“I don’t know, I don’t now
I don’t know where I’m gonna go
When the volcano blows.
For two of my adventures chasing the rare Rio Grande Cutthroats on Treasure Creek and the Lake Fork of the Conejos River, see
Day One—La Garita Creek
As I bounce down the rough single-track road searching for an open section to fish on La Garita Creek, Jimmy Buffet’s volcano song is running through my head. Just 28 million years ago one of the largest known volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history took place near here, between the towns of La Garita and Creede in southwestern Colorado. It was a supervolcanic event that dwarfed the more recent eruption of Mt. Saint Helens and even the giant volcano that created the massive Yellowstone Caldera. The caldera the La Garita eruption left measures in at about 22 by 47 miles!
This is my first overnight outing in 2021 with my little travel trailer/mobile fish camp. I have gone a little soft and opted to park it in the relative luxury of the venerable Woods and River RV campground in Del Norte, on the banks of the mighty Rio Grande. The temperatures are finally rising in the Colorado high country, the runoff is subsiding on a few creeks, and I’m itching to chase some trout on a couple of remote creeks that I recently discovered through some internet sleuthing—La Garita and Carnero on the western edge of the San Luis Valley.
Back in May I was searching on-line for some new small waters to explore not too far from my home base in Salida, Colorado, preferably ones that would call home for Rio Grande Cutthroats. Serendipitously, I stumbled on a U.S. Forest Service document that listed creeks in southern Colorado and New Mexico that harbored these beautiful, rare trout. All of the waters mentioned were small and remote, including two of my favorites—Treasure Creek and the Lake Fork of the Conejos River (See my article and blog about these two gems). Two I had never heard of—La Garita and Carnero–despite them being only a 90-minute drive from Salida and just over in the next valley from Saguache Creek, which I fish several times each year. To pique my interest even more, not only are they close to home but there was very little mention anywhere on-line about fishing Carnero Creek and nothing about La Garita. In fact I had to laugh when the only article that popped up when I search the phrase “fishing La Garita Creek,” were ones I had written awhile back about fishing Cochetopa and Saguache Creeks in the La Garita Wilderness which lies about 70 miles to the northwest as the crow flies.
So on a nice sunny day in late May I decided to do some on-the-ground recon on both creeks since they lie only a few miles apart. I liked what I saw on that day trip. While La Garita Creek was too high to fish, running at about 50 cfs, the angling prospects there were to my liking. Ove five miles of the creek are on public land accessible by a rough 4WD road. The scenery is spectacular as might be expected of a creek named La Garita, which in Spanish means sentinel or overlook. Carnero Creek access was more civil on a decent gravel road. While Carnero was running a bit high and cloudy, there was plenty of water with public access. I actually was able to wet a line on, catching about a dozen or so brown trout on the South Fork.
I also spotted some promising stretches downstream on the main stem below the confluence of the South, Middle, and North Forks for a future trip. Unfortunately, I also discovered that the Middle and North Forks that reportedly hold only Rio Grande Cutthroats were too tiny to fly fish except in occasional beaver ponds. I plotted my return in June when the gauges on the state water level site showed them both falling to a more fishable 15-30 cfs level. (To find stream water levels in Colorado, Google “Colorado Water Staions” to access the Division of Water Resources gauging stations at https://dwr.state.co.us, then hit search to find the Rio Grande Division, then scroll to find the creeks by name and click on “view”.)
When the day arrived in mid-June with water levels falling rapidly, I hustled to load up my mobile fish camp and made a bee-line to the campground in Del Norte the next morning. Quickly I set camp up and by early afternoon am heading northeast out of Del Norte on paved CR 112. Soon I turn north on Highway 33 that turns into a good gravel road. In seven miles it intersects with E39, a rougher but still passable gravel road that heads directly west paralleling La Garita Creek. It winds four scenic miles by ranches and second homes till it hits public lands. That’s when the fun and bumps begin.
I shift into 4WD and get ready to rock and roll. The single-track road starts out tamely, but then alternates between fairly smooth dirt sections and rocky, teeth-rattling stretches.
