Neither rain nor hail shall keep the ardent angler from his appointed trail!! A great, if occasionally damp, weekend doing piscatorial research for an article on the high country headwaters of the scenic Conejos River in southern Colorado. Caught and released some bellicose brown trout and gorgeous, scrappy native Rio Grande Cutthroats. Six miles hiking roundtrip in waders and wading boots two days in a row. Not bad for a septuagenarian. Pinot Grigio elixir sped recovery. 😎 Article with details to follow.
One of my favorite waters that features an intriguing history, great scenery, and even better fishing is Grape Creek in south central Colorado. While the entire twenty-plus miles in the canyon between Canon City and Westcliffe is productive, I’m partial to the upper ten miles between the rough Oak Grade/Bear Gulch access road and DeWeese Reservoir. That stretch is difficult to access without a 4WD vehicle, a vigorous hike, or both.
Like most creeks in Colorado, Grape Creek has faced (and survived) several serious threats including a proposed gold mine in its watershed and wildly fluctuating water levels courtesy of agricultural irrigation calls and the so-called Upper Arkansas Water Conservation District. For the past decade it has provided me with consistently excellent fishing for some healthy, hard-fighting browns and rainbows. So imagine my surprise when a couple of years ago when I took a fishing buddy from Florida into the canyon after a steep hike, and we almost got skunked, fooling a couple of little trout in six hours of flailing the water. When I checked under the streambed rocks, I could find nary a caddis case or mayfly nymph that usually provided a dining smorgasbord for the fish. Something clearly was wrong. I started asking around and learned that a month earlier two tremendous consecutive flash floods had scoured the river of aquatic habitat, filled the honey holes with silt, and drove the fish out.
Now two years later I stood on the canyon rim, looking down with trepidation.
My buddy was due back soon for another go at it, and I knew I’d better produce if I wanted to keep my sterling piscatorial reputation intact. The water level was at a decent level—38 cfs below DeWeese—so it was a go. After slip sliding away down the steep slope, I eased into a good-looking pool, the water clear and cold. With my nerves jangling, I picked up a fist-sized rock from the stream, held my breath, and turned it over. What to my wondering eyes should appear but a half dozen caddis cases with little small green larva peeking out and several small mayflies scurrying for cover. A big smile was in order.
Now the real test—were the trout also back? My first two casts towards the head of the pool came up empty, but on the third my #18 Royal Trude floating jauntily along the undercut bank was rudely intercepted by a gold flash of a brownie. After a good tussle, the fish came to the net for a quick release.
On the next cast into some faster water, the Trude suddenly disappeared as something snatched the #18 sparkle caddis larva dropper. I was expecting a rainbow in that heavy current, but it was a decent-sized brown! Now things were cooking. I lofted another cast into the fast water and the scene was repeated, but this time it was a hard-fighting, foot-long rainbow. It would be the first of many rainbows I would catch, all in excellent shape, perhaps the result of stocking of 4-to-5 inch fish soon after the wipeout two years ago.
The action was steady in the next two pools, just like old times. Then I came to a deep bend pool that was one of my favorite honey holes. Here the water was slower and deeper.
I threw a cast that landed perfectly just above a foam line that swirled along a ledge of rocks along the creek. The Trude floated gently in the current and was suddenly jerked under by a nice brown who gobbled the caddis dropper and headed for the snags under the overhanging rocks. My 4-weight rod bent dangerously as I put pressure on the fish and slowly eased him away from danger. He ran back upstream towards the depths of the pool but immediately came jetting back with a giant brownie in hot pursuit. The big boy nipped my fish a couple of times then disappeared. I landed the smaller fish—a respectable 13-inches—then let the pool and my heartbeat settle down.
After a few minutes I again cast above the rock wall and let the flies drift close. Again the Trude plunged under, and this time it was the behemoth that had smacked the caddis dropper. The battle was on, and it was an epic one. The big boy plunged for the depths, then made a frantic run downstream with me in hot pursuit. When he hit the shallows at the bottom of the pool, he reversed course and jetted up to the fast current below a riffle where the water plunged into the pool. I slowly worked him within reach of my net, but that spooked him into another run for freedom below. He momentarily had the upper hand, his weight and the current stripping line out at a furious pace. But again he paused and let me catch up. I ran past him and then cautiously coaxed him back upstream to the depths of the pool. Finally, he tired and slid towards me, barely fitting his 19-inches into my outstretched net.
I admired this beauty, the largest trout I had ever caught from Grape Creek. After reviving the leviathan and releasing him, I laid back in the tall streamside grass, closed my eyes and relaxed. My old heart needed the rest.
Ten minutes later I decided to make one last cast in the pool before moving up, not expecting much after the major ruckus the big fish had created. But to my great surprise, the Trude had no more than alighted when it disappeared. The battle was again joined with another major-league fish. The tussle was fast and furious, but before long a 16-inch brown came in for a quick release.
I danced a small jig as I moved up to the next pool–Grape Creek definitely back in form.
Before I could cast, however, I was distracted by a big patch of showy milkweed that always catches my attention with its squadron of beautiful monarch and swallowtail butterflies and the graceful antics of the big sphinx moths.
Then it was the carpets of skyrockets, firecracker penstemons, prickly pear blossoms, and Rocky Mountain Bee Plants. How’s a fellow supposed to concentrate on the fishing??
When I did resume, the action heated up as the sun got hot. Rainbows took over center stage, over a dozen exhibiting their muscles before submitting. Most were 11-12 inches but one pushed 14.
I had only been on the creek for a little over three hours, but with a couple of dozen fish caught and released, I figured I’d better call it a day and save some for my buddy. As I turned and started back to the trail up the canyon slope, I found myself face-to-face with three mule deer. I froze, and they eyed me like they’d never seen a creature in baggy waders and an overloaded fishing vest carrying two long sticks. The spell was broken when I said, “hello, girls.” They turned tail and disappeared up a steep slope into the woods with their herd.
What a treat, but the wildlife show wasn’t over. Soon, out of the high grass emerged a hen turkey. She played hide and seek with me for a few minutes before heading up the slope.
That’s what makes Grape Creek such a special place—a wonderful potpourri of wild things. The Grape Creek comeback is complete! Just remember to catch and release and leave no trace.