September 9, 2016
Day 1: The Headwaters
Nicolas Creede hit the silver motherlode in 1870 high in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. He sold out the aptly named Holy Moses Mine for millions and headed to California, leaving behind a boom town named for him. Now the mines are gone, and Creede is a fishing, tourist, and second-home mecca.
In the 1960s I caught my first trout on a fly up here on the Rio Grande Del Norte—the Great River of the North to Spanish settlers. It was on the one and only out-of-state vacation and break from our Kansas farm our family took as I grew up. Plowing was done, and I somehow persuaded my Dad to rent a little camper and make the 500-mile drive to what an article in Outdoor Life claimed was the least populated county in the lower 48, chocked full of hungry trout. Six of us slept in that little camper for a week! I had taught myself how to fly cast from a Sports Afield book borrowed from the local library. I practiced up in local farm ponds casting cork poppers to hungry bluegill and bass. I hadn’t been back since 1976 when I took a horsepack trip into the Weminuche Wilderness Area. With the promise of a week of Indian Summer fall weather, I figured it was time to revisit. Anyway, I needed to shed the five pounds I had gained at my 50th high school class reunion.
I stop in Creede, now a bustling little mountain town with a year-round population of only about 500, but replete with a decent grocery store, an acclaimed summer repertory theatre, and two fly shops. The venerable Ramble House was the main place to get fishing and camping gear in the 1960s, and it still is today, run by the same extended family. I duck in and get the local skinny on patterns and places from a fly fishing maven Stacia, a young woman who obviously has lots of
on-the-water experience. Her advice will turn out to be right.
Now it’s mid-afternoon and I am hustling off to set up my mobile fish camp at the Antlers Lodge and Campground, just a few miles outside Creede. It not only has spots for travel trailers but also a nice one-mile stretch of private water on the Rio Grande plus a gourmet restaurant. Who said fly fishing the backcountry has to always be a hardship!!
I sample the water, catch some nice brown trout that dominate on the lower section of the river, then start packing up for my expedition to the headwaters of the Rio Grande, a long drive from here up to near the Continental Divide. With visions of trout dancing in my head, I set the alarm at 5:00 a.m. so I can be on the water by 9 a.m.–then nod off.
The sun isn’t up yet when the alarm sounds. I can tell it’s cold outside—the heater was running much of the night. Soon I will find frost on the SUV window and have to scrounge for the scraper!! But the forecast is for 75 degrees, so no worries there. I figure it will take at least two hours to cover the 60 some miles to the headwater of the Rio Grande and its main tributary, Pole Creek where I heard rumors of 17-inch native Rio Grande Cutthroats, an increasingly rare breed. I have no idea what awaits me–that once I travel smooth, paved Colorado 149 and then turn south on FS 520, a good gravel road up past Rio Grande Reservoir, I will hit one of the gnarliest stretches of a 4-wheel drive road I have ever experienced.
The first four miles past Lost Creek Campground are bumpy, but nothing unusual. Then I descend into beautiful Brewster Park where I am tempted to pull over and sample this beautiful stretch of the Rio Grande in a mile-long meadow. I keep going, marveling at a picture-perfect beaver lodge. But as I leave the valley, the ride becomes downright heart-stopping. I swear a couple of fillings are loose from bouncing over some rocky, 45-degree scree slopes in low case, plunging through numerous creeks and muddy water holes, and scraping the underbelly of my Xterra on nasty sharp boulders on stretches so narrow there is no way around them. More than once, I think “you’re nuts” and should turn around and head back–but there aren’t many places wide enough to do so. The last four miles from
Brewster Park to the confluence takes me almost 45 minutes. When I emerge on the ridge over the big valley where the tiny Rio Grande meets Pole Creek, I have to stop and get out, take a deep breath, and calm down. This is not a road to trifle with—any substantial rain would make it nearly impassable, likely washed out in places, and very dangerous. Needless to say, this isn’t a road for the faint-of-heart or someone who isn’t very experienced on backcountry roads. Thankfully it’s been dry for the past week with more sun in the forecast today, so I quickly descend, park, suit up, and start the climb up little Pole Creek.
I can hear the water rushing down to the confluence, but have to thrash my way through a wall of clutching willows, holding my rod high above my head, to get a good look—but when I do, a big grin covers my face. I behold a lovely pool where I can see trout fining in a deep run below some rapids. I am using my standard Royal Coachman Trude dry fly in size 16 to match some of the caddis I see flitting about and the small grasshoppers clacking along the banks. Two feet below it, I tie on a colorfully named Two-Bit Hooker nymph, red in Size 18, which I have had good results with in high-mountain streams. It imitates a small mayfly nymph common in colder water and has a double beadhead so sinks quickly in the deeper runs where cutthroat like to hang out.
