My home water near Salida, Colorado, the Big Arkansas River (grew up on the Little Ar-Kansas in Kansas) is fishing well for Brownies right now. Five inches of snow a week ago, but bright warm sunshine has melted it all, and trout are fattening up for winter. Mercifully, no hordes of rafters or float fishermen. Water levels dropping this week so wading will be less risky–down from 700 CFS to 550 near Salida. Use caddis nymphs and follow warm weather and warmer water downstream from Salida towards Cañon City. Look for fish in quieter, sunny pools near shoreline. Gentlemen’s fishing hours from 10:30 am to 3 pm when sun is on water. Stayed warm with neoprene waders and three pair of socks. Felt soles and wading staff advisable–rocks very slick!! And keep an eye out for some beautiful bighorn sheep!!
Get out and enjoy this fantastic Indian Summer!! Great day on a sweet little Rocky Mountain creek.
This is a perfect outing for novice kayakers and families with kids. It’s my go-to spot when friends with teenagers come to visit me at my winter retreat. The trip to the islands at the mouth of the Turner River just off Chokoloskee Island is just a short one-half mile paddle, and you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of years of fascinating history, have a chance to see lots of birds and maybe a manatee or gator, and catch a bunch of sea trout, ladyfish, and jacks to boot with shots at some good-sized snook. What’s not to like??
Most Everglades kayakers float the upper Turner River by launching some eight miles upstream at a popular put-in on the Tamiami Trail highway. It’s a scenic route through a variety of fascinating ecosystems, ranging from freshwater cypress forests to sawgrass prairies to saltwater mangrove tunnels. It’s one of the most popular kayak trips in the Everglades—but the fishing is spotty at best till you get to the mouth and you will share the river with flotillas of fellow kayakers, often in large commercial ecotour groups. In contrast, if you put in at the mouth of the Turner, you’ll likely have the place to yourself, you won’t be paddling all day, and the fishing can be epic with non-stop action even for beginners.
The lower river is steeped in history. The Calusa Indians, who were the dominant tribe in Southwest Florida for thousands of years into the 16th and 17th centuries, built a village about one-half mile up the river from the mouth. It covered 30 acres and had at least 30 closely spaced, elevated shell mounds that kept it above storm levels (hmmm, could we learn something from that??). The Calusa developed a complex culture with hereditary kings that was based on estuarine fisheries rather than agriculture like many other eastern tribes. Historians speculate that by the 1600’s they numbered 10,000 and possibly many more across Southwest Florida. The Everglades were the southern reaches of their territory.
With the arrival of the Spaniards, the Calusa’s hegemony in the region was challenged. They fought many battles against the invaders, mortally wounding Ponce De Leon in one. The tribe, with its fierce warriors, held its own into the 1700s and struck an uneasy peace with the Spaniards. But then a combination of the English (who were at war with the Spanish) supplying firearms to the enemies of the Calusas, the Creek and Yemasee tribes, coupled with infectious diseases introduced by the Europeans finally sealed the Calusa’s fate. In 1711 the Spanish helped evacuate several hundred Calusa to Cuba where most soon died. Seventeen hundred were left behind and when Spain ceded Florida to the British in 1763, surviving remnants were evacuated to Cuba or may have been absorbed into the Seminole tribe.
The next wave of invaders was U.S. soldiers during the Third Seminole war in 1857. An army contingent of about 100 troops commanded by Captain Richard Turner led a party up the river off Chokoloskee Island where they were camped. They were ambushed and driven off. After the Seminole were subdued, Turner returned in 1874 and settled near the mouth of the river, giving it his name. He farmed, raising vegetables that were shipped to Key West.
The combination of this history, an easy paddle, and some good fishing make the Lower Turner River a great half-day outing.
The put-in for this trip is a break in the mangroves on the east side of the causeway between Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island. It’s only about a quarter mile before you get to the welcome sign to Chokoloskee and its marina with a paved boat ramp. The informal launch area has a nice beach that makes things easy and provides a sandy play area for the kiddies. You can park along the causeway to unload your gear and leave your vehicle near the put-in. Just make sure not to block the paved pathway.
The excursion to the cluster of mangrove-covered oyster bar islands at the mouth of the Turner is only about a half mile paddle. It’s best to plan your trip on a high tide just beginning to fall. The crossing is very shallow at low tide.
