It’s mid-November, and I am traversing down a steep slope into the canyon where Grape Creek runs free. It’s a balmy 50 degrees, but I’m crunching through a few inches of snow left over in shaded areas from a storm earlier in the week.
After stowing my RC Cola and Almond Joy candy bar in a snow bank, I ease into the water. It’s icy, and I do mean icy cold–only increasing my growing doubts about finding any willing fish. The sun is just climbing over the canyon rim, lighting up the good-looking u-shaped pool created where the creek plunges over a riffle and head first into a big rock palisade. I start throwing a line, and to my surprise on the third cast something big nails the caddis nymph that trails a couple of feet below the Royal Coachman Trude dry. After a good tussle, a brightly colored 15-inch rainbow eases into the net. All doubts evaporate. It’s the start of another banner late fall angling escapade.
Most fair-weather anglers stow their fly rods in mid-October to break out their hunting gear or when the first big cold front drops temperatures below freezing and dusts the south-central mountains valleys of Colorado with snow. They are missing a sweet opportunity for some blessed solitude sans tourists while catching (and releasing ) hungry fish fattening up for the long winter to come.
Now I am not a big fan of cold-weather trout fishing. And by the time late October and November roll around my favorite high-elevation creeks start to ice up and daily high temperatures rarely climb above 50 degrees…and that’s my line-in-the-sand. Then what to do? The answer is to either embark for Florida or other southern climes (which I will do in December or January for the winter), or just head east to creeks downstream from Salida (which sits at 7,500 feet). I reconnoiter either for water in valleys lower than 6,000 feet like those around Canon City or spring-creeks that stay warmer year-round. While the air temperatures will still be slightly chilly—over 60 degrees is a warm day in late November even down valley, with proper preparation it’s comfortable and the fish are very willing.
Late Fall Fishing Prep: Garb and Gear
With cool temps and icy water, obviously one of the primary considerations is staying warm–starting with your feet. I have learned the hard way to wear three layers of socks underneath my waders. First layer is a pair of polypro liner socks, the second some light smart wool hiking socks, and on top is a pair of heavier wool socks. Mind you, your feet will still get cold, especially if you are in the water a lot.
I also retire my light-weight, breathable waders this time of year. Yes, you can still use them, but breakout some heavy long johns. Instead, over a pair of nylon fishing pants, I pull out my old-style neoprene stocking foot waders that seem to have gone out of style. Believe me, they are much warmer and more comfortable. Redhead makes a good, inexpensive version that can be had at Bass Pro for about $80. I like the Redheads because they have built-in knee pads that are made-to-order for the gin-clear water this time of year—I end up casting from my knees a fair amount to avoid spooking fish in these small streams, especially on sunny days when trout will sun themselves in the shallows. If you can see the fish, most likely they can see you if you’re standing. Lack of knee pads is the other drawback of most breathable waders—no cushion when kneeling on often angular, sharp rocks found in these creeks. Cabela’s Dry Plus Waders remain one of the few lightweight waders with kneepads. I find that neoprene waders, in addition to being warmer, are also more durable when walking through the dense brush and cactus country that is characteristic of lower-elevation waters. Cholla cactus can make a pincushion of those light-weight waders in no time flat.
I usually layer up under the waders with a long-sleeved polypro or light wool liner and my nylon fishing shirt on top. I carry a third layer—a lightweight rain jacket that serves a dual purpose. However, with the neoprenes and fishing vest for added insulation, I find I rarely need to don the jacket, especially if I am wearing a Buff around my head and neck on windy days. The Buff is basically a tubular sock that you slide over your head that functions like a turtle neck with the added bonus of protecting your face from the sun’s rays. It’s big down in Florida among fishing guides and works well in the mountains also.
Other essential gear includes a wading staff that can also be used as a hiking staff. Most of the late fall creeks I recommend require at least a mile if not more of hiking, sometimes over very rough terrain as is the case with Badger Creek. Also, the creeks can be surprisingly slick with moss left over from the summer. Venerable Folstaf makes an excellent model that folds up and stores in a pouch attached to your wading belt. The folding net is also choice as it won’t hang up when you’re bushwhacking through streamside willows and bushes.
And if you are fishing alone, don’t leave home without a satellite phone that can notify family or a fishing buddy in case you are incapacitated. These creeks are all in remote, rugged canyons beyond regular cell service. I finally broke down and purchased one when I discovered the prices have finally come down for both the phone and monthly service. My advancing years and eroding nimbleness were additional factors. There are several models to choose from, but after a lot of research I settled on the Garmin InReach SE+ model that retails for around $400 with basic monthly service of about $12. It’s worked flawlessly in keeping my contacts in touch with my whereabouts in the wilds, even in the canyons, and includes a one-button emergency signal in case I take a fall and can’t text a message.
Fishing these small, remote creeks in late fall requires a change in mindset from summertime angling. Flows are generally reduced and the water is extra clear—cold water can’t hold sediment like warmer H2O. That means stealth is at a premium.
I typically carry two rods on these late fall expeditions. One is rigged with a dry fly and dropper nymph tied on two feet below, and the other with two nymphs below a BB split shot and small white bubble strike indicator. I initially thought I would need only the dry/dropper rig because of the low fall flows and shallow water, but each of these three small creeks have some deep holes—waist high and more—where the fish tend to congregate in the morning before the sun hits the water or especially later in the season when the deeper holes provide more cover and warmer water.
You won’t run into many hatches this time of year—maybe some midges but I rarely find the fish feeding actively on them on the surface. The key is to turn over a few rocks before you start casting to see what’s on the local menu. And this can change as the temps cool. For example, on Upper Grape Creek in late October I found some chunky mayfly nymphs that I could imitate with a Size 16 Tung Teaser…and the bigger fish approved.
