Rolling down Coal Creek Canyon Road at a moderate clip, I blow right past the turn-off. Next time I’m an extra standard deviation from the steps of the state capitol building, I’ll follow the directions sent to me instead of Google Maps. On the other side of the tracks is Lincoln Hills Fly Fishing Club.
Tucked away in Gilpin County, an hour and change from Denver proper, Lincoln Hills FFC is what is commonly referred to as “private water.” That term usually carries negative connotations – developers buying up land around prime fishing habitat and closing it off to the public. But what if the area carried historical significance, had been mined to the point of being nearly fishless, and then left to rot? Under such circumstances, should it still be a place anglers love to hate? That’s what I went to find out (as well as catch a few trout).
Lincoln Hills has a storied past. It began as a private club, an exclusive retreat for African-Americans, and for a time it was the only place of its kind in the western US. Started in 1922, it served that community by allowing African-Americans to build summer getaways at a time when the Ku Klux Klan held power in Colorado, and African-Americans weren’t allowed to book hotel rooms or use public parks. By the time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came about, popular entertainers such as Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie were no longer visiting Lincoln Hills. Soon thereafter, centerpiece Wink’s Lodge developer Obrey Wendell Hamlet died, and Lincoln Hills was seemingly lost in the history books.
Industry, which had already stripped the valley bare prior to its development as a resort, returned, and in the ensuing years Lincoln Hills was again a hotbed for placer and hydraulic mining. Thankfully, such techniques did not involve the use of chemicals that would otherwise poison the water, but the effects of the search for precious metals nevertheless took its toll. By the time mining ceased in the late-70’s, the valley was one big gravel pit – devoid of foliage, insect life, and our fine finned friends.
Lincoln Hills Fly Fishing Club Founder and President Matthew Burkett really wants to fish. The Colorado native has been doing it all his life, and remembers a time when he could pack up a rod and some flies and just do what he loved.
I used to knock on doors. A lot of doors. I’d ask people if I could fish on their property, and they’d always say yes. I’d always been a fly fisher, but when the movie came out the sport exploded. Soon everyone was playing the game, and property owners started pulling back. We now had this fast growing angling community, and a dwindling number of places to fish. And while the DOW has done a very good job preserving the finer public waters, the bottom line is that there are an outsized number of anglers for the amount of available fishing grounds.
I’m tying on a fly Mr. Burkett has just handed to me, a big ugly bug called the Canyon Stone.
The name came from Cheesman – I used to fish that water all the time with that fly. But the combination of close proximity to Denver, along with the Hayman fire, has really put the hurt on that fishery. Cheesman is a prime example of why I started Lincoln Hills, to give people a place to fish within easy reach of the city, but with enough controls in place to maintain a vibrant, regenerative habitat for the “residents.”
The focus on rebuilding is apparent. Freshly planted trees, shrubs, and willows line the lower portion of the property. Banks have been carved down to size, and the top soiled re-purposed and seeded. Heavy equipment is scattered throughout – Burkett and Company are moving more earth, completely restoring the oxbow back-channel that as a result of the mining simply could not sustain life. I step out into the upper reaches of Boulder Creek, and the rocks move willingly under my feet. Then I hook a 20 inch brown on Burkett’s recommended pattern. “We just built this section, and already fish are finding homes here. Imagine what it’s going to hold a few years from now,” the founder exclaims.
I expected two things when I dropped my first cast in Lincoln Hills water: a trout would bite regardless of presentation, and that the fish would be some washed out slob that rolled over after a minute so I could pull the familiar hook out of its mouth. Surprise! I had to work for my prizes. The fish there are not easy, but there are plenty of them. Hearty, and extremely well cared for. And why wouldn’t they be – Lincoln Hills has a biologist on staff. I’m not going to say it was the most difficult water I’ve come across, but it certainly is some of the most workable, at least this close to Denver. The token boulder has been placed here and there, but there are riffles cascading around bends into winter holding pools, two foot drops providing re-oxygenation, and several slow, wide expanses that I know are ripe for surface action when things warm up.
But it’s begun to snow, we’re getting soaked, and it’s time to take a break. Under such circumstances, I’d usually crank up the truck, throw a towel over the seat, and hunker down with the heat on high to thaw and dry. Instead, my waders are hanging outside the clubhouse, and I’m sitting on a bar stool chatting with the patrons while attempting to scarf down a chicken wrap. “I could join a golf club,” one member, a partner in a Denver accounting firm says. “But it seems like all professional go that route. I like to fish, and so do my kids. With this place I can entertain my clients and keep my family happy.”
I could definitely see myself taking clients out to a place like this (rather than embarrass myself on the first tee, and the second, and so on). Meanwhile, Burkett, with a wife and three children at home, understands the family business. “We keep the lake adjacent to the clubhouse primed, particularly for members’ children to use.” Lincoln Hills management whispers about spreading its wings as far as activities go. “What you’ve seen today is only a small portion of the river, let alone the amenities we’ll be providing to club members in the future.”
I’ve heard the pitch. And I’m impressed – the team, which includes Matthew, Client Services Coordinator Kelli Johnson, running the club and the affiliated Fly Fisher Guide Service, have done a good job so far. Still, it’s business, so I expected the full court press even though I’m not vying for an invitation to join. I can, however, respect the enterprise.
It’s nearly a white-out now, and Mr. Burkett tells me to follow him back to Denver. We pull off the property and down the now very muddy road. Then I see brake lights. Matthew hops out of his truck, donning sandals (plus a huge grin), and hustles to my door. As I roll down the window he points across his 220 acre baby at a dozen grazing elk. “See those? They never used to come down here. Now they think it’s home!”
Ah…boundless enthusiasm. Now I’m sold.
MG signing off (to figure out a way to get back to Lincoln Hills)
FTC Disclosure: The author was neither paid for this post, nor was his gas tank filled up for the trip. But he did have a great time.