There is no official tide reading for the lower Turner, but I find tides there usually lag behind those for Chokoloskee by about 1 ½ hours. Of equal importance, I find the angling best on a high falling tide as the fish line up to feed in the holes between and below islands as the current serves up goodies. As you explore among the islands, be aware of the sharp, plastic-eating oyster beds that line each one as well as the channels between the islands.
An interesting side trip for the more adventurous is to paddle one-half mile upstream to view the Calusa Indian shell mounds that have been listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The Calusa occupied this area between 200 BC and 900 AD, elevating their villages above the water on small oyster shells placed on submerged mud flats (Hmmm, wonder if we could learn from that??) The shell mounds are overgrown, making for some challenging but fun exploration. Remember to look but not disturb.
One final note of caution. The mouth of the Turner along the islands is a designated slow-motor area to protect the endangered manatees that feed here. However, some fishing guides and anglers in motorboats ignore the prominent signage and blast through the area at high speeds on their way to the Everglades backcountry with little regard to manatees or kayakers that may be present. The peak of this renegade activity is usually early in the morning and late afternoon.
Both light/medium spin gear and fly-fishing tackle work well on the Turner. I typically bring three 6 1/2 or 7-foot spin rods and 2500 series spin reels loaded with 30# test line and 30# flourocarbon leaders. My go-to lures include white ¼ ounce floater/diver minnow plugs (Rapala or Yozuri 3D Crystal Minnows), white curlytail grubs on a 1/8 ounce red jig head, and gold spoons. When the water is on the turbid side from a southwest wind, a new penny stickbait on a yellow jig head will fool the snook, and if black drum are cruising the shallows live crab or shrimp can be the ticket.
When the current is blasting out between the islands, a small mushroom anchor is a big help to keep your boat in position to cast to the deeper, productive holes. The shorelines around the islands are wadeable, but make sure you have some good hard-soled wading shoes, because sharp oyster shells abound.
Trip Notes (Spring)
I am up with my young fishing buddy at the crack of dawn and putting in as the sun rises. It’s late spring, and we want to get an early start to catch the high tide and beat the heat. I generally find that the fishing is best early, but the Turner will produce later in the day as well if you can’t get the kids out of bed.
We have plenty of water as we angle across the bay to the mouth of the river. The tide is just beginning to fall, so we anchor up just outside the first set of islands guarding the mouth just inside the tall, prominent slow-motor sign. We are casting white curlytails, and it doesn’t take long before we’re both into some nice trout and high-stepping ladyfish. It’s not unusual to catch some 16” plus trout here. The ticket is usually to cast into the current and let the lure sink back into the deep hole then make a slow, jigging retrieve. Don’t be surprised if you also hook a jack or gaff topsail catfish, which are plenty of fun to catch.
When the fishing slows, we start to work the shorelines, casting small white floater/diver minnows into the shallows. We’re rewarded with a some jolting strikes by a couple of decent 20” snook, that put on a good show before coming in for a quick release. Earlier in the spring, big black drum cruise the shallows around all the islands, but can be finicky. I have never been able to coax one to hit an artificial lure, even when a lay a perfect cast right in front of their noses. I’ve had them literally swim right under my yak in three feet of water with nary a glance. If you’re serious about catching one of the big boys, think live crabs. You are also likely to see some big gentle manatee feeding in the deeper water during the winter.
Then it’s off into the interior as the scofflaw motor boats start to blast through, studiously ignoring the slow-motor sign. The key is to look for deeper holes among the islands where trout like to hang out and also focus on spots just below riffles between the islands where the current has gouged out some depth. Jacks and ladyfish often abound there.
Keep your eyes peeled for one of my favorite Island Girls as you paddle around. She’s a feisty raccoon that plies the islands with her little ones teaching them how to crack open oyster shells for a tasty treat. She’ll show them how, then insist they do it themselves even as they screech for momma to come back and do it for them!
Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the good-sized gator that likes to sun himself in the winter on the mud flats to the north. That north shoreline is also one of the best stretches to cast for reds at the mouth. Look for dropoffs from the bank.
