Going Ape Over Grape Creek

“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.)


After Turning On BLM 6227, Follow Sign And Continue Straight At T Intersection

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.

Access Road Is 4WD Only!

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.

View Upstream From Trailhead
View Downstream At Trailhead

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!

The Wet Mountain Valley In Summer Garb

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.


Typical Grape Creek Brownie

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.

Grape Creek Abounds With Alluring Pools

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.

Cliff Pool
Nice Rainbow

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.

Last Pool Of Day Yields Two Frisky Brownies

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.

Good Water Upstream To Explore On Next Grape Creek Outing
Sunset Over The Wet Mountain Valley And Sangre De Cristo Peaks

24 thoughts on “Going Ape Over Grape Creek

      1. Actually, looking at the forecast, Friday might be the day to go, as it will be a bit warner. Whichever day I choose, I’ll be sure to let you know how it went.
        What was the temperature when you were there? I wonder how much that would matter-it is a tailwater after all…


      2. It got up to 65. Don’t have to get on water early. Miles downstream from DeWeese so don’t think it affects temp that far away. Definitely makes water clear.


    1. Well it’s been a while since this has posted but I feel like I should add my 2 parts in this since this creek has brought me so much as a fisherman as well as an adolescent.
      Not to sound negative but this old gem once had outstanding fly fishing through out the 80s and 90s when I was first learning how to fly fish. This stream brought several 50-100 fish days with most that could eat the ones you are writing about now. Virtually no pressure whatsoever. Your hands would tremble and your legs would move as fast as they could just to anxiously throw your offerings to the piranhas that awaited! Several violent species from browns and rainbows, to brookies and even snake river cutthroats all teaching the 2 foot mark with the average being 16 inches. You could fish any method of your choice and always leave with rough fingers from removing so many hooks!
      What happened!!?? Water is what happend… The last days I could remember anything close to the quality it once had was in 2005-06 and then the water was taken in the winter and the habitat could no longer overwinter a population of large Trout in those numbers. Then the droughts hit and made it worse. To hot in the summer with to many varying flows and not enough flow in the winter to sustain food and shelter. It’s really sad. I cannot find another stream anywhere to compare what this streams habitat has when the flows were 15-45CFS. You simply couldn’t find this stream temperature and food abundance. You just couldn’t. Sad sad sad.
      But!, I’m glad people still enjoy it for what it is and I still do to yet, it is hard to remember what it used to be. Things change I guess.
      I have pictures to share from 1988-2006 from the beasts that emerged from this awesome strand of water!


      1. Sad to hear. The water fluctuations are still ridiculous—from 2-30 cfs this summer. Im worried about a major fish kill this winter with drought. Unfortunately the creek is part of a big irrigation plumbing system and has been for many years.


  1. Did pretty well today upstream from the lot with a #16 BH hares ear above a #20 pheasant tail. I only encountered browns today from 8″-12″ or so. Lots of fun-will certainly go back.
    Thanks for the post.


  2. That sounds like fun–all but the wind part… I need to hit the upper Arkansas before it gets too cold, it’s been a few months since my last trip there.


  3. I really enjoy reading your blog and was excited you wrote a piece about grape creek. I’ve fished there for years as our family has a house in the area. I’ve spent many enjoyable hours on grape creek several miles in both directions from the bear gulch trailhead. Given the lower elevation, I’ve had to dodge more than a few rattlesnakes. I once saw one swim across the creek even. I’ve always had more success with a nymph on grape than dries most anytime of the year. Even when the hoppers are thick the fish seem to like my nymphs more. Maybe I’m not dong it right but I can land enough fish that I get tired of it so probably I’m not doing it wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thx Jason. It is indeed a sweet little creek. I enjoyed the lower creek down by Temple Canyon this late fall. Was surprised to get a couple of nice bows and browns on a Royal Trude. But majority were on the nymphs. I’ll keep an eye out for the rattlers! Chris


  4. A belated post and FYI. I went up to DeWeese Reservoir this week with the intent of fishing the tailwaters. The moss was SO thick on the stream from the dam down to the road I swear you could have walked across the creek on it. There was no way I could fish it. Several of the boaters I talked to coming off the lake also commented on the horrible moss on the surface, even out in the middle of the lake.

    So I elected to take an alternative path, and head down to Grape Creek via your BLM 6227 route (never been there). About a mile down 6227 I decided that with my lack of companionship, no method of communication, paltry 4-wheel drive (Honda Ridgeline…..my pre-retirement Cali 4-wheeler) and less than freeway like road, it was probably better to turn back. Oh, and I also decided I have to buy a real 4-wheel drive for these outings next summer. You will be my excuse when the wife asks!


  5. Hey all, just a heads up. Went to Gtape Creek this weekend and myself and about 15 other anglers I met so ZERO signs of life. I heard from someone there that a flood late in 2019 had completely decimated the population. Very disappointing fishing, zero bites on 3 days of searching and everyone inmet said the same. Gorgeous place to hike and camp, though!


    1. Wow, myself and a couple other anglers had planned to visit Grape Creek this Labor Day week until we read your more recent post about the late 2019 flood decimation! We typically fish the upper Arkansas basin above Buena Vista and Cottonwood Lake and Creek. We wanted to add Grape Creek to our list this year. Could you recommend any other unique fly fishing locations around the general area?


  6. Well, that’s bad news! I really enjoyed reading your 2 articles on Grape Creek. I had planned to visit this coming Labor Day week with 2 other anglers but got down to the more recent post about the late 2019 flood! Hum, could you recommend any other unique out of the way spots that we could add to our usual destinations? We typically fish the upper Arkansas basin above Buena Vista, Cottonwood Creek and Lake?


    1. Call Royal Gorge Anglers for the latest on Grape Creek. Upper section below DeWeese wiped out. Not sure about closer to Cañon City. Take a look at my article on Badger Creek. The real problem may be low water levels come September. We’re in the middle of a drought.


  7. Chris I have really enjoyed your musings on fishing high mountain creeks and lakes in Colorado. Just read about your grape creek outing. What kind of 4 wheel drive vehicle do you have that handles your back country adventures. It sounds like my Subaru Outback or Forester with 8 inches of clearance probably won’t cut it. Maybe I need to borrow my daughters 4-Runner TRD. Worried about scratching it up on narrow roads.

    Ed from Littleton


    1. Hi Ed. Glad you’re enjoying the articles. I have a Nissan Xterra Pro-4x which has high clearance and skid plates. Great off-road 4wd vehicle. While they are good vehicles, I wouldn’t recommend an Outback or Forester for off roading. The 4-Runner would do the trick but you have to resign yourself to any backcountry vehicle getting scratched up.


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