As the debate over the health of New Mexico’s premier trout stream, the San Juan river, heightened recently, a colleague urged me to see how other tail water fisheries, like those found in our neighboring state of Colorado, stacked up against our own.
He mentioned in particular the monster trout living in the Taylor River below the dam as some of the biggest and most colorful he’d ever seen, feeding upon a steady diet of lake shrimp and small midges, year round.
So I headed north into the towering Rockies just to see just what kind of fishing these legendary tail waters like the Taylor River, the Frying Pan and the South Platte below Eleven Mile Reservoir might produce.
An early July trip to the Taylor River revealed just under a half mile of public water below the dam and then a long stretch of gorgeous, private water before turning public again for several more miles.
This is a beautiful river with plenty of boulders, towering cliffs and big pines surrounding it. There were lots of pull off areas along the road providing easy access to the river and plenty of camping and lots of company.
A helpful campground host suggested we head up to the lake where we could camp at large if we were on a budget.
Climbing out of the canyon we discovered an awesome lake and expansive countryside, truly impressive scenery.
Near the far end of the lake we found a Forest Service campground called River’s End situated on a butte overlooking the river as it enters the reservoir.
We elected to camp here for the night for a reasonable fee and my fishing partner on this trip, Glenn F. May, had good luck down on the river, picking up some nice trout in the waning light of the day.
Meanwhile I was busy chatting up the neighbors, the Davis brothers and their friend Carroll “The Mayor” Rainwater, who warned me that we would see the temperature drop into the teens that night and to bundle up.
They weren’t lying.
Summer’s a short and often illusionary season up in the high country of Colorado and I ended up cloaking myself in every piece of clothing I’d brought on this trip.
Never leave the knit cap at home, even if it is July.
The following day Mr. May headed downstream to fish some of the water we passed on the way in while I explored the upper river above the lake, some side streams and a bit of the surrounding backcountry.
I couldn’t help but marvel at the number of ATV’s running about up here and the giant, fifth wheel trailers parked right at streamside or in communal gatherings upon some grassy knoll.
Kind of reminded me of Labor Day at Elephant Butte, people and machinery everywhere, tearing up the territory and having a hoot of a good time.
I realized there was so much country to explore here that our short two-night trip couldn’t do it justice and decided to hit the tail water below the dam to see what all that hype was about.
Below the spillway I found some very well outfitted anglers, spaced out at regular intervals along the stream bank.
None of them seemed very busy at the time.
So this was it, under a half mile of water comprised of a fairly narrow, straight stretch that crossed under the roadway, bounced off a big rock wall, formed a big deep pool and then tumbled over a long, rocky run before hitting private property.
I parked in one of the paved pull-offs by the roadside and walked up onto the bridge where upon looking over the guardrail I could see the faintly, undulating forms of some very big trout in the current down below.
I walked back down to the streamside below the bridge and pushed through the dense, streamside willows to watch a lone angler standing atop a rock by the head of the big pool.
Looking back in the tail of the deep, clear pool I noticed shadows against the streambed, dozens of them. Upon donning my polarized sunglasses, the shadows suddenly became trout, big ones, all stacked up like they were waiting for a bus.
Check this out, I said to myself.
Back in Gunnison I had stopped at one of the better sporting goods stores I’ve been in recently, Gene Taylor’s, where we found a store crammed full of outdoor gear, you name it and they had it.
And their fishing conditions board stated that the usual fare for the Taylor included tiny Mysis shrimp and Baetis emergers.
So I tied up an RS2 like we use on the San Juan with a little shrimp imitation I had picked up somewhere and got to fishing for those suckers at the back of the pool.
Funny thing is the first fish I caught on the San Juan was with one of these little shrimps.
One of the clerks at Abe’s fly shop had recommended it, said they’d switched to a different outlet at the dam that brought water and shrimp out from the bottom of the lake.
I was fishing with May then too and I hooked and lost that first fish in the run just above the cable pool.
I was amazed at the power and agility of that fish and remember looking about into the gray stillness of that snowy day and realized there was no one around I could crow about it to.
So it was with confidence I tied on that shrimp on the Taylor’s tail water but after an hour of work and numerous different fly combinations I gave up in frustration on the small stuff.
I instead slipped on a #12 green bodied, red headed, Stimulator and slapped that puppy on the water with a vengeance.
