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Archive for the ‘Flat Tops’ Category

Trip Report 30

  • Points:  2
  • Trip Dates:  August, 2006
  • Wilderness Area:  Flat Tops
  • Wilderness Size:  235,214
  • Location:  Northwest Colorado
  • Destination:  Upper reaches of the S. Fork White River
  • Total Miles:  Approximately 12
  • Duration:  2 nights

Valley of the upper South Fork White River

I stood hidden behind a single large willow bush above a deep pool in the stream.  I dropped my line in the current upstream and let it drift downcurrent a few feet.  I flipped the bail and began to real in the slack.  Just as the line straightened I felt the unmistakable slow and heavy pulse of a big trout.  A second later I saw a broad flash of shimmering silver from the bottom of the hole–a REALLY big fish.

“Oh crap!” I said out loud as a reflex.  The large cutthroat began to take the line towards the bank, under the willow.  If I didn’t act fast this fish would tangle me up in a second.  I raised the rod handle up over my head and held the pole over the top of the willow as I sidestepped downstream to the other side of the big bush where there was a gravelly beach.

Nice and calm, I played the big cut gradually into the shallows.  “Eighteen, maybe twenty inches,” I thought to myself as it’s full length was displayed in the clear riffle.  My heart raced as I slowly reeled the fighting lunker to the shore.  I could see the crimson blush on the fish’s cheeks and the big black spotted tail.  I had no net.  As carefully as I possibly could I gingerly tried to pull the big guy out of the water and onto the beach.

A foot from the edge the line went slack, the weight of the fish vanished, and I watched the big fish dart back under the bank like some kind of Rocky Mountain shark.  I slumped my shoulders and looked across the 10 feet to the far bank.  “Eighteen or twenty inches, easy,” I thought again.  “Out of a ten foot wide creek! And, it got away!!”

I would have released it anyway.  But, still it would have been nice to get a photo of the biggest trout I would have ever caught from a stream, much less a native cutthroat.

But, how frustrated could I be, really?  How many people get to experience that?  This was the Flat Tops.

The Flat Tops is, in my view, the quintessential western wilderness area.  The second largest in Colorado, it is basically a massive alpine plateau.  On top of the plateau is a vast matrix of trout-filled lakes and streams with miles and miles of meadows mixed with groves of pine and aspen.

When Arthur Carhart visited Trappers Lake in 1919 he was asked to scout out possible sites for vacation cabins.  Instead, he was so taken by the wild quality of the area that he pleaded for it to be federally protected as some kind of wilderness preserve.  This was a pretty radical idea in 1919, but it arguably set the stage for the eventual first Wilderness Act in 1964.

The South Fork of the White River flows through the southern part of the wilderness, below the high plateau.  My trailhead to the upper part of the river may be the most remote wilderness trailhead in all of Colorado.

From here, I hiked a short four or five miles to a beautiful campsite on a flat bluff over the stream:

Campsite in the Flattops

My biggest interest in this trip at this time was fishing.  I had read stories here and there of huge cutthroat trout in the wilderness section of this stream–fish of 24 inches and larger.

I did catch quite a few very nice trout.  In addition to the largest one that got away (18-20 inches), I caught and released the 15-incher below:

15 inche cut caught and released

Perhaps more surprising, though, were the exceptionally large brookies.  In most streams brook trout rarely exceed 10 inches and most are 6-8 inches.  Not here.  I caught about a dozen large brookies that averaged 12-14 inches.  And, they were the most brightly colored I’ve ever seen.  Here are a few pics of those guys:

Fatty brookie

Big ole male brookie. Cose to 15 inches and 2 lbs!

Another unusually large brookie

Brook trout usually overpopulate their habitats leading to intense competition for food which stunts their growth.  My theory is that in the S. Fork of the White River, the very large cutthroats in the stream feed on smaller brookies, helping them grow to large sizes.  This also thins the brook trout population enough to allow the ones that escape the cuts to grow to larger sizes.  Add a healthy supply of bug life to the waterway and you have unusually large brookies and even larger cutthroat.  I could be wrong, but the theory makes sense to me.

Heres a picture of the stream in the area I was fishing–as you can see it’s not a large river:

Upper S. Fork White River in the Flat Tops Wilderness

After a very enjoyable day of fishing in beautul blue bird weather, Dozer, my dog, and I returned to our great campsite:

Campsite in the Flattops

Of all those great trout I caught I only kept one 13.5 inche brookie, which was delicious.  Dozer thought so too.  From camp, it was a mere 4 mile hike back to the trailhead the next day.  I had hiked about 3-4 miles up the river from the campsite and back the day before making for about a 12 mile trip total.

At a crossing of the river on the return I tied my hiking boots to my pack and put on a pair of “aquasox” to cross the stream.  When I got to the other side I put my pack down to grab my boots, but they were gone.  I searched for an hour, finally becomming convinced that I didn’t tie them on securely enough and they fell into the swift water on my crossing.  They could be a mile downstream.  I returned the final couple of miles in my aquasox.  It wasn’t that bad.  In fact, good riddance.  The boots were giving me a nasty blister on my right heel.  I only feel bad for leaving them somewhere in the wilderness.

Flattops, I will return!

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