“Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.” Henry David Thoreau
Late July 2016
It’s a cloudy morning at my campsite on the Conejos River west of Antonito, Colorado. I’ve slept in a bit late after a long day on the water yesterday, and anyway, rain is in the forecast. But by noon the sun is starting to peek out, and I’m getting the itch to explore. Given the late hour, I need to find something close by that won’t take hours to reach so settle on the Los Piños river, a popular stream only 20 minutes away. I have fished the Pine below Trujillo Meadows Reservoir near the New Mexico border and have had decent results. But I have never been in the more remote headwaters above the lake where the banks are not dotted by cabins or tromped by cattle.
I talk with one of the experienced old hands at the campground, and he draws me a little map. It’s a tricky route to the trailhead up the river canyon, so I am happy to have some directions, especially later when I find the topo maps are out-of-date. I load up and head out on Highway 17, over La Manga Pass and then hit the turn off for the Trujillo Meadows Reservoir just before the road angles over Cumbres Pass. It’s a beautiful drive, capped by a close-up view of the narrow gauge train chugging along the lower Los Piños on its way to Chama, New Mexico. I keep my eyes peeled for the sign for Forest Road 118 to the upper Los Piños and a waterfall that is a popular scenic attraction…then it’s off into the wilds, four-wheel drive at the ready!!
The gravel road is fairly smooth at first, but all that changes when I follow my hand-drawn map and make a right turn a couple of miles up the road. I cross a little creek that runs under the side road in a culvert, then switch into four-wheel drive as the road begins to climb and gets much rougher. The next waypoint is an orange barrel where the road splits, and I have been cautioned to stay left–and rightfully so. The fork to the right looks smoother, but it soon turns nasty, big rocks and muddy holes making it nearly impassable in places. Not to say that the left fork is a picnic. Passenger cars need not apply!! It’s four-wheel only. Lots of deadfalls across the road from the beetle kill (hello climate change) mean I have to thread the needle several times where the Forest Service has cleared the way. After a couple of more miles, that include a very rough steep stretch, I arrive at the waterfall trailhead…and find a cadre of ATV’s and a jeep already there. When I have more daylight, I want to hike up above the waterfall, which acts as a barrier to non-native trout, allowing the beautiful native Rio Grande Cutthroat to thrive. But for now I’ll go contrarian and head back down the road for a 1/2 mile where I spotted a section of the river down in the canyon that looks inviting! And I should have it all to myself. I suit up in my waders and carefully pick my way down the steep but short slope that is overgrown with wildflowers and bushes–this is a lush valley that gets plenty of moisture. I see fish rising in the pools!!I decide to cross the creek and hike down the canyon on the bench above on the other side. I see lots of deer and elk tracks and find a game trail that I follow. Suddenly I hear some clattering on the rocks below, and spot a mule deer walking nonchalantly down the river. The wind is in my face, so she doesn’t smell or hear me right away. What a beautiful sight! I watch her for a few minutes, then her ears perk up, and she spots me. The deer scrambles up the slope and disappears into the woods. I continue further down into a nice meadow stretch where the river winds back and forth, creating some nice pools to harbor trout. The water is crystal clear and pristine with lots of caddis and mayflies, so I tie on a #18 old reliable Royal Coachman Trude dry and a green caddis beadhead dropper. I’m not disappointed! A sleek 14-inch brown trout slashes out of the depths and nails the dry. Then for the next couple of hours I have steady action, with a mix of browns and brook trout. Most are small, but several foot-long browns bring a smile to my face. If I’m stealthy, the fish eagerly take the flies, but if they catch sight of me, they scatter like leaves on a windy fall day.
After a fun couple of hours, my thoughts are turning to the lower section of the canyon, just above the expansive meadows that lead to the Trujillo Meadows Reservoir. Maybe some even bigger fish down there where the gradient is slower and several creeks have added their water to the river. So I work my way upstream to near my vehicle then climb up the slope and drive downstream. At the orange barrel, I turn left down the lower road that heads east and then loops back west, paralleling the river for a couple of miles, which is down in the canyon and invisible. I find a small turnout near where the topo maps and GPS tell me there is a road heading back east that dips down closer to the river. But route is blocked by a big pile of dirt and overgrown with trees and bushes–clearly hasn’t been open for years. But it’s still a better route than trying to bushwhack through the forest that is littered with deadfalls and covered by lush vegetation. I walk east on the abandoned road for a mile or so then cut down to the river through some open meadows that show up on my GPS. I jump a small herd of cattle that seem to look at me somewhat incredulously–“What are you doing here!!” At the edge of the meadow is a rock wall that drops precipitously fifty feet or so to the river. I gingerly test the scree slope and finally make it down, holding onto bushes to slow my descent. Wading boots don’t make the best mountaineering shoes!! But all’s well that ends well, as I catch sight of some of the beautiful pools downstream. I decide to hike down another 15 minutes, to just above where the forest opens into the big meadows. I could have reached the same point by hiking up from the Trujillo Meadows Reservoir parking lot–probably about the same distance and a bit easier going, but then I wouldn’t have all that fun bushwhacking! No gain without pain?
The river here alternates between lovely open runs with inviting, deeper pools and stretches that are totally overgrown with willows, bushes, and snags. There is some evidence of damage to the riverbanks by cattle, but I don’t see a boot mark anywhere, a good sign. My very first cast catches a willow behind me, eliciting a loud GRRR. The second cast is more accurate, and a 13-inch brownie clobbers the Royal Trude. Not a bad start…and the action continues at the next pool, a tricky one to fish because of the fallen timbers that make casting an adventure. I finally get a good sidearm cast upstream as I kneel under the deadfalls and watch as the dry fly is pulled under. A heavy fish has grabbed the caddis nymph and dunked the dry. To my surprise, a big rainbow trout jumps clear of the water and runs upstream. I do my best Usain Bolt imitation as I give chase and finally bring him to the net–a very muscular 15-inch plus trout. I think to myself he must have migrated up from the reservoir where rainbows abound. As I slide the beauty back into the water, a bolt of lighting sizzles overhead followed by a huge clap of thunder. The rain follows as I scramble underneath stand of spruce tree that help keep me semi-dry during the deluge that lasts for 15 minutes.
When the clouds begin to break, I figure it’s time to head back home–more dark clouds are scudding over the Continental Divide. It’s monsoon season as warm moist air flows up from the Gulf of Mexico. But I have to try that big boulder pool just over my shoulder in the photo! I sneak up carefully then cast from my knees, keeping a low profile. The fly bobs jauntily down the riffle at the head of the pool then sidles up against the boulder, following the foam line downstream. A big brownie rises slowly from the depths and sucks in the Trude. I set the hook, and the trout explodes, dancing along the surface, shaking its head. He runs up and downstream, but my stout 5# 9-foot Sage rod is up to the task, finally winching him from underneath the boulder as he makes one last dive for freedom. A gorgeous 16-inch brown! The distant thunder puts a great exclamation point on the scene, echoing my growling stomach. Both are telling me to hit the trail! So reluctantly, I leave a mile or more of water unfished, waiting for a future trip. I climb gingerly up a steep rock wall to exit the canyon, and drawing on my Kansas farm upbringing, serenade the cattle still grazing in the meadow with a celebratory moo or two, then hustle back to the SUV. Several calves bolt back to their mamas in utter terror! I’ll be back to this hidden stretch of the Rio de los Piños–count on it!