This past August I hosted fishing buddies from the East Coast, Steve Spanger and Paul Hughes, in their quest to catch some manly, muscular Colorado trout. Under my watchful eye and refereeing to ensure no funny business, they chased their quarry on the South Arkansas River, Carnero Creek, and the South Fork of the South Platte. In three pugnacious, fish-filled days, the eastern contingent proved up to the challenge, catching and releasing dozens of fiesty fish including a 17-inch brown plus a rare two-species double (brown and cuttbow) by Mr. Spanger and a slam by Mr. Hughes (brown, brook, and cuttbow in one day). A quartet of flies proved to be the downfall of many hungry trout.
All-in-all, it was a fun time with two gentlemanly anglers who also proved their mettle by dodging amorous llama to reach the water one day as well downing copious amounts of Colorado brews and a variety of fruits of the vine in post-fishing celebrations. Here’s a slide show with a little music that captures the spirit of the week. Hats off to the beastly boys from the East.
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.
I am delighted and honored that my recent piece on seeking fish and solitude in South Park, Colorado, was the lead featured article in the July/August issue of American Fly Fishing magazine. See below for a link to download the article. Now back to some more serious piscatorial research!
As I finished cleaning the last window on my place near Salida, Colorado, I figured I had earned a fishing trip. I had driven in from Florida, my winter getaway, on the heels of a big late May snowstorm in Colorado and whiled away a week tidying the cabin till the cold weather lifted.
Now that domestic duties were successfully completed without serious injury and the dust had literally settled, I was ready to feel the tug on my fly line. But now that rascally young girl La Nina was giving all of us anglers fits just like she had done back in Florida. For months the wind howled down there in the Everglades, keeping my buddies and me off the water days at a time. The same scene was being repeated here in Colorado. Fly casting into 15-30 mph winds is not exactly a relaxing interlude.
Fortunately–and after another week holed up in my cabin writing and reading–the forecast is for the wind to die down in a couple of days, at least for a few hours in the morning. But now I’m hit with a double hex—the nearby Arkansas River, my home water, and neighboring creeks are too high because of runoff from late snow on the Collegiate Peaks. Plus, most streams over the pass in the drought-plagued San Luis Valley/Rio Grande watershed are just a trickle already. So, I decide to treat myself to fishing some private water on one of my favorites off Highway 114 near Gunnison—Cochetopa Creek. The Gunnison watershed got decent snow over the winter, and according to the state water gauge near Parlin, Cochetopa Creeks is running at 30 cfs, a bit low but based on my experience should still be eminently fishable.
I’m up early at 5:30 a.m. and on the road over Monarch Pass by 7:00, the plan being to start chasing trout by 8:30. The traffic is light, and I’m suiting up on schedule. I’m carrying two rigs. The first is a new 8 ½-foot 4# TFO BVK lightweight wand with surprising backbone. Based on many days experience sampling the waters of Cochetopa, I’m using a #16 Royal Trude dry to imitate small hoppers or caddis flies I’m likely to see on the water teamed with a #18 Tung Teaser to emulate the small mayfly nymphs I expect will be scurrying around under the streambed rocks. The second outfit is a 9-foot 5# Sage rod with a double-nymph offering—a #18 Two-Bit Hooker up top trailed by a #18 bead-head sparkle caddis nymph.
I walk 10 minutes downstream from a turnout on 114, staying back from the water so as not to spook any fish. The pasture is carpeted with golden pea, feathery purple Rocky Mountain iris, and the appropriately named meadow foxtail.
It’s so good to be back in nature, surrounded by all this beautiful, delicate flora. I see a nice-looking stretch of water and sidle up to the creek. It’s lower than I expected, running around 20 cfs, probably due to upstream irrigation diversion—it’s that time of year.