It should not be attempted except in a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle with AT-rated four-ply tires. Trust me on this. Also, I would avoid it after a good rain as it crosses several deep washes. Aside from that it’s a piece of cake. My goal is to find a stretch that is not completely overgrown, of which about 80% of the creek is, making fly fishing virtually impossible there.
In a couple of miles I come to a sign announcing I am entering the Little Garita Creek State Land Board property that is open to public use.
I am a little confused at first, but soon figure out the road continues to follow La Garita Creek with its little tributary veering off to the north.
Finally a ways up the road from the sign I spot a wet meadow dotted with wild iris where I can actually see the creek. Bingo! I will find that meadows like this one are a good sign as apparently the streamside brush can’t grow so thick because of all the wet ground the iris love. I make a mental note of the spot and keep 4-wheeling up the road, which becomes increasingly worse and overgrown. A couple of time I have to veer off the road that is narrow and hard to navigate because of overhanging tree branches and follow some tracks through adjacent meadows then navigate back on the road.
In a few miles I enter a ponderosa pine forest where the terrain is more open and spot a couple more fishable stretches. At about 5 miles from the start of the public land, I come to a creek crossing that is too fast and deep to attempt by myself alone in the middle of nowhere. While lower than in May, La Garita Creek is still running at a healthy 25 cfs.
I retreat a mile or so back downstream to an open stretch and suit up in my chest waders, anxious to get in the cold creek water as the temperature is pushing 90 degrees with very little wind. I’m in the creek by 3 p.m. checking under some stream rocks to see what the trout might be dining on and find them loaded with green cased caddis larvae and dark mayfly nymphs. There are also some caddis flies flitting about and as a nice flight of mayfly spinners dipping and dancing above the water. On my 8 ½, 4-weight fly wand I tie on a bushy #16 Royal Coachman Trude to imitate the caddis flies as well as the small hoppers in the meadow and a #18 green sparkle beadhead caddis larva about two-feet below it. The action is fast from the get-go and continues that way for the rest of the afternoon. I soon conclude they haven’t seen many faux flies lately. Indeed, I won’t see another vehicle or soul and no boot marks either today or tomorrow when I return.
In the first promising pool above a beaver pond I quickly net two spunky browns that attack the flies without hesitation, one on the dry and the other on the caddis.
I work upstream a few feet and spy a beautiful pool at a bend in the creek. Looks like the liar of a big trout….and it is. I cast up into the riffle above the pool and watch as the Trude bounces down jauntily. Suddenly a big trout, maybe 15-inches, appears out of nowhere and intercepts the dry, but I yank the away from him before he clamps his jaws shut and miss. Luckily the fly hook didn’t sting him, so I get a second try. Again the fly floats down into the bend pool and again the trout rises boldly alongside of it and nonchalantly sucks the Trude in. Whoosh! I sweep the rod back and set the hook, immediately and feel his weight, and just as quickly execute my patented long-distance release. I contemplate committing hari-kari, but decide to try again, beyond all hope. Alas, although the fly floats over the same spot again, this time the big fellow refuses to make an appearance. But just a few feet below against the bank, another sizable trout, this one around 14-inches, nails the dropper. But I miss again and pricked him with the hook so now he’s off his feed as well. I have to laugh at my ineptitude. Fortunately my ego is salved on the very next drift through the pool as a nice 12-inchers nails the dry at the tail end of the pool, and in the run just upstream where I catch and release three brownies in quick succession.
That will be the pattern for the rest of the afternoon. In every bend pool or quiet stretch off the main current or behind a boulder, I can count on several strikes and catching at least a couple of fish. It becomes ridiculously easy, making up for all those times in previous years when the finny buggers have outwitted me.
The fishing really gets interesting when I come to a couple of big beaver ponds. I work the deep current in the middle of the first and lure a couple of feisty brownies from the depths.
Out of the corner of my eye I see a good rise just below the next beaver dam. I sneak up and get into casting position on my knees, then pinpoint my cast between two bushes on either side of the current.
The dry floats about five feet below the bushes and my jaw drops when it is sucked under by a tremendous swirl in the water. Unfortunately, the fish that made that giant swirl missed the fly! I try again, and again there is a huge swirl and another refusal. Clearly the biggest fish of the day has been toying with me. Then all goes quiet. I proceed further upstream, doing a high-wire act to mount the big dam and cast into the current flowing down the middle of the pond above. The dry is abruptly jerked under and when I set the hook my rod bends perilously. The trout heads towards some shoreline bushes but I manage to turn him away from the snags. The fight goes on back and forth before the handsome brownie comes to the net.