For some reason, at this time of year small-stream trout also seem to like red morsels, so a Size 18 red Two-Bit Hooker or red Copper John often prove to be good mayfly nymph imitations. But later in November all I could find in Lower Grape were some microscopic mayflies that would hardly provide a snack let alone a meal. However, I uncovered some nice cream and green caddis larvae that ended up being the ticket for using a Size 16 green beadhead hotwire caddis nymph and a lime beadhead caddis nymph, both in Size 16. I found the same situation on Beaver Creek, where in late November the mayfly nymphs were puny and the caddis were hardly abundant. How then could I explain the fat 15” rainbow I caught? With some more rockhounding, I was surprised to find some really meaty stonefly nymphs that my buggy-looking Size 12 beadhead halfback nymph matched. That was the ticket for larger fish in Beaver Creek throughout the day on the two-nymph rig.
That’s not to say that dry flies won’t work. On both Beaver and Grape Creeks there were still a few small grasshoppers flitting about on the sunny canyon slopes. My old reliable Size 16 Royal Coachman Trude is a reasonable imitation for these hoppers, and on every trip I manage a few good ones on the dry—oddly enough, often the larger rainbows. One tip: With abundant shadows in the canyons and looking into the flat sunlight of late fall as you work upstream, it can be very difficult to see the dry fly, even one with a white wing like the Trude. My answer is to tie on a one-to-two inch piece of yellow fluorescent yarn about two feet above the dry with a simple single loop of the line. It is very visible, floats well when coated with a little dry fly dope, and doesn’t appear to spook the trout, a few of which have even taken a nip at it.
What time of day is best? Certainly you usually won’t need to be on the water before 10:00 a.m. and often later. The pools that bask in early sunshine, particularly in late October and early November, usually produce best, but of course not always. When sun is a factor at that time of year, I concentrate in the morning on the stretches that run north/south in the morning and get good sun, then east/west later in the day when the sun starts to sink. Later in the season—mid-to-late November—I find the sun makes less difference because the water by this time is uniformly very cold, and the fish are hunkered down in deeper holes. Earlier in the season you will also find that on a sunny day trout will move into the shallows to warm up—not just the small fry, but some lunkers as well. So again stealth is critical. I have learned that when I approach a pool to take a few minutes to sit or stand quietly to size it up before casting or plunging in. When the fish do hunker down in the deeper holes later in the season, you may find a dozen or more congregating there. Then persistence is the key. Don’t give up after a cast or two. Keep running that nymph through the hole and you may be pleasantly surprised that on the sixth cast a nice fish nails it. Also, if you catch a couple of fish on the first few casts, keep mining the hole. I have literally caught a half-dozen fish out of a small, but deep four-foot by four-foot pool where the trout were stacked up. You may also see some big schools of what look to be trout but in reality are native suckers. Be aware that trout sometime mingle in these schools.
Flora, Fauna, and Geology
The ecosystems in these canyon-bound creeks are fascinating—take time to enjoy. On the high, sun-drenched north slopes, pinon, juniper, and cholla cactus with their yellowish fruits and sharp needles dominate.
In the creek bottoms, you’ll find stately stands of cottonwood and ponderosa pine that make for good lunch spots. I often see bighorn sheep and deer on the way to the wilds, but not so much in the canyons with their shortage of sunlight. I am advised by local wildlife rangers I can rest assured a mountain lion is probably watching me. All three creeks are prime cat country. Birds like the tiny sparrow-sized slate-colored juncos with their flashing white tails (flocks of which are a sure sign of winter coming) and a variety of jays will keep you company. My favorite fowl is the dipper who amazingly continues this time of year to search out morsels under rocks beneath the ice-cold waters. Like the juncos, dippers are dark gray, but they are a bit larger and have a distinctive stubby tail. These fascinating creatures can actually fly underwater, and according to my bird book, dippers have an extra eyelid that allows them to see under water and scales that close their nostrils when submerged. To survive in cold water, the birds have a low metabolic rate, extra oxygen carrying capacity in their blood, and a thick coat of feathers. Dippers will often escort you upstream, hopping and bobbing just ahead from pool-to-pool. Here’s a bit of trivia to impress your friends: A flock of dippers is called a “ladle.” And if you hear a clear, loud cheep….cheep….cheep emanating from the woods, it’s probably the elusive Townsend’s Solitaire. Count yourself lucky if you get a glimpse of one. Don’t ignore rocks that are a geologists dream. Stunning palisades plunging into the creeks, giant granite boulders, wildly colored rocks, and shiny strata of mica can be a major distraction from the fishing!
In the companion articles that follow this post, I highlight three of my favorite late fall creeks—Badger, Beaver, and Lower Grape. (See also my earlier Nov. 8, 2017, article on Upper Grape Creek. ) Beaver Creek that rises in Gribbles Park between Salida and Cañon City is a good choice in mid-to-late October. Even though it sits relatively high at 8,000 feet, it still produces well into the fall because it is spring-fed, so water temperatures are moderate compared to other high-elevation streams. Beaver and Grape Creeks near Cañon City are at substantially lower elevations—around 6,000 feet and consequently can fish well into late November and even December, temperatures often hitting the 60s during that period. To whet your appetite, photos of a honey hole on each creek follows!
Of course there are other creeks on my list to try in late fall. Four Mile Creek, also near Cañon City, should be a good bet (See my 2015 post about fishing Four Mile in June.). Another reason to not put your rods away just yet!!