Day Two Exploring The Hidden Streams of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains:  Medano Creek (in the Great Sand Dunes Preserve near Alamosa, Colorado)

Early October 2021

For my Day 1 outing on the Huerfano (the Orphan) River see: https://hooknfly.com/2021/10/14/exploring-the-hidden-creeks-of-the-sangre-de-cristo-mountains-day-1-on-the-orphan-river/

For accounts of earlier trips where I chased Rio Grande Cutthroats see: https://hooknfly.com/2021/09/14/prospecting-for-trout-on-the-fab-five-forks-of-the-conejos-river-2-the-adams-fork/ and https://hooknfly.com/2019/09/27/lake-fork-of-the-conejos-river-solitude-in-a-sanctuary-for-rare-rio-grande-cutthroat-trout/

I’m off on my last camping/fishing trip of the year. Snow is already on the jagged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains in the San Luis Valley, and colder weather will be rolling in next week. I have set up my mobile fish camp in an RV campground just outside of Alamosa, and have my eyes on two waters I haven’t yet explored in the remote high country of this imposing mountain range—the Huerfano (p. WEAR funno) River and Medano (p. MAY dunno) Creek. The Huerfano River lies on the east side of the Sangres where it springs from the flanks of the majestic Blanca Peak, a fourteener and one of the highest summits in the Rocky Mountains. The second, Medano Creek, lies only about 15 miles away as the crow flies to the north on the west side of the Sangres. It is home to the colorful, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats. While close on maps, the two waters actually lie a couple of hours apart by road.

The Sangre de Cristos are one of the most rugged mountain ranges in the United States climbing abruptly over 7,000 feet above the valleys to the east and west, one of the steepest vertical rises of any mountains in North America. Nine of its peaks top 14,000 feet. Unlike the San Juan Mountains on the west side of the San Luis Valley that were created by volcanic activity, the Sangre de Cristo range is the product of tremendous uplift forces which helps to explain their jagged profile. Numerous alpine lakes and streams are hidden away in the deep folds between the soaring peaks. Hiking in this rough high country is not for the faint of heart as I can attest from an outing on Sand Creek lakes several years ago.

Doing my due diligence research prior to this October trip, I found very little mention of either water on-line, except occasional posts by intrepid hikers.  I couldn’t find anyone at my local fly shop who had heard of, let alone fished either.  Apparently neither is on the angling radar screen—my kind of streams!

Day 2:  Medano Creek

After a long day fishing the headwaters of the Huerfano River yesterday, I decide to sleep in a bit and have an extra cup of strong English Breakfast tea before heading out.  Still I’m on the road by 8:30 a.m. for what should be the shorter drive to fish Medano Creek.  Aptly named, meaning sand dunes in Spanish, Medano Creek flows through the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The dunes there soar over 300 feet high, the tallest in North America.  They fit in well with the San Luis Valley landscape, the highest true desert in the United States that gets a paltry eight inches of rain a year.  Indeed, while Medano Creek starts out ten miles above the dunes in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it eventually disappears in the porous piles of sand.  In the early summer when it still runs through the dunes before vanishing, my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly loves playing in the warm creek waters and digging in the huge natural sandbox. 

Medano Creek Playtime For Aly

Interestingly, biologists tells us that Medano Creek, being completely isolated by the dunes, never held any trout before nonnatives like brown trout were introduced. However, because of the isolation provided by the sand dunes, the creek was a perfect candidate for transplanting Rio Grande Cutthroats, the only native trout in the valley, as part of the recovery program to save that threatened fish. Non-native trout were poisoned out, and the Rio Grande Cutthroats introduced in the 1980s. The program was doing nicely until a huge wildfire burned through the area in 2010. Fortunately, state wildlife aquatic biologists organized to save fish in the lower reaches. The cutts in the creek rebounded nicely and are one of Colorado’s best sustaining population of the Rio Grande Cutts. They are now being used as the stock for restoration efforts such as those in nearby Sand Creek.

My excitement level jumps a notch as I get closer to the imposing sand dunes. This is definitely going to be a completely different day than yesterday. Instead of climbing high into the mountains on a steep rocky road to an alpine water at over 10,000 feet, I’ll be navigating tricky sand pits on the edge of the dunes that can suck even a 4WD drive vehicle to its axles in a flash. My first glimpse of the creek is encouraging, but I start to get a little knot in my stomach when I begin to see the increasingly sober warning signs as I drive further into the dunes.

One warns drivers to lower their tire pressure to 20 psi to make it through.  Fortunately, according to the park ranger at the entry booth, soaking rains last night have firmed up the sand so I don’t need to follow that advisory.  This won’t be so bad, I think.  I’ll take a sandy road over a gnarly rock-infested steep one any day.

Medano Creek Primitive Road Map

But then I come to the big sign that announces “point of no return!”  Yikes, what have I gotten myself into?

YIKES!! INTO THE WILDS!

Soon I run into what will be the first of several wide creek crossing.  The water level is low so they are no problem, but could be earlier in the year during runoff. 

One Of Several Creek Crossings

I don’t see any fish, and the creek on either side is completely overgrown for several miles.  I start to wonder if this is going to be another frustrating day like yesterday.

Further up another mile or so I run into a hunter near a series of steep cliffs, reputedly mountain sheep territory.

Mountain Sheep Territory

He confirms that is his quarry. The young nimrod says he has been at it for four days and hasn’t seen any. What about fish, I ask? He nods and tells me he’s seen plenty of those. Whew!

As I continue, looking for an opening to investigate the water, the still-sandy road narrows as it weaves its way through the aspen and pines.  I wince as the branches scrape along the side of my SUV and snap at my radio antenna. 