I continue working upstream to the head of the pond where a small sandbar with brush on it cleaves the stream creating nice flows on either side. I wade out carefully to probe a fast run between the sandbar and far shoreline, keeping my balance in the soft bottom with my trusty wading staff. I flip a backhand, side-arm cast upstream, and immediately a mini-geyser erupts around the dry fly. I am onto another good fish.
The battler finally comes to the net for a quick photo and release, another 13-inch plus muscular brownie. Three more fish succumb to siren’s call of my flies in that run, then several more on the other side of the split.
It’s five o-clock now, and as I size up the next tantalizing pool and beaver pond above, I am thinking of those tasty dishes and Dos Equis amber beer at my favorite restaurant in Del Norte, Los Chavolos. To fish or not to fish more? The low, rumbling sound of thunder and a few flashes of lighting on a ridge in the distance make the decision for me.
As I walk up the slope to the road, I start laughing, feeling a bit giddy–and believe me it takes a lot to make a septuagenarian giddy. I have caught and released in the neighborhood of 50 fish in about 2 ½ hours and lost probably that many more. It’s been one of those flat-out fun days like I used to have in Kansas as a kid, catching countless bluegill in a local farm pond. Today the trout were where they were supposed to be, usually in numbers, and cooperative in the extreme, a tribute I think to their carefree, unschooled life in La Garita Creek. Who am I to complain?!?
Day Two On La Garita Creek
After a hearty Mexican dinner at Los Chavolos in Del Norte, I get a good night’s sleep and am back on the road at around 8:30 then trundling up E39 20 minutes later. Today I vow to slow down and enjoy the scenery and wildflowers on the way to fish the Little La Garita State Land Board stretch several miles below where I chased the trout yesterday. The bluffs, buttes, and ridges are spectacular under a blue-bird Colorado sky.
And the landscape is dotted with gorgeous white blooms of the soapweed yucca and the bright orange and red splash of Indian paintbrushes. It’s cooler today with a little more wind, a refreshing combination.
A mile or so into the State Land Board wildlife management area, I come to the open stretch I spotted yesterday. I am using the same outfit and flies—why trifle with success! I catch a several small brownies in the first two pools then come to a beautiful waterfall flowing cascading from a blown-out beaver pond. I score a couple at the foot of the waterfall, then move up into the wider flow above. The action is again crazy good from the get go. I catch and release five hard-fighting brownies from 11-13 inches.
The creek above the beaver pond executes a big S-bend, with each curve yielding several brownies pushing 13-inches. Above the upper bend a riffle plunges into a fast, deep run, and more willing brownies come to the net. For the next two hours it’s lights out again, with the trout favoring the caddis larva dropper 2:1 over the dry, although the dry seems to attract more of the bigger fish. The dry is clearly the best in faster runs where the trout slash out at light speed to nail the fly. A couple of browns push 14-inches and all are healthy and sleek.
Around 11 a.m. discover the hackle has been unceremoniously ripped off the Trude by some toothy brownie. I decide to keep right on fishing without changing flies, and the trout don’t seem to notice any difference.
By 12:30 I’m getting hungry, and if on cue the bushes close in, making casting nearly impossible. Still in that last postage-stamp size pool below the midstream boulder three browns give me a nice bon voyage party.
After partaking lunch back at the SUV, I drive leisurely back down the road, stopping to snap photos of the wild roses, blooming prickly pear cactus, mountain blue bells, and other wildflowers lining the drive and soak up the spectacular vistas.
It’s been another rare day on La Garita Creek. All the fish were brown trout—the cutthroats that are supposedly in the creek must be higher up. No worries!! Miles more water to explore.
When I get back to camp, I immediately contemplate soaking my right elbow in Epsom salts, hoping to ward off a debilitating case of trout elbow that such a prolific piscatorial day can produce. After all, there are glasses of wine to be hoisted in celebration, and Carnero Creek awaits tomorrow!