The water is also very clear with lots of wispy green tendrils of aquatic vegetation waving in the current and covering the bottom in shallow stretches. I shake my head–that should make things interesting! Nothing like a little green goo on a nymph to elicit expletives. I slip carefully into the water and check under some rocks to see what’s on the menu. I turn one over and I spy some small mayflies fleeing for cover and some crusty caddis cases that reveal their green denizens with a gentle squeeze. At least the expected trout victuals are here.
I walk slowly upstream in the shallow water and don’t see any fish. I get to a slightly deeper run where the current plunges over some bigger rocks, but come up empty after a half dozen casts, except for the green slime on my nymph as it bumps on the bottom. Ten minutes later I am still looking in vain for anything with a fin. I’m starting to grumble to myself—this was reputed to be lightly-fished private water with lots of eager fish. I don’t smell the stench of a skunk yet, but my ebullience is waning. Has someone played Rope-A-Dope with me and my checkbook??
Before long I come to a big bend in the creek, which on Cochetopa usually means deeper water. Above me, the current rushes along the bank, creating an eddy, and then turns the corner and plunges headlong down the shoreline. I can’t see the bottom, a good sign. I loft a cast upstream above the bend and watch as the dry bounces jauntily over a riffle and then plunges into the deeper stretch. Just as it hits the bend, the fly disappears! With the patented quick reflexes of a septuagnarian, I set the hook. My rod bends double, the weight of the fish and heavy current combining to put a major strain on it. Fortunately the new rod has plenty of spine, and I’m able to ease the trout out into calmer water. He’s not done yet, but after some slashing back and forth, I’m landing a fat, feisty brown trout who poses for a quick photo.
Another brownie follows a few casts later. That’s more like it.
I continue upstream and start to see a few smaller fish fleeing here and there. Then I come to another tempting looking bend in the creek.
Again I cast above the pool and let the fly scoot along next to some driftwood. Nothing doing! I start to lift the fly as it starts to slide underneath the overhanging branches of a tree, but suddenly something erupts on the surface and smacks the fly. This one is bigger, and when I see a silver flash, I know it’s a nice rainbow. The fish dives deep and when I move him, jets upstream with me in hot pursuit. I catch up with the fish and stop the run. He doesn’t give up easily, rocketing away whenever I get him close to the net. Finally, after several more frantic runs, the fish submits–a colorful, healthy 13” bow!
Now the bite becomes steadier although not yet exceptional. Soon I see why the water is so low—a sizeable irrigation diversion dam across the creek is sucking out about half the flow! The good news is the dam has created a nice pocket of fast water that gives up two more rainbows, one on the dry and one on the Tongue Teaser nymph. Today most of the bows are where you might expect–spots with more flow, sometimes in shallower runs.
Mounting the dam with the grace of a mountain goat, I continue upstream and find a long stretch of three-foot deep, slow-moving water. It looks inviting, so I work it carefully, staying low and throwing long casts. But I see no fish and get no action. Then out of the corner of my eye I see a showy rise a hundred feet upstream close against the opposite bank where the current looks stronger. As I creep carefully into casting position, I notice some yellow mayflies flitting in the air, then some yellow caddis. More fish rise, feasting on the tasty morsels.
I kneel and throw a cast up and across stream. It lands in the short grass just above the water, and when I twitch it onto the surface, a good fish explodes and gulps the Trude, his golden body reflecting in the morning sun. It’s a fat, sassy brown trout. Now the fun really begins. On my next cast, something tries to gulp down the dry, but misses. Not to worry. The flies continue to slide down against the bank, and suddenly the dry unceremoniously gets dunked as a substantial fish grabs the nymph. The trout zooms downstream past me as I try to put the brakes on. It’s nip and tuck, and I fully expect the leader to snap. But somehow I manage to ease the critter, a good rainbow, out of the current and into some slack water where I can wrestle him to the net. He’s a respectable 14-inch fish, that will be the biggest of the day. Not bad for a small creek!
