Early July 2019
Note: See my September 2018 article for more about fishing Upper Beaver Creek and the intriguing history of Skaguay Reservoir.
The epic runoff of 2019 continues and with it my search for fishable trout waters. Most of my favorite rivers and streams—the Arkansas, Gunnison, Saguache, Cochetopa, and Tomichi—are still blown out. But Beaver Creek below the gambling and mining town of Cripple Creek appears to be candidate based on the latest reported water levels. It’s running at 18 cfs downstream at Penrose, eminently fishable, and the fact that it is a tailwater below Skaguay Reservoir means it’s probably clear as well.
I had a fun day on upper Beaver Creek late last summer and want to explore the next section further down. Last trip I hiked in about two miles below the reservoir, stumbled on a small beaver dam and pond, then fished back up from there. I caught dozens of brownies in the six-to-twelve inch range and a few bigger in the spillway just below the dam. Now my plan is to hike another mile or so below that point and explore some new water.
I’m off a bit after 7 a.m. from the Indian Springs Campground near Canon City where I am giving my new smaller mobile fish camp a shakedown run (For the story of the demise of my former rig, see my article “A Trip Through Hades.”).
My route is up through Phantom Canyon, an endlessly scenic but rough track that everyone should do at least once. It’s very slow going, taking me almost two hours to cover the 25 miles or so to Cripple Creek/Victor and Skaguay Reservoir.
It’s hard to believe this route was carved out of this rugged country for a railroad in the late 1800s. But my mind is on fishing, so I push on.
The Phantom Canyon road emerges just below Cripple Creek and Victor, two of the three towns in Colorado where gambling is allowed, and the gargantuan Newmont gold mining operation. I turn right on County Road 861 and begin 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 small boats and others line the banks.
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.
It’s a beautiful sunny day, with light southwest winds and a perfect 70 degrees, a welcome respite for the heat wave blanketing Canon City. As I suit up in my waders and fishing paraphernalia, I see a trio of other old geezers breaking out their fly rods and vests, so I switch into high gear and hit the trail before them. I want to hit the water downstream, first and don’t want any company. Fly fishing is supposed to be a non-competitive, friendly sport, but there are limits! Fortunately, I don’t see them again all day as I hustle down the trail.
While Google Maps shows CR 861 (Skaguay Road) that leads to the reservoir continuing below the lake, 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.
By 10 a.m. I have hiked down to the end of what I call the upper section, marked by a beautiful rock outcropping I’ve named Sentinel Rock. It’s bracketed by two gorgeous clear pools.
I can see fish rising and finning in the lower pool. I’m fishing a five-weight outfit with a nine-foot 5X leader and a dry-dropper combo consisting of a #18 Royal Coachman Trude dry with a #18 Tung Teaser nymph below. Although I don’t find many mayfly nymphs under the streambed rocks, the Tung Teaser was the ticket last summer.
On my first cast in the lower pool, a small brown jets out of his hiding place and nails the dry. Fortunately for him I immediately execute a long-distance release. I manage to flub a few more as well as spooking a couple of decent fish in the shallows, then finally connect with a small brown in a deeper run.
I see fish everywhere, but apparently have alerted them to my presence as they studiously ignore my further offerings. Moving up to the bigger, deeper pool right below Sentinel Rock, I finally land another fish, a chunky brown. I can again see a dozen or more fish hugging the bottom of the pool, but they turn their noses up at my offerings. In quiet desperation, I throw a longer curve cast above the pool along the rock face and immediately a bigger fish smacks the dry. Soon I’m netting a 13-inch brown.
I have vowed to head downstream to explore new water, but the temptation of rising fish in the pool above the creek bend lures me onward. I succeed in fooling a couple of 12-inch fatties before things quiet down, both on the Tung Teaser.
There are more enticing pools above, but my resolve finally kicks in, and I tear myself away to hike downstream on the well-defined trail. In about a half mile, I cross the creek again just above a big bend and small beaver pond where I began fishing upstream last September. I bushwhack my way through the shoreline willows into a stand of Ponderosa Pines, carefully picking my way over the rocky terrain. My objective is an enticing long open meadow stretch of water downstream with a few beaver ponds that shows up on Google Maps.
