Texas Creek 2’fer

March 2021

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. 

Texas Creek And Environs

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. 

The Texas Creek Area Offers Easy Access To Several Miles Of Good Water On The Arkansas River

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. 

Texas Creek Hides From View 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! 

Crafty Coot Pumps Guide For Fishing Secrets While Birders Distracted

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. 

Outlaw Hideout In McCoy Gulch

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.

Texas Creek In The Early 1900s

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. 

Creek Guards

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!

All Systems GO!!

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. 

Texas Creek Treats (clockwise from top center): Tung Teaser, CDC Beadhead Caddis, and Sparkle Caddis Larva

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! 

Act Two: Hope Springs Eternal

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. 

Into The Wilds

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. 

Lair Of The Big Bow

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. 

Lair Of The Big Brownie

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.

Scrappy Brown Trout Ends Shutout

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. 

Bring Your “A” Casting Game To Texas Creek

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.

Texas Creeks Brownies Are Eager and Feisty–If You Can Reach Their Hideouts

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!

Miles Of Water To Explore Upstream

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!!

Return To Sand Creek Lakes: Revenge Of The Skunked!

Early July 2020

My first trip to the beautiful remote Sand Creek Lakes high above the Wet Mountain Valley in Colorado was in 2017, a year of the big runoff. The Arkansas and local streams around my home base of Salida were blown out and muddy well into July. As a consequence, by mid-June I was going a bit stir crazy and had contracted fishing fever. I needed to chase some trout in the worst way, so I turned my attention to the high alpine lakes nearby. One in particular—Upper Sand Creek Lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Westcliffe—caught my eye. I had heard tales of giant cutthroats there, which were confirmed by my high country lake bible, Tom Parkes’ excellent Central Colorado Alpine Lakes Fishing Guide. He wrote “The lake has large cutthroats (approaching two pounds)…” What sane angler could resist??

My next step was to research the trail over Music Pass to the lake in more detail.  Even for a youthful septuagenarian like me, it looked to be a challenge—an up and down and up almost four mile one-way hike to nearly 12,000 feet with a good possibility of running into snow banks along the trail and around the lake.  But the lure of cruising leviathans won out. 

It was all worthwhile humping over the pass and crunching through snow banks on the trail when I got that first glimpse of the lake and immediately spotted the behemoths finning along the shoreline within casting distance.  Parkes had not been exaggerating.  That was around noon.   By 5:30 p.m. when I had to hightail it back to my SUV to beat the dark, I was skunked!  I had thrown every fly in my mountain fly box at them, had post holed through snow to reach the west side of the lake that was supposed to be productive, and had even broken out my ultralight spin outfit and thrown spinners like the normally reliable purple Vibrex at them.  The cutts studiously ignored all offerings, the boys being much more interested in chasing the girls.  Amore was in the air along with the distinct odor of skunk, something that had not happened to me in years! As I scrambled and grumbled back over Music Pass to the trailhead I vowed, like General MacArthur, I shall return.

Now three years later I am on the road from my cabin at 6 a.m. to make the Music Pass trailhead by 8. While the waters in my neck of the wood are lower and more fishable this year, the wind has been howling every day for practically two weeks making fly fishing nearly impossible.  Today it is supposed to lay down substantially.   I am resolute to avenge that ignominious skunk while celebrating my oldest son Ben’s birth on this very date, July 1, 35 years ago. 

It’s an easy drive through the little hamlet of Westcliffe until I reach the Grape Creek trailhead, but beyond that the gravel road deteriorates quickly into a bone-jarring rough track suitable only for real off-road ready 4WD vehicles with an experienced driver behind the wheel.  It takes me almost 30 minutes to cover the last three miles. 

Since my trip in 2017 I’ve turned 70 and my knees aren’t what they used to be even a few short years ago.  Could I make the long hike to Upper Sand Creek Lake again? I decide it may be wiser to head for the lower lake that requires about a mile shorter hike in, but is still up and down.  Also, the fish are also supposedly smaller.  I consult with my knees and get the green light only for the lower lake.  Sanity thus prevails. 