As more and more mayflies and caddis flies pop to the surface and flutter about in the air, the fishing gets really hot—the proverbial angler’s nirvana. I pick up another half dozen from the same stretch, half on the dry and half on the nymph. The best approach is to cast into the grass and then slowly coax the flies into the water. When the action slows momentarily, I switch to the double nymph rig and fool a couple of 12-inch brownies who can’t resist the allure of the Two-Bit Hooker!
After 30-minutes of action, I move upstream where the lies are trickier. The only deep holding water is at the bends, each of which seems to be guarded by overhanging branches that promise to claw at and snag anything passing by on the surface. At the first good hole, after sizing things up, I cast 15-feet upstream of the bend, and watch as the dry glides past the curve in the creek and towards the beckoning branches. I crane my neck to keep an eye on the fly, and just before it is snatched by the snag, it disappears. Throwing caution to the wind, I sweep my rod sideways and set the hook, fully expecting the fly to be embedded deeply in woody tendrils. There’s a short pause, then the line moves! It’s a nice brown trout who makes a fatal mistake of leaving his protected haunt for open water. After a good battle, I ease him into the net. On the next cast, his sister can’t resist.
Now the mayfly and caddis hatch is turning into a mini-blizzard. I decide I should get a closer look at the bugs so that I can appropriately identify them by their Latin names to impress my more serious angling brethren. I forego using the little extendable bug net in my vest to capture one of the dainty insects, instead opting to relive my former illustrious, glory days in the Chicago lawyers’ basketball league where we players made up for our lack of skill with truculence on the court. With a leap into the stratosphere that gave me my nickname—Juris Dr. CJ. (Remember Julies Irving??), I soar at least an inch above the water’s surface and…manage to come down empty handed.
After several more valiant but unsuccessful attempts to snatch one in flight, I opt to crawl into the tall grass and find a succulent stonefly that manages somehow to elude my grasp.
Well, hell, the trout are feasting on yellow ones today. That will have to do for the aspiring entomologists!
Feeling a mite less cocky, I decide to proceed upstream where the action continues with a succession of 11-13” browns, oddly most favoring the nymph despite the hatch. Around noon, I come to the upper end of the property signified by a menacing looking barbed-wire fence. I want another fish or two before calling it quits for lunch, but that last pool looks like double trouble. Not only will I have to use a tricky sidearm cast to sneak the flies under the overhanging branches but will then have to perform some gymnastics with the line to keep the flies in the foam/feeding lane near the shoreline.
The first two efforts fail abjectly, although I escape getting snagged. However, the third time is the charm, and as the Trude sidles up against the bank in the foam, it is jerked under. Success! After a worthy tussle, another brownie comes in for a quick pic and release. Another two quickly follow with nary an errant cast.
Feeling somewhat smug and with the wind kicking up on schedule and my stomach starting to growl, I decide to call it a day. I clamber across the creek and into a wide meadow. In the distance a rugged bluff towers over my SUV.
As I soak in the scene, I come to a boggy-looking area that is covered with a raft of lovely little yellow wildflowers, a variety I have never seen before.
I am intrigued, so wade carefully into the marsh and pull out my cell phone app called “PictureThis” that is remarkably good at identifying wildflowers. I snap a shot, run it through the app and violà, the plant is identified as Gmelin’s buttercup. Here’s what the app has to say about this wildflower, quite a surprise: “Gmelin’s buttercup is a perennial flowering plant that can be found in wetlands and other wet habitats. In some cases, it can be completely aquatic, floating on water. The species is relatively rare in the wild and it is considered endangered in Wisconsin. All parts of this buttercup are toxic to animals including livestock.”
Who would have thought the high point of this excellent day of fishing, catching and releasing upwards of two dozen handsome trout under a beautiful blue mountain sky, would be a rare wildflower? That’s why so many of us love to fish the small out of the way creeks, close to nature, with solitude…expecting to discover the unexpected.