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

Early September 2019

After a couple of days of throwing heavy nymph rigs, navigating unruly rapids, and muscling out some big trout on the Conejos River (See my article from September 28,  2019.), I’m ready for some backcountry small creek angling and a dose of solitude.  When I learned through a little on-line sleuthing that the feds and state have collaborated to create a sanctuary for rare Rio Grande Cutthroat trout on the Lake Fork of the Conejos River, I was intrigued.  Rio Grande Cutts are some of the most gorgeous trout in the world, bar none, with their flaming orange and red colors looking like something out of an artist’s dream.  They are also rare, occupying only about 10% of their original habitat that actually extended into Texas at one point.  Fortunately they are making a comeback thanks to the dogged efforts of federal and state fish and wildlife agencies.  The bonus is that they live in some of the most scenic, remote creeks in Colorado.  A little more digging revealed that I could get into some good fishing after a relatively moderate 2-3 mile hike, some a septuagenarian like me could handle.  I was sold!  I went to bed thinking of leaping trout.

I’m on the road next morning at 8:30 a.m.  It’s a cool 50 degrees at the Ponderosa Campground where my mobile fish camp is parked.  The weather looks iffy, but if the weatherman is to believed there will be some wind but no rain.  The Lake Fork is about a twenty-mile, hour’s drive from the junction of Highway 17 and Forest Service Road 250 at the hamlet of Horca.  I’ll average only twenty mph on the washboard, potholed road.

I had been told to park at the Lake Fork Forest Service Campground and then walk across the river on a footbridge to the trailhead for Forest Service Trail 716.  But something was wrong—the campground is gated shut, closed for the season.  After the long bumpy ride, I grit my teeth and growl.  What to do now?

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The Red Pin Marks The Trailhead

I circle back to search for an alternative route and drive a half mile or so to Forest Service Road 215 and turn south, crossing the vehicle bridge over the Conejos River.  Then on a hunch take a hard right at the sign for the Conejos Lake Fork Ranch.  And what to my wandering eyes should appear but a weathered, hand-painted sign instructing me to take another right onto a rutted gravel road to the trailhead.

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Trailhead Thatta Way

I breathe a sigh of relief when the trailhead sign looms just ahead, then open the door to be greeted by a blast of cold, gusty wind.

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FS 716 Trailhead

I also catch sight of a pickup parked near the trailhead…maybe another angler??  Grrr.  I peer into the pickup and notice how well-organized the camping gear in the cab looks.  Probably not a fisherman, at least the ones I know.  Thus undeterred, I suit up in my waders along with my net, wading staff and fly vest which is overloaded with flies and miscellaneous gear.  If it was summer I could probably could have wet waded given the small size of the creek, but not today.

Soon I’m on the trail, huffing and puffing on the first quarter mile that is uphill and steep.

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Steep Climb–Keep The Faith

Fortunately, the rest of the trail is easy, alternating between forest and open stretches.  After the next quarter mile I get my first glance of the beautiful little Lake Fork.  I spy fish rising, but resist the urge to descend and cast.

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First Glimpse

The next temptation is a big, good-looking beaver pond, again with trout dimpling the surface.  But I catch a glimpse of another angler at the far end of the pond….maybe the truck owner?

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Beaver Pond Allure

So I keep my resolve and continue on past the aptly named Rock Lake where I run into a couple of cowboys coming in from checking their herd up the valley.  I step aside to let them past and offer a howdy.  They stop, and one stares somewhat incredulously at my short 7.5-foot fly rod.  “Well I’ll be,” he says, “Didn’t know they made them fly rods so short.  Have to get me one.”  I laugh and tell him it’s perfect for small streams.  He replies, “Well, good luck handling those big rainbows and cutthroats in Big Lake.”  I tuck that comment away for a future trip—Big Lake is further than I intend to hike today.

I continue up to a narrow canyon and come upon a small, artificial dam that was constructed to keep non-native trout from invading the waters above where Rio Grande cutts were reintroduced in the Lake Fork after the non-natives were poisoned out. A sign reminds me that the water above is catch and release only.

About an hour from the trailhead, the canyon opens up into a beautiful long, wide meadow.

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Lake Fork First Meadow

As I enter the big valley, I am honored to have a bovine escort service.

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Moo Cow Chaperones

My game plan is to hike to a ridge that separates the valley into two sections—what I call the first and second meadows.  It takes me about another 15 minutes to hike to the ridge and the bottom of the second meadow that extends almost all the way to Big Lake.  I stow my lunch cooler and hit the water.  The creek is running very low reflecting the drought-like conditions that have descended on the region after a wet winter and spring.  I estimate it’s running at a mere 3-4 CFS.  I’m using the 7 ½ foot, four-weight rod noted above with a 5X leader.  I decide to go with my old reliable Royal Coachman Trude on a size 18 barbless hook to match the hordes of small grasshoppers that I have chased up along the trail and in the meadow.  Throughout the day I will see a few trico mayflies and midges dancing abouve the creek, but little interest in them from the trout.  Because the water is so shallow and the creek so narrow, I forego using a nymph dropper that would probably work well in higher early summer flows but would result in more snags now.

