Hitting the High Country for Difficult Trout

Pat Dorsey

Hawgs Illustrated publisher Clay Henry vacationed in Colorado to get in shape for football season. Guide Pat Dorsey took him up a canyon to see if he could handle some technical trout fishing.

Vacation is over. Arkansas football practice looms. That's a good thing. I need something less strenuous like watching the Razorbacks prepare for the season after what Jim Daniel set up in the Rockies.

Oh, I signed up for it. I knew the agenda two months ago when my Colorado buddy said a guided fly fishing trip to Cheesman Canyon on the South Platte River awaited for July vacation. Billed as spectacular fishing, it would be a bit technical. In fishing terms, that's extremely tough. The fish are wild and aren't often fooled by human creations.

Daniel, an Arkansas native now in Keenesburg, Colo., has taken me to his favorite spots in the Walden area, sometimes as high as 10,000 feet on horseback. We've camped on forest service land.

We've taken wild trout on dry flies. But he's always promised that Cheesman Canyon had to be fished with hints that it's a young man's deal. At 58, my time for that is short.

The best thing I can say is that I did it. It was a 3.5 mile hike in, up and down off the rim canyon on sideways trails. Some of them have been upgraded by the local Trout Unlimited chapter. Some have slid away.

I knew it was going to be a hard day when my guide, the famed Pat Dorsey out of The Blue Quill Angler in Evergreen, Colo., had me empty my fishing stuff from my back pack at the truck.

"I have what you need," Dorsey said. "You will use my flies. I'll carry your rod. Your back pack needs to be full of bottled water, as many as possible."

The second hint at the difficulty came when Jim and my other wingman for this vacation, Cotter resident Bill Pettit, waved good bye and took my truck sight seeing. They preferred riding to the top of Mount Evans -- two hours away -- instead of hiking into Cheesman with me and Pat.

The third hint came about an hour into the canyon hike where Pat said, "We may be half way in. A little more climbing to do, but the good news is that we'll kinda fish our way back. Kinda."

It's not easy. But that's what makes it fun. Kinda.

I will do it again next summer, if I can find a day open with Pat. He's everything a guide should be, including careful with the client. He stopped when I needed a rest. Hiking at 7,700 feet requires rests. He slowly pulled me up, around and over boulders the size of houses to get to the river. He treated me like gold. Later, I nicknamed him Billy Goat.

Dorsey did everything but catch the fish. He saw them in the braided water when my eyes didn't. He coached me on the perfect presentation. It has to be perfect. Mostly, you get one cast or they spook. And if you stuck one, that was it for sure.

There are good fish in the upper sections of Cheesman. They are beautiful wild fish with no marks from a hatchery wall, solid muscle and fight like an alley cat. There are big ones if you are up to the challenge. My largest was maybe 15 inches. But I hooked a Cheesman giant, perhaps over 18 inches, in a great example of Pat's knowledge of the river and ability to coach presentation.

"There he is," Pat said from high on the trail. "He's feeding like crazy. We may have a shot if we can climb down and into the right spot behind that boulder."

We did. I had to make a sideways lob over a rock and into a seam. Too much either way and the fish would spook. And that's what I did the first time. "He's gone," Pat said. "We tried."

We climbed up the canyon, but Pat paused before we headed back on the trail.

"He's back, right there!" he said. "Let's climb down and try again."

And the fly fisher was better the second time. Kinda.

The presentation fooled the fish into a strike. Except the hook set was not mean enough with a tiny size 24 midge. It came loose as the big rainbow turned down the river with a mighty leap out of the river and a vicious shake of his big head. The hook came flying back.

Pat did his job twice. I did it halfway once. But I still gave Pat a high five. That's what the hiking was all about and had me ready for the trip back. It was also time to kill my last bottle of water and grin all the way to the truck.

I'll go back, but I'll have 20 pounds less around my middle. That's all I'd do different. I think I'll be better with the four-fly rig of midges that Pat prefers. I'll think about that trip as I work through another Razorback football season.

There may be an Arkansas trip for Pat on the Norfork. I'd like to show him some indicator fly fishing in my waters.

That chance might come this winter. Pat is scheduled to speak to the Arkansas Fly Fishers, a Little Rock club associated with the Federation of Fly Fishers. He's coming Nov. 19. If that trip doesn't work for Pat, he said he might come back in February. I promised him the Nofork, the White or the Little Red and a shot at much bigger fish.

There's no boulders like I saw in Cheesman Canyon. But there are giant brown trout waiting here. And I promised there will be no 3.5-mile hikes.

That was the first day of vacation. Daniel led his Arkansas friends through big, beautiful country in Southwest Colorado. We based out of South Fork and hit Creede, Pagosa Springs, Delores and Buena Vista while fishing the headwaters of the Rio Grande and the Arkansas.

It's just a little cool to catch brown trout out of a river that I know better for a muddy color and catfish fishing.

There were storms at a high lake above the Rio Grande that produced hail. Another one made a river run red between Rico and Delores. There was a drive through the old mining town of Leadville and a stop at Vail to visit Razorback fans Frank and Eve Barborek, perhaps opposite ends of the Colorado spectrum, the old and the new.

Not a lot of fish were caught. Jim apologized for that near the end of the long journey that started with my truck computer saying my oil was at 100 percent and then at zero when I passed Lake Wedington for the last 10 miles.

Oh, if I wanted to catch fish, I'd go to the Norfork, or to Bull Shoals Dam. I did that right after I got my fishing clothes washed.

That part of the vacation was based out of Pettit's cabin under the Old Cotter Bridge. I had to finish off the trip and take Bill's haul from Colorado, some river sticks that he's going to turn into walking canes.

He didn't have room for them in his compact car for the trip from Fayetteville home. There were also rocks from all of the different rivers. I didn't ask how those would be used. I'm just glad he didn't ask me to haul any out of Cheesman Canyon.



Pat Dorsey scans the South Platte for rainbow trout from the trail.



The view down Cheesman Canyon is spectacular.



Some of the rocks in the South Platte are as big as a house.



Clay Henry displayes a fat Cheesman Canyon rainbow.



Clay Henry and Pat Dorsey are about to hike into Cheesman Canyon.



The view from Mount Evans at around 14,000 feet shows there wasn't a lot of snow on the Colorado Rockies this summer.



The Arkansas River near Buena Vista, Colo., produced some nice brown trout for Clay Henry.



Jim Daniel nymphs for some Arkansas River trout.



The Rio Grande River Valley is perfect for grazing cattle at around 9,000 feet near Creede, Colo.



A hail storm at Love Lake ended one fishing trip. The peaks are coated with hail near where Love Lake is located above Creede and the Rio Grande River.



A hail storm rolls towards Love Lake high above Creede, Colo., as fly fishers retreat to the truck.

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