Florida Keys Fishing Sans A (Motor) Boat: Bridge, Wading, and Kayak Angling Along Highway 1

Hello From Florida….When you say Blizzard, we think of Dairy Queen!

Winter 2017

Want to catch a monster barracuda or maybe a big snook, hefty grouper, or gigantic shark in the Florida Keys?  Maybe a mess of snapper?  Got to have a big boat, right?  That notion was being firmly dispelled as I watched Mark Resto of Miami, with the help of a fishing buddy, fight a big barracuda on the Seven Mile Fishing Bridge near Marathon.  His rod bent double, Michael was on the edge of exhaustion.

The four-foot-long cuda was churning in the fast current 20 feet below, threatening to snap his line at any moment. Arms aching, Michael finally brought the fish to the surface, quickly passed the rod to his buddy and threw a bridge net down in the water next to the barracuda, corralled it, and slowly winched up the prize.

Shore-fishing is one of the great delights of the Florida Keys. Starting at the Tea Table Bridge, Mile Marker 79, and heading southwest on Highway 1 towards Key West there is accessible, exciting fishing right near the road.  Numerous bridges, wadeable nearshore flats, and close-in hotspots easily reached by kayak or other cartop vessel offer access to good fishing.

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Wading And Kayak Angling Opportunities Abound Along Highway 1 In The Keys

Not that this fishing is a snap.  Ferreting out the honeyholes can take a little sleuthing and successful bridge fishing is an art, not for those who  like to lollygag in lawn chairs! The article below reveals some of the best nearshore spots and offers tips from experts at local bait and tackle shops who specialize in bridge fishing and wading and kayaking to stalk their quarry.

CLICK ON THE LINK TO VIEW A PDF COPY OF MY NOVEMBER 2016 FLORIDA KEYS DRIVE-IN FISHING ARTICLE FROM FLORIDA SPORTSMAN magazine.

FS Keys Article 11-16 reduced pdf

The Ice Man Cometh–And With Him A Time To Reflect On 2017 And Hopes For 2018

“Many men go fishing all their lives without knowing it is not the fish they are after.”  Henry David Thoreau

December 19, 2017

The Ice Man Cometh this weekend sayeth the weatherman….so time to sneak away for one last outing in the water and dances with trout.  With 50 degree weather and light winds in the forecast, I decide to visit my home water, the Arkansas River just upstream from Salida.  I know a stretch where the valley is broad and the sunshine plentiful, even in winter, and hopefully the fish cooperative.

When I arrive at just after noon after a short 15-minute drive from my cabin, I am treated to a picture-perfect scene, abundant sunshine, and no ice flow on the river.  Two weeks ago several  nights of single digit temperatures had clogged up the water with ice, but now it’s flowing freely, at least for a couple of more days.

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The Arkansas River Below Big Bend

I used that spate of cold weather profitably, hunkering down inside with the fireplace going to tie up a bunch of my favorite fly pattern for the upcoming season—a concoction I created called a green hotwire beadhead caddis.  Naturally, it’s a simple tie—I am no Rembrandt at the fly-tying vise.  But it works, and how!!

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This Vise Is An Eminently Acceptable Vice To Pursue
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Hotwire Beadhead Caddis Nymph

I wade into one of my familiar reliable pools, the water frigid despite wearing three pairs of socks underneath my neoprene waders.  On my third cast the little yellow yarn strike indicator, below which dangle two nymphs, hesitates ever so slightly.  I lift my rod slowly and it’s FISH ON!  Just a little brownie, but a good start.  No skunk for me on this final 2017 outing.

For the next hour or so, I have a ball laying out long casts over the crystal clear water.  At the end of the year fly casting becomes so natural, so easy, so graceful that it’s a treat in itself to watch the line unfurl, and the tiny flies alight delicately on the water exactly where the cast was aimed.  A bonus is hooking an occasional trout.  The first half-dozen are small (all on the beadhead caddis except for one on a big stonefly nymph), but then a nice 14-inch brown surprises me by nailing the caddis in a shallow, fast mid-stream run where the fish are not supposed to be this time of year.

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Trout On Ice

Usually they retreat to deeper pools where the slow-moving water is warmer.  Then if to prove the point, 15 minutes later an even bigger, stronger 15-inch rainbow gobbles the caddis nymph in a deeper hole off the main current.

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Chunky Rainbow Provides Exclamation Point For 2017 Angling Adventures

As I release the shiny beauty, I take a seat on the bank and reflect on what a wonderful world we have and what a wonderful year 2017 has been thanks to family, friends, and yes, fish.  Great gifts and a refuge in turbulent times.  My little sweetheart of a granddaughter, Aly, went from baby to toddler in a flash, and along the way exhibited a strong predilection for running water and playing in creeks.  Sure way to grandpa’s heart!!

