Finally some good weather, but now all my favorite waters are blown out! The Arkansas is at 700 cfs at Salida, dangerous to wade. Saguache Creek is at 140 cfs, almost three times fishable level. What’s an angler to do?? Hit those beaver ponds. For some tips and advice tackling these challenging waters, most gleaned from the school of hard knocks, click the link below:
Mid-May Near Buena Vista, Colorado
I’m wild again, beguiled again….
Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered…am I.
1957 Classic Frank Sinatra Song
It’s that time of year in Colorado when the runoff starts, wiping out most of my favorite creeks. It’s then my thoughts turn to beaver ponds that actually seem to get better with the higher flows. For almost 25 years as I drove from my cabin near Salida, Colorado, to Denver I sped by little Trout Creek along US Highway 285 just east of Buena Vista, not paying much attention to the new beaver ponds popping up here and there close by. With each trip I became more intrigued, and my appetite was further whetted when some recon on Google Maps revealed over a dozen in a short two-mile stretch. I finally resolved to stop and give them a try in 2021.
Then to stoke my curiosity further, I heard from the good gentlemen at my local fly shop in Salida, ArkAnglers, that before a flash flood hit the canyon a decade or so ago, some sizeable brown trout called the waters home. Now thoroughly bewitched, I planned an exploratory expedition.
It was a warm spring day in May when I took the bait. The view from a turnout on US 285 made it look easy, some of the ponds literally a stone’s throw away, and what appeared to be a decent jeep trail paralleling the creek below. Duck soup!!
I bumped down the dirt road into the canyon, parked my SUV, and began to suit up. Daydreaming of trout to come, it took me a while to realize I had driven over a big ant hill and was under an attack by a voracious army of big black and red denizens thereof. They were already advancing to the top of my waders when I broke for freedom, slapping wildly at the truculent critters. My quick retreat to the front of the SUV was fortunately successful. As I caught my breath, I hatched my plan of attack: I would walk down the trail about a quarter mile then work my way back up to the SUV for lunch, then continue upstream in the afternoon.
Soon I was hustling down the two-track trail carrying two rods. One was a 7 ½ foot three weight good for casting in tight quarters in channels between ponds and the other an 8 1/2 foot four weight good for longer casts required on big ponds. It was easy going. When I rounded a bend a marmot scurried across the road as he objected to my presence. Then I came face-to-face with the WALL—an apparently impenetrable thicket of eight-foot high willows probably more effective than that other, more famous one of recent vintage. With a barbed wire fence and very steep slope to my right, there was no way of getting around it so I plunged forward holding my rods high above my head pointed towards the sky and all the while muttering to myself.
After several minutes of bushwhacking and increasingly loud protestations I finally broke out into a little clearing and spied a narrow bench just above the willows that was not completely overgrown. I clawed my way up the steep slope and continued my journey. Soon I was at the big beaver pond I had targeted from the highway turnout above. It was picture perfect, framed by the towering Mt. Princeton in the distance.
And I noticed a swirling mass of midges hovering over the water so I tied on a red #20 red zebra midge below a #18 black caddis dry. All systems appeared to be go!
As I waded in carefully, I snipped off a cattail for my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly who loves to blow mightily to scatter the fluffy seeds. But as I got closer my excitement started to wane—most of the pond except for a few feet of dark green water above the dam was shallow, only a foot or so deep in most places. I took one more stealthy step out into the pond and was surprised by three nice brownies, that had been hiding along the shoreline, jetting by at light speed down to the dam pool. I figured that would end any hope of fish out of this pond, and it did. Despite a couple of dozen casts towards the dam pool and upstream, I came up empty.
Undeterred, I finally started up through the firm-bottomed upper end of the pond to target the pool below the dam above. I knelt in the current and pinpointed a cast right into the plunge pool where the water spilled over the brushy obstruction, then watched my fly float jauntily down in the current. Five casts later I was still skunked.
I moved up slowly and peered over the dam and saw one little dink rise to take a midge. Swallowing any semblance of pride, I targeted the Lilliputian. My flies landed gently near the riser, but did not rate even a look. More casts, same result. I then mounted the dam carefully to scope out the pool, but even though it was an alluring green and least three feet deep, there was nary a fish in sight.
I carefully slithered into the pool to continue upstream and moved towards the water’s edge to work up to the next dam and pond just above. I jammed my trusty wading staff into the shoreline muck and pulled my old frame up. Unfortunately, my legs slid in the opposite direction and I executed a nice full-frontal dunking. Fortunately the water was sufficiently shallow that I did not take in any water down my waders, only managing to coat myself with mud. It would be the first of three graceful dunkings I would accomplish during the day.
