FREDERICK: Nebraska bluegills bring brothers together at Box Butte

Oregon angler Mike Frederick gets looked over by a Colorado pelican while fishing at Chowdry Lake near the headwaters of the North Platte River.

We were discussing a recent fishing trip to Canada. My brother, Mike, said he couldn’t go this year. One of his grandsons was graduating and he wanted to be there for the celebration. I told him that as soon as I got back I’d be taking off for the headwaters of the North Platte for a magazine project I’m working on. He was intrigued and asked if he could tag along.

A trip was born. This time, fishing would be a sidelight to his dream of exploring the Rockies and the foothills sagebrush country. But we’d fish.

I picked him up in Alliance. Its airline schedules a mid-afternoon arrival and usually manages to get it done. We packed up the next morning and headed to Walden, Colorado, via the Poudre River Canyon. Mike, who lives in Oregon, had never spent time in Colorado outside an airport and I wanted him to see the mountains. The road out of Fort Collins cuts through the Medicine Bow range, alongside a river running high now with snowmelt. The Cache la Poudre gushed through the narrow canyon, hosting more daring rafters than anglers. Drifts of winter snow remained on Cameron Pass, at nearly 10,300 feet, where the road begins dropping onto the broad high plain known as North Park.

We spent the night in tiny Walden and waited until the next day to fish. Before dark, we checked out the local fly shop and scouted some areas. North Park is rich with public forests, refuges and wildlife areas, as well as numerous creeks and rivers that all funnel north toward Wyoming. But I needed to find and focus on the North Platte, and we started at one of several areas where the state provides access by fencing off stretches of the riverfront near bridges and building walk-over stairways.

I was determined to use flies. Mike used spinners. We didn’t have much competition. The water was fast and high, and we were told conditions wouldn’t settle down for a few weeks. The basin, rimmed by mountain ranges, also has some still water, and we visited Chowdry Lake, a pretty site with views of snow-capped peaks, on our way to the border.

Mike caught his few fish in Wyoming. Access is a tougher issue there, but near the end of a 10-mile dead-end road we found a remote campground that led to some public water. He landed three trout, while my fly rod and I got skunked, during a tiring hike in waders along a mile or so of rugged riverbank. Focused mostly on photography, I never caught a fish until I got back to Nebraska.

We spent our second night camped at the Miracle Mile, a stretch of the river between the Kortes and Pathfinder reservoirs. It was bustling with wading casters and driftboaters. I’d like to brag that we caught a lot of fish there, but we didn’t. We worked the long riffle near our campsite, but took our time breaking camp after sitting up late by the campfire and didn’t do a lot of exploring before turning for home.

By then I’d been gone for 13 of the past 15 days, so the next day we prudently decided to unpack, stick around and enjoy some weekend barbecue. But I felt bad that we’d driven ourselves pretty hard for a couple of sixty-somethings (I’m still recovering from a bout with bronchitis) without much to show for it, so on Monday we squeezed in a visit to Box Butte Reservoir before Mike had to leave.

We got there early and were catching occasional bass and pike, but it was windy and the fishing seemed slow. As the day warmed up we found a shady spot under the trees to rest and noticed bluegills around us. As we soon discovered, some of them were big, and we sat around catching them on nightcrawlers under a bobber, schoolboy style, for the next few hours.

It didn’t match the excitement of some of our fishing trips, but it took us back to catching (and cleaning) buckets of perch and bullheads alongside the hard-working dentist who taught us to fish. We agreed he would have loved it. We started fishing together as determined little kids, and with half a continent between us it’s never certain how many more times we’ll get to do it again.

It might be Pacific salmon that bring us together for our next trip. In the past it’s been Wyoming rainbows and Canadian walleyes. Even when it’s only some fat Nebraska bluegills, it’s always time well spent.

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