Trout Are Not Smarter Than People, But They May Be Smarter Than Me

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The view up Cheeseman Canyon. Photo by Louis Cahill

The view up Cheeseman Canyon. Photo by Louis Cahill

I hope I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Everybody gets their ass handed to them once in a while and I’m certainly no exception. The latest installment came just last week. I was in Colorado and mentioned to a friend that I’d never fished Cheeseman Canyon, and away we went. If you were to do a quick Google search for Cheeseman Canyon you might click the first link and read this description on Colorado Fishing Reports.

“The drainage is one of the most pristine and technical in the world; if you can catch trout here you can catch them anywhere.”

That reads like some good old Colorado bravado but on closer inspection, at least the day I was there, it could be true. At least the last part. I don’t know that it’s the most pristine place I’ve ever fished but it was certainly a challenge. For six hours of fishing, I enjoyed three hookups and unbuttoned two of them for a total of one fish. It was the smallest of the three and I was happy to have him.

It’s easy to see why this place is so hard on anglers. The pressure is ridiculous. Literally, three guys fishing every run. Anglers on Colorado’s front range are used to that kind of pressure and to their credit, everyone was super polite and practiced great stream etiquette. If not for that it would have been miserable. Still, the pressure makes it very tough in a couple of ways.

It’s all but impossible to move around on the river, unless you’re just out for a good hike. You wind up camped in a couple of spots working a pod of fish who watch you like the Ferguson P.D. To its credit, the South Platte is full of fish. Quality fish at that. Pods of them in every run but it’s kind of a Mexican stand off.

The fish are as much traumatized as educated.

They have adapted to the the pressure in some interesting ways. To start with, they just don’t eat flies. That’s obvious. Many of them seem to be night feeders. I found a lot of fish sleeping during the day. Fish sleep behavior is fascinating and it’s cool to see them sleeping. If you look closely in crevices and under rocks you’ll sometimes find them. I poked one with my rod tip three times before he woke up and swam off.

Many of the fish that are awake find really tricky currents to hold in. Places where most anglers overlook them and where it’s all but impossible to get a drift. I managed to hook a nice brown holding in one of these sniddley runs but it didn’t last long. I had more success with fish who were holding super deep.

edit-3505I stared into this deep black run for about an hour and finally saw a fish flash. To get to him I ended up going to a twelve foot leader with five size BB split shot strung along the length of it. Two just above my flies and one at each blood knot on my hand-tied leader. It was not a joy to fish but it worked. I caught a ten-inch brown trout who weighed less than my rig.

Cheeseman Canyon is a beautiful place. I’m glad I went and fished there. I don’t know how long it will be before I go back. With Colorado so far away, I don’t know that it’s the place I want to spend my limited fishing time in the state. If it was closer, would I fish there more? I guess there are a couple of ways to look at it.

You could go hardcore and embrace it. Decide that you would own the place. Make it your bitch. Fish there all the time and you would, no doubt, learn a thing or two about catching educated trout. I can respect that, but I don’t know that it’s the fly fishing experience I’m looking for. Or, you could say, “To hell with it, that place sucks, that’s not real fly fishing,” and never go back. I’m sure a lot of people do.

I’m sure, in truth, is just like any other river. There are days when it’s good and days when it’s not. I spoke with a couple of regulars who said it was off the day I was there. Most of them were headed back to the car. I’m sure that within a couple of trips I’d get a handle on it and do fairly well but that’s probably not going to happen.

My fishing life has changed so much in the last ten years.

I do get to travel to some amazing places where the fishing is off the chart. I do get to see some beautiful things. There is a part of me however, that misses the days when I only fished a couple of rivers which I knew intimately. Places where I had the fish figured out and the only expectation was to get out of the damned house. Those were good times.

In the long view, I don’t think it matters if you “can catch trout anywhere.” I don’t know if it matters if you catch them at all. The river you choose to fish doesn’t matter. I think it’s better to go fishing around in your own head for a while. See what kind of fish are sleeping up there. Soak your head in some cold water for a while. If you can do that with two other guys in the run, more power to you.

You’ll always have days when the fish seem smarter than you. They are. That’s why they live in the river and we are only visit.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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15 thoughts on “Trout Are Not Smarter Than People, But They May Be Smarter Than Me

  1. I’ve always loved a good challenge. At the end of the day, it makes you a better angler. With that said, you must be willing to open your mind and learn from it. Whether you were successful that day, or not. Take it all in so that next time you can increase your chances of success. You can even go as far as taking notes so that you can better remember your prior trials and tribulations. When it all boils down to it though, experience is what will really make the biggest difference. The more time you spend on a particular piece of water, the more you will inherantly learn about the fishery and its chracteristics (weather patterns, fish activity, favorable tides and winds, and predator/prey relationships). You just have to be willing to put in the time to learn their ways, grasshopper!