Impervious to the ignominy, I continued upstream. After two more unproductive ponds, I began to wonder if there were any fish here at all. I decided one more dam and pool and then it might be time to fly the white flag. This pond was a little different. There was indeed the nice deep, but small pool just above the dam, then a long stretch of shallow water, and a short run below the dam above. I worked the deep pool with several casts, but it was no dice again. I then mounted the dam and threw some long casts towards the shoreline in the shallow midsection, hoping that some trout might be sunning themselves there as was the case in the first pond. Not to be, although I did manage to hang up my line several times in the damn dam sticks and twigs.
Then I noticed there was a second current coming into the pond from a side channel to the north that appeared deeper than the one above near the dam. I crept slowly into casting position, and after my flies alighted delicately, starting stripping them in slowly. KERCHUNK went the caddis dry as something nailed the zebra midge. I feisty brownie soon came to the net. Never has an eleven-inch fish been so wildly celebrated.
It was then I could see that he had been lying at the bottom of a crystal clear three-foot deep pool fed by a nice flow from the north channel. Probably more fish in there I thought, which was confirmed after I took one more step to get into a better casting position and spooked a half dozen trout, including a couple of larger ones, that were ensconced five feet below where I had hooked the first.
From there, my circumstances only deteriorated, and I became increasingly bothered as the main creek channel and ponds became increasingly narrow and overgrown. Casting was next to impossible because of overhanging branches, and when I would wade up into the uncastable pools below the dams, inevitably I would scare a good fish or two. Finally I came to the end of the road….or dams I should say. Beyond this beautiful but constricted pond was another impenetrable wall of willows where the creek split into several channels and disappeared.
I carefully slid up towards the dam and unfurled a lovely cast that somehow avoided the overhang branches, possibly more a testament to luck than skill. No sooner did the flies hit the water than something nailed the midge and the battle was on. The trout romped wildly back and forth across the narrow pool as I tried to horse it away from one shoreline then the other. Finally the fish had pity on me and came to the net, a beautiful 13-inch well-fed brownie.
By now it was almost 1:30 p.m., and my stomach was growling. Fortunately I found a tight escape route through the willows where elk or deer had crashed through. Although I did snap one fly off somewhere in the tangle, I made it out and back to my vehicle in one piece. On the way I scurried up a ridge above the two-track trail I had come in on and spied what looked to be a couple of comely ponds that had been invisible from the trail.
I instantly scrapped my plan to head home and decided to subject myself to further perplexity after lunch. But an important lesson was learned: Whenever possible get up high to get a look down at the ponds and potential approaches. Google Maps satellite shots are often outdated, and as I would soon find out, the best venue on this stretch of the creek is on the steep slope south of and above the creek. It affords a birds-eye and relatively close-up view of the water and string of ponds below in the upper part of this section. Also there is no willow thicket on the south side to crash through to get to the water.
So that’s where I headed right after lunch. I strolled a couple of hundred yards back east up the trail looking for a route that would let me get to that south slope where I could get a better look. Luckily I found a break in the willows and brush than let me scamper down a short steep incline to a broad wet meadow that borders the creek. I strolled up to the shallow upper end of the first pond on this stretch and promptly scared the daylights out of a half dozen trout, several approaching 15-inches, all of whom retreated far downstream! I could only shake my head. Must have been sunning themselves—the water barely covered them. I fished the creek above but with no luck then waded across and ascended the steep south slope, relying on my wading staff to help pull me up. A stunning view downstream greeted me, revealing a series of textbook beaver dams and pools.
I continued to carefully pick my way west along the steep slope towards the last of the beaver ponds. On the way I admired the beautiful rock formations and colorful outcroppings of granite and pure white quartz deposits. I took a small piece of the quartz for Aly, what she calls a treasure.
When I neared the last pond I gingerly descended the slope, using the wading staff to slow my descent, and slipped into the water below the dam. Everything looked perfect.
My cast over the dam was delicate. I let the water settle then started a slow retrieve. A couple of short strips and something yanked hard on the line. I set the hook, and the fish went deep then ran straight towards me and the dam which would no doubt entangle the line in the clutter of branches. I lifted the rod hard to stop the rush, and the trout rolled on the surface. It was a big, golden-hued brownie that was 16-plus inches. That was the last I saw of him as the fly pulled loose.
Now I was ready for some steady action, having solved the equation. But it wasn’t to be. I flogged the water of the ponds above with nary a strike or look. I saw a few fish and a rise, but struck out completely. And as if to add to the injury and insult, I managed to work in another fall on the slippery shoreline where I narrowly avoided impaling my hand on some sharp stubby willow gnawings left courtesy of the local beaver cabal. Color me bewildered!