When I get to the Music Pass trailhead I am surprised to find six vehicles already there, reminding me the 4th of July weekend is coming up and many people are already out taking advantage of the holiday falling on a Saturday.  Fortunately most will turn out to be hikers, not anglers.  I quickly begin gearing up, stuffing my daypack with food, drink, and fishing paraphernalia.  As I get ready to hit the trail, another vehicle pulls up and two gents about my age emerge.  They begin loading up their big backpacks—at least 60 pounds—including packing fly rods.  I strike up a conversation with the two amiable chaps, Roland and George, and learn they are setting out for a week-long stay in the Sand Creek Valley to fish both lakes.  My daypack, although loaded to the gills, weighs probably a measly 30 pounds.  So that does it, I can do it if they can.

Graciously, the duo allow me to play like a wily race car driver and slipstream behind them, saving some energy. 

View Of The Wet Mountain Valley From Music Pass Trail

Still after a rugged 1.25 mile climb over a nasty trail to Music Pass, with an elevation gain of almost 1,000 feet, I am wheezing and barely keeping up with the hearty pair.

Roland And George–Intrepid Anglers!

We sign in dutifully at the wilderness boundary and decide to take a little rest.

The boys look worried when at the pass I do my imitation of Red Foxx’s heart attack skit—“It’s the big one!!  I’m coming to you honey!!”  Gallows humor I’m thinking. 

It’s The Big One!!

After the hijinks, we are soon scooting downhill to the point where the trail forks—to the left leads over Sand Creek then up to the lower lake in a bit over one mile. To the right at 1.7 miles is the upper lake.

Down From Music Pass And Into The Wilds

Along the way, we bump into a couple of young backpackers who tell us they had good luck in the lower lakes for cutthroat.  I’m beaming!  Also along the way, we get a sobering wake-up call as Roland, an agile 74, suddenly takes a nasty tumble on a scree-like section of the trail.  Fortunately although he comes down hard on his back side and left wrist, he avoids serious injury.  He shows his true angling colors by immediately remarking that thankfully he didn’t land on his casting wrist! It does remind me why I carry a Garmin InReach emergency satellite phone on these backcountry trips.

As we near the fork we say our good byes as they split off to set up camp in a meadow nearby.  I continue on to the crossing over Sand Creek where I take a breather, resisting the urge to break out my fly rod and sample the scenic little water.  On earlier trips Roland and George reported they had fun catching the smaller trout I can see finning in several pools. 

Alluring Sand Creek

As I cool off in the shade, I reflect on the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which has a fascinating history including Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, and American explorers like Zebulon Pike and John Fremont.  First designated as a national monument in 1932 as a result of lobbying by local citizens worried about gold mining in Medano Creek, the Great Sands Dunes were elevated to a national park and preserve in 2004.  The core national park covers about 168 square miles, mainly the towering sand dunes, and the preserve another 233 square miles that encompasses the surrounding range of high mountain peaks and lakes, including Upper and Lower Sand Creek Lakes.  Some activities such as hunting that are prohibited in the national park are permitted in the preserve.

After a brief respite to recharge my batteries, I ford Sand Creek by tiptoeing across the top of a log jam. My smile fades soon thereafter as I encounter the first in a series of steep switchbacks that no one seemed to have mentioned in their on-line posts about the trail. I have been back from my winter hideout in Florida for almost a month, but am still quickly wheezing as I pass the 11,000-foot elevation mark. It takes me almost an hour to navigate the final mile, but fortunately am distracted by a couple of curious deer and beautiful wildflowers between frequent breathers.

Curious Mule Deer On Trail

But all doubts fade quickly when I see the beautiful lake water and the magnificent Tijares Peak towering directly above at 13,612 feet. Tijares is Spanish for scissors, an apt name for the rugged, sharp-edged, serrated mountain and line of peaks that dominate the skyline. And better yet, no one is around!!

Jagged Tijeras Peak Towers Over Lower Sand Creek Lake

As I approach the lake shore, the wind kicks up unexpectedly strong from the north, not what the weatherman predicted. But then again anyone who has fished alpine lakes knows that the winds are completely unpredictable and are likely to change directions and wax and wane throughout the day. But if I’m going to fly fish, I need to find a sheltered shoreline. Then I remember that in his mountain lakes guidebook, Tom Parkes mentions a hidden cove on the south end of the lake that just might be the ticket. Sure enough, as I trek along the south shoreline, I see the curve of the cove, its entry having been obscured by a peninsula of land that juts out into the lake.

