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City fishin' in the South Platte River can only get better, says angler Will Rice

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A Rollerblader will glide down the South Platte River Trail right by Will Rice, then do a double take, turn around, stop and approach the 39-year-old angler with curiosity.

"Wow, you're fishing here?" he'll ask, wondering if Rice is crazy for wading into the river that snakes through downtown Denver. It's a river that's been neglected and has been the recipient of chemical run-off and all sorts of matter that shouldn't normally touch a riverbed: brass knuckles, condoms, feces, you name it.

And there's Rice, fishing in it. Here's why.

"I know a lot of people are freaked and we shouldn't get near the river," says Rice about the South Platte, the subject of this week's Westword cover story, "Water World." But Rice, a recent refugee from a corporate job who mixes his time between the skate park and his fishing spots, says the more folks know about and use the South Platte, the brighter its future becomes.

"The river is just an awesome resource for the city of Denver, and there's absolutely no reason that it should have been treated the way it's been treated over the last twenty or thirty years," Rice says. "There's no reason why the South Platte can't be a world-class fishery."

It already is in certain places. But Rice, a strict catch-and-release angler who stalks carp in the South Platte, isn't a professional guide, so out of respect for his fellow downtown fishermen, he's hesitant to blow up their favorite spots.

He does note that noise from the traffic overhead doesn't seem to affect the fish: they're smarter than that. But take one step too close to a group of fish and they'll dart away. "Take two steps to the water and they're gone, they're out of there," Rice says.

City fish.

Besides, a lot of carp fishing isn't really fishing at all, even in the South Platte downtown. It's stalking. "I spend 80 percent of the time not 'fishing'; my line isn't in the water. You're walking, trying to sneak up on fish, you're not blindly casting," Rice says.

The average weight of a fish down in the South Platte is between eight and ten pounds, and they're aggressive.

"[Some South Platte fish will] clear your entire fly line off the reel," Rice says. "There aren't many fish in Colorado that can do that like saltwater species do."

As for the pollution near the Suncor Energy oil refinery site, as written about by Alan Prendergast in this week's cover story, Rice was vocal about that, too, writing a series of blog posts for Sage Fly Fish (read Part 1; read Part 2 and read Part 3) earlier this year. (Rice was profiled in the New York Times shortly thereafter.) The spill was discovered by fishermen where Sand Creek meets the South Platte, last year around Thanksgiving.

"I still wet-wade in the South Platte, you know, with a pair of sneakers and wading socks," Rice says now. "I don't wade and ground-zero in Sand Creek; I don't think that's smart. Other areas, absolutely -- I think the water is not an issue."

Closer to Denver, Confluence Park and near the REI outdoor store is a fine fishing spot, bypassing Rollerbladers and all.

"You get people to open their eyes a bit [by fishing downtown], and they see it as more of a river and less of a drainage ditch," Rice says.

"You can't do anything worse to that river, so the more people we can get out there enjoying it as a recreational resource and caring about it as a river, the better."

More from our News archive: "Whatever floats your boat: Take a look at our first dip in the South Platte, twenty years ago."

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