Narrow Road–What’s Around The Bend?

I start to wonder what I’ll do if I meet another vehicle. Then I do. That explains why I’ve been seeing short pull outs scraped into the forest every quarter mile or so. It’s where you back up to when to meet someone. Fortunately the young gents coming down are closer to one so they back up and pull over. I roll my window down to thank them, and ask what things look like above. They mention several more river crossings and then a rocky stretch a few miles up. I ask them if they saw any beaver ponds and they nod, just after the valley widens and the road gets rougher they say.

Their info proves to be correct, and sure enough right after the road begins to climb more sharply and the sand gives way to rocks in the road, the valley widens and I spy a side track that leads to a broad meadow where I can see water.  It’s 10:30 a.m. and has taken me about two hours to drive here from the campground.

I hop out of the SUV and walk cautiously to the creek.  It’s wide and flowing slowly courtesy of a small beaver dam below.  I can see up the steep slope on the other side of the creek evidence of the massive forest fire that swept through here a decade ago. 

Charred pine trunks still stand, but the aspen are coming back, and the vegetation around the pond is thick in places. There are dimples on the water, and as I get closer I can see several foot-long cutthroats swimming nonchalantly as they pick off small midge flies on the surface.  I hustle back to my vehicle and grab the rod that’s rigged with a dry/dropper combo.  The dry is a #18 Royal Coachman Trude and the dropper a creation of my own that I have dubbed Dirk’s Delight.  It’s a #18 beadhead caddis larva that’s been producing all summer on small creeks. 

Dirk’s Delight–CDC Beadhead Caddis Larva

I decide to don my chest waders, anticipating I will be wading beaver ponds today from the looks of things on Google Maps. But it’s nice and sunny—the temperature will reach 75 this afternoon—and the wind is light so I don’t have to slip on a jacket.   

In a flash I’m back on the water, standing back from the shoreline so as not to spook the several cruising cutthroats.  I make a short cast a few feet in front of the biggest, and he jets forward to nail the nymph before it can sink.  BINGO!  Not like the shy brookies yesterday! The handsome cutt poses for a quick photo then slides back into the water. 

Colorful Cutthroat Commences The Fun

I quickly recast, and hook another.  Indeed I get strikes on the next five casts and land a couple more smaller cutts, all but one on the caddis dropper.

When the action slows, I decide to hustle back to my vehicle and get my second rod rigged with two nymphs since the fish appear to prefer something subsurface. That seems to be the ticket, as the action picks up as I work upstream, the fish either being in the deeper trough in the middle of the slow moving channel or up against the opposite shoreline. The fish are definitely not being picky. I catch several that hit the dropper several times after being hooked on the first try but wriggling off.

Around the bend I spy several more cutts cruising along the surface steadily feeding on small tidbits. They aren’t wary and don’t waste any time nailing the caddis or the dry I offer a few yards in front of them. All are healthy and go from 10-12 inches. What fun! At the next bend in a deeper spot under an overhanging bush I’m surprised to get a beauty that pushes 14-inches, and then four more out of the same spot despite all the commotion.

Bend Pool Bonanza

Then it’s on to a big beaver dam and pond I can see upstream. I approach the dam cautiously and cast the flies into the spillway cascade. Immediately something big nails the dry and the battle is on…but short-lived. The only cutthroat cartwheels into the air, his sides shining in the sun, and earns his freedom as I magnanimously grant him a long-distance release.

Big Beaver Pond Frolic About To Commence

I move up and carefully scale the big beaver dam.  It doesn’t take long to get back into the groove.  On the first cast parallel to the dam into a pocket under some overhanding trees, a colorful cutthroat inhales the nymph. 

Eager Beaver Pond Trout

Several more come out of that spot. Next I concentrate on a dark, deeper hole in the middle of the pond where a couple of fish are dimpling the surface. It produces several more, but all on the nymph. For the next half hour I work the pond from the shoreline. I get several more cruisers on the dry, one of which I watch incredulously as he hits the dry, then the dropper, then the dry again five times. I actually hook him twice, and he just keeps coming back. Who am I to argue?!? Further on I see a rise in a deep pocket close to the shoreline, and it turns out to be a honey hole. I fool a half dozen more feisty cutts including a long, slim beauty that pushes 14-inches!

By now it’s almost 2 p.m., and my stomach is growling. But just as I’m about to head back to the SUV and lunch, I come upon another beaver dam, this one older and smaller, with a pond that’s partially silted in. I catch several below the dam, then realize I’ll have to navigate around the marshy area it has created to get to the deeper water above. I go back downstream a hundred yards and am just about to take a step into a clear, shallow side channel when I am startled to see a leviathan slowly finning in the narrow confines, picking morsels off the surface. I retreat behind a bush and gently loft a short cast a few feet in front of the big boy. He swims forward slowly and sips in the dry. I set the hook and he thrashes his head back and forth. My heart drops when the fly comes whizzing back towards me. I expect to see the fish zoom off back into the safety of the pond but he resumes his slow amble up the channel. I place the flies above him again, and he jets forward to nail the nymph. I’m so shocked that I momentarily forget to set the hook, but when I do the cutt shows off his muscles. He slashes back and forth in the channel, but luckily doesn’t make a run towards the pond which would have required me to do my famous Usain Bolt imitation running through the marshy muck to keep up with him. Soon he’s easing into my net, a stunning 15-inches. The big fish sports all the striking colors and patterns of a pure Rio Grande Cutt, including the cluster of small spots near the tail, the speckled back, the dark red gill plate, and of course the red slash under his throat.

As I slide the beautiful fish back into the water, I think what a wonderful way to end an extraordinary day! 

