Taming The Tigers Of Torsido and Upper La Jara Creeks (near Del Norte, CO)

Late September 2022

For my earlier articles on fishing La Jara Creek below La Jara Reservoir, see: https://hooknfly.com/2018/01/10/colorado-dreamin-on-such-a-winters-day-la-jara-creek-near-alamosa-co/ and https://hooknfly48.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/la-jara-creek-article-pdf.pdf

It’s the last day of my annual fall fishing fling in southern Colorado, and I’m on the road early at 7:30 a.m. from the Woods and River RV Park in Del Norte where I have been staying for the past week in my mobile fishing camp. 

My aim is to explore Torsido and La Jara Creeks above La Jara Reservoir.  I have had some terrific days fishing La Jara Creek below the dam, but this is my first venture above in the expansive treeless meadow.  My research tells me both tiny creeks offer some fun fishing for small, colorful brookies.

It’s about a two-hour drive from Del Norte to the lake, the last 20-mile stretch on a scenic but bumpy gravel road (Fdr240/259) that clearly hasn’t seen a grader blade since the end of our long monsoon season.  The aspen on this route are at their best, so I just slow down and enjoy the brilliant display.

 

As I crest the hill, La Jara Reservoir greets me with a mirror-smooth surface reflecting the surrounding trees and foothills. 

La Jara Reservoir In Fall Colors

I continue north on the gravel road that flanks the lake and then above where I reconnoiter for the best jumping off point.  The wide meadow hides any sight of either stream until I’m a mile or so above the lake where I catch a glance of La Jara Creek as it twists and turns, just a stone’s throw from the road.  But I’m puzzled as I can’t see Torsido Creek anywhere, and up another mile La Jara Creek fizzles out completely at a big bend in the road.  So I turn around and drive back down towards the reservoir, and finally decide about a mile above the lake to go exploring in the meadow, parking by the side of the road not far from a long hillock a couple of hundred yards to the east.  My hunch is that Torsido flows in La Jara Creek somewhere on the other side of that hill out in the meadow.  But it’s hard to gauge from the maps I have as the reservoir is low, exposing a lot of ground that’s usually underwater. 

I suit up in my lightweight chest waders and carry my 4# wand rigged with a #18 Royal Trude to imitate the little hoppers that are still flitting about teamed with a #18 sparkle caddis larva dropper.  I head south and, in a few minutes, cross La Jara Creek. 

La Jara Creek

This is going to be challenging I think upon spying the tiny dimensions of the stream flanked by tall grass that will make casting challenging.  Not only that, the shoreline in most places appears to have been the scene of a cow dance party, stomped into mush by the big bovine I can see in the distance.  Did I mention the long in-stream strands of vegetation that promise to snag any fly beneath the surface?  The good news is that the flow is strong and water cold, plus it’s a beautiful sunny day.  Perfect for an easy ramble in the meadow. 

I soon come to a lovely stand of grass with feathery purple spikes swaying gently in the light wind.  I check with my favorite phone app, Picture This, and learn it’s called wild or foxtail barley. 

The app notes that it is an easy plant to grow, suited perfectly for brown thumbs!  As I admire the scene, something white catches my eye in the distance.  I focus and see that it’s a big herd of pronghorn antelope lolling around at the upper end of the meadow.  Then something spooks them, and they take off running lickety split. 

Later I will cross paths with a big coyote which may explain their flight. It’s always a good sign to see some antelope when exploring a new water—usually means there aren’t many people around.

I continue south, aiming towards a big jumble of rocks surrounded by grazing cattle in the middle of the meadow not far from the lake.  I hope to get up higher for a better view and maybe see Torsido Creek.

I use my farm boy mooing talent to scatter the dumbfounded bovine, except for the big bull who just glares  at me.  I hustle past him and scale the big rocks, a safe haven.  They look strangely out of place in the serene meadow, seemingly plunked down randomly.  I scan 360 degrees but the errant creek is nowhere to be seen.  I think maybe it’s hidden in one of those ravines, hidden among the aspen, so I continue the trek.

To reach the foothills, I end up sloshing through some mucky marshland, then have to navigate a barbed wire fence.  On reaching dry ground, I head east to check out one ravine, but only find a trickle there.  Perplexed, I reverse course and check out another gulch. 

Same story, including another stout barbed wire fence to surmount.  Then as I crest another hill, a big coyote with a raggedy coat flashes by me, only 20 feet away.  No wonder those pronghorns were skittish. 