After getting our fair share of jacks and ladyfish on spoons and the curlytail, my young companion and I decide to work the interior shorelines for snook. Old Linesides likes to lay just a few feet offshore of the oyster beds, picking off unwary baitfish. A good strategy is to work up a shoreline, casting a floater/diver minnow ahead 5-10 feet from the shoreline. Sinking lures don’t work as well as they tend to snag on the oysters. It doesn’t take long before my young charge lets out a whoop. He’s onto a big snook that thrashes the surface then takes off for freedom. But my buddy is no novice and shows off his fishing skills, playing the fish perfectly. He displays his prize with a confident grin.
By now the sun is getting high and hot, so we head back to the beach and lunch. As we wade ashore, we notice hundreds of little crabs scurrying about, so decide it’s time for a roundup. It’s a riot chasing the little devils who prove too quick for us. It’s another reason the Turner River is one of my favorite spots!
“To go ape means to ‘go crazy,’ is 1955 U.S. Slang. In emphatic form, go apesh**.”
Late Fall 2017
For another of my articles on fishing Grape Creek, see my Fall 2019 post:
Caveat: Before fishing Grape Creek, be sure to check the water level below DeWeese Reservoir on the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District Website. Levels from 10-40 CFS are best. Below 10 may not be fishable.
It’s early November, a time I am usually long-gone to my snowbird hideaway near Everglades City in Florida. But until things get back to a semblance of normality after the devastation of Hurricane Irma (80% of houses destroyed or with major damage) I’m sticking around my cabin in Colorado. Thanks to a prolonged Indian Summer–dry, warm late autumn weather–I am still able to get out and explore some new waters.
I’ve had my eye on Grape Creek, a small stream secluded in a rugged canyon a couple of hours east of my place near Salida. With a little on-line sleuthing and some timely help from the angling gurus Taylor and Bill Edrington at the venerable Royal Gorge Anglers Fly Shop in Canon City, I have pinpointed one of the few public access points in the middle of a 30-mile long canyon between Westcliffe and Canon City where Grape Creek lies hidden.
I hit the road about 9 a.m. when it’s hovering around 45 degrees. It’s still cold, so gentleman’s fishing hours are perfectly acceptable. By 10:15 I am making the turn onto Oak Creek Grade, a good paved then gravel road, just east of Westcliffe. It’s a 20-mile, 45-minute drive from here to the turnoff to Bear Gulch road (BLM #6627), the only public access to Grape Creek within miles. (Note: For those coming from the east, you can also access Oak Creek Grade out of 4th Street in Canon City.)
The first mile or so on the Bear Gulch road is decent, but the final three miles are a rough 4WD-only stretch where I rarely get going above 10 mph. The last mile through BLM public land clearly hasn’t seen a road grader in years.
But when I get my first look at the creek from the parking area above, I know it was worth it. Although the small creek would be suitable for wet-wading in the summer when it gets hot in this canyon, I figure it will be icy cold now so I suit up in my waders with three pair of socks covering my tootsies! It turns out to be a good decision. I tread carefully down the short, but very steep trail to the canyon floor and immediately see some decent-sized trout scurrying for cover in a big pool above a partially washed out beaver dam. The water is crystal clear, courtesy of DeWeese Reservoir, a big irrigation lake miles upstream near Westcliffe from whence the creek flows.
I do some reconnoitering with my Google Maps app and see that downstream there appear to be several good looking bends in the fast-moving creek that promise deeper water where bigger trout like to take up residence. Off I go. I follow a path that criss-crosses the creek, then about a half mile downstream am walking on what appears to be some sort of dike….or maybe an old narrow railroad grade–paralleling the water. Naw, couldn’t be a railroad grade–this canyon is too narrow and rugged. Engineering impossibility! But that’s exactly what it is! Old images on-line show the line ran alternatively along the canyon bottom and on the canyon walls where the grade was chiseled out of sheer rock cliffs!
Back in the 1880s, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad somehow pushed a rail line up the canyon from Canon City to reach the rich silver and iron ore mines and big ranching operations in the Wet Mountain Valley around Silver Cliff and Rosita. The valley had been the summer hunting grounds of the Ute and other Indians tribes like the Comanche and Plain tribes for centuries. Grape Creek was the easiest route from the Great Plains to the valley (which isn’t so wet) that is framed by the soaring Sangre De Cristo mountain range. Famed explorer John Fremont stumbled on the creek downstream in the early 1800s and used it to explore the mountains to the west until he was arrested by the Spanish for trespassing on “their” territory.
