The legend lives
By Ernie Schwiebert
James Poor was an
expert fisherman. Poor operated the principal fly-fishing shop
in the Denver metropolitan region some twenty-odd years ago, and
was also a famous Colorado fly maker. His durable commercial
patterns included a generic stonefly nymph dressed with lengths
of lead fuse wire seated on both sides of the hook shank with
working thread and cement to form slightly flattened bodies.
Poor dressed his short tails of coastal deer hair, and used the
same material to shape a well-humped pair of wing cases with
legs of soft grizzly saddle barbules wound through the thorax.
These nymphs were dressed in three sizes, and when I asked the
veteran fly maker about the naturals he had imitated, Poor
confessed that he did not know.
But he had caught enough
fish on such imitations in the narrow defile of the South Platte
near Deckers, in the early season, and in other watersheds of
the Front Range like the Big Thompson, Saint Vrain, and Cache la
Poudre to know that these nymphs were important in these
watersheds of Colorado.
Some of their popular
success was attributed to their lead fuse wire, which fished
these nymphs deeper than conventionally dressed patterns, but in
size 10 with a 3X long shank they were a workable imitation of
Taeniopteryx occidentalis. And dressed in sizes 4 and 8, with
hook shanks 3X long, they imitated the Pteronarcys princeps
nymphs plentiful in the South Platte.
My imitation is adapted
from those early stonefly patterns tied and sold in Poor’s
little shop at Littleton, between the center of Denver and the
Deckers Canyon water on the South Platte, which still offers
fishing despite its proximity to more than a million people.
Such western tailwaters are open to fishing throughout the year,
which has introduced Colorado anglers to midwinter hatches they
never encountered before because the trout season was always
closed. Anglers familiar with the tailwaters below Grand Lake,
on such private ranches as Sheriff’s and Chimney Rock, have
fished Pteronarcys imitations throughout the winter with great
success. Other popular tailwater fisheries in Colorado include
the Eleven Mile Canyon on the South Platte, the Blue near
Breckinridge, the famous Frying Pan at Basalt, the pretty Taylor
above Gunnison, the Gunnison itself below the Black Canyon near
Delta, the San Miguel below Telluride, and the sagebrush and
piņon reaches of the Dolores near Cortez. Edison Engle knows
these southwestern rivers, including the Rio de las Animas
Perdidas, which once surrendered the record Colorado brown trout
at Durango. Most fishermen simply call it the Animas, unaware of
its Spanish heritage, andof the venerable meaning of its
historic colonial name.
“We’re lost souls all
right,” Poor once observed. “And that’s what the full name of
the Animas means—but the Dolores was once the Rio de Nuestra
Madre de los Dolores, and all the fishing widows around here
believe Our Lady of the Sorrows has got the fishing around
Cortez and Durango about right.”
Poor and I had a
memorable encounter with these large Pteronarcys nymphs. We were
on the headwaters of the South Platte near Hartsel, on the
McDannald Ranch in southeastern corner of South Park, when Poor
introduced me to his weighted stonefly nymphs, and I happily
added a dozen to my sheepskin fly book. The flies were
flat-bodied and heavily weighted, and I bounced one in my palm,
a bit surprised at its heft.
Our party included
Martin Bovey, Michael Owen, Peter Van Gytenbeek, Leigh Perkins,
Philip Wright, Donald Zahner, and Charles Meyers, the popular
new fishing columnist for The Denver Post—a group providing
plenty of good talk and colorful storytelling on that spring
weekend. Such men would all become much better known in
fly-fishing circles in the years to come. There was fresh snow
on the Mosquito Range, which shelters the Pleistocene bottoms of
South Park, between the old mining camp at Fairplay and Trout
Creek Pass, and they were still storing water at Antero. The
impoundment at Spinney still lay in the future. Morning sun
glittered on the immense riffled length of the Eleven Mile
impoundment downstream, although spring storms obscured the
snowfields at the summit of Pike's Peak.
I had fished Eleven Mile
in the years that I was involved with design and construction of
the United States Air Force Academy, and had first crossed South
Park with my parents, bound for a family-owned ranch near Malta.
But on this visit to Hartsel, I had just been a speaker at a
banquet held by Trout Unlimited at the venerable Brown Palace
Hotel in Denver, and Bovey was retiring as its second national
president. Owen had succeeded Bovey, with TU headquarters moving
to Denver, and Van Gytenbeek would lead TU in the future. Wright
still lived in Aspen, where he owned the Aspen Country Store,
and was a national director of TU. He would later pull up stakes
for Montana and start his Compleat Angler on the Big Hole at
Wise River. Perkins had recently purchased the C. F. Orvis
company of Vermont from Clark “Duckie” Corkran and his financial
partner, Bert Akrell. Zahner still lived in Saint Louis, laying
out a fledgling magazine called Fly Fisherman on the kitchen
table, although he would subsequently move its operations to
Vermont. Myers still writes for The Denver Post, but largely
about skiing and ski resorts and exotic travel. The venerable
railroad hotel at Hartsel is still there.