With no Torsido in sight, I decide to circle back to towards the road, have lunch that I stowed by La Jara Creek on the way in, and focus on fishing that water.  It’s almost 12:30 p.m. when I reach the hillock close to La Jara Creek, having completed a fruitless three-mile circuit around the meadow.  Thankfully, my magic RC Cola elixir banishes the depression and desperation that were starting to grab hold of me.

By 1 p.m. I’m ready to go again.  I approach the stream cautiously and immediately spy a trout rising casually upstream.  Casting is tricky if I stay too far back or kneel, courtesy of the tall grass and reeds along the shoreline.  But if I get too close, I risk spooking the fish as well as having to deal with the mushy soup the cattle stomping has created.  Against all odds, I throw a decent cast, and the fish inhales the dry without any hesitation.  To my surprise, it’s a small tiger trout, a sterile hybrid of a male brook and a female brown trout that have been stocked in the lake. 

Surprise Tiger Trout

They must be moving up the creeks in search of food, maybe snacking on the brook trout reputed to be here.  Some anglers turn their noses up at tigers, but I am not complaining after wandering in the proverbial wilderness all morning. 

I continue upstream and get several more small tigers, miss a good one in a big bend pool, then spook several more. The going is tough trying to work standing back from the shoreline so I defy conventional wisdom and start wading right up the middle of the creek that fortunately has a fairly firm bottom. I also dispense with the nymph which hasn’t produced anything except a lot of slimy moss to clean off after most casts. Those two moves are the tickets. By now the sun has warmed the creek, and trout are rising steadily as I work upstream. I have a ball casting for rising tigers and start to pick up some brilliantly colored brook trout as well.

They are modest in size—ranging from 6-to 12-inches–but scrappy.  Who can complain with a couple of dozen caught and released.

Then I get a wakeup call.  Just below a big bend in the creek, a large blue dragonfly zooms upstream a couple of feet above the water, zigzagging this way and that.  All of a sudden, a big trout rockets into the air, just barely missing snagging the insect.  How it could have seen that dragonfly scooting by while underwater let alone react quickly enough to almost dine on it is beyond me. Probably not much chance he’ll surface again, but I decide to wait a minute to let the pool calm down, then place my dry just above where he was hiding along the shoreline.  No sooner than the Trude alights and the mini-brute gulps it down in a showy rise.  I set the hook, and the fish explodes in the air, then heads upstream.  My rod bends double as I put pressure on to stop the run.  It’s nip and tuck for a minute or so, but finally I tame the tiger and slid him into the net.  He’s a muscular beauty, pushing 14-inches!

I continue around the bend and see another showy rise. This time a gaudy brook, biggest of the day, slams the Trude.

Then it’s several more nice tigers followed by another colorful brook trout. But then I hear a menacing rumble! In the midst of all the fun, I didn’t notice the storm clouds welling up from the southeast.

I throw caution to the wind, which has started gusting, and trudge on.  Good move.  I come to another bend in the creek, see a trout rising, and fool him on the first cast.  It’s another ferocious tiger who thrashes on the surface before diving for his lair that is full of snags.  I run upstream, applying pressure to horse him out of the mess.  Miraculously, he slides out into the open with the Trude still in the corner of his mouth.  From there, it’s a battle of inches, him gaining the upper hand, then me.  Finally, he gets close enough to slide the net under his silver flanks.  What a beauty, measuring 15+-inches!

As I release the shimmering beauty, as if by magic, the angling gods push the clouds away momentarily, allowing me a few more casts before the rain comes….and I cash in. A flashy brook trout is followed by another nice tiger, then the Lilliputian of the day! A good way to close out an interesting outing!

Later when I get back to camp and have service for my Google Maps and can scrutinize some USGS topomaps more carefully, I figure out where Torsido Creek was hiding. I see a gap in the middle of the mile-long hillock near the road. I had thought Torsido would meet La Jara Creek below and other side of the hillock in the big meadow where I wandered about for a couple of hours. In reality, Torsido cuts through the hillock in the gap and joins La Jara there, near to the road. But it is all but invisible if you don’t know where to look as the creek is so narrow and obscured in the tall grass. In my excitement and haste, I completely missed it.

Ah, another good excuse to come back next year to tame some more tigers and brookies…as if I needed one!