But then think am I out of my mind with that one more alluring pool just above and Google Maps showing another whole series of ponds just up the road.  So I negotiate with myself and my stomach.  I’ll fish the pool then call it a day.  The next string of beaver ponds can wait for a return engagement.  The compromise turns out to be a good one.  I catch several more nice fish at the top of the pond in very clear water, then resolutely climb up to the road above, tip my hat to the cutts, and hike a few minutes back to the SUV and lunch while I plot my return next year.   

Last Look And Tip Of The Hat To The Wonderful Cutthroat Of Medano Creek

Note: In my follow up research on access to Medano Creek, I learned an easier route may be from the west side of the Sangres through the Wet Mountain Valley and over Medano Pass. Road 559 appears to be less challenging, gets to the beaver ponds more quickly, and avoids having to navigate the sand.

Exploring The Hidden Creeks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains:  Day 1 On The Orphan River

October 2021

For an account of my earlier trip in the Sangre de Cristo mountains where I fished for big cutthroats in an alpine lake see:https://hooknfly.com/2020/07/25/return-to-sand-creek-lakes-revenge-of-the-skunked/

I’m off on my last camping/fishing trip of the year.  Snow is already on the jagged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains in the San Luis Valley, and colder weather will be rolling in next week. 

Early Fall Calling Card In The Rockies

I have set up my mobile fish camp in an RV campground just outside of Alamosa, and have my eyes on two waters I haven’t yet explored in the remote high country of this imposing mountain range—the Huerfano (p. WEAR funno) River and Medano (p. MAY dunno) Creek.  The Huerfano River lies on the east side of the Sangres in the southern reaches of the Wet Mountain Valley where it springs from the flanks of the majestic Blanca Peak, a fourteener and one of the highest summits in the Rocky Mountains.  The second, Medano Creek, lies only about 15 miles away as the crow flies to the north of the Great Sand Dunes National Park on the west side of the Sangres.  It is home to colorful, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats.  While in close proximity on maps, the two waters actually lie a couple of hours apart by road. 

The Sangre de Cristos are one of the most rugged mountain ranges in the United States rising abruptly over 7,000 feet above the valleys to the east and west, one of the steepest vertical rises of any mountains in North America.    Nine of its peaks top 14,000 feet.  Unlike the San Juan Mountains on the west side of the San Luis Valley that were created by volcanic activity, the Sangre de Cristo range is the product of tremendous uplift forces which helps to explain their jagged profile.  Numerous alpine lakes and streams are hidden away in the deep folds between the soaring peaks.  Hiking in this rough high country is not for the faint of heart as I can attest from an outing on Sand Creek lakes several years ago. 

Doing my due diligence research prior to this October trip, I found very little mention of either water on-line, except occasional posts by intrepid hikers.  I couldn’t find anyone at my local fly shop who had heard of, let alone fished either.  Apparently neither is on the angling radar screen—my kind of streams!

Day 1:  The Huerfano River

I’m up early the next morning for what will be a two-hour drive east of Alamosa to the headwaters of the Huerfano.  It’s a pleasant scenic route on US 160 through historic Fort Garland to the turn off to the north on Pass Creek Road (Rd572) just before reaching La Veta Pass. 

Blanca Peak And Mt. Lindsey Above Fort Garland
Turn Off On Pass Creek Road (572) Near La Veta Pass

The gravel road starts out fine, the dust settled from a good soaking rain the past few nights.  But then I start to run into stretches where the edges of the road are partially washed out where the rain cascaded through acres of burnt timber and denuded ground from a recent wildfire.  I drive by some heavy equipment trying to repair the damage and am fortunate to squeeze by.  Luckily the road soon improves, and I have to worry about dodging free-ranging cattle and occasional wild turkeys. 

Rd 572 finally turns into Rd 570, and in a few miles when Rd 570 crosses the Huerfano River, I’m not surprised to see it is very low.  This stretch of the river runs through a broad agricultural valley where its waters are diverted for irrigation.  I figure I will find more water higher up.  Rd 570 dead ends into Road 550, a paved highway where I turn left (west) and start up towards the headwaters. 

The Hispanic heritage of the valley and agricultural lands to the east is reflected in the river’s name which means “orphan” in Spanish.  The name comes from an iconic 300-foot high conical butte that stands alone by itself near the river in the prairie eight miles north of Walsenburg.  This massive lone sentinel was an important landmark for early explorers like John Fremont. 

The Orphan Butte

In a few miles Rd 550, a paved highway, transitions into a good gravel road that winds up the valley and then through the narrow confines of the Huerfano State Wildlife Area.  I get my first glimpse of the river and its rushing waters.  It’s heavily overgrown, but has a better flow than down below as I had hoped.

Soon I come to a prominent warning sign notifying me that the next three miles are through private land and that trespassers will be shot and then shot again (or something like that).  Now the road steadily deteriorates with some rocky, bumpy sections.  I shift into 4WD, happy that I have four good AT tires and a high-clearance vehicle.  I pass by a couple of mountain mansions, and then the valley opens up again. It’s hard to keep my eye on the road as the spectacular scene emerges, brilliant golden aspen framing the snow-covered east side of the Sangres. 

But I’m jolted back to reality when I crest a ridge, and the road drops precipitously down the slope. 

Keep An Eye On The Road!!

Road 550 transitions into Upper Huerfano Road 580 that is recommended for 4WD, trails bikes, and ATVs only.  Rd 580 isn’t particularly steep but is pocked with big rocks and an uneven roadbed that require careful navigating.

4-Wheel Drive Vehicle Highly Reommended!

