Photos by Chris Duerksen and Fran Rulon-Miller
For articles on my other adventures on Grape Creek, see my 2017 posts:
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.
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.
I’m up early, but not too early as I have been finding that on other area creeks the dinner bell has been ringing after 10:30 in the morning. It’s well into fall now and temperatures are dipping into the 30s and below in the high country. Lower Grape Creek is a bit of a wild card as the temperatures around Canon City are usually 10-20 degrees warmer than upstream near Salida where I spend the summer and fall. I arrive at the County Road 3 Bridge about 10 a.m. It’s a cool morning, barely in the 60s, a welcome change from the 90 degrees Canon City experienced over the past weekend. The temperatures are supposed to climb only into the 70s today with light winds. Fall is definitely in the air, and the cottonwoods along the creek are already tinged with yellow.
I suit up in my waders and vest, and am on the well-marked trail by a little before 10 a.m. I see a couple of anglers heading upstream, but no one going down my way. Whew! I’m carrying a short 7 ½-foot 4# rod rigged with a dry-dropper. To match the few small hoppers around the parking area, my dry fly choice is a #16 Royal Coachman Trude. The streambed rocks reveal many more caddis than mayflies or stones, so I go with a #18 bead head green caddis nymph.
As I hike the short stretch to the first creek crossing, I’m disheartened to see the graffiti painted on the old railroad embankment walls and cottonwood trees and trash scattered hither and yon. It looks like this is a good party area for local kids. But after the second crossing, the trail becomes much fainter through the high grass, willows, and stately cottonwoods that crowd the creek.
When the tangle becomes too much, I take a fork that carries me to some high ground where now I have to dodge cactus and jumping cholla.
I’ve decided to fish on my way down, hopscotching from good pool to good pool, just in case some anglers come down later. If I hike down the mile or so to the Temple amphitheater access and work upstream, I may get cutoff by Johnnie-Come-Latelys.
The water is surprisingly cool despite the hot weather Canon City has been subjected to of late. I attribute that to the cool weather upstream this past week and the tailwater effect of the dam. It’s also very clear, calling for a stealthy approach. I cast in the riffle above the pool and watch with great anticipation as the dry bobs jauntily down the current, up against the cliff, and through the deep pool.
I’m surprised there are no takers. Again. And Again. But on the fourth cast the dry disappears, and I set the hook. I see a silvery flash at the bottom of the pool—a nice rainbow has nailed the nymph.
That’s not to say the fish aren’t there. A ways downstream, I see a big 16-inch plus rainbow hugging the bottom in a pool that I wade into after having fished it thoroughly and stealthily from below. He took nary a look on either the dry or dropper that I ran through the pool a half dozen times, and to kick proverbial water in my face, refuses to move despite me being only a few feet from him in his lair. In others, I see a half-dozen or more fish finning in the deeper reaches, but they turn their noses up at my offerings. I don’t see any surface activity either. Now I am seriously lamenting not having the heavier double-nymph rig that would allow me to reach the bottom where the fish are happily ensconced.
I am thinking of rerigging my dry/dropper combo when I come to a beautiful pool basking in the bright sun that has finally broken back through. I get a good float along the foam line above and BAM, I get a fish on the dry. And as I coax him in, see another of his buddies chasing the dropper. He bites, but soon wriggles off, dashing my hope of a double. Rarely has a 10-inch brown been so welcome!
I get another couple of hits and land a brown that goes 12-inches! I will find that the sun is the key. Almost all of the fish I will catch after lunch are located in sun-bathed pools and only rarely in the shade of the canyon walls.
I’m back on the water by 1:30 p.m., having recharged with a big lunch and the magic RC Cola elixir. The sun is shining brightly now, and the action heats up along with the temperature. I soon net a nice 13-inch rainbow on the nymph.
