Want to fish a Gold Medal trout river in the morning then after lunch drive a few miles to explore a wilderness creek full of scrappy browns and rainbows hidden in a remote canyon? Then read on about the Texas Creek 2’fer!
Halfway between Salida and Canon City, Colorado, at the junction of US 50 and CO 69, stands the former railroad town of Texas Creek hard on the banks of the Arkansas River, my home water.
For years on my way to Denver from Salida I whizzed by the crossroads not paying much attention to the motley assortment of a couple of permanent buildings, sheds, trailers, and outdoor paraphernalia like rafts and ATVs scattered about. One morning on the way to the Front Range, at the insistence of my growling stomach, I finally stopped to sample breakfast at Barry’s Den, whose sign promised “howlin’ good cookin’.” It delivered!
As I returned sated and several pounds heavier to my SUV I noticed there was a one-lane bridge over the Arkansas. Curiosity got the better of me, so I crossed the bridge and followed a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) road to the north. The road eventually swung to the west paralleling the river upstream for several miles. At the end of the road I jumped out and scrambled down the slope to the water. My fishing fever soared as I looked at the beautiful runs and pools upstream and down.
Over the next decade I would return several times each year to chase the willing browns and bows that inhabit this productive stretch, all the while keeping an eye out for the big moose who lorded over this territory as if he owned it. Several times I stumbled onto him lounging in the tall riverside grass and was forced to execute a hasty and wide exit up around him as he cast a baleful eye in my direction. (Caveat–Pay heed to the “no trespassing” signs in this checkerboard of public land interspersed with a few private parcels.)
But the real revelation about would come a decade later when I decided to explore Texas Creek, the small stream that gives the hamlet its name. Until then I had dismissed the stream as it didn’t appear to amount to much where it flows under US 50 and into the Arkansas, maybe 3 feet wide and overgrown by streamside bushes.
All that changed a few months ago when I took a nature hike several miles north of the junction towards Westcliffe off of CO 69. The outing was organized by GARNA (Greater Arkansas River Nature Association) and led by a knowledgeable young BLM biologist. The focus was on the life and habitat of pinon jays, but my mind started wandering about Texas Creek that lay somewhere to the west, hidden in a rugged canyon.
As the erstwhile birders in the group questioned him about the lives and loves of the raucous jays, I of course quizzed him about Texas Creek and potential piscatorial inhabitants. He said he had heard the creek was definitely fishable. Game on!
Back home later that week I started doing my homework. Like most towns in this area it has a fascinating history featuring cattle drives, outlaws, railroads, and mining. Exhibit one is the story of how the area came to be called Texas Creek. In the late 1800s two cattlemen from Texas, Joe Lamb and Nat Rich, drove a big herd of longhorn cattle from Texas towards a payoff in the booming mining town of Leadville, where beef was almost as valuable as gold to the hungry miners. Having traveled almost 500 miles over several weeks and with another 100 to go, they decided to camp by a creek near its confluence with the Arkansas River. During the night, as the tale goes, a mountain lion spooked the herd and stampeded it up and down the valley, some never to be seen again. Old Joe and Nat decided to name the stream Texas Creek in their honor. For the next couple of decades the remote area provided cover for outlaws such as the notorious McCoy gang that rustled cattle, held up stage coaches, and when the railroad was built up the Arkansas River from Canon City in the 1880s, even robbed trains. Infamous bad guys Jesse James and Kid Curry reputedly rode with the gang, whose name lives on in McCoy Gulch a few miles to the west.
By 1880 the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad had been pushed through the Royal Gorge and built a station at Texas Creek. In 1900 the railroad built a spur from Texas Creek to the mining and cow town of Westcliffe twenty miles uphill to the south. To make the sharp turn up the valley in a big loop from the Arkansas River required the building of an enormous and impressive bridge that was 648 feet long and 95 feet high! The old grade can still be seen on the flanks of the canyon.
By 1920 Texas Creek was a bustling railroad center sporting a depot, section house, a general story, a one-story schoolhouse, and cabins and homes.
However by 1930s the spur was abandoned and the town began its slow decline. Little of the original settlement remains today.
While this history was intriguing, what really got my angling juices flowing was the prospect of exploring a new remote creek. The long Colorado winter was coming to an end soon and although I had notched some very good days on Ark the past few months catching some respectable brownies and bows, I was itching to fish a small creek without any other anglers in sight or traffic whizzing by.
Using Google Earth, I spied a half-dozen access routes into the canyon where the creek nestled upstream, all within five miles of the US 50/CO 69 junction. Most appeared to be through public BLM Land. A couple of weeks later during a weekend warm spell I did some on-the-ground corroboration.
The first access I attempted was off a highway pullout about three miles north of the junction, a single-track rough road with lots of twists and turns through the pinon and juniper forest. I was glad to have a high-clearance 4WD vehicle as I bounced down the grade. Ten minutes later I was peering at a beautiful series of beaver ponds, albeit locked in ice.