I plan to walk to the bottom of that section, about another ¾ mile, where the creek appears to plunge into a canyon, then work back up. But to my surprise, the trail is inundated and blocked. I peer downstream and see why—the creek has been backed up behind a huge beaver dam and another one below it.
It doesn’t appear that I can navigate around the dams to get further downstream on this side, which means I’ll have to trudge back upstream to cross the creek. The pond in front of me appears to be way deeper than I can ford in my chest-high waders. Grrrr!
But out of the corner of my eye I see a couple of good rises upstream above the dam where there is still current. The water looks deep and mysterious, so who can resist. I creep up slowly to the bank and despite my stealthy approach spook a nice brown that was meandering through the shallows in less than a foot of water. Cursing softly, I edge quietly into the shallows to give me room for a backhanded cast upstream. The flies alight and the Tung Teaser promptly sinks out of sight, as the Trude floats back towards me. Then the Trude disappears and when I set the hook, I’m onto a good fish. Soon a handsome 13-inch plus brown comes to the net. I get a couple more and miss several before the action dies down.
The water is too deep to wade upstream, forcing me to navigate back around the shoreline trees and brush until I find an opening to cast. Several nice browns are stationed mid-stream in the current that is stronger here as the pond narrows at the inlet. But they are downstream from my hiding spot and facing upstream into the current so of course immediately see me and flee for the next county when I step out from behind cover to make a cast. The shoreline above is completely overgrown on both sides or bracketed by tall trees that make casting impossible, and now the only way to work upstream is to ease into the pond which fortunately at this point has a rocky bottom with a decent current. I can see another beaver dam upstream a couple of hundred yards, the one I worked last year, but it has been built up another foot or two.
I’m anxious to cast into the next pond up, but figure I better work the inlet carefully, and it pays off. On my first cast, a nice brown nails the Trude, and another dozen soon follow—half on the surface now as the water warms in the bright sun and a modest caddis hatch appears.
When I get to the dam, I peer over it carefully and am disappointed to see a long stretch of shallow water with only a few miniature trout lounging in the sun. If I climb over the dam I’m sure to spook the little guys who will alert anything in the darker deeper water beyond. So I have to hack through the streamside vegetation and walk along the overgrown trail until I emerge 50 feet above the dam. After all that, I’m elated to see the payoff–several good-sized trout feeding actively on the surface. I carefully maneuver into the shallow water on the edge of the pond and throw a cast upstream. BAM! One of the bigger fish immediately smacks the Trude and the fight is on. I manage to lose him right at the net, but get another on the next cast on the Tung Teaser. For the next half hour as I work upstream on the narrow water that is deep but with a steady flow, I get strikes on both the dry and nymph. The casting is very tricky because of all the overhanging trees and bushes, and I manage more than a few hookups with branches between fish. At times a roll cast is the ticket to avoid the snags and at others only a sidearm effort will get under the limbs. The further I go up, the smaller the fish get with an occasional 13-incher in the mix. But who’s complaining with another dozen fish landed and released.
By now I am tuckered out and it’s lunch time. I cross over the pond to the north shore and work my way carefully back down to the big beaver dam where I stowed my lunch. I am thinking after I refuel I will explore the next big pond down, but then hear voices and am surprised to see two anglers working their way up towards the big dam. I am sitting in the shade under a big tree so they can’t see me. I watch them for a while as they catch a fish now and then and laugh when they miss one. I don’t want to disturb their fun, so tip my hat to the beaver ponds and head back upstream towards the trailhead.
Of course I can’t resist sampling a pool or two in the long meadow section between the beaver ponds and the Sentinel Rock. And the fish are willing, albeit smaller. Every nook and cranny with any depth holds a brownie, and because the flow is faster than below come slashing out quickly, often recklessly, to nail one of the flies. I also enjoy the riot of wildflowers— purple penstemons, shooting starts, wild geranium, and others–that are flourishing thanks to all the winter snow followed by wet weather in May.
As I hike back to my SUV, I see several anglers probing the picturesque waters in the long, broad meadows above Sentinel Rock. I’m back to my vehicle by 3:30 p.m., shed my waders, and have a cold libation as I watch all the family fun taking place on the lake.
Love seeing all the young kids frolicking along the shoreline and in the shallow water around the dock. How lucky they are to have parents and family who introduce them to the outdoors. Guessing I will have to bring my little waterbug granddaughter Aly up here soon for an outing!