Fin-filled days for three cagey codgers on seven creeks in 10 days. More piscatorial capers being planned!
Fin-filled days for three cagey codgers on seven creeks in 10 days. More piscatorial capers being planned!
Shaman: A person regarded as having access to, and influence in,
the world of spirits, including angling.
To read about my mid-August reconnaissance trip on the upper Chama, see: https://hooknfly.com/2021/08/10/in-the-footsteps-of-the-rio-chama-shaman-near-chama-nm/
Late August 2021
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 fact 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, are back to decent levels thanks to monsoon rains in July. All systems are go!
I had done a half-day reconnaissance in mid-August on the upper Chama to get the lay of the land and as a bonus had good results for some nice brown trout, but only after tangling with the wicked thicket—a heavily overgrown stretch of bushes I had to navigate on foot to get to the river. I vowed to return, albeit by an easier access route. (See link above for article on the recon trip.)
I’m on the road at 7:30 from my campground near Antonito. Colorado 17 is a good paved and scenic road that crosses the mountains to Chama, New Mexico. It’s a twisty paved highway 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.
In about 45 minutes I’m at the turnoff to Forest Service 121, a good gravel road that snakes five miles north through private property up the scenic Chama River Valley. In about three miles I cross the boundary back into Colorado then at five miles enter the Rio Grande National Forest.
I know from my recon trip to drive another couple of miles till I arrive at a turnout by the trailhead, marked by an old closed road that leads down a steep incline and emerges on the east side of the valley below.
However, I know if I take that path I’ll have to bushwhack through the nefarious thicket to get to the river on the other side of the valley. But I’ve done some scouting on Google Maps and see that south of the thicket is a meadow that will provide easier access to the river a quarter mile away on the west side of the valley. As I walk towards the old closed road path, I happen to spy a faint, rough trail that angles to the south. It’s steep and appears to have some fallen trees across it further down, but what do I have to lose?
Luckily the trail is short and emerges in a beautiful grove of aspen that overlook the meadow I spied on Google Maps. Triumphantly, I thumb my nose at the thicket just to the north and proceed to amble leisurely across the meadow, soaking in the great views of the mountains.
In ten minutes I’m entering a big grove of spruce where I follow a wildlife/cattle path, cross the river, and intersect the well-defined trail used by outfitters and hikers a few hundred yards west of the creek.
I have decided ahead of time I will hike up a mile or so to what I call the third meadow—a big open expanse along the river. It’s a beautiful day, with highs predicted to be the upper 70s, with plenty of sunshine and light winds. In a half hour, I emerged from a stand of trees that shade the trail and start to cut down to the river which is running low—about 15-20 cfs—and clear.
As I do, I hear something behind me and turn to see a cowboy leading three horses with his three canine companions bringing up the rear. We stop to talk.
I ask him if he’s setting up a hunting camp upstream, but he says no and explains he’s hauling salt blocks up to his cattle in the high country above. His dogs are acting skittish, the result he tells me of being chased earlier on the trail by a big pack of coyotes.
After shooting the breeze a little more, he peels off to the west on the trail, and I head down the gentle slope to the river and begin to walk further upstream. Hoppers are jumping every which way in the warming sun. Like much of the Chama, the shoreline is overgrown so I have to do more bushwhacking.
In 15 minutes at about 10:30 a.m., I emerge relatively unscathed and find I have lucked out to surface just below an alluring pool below a big deadfall. With a nice foam line along a stretch of dark green water under some overhanging branches, it wreaks of trout.
I tie on a #16 Wilcox to imitate the small hoppers I saw in the meadow and below it drop a #18 beadhead sparkle caddis larva. As I prepare to cast, I see a couple of small brown trout finning at the lower end of the pool. When I lift my rod to cast, they scurry to the head of the long pool. Hoping they didn’t spook their big brothers, I go ahead with several casts at the lower end of the run. Then I take aim at the top of the pool and am able to land the flies just above the overhanging branches. They float along in the foam, close to the bank, then suddenly a big fish explodes on the Wilcox and the battle is on.
