North Platte thrills

High-water fishing doesn't always include bears charging the river

Fishing guide Royce Olney, a former All-American basketball player at the University of New Mexico, who now guides for North Park Anglers in Walden, explains tactics on a trip down the North Platte River.



It takes a big box of big flies to survive a high-water trip on the North Platte River and the guides from North Park Anglers carry plenty in reserve. These foam-bodied stonefly patters are tied specially for the guide shop.



The North Platte River through North Gate Canyon is rich in insect life, which in turns grows stout, fat-bodied trout. Handling one of the river’s trout was like holding a bag of marbles, so full were the trouts’ stomachs.



WALDEN — This bear failed to go over the mountain.

Instead, the hard-charging animal turned with a loud huff and came running downhill at an angle to intercept our boats.

As the bear rapidly closed the gap, just as rapidly, the 6-weight graphite fly rod in my hands seemed to shrink.

Only after fishing guide Royce Olney let out a piercing whistle did the animal take a hard left, covering another 50 yards along the bank before disappearing into thick willows.

“Wow, I think he wanted to cross the river again,” Olney said after we’d all resumed normal breathing. “I hope someone got a picture of that.”

No pictures, but a lot of fingerprints on well-squeezed fly rods.

We were floating early summer high water on the North Platte River, where it carves through North Gate Canyon, just north of the Colorado/Wyoming border.

This particular 9-mile stretch of river is part of Wyoming’s 23,500-acre Platte River Wilderness Area, most of which lies in Wyoming (743 acres are in Colorado).

Our guides for the day were Olney, who’s admitted his days as an All-American hoops player at the University of New Mexico never included going one-on-one with a fur-covered mountain of muscle, and fellow guide Mat Jimenez, both employed by North Park Anglers in Walden.

This tiny (pop. 600) ranching community midway through North Park is water-rich, particularly in spring and early summer when flooded with snowmelt from the mountains ringing the valley.

“I think this is the only place I know where you can stand in one spot and see five different mountain ranges,” offered John Reese of Steamboat Springs. “Did I mention there are lot of mosquitoes, too?”

All that water means plenty of fishing opportunity, ranging from the Delaney Lakes complex to miles of stream fishing, much of which is open to the public, thanks to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Reese had arranged the trip through his contacts at North Park Anglers, which has guide permits for miles of local water plus the North Platte and Encampment rivers in Wyoming.

“There are a couple other fly shops who work this stretch but we don’t see them very often, particularly not early like this,” Jimenez said of the North Gate reach. He’s a Lakewood native who fell in love with North Park’s fishing and moved here to guide. “When it’s high it’s a bit harder to fish but we’ll have the river to ourselves.”

Although North Park has a well-deserved reputation for its bug life (especially the biting variety), it’s the bug life in the North Platte that attracts anglers.

We arrived just as the river’s stoneflies were waking up, which meant tossing a dry-dropper combination of a large adult stonefly on top and hanging a stonefly nymph imitation below.

“They’ll take it hard, so be ready,” cautioned Olney, now in his 14th year with North Park Anglers. “Try to get close to the bank, that’s where the fish will be in this high water.”

High water is subjective, of course. On this day (early June) flows were around 1,430 cubic feet per second, which had the river running bank-to-bank and a bit off-color.

Later, when hot weather finally reached the area, the water ramped upwards of 1,850 cfs before dropping to its current (as of Thursday) 629 cfs.

“Yeah, it’s fast but it drops pretty quickly and we’ll be out of rafting water by July,” Olney said. “After that, we do walk/wade trips and the fishing can be fantastic.”

Lucky for us, the shop includes flies in the price of a float trip.

I was in a raft with Gordy Reese of Boulder (John’s brother) and together our casting accuracy constantly tested Olney’s immense patience.

Trying to get close to the bank meant getting snagged often on bushes and trees and when that happened, Olney’s words “point and pull” had us breaking off flies. It was a stonefly pattern specially tied for the shop and Olney assured us there were plenty more in the storeroom.

Getting close also meant catching fish, most of which were fat-bodied and lumpy, their stomachs full of the 2-inch long nymphs.

This is wild country, and the bear showed up during a short re-tie break, when Jimenez looked upstream and saw the bear swimming across the river.

“Let’s get closer,” he said, and we scrambled into the rafts.

By the time we reached the crossing, the bear had turned, retraced its route and disappeared, only to show up on its downhill charge toward the river.

“Cheap thrills are free,” said Olney with a laugh, once were back on the float. “You never know what you’ll see down here.”

The takeout comes river left, where a primitive road pushes against the bank just after the wilderness ends.

The canyon continues on but we take out, load the rafts and four-wheel up and down steep inclines to reach the highway and head south toward Colorado.


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