Only in a few places does the road come close to the river, and then it’s mostly overgrown like below.  I decide to keep going to the Lily Lake Trailhead where my map shows the trail intersecting the river in a broad open meadow.  Finally at about 10:45 a.m. I reach the trailhead and am surprised to see four vehicles there, two that are average AWD passenger cars!  I say a quick prayer for the drivers, hoping they have good 6-ply tires.  It’s a long way from any tow truck.

I saunter over to the edge of the parking area, noting the remnants of a SUV running board being used as a fire pit bench. 

Rough Road Casualty

I am greeted by a stupendous view of the river several hundred feet below in a canyon.  The plunge pools look inviting, but only a mountain goat would dare descend from there.  I hatch a plan to walk upstream on the trail then rock hop back down into the canyon.

Mountain Goat Territory

I suit up in my normal high-country fishing uniform—chest waders, Simms Vapor wading/hiking boots, wading staff, and fishing vest loaded to the gills.  I decide to carry only one rod, a lightweight 8.5-foot, four-weight wand rigged with a dry/dropper combo—a #18 Royal Coachman Trude for the surface and a #18 green beadhead caddis larva below. My leader and dropper are 5X.

The trail is in excellent shape thanks to the good work of a corps of volunteers according to a sign I pass.  It ascends gently then descends into the big open valley promised on my map.  The view is spectacular and will distract me for the rest of the afternoon—Blanca Peak and Mt. Lindsey in a magnificent cirque covered with the first snow of the season.  I decide to veer off the trail and follow a game trail that wends through high grass down to the river. 

As I get close to the river, I can see the water is low and crystal clear so I switch into stealth mode.  I creep up to the shoreline, but despite my sneakiness, immediately spook a good-sized brook trout that zooms frantically downstream. 

Ah, the vicissitudes of small stream fishing!  My plan is cross the river in a shallow spot that a see 20 yards upstream then hike downstream through the brush on the east side into the canyon where I had spotted those alluring plunge pools–then work my way back up.

My plan works perfectly for about three minutes.  As I wade across in the shallows, I can see a beautiful, deep pool at a bend in the river just above.  Better yet, there is a school of brookies finning in the depths, apparently oblivious to my presence.  I crouch to lower my profile and execute a dainty cast to the head of the pool just below where the current cascades in.  I can see my nymph dropping down to the quarry that awaits.  But the brookies don’t move a centimeter towards either fly.  I try again, with similar results.  Persnickety little devils.  After a half a dozen skillful casts and floats later I stand to get a better look and send the trout into a fleeing vs. feeding frenzy.  Oh well, I rationalize, I will deal with them later when I come back this way.

Then it’s off into the bushes and boulders above the creek to work my way into the canyon.  The game trail I’m following soon runs into a nasty looking loose scree slope forcing me to cross over to the other side. 

Into The Canyon

The streambed rocks are surprisingly slippery, but I execute my best nimble septuagenarian moves to emerge without a dunking.  My sights are set on a tempting pool downstream.  I creep slowly through the brush fishing a couple of little plunge pools on the way, one of which harbors a good-sized brookie who zooms to safety.  When I get to the top of the target pool, I’m disappointed to find it’s very shallow and barren of any fish.  I can see further below where the going gets even rougher, so decide there is plenty of water to work back upstream in the meadow. 

I retrace my steps to below another alluring pool and am immediately captivated by the entrancing view. 

I sit on a warm rock and soak in the grand scene for a few minutes.  This moment is alone worth the trip I think to myself.   The bonus is the four trout I see finning mid-pool in the current, one large one and three smaller.  Then it dawns on me that they are in the pre-spawn amorous courting mode.  I confirm my suspicious by executing several delicate casts which the trout respond to with zero interest.  I decide to switch to a Parachute Adams with a 6X leader and add a #18 Two-Bit Hooker below on a 6X dropper.   Same results.  Clearly amore is trumping appetite. 

Soon I am back to the pool just below where I started in the meadow.  Five brookies are stationed in the depths of the pool.  I kneel craftily and loft a cast above them.  The flies drift perfectly towards the trout, but sadly, like their brethren, they show no interest in my offerings, so I switch flies again.  I add a size #22 black zebra midge to the offerings.  This has no noticeable effect on their obvious case of lockjaw.  If frustration, I stand to size things up, which sends them jetting back and forth upstream and down in the pool in utter terror.

I continue upstream, hoping for better, but the results are the same.  In a half dozen picture-perfect pools, the trout stick their noses up at my offerings while they swim around in romantic bliss.  I take care to stay out of the water when I spot fish over gravel beds just in case some are already spawning.  I spot one beauty that looks to be at least 14-inches, but like females of certain other species she won’t give me the time of day. 

Recalcitrant Brook Trout

Next I try a long perfect looking run along the shoreline upstream that normally would be loaded with fish, but come up empty. 

Toward the top of the meadow, the river splits, and I follow the east fork.  I see a few trout here and there then come to a little beaver pond.  A dozen trout are swimming in the pool created by the spillway, but I get too close, and they go flying downstream by me.  Above the dam the river actually disappears, so I hike back downstream to find the other fork. 

The Orphan Disappears!

It is narrow and winds back west through the meadow and some marshes.  Here and there I spot brookies lying up against the undercut banks, but can’t persuade them to bite. 

It’s about 1:30 p.m. by now and my stomach is growling and patience growing very thin.  I am beginning to resign myself to my first ignominious skunk of the year.  Almost three hours of flailing the water and not a rise or bite let alone a fish.  At least it’s been a scenic ecotour, and I have had the river to myself, nary a boot mark anywhere—just lots of sign of deer and elk!  But wait, what about that good-looking freestone water back down in the state wildlife area I passed through in the morning ?  That could salvage my reputation,

On the short hike back to the trailhead, I begin to plan my redemption.  Without wasting any time shedding my boots and waders, I climb back into the SUV and roll downhill towards the wildlife area, a determined glint in my eyes.  The scenery is again mesmerizing, blazing yellow and orange leaves capturing the afternoon sun, but I keep chugging along. 

