Exploring the Roan Plateau: Day Two

The Roan only looks flat. It is actually cut with long canyons, and the one you can see here in this photo contains the main stem of Trapper Creek. If you set out cross country here, you'd find that the land between the main canyons is corrugated and crinkled like a piece of paper balled up in the hand and then straightened. Each fold of the land is dramatically different- the wet and shadowy north facing slopes where the snow lingers long into spring are heavily timbered, jackstrawed with downed fir and pine, the perfect security cover for elk and other wary beasts. The lower elevation slopes and coulee bottoms are tangles of service berry, aspen, rich grasses. The southern aspects of each coulee are dry and hot, sage brush, rabbit brush, rock, where horned toads scatter beneath the hooves of big mule deer, whose sidehill trails show everywhere like veins incised into the steep ground. It is this complexity that makes the Roan such fine game country, and also why the water holds on here deep into the summers, some of it soaking down to emerge as springs on the far flanks of the plateau. The rest of it feeds the main creeks- Trapper, Northwater, JQS Creek, and others. These creeks flow down and tumble straight off the rim of the plateau, creating the tributaries of Parachute Creek, which brings life to the ranches and farms of the flatlands, then flows to the Colorado River.Kevin Cooley
Hiking down into lower Trapper Creek. Ken Neubecker in the lead, Chris Hunt, Mac Cunningham, and me bringing up the tail. We'll be in the cool trees soon, and you can see across to the dry, sun-baked aspect of the canyon, sage and cinquefoil and short grass. That side of the canyon is like a different world from where we'll be fishing, but it's really only a few hundred yards away. Shade, aspect, water, elevation, terrain - they change everything, and nowhere is this more clear than on the Roan, where all of these vastly different worlds are so close together. There is perhaps no place in Colorado that holds so much diversity, or where so much unique habitat remains unprotected.Kevin Cooley
We found the fish. Mac Cunningham, combat fishing in the willows that enshroud Northwater Creek and protect it from the high-altitude sun. The preferred rod here is a six foot, three or four weight, nothing fancy because if you brought your best down in here, you'd break it for sure.Kevin Cooley
Chris Hunt fishing the upstream dry fly over some very hungry cutthroats just below the confluence of Northwater and Trapper Creeks. He might be making some kind of rare and specialized Idaho-brush cast, or he might be holding up his three fingers for more mysterious reasons. We never knew. But he's fished all these creeks before, so I held up three fingers as I was fishing, too. It seemed to help.Kevin Cooley
Mac Cunningham holds the little jeweled Colorado cutthroats that survive here, isolated, genetically pure, separated from every other population of trout by the hundred foot waterfalls downstream. The fish are beautiful, and eager to strike, not because they are stupid or because so few people fish for them here, but because they live in a place so austere, so high, dry, and cold, that if they were the kind of fish that hesitate when there is food around, they would have disappeared a long, long, time ago.Kevin Cooley
Ken Neubecker lighting into them in one of the most open runs of the creek. Mac behind, studying his fly box. Although the fish were hungry, not everything worked equally. Big flies spooked them, naturally enough, since most bugs up this high are very small, and the hoppers weren't out yet. The all-purpose little Adams and smaller elk-hair caddis were the top producers.Kevin Cooley
Writer and photographer Bridget Batch of Brooklyn, New York, catches her first native cutthroat trout on the fly. Mac Cunningham assists.Kevin Cooley
Mac Cunningham and I hiking out after a few hours and several dozen cutthroats, all released back into the cold waters of Trapper Creek. Cunningham, in his youth, worked as a harpooner on swordfish boats off the Massachusetts coast. Well-conditioned by the demands of constant fishing in the Colorado Rockies, he romps up these slopes like they are level ground, all the while grinning and telling fish stories, even at 8500 feet of elevation. I, on the other hand, who live at a paltry 4200 feet of elevation in Montana, found the hike out to be quite, shall we say…challenging.Kevin Cooley
The long road to the headwaters of Trapper Creek, later in the day. This mix of sagebrush and timber, rugged security cover, and low elevation winter range only a short distance down fast-plunging trails, are among the reasons this country holds so many big bull elk. All of it, especially the winter range which is already under heavy pressure from energy development, is in peril now.Kevin Cooley
Aspens growing from a thicket of service berry, currant bushes, and elderberry. The richness of the big game habitat here is incredible. In the distance, the matrix of old burns in the timber, which ranges from dog-hair thick spruce where there's water, up through dense lodgepole, and to Douglas fir as the timber thins out. The burns are full of new growth for big game and grouse and everything else to feed on. The unburned timber is the security and bad weather cover. It's tough country to hunt, and that is the way the locals like it. As Corey Fisher notes, "This is one place that actually has a lot of motorized access, but the country between the roads is so hard to get into, you still have the big bulls, and some very special mule deer bucks. Those deep hidden canyons- you just can't get into a lot of those places."Kevin Cooley
Looking down into Upper Trapper Creek.Kevin Cooley
Corey Fisher works the tiny water of Upper Trapper Creek, within the enclosure where TU has been replanting willows, cottonwoods and restoring banks beaten flat by decades of hard cattle and sheep grazing. We saw the cutthroats here - the first that any of the TU volunteers have seen since they began their restoration work years ago- but the tough returnees stayed tight in the shadows of the undercut banks and scorned our flies. TU, working with the BLM and cattlemen, built fence here to protect the banks from the heavy grazing and wallowing by cattle that had shallowed the stream, silted it, and killed off the willows that would normally shade it. The cutthroat population had declined as the water got too warm, shallow and muddy to support them. Now, the cattle can still reach the stream in places to drink, and the fish are coming back.Kevin Cooley
Sinjin Eberle. President, Colorado Trout Unlimited, fishermen, mountain bike racer, former Search and Rescue team leader, conservationist. "These streams are the lifeblood of it all."Kevin Cooley
Corey Fisher, Trout Unlimited, Missoula, Montana. Fisherman, big game fanatic. Fisher has been exploring the Roan, working with local TU groups to restore its creeks, and advocating for the protection of some of it for over five years. "All this water up here, all this country, all this hunting. There's no place like this on earth, not that I've ever seen."Kevin Cooley
Ken Neubecker, former President Colorado TU, surveyor, outdoor educator, fisherman, conservation leader.Kevin Cooley
Chris Hunt: former newspaper reporter and editor, seems to have fished every small trout stream from the Canadian border to the Arizona line. Currently runs communications for TU's Sportsman's Conservation Project from his hometown of Idaho Falls.Kevin Cooley
Mac Cunningham, Colorado TU board member and Grand Junction businessman, former harpooner on Atlantic Ocean swordfish boats, among many other adventures. Gunnison River trout addict and creek restoration volunteer, conservationist.Kevin Cooley
Author Hal Herring on Trapper CreekKevin Cooley
Defenders of the RoanKevin Cooley
Sundown on the Upper Trapper CreekKevin Cooley

Conservationist blogger Hal Herring and photographer Kevin Cooley spent three days exploring what's at stake in the current rush to develop the energy resources beneath Colorado's unique Roan Plateau -- some of the best big game hunting and trout fishing in the United States.