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Out West, June is normally the peak of runoff surges, a month when many favorite rivers run high and unfishable with snowmelt, silt and murk. Some will be bank to bank with unfishable speed and chocolate milk flows into July. Recent dry years have spoiled western flyfishers with scarcely any runoff at all. This year will be different, so consider yourself warned. Neglecting to give the runoff factor its due could ruin an otherwise well planned trip.
How runoff comes off across the West will depend on local temperature fluctuations, rainfall conditions and downstream water calls. Even tailwaters could be unpredictably mudded out. If you plan a late spring trip to the Rockies, check with your outfitter or local Hotline Service flyshop (see April, ’93 update) to make sure there are good backup options available in the nearby area, like spring fed creeks or ponds.
A case in point is my own trip this May to the Encampment River in southern Wyoming’s North Platte watershed. I took this trip knowing that my pet North Platte (see past columns) was running 100 yards wide and unfishable through Saratoga the day I left Denver. I figured to cheat Mother Nature on either its higher, clearer main tributary, the Encampment, or one of its tailwaters further north. Thanks to the weather, I might have been skunked if it wasn’t for a carefully managed little cow pond. Instead, I caught more truly big trout in one day than ever before.
The Encampment drains eastern slopes of the Continental Divide in the huge North Park area overlapping the CO WY state line, feeding into the North Platte a few miles south of Saratoga, the upper valley’s population (2,200) center. It offers about 15 miles of floatable stream; above that is a "Class 6" wilderness canyon that has to be packed. Above that, you can get by car to the alpine headwater meadows of Hog Park, named for its abundance of big marmots ("groundhogs"). The river system initially flows north, then curves back east through Nebraska to join the Missouri.
The Encampment is about the same size, and productivity, of the more famous Rock Creek in Montana, a large stream that can look like a river in spring but be unfloatable by late summer. I originally thought it held only a lot of smallish fish. But for some reason, possibly its mineral qualities, the Encampment actually produces unusually large fish, bigger on average (16 to 19 inches) than the North Platte itself (14 to 18 inches), though fewer real trophies. It invariably runs clearer, and usually has only a modest runoff by comparison.
My float down its lower section May 15 was arranged by Great Rocky Mountain Outfitters (*)(GRMO), the valley’s central flyshop, most established river guide service and specialists in floatfishing the Encampment by rafts. I went along on a half day spring training float led by Orvis endorsed guide Kevin McEachron. The past few days had been warm and sunny, producing good fishing (six to ten nice fish/day) but also high and rising snowmelt, with recent rains added in. I went in knowing I would not be seeing the normal face of the river.
The 15th started bright but soon turned into rain showers through the valley. A hailstorm shattered our fishing through Rainbow Canyon, the lower Encampment’s choicest stretch, inaccessible by other means. Kevin and his trainee, Chris, caught the day’s only two fish, a 17 inch cutthroat and a 19 inch rainbow. My lack of success was no fault of my GRMO guides, who are outstanding. There was simply little they could do that day but row us out safely.
Still, I’m hooked on floating this river again after runoff, possibly camping on the .75 mile flies and lures only public access section. Ask GRMO for directions or maps to this and other camp fishing spots in the area which are seldom used, and/or information on local lodging, such as the Hood House B&B, which comes with some private access to the North Platte. If you like golf or tennis in a small resort setting, ask about the Saratoga Inn with a bar, restaurant and swimming pool. For the best steaks and prime rib in the region, check out the Wolf Hotel. Be sure and take a soak in the free municipal hot springs across the street from GRMO.
For day two, my plan was to fish Saratoga Lake or one of the many private ponds in the area with Rod Hill of Platte Valley Anglers (*)(PVA). Hill, also headquartered in Saratoga, is a local legend for his 37 years of experience as a hunter, trapper and guide. He’s said to be the most accomplished flyfisherman on the high lakes and ponds of the North Park basin, including the famous Delaney Butte trophy lakes in Colorado.