It’s a big brown, and he knows his territory, heading directly for a submerged snag along the bank. For a second he’s tangled in the mess, then somehow comes free. I lean hard on my four-weight wand, bending it in a perilous arc and slowly work him away from the snag. Soon I have his head up and skidding towards my net, but when he sees his fate, the hooked-jaw brownie jets away. We repeat the tussle, and this time I get his head into the net. He’s a muscular 17-inch plus fish. As I start to celebrate, he surprises me and rockets out of the net and heads straight for the snag. This time he’s wrapped up tight, so I wade out into the flow on a rescue mission. Amazingly, when I run my hand down the line, I can feel he is still on, whirling around in the depths! They suddenly all goes limp. He’s won his freedom! I shuffle back to the opposite bank and sit down on a log to calm my frayed nerves and let my right arm that was submerged to the shoulder in the cold water thaw out. After some dejected mumbling and checking my flies and knots, I make a few more casts in the pool, but clearly the big guy’s gyrations have warned off his buddies.
I continue upstream and scale the big downed tree that’s fallen across the river. Just above the river bends, creating a deep, swirling pool. I carefully cast in the rapids above and watch as the flies cascade down into the pool. The Wilcox promptly disappears as something nails the caddis. It’s another good one who puts up a battle before I can bring him to the surface and into the net. Another colorful brownie that goes fourteen inches! Now we’re cooking!
For the next half hour I work upstream with steady action for hungry brown trout. Soon the brambles give wat to a forest of tall pines and spruce, and the river gathers more steam as the gradient increases. It’s transitioned from a meadow water to more of a freestone one marked by boulders and plunge pools. The good fishing continues, with several more 12 to 14-inch browns feasting on the Wilcox. I miss a bigger one that is hiding under a big boulder. I see his big nose poke out above the water as he snatches the dry, but only manage to prick him.
Now the river bends hard to the north and becomes even faster and rockier with less holding water, so I decide to head back downstream a half-mile to another meadow stretch and work upstream from there. Again, I have to do some bushwhacking, then stumble on a dry finger of the river and follow it downstream. I have to dance around some mud holes, but again am in luck and emerge just below a good-looking pool. It yields a handsome 15-inch brown, again on the Wilcox.
It’s about 2 p.m. now, and after catching a few more, I break for lunch in a shady spot below another good run.
After recharging with victuals and my RC Cola energy drink, I have good steady action for another hour, catching and releasing a half dozen 10 to 14-inch fish.
By 3:30 the sun is getting ready to slip behind the big ridge to the west, so I decide to start back to my SUV. Thirty minutes later I’m back near the spruce forest where I first crossed the river. I can’t resist trying the honey hole where I hooked and lost a big brown trout on my recon trip a week ago. This time I fool two small brownies on the caddis larva dropper, but the big boy is too wise to fall for my act again.
By 4:30 I’m back at my vehicle. It’s been another mediocre day in paradise with perfect weather and thirty or more fish caught and released, with maybe a dozen over 14-inches. I think the Shaman of the Chama is smiling!
For my article on the Lake Fork of the Conejos in 2020, see:
Lake Fork Of The Conejos River: Solitude In A Sanctuary For Rare Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout
For my recent outing on the nearby upper Rio Chama, see: https://hooknfly.com/2021/08/10/in-the-footsteps-of-the-rio-chama-shaman-near-chama-nm/
Mid-August 2021 near Antonito, Colorado
I’m on my annual trip to fish the Conejos River and surrounding waters. The Conejos is a middle-sized river that harbors big brown and rainbow trout that fatten up on its abundant insect life. Even though there is plenty of public water between Antonito and Platoro Reservoir, solitude can be a little hard to find. So I did a little sleuthing and discovered the Conejos actually has five alluring, forks—the North, South, Middle, Lake, and Adams—that are all remote waters requiring some hiking to get to.
A couple of years ago I had a stellar day on the Lake Fork, a three-mile hike into a high-mountain meadow paying off with a bonanza of gorgeous Rio Grande Cutthroats, several going better than 15-inches. After a year of missing fishing the Conejos because of the extreme drought in the area, I have set my sights on the Adams Fork above Platoro Reservoir, 40 miles west of Antonito. This year thanks to timely July monsoon rains, all the rivers and creeks around the area have decent water levels. I’m intrigued when I can find very little online about fishing the Adams Fork. There are several posts by hikers who mention the Adams Fork trail, but no indication they sampled the river. Fortuitously, a few weeks before the trip a reader of my blog mentioned he had caught some nice cutthroats there in July. Say no more! I’m sold.
