Late August 2018
See also my Fall 2017 and June 2018 articles on fishing Lower Beaver Creek.
I’m off from Salida to Denver to spend the Labor Day weekend with my #1 fishing buddy, my 2 ½ year old granddaughter Aly. After some on-line recon, I have decided to take the long way that will let me sample the waters of Upper Beaver Creek below Skaguay Reservoir, just a stone’s throw from Victor, the historic mining and now gaming town perched at nearly 10,000 feet. The lower three mile stretch at the mouth of the canyon some 14 miles downstream near the hamlet of Penrose is one of my favorite early and late season spots, holding lots of smaller brownies and an occasional lunker rainbow trout.
The drive from Salida starts down U.S. 50 then a few miles west of Canon City veers onto an official scenic byway (C0 9/HighPark Road) that more than lives up to its designation. It’s a perfect late summer day with bright sunshine and light winds. After a leisurely two-hour drive, I navigate my way through Cripple Creek and Victor, two of the three towns in Colorado where gambling is allowed, past the gargantuan Newmont gold mining operation, and start the six-mile descent to Skaguay Reservoir.
Reputedly named by miners after Skagway, Alaska, a native Alaskan word that means “windy place,” the dam was built in the late 1800s just below the confluence of West and Middle Beaver Creeks. It was the first steel-reinforced earthen and rock dam in the country, part of an incredible project to provide hydro-power generated electricity to the nearby booming town of Victor and its mines.
The Skaguay power plant itself was built five miles downstream in the rough Beaver Creek Canyon, 1,200 feet below the reservoir. A redwood and steel pipeline carried water from the lake to spin the power plant’s turbines and generate electricity. Incredibly, a tram paralleled the pipeline through tunnels and over bridges to carry people and supplies to the power plant. The whole contraption generated power until the 1960s when a flood the reservoir and plugged up the pipeline.
The dam and its reservoir survive today, the scenic lake stocked with brook and rainbow trout that provide fun for anglers as well as food for some gigantic northern pike that were stocked years ago and continue to flourish despite efforts to remove them. When I arrive, a half-dozen anglers are plying the water in kayaks and float tubes.
But I am more interested in little Beaver Creek that flows below the dam through a long meadow before plunging into the rocky narrow canyon some eight miles long. The entire canyon is a state wildlife area and the surrounding terrain a federal wilderness study area.
While Google Maps shows CR 861 (Skaguay Road) that leads to the reservoir continuing below the lake, I soon discover it is actually blocked off at the dam, requiring anglers to descend the steep but very short stretch of road to get to the restricted access one-lane road below that parallels Beaver Creek.
Once on the road, I follow the route that after a half mile bends around a big cliff, then peace and solitude reign.
For the next two miles, the creek flows through a series of broad, beautiful meadows flanked by tall pines and aspens. The stream is not a typical meadow creek with lots of serpentine twists and turns that create deep pools at bends. There are a few of those, but the stream is more a classic free-stone affair with shallow runs and riffles with an occasional plunge pool or beaver dam spicing things up.
The first mile or so before the trail splits from the road, the rocks are covered with moss, and the banks show signs of iron or heavy metal pollution. But a couple of creeks add their flow below Douglas Gulch, and the water and rocks become cleaner, with more aquatic life to boot.
I hike down about another half mile, stow my lunch, and continue down another half mile until the meadow narrows, and I stumble on a series of fresh beaver dams astride the creek that have created some nice pools that are loaded with fish finning in the depths. I circle below the dams, bushwhack through the head-high willows to the creek, and make my way upstream very stealthily. As I approach the upper dam, I see a couple of trout rising.
I check one of the creek rocks and find small caddis and mayfly nymphs. But a second reveals a larger, succulent mayfly nymph that a #18 Tung Teaser will imitate quite nicely. I tie it on underneath a bushy #16 Royal Coachman Trude that looks like the hoppers that abound in the meadow. As soon as the flies hit the water the trude is pull unceremoniously under the water as something nails the nymph, what looks to be a fat brownie or brookie. The fish jets upstream, but is no match for my 8-foot, 5-weight rod and 5X 7.5 foot leader. Soon a colorful almost foot-long brownie slides into my net. He will be one of the biggest fish of the day.
I lure a couple of more browns from the pool, then pick my way over the dam and promptly spook a dozen more fish that were laying deep down on the bottom in the waist-deep water. I make a mental note to bring a second rod next time, rigged with two nymphs and some split shot to get down to those deep-dwelling fish. I pluck several more small browns from the pool before moving upstream.
From there I have a blast catching dozens of small brownies, mostly on the nymph. Some are in very shallow riffles while others are hanging in deeper runs.
At one of the few deep pools at creek bends, I see dozens of trout lounging near the bottom. I manage to fool a couple before getting snagged on a rock and spooking the whole lot to the next county.
A good number of the fish in shallower runs I spot before the see me and enjoy watching them rise for the fly. The only real frustration is I get many follows on the RC Trude dry, many swirls and hits, but few hook ups. I switch to a smaller grasshopper pattern but the result is the same. Even when I drop down to a smaller trude, I get hits but few hook ups. I do manage to catch three or four decent browns on the dry, but miss far more. Since it could not be my lack of skill, I attribute this failing to the fact the trout must be extremely far-sighted and thus while being able to spot the fly from afar, their vision fails them close up at the strike!
The other interesting angle is that I see nary a brook or rainbow. I figured being up this high the water would be colder and attractive to brookies and bows. However, it appears the water that emerges from the reservoir comes out of the bottom of the dam, which means it is warmer than the surface most of the time. It is also odd there are more rainbows downstream at the mouth of the canyon than here, just below a lake stocked annually with rainbows.
By 3:30 p.m. it’s time to head back to the SUV and on to Denver. As I walk back up the trail, I think of that mile of meadow water below the beaver ponds that I left untouched, as well as the couple of miles in the canyon below the meadows leading to the historic power plant.
I’m already planning that next trip in my head as I walk past the dam spillway and see a big fish smack something on the surface. It’s just too much to resist, so I sneak down the little embankment and throw a cast into the current. BAM, immediately I get a hit on the dry and reel in a 12-inch brown. For the next 15 minutes I have a blast catching another half dozen fat brownies as I work my way up to the big outlet pipe where I fool a couple more nice browns on the Tung Teaser nymph.
Now it is definitely time to go, so I hustle up the road and gun my way to Denver and my little munchkin who awaits. Needless to say, I can’t wait to get back and explore that last mile of meadows downstream of the beaver dams as well as the upper canyon that hides the power plant. I didn’t see another angler on the creek the entire day, and expect farther downstream the pressure is even lighter. My kind of place!