Wright and I fished
together the first morning, where the little South Platte winds
through cordgrass bottoms toward Eleven Mile. There was a
migration of spawning rainbows from Eleven Mile that spring.
Good fish were holding in the shallow riffles between pools, and
many were already shaping their redds. We saw a few Baetisflies
emerging, from time to time, but the big rainbows had largely
Some winter stoneflies
were also hatching, but I saw only a single splashy rise, as a
large rainbow attempted to capture one of the fluttering adults.
Clearly the fish were seeing good numbers of nymphs because
several took our flies with a surprising aggressiveness. The
pattern that proved most effective was Poor’s generic stonefly
nymph, dressed in a size 10 with a 3X long shank. We caught and
released a dozen handsome rainbows between fifteen and twenty
inches. It was a good morning’s work, and we were satisfied as
we broke for lunch.
Several others had
experienced good fishing too, and we were not the only anglers
late for lunch, according to the cook’s schedule. But somebody
suggested the little hotel at Hartsel, and we were off in a
small three-car caravan, trailing rooster tails of chalky talcum,
until we reached the main gate. The highway led straight west
through the immense hay fields and meadows, along the roadbed of
the abandoned Colorado & Midland. Its old right-of-way led
toward the only settlement in the middle of South Park.
I wondered about what
the country must have been like when free trappers like Ceran
Saint-Vrain, Christopher Carson, and William Bent first explored
the lushness of its grassy Eden. Elk, buffalo, and antelope had
shared the unfenced riches, and their plenty sustained a
population of grizzlies and wolves. The immense alpine basin was
once a volcanic caldera, before its fumaroles and fissures were
drowned in the postglacial melt of its vast Pleistocene shallows,
but there were echoes of volcanism.
Hartsel is sheltered
from its unceasing winds in a cluster of theatrical batholiths
and outcroppings that rise from the emptiness of the South Park,
and high winds are not uncommon in its treeless amphitheater.
Scattered ponderosas were also found in such sheltered places.
The South Platte wound through a narrow S-shaped defile in these
curious formations. The forgotten roadbed of the Colorado &
Midland Railroad, which once reached almost straight across the
South Park toward Trout Creek Pass, maintained a water stop and
small train-crew hotel at Hartsel. Its service connected
Colorado Springs with Buena Vista, before climbing north toward
the rich silver strikes at Leadville and Aspen.
James Hagerman was a man
who had bold dreams for the unpretentious water stop on the
South Platte, where he had located a small hotel to feed his
passengers and to house his train crews and maintenance workers.
Hagerman envisioned a great gingerbread hotel beside the hot
springs, with a glorious view back toward Pike’s Peak. But when
the railroad ceased its operations shortly after the First World
War, Hagerman’s dream of a major hot springs resort died too,
and his little hotel at Hartsel was shuttered and closed. It
later became a house of ill repute for the cowpunchers of the
It is still the only
saloon for more than fifty miles in any direction, and the
proprietor was more than willing to make us lunch in the middle
of the afternoon. Nobody planned to fish until evening. One of
the patrons at the hotel bar, an old cowboy, became quite
curious about us out-of-towners, and that eventually set off the
“You boys been fishing?”
the cowboy asked. “We’re fishing the Cap McDannald Ranch,”
Wright said. “Had a pretty good morning.” “You boys famous or
something?” “What makes you think so? “Well, ain’t many folks
get to fish the McDannald,” the veteran cowboy said. “So you
boys must be famous.” “Not really,” Wright said. “Well, since
you boys are such big-time fishermen,” the bartender chimed in,
“why don’t you catch the big trout in the bend at the highway
bridge?” “Got a big fish there?” Wright asked. “Pretty big,” he
I was not part of the
exchange, as I sat quietly nursing a beer, but Zahner and Wright
volunteered me. They badgered me for shaking my head and
refusing the bartender’s challenge. It was a bright afternoon
with no wind, and any fish facing the current was probably
looking directly into its increasing glare. I had just eaten
lunch, with two bottles of beer and an enormous serving of fried
potatoes, and was contemplating a nap. But the talk soon became
a clamor, and there was no backing down.
Zahner later described
the challenge in the anthology Anglish Spoken Here, which
recounts the events that followed with hyperbole and poetic
brio. The crowd that followed me to the bridge was described as
a hundred onlookers, when there were only five or six. I rigged
my tackle with the caveat that no one had ever caught a big
trout in a chalk stream like the upper South Platte under such
unlikely conditions. Zahner pictured the trout as a
seven-pounder in this outrageous tale, which added a literary
thumb to the scale, and he reported that the fish was rising. He
added another fairy tale about dressing an imitation while lying
in the grass beside the bend where the brute had staked its
claim. The only truth in his account was the fact that I stalked
the fish on my knees before I was in casting range, but the fly
was one of Poor’s big nymphs.
