High Lonesome Ranch

High Lonesome Ranch

De Beque, Colorado

  • By: John Gierach
The inappropriately named Dry Fork is in a valley in the juniper/pinion/sage country of the Roan Plateau on Colorado's west slope and it's alive with good springs. (I like to think the name was an attempt at camouflage in pioneer days. Those old timers weren't above a little misdirection.) But left to its own devices, the creek would be only marginally fishable. Fortunately, the owners of High Lonesome Ranch in De Beque, Colorado, have managed it with fly-fishing in mind.

I'm told that at one time this was a regular stream, but that short-sighted irrigation practices by previous ranch owners dropped the water table. Now there are places where it goes completely underground and even where it's at the surface it's often too small, too shallow, too brush-choked or too marshy to support much of a trout population. Consequently, the fishery has been enhanced using both conventional and innovative techniques.

In a stretch of about 10 or 11 miles of valley, there are eight off-channel spring ponds and a few other small reservoirs on the creek itself, but some of the most interesting fishing is in the beaver ponds in between, which are natural-in a way.

When a place where a pond should, or could, be located is identified, the ranch managers don't go in with heavy equipment as most would be tempted to do. Instead, they let loose beavers and then leave them alone to do what they do best-build dams. The downside is that you can't exactly aim a beaver, while the up side is that a beaver knows more about the precise placement of dams than any human and it doesn't need access roads.

Of course, there's some stocking-mostly rainbows, some browns and the odd brook trout and cutthroat-but by now it's mostly supplemental and done with an eye toward holdovers and natural reproduction. In several days of fishing, my partner Doug Powell and I were never able to tell from their condition, coloring or fight whether a trout was born there or stocked and gone wild, although you have to think the biggest fish have been in the water for a few years, regardless of where they came form. The lush aquatic vegetation, bugs and baitfish are what you'd expect from spring-fed ponds and the more or less uniform water temperatures extend the growing season, so trout bulk up quickly and even the biggest have plenty to eat.

Buzz Cox, the ranch manager, calls the fishery a "stillwater spring creek," which is a puzzling description until you see it, at which point it makes perfect sense.

There are currently about 80 beaver ponds in the valley-more than you'd ever guess. In some aerial photos Buzz showed me, they didn't exactly look like a loose string of odd-shaped pearls, but that's the best analogy I can think of. On the ground, many are so well hidden that you'd never find them if you didn't know they were there. And once found, some could be all but impossible to fish. It's an ongoing project, as they say.

Doug and I fished for two and a half days and we're both what I'll call experienced fly fishermen, if not exactly among the best. We were also fishing with Mark Weaver, one of the ranch's regular guides. Mark had the kind of light touch that can leave you at the end of the day thinking you did it all yourself, even when you didn't.

Our smallest trout were around 10 inches and there weren't a lot of them. Our two biggest were 7 and 8 pounds and there weren't a lot of them, either. A few other real big ones were hooked, but not landed. If I had to call an average size, I'd put it between 18 and 20 inches, but then you remember the big ones more vividly than you do the smaller ones. I've actually tried my best not to make the sport about size alone, but big fish are still pretty compelling. If nothing else, they're rare even in good water and they test everything from your tackle to your nerves.

Some ponds at High Lonesome are manicured to the extent that you can walk the bank easily and have a clear cast. If that's too civilized for your taste, you can also find yourself standing in ankle-deep muck surrounded by shoulder-high brush that tangles your loose line and snags your backcast as you try to make a flawless delivery to a big cruiser in clear, shallow water. This doesn't always work out the way you would hope. As always, the better you are at casting and playing fish, the better you'll do, but there are places here where a novice with a casting lesson under his belt and a little coaching could probably get into some nice trout.

They said the fishery here is immune to both runoff and hot weather, and although we didn't exactly plan it as a test, Doug and I arrived in the last week of June when the daytime temperatures were pushing 100 degrees and the streams back home on the East Slope were running too high to fish.

It was possible to get dehydrated in the bright sun and heat, the deer flies could be bad, and there was a slow spell in early afternoon when it was all we could do to get the odd trout to eat a size 16 Flying Ant, but the water was cool and clear and even in marginal conditions the fishing was good, as advertised. Now and then we'd end up dredging a streamer in deep water, but for the most part we were sight-fishing to cruising trout and could clearly see the take, the refusal or the panicked flush.

If you're like me, you'll go to a place like this for the fishing and everything else will be secondary, but I should say that the place is well-run and the rooms and food are both better than most of us need or expect. Especially the food. I'm lean by nature and have been known to lose weight on a fishing trip, but not this time.

John Gierach writes our "Sporting Life" column.