More Gorgeous Fall Scenery To Distract From The Angling Task At Hand!!

By 2:30 I’m back at the boundary of the wildlife area and find a nice turnout overlooking the river.  I set up my folding chair and table overlooking a beautiful pool and partake of a hearty lunch and can of RC Cola power drink that helps me regain my mojo. 

Lunch Overlook

Below the turnout, the river bends away from the road and becomes invisible behind the trees and tangle of brush.  I have a hunch that the hidden stretch doesn’t get much pressure, so walk down the road several hundred yards then plunge into the thicket.  I follow a faint path that emerges just below a big boulder where a log has jammed to create a small plunge pool below it. I check the streambed rocks and find them loaded with caddis cases. I also see a few caddis flies flitting about in the air.

I tie back on the Royal Trude and caddis nymph and probe the pool carefully, but the current is much swifter here and not likely to hold a fish.  I navigate around the log and boulder and spy a stretch of water along the opposite bank where the current is slower and the run deeper.  I pop the dry at the top of the run and watch it slide down against the shoreline.  Something flashes at the dry, but misses the fly.  I quickly recast and this time a nice 14-inch brown trout inhales the nymph at the end of the run.  Battle on!  The fish heads for the undercut bank replete with snags, but my rod has enough back bone to turn him.  Soon he’s sliding into my net for a quick photo followed by several deep bows from this appreciative angler and then is released.  The pernicious skunk has been banished!! 

Nice Brownie Banishes Skunk!

I continue working upstream, concentrating on every pocket or run of quieter water where the brownies are hiding out to avoid the strong current.  I manage a half-dozen more before I get to the beautiful pool at the turnout. 

There I fool one more and decide since it’s 4:30 and I have a two-hour drive ahead of me, I’d better hit the road. 

Beautiful Brownie Sporting Fall Colors Caps The Comeback

Good thing I did.  When I get back down to the turnoff for the Pass Creek road (570), a big sign announces the road has been temporarily closed, no doubt because of the washouts.  That means Iwill have the take the long way back around east through the hamlet of Gardner then south on CO 69 with a turn on Rd 520 at Badito, a good gravel road that cuts back west to emerge near La Veta Pass.  Fortunately the route, while a bit longer, is easy driving with more fine scenery.  I make it back to the campground in time for a nice glass of Pinot Grigio, while enjoying the warmth of the setting sun and studying the map for my outing tomorrow on Medano Creek.  Cutthroats beware! And next summer I’ll be back on the Huerfano River giving chase those brookies before they spawn!

In The Footsteps Of The Rio Chama Shaman (on the upper Chama River near Chama, NM): The Pilgrimage Continues

Shaman:  A person regarded as having access to, and influence in,

the world of spirits, including angling.

To read about my mid-August reconnaissance trip on the upper Chama, see: https://hooknfly.com/2021/08/10/in-the-footsteps-of-the-rio-chama-shaman-near-chama-nm/

Late August 2021

A few years back I was in Taos getting ready to chase some trout in the nearby Rio Grande Gorge.  I stopped into the well-appointed local fly shop and got the skinny on the best flies and techniques for my trek from the amiable proprietor Nick Streit (rhymes with “bright”).  In the course of our discussion, Nick mentioned I might want to take a look at a book on New Mexico fishing by his father, Taylor Streit, widely recognized as the leading fly fishing guide in New Mexico.  Sure glad I did.  The book is a wealth of practical knowledge and savvy only years of on-the-water experience can bring, all wrapped in Streit’s engaging personal writing style.  No wonder he was unanimously elected to the prestigious guides’ hall of fame.

The Shaman’s Bible

This summer as I was preparing for my annual trip to fish the Conejos River country west of Antonito in southern Colorado, and thinking about new waters to explore, I remembered Streit had sung the praises of the Chama River, one of his favorites, just a short hour’s drive over the New Mexico border from the RV campground where I would be using as my fishing camp.  As reread the Chama River section, I realized I had somehow missed the fact that the remote headwaters of the Chama, a medium-sized river, were actually in Colorado.  To stoke my fishing fever even more, Streit writes glowingly about the prospects for anglers willing to hike in.  I thought it would be satisfying to follow in the steps of the Shaman of the Chama River after experiencing it through his eyes.  Fortunately by mid-August when I am ready to leave, the rivers and streams in the Antonito/Chama area, which had been suffering a severe two-year drought, are back to decent levels thanks to monsoon rains in July.  All systems are go!

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I had done a half-day reconnaissance in mid-August on the upper Chama to get the lay of the land and as a bonus had good results for some nice brown trout, but only after tangling with the wicked thicket—a heavily overgrown stretch of bushes I had to navigate on foot to get to the river.  I vowed to return, albeit by an easier access route. (See link above for article on the recon trip.)

I’m on the road at 7:30 from my campground near Antonito.  Colorado 17 is a good paved and scenic road that crosses the mountains to Chama, New Mexico.  It’s a twisty paved highway that also crosses the narrow gauge Cumbres Toltec tourist train tracks several times, so I don’t hurry, instead enjoying the scenery.  I also know to keep an eye out for roving bovines—this is open range country.  Several times I am forced to come to a complete stop as cows and their calves wander nonchalantly into the middle of the highway.  When I honk they stare blankly at me.  As I can attest as a former Kansas farmboy, they are not exactly Roads Scholars. 

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Roads Scholars??

In about 45 minutes I’m at the turnoff to Forest Service 121, a good gravel road that snakes five miles north through private property up the scenic Chama River Valley. In about three miles I cross the boundary back into Colorado then at five miles enter the Rio Grande National Forest.

