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Headwaters of the North Platte

Northern Colorado's high-plains playground

Headwaters of the North Platte

Photo - Jonathan Lee Wright

I threw out camp 15 feet inside of the State Line, where a barely readable border plaque hung on a barbed wire fence, shot to shrapnel. This typically Western mutilation of official signage seems here more a political statement than vandalism. There are other indicators that I am back home—sagebrush, bucking cowboy motifs, Jackalope postcards, and always the wind. I am a son of the North Platte and I was back.

In the morning, I made coffee until almost 10 A.M., waiting for the early November sun to reach into the canyon.

Stomping down through crusty snow in an aspen-choked ravine, I came to the river, illuminated under a cloudless sky. I was alone.

After negotiating some delicate shelf ice on the banks, I tossed out a triple nymph rig and almost immediately was into a good fish. The big cuttbow ignored my tiny, perfectly designed midge droppers, and clobbered my clumsy #10 caddis, added merely for weight. Typical.

Canyon Water

The upper North Platte River is one of the longest undammed stretches of quality trout water in the Lower 48 states. It rises from a series of small feeder streams in the high plains of northern Colorado, then runs northward through 90 miles of canyons and valleys until it backs up in a series of large impoundments in central Wyoming.

While the Wyoming outflows of the North Platte are well-known tailwaters—and the freestone Saratoga stretch is classic floating water—my distaste for crowds often leads me to the remote Northgate Canyon section on the Colorado/Wyoming border.

Fifteen years ago I explored this wild canyon at several access points near the village of Cowdrey, hiking down into rugged terrain from campsites on the ridge above the gorge.

I had to work for the quality experience, but there was no question it was worth it. Now I was back for another try.

The Northgate Canyon mouth is an impressive cut through a solid rock bluff, with large pools, deep channels, and heavy fish.

The Routt National Forest access to Northgate Canyon provides good fishing for walk-and-wade anglers and boaters with inflatables. Photo - Ross Purnell

Easily accessed from the Routt Access turnout on Colorado 125, the developed parking area has a boat ramp for whitewater-capable inflatables.

Walk-and-wade access from this point downstream takes adventurous fly fishers through the canyon gate, to clamber among gigantic boulders and fish the deep pockets between. Downriver, there are more public accesses in Wyoming, including Sixmile Gap and Pickaroon Campground.

Going Big

Sooner or later, North Platte fly fishers come to realize the trout here show a definitive preference for larger fly patterns. The upper North Platte is a true freestone river, and this provides a distinctly different entomological environment than what many tailwater anglers are accustomed to.


While there are excellent populations of bread-and-butter Western insects like Blue-winged Olives and caddis, larger insects are extremely well represented.

One of the more established guest ranches on the Colorado border is named The Ginger Quill after a meaty tan mayfly (Ecdyonurus) that is a signature hatch on the upper river. North Platte trout hammer these clinger nymphs with gusto for most of the season, and feed on sporadic hatches in June and July.

Big stoneflies such as Golden Stones and Salmonflies, and Western Green Drake mayflies, are also important hatches. Even during regular caddis or Pale Morning Dun hatches, outsized patterns elicit strikes from fish attuned to supersized meals in relatively unpressured water.

This allows fly fishers to successfully present high-floating, heavily dressed drys in rough drifts that would otherwise be the sole domain of nymph or streamer men. As the locals say, “Go big or go home!”

Pre-runoff conditions in April and early May on the North Platte bring excellent caddis hatches, best imitated with high-floating patterns such as the Butch Caddis or #14-16 Stimulators. Large free-swimming larvae patterns are consistent producers for subsurface presentations.

Lately, my go-to point fly in place of split-shot for all-season nymphing on the North Platte is a #10 scud hook with a black 3.4mm tungsten beadhead, and a heavily wrapped chartreuse or olive thread body. You can add a wire rib if you feel like it. Many days, this “fly” beats droppers of every type tied below it, owing to the huge numbers of Rhyacophila caddis clinging to almost every rock in the North Platte and the fact that it sinks quickly and consistently drifts near the bottom.

High water in June brings the predictable Western hatches of stoneflies, both the giant Pteronarcys and a week later smaller Golden Stones, which generally exhibit a second hatch in October. As you might expect, Stimulators are a favorite on the river, used mostly as the lead fly in dry-dropper setups.

Western Ginger Quills, Green Drakes, Gray Drakes, and other mayflies make their first appearances in late June, giving the fish many choices.

Unlike highly controlled tailwater fisheries, the flows, water temperatures, and water clarity of the North Platte can vary widely from year to year, depending on the snowpack and daily temperatures. As a result, the hatch times of the various insects tend to be less predictable than on many other Western waters.