By the 1860s miners and settlers were pushing into the valley, and in 1877 Custer County, named after the famous general who had died a year earlier, was created out of the western half of Fremont County (the Bear Gulch access is actually in Fremont County.) One early ranch owned by the Beckwith brothers had 13,000 cattle at its peak!! In 1881, the railroad carved out the perilous route through Grape Creek Canyon to cash in on the mining and ranching wealth, but after a series of disastrous floods, abandoned it only eight years later. After the mines played out in the late 1800s, Custer County returned primarily to ranching and farming. Grape Creek was dammed in 1902 to provide reliable irrigation water for the county’s agricultural enterprises as well as fruit orchards downstream around Canon City.
Today Custer County retains a feel of the real West where ranching still rules the county’s economy–several hundred ranches look after almost 10,000 cattle, about double the population of people in the valley!
However, in this very conservative county, retirees, new agers, and tourists are making their presence felt. Much of the access to Grape Creek between DeWeese Reservoir and Bear Gulch is controlled by the Bull Domingo Ranch, a 14,000-acre upscale subdivision of some 370 homes on 35-acre plus parcels. So unless you are on friendly terms with one of the local homeowners or hire a guide at Royal Gorge Anglers who have special access to the water, Bear Gulch is your ticket. Fortunately, Bear Gulch gives you access to miles of public water upstream and downstream to explore.
It’s 11:30 by now and I am about a mile below the trailhead. The sun is just beginning to peek over the canyon rim and around some of the surrounding peaks, but some of the pools are still in the shadows. It’s chilly, but thankfully the wind is light and things will warm up to 65 degrees by mid-afternoon. I am carrying two rods, one rigged with a #16 Royal Coachman Trude as the dry and the other on a dropper with a #16 beadhead green hotwire caddis nymph. The other is rigged with two nymphs, one a light tan caddis to match the little greenish/ cream-colored caddis larvae I find wriggling under some of the rocks in the streambed and the other a #18 bright lime green caddis imitation that has proven itself this fall on other streams. The water is very cold, clear, and surprisingly high for this time of year courtesy of all the rain in August and early snows in the high country that have already melted off. The state water gauge in Westcliffe reads 25 CFS (accessible on-line by Googling Colorado Water Talk.), still eminently fishable in light of the fact the creek can reportedly blast through the canyon at 500 cfs in the spring!!
The first two good-looking pools are partially shaded, and while a manage a couple of light hits on the hotwire caddis nymph, I don’t connect. For the next hour or so the fishing is sporadic. I catch a few small brownies, but don’t see many fish and nothing on the surface.
Not until about 1 p.m. when the sun is bright in the sky and the pools warm up do the trout really start to move. Then it’s steady action for browns on the hotwire caddis with an occasional one on the dry. The trout have moved into the shallows to sun themselves, and naturally I spook a bunch of them even when I creep upstream stealthily and cast from my knees. It’s like they have eyes in the back of their heads! To make things even more challenging, in most pools I am looking directly into the sun or the pool is in mottled shade and light, which makes seeing the fly nearly impossible. I tie on a piece of fluorescent yellow yarn as a strike indicator about two feet above the dry, and that helps, but often when I can’t see the strike indicator let alone the dry fly, I have to watch the end of my line where the leader is tied on for the slightest movement that may signal a strike.
But it’s rewarding when I do connect with a frisky brownie–most 10-11 inches with a few pushing 13. Interestingly, I get only a few hits and catch only a couple on the deeper running, weighted double nymph rig, even in the deep holes where I expected some bigger ones to be finning. I have heard tales of 17-20 inch fish in Grape Creek, and by the looks of these pools I am a believer….a good reason to come back next summer!
After a break around 2 p.m. for a quick lunch of peanuts, a jerky stick, and a granola bar, I continue working upstream. I had intended to get back to the trailhead by now where I stowed my usual gourmet lunch and RC Cola, but the surfeit of excellent-looking pools has trumped by growling stomach. Now I start to pick up more eager fish on the dry, which is fun as they slash out of their hiding places behind rocks to nail the fly. I work some of the stair-step rapids carefully and am rewarded with some chunky trout.