And damn, if one of those big browns didn’t break off from the pack on the bottom and head up to the surface for a look see.
I tensed as I watched the trout head straight for my fly and then it opened wide and sipped it down.
I set the hook and hung on for the ride.
The guy on the rock wasn’t too pleased when I waded over to him a short time later with the fish in tow and asked him to take my picture.
He hadn’t been having much luck either and only grudgingly agree to take it.
The automatic lens opening on my little camera jammed while I had the fish in hand but at least we got half the photo, even if it is little fuzzy.
I kept fishing and ended up crossing over to the far bank where no one was venturing and climbed up and over a treacherously steep, rocky slope to get at the tail end the deep pool.
But I had no luck until I worked my way up to just above the bridge where I floated my stimulator downstream into the shaded water underneath it.
I never saw the fish take the fly. The line simply grew tight, trembled slightly and then began weave back and forth, straining mightly against the current.
I knew if I didn’t change my position, it would only be a matter of time before the fish broke me off.
That’s when the lady fishing below me on the downstream side of the bridge waved at me to come on down.
I splashed my way under the bridge and managed to reel up the trout, a beautiful, fat cutthroat which the lady was kind enough to photograph for me.
I fished some more in the rocky run below the big pool and managed to hook and fight another fat brown before I lost it in the fast water.
I decided to call it an afternoon and went looking for Mr. May.
I had a good time fishing the Taylor’s tailwater but it was a little like playing dodge ball in a walk-in closet, too many people and not enough room.
Heading downstream I admired the long stretch of private water marked by regularly, spaced rock and log cairns linked by a single strand of steel cable from which “No Trespassing” signs dangled.
I thought of donning my camoflage, hooded sweatshirt and sneaking down the embankment to fish a pool in the shadow of the highway, unseen by passing motorists.
But I’d have to have someone drop me off first, I thought.
Then I figured I might be able to fish for maybe 30 minutes before the “authorities” could respond if someone had seen me.
By then my ride could return to wisk me away undetected, right?
Not a bad idea, I thought.
Then a big burly, sheriff’s deputy in a huge, SUV rolled by and I thought better of it.
May reported the fishing in the lower stretches of the river to be slow as the water was still running a little high and the wading a bit treacherous.
But the water down here looked great and certainly warranted further inspection, just not on this trip.
I envy those would live in this area, people who could drive up here after work during the week to leisurely fish the river, all of it, as time and conditions permitted.
That night we arrived back at the campground to find our neighbors had set aside some of their fish fry for us.
Wrapped in tinfoil we found delicately baked trout swimming in onions and red and yellow peppers.
Another tinfoil package contained crispy, fish strips coated in “Andy’s “ breading, a really tasty coating with just the right combination of spices.
These guys were accomplished fishermen, excellent cooks and epitomized hospitality.
The following morning after May had peeled out to try his luck on the stretch below the dam, I remained behind to sample some of the Davis’s brothers breakfast fixins.
They served up perfectly fried bacon, nice and crispy, and “candied” scambled eggs, featuring chunks of red pepper and onions. They even had steaming hot, baked biscuits and some of the finest white, gravy I’ve ever had, just like my Dad’s.
Now I’ve been a cook most of my life, even made a living at it for many years, and when I say I’m impressed with someone’s cooking, that’s saying something.
So if you’re lucky enough to ever encounter these guys up on the lake, they’ve been going there for years, don’t pass up their offer of a plate.
I was curious about their generosity and asked about their upbringing.
I was told they had grown up poor, so poor in fact that their folks weren’t even aware the Great Depression was over until sometime in the late fifties.
Then they’d crack a grin and tell another story about life growing up in the rural country of Missouri where they hunted, fished and lived a humble life.
Eddie Davis’ turkey calls feature artwork by his son Will and are reminiscent of the kind of scrimshaw work done by whaling sailors of old. His calls can be had by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Turns out the Davis Brothers all teach Sunday school and they practice what they preach. No smoking, no drinking and no swearing. And that’s not something they went on about, it’s something I had to learn later from one of their wive’s.
This a great group of guys and well worth hanging out with, in fact, they made the trip down to this river much more memorable than the fishing down below the dam.
Rock on gentlemen!
Stay tuned for our next installment on fishing some of Colorado’s tailwaters including the Frying Pan River and the South Fork of the Platte below Eleven Mile Reservoir.