Hill took me to a nameless, mossy little pond, perhaps two acres at most, a mile or two outside the twin hamlets of Encampment and Riverside. For fishing, he set me up with a weightless, long leader nymphing system and flies of his own design, a Daggett Special (dark swimming mayfly tied from his own dog’s shed hair) on the dropper and a buckskin like swimmer on the point. In the morning, we sight fished to the pond’s huge ‘bows as they cruised through the shallows. Mudflats bonefishing is the nearest comparison; you’re often striking visible mouths, opening and closing.
In the afternoon, after a pondside steak lunch, we took more big fish casting from the shallows to the middle, slowly crawling our flies deep. The day’s leisurely catch was about 20 rainbows from four to eight pounds, plus a brown about 10. We saw porpoising Moby Dicks over 15 pounds, reminding me of Alaskan salmon. The rancher who owns the water permits you to keep one fish for a $25 surcharge, a bargain opportunity for that one special, old fashioned mount.
Hill says his hardest sell is getting people to believe results like this are even possible, much less typical. But I can testify this fishing is for real, and probably the most bomb proof trophy trout experience possible. It certainly changed my trip’s fortunes, and with Hill’s tips, I feel more confident in attacking any small lake situation with a flyrod.
Rod Hill’s trophy expertise can be booked through Ed Beattie of Five Star Expeditions (*), an area native who showed me what a good booking agent can do by setting me up with Hill in the first place. This experience is a bit pricey, but trophy fish are virtually guaranteed if you use Hill’s techniques. He has many ponds up his sleeve, including several on the enormous Bolton Ranch north of Saratoga, which specializes in developing private trophy trout venues. In cooperation with Bolton Ranch Adventures (*), Hill fishes a gourmet selection of different species in large sizes. Ask BRA about renting their alpine "Pine Grove" hunting lodge in the high lakes section and fishing a different reservoir each day. BRA can also make arrangements for simple motel rooms or fancier condos right on the river in Saratoga, with noisy wild mallards in your front yard.
Hill also guides on the North Platte, with private access to miles of Bolton river properties for camping, floating and wadefishing. A bonus opportunity from him this summer: A chance to fill your freezer with great tasting fillets without guilt. Ask to get in on the five to 10 pound walleye run in the North Platte from the lake below; the limit is 10/day ($5 daily nonresident license required). Hill says the walleyes can be taken on flies, and that’s a plan for my next return.
If you want to go off the deep end in visiting this area, luxury wise, consider the A Bar A Dude Ranch (*) a few miles north of Encampment Riverside, with miles of exclusive river access and many private ponds (reservations required; phone Bob Howe). A more economical choice for a week’s stay would be Platt’s Guides and Outfitters’ modem two bedroom cabin nearby, on four miles of Big Creek, with its own pond full of Colorado River cut throats just downhill. Big Creek itself is the North Platte’s next largest upper tributary, with a prolific population of 10 to 15 inch resident fish, plus big seasonal spawners.
Ron Platt (*) and his wife Mavon also run an inexpensive bed and breakfast lodge at their ranch home across the road from A Bar A (Note: strict no smoking policy, no bar). For access to the highest lakes of the Divide, Platt is the area’s most reknowned horsepacking outfitter, as well as a flyfisher. Their trophy filled lodge, scenic and homey but also homely with tools and parts all over, would be a better base for small youth groups and families, and the Big Creek cabin preferred for a herd of serious stags.
Saratoga has a modern, large jet airport for charters and private aircraft, but the closest commercial airline service is 100 miles away at Laramie, from which you rent a car or have your outfitter pick you up. There are several good sce nic routes by car from Denver, about four hours away, in cluding the Laramie River or northern Colorado’s famous high plains lakes. Alternatively, you can fly in directly from Denver in about 45 minutes with an air charter service such as Destination Fly Fishing (*).
(Don Causey Note: Hugh Gardner asked us to add a good word for DeLorme’s new Wyoming Atlas and Gazetteer (*) of topo maps, which details the Encampment area and has a special section on Yellowstone Teton parks. It’s available from your favorite flyshop or direct from the publisher for $14.95. For more detail, he suggests the rubberized Upper North Platte River Float map available from state and federal agencies or GRMO for $9.95.)