Mancation: North Platte Edition
Four hours and ten minutes on the nose. That’s what it takes to get from DIA to the northwest territory of Colorado, assuming you drive somewhere near the suggested maximum speed. OK, some folks also refer to this area as Alcova WY, but based on the number of centennial state visitors it receives annually, we’re pretty sure it will be annexed into Colorado within the next twenty years. All kidding aside, this last weekend was the latest installment of my annual trip to the famed grey reef and general north platte river system that flows through Alcova.
Joining me as usual was my neighbor Ryan, and my good friend from Minnesota, Justin. It turns out that Justin’s flight schedule was perfect, as he touched down in Denver at 7:45 on Thursday morning and didn’t fly back out until 8:30 on Sunday night. Just the right amount of time to get some serious exploring in and be able to call this trip a “mancation”. Copious amounts of meat, whiskey and junk food were already packed into the 4Runner and as soon as Justin received his bags, we pointed her north and hit the gas.
On arrival we stopped at The Reef Fly Shop to check in so we could dump our excess gear and have some room to actually get to our fly fishing gear. If you’re looking for a great lodging option right in Alcova, I can’t say enough good things about the cottages that The Reef Fly Shop built a few years ago. Yes, there are a couple of cheaper options in Alcova, but those have seen years and years of anglers and you’ll be getting what you pay for. Staying in Casper is also an option, but personally I hate having to drive all the way back there after a hard day of fishing. I’d rather spend the money I would put into the tank on nice lodging, footsteps from where I plan on fishing. The crew at The Reef are always great about sharing what’s hot and they have a great selection of local flies appropriate for the North Platte.
As the excitement built we quickly jumped into our waders and headed for the Reef. We were pleasantly surprised to see only a few anglers milling about, so we each grabbed a riffle and immediately started to hook up. A solid midge hatch was in progress, so an attractor fly such as a Deep Purple annelid trailed by some type of emerging midge was getting the job done. As the day wore on, more and more anglers started showing up, and by late afternoon, every hole was occupied, which kind of surprised us for a weekday. As the light started to fade we headed to the Alcova afterbay to look down over the bridge and see how many fish had moved onto spawning redds. As expected, there were some fish, but not the hoards that we typically see in a few weeks. A good sign that we were still in pre-spawn staging mode, and fish would be willing to play and just starting to get aggressive. We moved well downstream of the spawning redds so the fish that were already spawning could quietly do their thing and put a handful of fish in the net before retiring back to the cottage for some giant cowboy burgers on the grill.
The next morning we decided that we wanted to see some new water, so we headed down to the meadows above Fremont Canyon. The minute the sun hit the water, midges started popping and were thick all day long. On my second cast I hooked into a great brown, which at this time of year is always a nice surprise, as the rainbows dominate the river system. The temps quickly climbed and it turned out to be one of the nicest days I’ve ever experienced weather-wise in Wyoming. No wind, cloudless skies, and a continuous stream of fish coming to net. Egg patterns were reliably getting noticed, but it was midge patterns that seemed to make fish the most grabby. With the off-color water of the canyon, a bright orange or pink zebra midge variation seemed to get their attention and was a hot pattern all day. Size 12-14 purple annelids also took their share of fish. To our surprise there was very little surface activity. A few risers here and there, but considering how many midges were buzzing around and drifting on the water, the fish just seemed to be content on picking them off lower in the water column.
My rig for the day consisted of an egg or annelid on point, with one of the bright zebra midges trailed behind and then sometimes I would also trail an emerger like a Dorsey’s top secret, Black Beauty, or Ed’s Tungsten Emerger behind that. One piece of equipment that I feel was critical to success was the New Zealand Strike Indicator. With fairly shallow water, fish would spook easily, so you had to cast from a ways out. By using a micro wool indicator, I could get the flies in front of the fish without spooking them, and there was no “plop” like you see from some of the indicator types. Plus they are uber sensitive, and many times the takes on the midge patterns were pretty subtle, but the NZ indicator always betrayed the take. After a full day of putting fish in the net and plenty of high fives, we returned to the cottage with big smiles. After eating more meat than is recommended, we anxiously awaited the late arrival of FRA head guide Bryce and his good friend Brian. I’m sure we sounded like a three year old trying to get their parents’ attention as we tried to describe how good of a day we had, and shared stories of the ones that didn’t quite make it to the bottom of the net.
On Saturday morning we were expecting big crowds due to the nice weather forecast, so we opted to put packs on (the Umpqua Surveyor 1100 works great for this by the way) and jumped into Fremont Canyon to do a full day of exploring. As the forecast predicted, the Wyoming wind picked up quickly, and at a good pace, but wasn’t quite strong enough to make casting impossible. The midge hatch got going early again, and similar rigs as the day before started pulling fish. Throughout the weekend we used 5X exclusively with no trouble. Fishing in the canyon is truly an amazing experience, with gorgeous shear granite walls that plummet right into the water. By the end of the day we had explored a solid portion of the canyon, fishing pool to pool and pulling fish from all the likely looking runs. The best part was that we only saw one other angler outside of our group, so our strategy of going the hard route paid off. I’m not going to lie though, all of us were moaning and groaning back at the cottage about how sore we were from rock hopping all day. It’s kind of like that good sore feeling you get after a solid workout. It’s a sore we were glad to have. The whiskey flowed easily that evening as we recounted the days fish, and came up with a strategy for our final day.
Sunday we were greeted by what locals would call “typical” Wyoming weather. A warm day all in all, but 35-40mph winds that always seemed to be in our face. We started out back in the afterbay, but after an hour or two and only a couple of hookups, we decided to move on back to the Reef. When we arrived it was busy as expected, but within a half-hour it seemed like people were either fed up with the wind, or needed to get on the road to head home. Either way, we quickly had the place virtually to ourselves. The fish seemed to be on the egg bite, and we quickly had a dozen fish to the net throughout our group. Another pattern that pulled it’s weight was a hot head sowbug. It’s always good to experiment and switch up your rig. Sometimes you’ll be surprised.As the one o’clock hour approached we started packing up so Justin could make his flight. It was a mancation that consisted of everything that you’d expect to make it successful. Good food, fishing, whiskey and great company. If you are looking for someplace that you can get into loads of 16-20 inch fish with the very real possibility of tagging a true donkey, give the North Platte system a look between now and late April.
Photo credit: Western Sky Studios and Erik Myhre