Giant boulders and deep pockets are hallmarks of Northgate Canyon. Photo - Jonathan Lee Wright

Late summer on the Platte often brings a sharp decline in water volume, making August a prime month for wading fly fishers. In high water, the trout usually hug the shoreline, but flows of less than 250 cubic feet per second (cfs) expose the underlying rocky pocketwater nature of the riverbed, and concentrate the trout in large sections of knee-deep water punctuated with boulders and riffles. These areas extend hundreds of yards at a stretch, providing a target-rich environment in densely structured holding water.

This is my favorite time of year to fish the North Platte—mostly pocketwater nymphing but some dry-fly fishing during morning Trico spinner falls and late-morning PMD hatches. This window of fine fishing can be cut short, as high August temperatures coupled with low flows can cause the river to become overly warm for effective catch-and-release, and the high daytime temperatures also encourage trout to feed mostly at night.

These conditions (luckily) are usually short-lived, as the high-altitude nights of September reliably chill the water and bring about more dependable daytime conditions.

In late September through October, expect thin water, with challenging presentations to the spooky pods of fish beginning to gather in deeper winter pools. On rainy or snowy days in October and early November, there are good afternoon hatches of #18-20 Bluewinged Olives that frequently bring these pods to the surface.

North Park

The Platte is a large river originating in the numerous high-altitude meadow streams of Colorado’s North Park Valley, but it is far from the only game.

Lake John, Seymour Lake, and the three Delaney Buttes Lakes are destination fisheries in their own rights, and a North Platte River public access is less than a mile from Delaney Buttes Lakes, making it possible to fish both in the same day.

Loaded with scuds, damselflies, Callibaetis, and midges, the special regulations public lakes of North Park produce colorful trout with an astonishing growth rate of one inch per month during prime feeding season.

The fishing begins at ice-out, which normally occurs sometime in April, but has been delayed in colder years to as late as mid-May.

Immediately after ice-out, stalking the shoreline, sight-fishing with a simple Woolly Bugger or scud imitation, or trolling a Woolly Bugger parallel to the shoreline behind a float tube, can bring early season success.

As the water warms slightly in the weeks after ice-out, hatches of large #12-16 midges (chironomids) get the fish feeding more selectively. While the trout occasionally rise to adult midges, midge pupa imitations suspended a foot above the bottom catch far more fish. Bring maroon, olive, black, cream, and brown pupa imitations and concentrate on matching the highly localized hatches.

In June, midges begin to take a back seat to midday Callibaetis hatches. Float tubing can be a real adventure, with the potential for sudden afternoon storms to explode and sail you across the lake in heavy chop. There is also lightning danger, so be careful out there.

Trout rise to Callibaetis adults more than any other hatch, but dancing a Callibaetis nymph up and down along weedbeds, and in the channels between weedbeds, is still the best way to catch trout through the day.

In late June through July, there are also massive migrations of damselfly nymphs through the shallows. While there are dozens of specialized damselfly nymph patterns for this event, being in the right place at the right time is more important than having a super-secret pattern.

A #10-12 olive Woolly Bugger pulsed and twitched at just the right speed through a shallow bay is usually all it takes. Watch the naturals and try to mimic their swimming motion and pace.

Small Streams

The Mount Zirkel Wilderness to the west, the northern Front Range and Cameron Pass to the east, and the broad willowed expanses of Willow Creek Pass to the south all drain into the small streams of North Park.

The North Fork of the North Platte, Grizzly Creek, the Roaring Fork, Michigan, Illinois, and Canadian rivers comprise the major drainages of the area, all flowing sedately northward from the high country that rings the valley before converging in the flow of the North Platte at the valley’s north margin.

The North Fork of the North Platte is one of many meadow streams with public access in Colorado’s North Park area near Walden. Photo - Jonathan Lee Wright

All these streams have outstanding fishing in one way or another, whether for 10-inch browns in beaver ponds, or high-jumping rainbows in pasture streams.

Several public fishing leases have been negotiated between the state and landowners in the valley, and access to streams in ranching country would be almost impossible without them. Many of the valley streams tend to be heavily overgrown as well, so anglers will appreciate any open way to get on the water.

One of the more popular tributaries is the Michigan River, which flows though the center of the valley. Oxbowed, undercut banks give cover to the Michigan’s browns, with classic dry-fly water nearby.

Accessed in the lower valley via leases on the Diamond J and Murphy state wildlife areas (SWAs), the Michigan is an interesting diversion for those who appreciate challenging and aesthetically pristine venues. [Details on these SWAs are available at Water. The Editor.]

