Goodbye To A River: A Sweet Afternoon On The Big Ark Near Salida, CO

Late October 2019

For some earlier articles on fishing the Arkansas River, see my posts from late 2018

I was well into packing up for my annual migration to the Florida Everglades for the winter.  The first snow had already fallen, leaves were falling fast, and the wind had been blowing like a banshee all week, making fly fishing a dangerous sport.

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Early October Snow Cools Fishing Fever!

But then as if by magic, the winds relented and the angling gods beckoned, an irresistible siren’s call.   I hadn’t been out on my old home water, the Arkansas River, that flows close by my cabin near Salida, Colorado, since March.  When I moved to Colorado back in the late 80s, the Big Ark was undiscovered.  I could fish all day on a weekend back then and rarely bump into another angler.  But it wasn’t long after that rafting on the river turned into a big business, industrial-style tourism.  Then the state designated the Arkansas as Gold Medal trout water, followed soon thereafter by creation of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.  Both events were the equivalent of putting a big neon sign that said come on over, ye hordes from Denver and recreate.  And they did.

Today Denver has over a million more residents than back then with easier access to Salida, the result being flotillas of rafters, kayaks, SUPs, float fisherman, and other assorted riffraff to drive wade fisherman berserk.

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It’s virtually impossible to find a quiet spot on the river for piscatorial pursuits, even on weekdays.  Now if I am sounding like an old curmudgeon, I plead guilty.  Rant completed.

But suddenly to my wonder, the winds have died down, the water level on the Ark is 275 cfs, perfect for wading but too low for most rafters and kayaks, and the cold weather dipping into the 30s at night has sent fair-weather anglers scurrying to warmer climes.  Now if I can dodge the increasing legions of placer miners on the river and avoid the smoke bellowing down valley from the big Deckers fire, I may find some solitude like the old days and even some fish.

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Exploring Grape Creek In The Hidden Recesses Of Temple Canyon (near Canon City, CO)

October 2019

Photos by Chris Duerksen and Fran Rulon-Miller

For articles on my other adventures on Grape Creek, see my 2017 posts:

https://hooknfly.com/2017/11/08/going-ape-over-grape-creek/

Grape Creek southwest of Canon City, Colorado, is one of my favorite backcountry creeks, offering over 30 miles to explore in a rugged canyon where the wild brownies and bows are plentiful.  And happily, with only a few public access points the entire length, boot marks are scarce.

Most anglers fish the stretch upstream of Canon City, gaining access where County Road 3 crosses it a few miles outside of the town.

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County Road 3 Off US Highway 50 Is Best Access Route–Red Pin Marks Bridge Over Grape Creek and Parking Area

From the bridge an adventuresome angler has over 10 miles of state and federal land with beautiful water to explore before reaching the next public access at Bear Creek Gulch.  The canyon and stream gets wilder the further up you go.

But what of downstream from the bridge into Temple Canyon Park, owned by Canon City?  I’ve rarely seen any serious fisherman head that way.

Temple Canyon Map
Temple Canyon Park Map–Downstream Of County Road 3 Bridge

The creek disappears downstream a few hundred yards into the cottonwood-studded canyon, and most of the hikers venturing into the rocky, spectacular canyon have as their goal the magnificent natural amphitheater on a side canyon off the creek that gives the park its name.   I’m intrigued by the fact that there’s nary a mention online of anyone fishing the five-mile stretch down to the confluence with the Arkansas River, and my piscatorial appetite is whetted even further by the alluring twists and turns in the creek that Google Earth reveals, promising deep pools and maybe big fish.  Who can resist!

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 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 the park is scary rough in places and there are only a couple of primitive campgrounds for the hearty 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!

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While in the old days the canyon experienced wild floods, today the waters are controlled, for better or worse, by the (so-called) Arkansas Water Conservancy District through its DeWeese Reservoir on upper Grape Creek near Westcliffe.  The reservoir holds water for downstream irrigation by ranches and farms around Canon City.  Flows can still fluctuate greatly depending on irrigation demands, but in summer the water can get dangerously low—down to 4 CFS—as water is stored up for periodic releases.  State and federal wildlife agencies are working with the district to assure adequate summer flows, reportedly with some progress, albeit halting.  The controlled flows have also allowed heavy willow and brush growth along some stretches of the creek, vegetation that would have been swept away by annual raging floods before the dam was built.

Last night I checked the flow on the conservancy district web site and found it to be at 20 CFS, low but eminently fishable (I find 30-50 cfs is optimal.).  So it’s a go.

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Off The Shelf (Road) And Into Four Mile Creek Canyon

Early July 2019

For an account of my earlier sojourn on Four Mile Creek, see my July 2015 article.

The epic runoff of 2019 in Colorado has put the fishing for most of us on the shelf.  So what better way to break the hex but to fish Four Mile Creek below scenic Shelf Road near Cañon City!  I haven’t been back to this little wilderness canyon gem for almost four years, so am anxious to see what changes time has wrought.  Four Mile Creek usually runs clear and fishable most of the year, being a tailwater of private Wright Reservoir upstream near the historic mining and now-gaming town of Cripple Creek.  The Colorado Division of Water Resources gauge near Cripple Creek reports a flow of 13 CFS, which is about perfect.  Flows between 10 and 20 CFS are best in my experience.