It’s mid-August and at 7:00 a.m. I’m leaving my mobile fish camp at the first-rate Canon Bonito RV park near Mogote. It’s a 40-mile drive that will take a good two hours to the trailhead above Platoro Reservoir.
The first 20 miles on paved Colorado 17 are smooth and scenic. But after that, tighten your seat belts! The next 20 miles are up CR 250, widely known for eating tires and various other vehicle parts. It’s a rough washboard road where you should take the 25 mph speed limit seriously. The scenery is spectacular, so ease off on the accelerator and take your time.
Around 9 a.m. I am bouncing by the little historic resort community of Platoro, founded in 1945. It’s an eclectic mix of old cabins, new log houses, rental units, and a venerable hotel. Above the hamlet I hang a left onto FR 247, a decent gravel road that snakes along high above Platoro Reservoir.
Unfortunately, like most reservoirs in the West it is drought-stricken, sporting a big white bathtub ring. In a few miles I come to the official trailhead for the Adams Fork. The parking area is empty, a good sign!
I suit up in my lightweight breathable chest waders and carry just one rod today, my new super light four-weight TFO that goes 8½ feet. It’s a beautiful sunny morning with light winds, with a balmy temperature of 70 degrees to come this afternoon at 10,500 feet. The first section of the trail is steep, so I am soon huffing and puffing, my septuagenarian body complaining about the weight of my as-usual overstuffed fishing vest.
Before long I come to a switchback that crosses the first of several feeder creeks that add their waters to the Adams Fork on the way to my target area, a series of open meadows a couple of miles up the valley.
For the most part from here the trail is fairly flat, with a few ups and downs where it intersects those small feeder creeks. The wildflowers put on a showy display for me, so I stop and take some photos for my granddaughter Aly, who loves to help me identify them with the help of a terrific free app called PictureThis. Scarlet skyrockets, fringed gentians, savoryleaf asters, and arrowleaf groundsel abound. I can hear the river roaring several hundred feet below in its rugged canyon, but can’t see it.
In about a mile, I come to a downed sign and turn it over. It’s a marker for the boundary of the South San Juan Wilderness Area.
In a short distance beyond the boundary marker, I run into a series of steep grassy slopes and meadows that descend steeply to the Adams Fork, which has finally revealed itself. For the next several miles, the access improves as the valley widens. I finally spot a likely looking stretch of water with fewer rapids and more bends and pools.
Gripping my wading staff tightly, I start zig-zagging carefully down the steep incline. The footing is decent, but when I slip on some loose dirt a couple of times, I remind myself to take it easy. As I take a breather half way down, I look out over the sun-soaked tall grass. Suddenly I think I hear Julie Andrews singing her iconic song “the hills are alive to the sound of hoppers!” The whole meadow is whirring with amorous grasshoppers. As I drop down further the noisy insects flee in front of me.
It’s about 10:15 when I emerge on a rocky bar below a good-looking pool.
Naturally I break out my trusty Royal Trude in #16 which is an excellent imitation of the small grasshoppers in the meadow. When I check under the rocks in the river, I’m surprised to find some small stoneflies, so tie on a #18 Tung Teaser as my dropper. The water is crystal clear and flowing about 10-15 cfs, a bit low but eminently fishable.
With great confidence borne of my friend’s glowing report, I loft a beautiful cast that lands perfectly in a foamy run. Nothing. Not even a looker. Several more throws with the same result. It’s puzzling. Everything looks perfect. Have I been hoodwinked?? I walk up to the next good-looking pool and on the way spook a couple of decent-sized fish. A good sign, but again, no bites. Now I’m smelling the distinct odor of skunk. Did the July monsoon rains bring floods that wiped things out, something not unheard of on these small creeks? I try to keep the faith and continue working upstream, and at approximately 10:45 a.m. a small, but celebrated 10-inch cutthroat breaks the spell. He’s taken the nymph. Then another follows on the next cast. Well, I think, I can live with a day of small fish.