Some time ago, I fished the Michigan with Jay Edwards, former owner of the venerable Cowdrey Trout Camp, lighting out in his truck in the late afternoon for the evening hatch. After making it to the water, we came upon a repeated, bulging disturbance in the middle of the stream, expressing itself at a consistent interval of about every 15 seconds.

After watching this continue for three or four minutes without pause, I determined it was a submerged branch slowly oscillating up and down in the flow, and said we should move.

Jay shot me a look and then quickly punched a long cast up the tightly willowed alley, expertly stalling a small parachute in the air above where we last saw the bulge.

He promptly hooked a nice brown that took his line around the corner of an oxbow before throwing the fly.

“Well . . . I guess it was a fish,” Jay deadpanned.

Big Tactics

After deciding to pack up camp and make a run into town to check out the local reports, I ducked into North Park Anglers (NPA) in Walden.

On the wall of the shop, a rogue’s gallery of photos tacked to the cork board shows shot after shot of fly fishers holding trout that would make anyone’s season.

The guides at NPA float about 80 days a year by raft on the North Platte from Northgate down to the Saratoga, Wyoming, area when the river is big enough to drift through the bouldery canyon.

May through July is the most productive window for their clients, who consistently catch fish by pounding the banks with streamers when the hatch is not quite there.

What I was really interested in this day was a report on whether the rapidly cooling water and recent snowfalls had terminated the spawn for the browns in the meadow waters.

While generally pugnacious by nature, big browns get ornery during the fall, and can be fished for with methods that generally don’t occur to most fly fishers.

The guides at NPA have developed specific tactics for trophy trout on these walk-and-wade streams, and have realized some pretty outlandish specimens that would be excessive even downriver on the North Platte.

There’s a reason for this. Much of this meadow water is eutrophic by nature, due to an altered nutrient base caused by agricultural runoff.

It took the locals a while to figure out what was going on, but now they know these streams hold massive numbers of large food items like craneflies, crayfish, sculpins, and leeches.

Despite the small size of streams such as the Michigan and others, the adult browns are keyed into large fly patterns, and fly fishers who adhere to the “small water, small fly” theory seldom see these trophy fish.

When the local guides here say “large fly patterns” they are not talking #10.

One top North Park fly—a possible crayfish imitation called a Tequeely— is a metallic, rubber-legged #2 monstrosity about the size of a cat toy.

Other fat flies presented on short 2X leaders include #2 white-and-tan conehead Bunny Leeches, Bow River Buggers, olive wool sculpins, and oversized Zonkers. Mouse patterns have also been recently “discovered” and used to good effect, particularly after dark when the nocturnal rodents come out to play.

Adult brown trout in North Park’s meadow streams feed almost exclusively on large food items such as crayfish, sculpins, leeches, and mice. They become extremely aggressive near and after dark. Photo courtesy of North Park Anglers

Thinking outside the box, and thinking like a top predator has never paid off so well. Browns up to 28 inches are taken every season from the small meadow streams of North Park, most of them on huge flies and in shin-deep water.

The standard tactic is to swing the fly with a curving across-stream presentation toward the undercut banks, and to directly provoke the lurking fish into trying to kill the invader. This is exciting fishing, not too far off from the experience of throwing into mangrove roots for ’cudas and snook.

According to NPA manager Matt Anderson, the prime venues for this style of fishing are the valley’s meadow streams such as the upper North Platte and North Fork rivers, which near the foothills are smallish, gravel-bottomed meanders.

Fly fishers can stalk the banks, keeping an eye out for a telltale flash of a golden fin showing under the grassy undercuts, or by just probing the bank structure for a response.

The strikes are anything but subtle. You generally see the fish follow the fly, and it takes all your nerve to not rip the fly away too soon.

In two hours of fishing one afternoon with Anderson, I landed a half dozen big browns, and one 2-foot fish I missed chased a 5-inch Bunny Fly right to my feet.

A Day Onstream

At the end of my trip, I found myself back at the mouth of Northgate Canyon for an afternoon session during one of the last fishable days of the year.

The late-season sun passed behind a high ridge and sharp, chilled air was quickly seeping down the ravine walls as I hiked in my waders.

The gray basalt that forms the canyon gate reflected darkly up through the pools.

A single fly fisher was below me, and I watched him methodically throw long presentations to deep runs.

A shadow passed across the water, and looking up, I saw a bird of prey fly overhead. When I looked back, the fisher was standing his ground with a rod bent double. A yell echoed up the canyon: “Yee-haw!”

Local Contacts

North Park Anglers (Walden) (970) 723-4215

Stoney Creek Outfitters (Saratoga) (307) 399-9464

*Jonathan Lee Wright is a climbing and fly-fishing guide in Estes Park, Colorado.

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