I kneel at the bottom of the pool to avoid spooking the trout, and loft a cast to just below where the water plunges in from the rapids. The dry fly floats jauntily in the current towards me, the big white wing easily visible to my aging eyes. Yellow aspen and willow leaves swirl about in the water underneath it, always a sure and comforting sign of fall fishing, momentarily distracting me. And sure enough, with impeccable timing, a fishes slashes up from the depths and nails the nymph, pulling the Trude under. I belatedly set the hook and am surprised to feel the pull of the trout. Soon a fat, scrappy ten-inch Rio Grande Cutthroat comes to the bank. I admire the pure, unique colors of this special native, starting to make a comeback with the help of state wildlife biologists and special protective regulations. A quick photo, and he’s swimming back to his buddies that I can see at the bottom of the pool.
Next cast, same result. I’m smiling. Nothing like eager backcountry trout. This one a little bigger. Third cast, a little off target and to the side in some quieter water out of the main current. As the dry fly ambles down slowly, to my surprise a big cutt rises and slowly sucks it in. I watch mesmerized, wait till he takes and starts to submerge, and then set the hook with a quick flick of my rod….and somehow miss!! Woe is me—he will be the biggest fish I see all day, pushing 15 inches. For the next two hours I rock hop up the staircase stream, looking for quieter water that cutthroats seem to prefer, sometimes a little back eddy, sometimes a small pool behind a rock. Mountain sheep would undoubtedly have been impressed with my performance, not to mention the AARP! By noon I have caught another dozen, most on the nymph. One goes 13 inches, but the rumored 17-inchers have eluded me. Now the lunch bell in my stomach goes off. Should I continue up another half-mile to the big open meadow that shows up on my topo map, where the fish probably grow bigger since they don’t have to fight the current and get more sun, or head back to my lunch bucket in the SUV, catch a quick bite, and then explore the Rio Grande below, where it joins with Pole Creek and then plunges into a mini-canyon hidden from view? Food and the prospect of exploring a remote canyon win the day.
I play lizard for a bit and soak up the mid-day sun while downing a good lunch. Then I set off downstream through the broad meadow. I climb up a steep slope to the ridge that separates the meadow from the canyon. The river is pinched below in a narrow cataract and is roaring despite it’s small size. Below I see some beautiful pools and a series of tall pinnacles. Better yet, there’s no sign of any trail which means it probably doesn’t see many visitors. I bushwhack down the slope a mile past the pinnacles then fish back up under a bluebird sky and cool breeze. Perfect conditions!
The first pool is deep…and dynamite! I get a small one on the very first cast on the Two-Bit Hooker, then a robust 14-inch cutt, all aflame in fall colors, smashes the Royal Coachman Trude. As he careens around the pool in an attempt to get off he’s chased by two others…and they soon end up in the net along with five others in the next 20 minutes. Half fall for the dry (which they must take for one of the little hoppers that abound in the grass along the river) and half for the nymph. As I work upstream carefully, taking care to work the bottom of the pools first and keeping a low profile, I find that every pool with any depth that gives the cutts a little cover produces several fish. All are gorgeous, rare Rio Grande cutthroats. Most are 12-inchers, a few smaller, all stuffed to the gills. No weight watchers here!!
By 3:30 p.m. I have worked my way back to the cataract and decide it’s time to head home, thinking of the nasty drive ahead. I want to be out well before dark just in case. I loft one last, long cast into the deep water above and watch a cutt zing out of the depths to nail the dry. He pinballs back and forth between the rock walls and finally manages to flip off—a long-distance release I rationalize, laughing at his antics.
Now I am hustling back to the car, shedding my waders, and heading back up the road. As I look back down on this fabulous scene, a lone sign at the junction catches my eye and makes me laugh. It advises that Silverton, Colorado, via Stony Pass, is only 16 miles away. This is the little former mining town of Silverton over by Durango, almost 200 miles away by paved road from here!! Got to admire those pioneers who carved these roads out of this rugged country without any power machinery.
As I head downhill back towards Creede, an ATV (average Texan vehicle—they all seem to have one or two up here) falls in behind me. While I am not a fan of ATVs, I have to admit to being happy to have some company in case I run into trouble. Going downhill is rough, but definitely easier than going up. Forty-five minutes later I am back at Brewster Park and soon thereafter on a decent gravel road. As I climb back over the last ridge before descending towards the Lost Creek Campground, I look back up valley and tip my hat to the Rio Grande headwaters. Old Nicholas Creede hit the motherlode of silver, I found a motherlode of beautiful, rare Rio Grande Cutthroat trout. And the bonus is that the Rio Grande is the only one of the five great, fabled fly-fishing rivers in Colorado—the Arkansas, Gunnison, Colorado, and Platte are the others—where with a little effort you can fish pristine headwaters in solitude, never seeing another soul. Now that’s a real treasure.