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I first float fished Wyoming’s North Platte River in 1984, catching the first 15-inch-plus trout I’d ever taken on a flyrod on the famed Treasure Island section near the town of Saratoga. Since then, I’ve made a number of trips into the more remote sections of this river, including the rugged alpine areas near the river’s headwaters in Colorado, and the huge, desert-like sections such as Bolton Ranch downstream from Saratoga. We’re talking about 140 miles of free-flowing freestone river here that is, unlike the South Platte, testing relatively free of whirling disease. To get a handle on the serious, multi-day fishing trip possibilities here, it’s best to look at the North Platte in sections, beginning with its Colorado headwaters and flowing north from there all the way to Casper, Wyoming, where it turns east into Nebraska and is no longer a trout fishery.
The river heads up in Colorado’s immense North Park, a high-mountain prairie surrounded by even higher mountains. The area around the town of Walden, Colorado, has long been called "fish city" by locals who are aware of the region’s high-quality small-stream fishing and the belly-boat paradise provided by the nearby Delaney Butte lakes. This section of the North Platte proper, on the other hand, has been little fished until recently because access to it has been blocked by private properties. Now, one of the area’s premier guide services, Platte Valley Outfitters (*), has begun to offer float fishing trips through a seven-mile section of the North Platte, from a roadside put-in near the town of Cowdry to the Routt Public Access near the Wyoming border.
The trout in this relatively flat and slow section are mostly browns. Reliable estimates place average fish sizes from 16 to 20 inches. Platte Valley’s float fishing trips cost $350 per day for one or two anglers, including guide services and lunch. Routt Public Access marks the beginning of the next section of the river, as it is the entrance to the fabled North Gate Canyon, where the river cuts a deep, nine-mile gorge downstream into Wyoming through an untamed canyon. North Gate is a Class-III and Class-IV whitewater and is impassable by foot. The rapids are raftable only one or two months a year during peak runoff periods. It isn’t easy, but when you catch it right, you have a shot at a legendary hatch of salmonflies here that brings every big brown in the river up to stuff themselves.
The fast, combat-like fishing available here won’t appeal to everyone, but it sure did to me when I had the chance to enjoy it last year. I found it a thrilling whitewater experience in a piece of American heartland that nobody has ever walked. Platte Valley Outfitters has the number-one whitewater rafting permit of only 11 outfitters making this trip. They charge $350 for a day trip for one or two anglers.
The next take-out point is over the border in Wyoming at Six-Mile Gap (it’s actually more like eight river miles) in the heart of the newly-designated Platte River Wilderness Area. Two summers ago, I backpacked into this area on the Platte River Trail with a flyrod and a dog. This stretch of the river is narrow and not very long, and it does get moderate visitation on summer weekends. I’d advise backpacking straight in for two hours before beginning to fish. Once you get into the middle of the trail, there’s usually no one else there but you and a lot of wildlife.
Six-Mile Gap is fly fishing heaven, so long as you’re there in the July to October interval after the rafters are gone. I’ll never forget taking little browns one after another during the morning PMD hatch; having 15-inch rainbows fight for my "swimming caddisfly" at dusk; and losing a monster brown after dark on a mouse imitation. Recent field biological research, incidentally, has shown that you seldom see these big browns because they actually burrow into the sand and gravel to stay cool and out of sight during sunny days. You have to be there on stormy days, or at night, to catch them.
I highly recommend backpacking this section if you ever get the chance. The best way to do it is by car shuttle, where a four-wheel-drive truck meets you at Six-Mile and drives you downstream to the next put-in, called Prospect. Platte Valley Outfitters will shuttle you for $75. You then take the next two or three days to hike back to your car at Six-Mile. The trail through this area is simple and easy, except for a river-crossing point in the middle where the trail changes sides. In the low water of August and September, even a dog can wade this crossing easily. There are several good places to camp around the middle area where the whitewater rafters camp and have lunch (I camped half a mile downstream). By backpacking through on your own, you can leave when you please, coming out at your own rate and not some outfitter’s schedule. My dog and I had a perfect three-night camping trip. If you’d like to experience it but don’t want to walk, overnight trips through this area by raft are offered by Platte Valley Outfitters in the early summer.
