Returning to Cochetopa Creek
A number of years ago my wife and I took a trip up into Colorado for a domestic vacation of hiking and fishing. We discovered a true gem of a small stream called Cochetopa Creek about 30 minutes outside of Gunnison in the heart of some of Colorado’s wildest and most beautiful country. We were staying at a cabin in Gunnison and on the day we decided to fish the creek we slept late, drank coffee and generally got a slow start on the day. By the time we made it to the creek it was noon.
The fishing was surprisingly slow for a summer day and we only caught a couple of fish for the first hour and a half. Then, for some unknown reason, the fish went on the bite and we started catching beautiful, wild Brown Trout on attractor dries like humpies and Stimulators. It was fast action and we were having a blast. Unfortunately the sky to the south had been getting darker and darker and the telltale anvil shape of a big thunderhead began to loom overhead. We kept fishing and catching for about 45 minutes before the lightning started cracking and we had to make a dash for the car to avoid getting struck and soaked. It was very disappointing and I had thought about having another go at the creek for years. This year, we planned our vacation in Colorado again and decided we had to try once again to fish Cochetopa Creek.
This year our vacation was only six days because of another short trip in June to see family in Georgia. I had planned for us to fish some high lakes around Lake City and then spend a couple of days on Cochetopa Creek. The first high lake we hiked to outside of Lake City was Sloan Lake. The trailhead was just off of the Cinnamon Pass road.
American Basin and the small stream that is the beginning of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison
Hiking up through American Basin to Sloan Lake
The Valley Headwall of American Basin
One of the overviews I had read of the hike and lake called it “Colorado Cutthroat water”. That was a lie. The hike up through American Basin was filled with beautiful wildflowers and surrounded by high, jagged peaks, but Sloan Lake is dead. The color of the lake hinted at its sterility and I wonder if there ever were trout in it at all, even if they were planted.
They certainly had not swum up from the Lake Fork of the Gunnison because the creek was too small and there was a 25’ waterfall about half way up to the lake. Nevertheless it was beautiful.
Since I was not able to fish Sloan Lake I headed out alone in early evening to fish a somewhat hidden section of the Lake Fork of the Gunnison.
Lake Fork of the Gunnison
It was awesome and I caught numerous 6”-10” Browns and Brookies. I even kept a few of those Brookies for a nice fresh trout dinner for my wife and myself. Brook Trout (which are of course actually char) will over-populate a stream, increasing the number of fish but decreasing their size and that is what seems to have happened on this section of the Lake Fork. I did not feel the least bit guilty about keeping a few for dinner.
Brook trout caught on a Stimulator
The next day was a long, tough hike up to another high lake called Cooper Lake. The hike up to the lake was through a high, wide valley and we did not see another soul the entire day. The hike was described to be 3.7 miles each way and included an elevation gain of about 2200’.
High and lonesome; The Cooper Lake Trail and Valley
Ultimately, it was as much a climb as it was a hike. The forests in New Mexico had been closed for about a month due to extreme fire danger so I was out of shape. It was a brutal hike, but well worth it. There was a false basin which we thought was where the lake sat but we discovered we had to hike another ¾ of a mile and gain an additional 500’ before we finally made it up to the lake.
Mountains and looking down on the Cooper Lake Trail and false lake basin
Columbine, Cooper Lake Trail
This lake held trout and we saw some cruising and a few rises but we only had time for a brief lunch and rest before we had to hike back out so I did not get to fish, which was very disappointing.
Cooper Lake and Skye the Dog
Skye the Dog in Cooper Lake
We left the next day and headed for Gunnison. We spent the first half of the day around town then drove to a cabin we were staying at on an old ranch that had a small section of lower Cochetopa Creek running through the property. We fished late that afternoon for a bit on the ranch section of the creek with absolutely no success. Either the fish were extremely well educated or there were not many (if any) left due to being over-harvested by the ranch guests. For my ego I like to think the latter is true.
Finally our time to fish upper Cochetopa Creek had come. We got up and were on the creek by 10:30 but once again we could see that thunderstorms would bedevil us.
Thunderstorms brewing toward the head of Cochetopa Creek
We hiked a good ways down to the creek from the road where I hoped the fishing would be better. We had been on the creek only about 20 minutes before the lightning started and we had to retreat, again, to our car. Just as we made it back to the car the bottom fell out. Talk about frustration.
Cochetopa Creek with gathering storm clouds
So we drove back to the ranch cabin, ate lunch, and hung out for a couple of hours before the storms looked like they might be clearing up that way.
Thankfully when we arrived we found a section of the creek a little ways downstream of the storms and fished it alternately with delight for about three hours before we had to call it quits for the day.
Striking at a rise
A selection of flies for Cochetopa Creek
Casting and fireweed
The fishing was tough but we managed to catch fish. We used dries and I know we would have caught more using a dry/dropper rig but we simply wanted to fish dries so that was what we did.
I proved to myself a theory I have that even educated trout, if offered a big, juicy looking dry, often simply will not pass up the opportunity for a good meal. It was a blast watching those fish shoot up from the depths of a run or hole and slam the dry fly. The fish were bright, tough fighting wild Browns in the 7”-12” range.
The whole upper section of Cochetopa Creek is what small stream trout fishing is all about; beauty, solitude, and wild trout in wild places. As we drove past the turn off for the creek on our way home the next day all I could think about was that I wish I lived here and this could be my home water.
S. Brooks Bedwell
“I am haunted by waters.”