The ratio is still 4:1 in favor of the nymph, but the dry seems to be attracting the larger fish. By 4 p.m. I round a bend and am back within sight of the trailhead. I ease up carefully to a picture-perfect pool formed by cascade up against a big cliff. I loft the fly to the head of the pool, and it floats downstream then swirls into a big back eddy against the cliff face….and something whacks it hard, just where the fish should be. Of course, I somehow miss it. Another cast, same song, same verse. Looks like I blew the best pool I’ve seen all day. Dejectedly, I work the little pool just ahead at the foot of the rapids and low and behold, a nice fish nails the dry! After a worthy tussle, I am surprised to be sliding my net under a colorful rainbow that is a nose over 13 inches, the biggest fish of the day. Probably a descendant of an escapee from DeWeese Reservoir miles above.
I am thinking what a great way to end the trip, but then as I work up to the beaver dam and big shallow pool at the trailhead, I see some fish scattering. Who can resist? One even starts to feed on the opposite shore, one of the few risers I have seen all day. I make a perfect cast that drifts the fly right over his head. He studiously ignores it a couple of times, then on the third cast nails the nymph. Another of his buddies soon follows.
Now I am feeling quite the expert, but am brought back to earth when on the very next cast a big fish nails the nymph and I set the hook too hard and break off the entire rig. I momentarily go apesh**, spinning around in the water like a whirling dervish, venting my frustration. Clearly the biggest fish of the day has just owned me. That’s a telltale sign to call it a day plus the sun is sinking below the south canyon rim at 4:30, bathing the creek in shadows and dropping the temperature. But I can’t help but smile and laugh. Maybe I’ll get a shot at him on my next trip….lots of water upstream to explore.
There is certainly something in angling that tends to
produce a gentleness of spirit and a pure serenity of mind.
July 7, 2017
I’m spending a week in my mobile fish camp at Dome Lake in the high country between Gunnison and Saguache, Colorado. I have strategically arrived after the hubbub of the July 4th weekend when yahoos of all sorts manage to congregate and shoot off fireworks, even at 9,000 feet. Now it is quiet as I rouse early and hit the road at 7:30 a.m. My destination is Saguache Park–a big broad valley framed by the spectacular La Garita Mountains about 30 miles to the south over the Continental Divide. It’s in the lower 50s as I set out, but the sky is clear, and the sun is already warming things up–supposed to reach 75 today!
My route, CR 17FF, is a bumpy but decent gravel road that can be navigated by most vehicles, although on the other side of the pass I’ll shift into four-wheel drive to ford Saguache Creek in a couple of places to get to the headwaters. The omens are all good–especially the lone antelope that scampers across the prairie as I creep by.
In 30 minutes I crest the pass over the Continental Divide and take in the stunning scene, then descend towards the creek. That first view of the water as it plunges into a long canyon gets my angling juices really flowing. There’s good fishing down there, but I am headed the other way up into the headwaters of the creek that springs out of the La Garita Wilderness peaks.
This whole area is infused with Ute Indian lore. Saguache, the name of the creek, is a shortened form of “Saguaguachipa,” which is a Ute word said to mean “water of the blue earth.” The Ute encampments near the present-day town of Saguache to the southeast were near springs where blue earth was found. To me, it could also refer to the color of the water itself, which is a slightly off-color, milky blue at times, especially down lower. Saguache Park is home to large herds of elk and mule deer, which I have crossed paths with during previous sojourns. The valley is a broad grassland flanked on the southern slopes by ancient forests of towering spruce and fir.
I turn west past the primitive U.S. Forest Service Stone Cellar Campground that has a pump for water, an outhouse, but not much else, then the first ford. Easy for my high-slung SUV, but not recommended in the average passenger vehicle.
Next is the Stone Cellar Guard Station, a popular rustic cabin that can be rented from the USFS, and then past a working cow camp that is active in the summer. The twisty, fishy-looking bends of the Middle Fork that parallels the road beckon, but I stay the course. Wilder water lies ahead.
In about two miles I come to the second ford, much wider and deeper. I say a little silent prayer and lurch forward into the water. The stream bottom is solid, covered with gravel, and I make it through without any problem. If the flows were any higher as they could be earlier in the summer or after a deluge, I might be forced to turn around.