In a few spots I could see and hear the stream gurgling by. I smiled, knowing I’d be back soon. I explored several other jeep trails, one of which ended up high above the creek, offering a stunning view but far too steep to climb down to the creek, at least for a septuagenarian. Now I had a couple of backup routes in case the beaver ponds didn’t pan out.
I returned sooner than I contemplated, a week of balmy 60 degree weather luring me to the creek in hopes the ice was gone. It was a weekend, which I typically avoid like the plague as anglers descend on the Arkansas from all directions. Indeed as I drove from Salida to Texas Creek, I counted over 40 people fishing or preparing to do so in 30 miles. I wondered what I would find on the creek in the canyon.
As I rounded the last bend in the access road about 10:30 in the morning, I smiled. Nary a vehicle nor soul was in sight! As I exited my SUV in the warm sun and strode toward the water, I was greeted by a squadron of truculent Canada Geese guarding the string of beaver ponds, who objected strenuously to my presence.
I smiled even more broadly when I got to the bank of the big pond, happy to find it ice-free as were several others I could see up and downstream.
However, because of warm weather melting last week’s big snow, they were brim full and out of banks in several spots, washing over the bordering wetlands. The ponds appeared too deep with banks too mucky to navigate, so I decided to bushwhack downstream on a faint trail on the east edge of the canyon then work my way back up. When I emerged from the tangle of bushes about a quarter mile downstream, I gazed on what looked to be a surefire bet—a beautiful run below a substantial beaver dam with promising deep water above in the pond. Then as if a sign from the fishing gods, a caddis fly landed on my hand. Honest!
My lightweight 8-foot, 4-weight rod was rigged up with two nymphs below a yellow yarn strike indicator with no weight. The top fly was a #18 Tung Teaser imitating the mayflies nymphs I found under the streams rocks, and the trailing one a #18 CDC beadhead caddis larva, a reasonable facsimile of the little green buggers crawling about the streambed.
With great confidence I waved my wand back and forth, and the flies gently alighted in the pool below the dam and came floating back down in a beautiful run flecked with foam, an almost sure sign of fish to come.
Surprisingly an hour later the air was redolent with the odor of Mephitis mephitis (aka skunk). Despite numerous casts into alluring deep pools, perfect looking eddies, and stretches that screamed fish, I had exactly zero strikes and saw only one miniscule fish darting to safety, and couldn’t even swear that it was a trout.
As I got back to my SUV thoughts of bagging the creek and heading down to the Arkansas River were floating through my head. But I decided to persist and try another section downstream at another access point I had spotted.
Within 15 minutes I was pulling up to the creek a mile or so downstream from the beaver pond debacle. I stepped cautiously down from the parking area to a fine-looking stretch where the creek plunged past a big mid-stream boulder into a fine looking pool where I immediately caught saw the flash of a small trout feeding on the bottom. Bingo!
I began to unfurl my rig to cast, but noticed an old campfire on the bank a few feet downstream and some old boot marks on the sandy shoreline. I decided to explore downstream where there might have been less pressure, and where Google Earth promised some good-looking bend pools. I crossed over the creek and picked up the faint trail on the north side. Within 100 yards that track had disappeared entirely, and from then on I wouldn’t see another boot mark.
The valley was nice and wide for about a half mile downstream, allowing the sun to bathe the creek and offering easy walking. Then the canyon walls began to pinch in and the going got rougher with thorny bushes and a thicket of willows calling for some serious bushwhacking. Finally I came to a jumble of big boulders along the creek flanked by what looked to be an impenetrable tangle of vegetation extending up the canyon walls. I also noticed the pesky bushes had eaten my caddis fly somewhere along the way. That was a signal to stop, rerig, and go fishing.
I scrambled up on the boulders, one of which was car-sized, to get a good look at the creek. Ten feet below me was a tempting plunge pool that couldn’t be accessed from below and blocked upstream by the sheer canyon wall.
It was going to be tough to cast down into the pool and allow my flies to drift into the quiet eddy just outside the raging main current. After a couple of practice efforts I figured out how to get a drift into the quiet water without dragging the flies pell mell downstream. On the fourth cast my yellow yarn strike indicator disappeared, and I set the hook on a…. jagged rock hidden below the surface. This was not going well. After several fruitless efforts to free the snag, I executed a last-ditch effort roll cast and miraculously the fly came loose. I started to give up but a last-second death wish took hold, and I attempted yet another cast into the maelstrom below. As if on cue, the strike indicator disappeared in about the same spot, and I lifted the rod slowly hoping to disengage from the rock, but to my great surprise a large rainbow, maybe 16-inches or more, thrashed to the surface with the caddis larva in this mouth. He dove and went deep as I started to wonder how I would ever bring him in, perched as I was high above the pool. Then the bow jumped, and I executed a perfect long-distance release, rendering the issue moot.