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I know from my recon trip to drive another couple of miles till I arrive at a turnout by the trailhead, marked by an old closed road that leads down a steep incline and emerges on the east side of the valley below. 

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However, I know if I take that path I’ll have to bushwhack through the nefarious thicket to get to the river on the other side of the valley. But I’ve done some scouting on Google Maps and see that south of the thicket is a meadow that will provide easier access to the river a quarter mile away on the west side of the valley.  As I walk towards the old closed road path, I happen to spy a faint, rough trail that angles to the south.  It’s steep and appears to have some fallen trees across it further down, but what do I have to lose? 

Rocky Trail To South Of Closed Road Is The Ticket To Avoid The Thicket

Luckily the trail is short and emerges in a beautiful grove of aspen that overlook the meadow I spied on Google Maps.  Triumphantly, I thumb my nose at the thicket just to the north and proceed to amble leisurely across the meadow, soaking in the great views of the mountains. 

In ten minutes I’m entering a big grove of spruce where I follow a wildlife/cattle path, cross the river, and intersect the well-defined trail used by outfitters and hikers a few hundred yards west of the creek.

Game/Cattle Path Leads Through Spruce Grove

I have decided ahead of time I will hike up a mile or so to what I call the third meadow—a big open expanse along the river.  It’s a beautiful day, with highs predicted to be the upper 70s, with plenty of sunshine and light winds.  In a half hour, I emerged from a stand of trees that shade the trail and start to cut down to the river which is running low—about 15-20 cfs—and clear. 

Third Meadow Above River

As I do, I hear something behind me and turn to see a cowboy leading three horses with his three canine companions bringing up the rear.  We stop to talk. 

Cowboy At Work

I ask him if he’s setting up a hunting camp upstream, but he says no and explains he’s hauling salt blocks up to his cattle in the high country above.  His dogs are acting skittish, the result he tells me of being chased earlier on the trail by a big pack of coyotes. 

After shooting the breeze a little more, he peels off to the west on the trail, and I head down the gentle slope to the river and begin to walk further upstream. Hoppers are jumping every which way in the warming sun. Like much of the Chama, the shoreline is overgrown so I have to do more bushwhacking. 

More Bushwhacking To Reach River

In 15 minutes at about 10:30 a.m., I emerge relatively unscathed and find I have lucked out to surface just below an alluring pool below a big deadfall.  With a nice foam line along a stretch of dark green water under some overhanging branches, it wreaks of trout. 

I tie on a #16 Wilcox to imitate the small hoppers I saw in the meadow and below it drop a #18 beadhead sparkle caddis larva.  As I prepare to cast, I see a couple of small brown trout finning at the lower end of the pool.  When I lift my rod to cast, they scurry to the head of the long pool.  Hoping they didn’t spook their big brothers, I go ahead with several casts at the lower end of the run.  Then I take aim at the top of the pool and am able to land the flies just above the overhanging branches.  They float along in the foam, close to the bank, then suddenly a big fish explodes on the Wilcox and the battle is on. 

It’s a big brown, and he knows his territory, heading directly for a submerged snag along the bank.  For a second he’s tangled in the mess, then somehow comes free.  I lean hard on my four-weight wand, bending it in a perilous arc and slowly work him away from the snag.  Soon I have his head up and skidding towards my net, but when he sees his fate, the hooked-jaw brownie jets away.  We repeat the tussle, and this time I get his head into the net.  He’s a muscular 17-inch plus fish.  As I start to celebrate, he surprises me and rockets out of the net and heads straight for the snag.  This time he’s wrapped up tight, so I wade out into the flow on a rescue mission.  Amazingly, when I run my hand down the line, I can feel he is still on, whirling around in the depths!  They suddenly all goes limp.  He’s won his freedom!  I shuffle back to the opposite bank and sit down on a log to calm my frayed nerves and let my right arm that was submerged to the shoulder in the cold water thaw out.  After some dejected mumbling and checking my flies and knots, I make a few more casts in the pool, but clearly the big guy’s gyrations have warned off his buddies.

I continue upstream and scale the big downed tree that’s fallen across the river.  Just above the river bends, creating a deep, swirling pool.  I carefully cast in the rapids above and watch as the flies cascade down into the pool.  The Wilcox promptly disappears as something nails the caddis.  It’s another good one who puts up a battle before I can bring him to the surface and into the net.  Another colorful brownie that goes fourteen inches!  Now we’re cooking!

Nice Brownie Starts The Day

For the next half hour I work upstream with steady action for hungry brown trout.  Soon the brambles give wat to a forest of tall pines and spruce, and the river gathers more steam as the gradient increases.  It’s transitioned from a meadow water to more of a freestone one marked by boulders and plunge pools.   The good fishing continues, with several more 12 to 14-inch browns feasting on the Wilcox.  I miss a bigger one that is hiding under a big boulder.  I see his big nose poke out above the water as he snatches the dry, but only manage to prick him. 

Upper Rocky Stretch Yields Muscular Fish

Now the river bends hard to the north and becomes even faster and rockier with less holding water, so I decide to head back downstream a half-mile to another meadow stretch and work upstream from there.  Again, I have to do some bushwhacking, then stumble on a dry finger of the river and follow it downstream.  I have to dance around some mud holes, but again am in luck and emerge just below a good-looking pool.  It yields a handsome 15-inch brown, again on the Wilcox. 

It’s about 2 p.m. now, and after catching a few more, I break for lunch in a shady spot below another good run. 

Shady Lunch Spot To Recharge

After recharging with victuals and my RC Cola energy drink, I have good steady action for another hour, catching and releasing a half dozen 10 to 14-inch fish. 