  2. Cheesman is where I learned to fly fish back in the mid 90’s. Taught me stealth, persistence, accuracy and patience. The fishing back then was unbelievably good for huge rainbows and browns and the crowds of anglers had yet to ‘discover’ the place. You could backpack into the canyon and camp for a week and hardly be bothered each day. All that changed with the fire and the need to recover the vegetation and fish habitat.

  3. Yes, Cheesman is incredibly difficult. I’ve fished there a few times and had limited results. There are some good fish in there but it is incredibly technical, fishing mostly small flies down to #26.

    The pressure side of things is tough, and those fish do get educated compared to other rivers. It all relates back to Colorado’s crappy private water laws. I don’t know if you were aware, but you could’ve instead paid $100k for a membership to the Wigwam Club and fished alone in the private water directly below Cheesman with ole Dick Cheney.

    Around here a raft is the way to go, you can cover tons of water, catch fish that receive much less pressure, and really improve the overall fly fishing experience. There are those die-hard combat fishing specialists, more power to them, but I’ve grown out of that stage for the most part. It’s just a shame that all of the Denverites (I’m not one of them luckily) have limited amounts of fishable public trout water due to the laws around them.

    But if you wanna whine about it, move to Montana!

  4. I find myself in a similar situation every time I make it out of my warmwater home turf and fish the closest trout waters; they are pretty heavily fished and have some pretty weary trout. To compound the issue, I have been fishing with a local guide friend of mine on some particularly tough waters during his time off. At first, it was infuriating and after a handful of skunks, I was beginning to have a hard time justifying the time and expense involved with it all to come home with my butt handed to me every time. To say it was a humble learning experience is an understatement, but it has slowly started honing my skills and making me pay much attention to everything I’m doing on the river. My last couple trips have put a few nice trout in my hand and a few more hard-learned lessons about fighting nice trout, but the improvement has definitely been there and my confidence has taken a huge leap ta boot. Sometimes I still stand there shivering and wishing that I was bringing them in every few minutes like when I’m slayin’ the local ponds and warmwater creeks, but I am also learning to appreciate and see the payoff of the hours I’ve spent in the crucible of tough waters.

  5. It’s at least nice to hear the etiquette was good there, cause I have my doubts. Downstream through the Deckers stretch, I’ve been high holed, and overrun too many times to count. It’s quickly become a no fly zone (pun intended) for me.

  6. I fished the canyon in the spring in April…we caught 24 fish…the biggest being a 20 inch bow that came up from wigwam…we fished on a Friday and we saw a bunch of people as well…most of our fish came on a size 24 emerger….the fish are absolutely beautiful, the scenery was amazing…the further you hike in, the less people you see…I was on the Fryingpan a few weeks ago and there were 40 people in the first 3/4 mile below the dam….I was pretty pissed having traveled from Atlanta to find that many people….

    • Come to Steamboat and fish the Yampa and the Elk. Awesome fishing and much less pressure than the Roaring Fork valley

  7. I have to say, the days I come up empty, or only one small fish, I may have learned as much or more than the days I’ve gone out and hammered them one after the other. And on the days working to the end of just one fish… That one fish seems even more important, even when it’s only a seven incher.

  8. I live in Denver and have fished Cheesman off and on for over 30 years (although I don’t fish it now as much as I used to). The Canyon is notoriously unfriendly to first-time visitors. Like many rivers, you’ve got to pay heavy dues before it will lift up it’s skirt and reveal it’s secrets.From my experience, it’s hard to walk up to a new river and expect to do well.
    Also, the Canyon has changed, (and not for the better) since the Hayman Fire and the subsequent floods. Many of the good holes got filled in with the decomposed granite gravel that got washed down the river. Looking back, I hate to admit it, but the So. Platte seems to be a mere shadow of it’s former self.

  9. I used to fish the South Platte a lot in the 80’s. Chessman Canyon was one of my favorites. It was the first place that I saw anglers using the short line method, with strike indicators. I have to admit it was a very difficult and technical place to fish. I did catch some very nice trout! It suffered from the fires, but it will come back with time.

  10. i have had some success there –> Fish summer at early light (5am), nobody is there. simple nymph rig….. you might be shocked. I have had 20 inch fish hit the dry (something brown, rubber legs, no para/flashy stuff).

    that being said….. if you are going to Colorado…. go for the high mountain greenbacks (best bang for ur buck IMNSHO)

  11. Pingback: 5 Tips For Technical Tailwaters | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

  12. Hands down a superb stretch of river, however, compared to the West Branch of the Delaware, Cheeseman Canyon trout are quite easy to catch. Cheeseman Canyon trout have Undergraduate degrees, WBD have PhDs. Though I will hand it to the canyons rainbows, they jump like Marlin!

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