Grape Creek Comeback

July 2022

For one of my earlier adventures on Grape Creek and a look at its fascinating history, see: https://hooknfly.com/2017/11/08/going-ape-over-grape-creek/

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.

First Pool

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.

Relief…The Fish Are Back

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. 

Ye Olde Honey Hole

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. 

Surprise Second Big Brownie

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.    

Homeward Bound–I’ll Be Back!!

Exploring The Hidden Waters Of Lower Grape Creek In Temple Canyon—Act Deux

(Near Canon City, Colorado)

Early May 2021

For my earlier articles on fishing Grape Creek see:

https://hooknfly.com/2019/10/14/exploring-grape-creek-in-the-hidden-recesses-of-temple-canyon-near-canon-city-co/;

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

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. 

Ecology Park Is The Gateway To Lower Grape Creek

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.   

Hang Right–Follow The Water GapTrail

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. 

Irrigation Diversion Dam

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. 

Practice Pool Below Dam

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. 

Lilliputian Rainbow Starts The Day

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. 

Narrow Lower Stretch Demands Pinpoint Casts

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. 

Cliff Pool Produces

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. 

Brownie Puts Up Good Brawl

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. 

Grape Creek Exorcises Cabin Fever

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!

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.

img_6447
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!

img_7509

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.

Continue reading

Running Rings Around The Runoff: Tips To Ferret Out Those Elusive Fishable Waters

Late May/June 2019

There is nothing more disheartening for a Rocky Mountain angler than to drive over a favorite creek or river in late May or early June and discover overnight it’s transformed from a clear rushing stream into a churning chocolate brown runaway torrent.  It’s a sure sign that the snow-fueled runoff is underway and with the high-elevation lakes still iced in, that the fly rods will be mothballed till July.

img_4720
HEARTBREAKER!

But wait!!  It does not have to be.  With a little sleuthing there are almost always some waters that are  fishable.  Here are some tips on how to find them and a list of likely candidates in my neck of the woods—south central Colorado.

img_4679
Runoff Antidote

Continue reading

Going Ape Over Grape Creek

“To go ape means to ‘go crazy,’ is 1955 U.S. Slang.  In emphatic form, go apesh**.”

Dictionary.com

Late Fall 2017

For another of my articles on fishing Grape Creek, see my Fall 2019 post:  

https://hooknfly.com/2019/10/14/exploring-grape-creek-in-the-hidden-recesses-of-temple-canyon-near-canon-city-co/

Caveat:  Before fishing Grape Creek, be sure to check the water level below DeWeese Reservoir on the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District Website.  Levels from 10-40 CFS are best.  Below 10 may not be fishable.

 It’s early November, a time I am usually long-gone to my snowbird hideaway near Everglades City in Florida.  But until things get back to a semblance of normality after the devastation of Hurricane Irma (80% of houses destroyed or with major damage) I’m sticking around my cabin in Colorado.  Thanks to a prolonged Indian Summer–dry, warm late autumn weather–I am still able to get out and explore some new waters.

I’ve had my eye on Grape Creek, a small stream secluded in a rugged canyon a couple of hours east of my place near Salida.  With a little on-line sleuthing and some timely help from the angling gurus Taylor and Bill Edrington at the venerable Royal Gorge Anglers Fly Shop in Canon City, I have pinpointed one of the few public access points in the middle of a 30-mile long canyon between Westcliffe and Canon City where Grape Creek lies hidden.

img_3372

I hit the road about 9 a.m. when it’s hovering around 45 degrees.  It’s still cold, so gentleman’s fishing hours are perfectly acceptable.  By 10:15 I am making the turn onto Oak Creek Grade, a good paved then gravel road, just east of Westcliffe.  It’s a 20-mile, 45-minute drive from here to the turnoff to Bear Gulch road  (BLM #6627), the only public access to Grape Creek within miles. (Note:  For those coming from the east, you can also access Oak Creek Grade out of 4th Street in Canon City.)

img_3325

img_3324
After Turning On BLM 6227, Follow Sign And Continue Straight At T Intersection

The first mile or so on the Bear Gulch road is decent, but the final three miles are a rough 4WD-only stretch where I rarely get going above 10 mph.  The last mile through BLM public land clearly hasn’t seen a road grader in years.

img_3323
Access Road Is 4WD Only!

