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Fly-fishing the South Platte River: Disproving some common myths

By: Paul Klee
May 30, 2013 Updated: May 30, 2013 at 6:05 pm
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DECKERS - On a drizzly May afternoon, I hurled the gaudy streamer through the air, 50 feet across the river, with the help of an 11-foot, two-handed fly rod.

This wasn't a steelhead run in the Pacific Northwest.

This was our very own South Platte River.

Two-handed switch rods on the Platte? Isn't that against the rules?

What I've learned about this water: We've established too many "rules" when it comes to fishing Deckers. It's OK to break from conventional wisdom and swap the nymph rig for a giant switch rod.

On this day, I had the pleasure of fishing alongside a pair of river gurus from Trout's Fly Fishing, a fly shop and guide service in Denver. Reid Baker, the shop's guide manager, and Will Rice, the marketing director, led me on a fishing trip with a purpose.

Our mission was to disprove the myths of the South Platte near Deckers.

From Scraggy View to the Wigwam Club, this is Gold Medal water that comes with a stigma.

It is frustratingly technical, overly crowded and, yes, intimidating.

That's how the story goes, anyway.

Myth No. 1: Nymphing (with tiny flies the size of breadcrumbs) is the only way to catch fish.

From 10 a.m. to noon, we threw the traditional Deckers rig: strike indicator, split shot, point fly (Peg Egg, San Juan Worm, stonefly) and trailer fly (midge larvae).

Then we got creative. Baker and Rice rigged up the Scott L2H, 5-weight switch rod. We winged 50- to 60-foot casts down and across the river. This is a fly-fishing method rarely associated with the South Platte. Regardless, several fish slammed the No. 4 Crystal Bugger like it was their final meal.

Around 4 p.m., a hatch of blue-winged olives brought fish to the surface. The pattern of choice went from a burly streamer to a No. 22 Parachute Adams.

"Sometimes people get stuck in the idea there's only one way to catch fish here. It's not true," said Baker, who guides on this river weekly. "Use your imagination."

What better way to disprove this myth than to catch fish on three unique methods - nymphing, streamer fishing and with dry flies - in the same day?

Myth No. 2: Combat gear is necessary to battle the crowds.

This stretch of water is hit hard by anglers from the Pikes Peak region. Fishermen from El Paso County actually outnumber anglers from Jefferson and Douglas counties, according to a census study by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

On a Wednesday before runoff, there were cars parked at every other turnout. Even so, our party fished four separate runs without meeting another angler.

"There's plenty of water to fish," Rice said, and he's right.

Myth No. 3: Since the Hayman fire, it's not what it once was.

Unfortunately, this isn't a myth. There's no spinning the ugly truth: 11 years ago this June, the largest wildfire in our state's recorded history devastated the South Platte at Deckers.

Like many of you, I fished this river before the fire and after the fire. It is, more or less, two different rivers.

What happened? The fire torched more than 138,000 acres of forest. With minimal undergrowth to slow erosion during monsoon rains, sediment pours into the river and smothers young fish.

"It's a sediment issue," said Jeff Spohn, the aquatic biologist with Parks and Wildlife who oversees the South Platte. "The fry are emerging and getting wiped out."

The Cheesman Canyon stretch wasn't significantly affected. Last fall, an electro-fishing station in the upper canyon showed 771 fish per square acre of water.

"That's ridiculously high," Spohn said.

But without stocking efforts on the lower stretch, this river hardly would be worth the hour's drive. Roughly 1 mile below Deckers - after four tributaries spill sediment into the stream - a study last year showed 189 fish per square acre. Compare that with the population of 521 fish per square acre in 2002, before the fire's impact.

"Below Horse Creek (near the bridge at Deckers), the river is still recovering from the Hayman fire," Spohn said.

The state has performed extensive stocking of catchable rainbows to maintain the fishery. This is short-term management; the long-term goal is to see the fish population naturally sustain itself.

"It's improving. From 2003, 2004, 2005, when the sedimentation was at its peak, the river would run chocolate for a week," Spohn said. "Now we get a storm and it might be turbid for only a day."

If we compare this river now with what it was pre-Hayman, the evidence is frightening. Relative to most waters, however, this remains a highly productive fishery.

We had consistent action on the fly rod throughout the day, mostly with the stocked rainbows that dominate the fish population.

"There definitely is optimism with the future of this river," Spohn said.

On the next trip to Deckers, as you reach for the 7x tippet, just remember: The traditional rules of fishing the South Platte are made to be broken.


Paul Klee is the Denver sports (and sometimes outdoors) columnist for The Gazette. Reach him via email ( or on Twitter


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