the Platte, and he has noticed small changes that indicate an upward trend in the recovery process.
"The grass and wildflowers inside the canyon, not to mention what is going on in the burn area, are the heaviest and most plentiful that I have seen in years."
It's green, it's lush, and the flowers and underbrush are thick.
"Everything looks really good," said Dorsey. "I think we are on the backside of the real devastating floods and washouts that have dumped into the river."
With a decreasing amount of sediment and decomposed granite washing into the river with each rainfall, the process of scouring the riverbed with the natural flow of the river becomes easier.
"The good news is that we have had some really substantial rains up there this past summer, and the water really didn't discolor more than it should," said Dorsey.
"I can remember a few good rains this past June where the river dirtied up as would be expected. Then it was gin-clear again by morning."
Dorsey is also encouraged by the reservoir levels along the South Platte basin. The reservoirs were at capacity. Flows remained strong, in the range of 500 and 700 cubic feet per second. This really moved a lot of the decomposed granite and sediment along, and now some of the original substrate is beginning to show itself again.
According to Danny Brennan, who runs the Flies & Lies shop in Deckers, they had some "monster" flows this past summer, which peaked out at about 690 cfs.
At one point we had 350 cfs coming through the pipes, and another 350 cfs coming over the top of the dam, so whenever it rains, the flows just go up, he said.
Fishing right after a big rain will usually be less productive.
While the immediate effect of all the decomposed granite has been mostly negative, there is some good news, according to Cunningham of Targus Fly & Feather.
A lot of the familiar spawning areas have disappeared. But all the material flushed into the river system has actually created new spawning beds in different areas around the river.
"It's a positive sign that the fish still have areas to
continue the natural breeding process, and that the evolution of the river seems to be righting itself."
Brennan concurs that the granite has improved the river as much as it has damaged it.
"Now it's all the decomposed granite coming down, which has filled in some of the older holes, but has also created new ones either upstream or downstream," he said. "We haven't really lost a lot of holding areas."
Spohn sees the river change on a daily basis and is forced to look at the big picture over time. "The river is constantly changing with the moving sediment. At some flows, those big holes start to fill in and push the fish out into some of the shallower runs. But then we will see some higher flows that will re-scour the holes, and then the fish move back in."
Another very positive aspect of the rivers recovery is the insect life within the ecosystem.
"It's doing really well, actually," said Spohn. "All of the reports that I have seen, and what I have observed in person, are really strong."
Spohn said that fortunately, there is nearly one mile of untouched river for bug reproduction, from Cheesman down to Schoonover Gulch.
"We continue to land some nice fish between 16 and 22 inches in the general Deckers area," said Pat Dorsey of Blue Quill Anglers.
"If we lose a part of a bug population below Four Mile Creek from a big washout, it will be just a matter of time before the bugs from upstream re-colonize that area," he said.
That nursing bed was untouched by the fire, and it will help out the ecosystem in the future.
What this all means to fisherman is that the foundation of the river that we once called home is sturdy and structurally sound, providing the base for what will once again become a substantial and consistent fishery.
With a healthy river come healthy fish, and the Platte is beginning to once again claim its place among Colorado's top rivers.
The fish are healthy, active and the numbers are increasing, according to local guides.
"We continue to land some nice fish between 16 and 22 inches in the general Deckers area," said Dorsey.
"Above the Deckers Bridge and into the Canyon has proven to be a consistent area to have successful days, and that's good to see again."
Brennan said the river now offers "top quality" fishing: "Depending on the conditions on any given day, the fishing can be great all the way down to the old hotel.
"The farther away from the dam you go, the smaller the fish will get, but there are plenty of them. Up near the dam, we are finding fish well above the 20-inch mark."
The river has certainly gone through a transformation, however. It may never be exactly as it once was. But this is fishing, and stories of how the river "used to be" and how it fished "before the fire" are requisite talking points for any conversation pertaining to notable fisheries around the country.
According to Dorsey, some of the changes anglers will encounter will come in the form of the species tugging on the end of their line.
"The fishery has changed, from the standpoint that there are more brown trout now, and they can be a little tougher to catch. They have really taken to the river now, and depending on what section you're in, the ratio of browns to rainbows can be 60 to 40."
Dorsey also suggests mixing up your approach when fishing the "new" Platte.
"You really have to fish around the logs, rocks and other structure in the river," he said. "The browns are just in different places, compared to the rainbows which tended to hang out and feed in the riffles."
Winter fishing on the Platte can be just as productive as the spring, summer and fall.
"Deckers is definitely my go-to winter fishery," said Dorsey. "In and around the Deckers area, you're going to find flows between 50 and 100 cfs on average. That results in great sight-nymphing with midge patterns."
Dorsey typically ties on two small midges on 6X, short-line nymph, and fish to those trout that he can see.
BIG FISH, SMALL FLIES
On the Platte, the popular and productive winter patterns tend to be small, smaller and smallest.
When someone says they are fishing a "large" midge pattern on the Platte, usually they are referring to a No. 20 or 22.
During these periods, dead-drifting these small patterns through runs is the most successful method. Depending on the water temperatures, it can often be necessary to bonk the fish on their nose with your pattern; they won't move far for a meal.
Cunningham prefers this fishery in the winter, noting there is tranquility and solitude for anglers who brave the cold and dreariness of a winter morning.
"It's a great time to be on the Platte," he said. "Flows can be great for sighting-fish and targeting those congregated in the deep slots."
He often throws a red San Juan Worm and trails a sparkled midge of some sort. Using that rig, you can catch fish from the Canyon down to Strontia Springs.
Dorsey also recommends small midges during the winter months. His favorites: Mercury Midges, Rainbow Warriors, Black Beauties and Top Secret Midges, all in No. 18 or smaller.
"You'll see some sporadic Baetis hatches through the winter, but primarily midge hatches," he said.
"Nymphing with enough split-shot to get your flies into the feeding zone is your best bet."
The area just above and below the Deckers Bridge can be extremely productive from November through February, said Cunningham.
"Any substantial size pool should hold fish. And during midday, you will start to see some of the more aggressive and hungry trout move into the riffles if it is warm enough."
Dorsey also states that the warmer periods of the day will see increased activity.
"Concentrate your efforts in the slow, deep pools. Typically midday, you will see some fish move into the transition areas where the riffles dump into a mid-channel shelf," he said. "You'll have a couple of good hours when the fish are really feeding on the pupa. It can
be really productive between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m."
The best way that the fishing can be summed up at Deckers is "pretty cut-and-dry," according to Brennan.
"All I know," he said, "is that when we take people out fishing, we catch a bunch of fish!"
Pat Dorsey of Blue Quill Angler in Evergreen can be reached at (303) 674-4700, or go on the Internet to www.bluequillangler.com. Check out Dorsey's stream report on the shop's Web site before heading to the river. Also check out the Flies & Lies shop located in Deckers. They are currently rebuilding their Web site, so call them at (303) 647-2237.
Find more about Rocky Mountain fishing and hunting at RMgameandfish.com