The next section downstream is known as Sanger Canyon. It is private property I’ve never been through but hope to soon, preferably on a multi-day float, with Six-Mile the first day and this the second. The take-out for this section is Bennett Peak, an hour south of Saratoga. There is a good public campground here, making it a good base for a family or group trip. Except on the most obvious weekends, it is seldom occupied. From here to Treasure Island take-out is the most popular trip on the North Platte – not just because it’s accessible, but because it has such productive habitat for trout.
There are many public access points from Treasure Island to Saratoga. Thus, spending time here may be less desirable if you’re looking for solitude. Even so, the fish here are plentiful because the habitat is so rich and abundant, and the landscape throughout the basin is well cared for, thanks in good part to ranchers who enforce Wyoming’s restrictive water laws. Among other things, fishermen must be in the water not to commit trespass, not just within the high-water mark, as is the case in Montana, and no anchoring is allowed without permission.
Downstream of Saratoga, the river flattens out into more of a desert than an alpine setting. The river is not especially beautiful here, but it is still pretty, unpopulated and lightly fished. There is abundant public access, including campgrounds, through almost 10 miles of this section. The river then carves its way down through the vast Bolton Ranch for some 29 miles to where the river crosses under Interstate 80. This stretch is in the vicinity of historic South Pass, route of the Oregon Trail, where the early pioneers crossed over from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean basins. Original crossing site petroglyphs and "Kilroy was here 1848" memorials are still visible on the north bluffs in the middle of Bolton Ranch. The best time to float the ranch is late July to early August, when there’s still plenty of water from snowmelt but before the summer drought and heat take hold. I made this float two years ago with Platte Valley Outfitters, spending a night on an island with many turkeys, trout and signs of Indian occupation, in addition to the pioneer graffiti.
There are quite a few other points of interest I could mention downstream of Interstate 80, but I’ll limit myself to noting there are two worthwhile tailwater fisheries a couple hours north of Saratoga – "Miracle Mile" below Seminoe Dam; and "Grey Reef" below the Alcova Reservoir. Miracle Mile is highly recommended and always produces if you know what you’re doing. Grey Reef is not recommended. Though it holds bigger fish, this section is too tough for anyone but trophy experts who know the territory.
A good home base for all of the trips I have mentioned here is Saratoga, Wyoming. The easiest way to reach this town is to fly into Denver and then catch a prop commuter flight on United Airlines (*) to Laramie. From there, Saratoga is only an hour away over State Route 130, which was recently designated as a National Scenic Byway for the Snowy Range Mountains. You can also drive straight from Denver, which is a four-hour car ride from Saratoga.
As far as lodging goes, I recommend the Saratoga Inn (*). The Inn is located right on the river and includes a family campground, motel and restaurant. The grand old inn was headed toward terminal seediness, but it was recently renovated with new investment. The improvements have brought the inn closer to a quality matching its mid-range cost of $99 per room for one or two people during the summer. On the low end, consider the fabled Hotel Wolf (*) if you don’t mind a loud bar downstairs in this authentic old cornerstone saloon. Though I wouldn’t bunk at the Wolf except in an emergency, it’s the best place anywhere to have a prime rib dinner after a hard day nailing trout.
For a headquarters in the upstream area of Colorado, consider the Cowdry Store & Trout Camp (*), halfway between Walden and the Wyoming border. Run by noted bamboo rod-builder and local expert Jay Edwards, the camp has a flyshop, restaurant and nice housekeeping cabins with fridge and stove (but showers and bathroom at the store only – which explains their $15 per cabin plus $5 per person cost). If you like it a bit raw, this is the best bargain on the river. If not, Edwards will happily refer you to motels in Walden – and still serve up good advice, plus the best fly selection in North Park (get your Monster Brown Mouse patterns here).
General tourism information on the region is available from the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce (*). And, finally, an excellent guidebook to the geography, fisheries and hatches of the region is Fly Fishing the North Platte River, written by Rod Walinchus in 1994. To order a copy for $18.50, plus $2.50 shipping, contact Pruett Publishing Company (*). Enjoy! – Hugh Gardner.