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PBD Fish Reports
Fishing North Park, CO
Fishing the North Platte River and its Tributaries is an Outstanding Experience
By Paul B. Downing
Nestled in a little corner of northern Colorado, bordering on Wyoming, is a bit of fishing heaven called North Park. Imagine lakes and rivers where 20 inch trout can appear on the end of your line on any cast. Then imagine so many choices that it would take you a month just to scratch the surface of the opportunities. Then add in that most of the water you might choose to fish will not have any other anglers within sight. I told you it was heaven. North Park is the headwater drainage of the North Platte River. This broad valley surrounded by mountains (the definition of a “Park”) is laced with rivers and lakes.
The North Platte River drains to the north, crossing into Wyoming a few miles north of the little ranch town of Walden. The North Platte is fed by several tributaries, primary among which are the Roaring Fork, the North Fork of the North Platte, the Michigan, and the Illinois. All offer excellent opportunities to catch lots of trout. State lease access locations offer excellent public access. In addition, there is access to private water within the cattle ranches that cover the valley.
Floating the North Platte Canyon Wilderness .
The water was slightly off color and just touching the shoreline grass as we launched on a pleasant late spring day. The sun had not yet reached the river, blocked by the high canyon walls. It was a day full of promise which was to be fulfilled beyond our fondest expectations over the next nine hours. Late June is the ideal time to float the canyon wilderness section of the North Platte River just north of the Colorado/Wyoming border.
Before we set off in our rubber drifting raft, Matt Anderson, our guide, set both my friend Jim Othrow and me up with a large orange foam stonefly and a girdle bug dropper. Shortly we had our first fish; then our first double! This day was special, with lots of fish and many doubles. We landed at least 50 fish each. Rainbows and browns averaged 14- to 15-inches with a number over 16 inches. The scenery was spectacular at every turn, punctuated by tall bluffs and abundant wildlife. Beautiful scenery and great fishing; what could be better?
While anyone can float the wilderness canyon sections of the North Platte, guided trips are limited with only one or two permits issued for any one day. This insures that you will most likely have this magnificent canyon to yourself during the floating season in June and early July.
By mid-summer the flow is too low to float effectively but trails give you access to some great trico hatch fishing. There are several trails down into the canyon. Be prepared for a bit of a hike but the fishing you will find will be worth the effort. The hike out after a long day of fishing can be a bit tiring but thoughts of the day will make it worthwhile. Plan on a day and bring plenty of water.
One summer day we arrived at the river to be greeted with clouds of tricos and rising trout in any slow water. Wading down the center of the river, we targeted selected risers. In this skinny water the trout were very wary. It took a careful downstream float to get a rise and many of the rises turned out to be refusals. Still, there were enough willing participants to make the trip well worthwhile. Then there was the one fish that will be in my head forever. Rising tight against a bank under a tree, it created a challenge to get a drift to. But after a couple of tries, I got it right and the fish took my offering. A monster proceeded downstream, shook its head twice and was gone. Such fish are what make me come back to the canyon again and again.
The Roaring River
There are several sections of the North Platte, the Roaring River, and the Michigan with public access leased by the State. One of my favorites is the access to the Roaring River just below to road into the south access to the Delaney Buttes Lakes. Most of this water is riffles and pools. Hatches are typical, with BWOs and caddis the most common bugs. When there is no hatch, standard nymphs work well. But do not neglect stripping a wooly bugger. There are a lot of big trout hidden in the pools and undercut banks that love a bit of meat. One plan I have found effective is to strip a wooly bigger as I work downstream from the road, then work my way back upstream with a nymph rig.
But sometimes I switch things up. One day the dry and nymph fishing was not very good, so on my way back upstream I had on my trusty black wooly bugger. I usually strip this through the deeper pools but something told me to fish the shallow riffles. I had picked up a couple of nice browns fishing this way when I saw a tiny riffle between tow pools. I cast to a large rock just below the surface. One strip and I hooked up to the largest brown I have caught in the Roaring River. Fortunately, this guy did not wrap itself around the boulder. Instead, he bolted right past my waders into the deeper water of the lower pool. There he dove, ran and shook until he was tired enough that I could lead him to the net. A fine 24 inch brown swam back into the pool as I released it.
North Park Lakes
The streams offer great fishing but perhaps the best known waters of North Park are the lakes. Lake John, the Delaney Buttes (North, South and East), Cowdry and several others offer trophy rainbows, cutthroats and browns, even grayling. Walk any shore casting a woolly bugger with a scud trailer or use a float tube. Wading is effective but be careful. The bottom of these lakes is thick mud so you can get stuck or you could slip on the mud and take a bath.
Trout regularly cruise the shorelines of these lakes in search of food. The all-time hot time of year is just after ice out. Monsters come up from the depths to feed in the warmer water near shore. Don’t be surprised if you catch a trout over 20 inches. Late fall, just before ice over is another great time to catch the big one. Summer finds the trout looking for hatches of May flies so when you hit one, action can be fast. In between hatches, two nymphs trailing a stike indicator are often rewarded. My favorite spot is the north shore of East Delaney. It is easy to fish from shore here. I fish the nymph rib or strip the wooly bugger until a hatch starts. I find it amazing to see fish after fish rise to a may fly in spots I have fished for an hour without much success. This is a great late evening spot. I often head here after wade fishing the Roaring River as they are only a couple of miles apart.
Lake John is famous for producing large trout. It is considered Gold Metal water by the State. You will need a boat of float tube here as shore fishing with a fly rod is limited because there is a weed bed between the shore and the good fishing
I spent considerable time one summer sampling the waters of North Park and did not even scratch the surface. I believe the Walden area offers some of the best and most under-appreciated trout fishing in Colorado and that is saying a lot!