Late November 2017
Note: Please read this article in tandem with my earlier blog on late fall fishing (December 6) that contains more detailed information on essential gear, flies, and technique.
I ease into the crystal clear pool where Beaver Creek cascades up against a big cliff. True to the inside scoop from a Colorado Springs fly shop, I have already caught a couple of beautiful small browns. The skinny is that lots of 4-to-11 inch trout inhabit this pristine little stream near Canon City. Nothing much bigger. But then I catch sight of a silver blue form undulating deep in the hole.
Then it’s gone. Maybe a rainbow trout? I gently loft my two-fly rig—a Royal Trude dry on top trailed by my old reliable green hotwire caddis nymph—into the cascade and watch it drift down gracefully, enticingly up against the cliff then bounce downstream. How could any fish resist? I try again…and again. Nobody home? I am just about ready to move on, when a small swirling back eddy above the craggy rocks catches my eye. I reach out with my rod, using my 36-inch long arms to maximum advantage, and flip the dry/dropper against the rock wall into the foam of the eddy, which is swirling slowly upstream in reverse. The dry twists and turns, then disappears. I reflexively set the hook and feel the bottom. Grrrr! But then it begins to move, and I see the light-colored back of a big rainbow. He knows his home territory and dives under the rocks, but my stout 5-weight rod is up to the task and slowly he comes my way. Then he jets downstream into shallower water, a fatal mistake—I can more easily play him out in the open. In a minute he is sliding into my net for a quick measure and photo. I am astonished to find he is a tad over 15-inches!! So much for Lilliputian trout!! And just a couple of days before December! Another legend of the late fall.
Beaver Creek arises in the shadow of Pikes Peak east of Victor and Cripple Creek. It gathers steam as it flows into Skagway Reservoir, then after a short meadow stretch plunges pell-mell through a rocky, narrow canyon for about 8 miles before it emerges into a cottonwood-studded plain northwest of Penrose. The entire canyon is ensconced within a state wildlife area, and the thousands of acres that surround it are a federal wilderness study area. Venturing into this wild country is not for the faint of heart as witnessed by the lamentations of hikers posting on-line about losing the faint trail along the creek and the surrounding backcountry. Sounds like a perfect trout hideaway!
I’m on the road early for the 1.5 hour drive from my cabin near Salida. I want to be at the trailhead by 10 a.m. to take advantage of the 65 degree weather promised for this afternoon. The drive is an easy one down U.S. 50 through Canon City. I navigate through the nasty sprawl that has uglified this otherwise handsome, historic town on the Arkansas River. Just a few miles east of the city, I turn north at the stoplight onto Phantom Canyon Road (Hwy 67), then after a short mile right on Fremont County 123, then in a half-mile right again onto Fremont County 132. (If you are coming from the northeast you can catch County 123 out of 3rd Street in metropolitan Penrose.) In a few minutes I am crossing a bridge over a stream, what I take to be Beaver Creek. My jaw drops; it’s barely a trickle. Fortunately, when I pull over to check my topo map I see it’s called Eightmile Creek, not Beaver. I soldier on. County 123 turns out to be a decent, scenic gravel road that wends its way past a ranch with long-horn cattle, then through a large, upscale large-lot rural subdivision, then gets rougher but still passable for passenger cars when it enters the Beaver Creek State Wildlife Area. Mind you, it appears it could be slick and muddy after a rain. After about 10 miles on County 132 I cross a bridge over Beaver Creek, and like what I see. It’s running clear and appears to have enough water to float some fish. In another mile I am at the large trailhead parking lot and suiting up in my neoprene waders and wading boots (The Simms Vapor wading boots are terrific when you intend to hike a few miles—sturdy and fit like hiking boots).
I see a faint trail angling away from the well-marked trail that seems to head the wrong way to the northeast. The primitive trail cuts across the broad meadow where the creek escapes the canyon and appears to be a shortcut, rejoining the trail above.
Off I go, and am delighted when I see an opening in the fence that allows me to jump back on the main trail that has looped back down towards the creek, saving some walking time in my waders, always an important consideration. I come to another prominent wildlife area sign, then a few feet beyond see a small directional sign that gives me a choice of a low-road trail to the creek or one that climbs up away from the meadow onto the plateau above (and which eventually descends and rejoins the creek at Trail Gulch.
My first glimpse of the creek has me salivating. But I have been advised to keep on marching upstream until I come to the rock diversion dam about one-half mile from the trailhead.
Earlier in the year, a good portion of the creek is diverted by this dam into a raceway and then a tunnel that shunts the water into nearby Brush Hollow Reservoir. The result is that downstream of the diversion the creek is depleted and has less good holding water, particularly in the summer–with the expected impacts on the fishery.
Another example of the plumbing system that many trout streams in Colorado are a part of, for better or worse….and often for the worse. God forbid we out here in the high desert might practice some really serious water conservation. That’s another story though; today is for fishing.