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My Sweetheart Aly–That’s a Stick In Her Hand, Not A Flyrod…Yet!

I have had many great adventures in the wilds this year, alone and with friends.  Solitude and pristine nature abounded and surrounded me, kept me peaceful and sane.  It has been written that fishing is a perpetual series of occasions of hope, elusive but attainable.  And so it is with life.  2017 has been a wonderful year, and I see hope on the water and in the world for 2018.  My best to all my readers, compatriots, and friends for the New Year.  Here is a tribute to 2017 in pictures….indeed a wonderful world!!

Beaver Creek: Legend Of The Late Fall #3 (Near Cañon City, CO)

Late November 2017

Note:  Please read this article in tandem with my earlier blog on late fall fishing (December 6) that contains more detailed information on essential gear, flies, and technique.

I ease into the crystal clear pool where Beaver Creek cascades up against a big cliff.  True to the inside scoop from a Colorado Springs fly shop, I have already caught a couple of beautiful small browns.  The skinny is that lots of 4-to-11 inch trout inhabit this pristine little stream near Canon City.  Nothing much bigger.  But then I catch sight of a silver blue form undulating deep in the hole.

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Rainbow Lair??

Then it’s gone.  Maybe a rainbow trout?  I gently loft my two-fly rig—a Royal Trude dry on top trailed by my old reliable green hotwire caddis nymph—into the cascade and watch it drift down gracefully, enticingly up against the cliff then bounce downstream.  How could any fish resist?  I try again…and again.  Nobody home?  I am just about ready to move on, when a small swirling back eddy above the craggy rocks catches my eye.  I reach out with my rod, using my 36-inch long arms to maximum advantage, and flip the dry/dropper against the rock wall into the foam of the eddy, which is swirling slowly upstream in reverse.  The dry twists and turns, then disappears.  I reflexively set the hook and feel the bottom.  Grrrr!  But then it begins to move, and I see the light-colored back of a big rainbow.  He knows his home territory and dives under the rocks, but my stout 5-weight rod is up to the task and slowly he comes my way.  Then he jets downstream into shallower water, a fatal mistake—I can more easily play him out in the open.  In a minute he is sliding into my net for a quick measure and photo.  I am astonished to find he is a tad over 15-inches!!  So much for Lilliputian trout!!  And just a couple of days before December!  Another legend of the late fall.

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Beaver Creek Surprise–15″ Rainbow

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Old Man Winter Descends On Grape Creek (near Cañon City, CO)

Mid-December 2017

Perfect weather for my last angling excursion of 2017 into Lower Grape Creek in Temple Canyon Park–upper 60s, bluebird sky, gentle breeze. Alas, Old Man Winter got there before me last week and locked things up till next spring. Saw some nice bows but ice made a decent drift almost impossible and all of the deeper holes where the trout were holding a couple of weeks ago were iced in. Oh well, on the bright side got great exercise walking 4 miles in waders and boots, was shadowed by a friendly little Dipper, and the ice on the creek was artistic. Everglades here I come!!

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Legend of The Late Fall #2: Lower Grape Creek (near Cañon City, CO)

 Late November 2017

Note:  Please read this article in tandem with my Dec. 6 blog on late fall fishing in Colorado that discusses gear, tackle, and techniques in greater detail. Also, Upper Grape Creek is featured in my earlier Nov. 8, 2017, article.

 I am a big fan of Upper Grape Creek near Westcliffe, Colorado—it’s a beautiful stream tucked away in a rugged, remote canyon.   (See my blog article from November 8, 2017, Going Ape On Grape Creek.) Now as the weather is cooling rapidly, and snow has already descended on Upper Grape, I am wondering how the creek fishes farther downstream in Temple Canyon where the elevation is a couple of thousand feet lower.  Despite its proximity to the small city of Cañon City, Lower Grape Creek is also in a BLM wilderness study area.

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Lower Grape Creek Canyon Is A Geologic And Scenic Masterpiece

Although the primary access in Temple Canyon Park is only about an hour from my summer home base in Salida, I avoid the waters around Cañon City that time of year when the temperatures can soar into the 100s, not to mention the territory is overrun with rattlers.  No thank you!  But come late fall I am hoping for better conditions.  I do some recon in mid-November, and I like what I see, so a couple of weeks later when the weatherman predicts temperatures in the upper 60s, I am on the road to Lower Grape Creek.