Now it’s a 50/50 split between the dry and the nymph dropper as I witness more surface activity. The afternoon is delightful, with each successive pool seemingly more picturesque, more stunning than the last. With the sun high above the canyon walls now I have to be extra stealthy—often casting from a kneeling position to keep a low profile.
To make the afternoon even more memorable, I stumble on an old rail from the 1880s railroad that has been unearthed by the spring runoff.
Then I come to a big railroad bridge abutment that towers above the creek. Another reminder of the incredible engineering feat it took to run the railroad 32 miles up the canyon to Silver Cliff!
And a few minutes later, I see a head of something pop up high out of a pool above. I’m thinking it’s a loon that had been feeding in the depths, but on closer inspection am surprised to see it’s a big snake, every bit four-feet long, one I’ve never seen before.
He’s reddish and a good swimmer, often stretching his neck up high out of the water to peer upstream…and no rattle (whew!). When I get back home I discover it’s a coachwhip snake (or red racer), one of the largest in North America. They like riparian habitat in pinon and juniper woodlands like those found along Grape Creek, and feed on mice, rats, and the like, often slithering up trees to catch their prey.
Interestingly, they have better vision than most snakes and often elevate their heads above ground to scan for prey or to keep a look out for predators. While non-venomous, the coachwhips reportedly have razor sharp teeth and are ferocious fighters, something I did not confirm. Their name is said to come from a resemblance to the braided lashes of an 18th-century British coachman’s horsewhip. These serendipitous encounters with history and fauna are just another thing that makes fishing in wild canyons such a moveable feast!
Late in the afternoon around 3:30 p.m., I intersect the well-marked trail that descends from the Temple Canyon campground above on the canyon rim. It leads downstream then veers across the creek to the narrow side canyon where the Temple Amphitheater hides high above. I had entertained the thought earlier of hiking up the side canyon to see the landmark, but upon seeing the steep climb, quickly demur. Maybe next time, sans waders! Instead I continue downstream.
Now the trail has faded again and in places disappears. More bushwhacking is called for, but that usually means fewer anglers have been down this far.
And sure enough, I come to another gorgeous pool…and a big rainbow trout is rising steadily at the bottom of the pool, sipping something small off the surface. He looks to be every bit of 15-inches or more. I navigate through the brush below the pool and set up in a good position to cast. But my fatal mistake is failing to change to a smaller dry, maybe something to imitate the scattering of small mayflies flitting about…but I’m overanxious and a bit lazy. I stick with the dry/dropper rig that has been productive and throw three good casts and get perfect drift over him. Suspended only a foot or so below the surface, he just stares at my offerings as they float by without moving a muscle, and then slowly disappears into the depths.
After verbally chastising myself severely for my lassitude, I move up higher in the pool and a “monster” 12-inch brownie nails the dry.
I pull another half dozen trout from the pool, browns and rainbows, on both the dry and nymph. I see a dozen more fish lounging in the deepest reaches of the pool, again making me long for my heavier nymph rig back in the SUV.
By now the sun is starting to cast shadows on the southern edges of the canyon floor, signaling it’s time to head back upstream. I’ve hiked down about 1 ½ miles and want to leave a little time to fish on the way back. But it’s a tough decision. On my Google Maps I see that the brush recedes a bit just a ways downstream, and the creek executes a series of hard turns creating some beautiful bend pools promising big fish. A good excuse for a return trip!
On the way back upstream, I manage another half-dozen trout, mostly brownies, and all but one in pools showered in sunlight.
Temple Canyon has been a revelation, sheltering a strikingly scenic, piscatorially productive stretch of Grape Creek in its wild embrace.
With a satisfied, tired smile on my face, I peel off my waders and stow my vest and wading staff in the SUV. Then it’s back on the road to Salida salivating over the thought of fried catfish smothered in a crawfish etouffee sauce at the Lost Cajun, my new favorite post-fishing-restaurant, all washed down with a tasty and refreshing Abita Amber brew straight from the Big Easy.