Shaman: A person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of spirits, including angling.
A few years back I was in Taos getting ready to chase some trout in the nearby Rio Grande Gorge. I stopped into the well-appointed local fly shop and got the skinny on the best flies and techniques for my trek from the amiable proprietor Nick Streit (rhymes with “bright”). In the course of our discussion, Nick mentioned I might want to take a look at a book on New Mexico fishing by his father, Taylor Streit, widely recognized as the leading fly fishing guide in New Mexico. Sure glad I did. The book is a wealth of practical knowledge and savvy only years of on-the-water experience can bring, all wrapped in Streit’s engaging personal writing style. No wonder he was unanimously elected to the prestigious guides’ hall of fame.
This summer as I was preparing for my annual trip to fish the Conejos River country west of Antonito in southern Colorado, and thinking about new waters to explore, I remembered Streit had sung the praises of the Chama River, one of his favorites, just a short hour’s drive over the New Mexico border from the RV campground where I would be using as my fishing camp. As reread the Chama River section, I realized I had somehow missed the face that the remote headwaters of the Chama, a medium-sized river, were actually in Colorado. To stoke my fishing fever even more, Streit writes glowingly about the prospects for anglers willing to hike in. I thought it would be satisfying to follow in the steps of the Shaman of the Chama River after experiencing it through his eyes. Fortunately by mid-August when I am ready to leave, the rivers and streams in the Antonito/Chama area, which had been suffering a severe two-year drought, were back to decent levels thanks to monsoon rains in July. All systems are go!
After an easy two-hour drive from my cabin near Salida, Colorado, I have set up my mobile fish camp at the Canon Bonito RV Campground near Antonito. The friendly owners, Al and Lisa Abeyta, have built up over the last decade what is hands-down in my experience the best RV campground in the area. It has spacious shady sites plus a bonus of a long beautiful fly fishing-only stretch of the Conejos River that can be reserved when you want to wet a line close to your rig.
After spending a couple of full days fishing several remote creeks that feed the Conejos River, I decide it’s time for a breather. Rather than lollygag around the campground, I opt for some reconnaissance on the Chama for a possible longer trip later in the week. I’m on the road just after lunch on Colorado 17, a good paved and scenic road that crosses the mountains to Chama. It’s a twisty road that also crosses the narrow gauge Cumbres Toltec tourist train tracks several times, so I don’t hurry, instead enjoying the scenery. I also know to keep an eye out for roving bovines—this is open range country. Several times I am forced to come to a complete stop as cows and their calves wander nonchalantly into the middle of the highway. When I honk they stare blankly at me. As I can attest as a former Kansas farmboy, they are not exactly Roads Scholars.
The scenery improves with every turn, and as I descend into the Chama Valley the beetle-killed pines magically give way to a vibrant green forest just across the border into New Mexico. Even with taking it easy in 45 minutes I am at the turnoff to Road 445 (Forest Service Road 121) that parallels the Rio Chama as it winds its way to the National Forest Boundary through the private 17,000 acre Rancho Del Oso Pardo, one of the most beautiful ranches I have ever seen—something right out of a western novel.
On the good gravel road, it’s a five-mile drive during which I cross back over the boundary back into Colorado. Just inside the national forest boundary I can see the small primitive campground below along the river. Because it’s likely that stretch of the river gets hit fairly hard by anglers, I keep on climbing. The road ends in about five miles at a trailhead, but it’s too steep to bushwhack down to the river in the distance across the valley so I turn around and drive back about a mile or so where I had seen a couple of vehicles parked. I can see now why they are here—an old road, now closed, leads down to the valley floor.
I suit up in my waders and fishing vest with my 8.5-foot four weight rod rigged with a small grasshopper pattern and trailing beadhead sparkle caddis larva nymph that has worked well on the Colorado creeks the past couple of days. The descent on the old road bed to the valley floor is an easy one, but then I discover what looked to be a meadow on my GPS app is in reality a dense thicket of bushes. I take a closer look at the map and can see faint wild animal trails threading through the maze to the river about one-third mile to the west.
My only advice is where possible look for a path that wends its way through meadow sections were small shrubby potentilla bushes with their yellow flowers grow. Don’t plunge into the wicked thicket as I did (with apologies to the Wicked Pickett, one of my favorite songsters from the ’60s).