TheTrout Stay Hungry After Lunch

By 3:30 the sun is getting ready to slip behind the big ridge to the west, so I decide to start back to my SUV.  Thirty minutes later I’m back near the spruce forest where I first crossed the river.  I can’t resist trying the honey hole where I hooked and lost a big brown trout on my recon trip a week ago.  This time I fool two small brownies on the caddis larva dropper, but the big boy is too wise to fall for my act again. 

Lunker In Honey Hole Refuses To Cooperate….I Shall Return!!

By 4:30 I’m back at my vehicle.  It’s been another mediocre day in paradise with perfect weather and thirty or more fish caught and released, with maybe a dozen over 14-inches.  I think the Shaman of the Chama is smiling! 

Prospecting For Trout on the Fab Five Forks Of The Conejos River: #2–The Adams Fork

For my article on the Lake Fork of the Conejos in 2020, see:

Lake Fork Of The Conejos River: Solitude In A Sanctuary For Rare Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout

For my recent outing on the nearby upper Rio Chama, see: https://hooknfly.com/2021/08/10/in-the-footsteps-of-the-rio-chama-shaman-near-chama-nm/

Mid-August 2021 near Antonito, Colorado

I’m on my annual trip to fish the Conejos River and surrounding waters.  The Conejos is a middle-sized river that harbors big brown and rainbow trout that fatten up on its abundant insect life.  Even though there is plenty of public water between Antonito and Platoro Reservoir, solitude can be a little hard to find.  So I did a little sleuthing and discovered the Conejos actually has five alluring, forks—the North, South, Middle, Lake, and Adams—that are all remote waters requiring some hiking to get to. 

A couple of years ago I had a stellar day on the Lake Fork, a three-mile hike into a high-mountain meadow paying off with a bonanza of gorgeous Rio Grande Cutthroats, several going better than 15-inches.  After a year of missing fishing the Conejos because of the extreme drought in the area, I have set my sights on the Adams Fork above Platoro Reservoir, 40 miles west of Antonito.  This year thanks to timely July monsoon rains, all the rivers and creeks around the area have decent water levels.  I’m intrigued when I can find very little online about fishing the Adams Fork.  There are several posts by hikers who mention the Adams Fork trail, but no indication they sampled the river.  Fortuitously, a few weeks before the trip a reader of my blog mentioned he had caught some nice cutthroats there in July.  Say no more!  I’m sold.

It’s mid-August and at 7:00 a.m. I’m leaving my mobile fish camp at the first-rate Canon Bonito RV park near Mogote.  It’s a 40-mile drive that will take a good two hours to the trailhead above Platoro Reservoir. 

The Adams Fork Above Platoro Reservoir In The South San Juan Wilderness

The first 20 miles on paved Colorado 17 are smooth and scenic.  But after that, tighten your seat belts!  The next 20 miles are up CR 250, widely known for eating tires and various other vehicle parts.  It’s a rough washboard road where you should take the 25 mph speed limit seriously.  The scenery is spectacular, so ease off on the accelerator and take your time.

Around 9 a.m. I am bouncing by the little historic resort community of Platoro, founded in 1945. It’s an eclectic mix of old cabins, new log houses, rental units, and a venerable hotel.   Above the hamlet I hang a left onto FR 247, a decent gravel road that snakes along high above Platoro Reservoir.

Looking South Out Over Platoro Reservoir Towards The South San Juan Wilderness Area

Unfortunately, like most reservoirs in the West it is drought-stricken, sporting a big white bathtub ring.  In a few miles I come to the official trailhead for the Adams Fork. The parking area is empty, a good sign!

I suit up in my lightweight breathable chest waders and carry just one rod today, my new super light four-weight TFO that goes 8½ feet. It’s a beautiful sunny morning with light winds, with a balmy temperature of 70 degrees to come this afternoon at 10,500 feet.  The first section of the trail is steep, so I am soon huffing and puffing, my septuagenarian body complaining about the weight of my as-usual overstuffed fishing vest.

Before long I come to a switchback that crosses the first of several feeder creeks that add their waters to the Adams Fork on the way to my target area, a series of open meadows a couple of miles up the valley.

Main Adams Fork Trail Crosses First Feeder Creek

For the most part from here the trail is fairly flat, with a few ups and downs where it intersects those small feeder creeks.  The wildflowers put on a showy display for me, so I stop and take some photos for my granddaughter Aly, who loves to help me identify them with the help of a terrific free app called PictureThis.  Scarlet skyrockets, fringed gentians, savoryleaf asters, and arrowleaf groundsel abound.  I can hear the river roaring several hundred feet below in its rugged canyon, but can’t see it. 

In about a mile, I come to a downed sign and turn it over. It’s a marker for the boundary of the South San Juan Wilderness Area.

Into The Wilds

In a short distance beyond the boundary marker, I run into a series of steep grassy slopes and meadows that descend steeply to the Adams Fork, which has finally revealed itself. For the next several miles, the access improves as the valley widens. I finally spot a likely looking stretch of water with fewer rapids and more bends and pools.

Gripping my wading staff tightly, I start zig-zagging carefully down the steep incline. The footing is decent, but when I slip on some loose dirt a couple of times, I remind myself to take it easy. As I take a breather half way down, I look out over the sun-soaked tall grass. Suddenly I think I hear Julie Andrews singing her iconic song “the hills are alive to the sound of hoppers!” The whole meadow is whirring with amorous grasshoppers. As I drop down further the noisy insects flee in front of me.

It’s about 10:15 when I emerge on a rocky bar below a good-looking pool. 

