Driving to Heaven

A Colorado road trip can transport the driver to some remarkable fishing. All photos by Wayne D. Lewis/CPW.

“It was the best 17-hundred bucks I ever spent,” was my last response to the guy filling up his Subaru across the island at a Silverthorn gas station. We were wrapping up a quick chat about my 1991 Mazda Miata, which had gone something like this:

Subaru guy: “Nice car, do you like it?”

Me: “Yep, it’s a blast.”

SG: “Is it fast?”

Me: “Not really, but fun in the corners. And even legal speeds are much more fun with the top down.”

SG: “So more of a tourer? My dad had an old RX-7. It was a great touring car.”

Me: “Yeah, it’s like that. As they say, it’s better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. It was the best 17-hundred bucks I ever spent.”

Miata-by-Wayne-D.-Lewis-DSC_0029As midlife-crisis mobiles go, the Miata was an absolute bargain. I had bought it about two years earlier on impulse one Saturday when my body clock was rapidly ticking toward 50, but my mind was stuck at 17. Since then I have had some great short drives around town, but the trip that had taken me through Silverthorn was the longest and the best. Driving the little convertible is only part of the story — it was the How, with I-70 from Denver to Vail and back the Where, and fishing the Why.

See, Colorado has tons of great driving roads. Most weekends will find Corvettes, Mustangs, Porsches, etc. (choppers too) cruising the mountain roads that carve and snake through the canyons. My old Miata can’t match the power of the Ferraris and ’Vettes (heck, even modern minivans are faster) but the little convertible had a piece of  important equipment those cars lack — a fishing pole.

Members of FerrariChat.com and the Peak to Peak Miata club list their favorite Centennial State drives, and many of the “curvy, twisty roads full of sweepers and elevation changes” hug some of the prime angling spots in the state. A number of their top drives follow along Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) Gold Medal waters. So why not combine the two? One form of sport and recreation should not preclude another. That was my reasoning as I hit the road that Saturday morning.

Higher-than-average flows and fast water in Bear and Clear creeks would create nightmares for me with my chosen angling tactic of fly and bubble, so drives up U.S. 6 and Highway 74 would have to wait. I-70 and the lakes and ponds quick exits off the interstate made for a mellower drive and fly-fishing experience. I’ve been stuck in traffic jams when it took me more than an hour and a half to do the normally 15-minute drive between Georgetown and Idaho Springs, but when the sun is bright and the traffic light, I-70 is a gorgeous mountain cruise. If getting there is truly half the fun, then my destinations would have to offer a lot to hold up the remaining 50 percent.

First stop — Officer’s Gulch. I’ve written about Officer’s Gulch before, it’s just past Frisco, at exit 198. When you leave your vehicle at the parking lot convince yourself that the sound of I-70 traffic is the roar of a distant waterfall, and you’ll feel you’re at a much more remote and secluded mountain lake. It was early enough that I shared the shores with only two other anglers, and a woman with an extremely happy golden retriever. The lake was calm, but so, unfortunately were the resident trout. The CPW fishing report stated that catchable rainbow trout had been stocked three weeks before. The Gulch’s fish compeletly ignored the olive Woolly Bugger that had been so effective on browns the two previous weekends. I switched to a streamer — same results. One of the other fishermen was getting hits and caught his dinner on salmon eggs, but I was set on using flies and throwing bubbles. I decided to add some scenery shots to my image library only to realize that the camera’s SD card was back home on the dining table. Time to hit the road.

Curtain Ponds east of Copper Mountain offer great opportunities for trout fishing.
Curtain Ponds east of Copper Mountain offer great opportunities for trout fishing.

Just west of Officer’s Gulch, around mile marker 192, there is a scenic pull-out leading to a series of ponds I’ve wanted to fish for years. They are called the Curtain Ponds, but they’d have to wait for the return trip with the SD card in place. I take the very next exit into Copper Mountain, but a quick drive through town yields nothing open that’s selling memory cards. What the heck, time to head to Vail.

“Ooooohh, I’m driving to Heaven,

Driving to Heaven,

And there’s no way back home. . . .“

Earlier in the morning, before I hit Eisenhower Tunnel, Colorado Public Radio had faded out so I popped in an old mix CD labeled “Dinner Party” (crap, how old am I???). And as I headed up Vail Pass, the lyrics to “Driving to Heaven,” a house music track by 16B featuring Morel, became especially meaningful. The song played out, I hit repeat — a couple times.