When I finally reach the dam on the good trail, my eyes light up. It’s picture perfect, and I immediately spook a small trout that was sunning in the shallows at the tail-end of the pool. I am carrying two rods as usual, one with a dry/dropper nymph and the other with two nymphs below a BB split shot and small bubble strike indicator.
I check the rocks first to see what’s on the menu, and find some caddis in the ice-cold water but only microscopic mayflies. No wonder the trout are said to be small. Not much to eat. Not to worry. It’s a beautiful day and a gorgeous little creek, so who can complain.
With the water so clear, I kneel to keep a low profile and edge up above the shallows so I can reach the deep hole above. My flies alight at the head of the pool and bounce down towards the darker water, and then the dry disappears. I set the hook on a small, frisky 10-inch brownie, beautifully colored to match the dark red rocks in the creek. He’s eaten the caddis nymph. A few casts later, another brown gulps down the nymph. Good start.
Now I have a choice as I move upstream. I can take the path up Trail Gulch to the north of the diversion pool, and then at the trail junction in a hundred yards turn left and climb up to the canyon rim above the creek. That trail (not marked on many maps) crosses the creek upstream in about ¾ mile. I decide to stick down low and explore the creek then return via the rim trail. It turns out to be a good choice, particularly since this is my maiden voyage into this country. It will take me until mid-afternoon to fish this lower section up to the next trail crossing. Lots of good pools to explore!
The fishing is steady for the next couple of hours, all brownies, all less that 12-inches. Surprisingly, I get several on the dry, a Size 16 Royal Trude. Later on the rim trail I will see a few small grasshoppers, which might explain why the trout were looking up. There is a small midge hatch, but I see few risers all day. The creek and its environs are breathtakingly beautiful. And every so often where there the canyon broadens you will find handsome stands of big Ponderosa Pines that make for great lunch and rest spots. This late in the year, the sun is low in the sky and is frequently blocked by the peaks and rims above. Half the good pools are in the sun, half in the shade, but oddly it doesn’t seem to make much difference—the water is uniformly frigid! In the deeper holes (and some are over four feet deep!), I pick up an occasional fish on the double-nymph rig, but most come on the dry/dropper combo with the green hotwire caddis nymph leading the count.
By 11:30 I’m getting a mite peckish, but see a couple of too-good-to wait pools just ahead. I approach carefully and loft a long-cast from my knees to the riffle above the pool. The flies bounce off the overhanding palisade and somehow manage to alight in the current…and immediately something smacks the dry. I am semi-shocked to see it’s a good rainbow. He jumps then dives, but soon is in my grasp, a nice one pushing 12 inches! What a pleasant surprise. No one mentioned rainbows!
I continue exploring upstream after lunch, catching mostly smaller brownies. Before long, around 1 p.m., I come to what looks to be THE honey hole. I approach cautiously, and see a rainbow finning in the hole near the bottom, which looks to be 3-4 feet deep. He vanishes slowly, seeming to have sensed my presence. Undeterred, I run my dry/dropper rig through the run, getting several perfect floats but no action. I switch to the nymph rig and dredge the bottom of the pool. Still nothing. As I start to move on, I notice the little back eddy above the pool has more depth to it than I thought.
I can’t get a good position to cast into the small eddy, so I wade out into the riffle and with my rod extended throw a backhand cast against the cliff. The flies bounce off the rock wall right into the eddy. Luck trumps skill. I patiently let the dry swirl around in the foam and suddenly it disappears. I yank and feel something solid. Snag or fish? It moves, and it’s a good one. He surfaces, sees me, and rockets downstream into the shallower water sans snags, so soon he’s sliding onto the shore. It’s a gorgeous, deeply colored rainbow that pushes 15-inches, a veritable monster for this small creek.
After a quick release, I begin to wonder what these critters are eating that allows them grow this big. I decide to spend a few minutes overturning some bigger rocks further from the shore, and soon find the answer: Big stonefly nymphs, a meal, not a snack!
I immediately tie on a Size 12 half-back stonefly nymph that does the trick on several more smaller rainbows and browns as I work up to the trail crossing.
By 3 p.m. I am at the second trail crossing. Haven’t seen a soul or boot mark all day. It’s a beautiful spot with the sunlight dappling the pool. I fool a brownie there, then fish a few more pools upstream, catching several more small ones as the sun dips below the rim and things start to cool rapidly. Miles more good water above to explore….another day! I turn downstream, find the trail again and start the short, steep climb up to the canyon rim. It’s a completely different environment up higher on the slope that is bathed in strong sunlight most of the day. The ponderosa give way to piñon, juniper, and pesky cholla cactus.
The views down into the creek are stunning. There are no access points from above to the long stretch I just fished, unless you want to risk life and limb.
The rocks on the way back to the trailhead are another attraction, a geologic show in themselves. Some pink granite boulders embedded with quartz and unusual sheet mica especially caught my eye.
In an hour I am back at the trailhead and peeling off the neoprenes. The sun is setting over the ridge to the west. It’s been one of those perfect days—solitude, scenery, and scintillating trout. Another legend of the late fall to savor through the long winter to come.