For some earlier articles on fishing the Arkansas River, see my posts from late 2018
I was well into packing up for my annual migration to the Florida Everglades for the winter. The first snow had already fallen, leaves were falling fast, and the wind had been blowing like a banshee all week, making fly fishing a dangerous sport.
But then as if by magic, the winds relented and the angling gods beckoned, an irresistible siren’s call. I hadn’t been out on my old home water, the Arkansas River, that flows close by my cabin near Salida, Colorado, since March. When I moved to Colorado back in the late 80s, the Big Ark was undiscovered. I could fish all day on a weekend back then and rarely bump into another angler. But it wasn’t long after that rafting on the river turned into a big business, industrial-style tourism. Then the state designated the Arkansas as Gold Medal trout water, followed soon thereafter by creation of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. Both events were the equivalent of putting a big neon sign that said come on over, ye hordes from Denver and recreate. And they did.
Today Denver has over a million more residents than back then with easier access to Salida, the result being flotillas of rafters, kayaks, SUPs, float fisherman, and other assorted riffraff to drive wade fisherman berserk.
It’s virtually impossible to find a quiet spot on the river for piscatorial pursuits, even on weekdays. Now if I am sounding like an old curmudgeon, I plead guilty. Rant completed.
But suddenly to my wonder, the winds have died down, the water level on the Ark is 275 cfs, perfect for wading but too low for most rafters and kayaks, and the cold weather dipping into the 30s at night has sent fair-weather anglers scurrying to warmer climes. Now if I can dodge the increasing legions of placer miners on the river and avoid the smoke bellowing down valley from the big Deckers fire, I may find some solitude like the old days and even some fish.
Grape Creek southwest of Canon City, Colorado, is one of my favorite backcountry creeks, offering over 30 miles to explore in a rugged canyon where the wild brownies and bows are plentiful. And happily, with only a few public access points the entire length, boot marks are scarce.
Most anglers fish the stretch upstream of Canon City, gaining access where County Road 3 crosses it a few miles outside of the town.
From the bridge an adventuresome angler has over 10 miles of state and federal land with beautiful water to explore before reaching the next public access at Bear Creek Gulch. The canyon and stream gets wilder the further up you go.
But what of downstream from the bridge into Temple Canyon Park, owned by Canon City? I’ve rarely seen any serious fisherman head that way.
The creek disappears downstream a few hundred yards into the cottonwood-studded canyon, and most of the hikers venturing into the rocky, spectacular canyon have as their goal the magnificent natural amphitheater on a side canyon off the creek that gives the park its name. I’m intrigued by the fact that there’s nary a mention online of anyone fishing the five-mile stretch down to the confluence with the Arkansas River, and my piscatorial appetite is whetted even further by the alluring twists and turns in the creek that Google Earth reveals, promising deep pools and maybe big fish. Who can resist!
Temple Canyon and Grape Creek Canyon upstream beyond have a fascinating history. The intrepid explorer John Fremont traversed the rugged terrain during the winter of 1806 as he explored the Great American West. He followed a trail used by the Ute Indians that led from the plains to their summer hunting grounds in what we now call the Wet Mountain Valley. Incredibly, in the late 1800s a narrow-gauge railroad line was carved up the canyon to tap the wealth of the silver and gold mines around present-day Silver Cliff and Westcliffe. But it operated for only a few years, landslides and washouts dooming the line. Remnants of this amazing feat can be seen today in the form of old bridge abutments and rock walls along the original rail bed. Workers in those bygones years discovered a spectacular natural amphitheater high above the creek which became something of a tourist attraction.
Temple Canyon Amphitheater
Temple Canyon was transferred to the City of Canon City in 1912 by the federal government and today is managed to maintain its wild environment. The road from the city to the park is scary rough in places and there are only a couple of primitive campgrounds for the hearty visitor. No motorized contraptions of any kind are allowed in Temple Canyon, only leg-powered hikers. All of this is great news for the intrepid angler!
