Upper Cheesman and the Hike from Hell

7 minute read

Another trip to Cheesman Canyon with the office crew plus a friend we met in the parking lot of Flies & Lies fly shop. We had a few delays getting to the river, and when we got to the lower parking lot it was already about a quarter full. We made the decision to drive to the upper lot and hike to the reservoir side of Cheesman.

The hike in from the upper lot is about 40 minutes, and most of it is a switchback decent through light brush and dirt trails. I didn’t have my altimeter on, but I’d guess there is about 600-700 feet of elevation change from the parking lot to the river’s edge. Due to the long hike and the warmer temperatures, I decided to hike in with shorts and my wading boots, and pack my waders. This was a great choice, as I was able to temperature regulate much better, and getting my gear on next to the river took no time at all.

Admittedly, since this was my first time at Upper Cheesman, I’m not 100% confident that the places I fished are the places I’m going to name below. I’m basing this on the map from my previous post, and where I think I may have been on the river. If I’ve made a mistake - don’t hold me to it.

The Spots

Cat’s Crossing

We started the morning at Cat’s Crossing, which is just below the dam and the bridge. There were already two guys fishing this pool when we arrived, so we tried to slot in without causing a scene. Whatever they were throwing was killing it, as they were pulling in big fish every few minutes. I felt a bit stacked up with five of us plus the other two guys all in a 50 yard stretch of water, so after tossing a few flies I started hiking downstream. I didn’t get any early hits, so my morning started off with anything but a bang.

Indicator Pool

As I moved downstream, I hooked into what was likely a smaller bow in a short, fast moving pool. I’m not entirely sure of the area, but it was right before this crazy tunnel through the rock formation. As I hiked around that and up over another hill, I came to some beautiful water. A shallow, wide part of the river suddenly narrowed into a set of riffles creating a great run down the center.

I changed my setup to include a tungsten black zebra midge and hooked into a really nice fish. After I set the hook, the fish swam right at me and I had to furiously reel in my slack. As I tried to tip the rod tip towards the bank, he slipped behind a large boulder just downstream of me, pulling the line under the rock.

I knew he had just owned me, as I walked towards the rock - still with tension on the line - and didn’t feel any more tugs against the rod tip. Hats off to this smart fish. He managed to bury my top fly into the weeds behind the rock and pop the hook out of his lip. Frustrating to lose that guy, but it just goes to show how smart some of the Cheesman fish really are given how much pressure they get from anglers year round.

Blitz Pool

Still having not landed a fish (the only one in our group), I made my way further downstream to an area with some deeper water. A quick storm blew in so we all took cover under some brush while the wind and rain whipped around us. In typical Colorado fashion, it was gone in about 15 minutes, and we were back out on the water (albeit a bit colder than before the storm).

I moved in above the other guys and worked a section of water against the far bank, just below a tailout from a few shallow boulders. I was fishing a copper john on top, my black zebra midget below that, and a super small black RS2 about 10 inches off the midge. At this point I was desperate to catch anything, even if it was a six inch minnow!

I took a long drift on one cast, letting my leader fully extend downstream, and I saw my thingamabobber drop. I instinctively pulled up but didn’t feel anything. Then I saw a small flash of silver and knew I had a fish on - but the lack of fight made me think it was a minnow. As I started to strip in line, a beautiful 18 or 20 inch bow shot straight out of the water - head thrashing with my RS2 stuck in it’s lip.

This guy continued to surface four or five more times - sometimes throwing his entire body out of the water. As he calmed down, and slowly moved him from the middle of the run over to the shallow bank. I handed Greg my landing net and had him slot in downstream where I would walk my fish into the net. As I slowly tipped the rod towards the bank and readied to move him towards Greg, my line went limp and I screamed in disbelief.

This was the biggest fish I’ve ever had on a fly rod - and I’d lost him. A quick look at my line showed that nothing broke off - all 3 flies were still attached and all my knots were strong. However, the hook on my size 22 RS2 was bent down to double the hook gap. He’d escaped!

Dejected, I made my way to the river bank to re-tie my setup. I had two more hookups in this pool, but wasn’t able to set the hook well enough on either.

Gauging Station

As the day wound down, we all decided to hike back upriver towards the dam for one last try at the Cat’s Crossing pool. John and I went a bit further and fished just on the other side of the gauging station bridge. The water here was clear, cold and running really nicely out of the dam. The run down the center was too deep to see the fish in the low light, but I added some split shot and started casting.

Almost immediately, I hooked into another big fish. After a brief fight, and based on how the rod tip moved and felt, I may have false hooked this guy with my second fly as he flipped over on the top of the water. John ran over with the net, but just as the fish cut in front of him, the hook dislodged and I lost another one.

I would hook in and loose 4 more fish in this run before landing a good looking 12 inch rainbow. My small consolation prize for losing 10 fish due to bad hook setting. I great lesson on why the South Platte is so hard to fish well - and why light tackle and quick hook setting is required to kill it out here.

The Hike Out

The. Worst. Period.

As the dark began to settle in, we started out hike out of the canyon and back to the parking lot. The 800 feet of elevation we hiked in the morning now seemed nearly impossible as we hiked up the switch back trail in our gear. We’d been on the river for 13 hours and I wasn’t excited to hike me butt out after such a disappointing day on the water.

The only consolation - if you can call it that - was the incredible view we got as we grabbed a short water break and looked over the reservoir as the sun set.

Cheesman Reservoir
Cheesman Reservoir

Final Thoughts

The upper section of Cheesman Canyon is an absolutely beautiful place to fish. The water is pristine, the scenery is amazing, and the fishing is top notch. Given how relatively close this is to downtown Denver, it’s hard to believe how wonderful of a fishing spot this is. The next time I come back, I will remember a few things:

  1. Bring extra food, water, and gear in a backpack for the hike in - it’s worth the hassle of remembering to grab it when you move spots.
  2. Prepare an assortment of very, very tiny flies - the smallest you throw as your trailing fly should be a 22, sticking to red, gray, or black as your colors.
  3. Come with a buddy or a group - the hike in is long, and the trails along the river are sketchy (I slide 15 feet down a scree field and was lucky to stay on my feet).

Oh - and remember to enjoy it!


Drive time: 1 hr 45 mins

Take Hwy 285 S past Conifer, then at the stoplight in Pine Junction go south on CR 126 until just before Deckers. Go past the Lower parking lot, and take a sharp right turn up the dirt road towards the reservoir. Just before you see the reservoir ahead, you'll see a small parking lot on the left.

Parking: Parking for Upper Cheesman is in a small lot.

Other: The Upper lot fills up more slowly than the Lower lot. Be prepared to pack your gear in however, as the hike in is strenuous.