A few miles ahead, the road diverges south and up from the creek which heads into a canyon past Table Mountain towards the massive San Luis Peak, a fourteener. Using Google Maps, I detect what looks to be a spot where I can bushwhack into the canyon. That’s the key here–to get away from the road and find a stretch that takes some effort to get to. I park under a copse of aspens, gear up in my waders and start off across a broad grassy meadow towards the creek about 1/2 mike away.
When I reach the canyon rim, I let out a little “wwwoooo.” What appeared on the satellite map view to be a nice easy incline is instead a steep, snag-filled slope. But what I see in the canyon bottom is too hard to resist–a serpentine stream with enthralling pools at every bend. Fortunately, I brought along my hiking pole that helps me navigate the slope, which I do so very gingerly. I vow to buy one of those new Garmin satellite phones that send out an emergency signal at the push of the button. A fall here and it might be days before you were found.
When I finally emerge at 9:30 into the meadow below the canyon rim, I stow my lunch and take off downstream. My plan is to work back upstream by 1:00 p.m. or so and take a nice long dining break. The going is slow–beaver have been at work, so I have to skirt the marsh and crash through the willows and alders lining the creek.
I finally come to a cliff pool that looks inviting and throw a cast into the riffles above letting my trusty Royal Coachman Trude (#16) and a red Two-Bit Hooker (#18) float into the darker water.
My nerves are on edge, expecting a strike, but nada. Same thing at the next pool. I’m flummoxed. I haven’t fished up this high on the creek in over 30 years, and the last time it was lights out! But at the third pool, things begin to heat up as the air warms. The turning point is when I switch to a #16 Tung Teaser nymph that the fish can’t seem to resist–then it’s non-stop action for the next couple of hours for nice chunky 11-13 brown trout with some colorful brook trout thrown in as a bonus.
With so much water (the flow is over 60 CFS below at the town of Saguache), I switch the dry fly to a bigger size 14 RC Trude, which is easier for the old eyes to see and is a reasonable imitation for the grasshoppers that are getting active as the sun gets higher in the sky. It also floats like a battle ship. When I hit the proverbial honey hole about 11 a.m., both score, surface and deep. One of the brownies goes 14 inches.
By 2 p.m. I’ve netted over 30 fish and am plenty tuckered out. Time for lunch, but the sky is threatening and starts to spit some rain. As I look for a place to hole up, the sun breaks through, so I can kick back, soak some rays, and enjoy the cloud show like I haven’t for years. I see all sorts of dragons, ghosts, and other assorted creatures floating by!
In my youth, I would rarely pause more than 10-15 minutes for lunch, then it was back on the water, no time to lose. But now I stretch them to 30 minutes and even–gasp–45. And I take more time to enjoy the wildflowers before plunging back in. The first pool I come to is just below a rocky outcropping, and I see a nice trout sipping something off the surface. I make a good cast above him, and he casually plucks the dry. In a minute a gorgeous native cutthroat trout slides into my net. It’s a slam–3 different kinds of trout. Now if I can get a rainbow, it will make a grand slam!
As I work further upstream, I come to one of the beaver ponds I skirted in the morning. I peer over the dam and see a big trout, 15 inches and maybe more. I throw a cast above him, and he moves to take a look, but no dice.
A second and third cast with the same results, then on the fourth he takes the nymph but I only prick him and then he’s gone. Once my heart beat slows a bit, I work the deeper parts of the pool and net several nice brownies, but not the big guy.
The action continues steadily for some nice browns till about 4 p.m. when the sky darkens again, and I see heavy rain around the peaks above, and the storm appears to be moving downstream right at me. I decide it’s time to make a break for it and scramble out of the canyon so I can beat the downpour–which I do by the skin of my teeth, the wind starting to gust and big drops of rain splatting in the dust just as I get all the gear stowed in the SUV. I hustle back down the road and then up and over the pass back to my fishing camp.
It’s been a satisfying day in nature with colorful wild trout, wildflowers, and no boot marks in a pristine setting. I feel an uncommon calmness, that pure serenity of mind that Irving wrote about. I’ll be back…the fishing is good here on those Indian Summer days well into October.