BADGER CREEK: LEGEND OF THE LATE FALL #1 (Near Salida, CO)
Note: Please read this article in tandem with my Dec. 6 blog on late fall fishing in Colorado that discusses gear, tackle, and technique in greater detail.
Late October 2017
I have heard rumors for years about big trout in a remote small stream called Badger Creek near my home base of Salida. But I have always pooh-poohed them based on the sparse little rivulet I see that empties into the Arkansas River above Howard. The water is so thin at the mouth that the creek couldn’t possible sustain trout, small or big, through a hot, dry summer! Or at least that’s what I think.
It’s a beautiful late fall day in October and the sun is out and the temps are predicted to be in the mid-60s by mid-afternoon. I’ve run through my to-do list for the day by noon, and am hankering to cast to some trout, but my favorite high-country creeks are already beginning to ice up. So I decide to see if the tall tales are true. I load up my fishing gear around noon and head for Gribbles Park northeast of Salida, the headwaters of Badger Creek.
It’s a very scenic drive into Gribbles Park, punctuated by the sighting of a big badger scurrying across the road in front of me as I come down the hill into the park! No one will believe me, I know!
The road is in good shape, with a little snow here and there. About 1.5 hours from the start I’m at the improved parking area just off the gravel county road, suited up and ready to roll.
The headwaters are about equidistant from Salida via County Roads 175/2 or from Canon City via US 50/C0 9 and County Road 2. You can also access it from South Park on CR 187 off of US 285 through Bassam Park. All are decent gravel roads suitable for passenger vehicles, except perhaps when muddy. Gribbles Park is a wide-open, broad quintessential western valley flanked by pine-covered ridges. It’s not hard to imagine a band of Indians hunting buffalo here–indeed the main road through the park is called Ute Trail. Most of the creeks in this area are ephemeral, drying up by summertime. Badger is an exception, spring-fed and perennial. That’s why it’s a late-fall sleeper. Despite sitting at an elevation of about 8,000 feet, the creek’s waters stay relatively warm later in the year because of the steady spring source. It flows only for a short distance in the park then plunges into a modest canyon through public land as it scurries to meet the Arkansas River 13 miles below. Although small and usually only 5-15 feet across, for most of its length Badger is imminently fishable as I will discover, peppered with good-looking pools that harbor a healthy population of brown trout. It can also be accessed by walking up from the mouth above Howard on the Arkansas River and mid-canyon on a rough county road out of Wellsville off of US 50—which I intend to explore next summer.
That first glimpse of Badger Creek in Gribbles Park can be disappointing. At the headwaters where it flows under the Ute Trail, the stream is only a couple of feet across and milky due to the minerals in the spring-fed water. There are lots of boot marks on the well-worn trail into the canyon at the outset. Keep the faith!
The skinny says to walk downstream a half-mile or so from the parking area…and I find that is the ticket. When I hit the stretch characterized by big boulders, the water has cleared and is much wider. From my vantage point above on the trail, I start to salivate over the good looking-pools tucked among the giant rocks.
The trail continues on the north slope high above the creek and I follow it, only to run into some rough terrain featuring a series of sheer drop-offs that make it impossible to access the water or continue. So I backtrack and then pick my way very carefully down the steep slope, silently thankful for my trusty wading/hiking staff. I cross the creek, clamber over more boulders as I work downstream, and then circle back to that good-looking pool I spotted from above . I am amazed at all the moss and watercress in the water, still thick this late in the year, choking the creek in a few spots. Indeed the good folk at the Royal Gorge fly shop in Canon City advise against fishing Badger Creek in the summer when the bloom is at its peak thanks to warmer water and the surfeit of nutrients.
I keep low, but still manage to spook a couple of small trout in the shallows at the foot of the pool…a good sign that at least there are some fish here. The pool is a long, complicated one. It starts as the creek plunges out from between some big boulders, runs rapidly through several mats of vegetation on the surface, then executes a hard right turn against a cliff that creates a deep hole where the current eddies around a big rock. I cast above that big rock and let my flies float slowly down to and around the big rock. Surprise–I don’t get so much as a look at either the Royal Coachman Trude dry or the beadhead lime-green caddis nymph that dangles a couple of feet below. Several more casts with the same results, and I am now truly perplexed. What gives?
I work up to the bend in the creek and lay a perfect cast in the fast water between two of the green mats and watch the Trude float jauntily down….then disappear. I set the hook and am fast onto a nice brownie that erupts on the surface then dives for safety under the vegetation. Luckily he doesn’t get wrapped up and soon comes to the shore. A colorful 11-incher! A few minutes later another, pushing 12 inches succumbs to the nymph.
For the next hour I work my way downstream for about another ½ mile with similar results. The small #18 beadhead lime caddis and #20 red zebra nymphs prove to be the best flies. All of the trout go 10-12 inches, healthy and spunky fighters. And the boot marks have all but disappeared. Towards the end of the day, I come to a big “S” bend in the canyon that promises more good water below, but the trail is heavily overgrown with willows and brush. By now it’s almost 4:30 p.m., and the sun is just getting ready to dip below the canyon rim to the west. I can see from my GPS map that there are indeed some good bends and pools further downstream, but they’ll have to wait for next year.
I head back upstream, then crash through the thicket to work my way to the creek, emerging at the lower end of a picture-perfect pool. Better yet, a couple of fish are rising. I execute a long cast and watch the dry fly float down the riffle then drift up against a big granite face.
It doesn’t get far before a good brownie inhales it. Another 12-incher comes to the net. Then another. All of a sudden the dry is the ticket and the nymphs are ignored.
By 5 o’clock I am back at the big boulder stretch where I started. I should head back to my SUV, but when I get on the trail up above I can see a couple of pools hidden among the boulders that are too fishy to pass up. I descend the slope very carefully and then hopscotch around the big rocks. The pools are small but deep. I make a short cast and immediately a brown inhales the dry.
I try the next pool, and another brownie shoots from the depths and nails the Trude. This one is a dark beauty, at 13 inches the biggest of the day.
I can see more good pools upstream, but it’s getting dark and time to head home for a date with a margarita and Mex food at Los Girasoles in Salida. Badger Creek has certainly met and exceeded my expectations….and I am betting that a couple of miles downstream there may indeed be some lunkers waiting.
The drive home is perfect….herds of deer seemingly everywhere and a glorious sunset to cap the day.