“Can’t Miss” First Pool

Naturally I break out my trusty Royal Trude in #16 which is an excellent imitation of the small grasshoppers in the meadow.  When I check under the rocks in the river, I’m surprised to find some small stoneflies, so tie on a #18 Tung Teaser as my dropper.  The water is crystal clear and flowing about 10-15 cfs, a bit low but eminently fishable. 

With great confidence borne of my friend’s glowing report, I loft a beautiful cast that lands perfectly in a foamy run.  Nothing.  Not even a looker.  Several more throws with the same result.  It’s puzzling.  Everything looks perfect.  Have I been hoodwinked??  I walk up to the next good-looking pool and on the way spook a couple of decent-sized fish.  A good sign, but again, no bites.  Now I’m smelling the distinct odor of skunk.  Did the July monsoon rains bring floods that wiped things out, something not unheard of on these small creeks? I try to keep the faith and continue working upstream, and at approximately 10:45 a.m. a small, but celebrated 10-inch cutthroat breaks the spell.  He’s taken the nymph.  Then another follows on the next cast.  Well, I think, I can live with a day of small fish. 

Highly Celebrated First Fish Of Day

Soon I come to a small postage-stamp sized pool featuring an overhanging branch that will surprise me.  It turns out to be the first honey hole of the trip. 

Sometimes Size Does Not Matter–Tiny Honey Hole

I manage to execute a cast that drops my flies delicately above the branch, and as they float under a big trout swirls at the dry, then follows and chomps down on the nymph. He wrangles with me for a while then finally comes to the net, a beautiful, stout 14-inch Rio Grande Cutthroat. That’s more like it. Three more 12-inchers quickly follow, attendants at the king’s court.

First Big Cutt Of The Day

Then just as I think there can’t possibly be any more in the pool, or at least ones that haven’t been put off by the mayhem, a real bruiser surfaces on the next cast and nails the dry.  He puts up a terrific battle, flashing his brilliant colors as he bids for freedom.  When he finally is subdued, the gorgeous fish measures 16-inches, a true leviathan for such a small water.

Adams Fork Leviathan!!

After all the excitement, I relax on a streamside rock, drinking in the scene.  Wildflowers cover the slope and bench above.  Butterflies are fluttering everywhere. A stand of bright yellow mountain goldenrods catch my eye, covered with striking black and white butterflies—obviously enjoying a late summer love-in. 

Butterfly Love-In

I look down and instead of boot marks see dozens of hoof marks, including several giant ones left by moose and elk.  I wonder if some are watching me.

Reenergized, I work cautiously upstream, being careful not to spook the cutthroats I can see finning in the deeper pools, oblivious to my presence.  Every pool seems better than the last, each yielding several cutts, usually with a big one mixed in.

Beautiful Pools Abound

But after an hour of unbridled success, I hit a dry spell.  I get steady rises to the Trude dry, but the fish take a close look and then bump the fly or just turn up their noses and drop back slowly to their holding positions.  I have never had that happen on remote streams, where the bushy Trude seems to always ring the dinner bell.  I do catch several on the Tung Teaser nymph, but they tend to be smaller fish.  Reluctantly, I decide to change flies, tying on a smaller profile #16 Wilcox dry that, while designed to mimic a mayfly, is a great imitation of tiny hoppers often found around high-altitude streams.  The results are immediate.  I drift the fly along a bank that just drew refusals on the Trude, and a good-sized cutt intercepts it with not hesitancy in a showy rise. 

Wilcox Dry Fly Fires Up Action Again

From then on the action is hot again with most strikes on the surface and in sun-drenched pools.  Those in shadows or deep don’t produce.  Obviously the cutts are sun-bathing, and who can blame them with the already cold nighttime temperatures at this altitude–over 10,000 feet!

Just after noon, my stomach starts to growl so I make one more cast in another photogenic pool before breaking for lunch.  No sooner does the Wilcox alight than it is blasted by a giant fish.  I set the hook and the scuffle is on.  It’s to and fro for a minute, but I finally gain the upper hand and start to ease the big boy into my net.  But when he gets a glimpse of his fate, the cutt jets to the top of the pool, through the rapids above, making like a wild salmon, and into the next pool.  Now he has the advantage with so much of mine line stripped out, giving him leverage, and sure enough he shakes off with an acrobatic jump.  He looked to be 18-inches or more, the biggest trout of the day. 

I sulk for a minute or two, then start casting again, resolute not to end the morning a loser.  As if by magic a few minutes late a muscular 15-inch cutt helps soothe my bruised ego as he smacks the dry and puts up a worthy fight. 

Colorful 15-Inch Cutt Salves Loss Of Big One That Got Away

After lunch the good action continues and by 2 p.m. I’m tuckered out.  It will take me three hours to get back to camp so I swear this cast will be my last.  Three fish later I net a scrappy one in a plunge pool and decide it really is time to head back. 

Scrappy Cutt Closes Out Wonderful Day

As I get to the bench above the river I turn and tip my hat to another fab fork of the Conejos. 

One Last Photo And Tip Of The Hat To The Adams Fork

What an uncommon treat to catch and release such beautiful rare fish.  Then I chug up the slope towards home, already planning a return trip.

CAVEATS:   Ignoring my own caveat, I exceed the 25 mph speed limit on the way back to pavement and end up with a flat tire! Second caveat–I fished the Adams Fork a month later in early September and found it very low with extremely skittish fish, particularly in the crystal-clear deeper pools with slow-moving water where the cutts could scrutinize the faux hopper.  It was still a successful outing, but my advice is to make sure the Conejos River downstream at Mogote is flowing at least 100 cfs which would indicate the Adams Fork probably has a decent flow.  Also, avoid the Adams Fork area after September 1 when it is overrun with amiable bow hunters, some of whom also fish!