I’m on the road at 7 a.m. from my spot at the Indian Springs RV Campground just north of Canon City.

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Indian Springs Campground Off Phantom Canyon Road

I’m doing a shakedown trip this week to test out my new mobile mini fish camp travel trailer and to salve my fishing fever.  I head into town on US 50, looking for the turnoff at the Burger King onto N. Raynolds Avenue.  Raynolds goes north and turns into Pear Street, and then I take a right onto Fields Avenue.  After a few miles I intersect Highway 9 that climbs into Red Canyon.  The striking western scene sends out good vibrations of a fine fishing day to come.  The weather outlook is excellent—barely 60 degrees now with a predicted high of only in the lower 80s while Cañon City will be cooking in an early summer heat wave.  I stay away from the creek in late July through early September—too hot in the canyon and rattlers likely to greet you then.

When the pavement ends I start to wend my way down the gravel road into Four Mile Creek Canyon.  Highway 9 turns into one-lane Shelf Road perched high above the canyon and creek.  I stop at a turnout and hold my breath as I edge to the steep drop-off to take my first peek at the water…and am thrilled to see it is in good shape.

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Taking Another Gambol On Upper Beaver Creek Near Cripple Creek, Colorado

Early July 2019

Note:  See my September 2018 article for more about fishing Upper Beaver Creek and the intriguing history of Skaguay Reservoir.

https://hooknfly.com/2018/09/07/taking-a-gamble-on-upper-beaver-creek-near-victor-co/

The epic runoff of 2019 continues and with it my search for fishable trout waters.  Most of my favorite rivers and streams—the Arkansas, Gunnison, Saguache, Cochetopa, and Tomichi—are still blown out.  But Beaver Creek below the gambling and mining town of Cripple Creek appears to be candidate based on the latest reported water levels.  It’s running at 18 cfs downstream at Penrose, eminently fishable, and the fact that it is a tailwater below Skaguay Reservoir means it’s probably clear as well.

I had a fun day on upper Beaver Creek late last summer and want to explore the next section further down.  Last trip I hiked in about two miles below the reservoir, stumbled on a small beaver dam and pond, then fished back up from there.  I caught dozens of brownies in the six-to-twelve inch range and a few bigger in the spillway just below the dam.  Now my plan is to hike another mile or so below that point and explore some new water.

I’m off a bit after 7 a.m. from the Indian Springs Campground near Canon City where I am giving my new smaller mobile fish camp a shakedown run (For the story of the demise of my former rig, see my article “A Trip Through Hades.”).

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The New Mini Mobile Fish Camp At Indian Springs Campground

My route is up through Phantom Canyon, an endlessly scenic but rough track that everyone should do at least once.  It’s very slow going, taking me almost two hours to cover the 25 miles or so to Cripple Creek/Victor and Skaguay Reservoir.

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Phantom Canyon Scenic Route

It’s hard to believe this route was carved out of this rugged country for a railroad in the late 1800s.    But my mind is on fishing, so I push on.

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Beaver Pond Perspicacity: Solving The Puzzle

For another article on beaver pond fishing see my article from late May 2020: https://hooknfly.com/2020/06/07/on-the-road-to-riches-finding-fish-and-solitude-in-south-park/

July 2019

Per-spi-ca-ci-ty:  The quality of having a ready insight into things; keenness of mental perception; shrewdness

With the epic runoff this year and most rivers and streams blown out till mid-July or later, smart anglers are turning their attention to beaver ponds, many of which remain fishable.  But truth is, beaver ponds can be honey holes any time of the fly fishing season and loads of fun.

They are usually lightly fished and often hold scads of eager fish plus occasional lunkers.  Did I mention the wildlife that abounds around them??

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Close Encounter Of The Moose Kind In Beaver Pond Country

But they can be challenging, often calling for a distinctly different approach than the waters that feed them.

I still remember clearly that first beaver pond I met in Colorado as a novice teenage fly fisherman.  I saw trout rising everywhere in a picture-perfect pond featuring a big beaver lodge in the middle, and promptly spooked them to the next county as I confidently walked up to the shoreline and started casting.  Bass and bluegill never did that in the Kansas farm ponds where I had practiced learning this new art.  Like most small mountain trout waters, stealth is critical, and even more so on the often clear, shallow, and still waters of beaver ponds.  But as experience taught me over time, there is much more to successful beaver pond angling than stealth.  They are not all alike, sometimes differing dramatically on the same creek.  They can also vary radically from year-to-year, sometimes disappearing completely as high flows bust them up or silt fills in the best holding water.

Blown Out Beaver Dam

Here Today…Gone TomorrowHere Today, Gone Tomorrow

Never fear!  Here are some tips on solving the riddle of these unique and intriguing waters that I have gleaned over the years in the school of hard knocks.

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