Blanca Peak Reigning Over The Beautiful San Luis Valley On My Way Home

Changes In Attitudes, Changes In Altitudes…To Save The Pinyon Jay and Clark’s Nutcracker

October 2022

It’s those changes in latitudes,

changes in attitudes nothing remains quite the same.

With all of our running and all of our cunning,

If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.

Jimmy Buffett

For my earlier article on pinyon trees and pine nuts, see: https://hooknfly.com/2015/10/18/pinon-pine-nuts-pulse-of-the-land-2/

I’ve been a confirmed amateur birdwatcher and avian connoisseur since the tender age of 10.  In 1950s Dad would take my sister and me birdwatching after church as Mom prepared dinner (dinner was the big noon meal on Sundays).  My little hometown of Buhler, located on the Great Plains in south central Kansas, is smack dab in the middle of the huge Central Flyway, a major bird migration route.  So in addition to local favorites like meadowlarks, red-headed woodpeckers, and scissor-tailed flycatchers, we also got to see some beautiful and interesting itinerants like goldfinches, cedar waxwings, and rose-breasted grosbeaks as well as lots of ducks.  I got my got first little bird book then and soon thereafter as a gift, membership in the Audubon Society accompanied by a weighty tome, the Audubon Guide to North American Birds.  It is still a prized possession that brings with it many good memories.

My First Bird Book

I’ve continue my ardor for birds six decades later at my cabin in the Colorado high country near Salida where I have been enjoying feeding birds, providing nesting boxes, and watching my winged friends up close—gorgeous western tanagers, bluebirds, hairy and downy woodpeckers, evening and black-headed grosbeaks as well as little buddies like mountain chickadees, nuthatches, and towhees.  Then there are the golden eagles soaring high above. Here are some of my favorites, close up.

But as my human friends know, I have been having a running battle for several years with pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers, large birds that are members of the jay/crow family, who raid the suet and sunflower seed feeders in large bands, chasing away smaller birds amidst a raucous sideshow on my front porch.  When I’m inside and spot the gluttons through my big front windows, I creep stealthily to the front door, then in a flurry throw it open and run screaming onto the porch like a madman, scattering the noisy robbers.  Here is an array of my antagonists!

Of course, they are usually back before too long.  They have incredible eyesight and can see through the big front windows as I slink to the front door. To the amusement of occasional visitors who have witnessed the skirmish, it’s actually become something of a sporting exercise routine for this retired old codger.

But recently I have experienced a major change in attitude about these critters.  I happened to read an article about the pinon jays documenting how it is now being listed as a threatened species and the Clark’s nutcracker (first observed and named by William Clark of Lewis and Clark expedition fame in 1805 along the Salmon River in Washington) is experiencing a precipitous decline in parts of its range, likely due to climate change reducing the forests they rely on.  I was saddened to learn there are only about 700,000 pinyon jays left in the entire world, an astounding decline of 85% over the past 50 years.  For comparison’s sake, Mother Earth is inhabited by almost 8 billion humans!  Both birds call the high-country home year-round, and they are smart and inquisitive, befitting their membership in the jay/crow family. 

They are also noisy and rambunctious, with shrill rasping calls that sound like “kraal, kraal.”  I have named my favorite local Clark’s nutcracker Griswold in keeping with his boisterous antics. 

In my neck of the woods, they rely heavily on pinyon trees for sustenance—pine nuts. And in turn, the pinyon trees rely on the jays and nutcrackers to help reseed and spread the forest. Both have big spear-like beaks to probe cones to get to the seeds, and then crack them to get to the nuts. The Clark’s have a big pouch under their tongues that can hold up to 150 seeds.

Chow Time–A Pinyon Cone With A Seed Remaining

Both the jays and nutcrackers bury the seeds for food during the harsh high-altitude winters.  One study in New Mexico estimated that a flock of pinyon jays there cached 4.5 million seeds in a year!  Other research has shown that they can remember where they buried the seeds for six months and more.  But when they forget, the seeds can sprout, rejuvenating and spreading the forest reach

The pinyon tree is the foundation species in this ecosystem—everything is built upon it. 

Pinyon-Juniper Forest Above My Cabin

In addition to the pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers, rodents feast on the seeds and are in turn food for the coyotes, owls, hawks….you get the picture. The birds and rodents help spread the seeds far and wide. Because of the dry climate and generally poor soil in this region, the trees produce seeds only once every four to ten years on a rotating basis so that about one in five has cones every year.

