Early September 2019
Conundrum: “A confusing and difficult problem; vexatious.”
I have fished most of the big Colorado trout waters—the Arkansas, Colorado, Gunnison, South Platte, Rio Grande, and Yampa. Like many of my fishing friends and readers, I fancy myself a fair-to-middling do-it-yourself angler that can figure out any river and its piscatorial denizens on my own. I learned the hard way a decade ago that isn’t the case with the beautiful Conejos River in southern Colorado near Antonito. The word vexatious comes to mind when I think of the Rabbit River. It’s one river I now always hire a guide on my first day of my annual trip to the Conejos—and give the same advice to anyone headed that way. I have found the best flies and successful techniques can vary dramatically year-to-year and from section-to-section of the stream. Biologists tell us it’s one of the most fertile rivers in the state, a veritable smorgasbord of stoneflies, mayflies, caddis, and assorted other bugs, not to mention a good grasshopper hatch. Indeed, scientists say there are more varieties of stones in the river that any in Colorado!
The trout just have so many choices to munch on, which results in a weird assortment of fly patterns that rule here, many of which I have never either heard of let alone used: the McGruber, Jig Assassin, Sparkle Green Body Elk Hair Caddis, Purple and Chartreuse Psycho Prince, Lightning Bug.
The list goes on depending on the month, water levels, etc., etc. But despite these angling vicissitudes, the Conejos’ big trout, gorgeous scenery, miles of public water, and absence of annoying rafters, kayakers, paddleboarders, and other insolent intruders, I keep coming back. I was reminded again this year not to fool with the Conejos on my own.
I’m on my annual sojourn to the Conejos, accompanied by my fishing buddy Robert Wayne, Esq. He’s an expert fly fisherman who has appeared on the cover of several national angling publications. We had just schooled scores of trout, including some big ones, on Saguache Creek and were feeling confident about our angling prowess.
We arrived on a Saturday in our RVs at our residence of choice, the shady Ponderosa Campground, right on the river. We were scheduled to fish with a guide on Monday, but ignoring my past experience, decided to give the river a go on our own on Sunday. The Conejos is fortunate to have miles of public water between Antonito and Platoro Reservoir, and I knew a good stretch of water where I had great success in the past for some big brownies and rainbows in the 18-22 inch range.
So brimming with confidence we waded into the water which was running unusually high—over 200 CFS compared to 100 this time of year. After three hours of flinging flies that had worked in the past—Lighting Bugs, Stimulators, Royal Coachman Trudes, and Pyscho Princes—I had a meager four strikes and had landed three fish. Two browns went 18-inches and one 16.
Bob was ignominiously almost skunked, having executed a beautiful long-distance release on a nice brownie. To add insult to injury, we had to spend almost half an hour under a spruce tree when a unexpected storm blew in from the southwest. With tails between our legs, two soaked and solemn septuagenarians retreated to their SUV.
The next day we were scheduled to hook up with a guide from Conejos Anglers, Cahlen Keys. Unfortunately, Bob had problems with his new Tiffin/Mercedes luxury RV rig and had to return to Denver post haste for repairs, so I had to fish solo. I had asked Cahlen if we could fish a more remote stretch of the river where we weren’t likely to bump into another angler, and he delivered. My reeducation thus commenced.
Cahlen is an amiable, knowledgeable young guide who was raised in the area and knows the river like the back of his hand. When we finally got to the river after a steep descent, he set me up with an unconventional nymph rig, one that didn’t have much weight on it to take the flies to the bottom per the norm. I missed a hard strike in the first pool, then came up empty for the next half hour as we worked upstream. Doubts were beginning to creep into my mind. Then we came to a cliff that would either require a mountain goat imitation to scale, or we had to ford the river. Luckily I’m 6’3’’ and was carrying my wading staff or might not have made it across the strong current. Cahlen took the opportunity to demonstrate his unique wading technique that he calls the Conejos Twist. He wades fast through treacherous currents and slick rocks and pirouettes seemingly out-of-control yet avoids a nasty fall. Fortunately, he is young and nimble. I would have been floating downstream face down if I had imitated him.
But then the fun began. We started to see some insect activity. Cahlen had me fishing in faster water, where I don’t usually find brown trout hanging out, especially at high flows. And the flies he had me using—a McGruber and Jig Assassin—were new to me. But as if by magic, on the very first cast just on the edge of the fast water careening past the cliff, a big brown that went 18-inches nailed the Jig Assassin.
Several more good ones followed on the McGruber. Then I lost a monster brown, one that looked to be over 20-inches, in a back eddy above the cliff.
Tuckered out by the crossing and big fish, I decided to take a rest. I suggested to Cahlen he give it a go. He turned to me with a surprised look on his face and said, “Really?” While my gesture seemed magnanimous, little did Cahlen know I had an ulterior motive. I always like to watch my local guide fish, learning a lot from watching his or her technique. I wasn’t disappointed—he immediately hooked and landed a twin of the 18-incher I had caught a few minutes before.
As we worked upstream for the next hour, we traded off catching fish. I’d get two then sit and watch. I insisted on trying a dry fly in the shallows and slower current (where I usually find browns) whenever the opportunity presented itself, but with little luck. That’s when Cahlen broke out his 10 ½-foot Tenkara rod and coaxed several small trout on a nymph out of the water I had just fished over. I just shook my head.
When the action slowed, Cahlen replaced the McGruber with a small sparkle WD-40 fly and recommended a downstream drift, mending like hell, with a lift at the end. Bam!! A big brown came flashing out of the current and nailed the fly on the first cast. Go figure.
The fun continued until 1:30 p.m. and by that time we had each caught a dozen fish, half over 16-inches! We decided to hike back out and take a break for a late lunch along another stretch of the river further downstream.
When the fishing resumed, I managed a few strikes, but no cigar. Tuckered out, I suggested Cahlen fish the fast, deep water where the fish had just shunned me. Of course he promptly netted two nice rainbows, one that went 20-inches. His technique was strictly against the grain.
While I had been casting the nymph rig upstream and letting it float down while mending to avoid drag, he cast straight across the current and let it sweep downstream like a streamer. I bowed deeply in his general direction as he netted that big bow.
But I have to admit it was fun to watch him fumble and do a juggling act with the second bow as he removed the hook….but then again maybe he just did it on purpose to make me feel better given his god-like status.
Mission accomplished….another lesson learned.
Cahlen Keys at Conejos River Anglers in Mogote, Colorado: 719-376-5660
Frank and Kim who manage the family-owned Ponderosa Campground: 719-376-5857