Fly-fishing the Western frontier

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Fall Color Guide

Fly-fishing the Western frontier
By Scott Willoughby
Outside Online correspondent

very now and again you are lucky to discover a place so pristine, so utterly natural, so God's-country-gorgeous that it captures your very soul. The Upper North Platte River near Saratoga, Wyoming, is such a place.

The Upper North Platte, running from northern Colorado to south-central Wyoming, qualifies among the last true frontier fly-fishing experiences in the contiguous United States. An unspoiled paradise along uncrowded waters nestled amid majestic mountain scenery, this river has long been recognized as one of the West's premier big-water fisheries. Come fall, the region takes on an added dimension of scenic splendor.

Tremendous cottonwoods lining the banks slowly succumb to the annual autumn ritual, their leaves melding into the deep amber hues that preface the long winter ahead. Snowcapped peaks along the nearby Medicine Bow Mountains foreshadow the eminent change of seasons, but also offer fall anglers ample flow levels in which to ply their skills. The river is consistently rated as Wyoming's premier Blue Ribbon trout stream.

Because of its steady year-round current, the deep channels of the North Platte create a breeding ground for strong fish. Flowing north out of Colorado headwaters, through high mountain canyons of the Medicine Bows, along the valley floor and out into the high desert environment above town, the river offers 120 miles of rich aquatic life, including more than 4,500 wild trout per mile. The massive brown trout that average 13-17 inches and often grow as large as 26 inches in the Platte are only now approaching the peak of their spawning season.

"I remember when I first started guiding here, a fish over 20 inches was something that was talked about. I could tell you who caught them and how many were caught," said Tom Wiersema, a 23-year guide and co-owner of Saratoga-based Great Rocky Mountain Outfitters. "Now I lose track by mid-June."

The reason for Wiersema's amnesia stems directly from a set of regulations adopted by the Wyoming Division of Wildlife some 14 years ago, limiting the number of fish taken from the river south of Saratoga to one fish longer than 16 inches and five under 10. North of town is considered "Trophy Water," with the limit set at one fish above 20 inches and five under 10.

Plus, most anglers in the region practice catch and release fishing these days in order to conserve the resource. According to those who can compare the river today to how it fished when trophy trout were removed with regularity some 15 years back, the comeback is extraordinary.

"The scenery is outstanding and the fishing is outrageous. For me to go up there now is like it was 20 years ago," says Glenn Lokay, whose Vail Fishing Guides service offers charter trips out of Colorado through October. "And it's still very raw."

Much of that rawness can be attributed to the small town of Saratoga that sits along the river's edge. Rich in history and Western hospitality, Saratoga remains much the same rural hamlet that has attracted a regular following of knowledgeable outdoor enthusiasts for almost a century. Aside from the fishing, rafting, and hiking getaways nearby, the town also boasts a natural hot springs.

During most of your float along the upper reaches of the North Platte, you are unlikely to see another angler, much less a town. Development remains at a minimum throughout the waterway, contributing to its healthy riparian environment. With few external pressures to battle, bald and golden eagles regularly nest amidst the riverside foliage.

During a recent four-mile float fishing trip with Wiersema, both eagles and goshawks soared overhead. A small mink carrying a freshly caught rainbow scurried along the bank before us, eyeing our dory as closely as we had looked upon several deer grazing leisurely in the lush banks earlier in the day. Dozens of prong-horned antelope grazed in nearby meadows.

From the river itself we had caught and released some 20 trout, both browns and rainbows, many in the plump 16-inch range. Wiersema called it an "off day."

Maybe. But even an off day in paradise ain't all that bad.

Scott Willoughby is a writer based in Minturn, Colorado. For information on fishing the Upper North Platte, contact Great Rocky Mountain Outfitters at 307-326-8750.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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