Incredibly, in the 1950s and 60s, government ecologists declared pinyon and juniper trees as invasive species that were destroying grassland and wasting precious water.  And more grasslands would mean more cattle, more money for local economies, etc.  They gave the green light to uprooting millions of acres of the trees by chaining—a process that ripped the trees out along with just about anything else in the vicinity.  The massacre was actually recounted in a documentary narrated by Robert Redford, Broken Treaty At Battle Mountain.  Not surprisingly, the wholesale destruction of these foundation species was an ecological disaster for all the myriad species that relied on them.  Here are just a few examples of the devastation

Today climate change, spraying of pesticides, and residential development are taking their toll on pinyon and juniper stands.  In some states like Nevada and Utah, federal and state agencies continue to rip out pinyon and juniper forests to promote grasslands, while in others there is an effort to protect areas used by pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers. Environmental groups are turning up the heat for conservation measures.  Hopefully it isn’t too late. 

That’s where my change in attitude comes in.  Rather than clashing with the pinyon jays and nutcrackers in the daily battle of the bird feeders, I will welcome them.  Indeed, I will add a few more feeders, hoping the bears don’t notice.  I will make sure the pinyon and nutcracker nesting/roosting areas on my land that can harbor 15-50 birds are left undisturbed.  In periods of drought, becoming more prevalent in my neck of Colorado, I will dutifully lug pails of water to the forest of pinyon and juniper trees that cover the slopes around the cabin if I see some browning on the top branches, hoping it will help see them through tough times. 

And that leads me to my change in altitude.  For many years in my professional career as a land use attorney and planner consulting with local governments around the United States I flew back and forth across the United States.  One air route from Denver to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and southern California that I took often flew high above my cabin a hundred miles southwest of Denver, but I could still just barely see my town of Salida and homestead a few miles away as I jetted over.  It was a comforting thought to be looking down on that peaceful piece of territory.  Today as I sip wine on the porch at the end of the day, I can see the multiple contrails above me from planes flying the same route, the sign of our ever busy society.

Up,Up And Away–My Former Life Painted In Contrails.

On those trips I worked with communities to improve their development codes, among other things to protect wildlife habitat, sensitive ecosystems, and historic buildings. My colleagues and I preached the gospel of sustainable development and helped write and update regulations and incentives to promote solar and wind energy, affordable housing, water conservation, and the like. Those were exciting and fulfilling days. We were trying to do our small part to save the world.

But as time passes, I see the need to focus closer in my own backyard and change my altitude from a bird’s eye view of saving the world to one closer to ground level, to the 35 acres I call home.  When I first bought my place some 25 years ago, I planted over 100 pinyon and juniper trees that were distributed free at the time as part of a government program.  It was back-breaking work digging holes for them in this rocky landscape.  But because this is a harsh, high-desert climate, despite occasional watering and fertilizing over the years, today only about 10 survive.  After 25 years, those survivors range in height from just 4-6 feet! I’m proud of each and every one of them!

Now I will focus more attention on them, thinking of future generations of pinyon jays and nutcracker that will feast on their bounty as my granddaughter Aly, all grown up by then, watches from the porch. I’ll do some clipping to give them some growing room when rabbit brush and other bushes crowd too close. If the drought continues, they’ll get more periodic watering.

When I see a mature pinon tree close to the cabin starting to bear cones, I’ll give it an extra drink of water. I will remove weeds, bushes, and tinder from under its bows to help it survive a wildfire. Those mature 25-foot tall trees can be pushing 200 years old or more. The granddaddy pinyon growing right next to the porch where the small birds like to perch and eat sunflower seeds is a giant, probably over 300 years old. I choke up a bit when I think that this grand tree, now in my care, was growing before the American Revolution and that the native Ute Indians probably harvested seeds from it to make the rich, nourishing gruel that saw them through the winters long ago. And here it is today, healthy and providing sustenance and shelter to the pinyon jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, and other birds. I have the obligation to make sure it continues to thrive. Healthy pinyon trees can last a thousand years!

And occasionally I may even attend local public hearings on the type of sprawling rural subdivision the county can’t seem to just say “NO” to, hoping that at least they will require the development to preserve as much of the pinyon and juniper forest as possible and maybe even plant trees to compensate for any removed. Many progressive jurisdictions across the nation already do that.

And of course, when the raiders come to my bird feeders, a noisy “kraal, kraal” chorus announcing their arrival, I’ll bite my tongue and dutifully deposit another suet cake when they take their leave.