In Vail, Ace is the place for SD cards. Then McDonald’s. Belly full, I headed to Gore Creek at the west end of town. I parked next to a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon that, if the Miata didn’t have a windsheild, I might just have been able to drive under. According to one of the signs posted by CPW, I could keep up to two trout over 16 inches, which meant I was above the catch-and-release, Gold Medal section of the creek. And knowing that Gore Creek is one of the waters in Colorado where it is possible to get a trout grand slam — rainbow, brown, brook and cutthroat — I searched from the bank for some pocket-water with high hopes of landing a lunker. One cast in the extremely fast-flowing water took my bubble and fly directly to a strand of willows. As I started untangling my setup it began to rain — hard. Frustrated, one cast is all I attempted, I took some quick photos and hit the road again heading east. Next stop, Black Lakes.

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As soon as I took the exit to the Vail Pass rest area, which is also the exit to Shrine Pass Road leading to the Black Lakes, I was swarmed by a mass migration of cyclists. Vast herds of multicolored, spandex-clad, two-wheel enthusiats blanketed the roads. I’ve driven through herds before but none of those deer, elk or bison flipped me off like one of these bicyclists did for attempting to share the same road.

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Handtied Gray Ugly flies.
Handtied Gray Ugly flies.

The Black Lakes are beautiful, but due to the bike race I could only have access to Black Lake Reservoir 1 — the road to Reservoir 2 was only open to those in spandex. A glimpse into the reservoir’s clear water through polarized lenses revealed a number of small trout cruising along the shore. Eagle River Water and Sanitation District had recently stocked the reservoirs with approximately 1,000 10- to 16-inch rainbow trout, but the ones I were seeing looked much smaller than those and were most likely resident brook, cutthroat or brown trout. They chased the streamer, then the Woolly Bugger, but no bites. So I switched to a Gray Ugly, tied for me the afternoon before by Jerry Neal, the editor of this blog. “If all else fails, this is the fly to try,” Neal said. It got a few hits, but I brought nothing to my net. It was fun fishing, but apparently the herds of bikers had attracted swarms of biting flies. Two weekends earlier, while fishing Monarch Lake from my canoe with a good buddy, I had been bitten so excessively by flies (that seem to be attracted to DEET and not repelled by it) that I had an allergic reaction. I swelled up so much from the bites that it looked like someone had taken a hammer and hit me randomly about the head and body. The top of my right hand looked like a dozen cotton balls had been stuffed under the skin. Gross. Not wanting a repeat of that, I reluctantly packed up and hit the road again.

This time I took the eastbound exit to Officer’s Gulch, but only to flip around and head back the short distance to Curtain Ponds. The ponds were formed when highway builders leveling a path for the interstate excavated rock and gravel along the route. Since then, they’ve been well-stocked with brook and rainbow trout that will rise to a fly or dart after a spinner. I stopped at the very first pond and eyed the banks. I saw only one other fishermen a football field away, so decided it’s a better spot than I anticipated. For such an easy place to access, on such a perfect day, I was surprised at how few anglers were competing for spots on the shore.

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Filling the bubble more than half with water allowed me to chuck the fly almost three-fourths of the distance across the pond, much further than I could utilizing any other method. The clear sky, bright sun and warm temps seemed to have the trout taking a midday siesta. But as soon as some of the clouds that had been following me from Vail began to shade the water, the trout began to rise and jump. Then the hits started coming. Fairly soon I had two chunky 10- to 12-inch rainbows in my fish basket, with more rainbows taking the fly every few minutes. With dinner already accounted for, I tried to photograph the next few fish as I reeled them in. Three or four trout were captured on my new memory card, but spit the fly and eluded the net. I can juggle three tennis balls (four on a good day) but apparently can’t juggle a trout, a fishing pole, a Nikon and a net. Too soon, the rain I ran from in Vail caught up with me again and ended the fun. Fishing and convertibles are far less enjoyable when it’s pouring outside.

A hard-fighting brown trout.
A hard-fighting brown trout.

Back on the east side of the tunnel, the rain stopped right before I reached what is rapidly becoming one of my favorite places to fish. Despite the often crowded shores, Georgetown Lake has something that keeps me coming back. Maybe it’s the feisty 17-inch brown that I caught the month before. I wanted to be on the road home before the mountain rush hour began so I gave myself 10 casts. After I was about halfway done, a hard-fighting brown hit the Gray Ugly. Even though it easily fit in the palm of my hand, it fought as hard or harder than the other trout did earlier. I released it, and finished up the remainder of my 10 (OK, maybe 15) casts then packed up the Miata and headed east.

On the drive home, I reflected on the driving and the casting. If the Miata is the truly “the best 17-hundred bucks I ever spent,” then the $26 I fork over each year for a fishing license isn’t very far behind. Both get me out to enjoy so much of what Colorado has to offer, and both are bargains that are extremely hard to beat.

3 Responses

  1. Mr. Lewis, thank you for your interesting comments about Officer’s Gulch. I am wondering, do you know the depth of this water? I am interested in finding a mountain scuba dive location near the highway. — joerunr@comcast.net Thanks for any help. Sometimes in the spring the water has good clarity/visibility like in early May.

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