Off The Shelf (Road) And Into Four Mile Creek Canyon

Early July 2019

For an account of my earlier sojourn on Four Mile Creek, see my July 2015 article.

The epic runoff of 2019 in Colorado has put the fishing for most of us on the shelf.  So what better way to break the hex but to fish Four Mile Creek below scenic Shelf Road near Cañon City!  I haven’t been back to this little wilderness canyon gem for almost four years, so am anxious to see what changes time has wrought.  Four Mile Creek usually runs clear and fishable most of the year, being a tailwater of private Wright Reservoir upstream near the historic mining and now-gaming town of Cripple Creek.  The Colorado Division of Water Resources gauge near Cripple Creek reports a flow of 13 CFS, which is about perfect.  Flows between 10 and 20 CFS are best in my experience.

I’m on the road at 7 a.m. from my spot at the Indian Springs RV Campground just north of Canon City.

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Indian Springs Campground Off Phantom Canyon Road

I’m doing a shakedown trip this week to test out my new mobile mini fish camp travel trailer and to salve my fishing fever.  I head into town on US 50, looking for the turnoff at the Burger King onto N. Raynolds Avenue.  Raynolds goes north and turns into Pear Street, and then I take a right onto Fields Avenue.  After a few miles I intersect Highway 9 that climbs into Red Canyon.  The striking western scene sends out good vibrations of a fine fishing day to come.  The weather outlook is excellent—barely 60 degrees now with a predicted high of only in the lower 80s while Cañon City will be cooking in an early summer heat wave.  I stay away from the creek in late July through early September—too hot in the canyon and rattlers likely to greet you then.

When the pavement ends I start to wend my way down the gravel road into Four Mile Creek Canyon.  Highway 9 turns into one-lane Shelf Road perched high above the canyon and creek.  I stop at a turnout and hold my breath as I edge to the steep drop-off to take my first peek at the water…and am thrilled to see it is in good shape.

Now mind you, good shape means it’s a little milky as usual thanks to discharges from a series of mine reclamation and treatment ponds a few miles upstream.

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Mine Treatment Ponds Upstream Of Four Mile Canyon

From here up to Cripple Creek is country pocked with abandoned mines.  It’s a miracle that Four Mile Creek isn’t running orange from heavy metal pollution.

I continue carefully on narrow Shelf Road, skirt Trail Gulch, and stop near Mile Marker 12.

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Public Access Between Carlin and Trail Gulches

Upstream and downstream from here for about a mile is public land, although access is tough to say the least.  Choose your route to the creek very carefully looking for ridges and draws that are navigable.  Caveat:  Do take a hiking pole to slow your descent, do stow your rod in a case and waders in a backpack, do wear good hiking shoes, do a lot of traversing of whichever steep slope you select.  Descending into this canyon is not for sissies.

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Into The Wilds

Gear for Four Mile Creek is pretty simple.  I carry a four- or five-weight fly rod and a small box of flies.  Grasshopper patterns and bushy caddis imitations are the best dries, and while the predominant nymphs are caddis, my experience is that nothing comes close to beating a red or pink #16 San Juan Worm, which I attribute to the perpetual milky, off-color clarity of the water that favors this fly I rarely use.  I usually carry a second rod rigged with a strike indicator and two nymphs, but rarely end up using it, with the dry-dropper combo working well even in deeper stretches.

Once in the canyon I like to stow my lunch and extra water in the shade near the big bend the creek makes to the south.  I walk downstream through a shady shrub oak grove and beyond for about ½ mile, then work my way back up.  In the afternoon I continue upstream to Carlin Gulch.  That’s plenty of water for a full day of fishing.

Today I’m surprised to find the creek shoreline more overgrown than ever, a trend that has continued for the past decade.

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Bushwhacking Practice Area

I used to encounter some cattle in this stretch that would apparently munch down the young willows, and the last couple of years of drought has reduced the flooding that also helps keep the pesky trees in check.  In other words, expect a lot of bushwhacking and utterances of off-color remarks as you work back and forth across the creek when you run into a cliff or big boulders blocking your path.  Tip:  Make sure your angler’s forceps are tightly clamped and affixed to your vest or the branches will eat them.  If you find mine, give me a call.

