Cheeseman canyon of the South Platte River has always been a special place to fish. Maybe it’s the trophy trout waiting to violently annihilate a hopper on 6X tippet, or maybe it’s the deep canyon walls of the Narrows that eerily engulfs a man. Perhaps it’s the precise command of the drift an angler must have to fool such piscatorial intelligence. Whatever the case may be, I’ve always enjoyed fishing Cheeseman. I’ve felt, and still do feel, the only proper way to fish that canyon was by way of the midge. After all, any man who claims competence in the art of fly fishing for trout must use a midge. I recall many occasions fishing with light tippet and small midges in the canyon and hooking up with many trout. The trick is to land them quickly before they take off down river with the current leaving you with a couple of busted knuckles and your drag screaming like a school girl. Master this and you will do well in this fishery. Of all the trips I have made to Cheeseman, one stands alone.
I worked at an archery shop through the first half of college, and the owner’s son and I used to fish Cheeseman quite often together. I believe it was a Tuesday, and it was already lining up to be a slow week at both school and the archery shop. After a brief discussion, we had decided to do an overnighter in the canyon. We had plans to leave Friday and return on Sunday night which would give two solid days of fishing. The rest of the week was spent tying flies, checking weather and flow reports, and gathering our necessary gear. Finally, Friday rolled around. We buttoned up the archery shop, and we were off for the weekend not scheduled to return until sometime Sunday evening. We spent the two and a half hour drive talking about the typical stuff and trying to decide where would be the ideal site to set up camp for the weekend. What we didn’t notice was the closer we got to the canyon the darker the sky became with rain clouds. No sooner than reaching the pull off to the trailhead it started to rain. We sat in the S10 for a while as if trying to will the rain away. After we surrendered to the idea of a wet hike we gathered our packs and headed out. Fortunately, we packed our rain gear despite the forecast for the weekend. The hike in was slow and slippery. The look on both our faces seemed to say “I hope this isn’t how the whole weekend is going to go.” We lost track of time but finally reached the drop in point above a section of the river called the Family Pool. Tired and wet, we decided to head down to find a spot to set up camp. Finding flat ground in a canyon always proves to be tricky. After all, it is a canyon. We set up camp about a half mile up river from the Family Pool in what appeared to be the flattest spot around. That has been the only time in my life that I have been able to pitch a tent in pouring rain without allowing a single drop inside (there must be a Boy Scout badge for that). By the time we dried off and ate dinner the rain had stopped. Being the first real opportunity to fish, we decided to head down to the Family Pool after the sun set to chase some of the monster browns that came out to hunt at night. So we both slipped into our waders, rigged up our rods, and headed down to our spot – in the dark.
It was early enough in the year that it was still quite brisk at night. I managed to find some dry firewood and start a small camp fire in a pit by the river that we always used. We took turns fishing. One would fish while the other would warm up by the fire and rummage through a fly box as if to find some magical fly that all trout couldn’t resist. I had tied on some God awful fly that looked like a rabbit was knocked out and unwillingly tied to a hook. To this day I am ashamed to admit that I thought that fly resembled any life form seen on this planet, but I was convinced the trout would think otherwise. We fished for several hours before calling it quits. We gathered our gear, made sure the fire was out, and headed to the steep trail that led up river. I was pulling up the rear with my buddy in front of me. My buddy’s dog, Sage, was leading the way. I guess we both were exhausted on the hike back because nothing was said between the two of us. All we heard was the roar of the river and the dog’s rhythmic panting. We managed to climb half way up the trail to the portion littered with Volkswagen sized boulders. It was at that point Sage stopped a let out a growl from that neither of us had ever heard before. Tired and confused I looked at my buddy as if he knew what was happening. Sage began to slowly back up, never taking her eyes off the boulder ahead. Every inch of her blackened mane was standing on end. I looked up just in time to see a pair of eerie, golden eyes tracking us. It is always wise to carry a firearm when running around in the Rocky Mountains, but on this trip we were armed only with canyon pebbles. So I did the only thing I could think of at the moment. I reached down and grabbed a rock (in my defense it was a really sharp rock). As I stood back up, I caught the eyes jumping from boulder to boulder then up the hill and out of sight. We sat there for a moment to reassure ourselves that whatever had been watching us all evening had enough time to clear the area because our camp was in the direction it ran. We finally made it back to camp.
I woke up early the next morning to rising trout and bluebird skies. The flow in the river had died off during the night to a pleasant 220 cfs. I immediately tied on a hopper imitation and flicked the bug behind a boulder literally feet from our tent. The fly had barely hit the water when a solid 20 inch rainbow trout obliterated it. That fish exploding on my fly the way it did scared the crap out of me, and luckily my knee jerk reaction somehow set the hook. That was the first fish of many for the morning. After breakfast we decided to head down and fish the lower stretch of the Family Pool; that stretch always seemed to hold fish. The hike was easier than the night before on the account we were well rested and anxious to start fishing again. We hadn’t really given any thought to what had happened the night before until we made it to the boulder portion of the trail. I was in shock to see the boulders that the “eyes” jumped were easily 10 to 12 feet apart and easily 10 to 12 feet off the ground. We both were thinking the same thing, but I was too afraid to say it as if mentioning it would summon it out of the woods and chase us down the canyon. Not too far away we picked up the trail we had gone down the night before. Our footprints from the night before were still in the loose dirt on the trail, but next to ours were the footprints of a cougar. They matched our stride step for step until half way down to the river where I am assuming it perched itself on the boulders to watch us fish. We continued to fish the rest of the day with our head on a swivel, constantly looking over our shoulders for the cat. That trip was one of the best fishing trips I have had in Cheeseman, and by far the most memorable. That has been the only time (that I’m aware of) that I have been stalked by a cougar. To this day the thought of being stalked makes me piss my waders – almost.