Gimme Shelter–Hidden Cove At South End Of Lake

I hike over the peninsula ridge and immediately the wind abates…and better yet, I see trout dimpling the calm, clear lake water, and they don’t appear to be small as some posts reported.

I quickly stow my pack and start to rig my fly rod, soaking in the sun’s warming rays.  But then it dawns on me it’s going to be a challenge casting along the shoreline here crowded with spruce and pine trees.  And wading isn’t an option at this point because the bank drops off sharply into deep water.  So I also pull out my ultralight spinning pack rod and rig it with an old reliable alpine lake combination of two nymphs—a zug bug and zebra midge trailing a clear bubble.  As I approach the water to scope things out, I spy a good-sized cutthroat feeding over deep water.  He’s too far out to reach with the fly rod, so I grab the spinning rod and throw a cast 15-feet in front of the cruising fish.  As soon as the flies hit the water he jets forward at light speed and nails the zug bug without hesitation before it sinks even a foot!  As I tussle with the cutt, I think I have the ticket to success.  Surprisingly, it will be the only fish I take all day on the spin outfit or on a nymph.  Such are the vicissitudes of alpine lake fishing.

Fat Cutthroat–First Fish Of The Day

After 15 minutes of fruitlessly flailing the water with the nymph combo, I decide to walk back from the point of the peninsula further into the cove where I see the water is much shallower. As I approach, I spy some big cutthroats cruising in the clear water, nonchalantly picking small bugs off the surface. I see one working his way towards me only a few feet from the shoreline and hastily tie a #16 foam beetle on my fly line, a morsel that has successfully tempted many alpine lake trout. The bank is lined with trees, so I have to execute a tricky cast parallel to the shoreline, leaning out of the water to give me room to execute. My efforts are rewarded as he sidles up to the fly, opens his mouth and …..darts away at the last second.

After several more casts with the beetle and no takers, I switch to a smaller #18 black ant. Soon, a nice colorful 16-inch cutt casually sucks in the fly. Now I think I’m onto the right pattern, but again a succession of fish scrutinize the ant but shy away at the last moment. Frustrated, I get down on my belly and lean out over the water to get a better look at what the timid trout are feeding on—some very, very small little midges. So I tie on a #20 black midge emerger, but still only get brief looks and no hits. I step down further to a #22 black midge dry with a white foam top that enables me to see the microscopic offering on the water.

I lay a gentle cast a few feet in front of another big cruiser and success!  He sucks in the fly without hesitation, and the fight is on.  He’s strong, but with my trusty old Sage 9-foot, 5# fly rod, the cutthroat finally succumbs, agrees to a quick photo, and is back on his way.  From then on for the rest of the day, it’s a movable feast! 

For the next hour in the cove, I hide behind the trees and wait, letting the trout come to me, often in pairs.  I target the larger ones, and net a beauty that goes 17-inches! 

Big Colorful 17″ Cutt

The only glitch is a short period where several trout come up to the midge, examine it closely, then refuse to take. I finally conduct a close examination of the fly and discover a small wind knot in the leader an inch in front of the fly. In the clear water apparently the fish can see this tiny glitch. I retie, and the fish again cooperate. By noon I have caught a dozen more beautiful cutthroats of several varieties. Some look like natives and other the more colorful Yellowstone Cutthroat that have been stocked here. Who am I to quibble?

After lunch I decide to work around to the south end of the cove where two creeks feed in. 

Hidden Cove Looking North

On the way I continue sight fishing for cruising fish in the shallow flats, having a blast trying to lay the fly in their path, close but not too close to spook them. Luckily there are no trees crowding the shoreline so the casting is easy.

Sight Fishing For Cruising Cutthroats

I’m successful about one out of four tries.  When I get to the creeks, I find smaller fish already spawning there, but the big girls and boys are cruising and feeding just off-shore, often within casting range in two-three feet of water.  By 3:30 p.m. I have caught another dozen, including a showy 16-incher. 

It’s been one of the best days I have had in years on an alpine lake, where the fish can often be extremely finicky.  It’s certainly been the most fun—sight fishing for big trout and getting to watch them take in the crystal clear water!  And the odor of skunk has definitely dissipated in the clean mountain air. 