But when I get my first look at the creek from the parking area above, I know it was worth it.  Although the small creek would be suitable for wet-wading in the summer when it gets hot in this canyon, I figure it will be icy cold now so I suit up in my waders with three pair of socks covering my tootsies!  It turns out to be a good decision.  I tread carefully down the short, but very steep trail to the canyon floor and immediately see some decent-sized trout scurrying for cover in a big pool above a partially washed out beaver dam.  The water is crystal clear, courtesy of DeWeese Reservoir, a big irrigation lake miles upstream near Westcliffe from whence the creek flows.

img_3288
View Upstream From Trailhead

img_3319
View Downstream At Trailhead

I do some reconnoitering with my Google Maps app and see that downstream there appear to be several good looking bends in the fast-moving creek that promise deeper water where bigger trout like to take up residence.  Off I go.  I follow a path that criss-crosses the creek, then about a half mile downstream am walking on what appears to be some sort of dike….or maybe an old narrow railroad grade–paralleling the water.  Naw, couldn’t be a railroad grade–this canyon is too narrow and rugged.  Engineering impossibility!  But that’s exactly what it is!  Old images on-line show the line ran alternatively along the canyon bottom and on the canyon walls where the grade was chiseled out of sheer rock cliffs!

Back in the 1880s, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad somehow pushed a rail line up the canyon from Canon City to reach the rich silver and iron ore mines and big ranching operations in the Wet Mountain Valley around Silver Cliff and Rosita.  The valley had been the summer hunting grounds of the Ute and other Indians tribes like the Comanche and Plain tribes for centuries.  Grape Creek was the easiest route from the Great Plains to the valley (which isn’t so wet) that is framed by the soaring Sangre De Cristo mountain range.  Famed explorer John Fremont stumbled on the creek downstream in the early 1800s and used it to explore the mountains to the west until he was arrested by the Spanish for trespassing on “their” territory.

By the 1860s miners and settlers were pushing into the valley, and in 1877 Custer County, named after the famous general who had died a year earlier, was created out of the western half of Fremont County (the Bear Gulch access is actually in Fremont County.)   One early ranch owned by the Beckwith brothers had 13,000 cattle at its peak!!  In 1881, the railroad carved out the perilous route through Grape Creek Canyon to cash in on the mining and ranching wealth, but after a series of disastrous floods, abandoned it only eight years later.  After the mines played out in the late 1800s, Custer County returned primarily to ranching and farming.  Grape Creek was dammed in 1902 to provide reliable irrigation water for the county’s agricultural enterprises as well as fruit orchards downstream around Canon City.

Today Custer County retains a feel of the real West where ranching still rules the county’s economy–several hundred ranches look after almost 10,000 cattle, about double the population of people in the valley!

img_3373
The Wet Mountain Valley In Summer Garb

However, in this very conservative county, retirees, new agers, and tourists are making their presence felt.  Much of the access to Grape Creek between DeWeese Reservoir and Bear Gulch is controlled by the Bull Domingo Ranch, a 14,000-acre upscale subdivision of some 370 homes on 35-acre plus parcels.  So unless you are on friendly terms with one of the local homeowners or hire a guide at Royal Gorge Anglers who have special access to the water, Bear Gulch is your ticket.   Fortunately, Bear Gulch gives you access to miles of public water upstream and downstream to explore.

It’s 11:30 by now and I am about a mile below the trailhead.  The sun is just beginning to peek over the canyon rim and around some of the surrounding peaks, but some of the pools are still in the shadows.  It’s chilly, but thankfully the wind is light and things will warm up to 65 degrees by mid-afternoon.  I am carrying two rods, one rigged with a #16 Royal Coachman Trude as the dry and the other on a dropper with a #16 beadhead green hotwire caddis nymph.  The other is rigged with two nymphs, one a light tan caddis to match the little greenish/ cream-colored caddis larvae I find wriggling under some of the rocks in the streambed and the other a #18 bright lime green caddis imitation that has proven itself this fall on other streams.  The water is very cold, clear, and surprisingly high for this time of year courtesy of all the rain in August and early snows in the high country that have already melted off.  The state water gauge in Westcliffe reads 25 CFS (accessible on-line by Googling Colorado Water Talk.), still eminently fishable in light of the fact the creek can reportedly blast through the canyon at 500 cfs in the spring!!