Fall Frolic In The Park (Creek, that is) Near South Fork Colorado

Late September 2022

Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries

of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

Rachel Carson

I’m on my annual fall fishing trip to southern Colorado, my mobile fishing camp set up on the Rio Grande River in Del Norte at the venerable Woods and River RV campground.   Yesterday I finished up a day of field work for an article about nearby La Garita Creek for a national angling magazine, so I started nosing around for another creek to fish while enjoying the spectacular Colorado fall weather and scenery.

One of my standard fishing research references is the excellent guide 49 Trout Streams of Southern Colorado by Williams and McPhail.  Paging through the book, Park Creek, a tributary of the South Fork of Rio Grande near the town of South Fork, caught my eye.  It’s only a short 45-minute drive from Del Norte to the turnoff for the creek west of South Fork on US 160.  The authors have this to say about Park Creek: “A Rio Grande feeder stream, this jaunty creek is one of our favorite sleeper spots in southern Colorado.”  Case closed!!

I decided to spend the day scouting Park Creek and other nearby waters.  I took a jaunt up Demijohn Road (FR380) along Park Creek for a few hours at the end of the day to take a look and spotted two inviting stretches. 

Scouting Along Demijohn Road

The first one, only a few miles off the paved highway, called for a short but very steep hike into a scenic canyon that paralleled the good gravel road. The other, several miles further upstream in a broad scenic valley, would require a longer but less daunting hike from the road.  They promised two very different experiences with a bonus of some solitude in an area with a fair number of campers along the creek and ATV types cavorting about.

Next morning, I decided to lounge around a camp a bit since the fall sun wouldn’t shine in the narrow canyon till late morning.  That would give the water and fish a chance to warm up after a cold night.  Yesterday I spotted a couple of alluring pools in the creek with decent-sized fish fining in the current, unaware of my presence far above.  However, on further examination, I soon concluded that decent access points to the creek in the canyon that wouldn’t risk a nasty tumble are few and far between–unless you hike from the bottom or top of the canyon.  Which of course is where there would be more angling pressure. 

By 11 a.m. I’m driving up and down the road searching for a safe route into the ravine.  I finally notice a faint trail that zig-zags across the slope to the water. 

It looks doable, especially for a septuagenarian. I slide my SUV into a tight turnout and suit up. I immediately regret wearing my felt-soled wading boots—I’ve left behind at camp my other pair with good rubber treads that would have made the hike in…and out…less treacherous. Fortunately, I navigate the steep slope without serious incident, holding onto bushes a couple of times to slow my descent. Then I bushwhack downstream, following a faint wildlife trail through and around the streamside thicket. I finally emerge below a pool where I am pleased to see there are no boot marks in the shoreline sand. The creek is running clear and low, maybe 15 cfs.

First Pool Looks Promising

I check for trout victuals underneath several rocks, but don’t find many aquatic goodies. Well at least the sun is shining into the canyon by now, the temperature in the low 60s. It will reach 70 later in the afternoon. I’m using my lightweight #4 rod with a small Chubby Chernobyl as my dry and my special Dirk’s Delight caddis larva in a size 18 as a dropper. The Chubby is a good imitation for the hoppers that are still around, and as a bonus floats like a battleship and can be seen easily by aging eyes.

Chubby Chernoble At Top Flanked By Dirk’s Delight To The Right

With great anticipation I throw a good cast upstream into a seam that swirls down against a good-size boulder.  It looks very fishy, but a half dozen drifts later, I’m still scoreless.  I move up into the next small pool, but the results are the same.  Where are the fish??

Then I come to a stunning, picture-perfect pool, right out of a fly-fishing magazine.  A log lays across the creek mid-pool, creating a nice pocket.  But it’s going to take a long, delicate cast to get a good float. 

Fortunately the angling gods are with me, and my dry lands quietly just below the log, then starts to bounce downstream.  It floats a couple of feet, then disappears abruptly.  I set the hook and am onto a….little guy!  But at least it’s a fish, a chunky little brownie that puts up a worthy battle given his size. 

Little Brownie Vanquishes Skunk.

I continue upstream and fool another couple of Lilliputians on the nymph, but don’t see anything bigger and start to wonder what gives.  At least that’s what I am thinking when I spook a couple of 12-inchers in shallows below a big boulder.  I run my rig through that pool and several others without success.  The alluring deeper holes don’t seem to hold any fish.