Now it’s time to head home. Last trip it took me two hours to hike out, but now it will be closer to three. As I start trekking back down towards the fork on the steep switchbacks, my knees immediately start complaining—going down is often tougher than hiking up. So I slow down and take a little time to reflect on the 72 years I have had on this beautiful planet. Thirty-five years ago at noon in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, hospital I first held my oldest son Benjamin in my arms. Back then fathers were not allowed in the delivery room but had to wait in a little waiting room for nervous dads just down the hall. I suddenly heard a baby cry, and then a nurse appeared with small bundle. Ben squinted up at me, his expression seeming to say, “Who’s that!” Now 35 years later he’s grown into a fine young man who excelled academically at Colorado College and then studying for his master’s degree in history from Texas A&M—who would have thought I would have ever raised an Aggie!! Now he works for a law enforcement agency using his smarts to track down the bad guys. I reflect on how lucky I am to have two good boys—his younger brother Matthew is a wonderful, doting father to my #1 sweetheart and fishing buddy Aly.

Proud Dad With Ben (on right) and Matthew

I suppose most fathers ask at some point as they age what they would have done differently, how they could have done better for their children. I tried to give my boys a world view and to stoke their curiosity by taking them on trips to Africa, Great Britain, Greece, the Boundary Canoe Waters of Minnesota, and other interesting places. I was happy to pass on my love of tennis to them—both played varsity for East High, a big public school in Denver, and could handle me on the courts by the time they were seniors. Matthew even won the Denver Public Schools doubles championship. We had great fun along the way peeling around Denver in that old 1987 Corvette and lots of fun camping and fishing in the streams of lakes of Colorado and exotic places like the Boundary Waters for northern pike and smallmouth bass and the backcountry of Alaska for salmon and grayling. I hope they will always stay curious and also remember that if you follow all the rules you’ll miss all the fun.

I probably traveled too much on business in the 1990s when I was starting my land use consulting firm, having been fired with just three days notice from my job as an agency head in Denver by a new mayor. But fortunately they had a wonderful mother who filled the gaps I left and gave them much more. I think many guys in my generation were that way, putting business and work ahead of family at times, but there’s nothing like being unemployed with two kids at home to focus your attention. If I had to do it over again, I would draw brighter lines between work and the rest of my life.

My musings are abruptly interrupted as I start the steep climb up from the trail fork to the top of Music Pass.

What Comes Down Must Go Back Up! Whew!!

I finally make it with the assistance of numerous short stops in the shady spots along the route,  pausing to admire the wonderful views and wildflowers.

Shooting Stars

Plentiful Lupines

But the worst is yet to come.  The mile-long plus trail from Music Pass to the trailhead is in terrible shape—eroded and strewn with loose rocks, a sad commentary on how this wealthy nation has short-changed its agencies that take care of our public lands. 

Music Pass Trail Back To SUV—No Picnic For Old Codgers!

I nearly lose it twice, my legs slipping out from under me as the rocks break loose under my feet, saved only by my hiking pole slowing my abrupt descent.

I realize, sadly, that this will probably be the last time I will hike to the Sand Creek Lakes. My knees are just not up to it, the penalty for playing too much tennis and basketball in my earlier years. Not that I regret that, but just end up now paying the price. Indeed I will be hobbling around for a couple of weeks after this hike. I know, happily, there are still lots of remote places with fish to explore that will not require what one of my fishing buddies wryly calls a DDM—Duerksen Death March. I’m already planning that for that one in a couple of weeks, a secret little creek I stumbled on last summer with relatively easy access and just loaded with wild trout! More on that one in my next article!!

P.S.—If you want to sample the fabulous cutthroat fishing on either of the Sand Creek Lakes, do it soon.  The National Park and U.S. Forest Services have plans to restore the Sand Creek drainage, including both lakes, with native, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats.  That will mean poisoning all existing fish in the lakes and creek.  Check the status of these plans on-line before you go.

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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View Upstream From Trailhead

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Cliff Pool

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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.

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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.

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Good Water Upstream To Explore On Next Grape Creek Outing

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Sunset Over The Wet Mountain Valley And Sangre De Cristo Peaks