When I got back to my SUV and peeled off my waders, I reflected on what was one of my most challenging days of fishing in years. Yes the scenery was terrific, and it had been a nice ecotour with gold finches, ducks, geese, and some noisy, nosy red-wing blackbirds playing hide and seek with me. But maybe I should have done more reconnoitering in person from above to better understand the waterscape rather than just looking on-line before plunging in. Probably should have experimented with more flies, maybe the old reliable beaver pond offering the zug bug or even a leech or streamer pattern. But as I chastised and flagellated myself, I couldn’t help but take a gander on Google Maps of the next incredible series of beaver ponds just a short drive upstream. That’s when I started planning the return of the sly septuagenarian!
(Near Canon City, Colorado)
Early May 2021
For my earlier articles on fishing Grape Creek see:
Grape Creek is one of my favorite small waters in Colorado. It offers wonderful scenery and solitude along with eager browns and rainbows. I have been fortunate to have explored most of it from just below Deweese Reservoir near its headwaters near Westcliffe all the way down some 30 miles to Canon City. There are only a few public access points between Deweese and its confluence with the Arkansas River a short distance west of Canon City. Some of the roughest and wildest stretches are in Temple Canon just upstream of Canon City. I had a blast exploring scenic upper Temple Canyon in 2018 (See link above.), but my first attempt at sampling those hidden last few miles above the confluence had ended in frustration.
I was making the drive back from Denver to my cabin near Salida on a Sunday afternoon in early spring with notions of an outing on Grape Creek floating around in my noggin. Canon City was right on the way, and Google Maps seemed to promise easy access to lower Grape Creek up either Riverside or Grape Creek Drives on the south side of the Arkansas just west of town. To my chagrin, I soon found the hoped-for access near the confluence failed to note that both routes were blocked by private gated residential development. Not to be denied, I drove back towards town and over the Arkansas then up to Tunnel Drive trailhead, only to find more “no trespassing” signs posted by the railroad along the north bank blocking any access upstream to the creek. With my teeth grinding, I pulled out my cell phone and reconnoitered on Google Maps for possible access routes further upstream. The only possibility I could find was something called Eco Park, accessed via South First Street in Canon City then County Road 3. It was an easy drive out to Eco Park, but by the time I got there it was too late to attempt what looked to be a two-mile one-way hike to the creek. Lower Grape Creek would have to wait for my return.
Fast forward a couple of months and finally the weatherman forecast a day without snow, rain, or howling winds that had plagued my neck of the woods in late March and April, not to mention the so-called Arkansas Water Conservancy District finally decided to release more than a measly four CFS of water into the creek from Deweese Reservoir, which holds water for downstream irrigation by ranches and farms around Canon City. The low water levels had been further stymying my spring fishing plans for weeks. The water buffaloes who run the district had finally been releasing a steady 25 cfs for several weeks now, an ideal angling level. (Be sure to check creek water levels before your trip on the District’s web site or by calling Royal Gorge Anglers at 888-994-6743.)
I am suiting up in the Eco Park parking lot at 9:30 a.m. under sunny skies and with a gentle breeze blowing, all systems are go. A meadowlark is chortling melodiously nearby, his serenade almost always a sign of future angling success for this Kansas farm boy (Meadowlarks are the state bird.). I don my lightweight waders and get going, carrying a small lunch satchel and two rods. I start out on the good trail that accommodates hiking, biking, and horseback riders that will take me to the creek in about 0.8 miles. Immediately I come to a sign directing me south to Grape Creek, but I know from my on-line recon that I should follow the arrow towards Water Gap pointing me straight ahead due west. As far as I can see on Google Maps, the so-called Grape Creek trail goes nowhere near Grape Creek, and the Water Gap trail route provides the quickest and most direct access to the creek. Go figure.
The hike is flat and easy across a wide-open plain for the first quarter mile. I descend to a gate marking the start of BLM property and continue through it to follow the trail that loops to the right around a ridge and then turns back downhill to what is called the Water Gap, a narrow defile in jagged ridge where two ephemeral creeks have carved out a path to Grape Creek.
From there the trail follows a broad wash down to the water in another quarter mile. Sure signs of spring are everywhere, from the colorful flowers and buzzing busy bees to the leafy cottonwoods.
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 that they dubbed the “Temple,” which became something of a tourist attraction.
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 Eco Park is paved, but beyond that to the Route 3 bridge over the creek is scary rough in places and twisty-turny, best handled by a 4WD vehicle. There are only a couple of primitive campgrounds for the hearty overnight 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!
As I continue down the wash towards the creek I see a giant pipeline straight ahead. Turns out it is part of the irrigation diversion system that is sucking a lot of water out of the creek somewhere upstream. A hundred yards further on I see the result–Grape Creek is nearly dewatered, its flow barely more than a trickle and not a fish in sight in the crystal clear pools.
I had intended to stash my lunch here then hike downstream and work back up for victuals by noon then fish upstream in the afternoon. Now I am wondering how far I’ll have to hike upstream to find decent flows.