Keep heading southwest and then follow a line of fence posts to an open meadow to the south, then turn due west to the river. Good luck. There is an easier route on the west side of the valley that starts at the campground, but that trail is several miles longer to the spot where I will start fishing.
After about 15 minutes of meandering and backtracking and plentiful epithets, I survive the thicket, finally emerging in a grove of stately spruce trees. I spot a good trail that I follow upstream. Soon I come to a beautiful pool at a sharp bend in the river formed by a log jam that reeks of trout. I keep a low profile, retreat downstream to 25 yards, then start working my way back up. On the way I spook a couple of small trout in a shallow run below the log jam. I saw lots of hoppers in the meadows I just crossed and a quick check under the rocks reveals caddis are the primary aquatic insect, so I stick with the hopper/dropper already on my rod. I sneak over the end of the log jam and get in a good kneeling position to cast.
My first offering that floats perfectly down from the top of the pool is ignored, as is the second. The third appears to be a bust but just as I start to raise the line for another try, a streak of gold flashes from the depths of the pool and nails the nymph just below the surface in full view! He’s a good one, probably over 16-inches, and immediately dives for the safety of the deep pool. Slowly I start to gain ground on the bruiser as he romps back and forth in the depths. But just as I coax him to shallower water, he jets downstream for the log jam. My four weight rod bends perilously as I haul back to stop the run and inch him away from the nasty looking jumble of branches. Now I think I am in control, but he makes another dive and reaches the snags. I plunge into the water, happy to have on my chest waders, but when I finally fish out the line, he’s gone.
With the right arm of my shirt and my fishing vest wringing wet from rescuing my flies, I amble upstream to the next good-looking stretch. It’s a tough one to fish because of snags and overhanging branches, something that is common throughout the river. So bring your “A” casting game! At the lower end where the water cascades into a nice pool, I manage to thread the needle and my fly alights above the snag and floats jauntily down under the protruding branch then immediately disappears. Something has eaten the nymph as it passes submerged under the branch. I set the hook and a little brown erupts through the surface and does a good imitation of an Olympic gymnast as he gyrates through the air. Soon the scrappy little brownie comes in for a quick photo and release.
I test the leader and dropper and then drop the fly in the exact same spot above the snag. Bingo! The fly disappears as another trout smacks the nymph. This one is bigger, maybe 12-inches, and puts up a worthy fight before relenting. I start to move on, but something tells me to try one more cast. This time the fly floats under and by the snag a few feet, then is sucked under. When I set the hook I feel something heavier, and it is. Wasting no time, I horse him away from the snags and see it’s a muscular 15-inch brown. In the open water I have the advantage and after a couple of good runs he comes to the net.
I’m smiling as I walked up to the next stretch, trying to size up how I can get a fly under that overhanging bush that is guarding the deepest part of the little pool. Sometimes it works best to creep up slowly on the opposite bank just below the pool to be able to get a better angle to place the fly above the snag in the current and let it drift under the branches into the pool rather than the normal approach from directly below which makes for a nearly impossible cast. The downside is you risk spooking the trout by getting into their side field of vision. I take the risk and it pays off. The fly alights five feet above the bush and slides under it without snagging then disappears as something yanks the dry under. It’s another one on the nymph, a sizeable browning that pushes 14-inches.
For the next hour the pattern is the same as I work upstream—2-3 smaller brownies then one larger over 13-inches. It’s 3:30 p.m. by now, and I’m starting to drag a bit, not looking forward to the bushwhacking that remains to be done to get me back to my SUV. Also I want to be back at the campground before 6 p.m. where the owner Al has invited me and all denizens of his RV campground to his big potluck dinner birthday celebration, just a youngster at 60-years old. How can a bachelor fly fisherman who usually returns to the trailer after a day of fishing to microwave something that comes in a box resist such an offer?!?
I decide to fish one more alluring pool before calling it quits and it pays off. The biggest brownie of the day nails the grasshopper, the only sizeable fish I will catch on the dry all day.
I have seen only a few boot marks on the shoreline all day and none at all the further up I waded. The key has been the bushwhacking trek to the river on the west side of the valley away from the road and more than a mile above the campground. True, I didn’t hook one of the brutes over 18-inches that I have read and heard veiled references too, but after all this was just a leisurely recon trip!
By the way, the potluck was terrific—all manner of dishes, and I polished the meal off with five different desserts!!
Stay tuned for my follow-up post covering a full day outing on the Rio Chama later in the week. In it I also reveal an easier access trail I stumbled upon.