Late May/June 2019
There is nothing more disheartening for a Rocky Mountain angler than to drive over a favorite creek or river in late May or early June and discover overnight it’s transformed from a clear rushing stream into a churning chocolate brown runaway torrent. It’s a sure sign that the snow-fueled runoff is underway and with the high-elevation lakes still iced in, that the fly rods will be mothballed till July.
But wait!! It does not have to be. With a little sleuthing there are almost always some waters that are fishable. Here are some tips on how to find them and a list of likely candidates in my neck of the woods—south central Colorado.
Tip #1: Think Tailwaters: Any mountain creek below a reservoir is a contender for good fishing, likely with a controlled flow and clear water where the fish can see more than a few inches in front of their noggins and where they don’t have to hide within a few feet of the shoreline to avoid being washed away. You’re probably thinking, not really many of those around. But there really are! For better or worse, most of the waters of the Mountain West have been thoroughly plumbed and dammed, and not just the big rivers like the Gunnison, Rio Grande, or Arkansas. My protocol to find them is to locate a prospective creek on Google Maps and then follow it upstream to see if there is an impoundment above. It’s surprising to find that practically any creek of a decent size has been plugged up to provide irrigation or municipal drinking water. Here are a few examples:
Beaver Creek: A tailwater of Skaguay Reservoir near the old mining town of Victor, Beaver Creek plunges down a remote canyon for over fifteen miles to emerge near the hamlet of Penrose. Best flows are 10-15 CFS, but fishable up to 25 CFS. Lots of small browns and bows, and a surprising stonefly hatch. See my blog articles from 2017 and 2018.
Grape Creek: One of my favorite creeks is dammed up to form DeWeese Reservoir high in the Wet Mountain Valley near Westcliffe. It then flows some 32 miles through a rugged canyon to Canon City. There are only three public access points: a short stretch just below the reservoir, one at Bear Gulch, and the other at Temple Canyon Park. Flows under 30 cubic feet per second (CFS) are generally fishable. See my blog articles from 2018.
Fourmile Creek: This Fourmile Creek (there are several in Colorado), flows out of Wrights Reservoir near Florissant and Cripple Creek, then wends its way through Helena Canyon to emerge near Canon City. Fishable at flows up to 20 CFS, with 10-12 being ideal. The Rocky Mountain Angling Club has a section of the creek open to members. See my blog article from 2015 and rmangling.com.
Lake Fork Of The Arkansas: The Lake Fork is a tailwater below Turquoise Lake near Leadville. Much of it is on private land. The Rocky Mountain Angling Club has a stretch open to members that has recently undergone some restoration and has some big fish. For more information, see rmangling.com. Flows of 15-20 CFS are best.
La Jara Creek (near Alamosa): La Jara Creek flows out of La Jara Reservoir high above Alamosa. While the upper section near the reservoir may not be accessible in May/June, the lower section near Capulin is. Flows of 10-20 CFS at Capulin are best. See my 2017 Southwest Fly Fishing article for trip notes.
Tip #2: Go With The Flow: Once you find a tailwater creek, the next essential step is to find out the current water flow level. Just because the water is clear, doesn’t mean it’s fishable. For example, right now Grape Creek is reasonably clear, but running at over 100 CFS below DeWeese Reservoir. Just right for daredevil kayakers, but a little hairy to wade. Fortunately, the State of Colorado, like most western states, maintains a website that tracks water levels on streams and rivers. Here’s the link: https://www.dwr.state.co.us/SurfaceWater/default.aspx.
You will see on the opening page a list of the seven major river drainages in Colorado.
Click on the drainage where your candidate creek is located (e.g., the Arkansas for Grape Creek) then scroll down to find it. You will see the current flow levels.
If you click again on the creek, most will have historical data that can be very valuable. If current flows are significantly above levels earlier in May or higher than previous years, it is a heads-up the water may be unfishable. Experience here is the best teacher, as noted in the best water levels for selected creeks under Tip #1.
Other potential sources of water level information are the U.S. Geologic Survey National Water Information System (for Colorado see https://waterdata.usgs.gov/co/nwis/current/?type=flow&group_key=huc_cd.) and, of course, local fly shops like ArkAnglers in Salida and Royal Gorge Anglers in Canon City. Both offer guided wade fishing trips.
Tip #3: Plan B Means Beaver Ponds: If snow pack levels are high, as they are this year, at some point even tailwater creeks may be blown out once their feeder reservoirs are full and water has to be released. A good example is Grape Creek. Until about a week ago, it was flowing at 30 CFS, high but eminently fishable. Then I noticed that the water level in the creek near Westcliffe above DeWeese Reservoir had jumped to 90 CFS. Sure enough, a few days later Grape Creek below Deweese was running at over 100 CFS—unfishable.
What to do then? Think creeks with beaver ponds. Silver Creek above the town of Poncha Springs is a good example. Two years ago when everything else was blown out, Silver Creek’s beaver ponds saved the day. (See my 2017 articles about Silver Creek for details.)
Now granted, searching out fishable beaver ponds can be a challenging endeavor. Again, a call to a local fly shop is a good place to start. Another source that I have stumbled onto is hiking sites like AllTrails. Greens Creek near Salida is a good example. I had hiked Greens Creek some 20 years ago and thought I remembered a series of big, deep beaver ponds where I had caught some nice brownies. But I wasn’t sure. Fortunately, the AllTrails site for Greens Creek had a series of comments from hikers who mentioned those very beaver ponds. https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/colorado/greens-creek-trail. A few days later I was on my way to a successful outing when almost everything else within 100 miles was blown out.
While time-consuming, it’s also productive on a blustery cold winter or spring day to get on Google Maps and start eyeballing local creeks to see if you can spot any beaver ponds for future expeditions. Just tell your spouse or significant other you are checking out tropical Caribbean vacation sites. That’s actually how I discovered some massive beaver ponds on the headwaters of Tomichi Creek above White Pine.
They are high on my list to explore this month, even though Tomichi Creek at the gauging station a few miles downstream near Sargents, Colorado, is running at flood stage above 250 CFS—when I consider 30 CFS to be high but fishable!!
So don’t sit at home, but go forth and run your own rings around the runoff. And don’t forget that all that water likely means divine fishing conditions this summer after last year’s terrible drought and low flows.