It’s  8:30 a.m. as I travel down US 50.  At Cotopaxi I have to hit the brakes for herd of Bighorn Sheep that are lollygagging right in the middle of the roaf, licking salt off the pavement.  Then it’s on to Parkdale where I turn south on Fremont County Road 3, just before the highway crosses the Arkansas River as it begins its plunge into the Royal Gorge.  (That’s also the best route coming from the east rather than taking First Street out of Cañon City and hooking up with the other end of Fremont County 3, which is a very rough road barely suitable in places for passenger cars.)  I travel 3.6 miles on FC 3 through beautiful Webster Park, then continue south on a good gravel road, past the telltale charred trees of the massive 2013 Royal Gorge fire, for another 3.6 miles to the creek access point.

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Accessing Lower Grape Creek From The North Through Parkdale On FC 3 Is Highly Recommended–The Creek Meets The Road Just Above The Squiggly Section of Fc 3

On the way, I pass the sign welcoming me to Cañon City’s Temple Canyon Park then start a short, circuitous descent into the canyon, cross the bridge, and park in the well-marked lot with restrooms on the south side of the creek.  I am delighted the lot is empty—looks like even though it’s a weekend, I may have the place to myself.

This is the only road access point to the creek between Bear Gulch about 8 miles upstream and Cañon City.  It’s all thanks to some wise city leaders who created this park in the early 1900s, in contrast to some current politicians who seem intent on closing off our public lands from the average citizen and letting the big corporations run amok. Not only is the canyon breathtakingly scenic, it’s also loaded with history.  Explorers Zebulon Pike and later John Fremont made the incredibly tough trek up Grape Creek in the early and mid-1800s, and the canyon was a thoroughfare for Ute Indians and miners trying to reach the Wet Mountain Valley.

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A good read is Dan Grenard’s web site article on Temple Canyon.  According to Grenard, when early miners and entrepreneurs wanted to connect to the booming mines in the Wet Mountain Valley and started to build a narrow gauge line up the rugged canyon in the 1880s, they discovered a natural amphitheater that was originally cloaked in vines. Grenard writes that “This amphitheater would come to be known as a temple and the area became Temple Canyon.  The canyon was a popular destination in the 1890s with residents traveling up Grape Creek by foot.”

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The Temple In Temple Canyon

Kudos to those old timers, as in 1912 they persuaded Congress to grant Temple Canyon to the city.  It remains an unspoiled wilderness to this day.  You can still see, and indeed will be hiking off and on, along the incredible remains of the narrow gauge line high above the creek that only survived a few years and then was abandoned around 1888 because of washouts and rockslides.

I suit up quickly in my neoprene waders and shuffle over to the bridge for a look…and I like what I see.  Two weeks ago when I was doing my reconnaissance here, the State of Colorado creek gauge upstream at Westcliffe stood at 25 cfs, which is optimal, but the creek is still fishable running lower now at about 17cfs. (Google Colorado Water Talk and then select the Arkansas River drainage for current readings.)

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Looking Upstream From The Temple Canyon Bridge

Then it’s off south along the trail high above the creek on its east side.  I resist the urge to fish the good-looking pools down below, knowing that they get hit hard and I spotted some good fish in pools further upstream a half-mile or so.  Soon I come to a green gate and fence across the trail.

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Into The Wilds–The Start Of The Hike At The Temple Canyon Bridge

I open the gate and proceed through a very short stretch of what is said to be private property (although there are no signs), making sure to stay on the trail and leave no trash behind.  The trail splits, and I know to take the lower section that soon will take me down to the first creek crossing.  Then I have a choice.  I can scoot up the slope and catch the trail that follows the old railroad grade high above the creek, or start to work upstream close to the creek, alternately wading or following a faint path along the south and west banks.

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The First Stretch Of Trail Splits With The Lower Fork Crossing The Creek To Join The Old Railroad Grade High Above
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The First Creek Crossing  About A Mile In Leads To A Good Trail On The Old Railroad Grade Which Climbs Through State Trust Land Then Into BLM Land–All Open To The Public

There are some deep, productive pools in this stretch that are hard to access if you opt to cross the creek and resume on the old railroad grade high above.  I stay low and head for a big pool that I spotted two weeks ago that was loaded with fish.

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The Proverbial Honey Hole Loaded With Trout

I creep up slowly from below and see that something has changed….beaver have dammed up the creek and change the water levels.  And AARRGGHH, they have filled in the deepest, best part of the pool with branches that will serve as their winter lunch counter.  I see some big shadows lurking under the branches, but casting to them is impossible.  So I wade carefully around the edge of the pool and throw a cast above the branches where the creek cascades in.  I watch the Royal Coachman Trude ride the current into the pool and float towards me, then suddenly disappear.  I set the hook and feel something pulling hard.  Must be a rainbow trout? He dives for the branches, but I managed to winch him away and soon have him at the net—a muscular, colorful 13-incher that took a liking to the Size 16 beadhead green hotwire caddis nymph. Good start!  Two more smaller fish follow, both on the nymph, then the pool goes quiet.  Three fish by 10 a.m….not bad.