Fortunately, not too far. In about 10 minutes following a dirt road that goes upstream, I cross a bridge and come upon a concrete dam where at least half the creek is diverted into the big pipe.
I double check my two rods. The 8 ½ foot 4-weight rod is rigged with a #16 Royal Trude that imitates the many small grasshoppers I saw jumping about on the hike in and a #18 sparkle caddis nymph that is a reasonable facsimile for the predominate creek insect. On the other, a 5-weight, 8 ½ heavier rod, I have tied on a #18 Tung Teaser followed two feet below by a CDC green hotwire caddis of my own creation that will allow me to plumb some of the deeper bend pools I expect to find based on my experience fishing upper Temple Canyon. I am using a 5X leader on both.
It’s been a few weeks since I have on the water so I decide to take a practice cast into the frothy pool below the dam before I work the long, deep pool above.
Immediately some small fish give chase to the dry, jumping out of the water in hot pursuit but failing to down the fake bug. Next cast the dry disappears, and I am onto a feisty trout that has taken the nymph, a little 8-inch rainbow that makes up for lack of size with a good battle.
Next cast the scene is repeated and another bow slides in to my net. I miss a couple more strikes then finally the fish wise up.
Now I’m primed and ready to hit the aforementioned alluring deep green pool right above the dam. I climb up the concrete structure gingerly, keeping a low profile and cast the dry/dropper. Surprisingly after a half dozen casts the trout are winning by a shutout. I switch to the nymph rig to probe depths where I can’t see the bottom, but the result is the same. I’m starting to think maybe this pool may get fished heavily since it is easily accessible.
Undaunted, I continue upstream. I see a few midges hatching, but no surface activity. I don’t see any boot marks and no broken branches along the shoreline, a telltale sign that it hasn’t been fished recently. Just around bend I come to promising run. It’s tight quarters, with overhanging tree branches in front and back of me. I carefully assess the situation and proceed to hang my first cast on one of the aforementioned branches to my rear. Fortunately I am 6’3” tall and can just barely reach high enough to retrieve the fly. The second cast is on target just off the main current, and as the dry dances downstream it disappears. I’m onto another pugnacious rainbow that has taken the caddis nymph.
He’s a few inches larger than the first. That’s more like it. My next cast produces a small brownie.
A few minutes later I come to tempting run along a sheer cliff face.
Another small rainbow immediately nails the nymph. On the very next cast the dry again disappears, and I can tell I am onto something bigger. The fish dives and tries to tangle me on the beaver detritus in the depths. I work him slowly out and am rewarded with a 13-inch brownie that will be the biggest of day.
I continue working upstream where the brush thankfully recedes and the creek begins to open up. I get more frisky rainbows and an occasional brown. Most are 8-10 inches with a couple of foot-long browns. I’m a bit surprised that I am not getting anything bigger—in the upper reaches to Temple Canyon on my earlier trip I had shots at several fish that pushed 15-inches. A narrow trail parallels creek, and I start to see a few boot marks and wonder if more pressure here is the issue. Surely couldn’t be lack of piscatorial perspicacity or skill.
It’s pushing 1 p.m. now and with 15 or so fish to my credit, I pause for lunch in the warm sun and absorb the beautiful wild scene. Tiger Swallowtail butterflies are flitting about, and I can see some red cactus flowers blooming up on the steep slope above. The yellow buds of the cholla cactus are getting ready to burst.
After lunch I round a bend and come upon two huge dams—a beaver pond aficionados dream. I get a couple of small rainbows below the first dam and then see some rises near the left bank above so carefully scramble up on the dam and make a few casts. I don’t see any fish and no more rises. I gingerly wade out into the first pond which luckily has a fairly firm bottom and begin casting to the right bank where the current is flowing. I get several perfect floats but only manage to scare the daylights out of a sizeable brown trout that comes jetting downstream by me. My ego is salved when I pick up a couple more rainbows below the second dam on the dry fly.
Then I spot some movement in the cholla meadow along the stream—it’s two anglers in shorts with fly rods hiking back downstream. Hearty souls I think given the chilly water temperature! I also think the early birds get the worm (and fish). I toy with the idea of throwing in the towel, but decide to continue upstream where Google Maps reveals some beautiful bend pools. Happily I continue to get more steady action for small bows while managing to make things interesting with a couple of my patented long-distance releases on bigger fish.
By now it’s 3:30 and the sun is beginning to descend below canyon walls. But I just can’t quit. The serpentine creek reveals one tempting pool after another around each bend.
An hour later I have caught another dozen rainbows and browns and with shadows enveloping the pools and the air cooling quickly, decide to call it a day. It will take me an hour to get back to the trailhead. But there are still another two-plus miles of the creek I haven’t yet explored yet, the remotest stretches of Temple Canyon. I’ll definitely be back!