Trouts Journal

Tailwater Series - The North Platte River

Mark Rauschenberger / Jan 8, 2021

For many anglers, winter is for tying flies, for skiing, for spending time with family. For some of us, however, it presents a unique opportunity for quick weekend road trips popular rivers, bereft of summertime angling pressure. Whether you’re looking to get away for a couple of hours, a couple of days, or some amount of time in between, there’s definitely a nearby tailwater that fits the bill. We’ll spend the next few weeks covering our favorite places to find some wintertime solace and hopefully a few cooperative fish. First up: Wyoming’s North Platte River.

It’s cold, even by January’s standards. The heater in my old truck is working overtime to clear the icy windshield as I embark on my favorite fishing trip of the year in the early-morning darkness. Hot coffee, a playlist full of loud music, and a few months’ worth of anticipation are all working together to keep me awake as the city fades away in the rearview mirror. Meanwhile, the needle on the speedometer dances around eighty and my little black Ford continues to sail north.

I put my mind into highway mode and before I know it, I’ve driven over 200 miles and the predawn darkness is beginning to brighten. The first few rays of daylight creep toward the eastern mountaintops and spill over the ridges, illuminating the valley below. The landscape is unmistakably Wyoming as far as the eye can see, nothing but barbed wire, tumbleweed, and a handful of antelope to remind me that I’m not the only living thing out here.

Soon, an old service station comes into view. I recognize the pair of trucks idling in an otherwise deserted gravel parking lot with their drivers standing next to them. This is the rendezvous point and these are the fine folks alongside whom I’ll be spending the next few days on the river. A quick glance at the dashboard clock as I roll in reveals that I’m running late. I skid to a stop and hastily get out to catch up with my friends. “Right on time!” one of them shouts as the other tosses me a beer that I catch before my feet even touch the ground. I crack open the can and quickly dispatch it with a handful of labored chugs, as is a tradition for the traveler who is last to arrive. In short order, we’re back in our trucks and continuing onward.

I lead the crew about fifteen miles away from the interstate to an unmarked forest road onto which, in lockstep, we turn and continue even further north. I sip my coffee between washboards as we speed down the worn-out dirt road, a cloud of dust all but completely enveloping the end of the convoy. Long drives have a tendency to build anticipation and I begin to wonder if we’ll ever make it.

After cresting yet another hill, the river finally comes into view. “Panama” begins to play on the stereo, a universal harbinger of good things to come. I reach forward and crank the volume knob as far up as it will go. A grin creeps across my face that I fear may be permanent. We’re nearing the end of the long road north and right now, there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be. Meanwhile, my foot presses the pedal a little further into the floor—and my little black Ford roars alongside Eddie Van Halen’s guitar.

Even if you just got your first fly rod for Christmas last week, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard of Wyoming’s North Platte River. Beginning near the northern Colorado town of Walden, the North Platte follows its namesake direction as it crosses into Wyoming where it eventually enters a trio of reservoirs, creating three separate tailwater fisheries all within an hour’s drive. While you won’t have the chance to experience the incredible dry fly fishing that makes this river so famous during the summer months, anglers who are able to persevere the often-unforgiving weather on The Reef, The Mile, and at Fremont Canyon can expect to be handsomely rewarded for their efforts.

Keep your eye on the forecast.
Wyoming is home to some of the most inhospitable weather I’ve experienced in my many years of chasing trout around the American west. It’s cold, it’s windy, and it’s very uncomfortable. The sooner you realize that, the sooner you can start focusing on catching fish and forget about your frozen fingers.

That said, it’s not uncommon to see a string of warm, fair-weathered days periodically throughout the winter. If you’re able to make a last-minute trip, you may be able to take advantage of some truly incredible fishing in the dead of winter that will make you swear that it’s the first of May.

Stay safe on the roads. Beyond the frigid air and howling winds, it tends to snow up here, and sometimes it snows a lot. Before you make a trip, make sure you are aware of road conditions. Sustained winds of over 70 mph will close down the highway and those same winds will bury some of the access roads with 10’ snowdrifts. Because of this, it’s not uncommon for certain stretches of the river to be totally inaccessible for weeks at a time. If you have any doubts about the conditions, check here or call a local shop.

Also, make sure you don’t forget a roadside emergency kit with a flashlight, batteries, and whatever else you might need to spend the night in your truck. A simple breakdown or flat tire that might be kind of funny in the summer heat is anything but on a dark and cold winter’s night.

Don’t forget your big rods. If you’re in need of an excuse to beef up your fly rod collection, a trip to the North Platte might be just what you’re looking for. Even at their lowest winter flows, most of these tailwater sections are much larger than your average Colorado fishery. Come early March, it’s not uncommon to see the flows rise to 3000 cfs. A sturdy 6-weight from 9’ to 10’ is perfect for managing heavy nymph rigs while a standard 9’ 7- or 8-weight will help you muscle those streamers into the howling Wyoming wind.

Do you have a two-hander that’s been collecting dust in your gear closet since that trip to Bend three years ago? The North Platte is a wide river with some very long runs which makes it an ideal place for swinging streamers on a spey rod.

Make a weekend out of it.
There’s no way around the fact that this place is a bit of a haul. As such, it’s wise to plan to stay at least one night to maximize your time on the water.

If you’re of the masochistic variety, there is no shortage of winter camping available throughout the more remote sections of river. Keep in mind, the nights are long up here and there’s a lot of downtime once the sun sets. Throw in an extra bottle or two of bourbon, pack twice as much firewood as you planned, and make sure you don’t forget that zero-degree sleeping bag.

Freezing to death isn’t your cup of tea? Well, you’re in luck! Check out both Sloanes General Store and The Reef Fly Shop for cozy cabins that are just steps away from the river in the town of Alcova.

About the Author & Photographer:

Mark Rauschenberger is a writer and creative from Denver, Colorado. Over the years, he’s created content for powerhouse brands like Yeti, Abel, and Ross, and his writing has been featured in places like The Flyfish Journal, This Is Fly Magazine, ESPN, Powder Magazine, and Freeskier Magazine, among many others. A lover of the written word, Mark has a tireless work ethic and a penchant for punctuality. When he’s at his laptop with a cup full of coffee, bourbon, or a combination of both, you can find him adventuring around the country with his wife Claudia and son Bridger. An admitted slave to hyperbole, he’s on a never-ending journey to find the next greatest place.

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