Private water, it holds a mystique for us all. We all want to fish it. Our imaginations run wild conjuring up images of monster fish that lurk just around the bend that is labeled “off limits”. Heck, I can look at a map and weave a wonderful fictitious tale in my head about the fish I would land in these forbidden waters. Dustin and I have heard stories of the lunker cutthroat pulled out of Goose, Island, and Silver Lakes (Protected Boulder Watershed). While the area is closed to public access, it is still open to research. Dustin and I have gazed with wonton eyes at those lakes from the “legal” trail, but have never had the courage to go down and see if the stories we had heard were true. Maybe someday the public will get to enjoy those fabled waters.
As luck would have it, our turn at once forbidden water came on July 4th. After 101 years, Colorado Spring Utilities opened up the South Slope of Pikes Peak on June 15, 2015 for low impact recreation (e.g. fishing, hiking, and cycling). For just over a century, the South Slope has been untouched, and was allowed to thrive without the impact of thousands of people. The biota of the area is truly unique, with several species only existing in this ecosystem on the south side of the Pikes Peak mastiff. Fragile fens (peat forming wetlands) and quintessential Colorado wetlands are found in the watershed. Sub alpine and Engelmann spruce forests dominate the landscape above the reservoirs. Only two reservoirs are currently open to fishing, Mason and McReynolds. Mason is only accessible by shore, while McReynolds allows non-motorized boats. Stream fishing is prohibited. According to the person I spoke with on the phone today, McReynolds does not have a good population of cutthroat trout, and more stocking will occur this fall. Only one trail, the Mason Trail, is open. This provides a 9.25 mile RT hike ranging from 10,000 to over 12,000’ in elevation. In total, the watershed contains over 9,000 acres, meaning the public has access to only a small sliver. However, more openings and recreational opportunities are planned in the future. I hope access to the “Seven Lakes”, which are natural glacial lakes, will eventually be allowed. It must be noted that at any time Colorado Springs Utilities can rescind access to the public. It is important to practice Leave No Trace principles while recreating here, and anywhere for that matter, to keep the opportunity to enjoy the South Slope open for years to come.
Thanks to our friend Jen, we were able to score a permit. As we pulled up to the locked gate, I got that feeling in my stomach before you are about to do something taboo. It was exhilarating. I do believe Jen and Zach felt the same. Zach’s excitement surpassed everyone’s, and truly set the tone for the entire day. At just prior to 7:30 the ranger came and open the gates. After a briefing on the rules and regulations, we were granted entrance. A gravel road takes you to the parking lot of McReynolds Reservoir. There are vault toilets and a nice shelter house with quite a few picnic tables. Parking is limited, which is why there are only 15 permits available per day.
Based on the information gained from the ranger, we decided to make the 1.25 mile hike to Mason. While on the trail we met a gentleman that had fished Mason the day before. He said it was fishing like he had never experienced. One fish after another, he reported. We hoped since our trip occurred so early in the season, these long protected cutthroat would still be naïve to a fly. His story seemed to validate our hopes.
The trail to the fishing peninsula is easy to follow, and there is very little elevation gain. For most of the hike, you can see America’s Mountain winking at you above the trees. Once at Mason Reservoir, you can see the fisherman’s trails to the water. Reports of difficult access didn’t seem to be accurate on this day, but I could see how that would be true when the water is higher. We decided to begin on the fishing peninsula. Wind whipped out of the Northeast, and white caps slammed the shore. Jen and Zach set up just around the corner, where they received a break from the wind. Not a huge break, but enough to get a decent cast in.
While I snapped photos, and tended to Drake, everyone caught fish. It wasn’t non-stop action like we had heard about, but enough to keep everyone casting. The wind made things a bit tough, and Zach and Jen left to go scout out other areas. Dustin and I decided to tough it out for a little while longer, but eventually abandoned the peninsula to seek out fishier waters. In order to get near the inlet, you have to descend a steep bank. No one in our group struggled, but I wouldn’t recommend it for younger children or those not familiar with hiking at elevation.
This descent led us to the honey hole. Zach and Jen nailed the perfect location. When I say at least one of us was catching a fish at a time, I mean it. As soon as one of us released a fish, it seemed another one of us had one on. I think we had more than one triple, and maybe a quadruple. Fishing was good. It was better than good; it was a day that stories are made about. The heavens were open and the angels were singing, if you will. Everything we threw caught at least one fish; Zach even caught one on a fancy pattern of his own design. The ample beach space at each spot made it a dream for Drake, and for taking photos.
You would think Dustin and I would be doing flips and dances at our success. The fish were all good size and healthy; not only that, they were feisty and inhaled our flies, instead of the usual cutthroat sip. Instead, we reeled them in with little fanfare, occasionally throwing in a compliment or a smile. What happened to us? Did we become complacent?! Oh the horror! Then, enter Zach. This is the most excitable person I have ever fished with. Every fish he caught was celebrated. I turned to Dustin and said, “That used to be us. We have to get that back!” I am not sure if it is because now we can’t focus on fishing due to the star of the show being Drake, or if we just have become spoiled. Either way, I wanted to bottle Zach’s child-like enthusiasm and drink it before every trip. He was a breath of fresh air, and it was awesome to watch him and Jen interact and be so thrilled with the day. Watching them was like stepping back in time to the pre-mommy and daddy days. It served as a bit of a reality check, one that was long overdue and welcome.
Morning winds blew in afternoon showers, and the thunder told us it was time to exit. We weren’t quite quick enough to beat the storm; we got a little wet on the way back to the car, but my soggy pants were a small price to pay for the absolutely stellar day on the water. What a great way to celebrate the Fourth of the July, my favorite holiday.
Our friend, Jen, who helped us gain access to this area, is also a Tenkara Fishing Guide with (719) Fly. Contact her for your turn on the South Slope, or other private waters throughout Colorado. www.facebook.com/flyfishjen
Just the Facts:
Trip Date: 07/04/2015
Location: Mason Reservoir, South Slope Recreation Area, Colorado Springs
Special regulations: Permit required; 15 permits sold per day, must pre-order. Hours of recreation, 7:30 AM to 2:00 PM. No dogs allowed. https://parks.coloradosprings.gov/explore-play/explore/open-spaces/south-slope-recreation-area
Fishing regulations: Flies and Artificial lures; no live or scented bait. McReynolds Reservoir is catch and release only. Mason Reservoir has a 1 fish bag limit with a 16” or less size restriction.
Snow Depth: None Encountered
RT mileage: 3.5 (it is only 2.5 RT to the fishing peninsula)
Elevation gain: Minimal
Successful flies: Hot Spot Caddis, Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, Renegade. Jen fished Tenkara all day, and caught just as many as the rest of us.
Species: Cutthroat trout and cutthroat/rainbow hybrid
Until next time,