By Dennis Smith
I know it’s cliché, but big surprises do sometimes come in small packages. There’s a little headwater creek I know of that holds a mix of brook, brown and rainbow trout in its upper reaches. It’s one of the first small creeks I ever fished when I moved to Colorado more than 40 years ago and where I hooked the first Colorado greenback cutthroat trout I ever saw. That was a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, several years later, genetic studies proved the greenbacks in that creek to be hybrids. That was a surprise, too — albeit a sad one. Pure-strain greenbacks or not, it remains my favorite small stream to this day.
When I first started fishing the little creek, it was unusual to see another fly fisherman and I always wondered why. After all, it wasn’t as if it required a gut busting hike into a remote backcountry valley. Heck, it wasn’t even hidden from view. It was in a National Forest for crying out loud, within plain sight of a well-maintained forest service road and a year-round parade of hunters, hikers, trail riders, campers and sightseers. I suspect any “serious” fly fishermen among them probably blew it off as just another little mountain creek with a bunch of little fish in it.
Freestone creeks are seldom as fertile as spring-fed or tailwater rivers and, consequently, don’t normally grow large trout. Mature brookies in this creek probably average 7- or 8-inches long. A 12-incher is a big one. The browns and rainbows run a bit larger on average, but they certainly don’t compare to the famously huge trout of the South Platte, Frying Pan or Colorado’s other celebrity rivers. In any case, the creek got precious little attention from other anglers back then, so I usually had the place to myself. I found that pleasantly surprising, too.
Of course, that all changed. The popularity of fly fishing exploded in the late ’70s and ’80s and eventually I began seeing other fishermen up there. Before long, guides and outfitters were showing up with clients — mostly tourist types, it seemed. Apparently, it didn’t matter to these folks that the fish were small; they just wanted a Rocky Mountain fly fishing experience. The increased traffic put a lot of pressure on the little creek, but it’s a catch-and-release fishery so the fish are still in there — they’ve just become extremely spooky, secretive and much more difficult to catch.
Last spring, my friend Pat and I were up there fishing dry flies when I hooked a rainbow that slopped over the 21-inch mark on Pat’s tape measure. We were rightfully surprised, but later learned that trout weighing more than 4 pounds have been recorded in that stream by wildlife biologists during their electro-shocking surveys. One of them told us, “Just because a stream is small, doesn’t mean it can’t hold some big trout.”
Dennis Smith is a freelance outdoors writer and photographer whose work appears nationally. He lives in Loveland.