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Making the Case for Purgatory

by Brian G. Angevine

 

Purgatory: Roman Catholic doctrine, the place in which the souls remain until they have expiated their sins before they go to heaven; or an extremely uncomfortable, painful, or unpleasant situation or experience.

 

Gee! Have I made a mistake? Am I here expiating my sins? I don’t know, but I sure have fun. You see, I enjoy fishing the Purgatoire (French spelling of Purgatory) River. Actually it is the Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio “River of the Lost Souls in Purgatory.”

            Most people don’t have the Purgatoire on their list of places to fish for trout. I certainly didn’t until I bought a cabin in Rancho LaGarita, about fifteen miles west of Trinidad, CO. I wanted a place near a ski area and on a trout stream. Alas, the only ski area nearby (Cuchara) closed the year I bought and will probably never reopen. And the nearest trout stream is fifteen miles away.

            In the year 2000 this part of Colorado was undergoing a five-year drought. The first time I drove to the Bosque del Oso (Forest of the Bear) Wild Area I found a shallow, silty stream that I could wade anyplace in a pair of irrigation boots. But I caught dozens of small brown trout and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the area. Every branch pulled out of the water was loaded with caddis cases providing an abundance of food for the little fellers.

            The peace and quiet didn’t last long as heavy drilling rigs started inundating the area to probe for natural gas. Three large coalmines made this area grow in the early days: Primero (first) in Sarcillo Canyon, Segundo (second) in the Purgatoire valley, and Tercio (third) upstream on the south branch of the Purgatoire. Naturally, old coalmines produce a lot of natural gas. Drilling operations have now poked holes in the ground about every quarter of a mile all over this large area. It kind of makes the so-called wildlife protection area a joke.

            Then, in 2003 several huge forest fires decimated large parts of the Bosque and other forests nearby. I had just arrived from Kansas in June and was eager to fish. I drove up through the smoke into the Bosque and started fishing one of my favorite runs. Firefighters drove by looking at me as if I were crazy. I caught a few fish and then noticed a bulldozer cutting a fire line behind me. I got the heck out of there and the fire stopped right where I was fishing. After that the stream was ruined, all the bugs and fish dead and I expected it to take ten years to recover.

            I am happy to say that a few floods in 2004 reshaped and scoured the stream creating a much better fishery. Now there are deep runs, rocky riffles and the fish are back and bigger than before.

            Now, the case for the river: It is tiny and has mostly mud banks. The constant gas operation traffic on the road nearby is maddening. But it is a heck of a lot of fun to fish. A rainstorm will blow it out in a few hours, but when it clears up the water is not exactly like gin, but nice enough. Parts of the river bottom are covered with large, flat rocks. They make wading treacherous especially when I get tired. I have fallen flat more than once. Some riffles have freestone bottoms, but most of the river is pretty silty and muddy.

            Now, you ask, why would I want to fish there? Because I am nearly the only person who fishes the river! Catch and release turns off most potential fishers, and the fact it is small makes others assume the fishing is no good. I love the fact that mine are usually the only boot tracks on the banks and when I shut out the truck traffic I find peace and relaxation. Clouds forming in the beautiful sky, the smell of the willows thickly lining the banks and the sound of water gurgling around rocks makes the experience anything but painful and uncomfortable. Catching a few fourteen inchers makes the day great.

            I use a seven and a half foot, full flex, four weight to fish this river. It is perfect for the task. I tried a nine foot six weight and found it unwieldy and hard to manage in the brush. Fly-fishing is just about the only logical way to fish the Purgatoire. It is just too shallow for lures and live bait is forbidden.

            Access is easy. An old railroad bed has been transformed into a road that parallels the river for at least four miles of public water. The upper part of the road is gated and used only by gas personnel. But a fisher can walk another few miles upstream. I would guess over seven miles of great fishing awaits those who give it a try. But don’t let me see you on my private stream!

            The only technique I have found workable on this small stream is casting upstream. Given the plethora of caddis cases, I catch most of my fish on Caddis flies. But a Prince nymph rivals that on most days. Today I caught twenty fish, half on the caddis and half on the dropper Prince. Golden Stoneflies work well at times as do Gold Ribbed Hares Ears, small nymphs, Royal Coachman, hoppers and Pale Morning Duns. I’m sure Adams would work well too, but I usually stick with caddis and Prince.

 

Another section of the river is right along highway 12. This middle fork of the Purgatoire is larger and has more freestone sections along with the troublesome flat rocks. I don’t enjoy fishing it quite as much because of the highway traffic and the nearby farms. However, I have caught some really nice fish in there. This section requires more effort because there is only one access point. Then you wade downstream a half mile to the end of the public area, or upstream for a couple of miles. This too is a part of the Bosque del Oso, but can be fished year around.

            This old man usually parks at the bridge and fishes upstream for about two miles. Then he is so exhausted he stumbles and staggers back down to the truck. The upstream part is easy but the hard part is trudging back tired.

 

A third section of the river is the north branch. Brookies dominate this high mountain stream and it is a bear to fish! (Don’t you love my puns?) Heavily overgrown with willows the stream is only easily accessed at about two spots. But it is beautiful and far from the madding crowd.

 

The south fork access is at the eastern edge of the town of Weston on highway 12. A large green sign announces the Bosque del Oso. Head southwest on that road past an enormous gas pressurizing station. Drive four miles to the large sign that marks the edge of the wild area. Read the regulations and park nearly anyplace along the road to fish a section. Oso Malo (Bad Bear) campground is about halfway up the road if you wish to stay for a while. But who wants to sleep around bad bears? A corral is there as well if you want to bring your horses. This area is closed to fishing between Labor Day and Memorial Day mainly because of hunting activity.

 

Another large green sign marks the access to the Bosque on the middle fork of the Purgatoire. This section can be fished year around. About three miles west of Weston on highway 12 is an earthen bridge across the river. Park there and fish up or downstream. Given my preference to fish upstream I sometimes hike across the field to the bottom of the public section and then fish back to the vehicle. I am not absolutely sure about the upper boundary of the Bosque. About two miles upstream is a bridge that has barbed wire under it. A ranch house is there and I have never gone past there. Two miles is plenty of stream for my needs. I have met two or three others fishing this section in the past nine years. Not bad.

 

The north branch is way up the mountain near North Lake. A road heads upstream about a half mile south of the lake.

 

I like Purgatoire. I find it peaceful and relaxing and fun, not uncomfortable or unpleasant--although my clumsiness has made it painful at times. As a matter of fact I count it as my little slice of heaven. Most people flog the lakes around here. I prefer moving water and mostly wild fish. But stay away from my river!