As I sat on the rocks licking my wounds, I looked upstream at the next pool. From there on up for quite a piece the water was much shallower and clearer. There were also a few caddis and other bugs winging above the surface. Maybe, I mused, time to try a dry-dropper rig—a caddis dry on top which would also serve as a strike indicator for the caddis nymph below. This rig would be much more manageable and easier to cast under the big broken tree branch guarding the puddle above. Problem was, I soon discovered, I had left all my dry fly boxes at home given the fact I hadn’t needed to use a dry during the past few months of winter fishing which is almost strictly subsurface. I continued to paw through every nook and cranny of my fly vest and somewhat miraculously discovered a #16 Stimulator misplaced in corner of a nymph box. It would be a passable imitation of those caddis flies.
I lowered myself carefully from the boulders and crept stealthily towards the pool upstream, then crossed over the creek to get a better casting angling under the tree branch.
There I caught a glance of some movement in the shallows, a hefty brown trout about 14-inches finning nonchalantly as it picked off food floating by. I knelt down slowly and made a perfect cast (maybe lucky?) under the clutching branch. The dry floated slowly over the fish, which I expected would grab the nymph, but instead he rose slowly and sucked in the dry. I set the hook, and the brown took off for shelter in the deeper reaches of the pool above. I put on the brakes, my rod doubled over, and slowly worked him back towards me, my net at the ready. The fish would have none of it and cavorted around the shallows until he finally flipped off. Was this going to be the story of the day?? Now I was 0 for 2 on two good-sized fish.
But soon I redeemed myself. I executed another sidearm cast that landed further up under the branch near the head of the pool. Almost instantly the dry disappeared, and I was onto another feisty brown. He came in for a quick photo and release, a respectable 12-inches. I missed another strike and then connected with another brown before moving on.
Around the bend I was greeted by a long, straight stretch of water with promising pockets here and there behind rocks in the creek. But the current proved to be too strong to get any kind of decent drift.
No sooner would the flies hit the quieter water behind a rock where fish usually reside than they would be dragged downstream at warp speed. A couple of fish did flash at the flies as they rode the cascade, but I came up empty.
Another 100 yards upstream I came to a larger, promising plunge pool that offered more depth and a back eddy with quiet water. I could see several trout swimming back and forth, feeding just off the main current. Problem was that I would again have to kneel and use a sidearm cast to avoid a big overhanging tree branch as well as brush on the opposite bank.
My first two casts swung too far to the left of the tail end of the pool allowing the flies to be dragged under by the current. But the third was right on target. The flies floated over and then past the fish, but then one turned in hot pursuit and nailed the nymph. It was another brownie, this one about 11-inches. A twin soon followed.
Next I crossed back over to the opposite bank and walked further up to try the big eddy that swirled against the far bank. The flies alighted gently and then spun upstream in the eddy, reached the top near the water cascading in the pool and drifted slowly down on the current’s edge. Suddenly the dry disappeared unceremoniously, dragged under by a brownie that was hugging the bottom in the quieter water. I quickly caught two more—all 10-12-inches—and missed a couple before things went quiet.
Above, the creek curved back to the north and offered some attractive pools where the water careened against boulders. But there proved to be too heavy a flow to get a decent drift. I made a mental note to revisit these pools when the early runoff had subsided a bit.
Now I was nearing my SUV where I had started a couple of hours ago. There was one more long, deep pool inviting below it, created by a small beaver dam. I crept up below the dam, keeping a low profile, and unfurled a long cast upstream.
I was surprised there were no takers. Same result the next five casts, so I scaled the dam and worked towards the little waterfall at the head of the pool. Still no action even though the water look inviting, deep enough to hid a fish and not too fast. Then I saw a possible reason. The lower branches of a streamside tree had been snapped off in several places, undoubtedly by another angler several days earlier.
That was a sign to retreat to my SUV and the lunch that awaited along with my usual RC Cola elixir. But as I came to the clearing around that first pool where I started, I again saw some small trout flashing on the bottom. I decided to postpone lunch for a few minutes and was rewarded when a scrappy small brown darted out and nailed the nymph—a good appetizer for the feast awaiting.
After a relaxing and pleasant lunch lounging in the sun in my camp chair, I decided to reconnoiter upstream. I found some promising looking pools and runs, but they were blown out as the runoff picked up steam. Next time!
But who’s complaining?! I didn’t see another angler all day, the scenery was spectacular, and the fish were eager, obviously not having seen many faux flies. I left with a big grin on my face, already planning a Texas Creek 2’fer for April, fishing the Big Ark before noon and then the creek after lunch… and vowing to solve the puzzle of those picture-perfect beaver ponds!!