Into The Backcountry Day 3: Prospecting For Trout On Carnero Creek (near Del Norte, CO)

Mid-June 2021

For a recount of the first two successful days of the trip exploring La Garita Creek, see the following link: https://hooknfly.com/2021/07/04/into-the-backcountry-prospecting-for-trout-on-two-new-remote-creeks-near-del-norte-co/https://hooknfly.com/2021/07/04/into-the-backcountry-prospecting-for-trout-on-two-new-remote-creeks-near-del-norte-co/

Day Three: Carnero Creek

After two days of chasing trout on La Garita Creek featuring teeth-rattling drives down a rough 4WD road and some advanced bushwhacking, I am ready for something a little more easy on the old body. Today I have my sights set on Carnero Creek (Ram or Sheep Creek in Spanish) still remote but definitely easier to access.

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 lay 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.  Over  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 Stations” 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 Woods and River campground in Del Norte the next morning.  I set camp up at warp speed and by early afternoon was chasing some very cooperative trout on La Garita Creek. Now two days later I am heading out at 7:45 a.m. to beat the rain that is in the forecast. I’m on paved Highway 112 north out of Del Norte, Carnero Creek on my mind. I stay on 112 till it intersects US 285 where I turn north until I come to paved County Road G where I turn west towards the hamlet of La Garita. Just past La Garita (don’t blink or you’ll miss it), I turn north on County Road 41G which turns into a decent gravel road that snakes through several ranches until at about 5.5 miles the public lands begin beyond a narrows called Hellgate. From here until the confluence with the South Fork there are several stretches of public water interspersed with private lands.

Carnero Creek At Hellgate
Approaching Hellgate From The East

Soon I spot a turnout above a good-looking stretch of water and quickly suit up in my chest waders. I opt to carry one rod, my light 4-weight 8.5 foot outfit rigged with my old reliable Royal Trude #16 and a #16 beadhead sparkle caddis larva dropped about two feet below.

As I start walking upstream, I can’t help but wonder if I may be trodding the same ground that explorer John Fremont’s ill-fated fourth expedition in 1848-49 covered in search of a rail route over the Rocky Mountains. We know Fremont and his men made it as far as nearby Boot Mountain at the headwaters of La Garita Creek where a blinding snowstorm forced them to turn back in January south to Taos. Before reaching Taos in February, 10 of the 34-man party died of hypothermia, starvation, and exhaustion, and the body of one was eaten by his companions. Two others were killed by Ute Indians. Quite a contrast from the bucolic meadow carpeted with wild irises and wild golden peas I am traversing along the creek today.

Carnero Creek Above Hellgate

But all’s not that easy. I’m surprised to find that the creek that had looked so open from above is actually heavily overgrown for the first eighth of a mile or so. Undaunted, wherever I spy an opening I hop down to the water and try to flip my flies into likely looking pools while avoiding the overhanging branches. I attribute my flubbing the first five strikes to the odd casting angles, tight quarters, and the fact that I can see the trout rising to my fly which prompts me into striking too soon. Thankfully my ego is soon salved when a feisty 13-inch brown shoots out from under a snag and gulps the Trude so greedily that I can’t miss.

To my great relief, the brush soon recedes, and I am treated to beautiful open runs through the wildflower-covered meadow. The brush still often crowds on one side of the creek, and of course if there is a good pool it often has a branch overhanging that calls for a tricky sidearm cast. But wherever there is some depth or slower water, I can be sure to find several brownies eager to please.

As I continue upstream, the fishing really heats up when I come to a series of log jams and small beaver dams that provide deeper pools and quieter runs, safe harbor for the fish.

When I finally take a break for a snack and to soak in the rugged scenery surrounding me, I have caught and released a couple of dozen scrappy browns ranging from 10-to-14 inches. (Ok, Ok maybe 13 1/2″).

As I lounge, I see some dark clouds starting to roll in just after noon, so I figure I better get back on the water. In the very first pool I quickly fool two trout, and as I fight a third, I hear a long low rumbling sound. I look up and see a very angry looking black cloud scudding over the big ridge to the west, and sure enough it begins to spit rain. I break out my rain jacket and keep right on casting, and the fish keep right on biting.

The rain abates and the sun tries to peek through, but more rumbles of thunder echo off the cliffs, which I take as my cue to hightail it home. I scramble back up on the gravel road, take one last look at the creek, tip my hat, and double-time back to my vehicle.

Hats Off To Carnero Creek!!

I manage to stash my gear and dive into the SUV about 1:30 just as the clouds let loose. Despite the fact I haven’t caught any Rio Grande cutthroats, I can’t complain. Carnero Creek is a sweet little water in a wild setting with eager trout. Can’t ask for much more than that…and I haven’t seen another angler all day to boot! I’ll be back to explore some more….lots of good looking water upstream on the main stem and South Fork.

NOTE: Carnero Creek was running at around 15 cfs on this trip which is a good level. By late July it was running at 5 cfs which would be too low to fish.

4 thoughts on “Into The Backcountry Day 3: Prospecting For Trout On Carnero Creek (near Del Norte, CO)

  1. This was a great piece. Enjoyed the information and the pictures. Keep up the good work Chris. Many of us enjoy your articles. Very well done.

    On Thu, Jul 22, 2021, 6:58 PM HOOK & FLY: Off -The-Beaten Path Fishing Adventures And Eclectic Musings Of An Itinerant Angler wrote:

    > hooknfly posted: ” Mid-June 2021 For a recount of the first two successful > days of the trip exploring La Garita Creek, see the following link: > https://hooknfly.com/2021/07/04/into-the-backcountry-prospecting-for-trout-on-two-new-remote-creeks-near-del-norte-co/https://h” > >

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    1. Awesome day on the creek!! Could possibly be that the Cutts have taken a hit from the drought and any ash runoff from fires up stream. Fish on!!

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      1. Thx Jeff! I think the brownies have just taken over except way up in the headwaters where the state and feds have built obstacles to protect the cutts from invaders.

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