Inviting Deep Pools Fail To Produce

Then I come to another “can’t miss” pool with a log conveniently positioned to make casting an adventure. But before I throw a long cast into the upper reaches, I make a short one into the sun-lit shallows and voilà, a foot-long brownie shoots out from the shoreline to nail the Chubby!

Beautiful Pool Produces Nice Brownie Sunning Himself In Shallows

With renewed confidence, I work the deep upper end of the pool, but come up empty.

That will be the scene for the next couple of pools, the fish sunning themselves in the shallows.  I catch another 12-incher and execute a couple of long-distance releases.  I come up empty in the deeper pools and don’t see any larger fish.  The creek also gets to be rockier and tougher to navigate as I go up further, with big boulders forcing me to exit the stream and claw through the underbrush.  I also start to see a few boot marks. 

I ponder why I am not seeing more and larger fish.  Is it lack of food?  Just then I look upstream and see huge logs piled on top of big boulders in the stream blocking my route.  By the looks of the jumble of logs there have been some tremendous floods in this narrow canyon.

On other similar water like Grape Creek near Westcliffe, I have seen the results of flash floods in a narrow canyon that scour the stream of aquatic insects and fish.  Of course, my relative lack of success certainly could not be my lack of piscatorial acumen! This jumble of huge tree trunks and an impassable thicket on the shoreline convince me it’s time to throw in towel and head to big valley.  That turns out to be good decision.

There is light but steady weekend traffic on the road, a combination of leaf peepers, travel trailers, tent campers, hunters, and ATV tourists—the scenic route leads all the over Summit Pass to Summitville and beyond. The angling key is to get away from the primitive campsites along the creek just below and above the Fox Mountain turnoff that have easy access to the creek directly off the road. Fortunately, an old primitive two-track trail heading upstream from the turnoff along the creek deep into the valley has been blocked off requiring a hike to get to good water. I end up following Demijohn Road (FR380) as it turns away from the creek and tracks high above valley to the east. I find a turnout, disembark, and hike west back down to creek.

Old Two Track Near Creek Blocked–Hiking Required!
Down To The Creek…And Solitude

It’s only about a 15-minute hike traversing a moderately steep slope along a cattle trail, but it pays off—I won’t see anyone on the creek all afternoon. 

In the meadow, Pass Creek is only about 10-15 feet wide with long shallow stretches, so I start looking for a bend pool which I find a few hundred yards downstream.  I wade in carefully and loft a cast above the bend.  The Chubby swirls into a shadow, and I lose sight of it.  Then I see my line tighten and set the hook.  A nice brown trout rockets to the surface then dives deep.  After a good tussle, he relents and comes to the net for a quick photo.  Over 12-inches, he’s a good start.

A Good Start To The Afternoon In The Meadow

From there I have steady action as I work upstream, mainly against the shoreline where there is a good flow and depth to provide cover.  It takes pinpoint casting—there are lots of overhanging limbs, so I spend some time doing aerial retrievals up in branches, the result of errant casts.  I do see a few risers and manage one fish on the dry, but the dropper caddis larva is the ticket.  By 4:30, with the sun starting to dip over the mountains to the west, I have caught and released 7 or 8 fishing.  All 11-13 inches, strong fighters and in good shape, most in sunny stretches.  A bonus has been the beautiful creek-side scenery with golden leaves shimmering in the breeze.

Fall Scenic Bounty

Now the big issue is whether I should head home, having had an enjoyable day, especially this afternoon in the meadow, or see what’s around that big bend in the creek above.  I can see some rock outcroppings through the trees along the creek, which often indicates a deep run.  Who can resist!

I soon come to best looking stretch of the day at a bend in the creek where a big boulder looms over the water, creating a beautiful pool with just enough depth so I can just barely see the bottom in the shadow.  I catch sight of a sign on a tree above, a dedication to an angler who must have plied these waters.

Can’t Miss Pool

A kneel to keep a low profile and make a short cast towards the riffle above the pool.  Off target a bit, the flies bounce off the rock and alight perfectly in the shadow.  Whew!  And then the Chubby is unceremoniously yanked under and all hell breaks loose.  A big fish has inhaled the caddis larva and rockets upstream when he feels the hook.  But the water is shallow there, so he reverses course and porpoises back to his home.  Then as I creep closer to net the leviathan, he rushes downstream past me, almost slashing between my legs.  I pirouette to avert disaster and splash downstream after the cagey critter.  The epic battle wages to and fro for another minute before he sulks, and I lunge to slide the net under a beautiful 14-inch brown trout. 

