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!
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!!
During my professional career as a land use and environmental attorney, I worked with local governments, conservationists, and biologists across the United States to protect wildlife habitat. There were wins, there were setbacks, but I was always optimistic that we were making progress. In retirement I have kept my finger on the pulse of things in the field while turning to a second career writing for outdoor magazines and conducting more personal on-stream piscatorial research (AKA fly fishing). Now the two are intersecting in an unexpected and troubling way. Entomologists are sounding the alarm about the cataclysmic decline in insects around the world, calling it the Insect Armageddon. As pollinators, food providers, pest controllers, decomposers, and soil engineers bugs are a key part of the very foundation for all life on the planet. That means, of course, for the fish we love to pursue. Already we are starting to see the decline of aquatic insects that could have a devastating impact on fishing—witness the 50% drop in mayflies in the upper Midwest just since 2012.
What can we do about it? For some ways each of us can answer the call to action click on the Powerpoint presentation below that I will presenting at a national land use and environmental conference later this month. The future of our sport may depend on it!!