But for all the vicissitudes of the scramble down the scree, dodging cacti, and crashing through the brush, all’s well as soon as I get my first close-up look at the creek and see a nice brownie finning in the shallows.

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Who Can Resist?

So my plan to work a half mile further downstream immediately goes out the window as I sneak into position to cast.  As my dry, I’m using a #16 Royal Coachman Trude (my old reliable imitation for a caddis fly or small hopper) with a hybrid pink and red beadhead San Juan Worm that glows brightly in the milky water.  There’s a nice deep hole in the middle of the pool, and I drift my rig through it and am surprised when I come up empty.  A half dozen casts later I’m still nursing a skunk.  I change tactics and throw a cast up against a rock face in the shallows, and immediately the dry gets smacked by chubby little brown that’s a candidate for Weight-Watchers.

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I work up to the next pool framed by a gorgeous double waterfall and manage to miss a couple of good fish.

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Double Waterfall Pool

Then all goes quiet.  I flail that pool and another above with nary a hit, then notice a swarm of tiny black trico mayflies swirling above my head.  Interesting, because there are virtually no mayfly nymphs under the streambed rocks I have checked.  And I don’t see any mayflies on the water and no risers.  Go figure!  I continue working upstream, and when I come to the next pool a shaft of light shines on a very likely run, so I take that as a sign to put on a small mayfly nymph.

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Angling Gods Point Way To Faithful Angler

Bingo!  On the very first cast I hook up with a strong high-jumping fish who has chowed down on the mayfly nymph.  After a worthy battle, he comes to the net, a big brownie over fourteen inches, a veritable lunker for this creek.

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Big Brownie Highlights Day

A few casts later I hook another big fish, but execute a long-distance release when he jets downstream and wins his freedom with an impressive head-over-tail jump.  Foolishly thinking I have solved the equation, I pound the water for the next 15 minutes with nary a strike.

That’s a sign to continue my trek downstream and to take a snack break in the welcoming shade of the big shrub oak grove I mentioned above.  I see an old campfire ring and a few other signs of visitors, but as on previous trips, will not cross paths with a soul all day.

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Oak Grove Shady Oasis

Now recharged, I decide to ditch the mayfly nymph and go back to the SJ Worm.  Immediately I begin to pick up a few smaller browns and about 11 a.m. come upon a beaver dam and pond that weren’t there my last trip.  Indeed, from here on up I will run into new beaver dams that have completely changed the stream and approach.

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Beaver Dam Hot Spot

The water below this first beaver dam turns out to be the best stretch of the day.  I hook six decent browns all around 12 inches, land three on the SJ Worm, and miss several more strikes.  Then I come to the run that has always been the best of the best—what I call the split boulder pool.

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Split Boulder Pool

But now instead of a free-flowing section, it’s drowned behind a beaver dam with only a slow moving current.  I spend almost a half hour in the big pond/pool and get zero strikes.  I continue upstream shaking my head and decide it’s time for a lunch break and my RC Cola elixir.

Rejuvenated with a caffeine and sugar jolt, I decide to start the afternoon by adding a second SJ Worm under the dry, just a foot or so below the first nymph.  This one is all red.  It turns the trick.

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Afternoon Delight

I have steady action on both the worm flies till I reach the big cliff pool just above Carlin Gulch, catching over a dozen more and netting several that go 13-inches.  Interestingly, I get nothing on the dry and see no hatches or surface activity.  I say to myself, one more fish, and like clockwork, a 12-inch brownie inhales the red SJ Worm as it floats up against a sheer rock face along a deeper run.  A good way to end the day.  As I pack my rod and gear up, I take time to admire the abundant wildflowers, especially the showy yellow flowers set among the thorns of the prickly pear cactus.  Not unlike the beauty, allure, and challenges–of Four Mile Creek.

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Prickly Beauty

2 thoughts on “Off The Shelf (Road) And Into Four Mile Creek Canyon

  1. Great story- I love this place. I think it’s definitely worth the extra effort to get to, but I do begin question my sanity as I’m climbing back out of the canyon.
    What a beautiful place.

    Like

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