I knew there could be
only one cast, in the smooth currents of that glassy bend, where
the tangled jam of bleached logs filled the emerald depths of
the bend. The whole thing seemed like a snipe hunt. Who knew if
the big trout actually existed? Arnold Gingrich once observed
that the best fishing is always found in books and saloons, and
such stories were three-o’clock-in-the-morning myths.
But I tested the length
of the cast over the grassy promontory, keeping the traveling
line well away from the pool, and moved into casting position.
The primary current eddied deep into the logs, and there were no
more credible excuses.
The audience stood
watching at the bridge, about a hundred feet upstream, but there
was a large sagebrush hillock behind them so they were not
silhouetted against the afternoon sky.
I studied the pool a bit
more, and decided to end the entire charade. The weighted nymph
would arrive with a noticeable plop, and I decided to place it
upstream, mending as it settled into a patient drift along the
The tactics worked and
the nymph dropped on target. I rolled two or three subtle mends,
watching the tip of the line, as the drift worked into the
shelving throat of the pool. It seemed obvious that a trophy
trout might have the entire bend to itself, and would hold and
feed there. Nothing yet. I was worried that the fly might hang
up on some shadowy snag, and when the line bellied tight, I was
sure the worst had happened. The nymph seemed like it was fouled
in the deadfall, and there was a sense of being hopelessly hung
up, until the unseen snag appeared to move upstream.
yelled. “I don’t think so,” I shouted back over my shoulder.
“I’m into something, and it feels pretty strong.” “The big brown?”
“Can’t tell yet.”
The fish inexplicably
moved farther upstream, away from its threatening deadfalls, and
its struggles near the shelving throat of the pool erupted in a
heavy splash. I had my first glimpse of the fish. It was a brown
trout and it was large.
“You’re not going to
believe this,” I yelled over my shoulder, “but I’m into the fish!”
“You’re joking,” Meyers shouted. “No, I’m not.”
The crowd on the bridge
erupted like a platoon on liberty. They swarmed down from the
highway, and came whooping and yelling over the fence. Zahner
tore his good twill trousers. The fish soon surrendered much of
its initial strength in mindless splashings above the pool, and
when it finally attempted to reach its sanctuary under the logs,
I was able to check its efforts. It had sensed the arrival of an
audience, and seemed to get a second wind that spelled trouble.
I waved the crowd off, and stayed on my knees, hoping to wear
the fish down before it finally saw me. Patient lateral pressure
held the big trout away from the drowned tree, and I finally
worked it back into open water, where it bulldogged deep and
shook its head. But its wild strength was nearly spent.
I slipped carefully into
the smooth tail shallows, and unhooked the net lanyard from the
collar ring behind my neck. I wetted the net meshes until they
popped and blossomed. Meyers was taking pictures now, but the
fish surrendered after one more half-hearted run, and it slipped
into the meshes of the net. Its head was pinioned deep in the
crown of the landing net, and its spotted tail waved with
fatigue, well above the wooden net frame.
“Get a tape measure and a scale!”
Zahner yelled out. “Hold him up for posterity,” Meyers said,
taking our portrait. “What do you think he’ll measure?”
“Twenty-three inches,” I said, a guess. “Look at his girth,”
Wright said, leaning over my shoulder. “Should go five or six
The tape measure
confirmed our estimates. We weighed both net and fish without
taking it from the meshes, and then I lowered the big trout
gently in the quiet shallows, facing its head into the current.
Its eyes were still rolled down, well away from the light, and
its big gill covers were working steadily. Zahner weighed the
net without the fish, and confirmed its weight at slightly
better than five pounds. Its strength was returning, with no
trace of unsteadiness, and it finally bolted off with an
“Great story,” Meyers
said, rewinding the film. “What were the odds on pulling this
gambit off?” “Pretty thin,” I said.
Both black and
bitter-chocolate imitations may prove necessary in the imitation
of the Pteronarcella nymphs, depending on their palette of color
in a particular stream. My longtime friend Randall Kaufmann, of
Oregon, dresses a simple and effective Pteronarcella imitation
in both colors that he has christened the Simulator. I have
preferred a more specific dressing through the years.
The western species
called Calineuria californica is handsome and important, and
measures as much as 38 millimeters in length. Its large nymphs
are the most common and abundant of their kind in the rivers of
the Pacific Northwest, and their zoogeography also includes most
of the Rocky Mountains. These stoneflies may commence hatching
in late April, in the coastal streams of northern California.
Hatches occur sporadically until midsummer, but most are found
toward the last weeks of June.