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First Fish Of The Day–Like Upper Grape Creek, Lower Grape Is Home To Some Good Rainbows

I continue working upstream, picking up a couple of nice brownies on the nymph.  As I unhook one, I hear something above.  Bighorn?  Cat?  Dang, it’s a couple of young anglers heading upstream high above me on the trail.  They wave.  I grit my teeth and wave back.  Now I’ll have to play hopscotch with them and share the water.  That’s why I always try to avoid weekends on these small creeks.  C’est la vie.

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Plenty Of Brownies Complement The Bigger Bows On Grape Creek

I continue up this canyon stretch, seeing nary a boot mark anywhere, being careful to avoid the sharp needles of the abundant Cholla cactus.

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The Cholla Can Annoya…And Love To Eat Waders

I️ come to another deep pool and what to my wondering eyes should appear but a big school of rainbow trout fining in the depths, oblivious to me.  I cast…and cast…and cast, running my nymph right through the crowd.  They move and seem to show interest, but no hits.  I move in for a closer look and discover it’s a big group of suckers, carp-like fish that won’t eat flies usually.  Finally they have had enough of my presence, and I have to laugh as they flash by me en masse, headed downstream in a frenzy.  I don’t feel completely like a fool, because I know that sometimes trout mingle with them, picking up tidbits kicked up from the bottom by the suckers.

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Suckered By A School Of Sucker

I look up and see that I am getting closer to the point where the trail dips down to meet the creek above Jennings Gulch .  I have a great view of the engineering feat it took to span the gullies that run into the canyon—all without power equipment!

[caption id="attachment_4354" align="alignnone" width="2448"]img_3664 The Old Railroad Grade Is A Mute Testament To A Tough Breed Of Men

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Just upstream I run into a very intriguing pool.  The creek tumbles down a rocky run then plunges into a deep seemingly bottomless pool against a big boulder.  Looks fishy.  I execute a back-handed cast and gently loft my flies around a rock to the head of the pool and let them drift slowly through the dark swirling water.  No dice.  Three casts later I am about to move on when I see a flash below the dry and the fly is jerked back hard.  I strike and am onto a big fish.

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Home Of The Big Rainbow

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He bores for the bottom then shoots to the undercut ledge beneath the boulder.  For a second I think he’s snagged, but slowly I am able to extricate him from the rocks and branches at the bottom of the pool.  What a prize—a glistening rainbow that goes 15 inches, a big one for any small creek!

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Prize Rainbow

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continue upstream, resisting the urge to rejoin the trail and stick to the creek, which pays off.  I catch another stout 13-inch rainbow on the dry, then several smaller browns on the nymph.  This is a good strategy all the way up the creek—try to access the pools that are far below the trail.

As I emerge from the canyon and continue up the trail, I see the angling duo just ahead of me where the trail  crosses the creek for the fourth time. They are a  couple of amiable young chaps from Colorado Springs who seem to know what they are doing.  I watch one pull a couple of small brownies from the pool above the crossing.  We exchange greetings and tales of the fish we have caught…and I get to brag a little about my big rainbow.  We agree that we will continue upstream, hopscotching around each other.  I walk up several hundred yards and find another alluring pool that quickly yields several browns on the nymph and a 13-bow on the dry.

Then I cross paths with the Colorado Springs contingent, and we all decide to take a break for lunch.  Derrick and Sean are two knowledgeable gents who have also had a good day.  I decide to fish upstream with them one more pool, and they put on quite a show.  Derrick catches five trout on a Size 16 Red Copper John then his buddy gets another three—a mixed bag of brownies and bows.

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Young Punks Show Up Author With Eight Fish Out Of One Pool!

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t’s pushing 1:30 p.m. now and the sun will be down in a couple of hours.  It’s two miles back to the SUV, and I want to hit a couple of stretches downstream on the way back, so I head that way as Derrick and Sean press on upstream.  I manage a few more small browns and a good bow on the return, but as the sun sinks the fishing slows.

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Homeward Bound On Old Railroad Grade Trail High Above Grape Creek

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y 3:30 p.m. I am back at the trailhead enjoying a cold NA beer.  It’s been a great day—beautiful weather, and the predicted big winds didn’t materialize which is often the case in these sheltering canyons.  I contemplate how much more water there is to fish upstream—I hiked in about two miles and there’s another six to Bear Gulch.  And that’s not to mention the several miles downstream of the bridge through Temple Canyon and the Ecology Park outside Canon City.  So much water….so little time as winter approaches.  But you can bet I’ll be back in December if we get another warm spell!

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