The first two good-looking pools are partially shaded, and while a manage a couple of light hits on the hotwire caddis nymph, I don’t connect.  For the next hour or so the fishing is sporadic.  I catch a few small brownies, but don’t see many fish and nothing on the surface.

img_3309

img_3302
Typical Grape Creek Brownie

Not until about 1 p.m. when the sun is bright in the sky and the pools warm up do the trout really start to move.  Then it’s steady action for browns on the hotwire caddis with an occasional one on the dry.  The trout have moved into the shallows to sun themselves, and naturally I spook a bunch of them even when I creep upstream stealthily and cast from my knees.  It’s like they have eyes in the back of their heads!  To make things even more challenging, in most pools I am looking directly into the sun or the pool is in mottled shade and light, which makes seeing the fly nearly impossible.  I tie on a piece of fluorescent yellow yarn as a strike indicator about two feet above the dry, and that helps, but often when I can’t see the strike indicator let alone the dry fly, I have to watch the end of my line where the leader is tied on for the slightest movement that may signal a strike.

img_3303
Grape Creek Abounds With Alluring Pools

But it’s rewarding when I do connect with a frisky brownie–most 10-11 inches with a few pushing 13.  Interestingly, I get only a few hits and catch only a couple on the deeper running, weighted double nymph rig, even in the deep holes where I expected some bigger ones to be finning.  I have heard tales of 17-20 inch fish in Grape Creek, and by the looks of these pools I am a believer….a good reason to come back next summer!

img_3312

After a break around 2 p.m. for a quick lunch of peanuts, a jerky stick, and a granola bar, I continue working upstream.  I had intended to get back to the trailhead by now where I stowed my usual gourmet lunch and RC Cola, but the surfeit of excellent-looking pools has trumped by growling stomach.  Now I start to pick up more eager fish on the dry, which is fun as they slash out of their hiding places behind rocks to nail the fly.  I work some of the stair-step rapids carefully and am rewarded with some chunky trout.

The ratio is still 4:1 in favor of the nymph, but the dry seems to be attracting the larger fish.  By 4 p.m. I round a bend and am back within sight of the trailhead.  I ease up carefully to a picture-perfect pool formed by cascade up against a big cliff.  I loft the fly to the head of the pool, and it floats downstream then swirls into a big back eddy against the cliff face….and something whacks it hard, just where the fish should be.  Of course, I somehow miss it.  Another cast, same song, same verse.  Looks like I blew the best pool I’ve seen all day.  Dejectedly, I work the little pool just ahead at the foot of the rapids and low and behold, a nice fish nails the dry!  After a worthy tussle, I am surprised to be sliding my net under a colorful rainbow that is a nose over 13 inches, the biggest fish of the day.  Probably a descendant of an escapee from DeWeese Reservoir miles above.

img_3315
Cliff Pool

img_3313
Nice Rainbow

I am thinking what a great way to end the trip, but then as I work up to the beaver dam and big shallow pool at the trailhead, I see some fish scattering.  Who can resist?  One even starts to feed on the opposite shore, one of the few risers I have seen all day.  I make a perfect cast that drifts the fly right over his head.  He studiously ignores it a couple of times, then on the third cast nails the nymph.  Another of his buddies soon follows.

img_3318
Last Pool Of Day Yields Two Frisky Brownies

Now I am feeling quite the expert, but am brought back to earth when on the very next cast a big fish nails the nymph and I set the hook too hard and break off the entire rig.  I momentarily go apesh**, spinning around in the water like a whirling dervish, venting my frustration. Clearly the biggest fish of the day has just owned me.  That’s a telltale sign to call it a day plus the sun is sinking below the south canyon rim at 4:30, bathing the creek in shadows and dropping the temperature. But I can’t help but smile and laugh.  Maybe I’ll get a shot at him on my next trip….lots of water upstream to explore.

img_3321
Good Water Upstream To Explore On Next Grape Creek Outing

img_3329
Sunset Over The Wet Mountain Valley And Sangre De Cristo Peaks