Soon I come to a small postage-stamp sized pool featuring an overhanging branch that will surprise me. It turns out to be the first honey hole of the trip.
I manage to execute a cast that drops my flies delicately above the branch, and as they float under a big trout swirls at the dry, then follows and chomps down on the nymph. He wrangles with me for a while then finally comes to the net, a beautiful, stout 14-inch Rio Grande Cutthroat. That’s more like it. Three more 12-inchers quickly follow, attendants at the king’s court.
Then just as I think there can’t possibly be any more in the pool, or at least ones that haven’t been put off by the mayhem, a real bruiser surfaces on the next cast and nails the dry. He puts up a terrific battle, flashing his brilliant colors as he bids for freedom. When he finally is subdued, the gorgeous fish measures 16-inches, a true leviathan for such a small water.
After all the excitement, I relax on a streamside rock, drinking in the scene. Wildflowers cover the slope and bench above. Butterflies are fluttering everywhere. A stand of bright yellow mountain goldenrods catch my eye, covered with striking black and white butterflies—obviously enjoying a late summer love-in.
I look down and instead of boot marks see dozens of hoof marks, including several giant ones left by moose and elk. I wonder if some are watching me.
Reenergized, I work cautiously upstream, being careful not to spook the cutthroats I can see finning in the deeper pools, oblivious to my presence. Every pool seems better than the last, each yielding several cutts, usually with a big one mixed in.
But after an hour of unbridled success, I hit a dry spell. I get steady rises to the Trude dry, but the fish take a close look and then bump the fly or just turn up their noses and drop back slowly to their holding positions. I have never had that happen on remote streams, where the bushy Trude seems to always ring the dinner bell. I do catch several on the Tung Teaser nymph, but they tend to be smaller fish. Reluctantly, I decide to change flies, tying on a smaller profile #16 Wilcox dry that, while designed to mimic a mayfly, is a great imitation of tiny hoppers often found around high-altitude streams. The results are immediate. I drift the fly along a bank that just drew refusals on the Trude, and a good-sized cutt intercepts it with not hesitancy in a showy rise.
From then on the action is hot again with most strikes on the surface and in sun-drenched pools. Those in shadows or deep don’t produce. Obviously the cutts are sun-bathing, and who can blame them with the already cold nighttime temperatures at this altitude–over 10,000 feet!
Just after noon, my stomach starts to growl so I make one more cast in another photogenic pool before breaking for lunch. No sooner does the Wilcox alight than it is blasted by a giant fish. I set the hook and the scuffle is on. It’s to and fro for a minute, but I finally gain the upper hand and start to ease the big boy into my net. But when he gets a glimpse of his fate, the cutt jets to the top of the pool, through the rapids above, making like a wild salmon, and into the next pool. Now he has the advantage with so much of mine line stripped out, giving him leverage, and sure enough he shakes off with an acrobatic jump. He looked to be 18-inches or more, the biggest trout of the day.
I sulk for a minute or two, then start casting again, resolute not to end the morning a loser. As if by magic a few minutes late a muscular 15-inch cutt helps soothe my bruised ego as he smacks the dry and puts up a worthy fight.
After lunch the good action continues and by 2 p.m. I’m tuckered out. It will take me three hours to get back to camp so I swear this cast will be my last. Three fish later I net a scrappy one in a plunge pool and decide it really is time to head back.
As I get to the bench above the river I turn and tip my hat to another fab fork of the Conejos.
What an uncommon treat to catch and release such beautiful rare fish. Then I chug up the slope towards home, already planning a return trip.
CAVEATS: Ignoring my own caveat, I exceed the 25 mph speed limit on the way back to pavement and end up with a flat tire! Second caveat–I fished the Adams Fork a month later in early September and found it very low with extremely skittish fish, particularly in the crystal-clear deeper pools with slow-moving water where the cutts could scrutinize the faux hopper. It was still a successful outing, but my advice is to make sure the Conejos River downstream at Mogote is flowing at least 100 cfs which would indicate the Adams Fork probably has a decent flow. Also, avoid the Adams Fork area after September 1 when it is overrun with amiable bow hunters, some of whom also fish!