While in the old days the canyon experienced wild floods, today the waters are controlled, for better or worse, by the (so-called) Arkansas Water Conservancy District through its DeWeese Reservoir on upper Grape Creek near Westcliffe. The reservoir holds water for downstream irrigation by ranches and farms around Canon City. Flows can still fluctuate greatly depending on irrigation demands, but in summer the water can get dangerously low—down to 4 CFS—as water is stored up for periodic releases. State and federal wildlife agencies are working with the district to assure adequate summer flows, reportedly with some progress, albeit halting. The controlled flows have also allowed heavy willow and brush growth along some stretches of the creek, vegetation that would have been swept away by annual raging floods before the dam was built.
Last night I checked the flow on the conservancy district web site and found it to be at 20 CFS, low but eminently fishable (I find 30-50 cfs is optimal.). So it’s a go.
It’s been a wonderful summer and fall with family and friends in Colorado. The trout have been more than cooperative. A lot of good memories etched.
But the arrival today of little slate-colored juncos at my cabin to be followed tomorrow by sub-zero temps and snow signals it’s time to think about island time in the Florida Glades…and soon! Then again maybe time for a couple more backcountry outings before I hit the road.
The big broad valley that is Colorado’s South Park is known mainly for two things—its eponymous TV cartoon show and great fishing on the South Platte river and its tributaries. Problem is, just over an hour away looms the booming Denver metro area with its millions of residents, not to mention Colorado’s second largest city, Colorado Springs. The result is evident every day on two Colorado fishing groups I belong to on Facebook. While anglers show photos of nice browns and rainbows on famous stretches of the South Platte like the Dream Stream and Eleven Mile Canyon, more and more they rail about the crowds and report increasing incidents of near-fisticuffs over prime fishing spots. To make matters worse, access to private waters that were formerly open to the public for a modest fee, through programs like the now-defunct county sponsored South Park Flyfishers, is shrinking.
Crowds are not my cup of tea when it comes to fishing. However, when I drive from my home near Salida to Denver through Fairplay to see my sweetheart granddaughter Aly, I see miles of water just off U.S. Highway 285 on the South Fork of the South Platte that look inviting. I fished some of this area several years ago on the 63 Ranch State Wildlife area, public water just above Antero Reservoir. A friend and I got there early in the morning one summer day and caught some nice rainbows and browns, but by 11 a.m., the hordes descended—we could see eight other anglers, several of whom had no clue that you are not supposed to jump into the water right ahead of other anglers already fishing just below who are working upstream. We flew the white flag and beat a hasty retreat.
Still, I was intrigued when I tooled down Hwy. 285 and saw few anglers upstream of Antero on the miles of public water between the main public access points located on the 63 Ranch and Knight-Imler State Wildlife Areas. (Caveat: Anglers must stay within 25 feet of the river when fishing the Knight-Imler SWA–see maps below for boundaries of both areas.)
To further whet my angling appetite, I have heard tales of huge spawning browns migrating out of Antero Reservoir up the South Fork in the fall. As I drive, I cook up a strategy in my mind: Pinpoint the several designated public access parking areas along this stretch and then avoid them like the plague. So on my next several trips I keep a hawkeye out for alternatives and discover several possible walk-in access points from service vehicle-only gates. The next step is to find a day when the wind isn’t blowing like a banshee in South Park, an all-too-often condition.
As the temperatures start to dip into the 30s and below here in the Colorado high country, my thoughts are starting to turn from trout to chasing snook, tarpon, and redfish in my winter home in Florida’s Everglades. I live on a little island in the Glades called Chokoloskee surrounded by miles and miles of beautiful saltwater teeming with big fish. Here’s a sampling of my favorite places that can be reached easily by kayak or small skiff from my latest article from Florida Sportsman with the inside skinny on lures and technique as well. Come on down when you want to thaw out and catch some fish this winter!
Click on the link below to view a copy of the article “Chokoloskee Up Close.”