The first pool I work is fed by a rivulet flowing in from above.

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Let The Fun Begin

The fun begins immediately.  As soon as the dry fly hits the water where the rivulet eddies into the creek, it’s smacked by a little cutt.  A handsome little six-incher that’s the standard size here.  Another half dozen follow quickly, with one pushing 11-inches.

The fish aren’t shy, but they are also not stupid.  I will find that stealth is critical.  I have to keep a low profile as I work upstream, sometimes casting from a kneeling position.  This is where the padded knees in my Cabela’s Dry Plus waders shine.

As I work carefully up the creek, I concentrate on the deeper pools and holes.  I find the fish often hiding close to and under the banks.  Another effective technique in the deeper pools is to cast into the current at the head of the pool and let the fly drift slowly into the middle, waiting patiently.  Often the reward is to see a cutt shoot up from the bottom or jet out from the bank to nail the fly that appears to be drifting in slow motion.  Guess it’s just too alluring to resist!

Every likely pool has fish in it, often two or three.  I’m having a very relaxing morning with the little tikes when around noon from a postage-stamp sized pool at a bend in the creek, a big orange and red torpedo slashes out from the undercut bank and inhales the Trude.  I utter an involuntary Holy S*** and set the hook.  The cutthroat clearly knows his environment as he tries gamely to reach snags along and under the opposite shore.  After a worthy battle, I manage to bring him close to the gravel bar where I am standing to beach him, taking a few steps backwards to accomplish the task…and promptly run into the two-foot embankment behind me.  I gracefully lurch and execute a graceful flip onto my back.  However, using my incredible athletic nimbleness, I keep my rod (now projecting between my flailing legs) high in the air and somehow manage not to lose the trophy.  He’s a gorgeous 16-incher, a proverbial Goliath for this small water.

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Lake Fork Giant

After spending some time in my net in the creek to revive, he consents to a quick photo before scooting back to his lair.  I am left shaking my head that such trickle could hold and sustain such a giant. I continue with a smile, catching and releasing a dozen more small guys before my growling stomach says time to eat.

After my usual hearty lunch, washed down with my standard health drink(aka RC Cola), I decide to hike downstream to the lower section of the first meadow and work back upstream.  It’s about 2:30 p.m.  In the first pool I come to, the action is immediate on the dry so I continue to forego using a nymph.  The next pool is longer and deeper.  I creep up slowly and cast from my knees to the head of the pool.

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First Meadow Looking Upstream Towards Ridge

I get a good drift along the undercut bank and watch as another big cutt slowly emerges, eyes the fly, and sucks it in.  The pool erupts when I set the hook, and soon I am admiring another 16-inch cutt.  A few casts later, lower in the pool, the scene is repeated and I net a 15-inch beauty.  Incredible!

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Afternoon Delight!

The rest of the afternoon I have to cast from my knees often to avoid spooking the trout in the often skinny, wider water.  The action on top is steady, but when it begins to taper off around 3:30 p.m., I add a #18 beadhead lime caddis nymph.  It works, but also dredges up a lot of moss or catches in the grass that lines the creek.  By now, it’s 4:00 p.m. and some storm clouds start to blow in from the south.  I decide to try one last pool and spy a nice fish finning just below the surface only 10 feet in front of me.  Fortunately he doesn’t see me and smacks the dry without hesitation when it lands a few feet in front of his nose.  He’s a strong 12-incher, a great way to end the day.

The trek out is easier, downhill most of the way.  It takes one hour to hike from the middle of the lower meadow to the trailhead, and I luck out to get to my SUV just as the cold rain hits.

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Dodging The Rain

So much for weather prognostications.  As I warm up in the SUV and quaff a NA beer, I can only shake my head at the unexpected big fish that came to my fly.  What a treat along with the solitude.  Not a boot mark anywhere to be seen all day.  I am already planning a return trip to the upper section of the second meadow and to try for some of those reputedly big trout in Big Lake!

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Next Trip: The Curvaceous Creek In The Upper Second Meadow and Big Lake!

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

  1. I love reading your fishing tales; all the research and the actual getting out there. You’re a great storyteller and illustrator of the natural world.

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  2. Chris, another great fishing report. Thanks for taking us along, got to enjoy the scenery, the adventure and didn’t even get the feet wet. Good job.

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  3. I caught my first fish on a fly on that stream two summers ago. I can also attest to Big Lake being worth the hike. If you make it up there, make sure you walk around to the inlet creek.

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  4. Another fascinating, heart palpitating read. I confess, I would probably be more appreciative if I knew you were suffering just a little, for our sake, during the experience, but that clearly IS NOT the case. 🙂

    Much appreciated.

    Like

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