Just One More Pool Pays Off!

I release the valiant fish and, deciding it’s a great way to end the day, begin the hike upstream to a game trail I can see that will lead back up the hill to the road. 

But wouldn’t you know it, as I get up higher above the creek, I can see the stream ahead runs up against a sheer rock palisade as it makes a hard turn to the south creating a fishy looking pool. I cannot resist, so descend and standing on the shoreline throw a cast over some bushes upstream below the pool. Immediately I get a strike but miss. At that exact moment, the sun dips low enough to throw the pool and palisades into a deep shadow. A cool breeze gives me a chill. I take that as a sign to call it a day. It’s been interesting. Next time, I think. Lots of water upstream to explore.

Prospecting For Trout On The Fab Forks Of The Conejos River:  #3 and #4—The Middle And North Forks

August 2022

For my earlier outings on the Adams and Lake F ork of the Conejos, see: https://hooknfly.com/2021/09/14/prospecting-for-trout-on-the-fab-five-forks-of-the-conejos-river-2-the-adams-fork/ and https://hooknfly.com/2019/09/27/lake-fork-of-the-conejos-river-solitude-in-a-sanctuary-for-rare-rio-grande-cutthroat-trout/

I’m on my annual trip to fish the Conejos River country in southern Colorado.  The Conejos is a mid-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’ve done 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, last summer I sampled the Adams Fork above Platoro Reservoir, 40 miles west of Antonito.  I had the water to myself and another banner day catching wild Rio Grande Cutthroats.

On that trip, I scouted the upper Conejos River and Middle Fork above Platoro Reservoir and liked what I saw. 

The upper Conejos runs through a steep canyon before emptying into the lake and to reach the Middle and North Forks takes a good two-mile hike from the trailhead.  That’s a perfect formula for the kind of angling solitude I like.  I began to hatch a plan for a trip the next year to explore two more of the fabulous five Conejos River forks. 

The wildcard in any trip to fish the Middle and North Forks is the long, rough drive from the campgrounds near Antonito where I usually stay when fishing the Conejos. It’s a 40-mile drive that takes a good two hours to the trailhead.  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.  So this year I decided to see if I track down some overnight accommodations in the little historic community of Platoro below Platoro Reservoir that would allow me to spend a couple of days on the upper Conejos and Middle Fork.  This would let me avoid making a long, tiring round trip to Antonito every day and maybe sneak in a return performance on the Adams Fork. 

Platoro was founded in the late 1800s as a mining town. Its name in Spanish—plata for gold and oro for silver—tells the story. Rich veins of silver created a short-lived boom, but by 1913 Platoro was on the way to being a ghost town.

Platoro Reservoir built in 1951 helped spawn a comeback based on recreation.  Today Platoro is a resort town that caters to anglers, hunters, hikers, and other assorted visitors.  ATVs (aka Average Texan Vehicles) roam the streets and backroads.  At an elevation of 10,000 feet, the town folds up in late fall for winter when it’s buried in snow and cold. 

After some searching, I lucked out and was able to book a few days in a reasonably priced cabin, a former ranger station that the US Forest Service rents in Platoro. (For information on this cabin, Google Rio Grande National Forest—Platoro Cabin 1. Note that the cabin is all electric, not gas as described by the USFS site). Nothing fancy but perfectly fine for a short stay.

U.S. Forest Service Cabin #1 In Platoro

I reach the cabin in Platoro around noon, get unpacked and settled, then head out to the Three Forks Trailhead for a little reconnoitering.  The water level below Platoro Reservoir on the state water gauge is a decent 110 cfs, so I figure there should be plenty of water above. (Levels between 90 and 120 cfs usually mean fishable water in the Middle and Adams Forks above the reservoir.)

When I arrive at the trailhead, I find a dozen or so vehicles in the parking lot, but won’t see anyone with a fishing rod all day.  Most are hikers headed to Blue Lake for an overnight stay, high above the Middle Fork.  Thinking I’ll probably find foot-long browns and maybe some cutthroats in the upper Conejos and Middle Fork, I have opted to use my 7.5 foot, 3-weight wand and go sans waders for this short exploratory trip.  The hike along the canyon and into the valley is fairly flat, although muddy due to recent monsoon rains and a thorough stomping by cattle.  I execute several impressive gymnastics moves to avoid the soupy mess as well as big mushy cow pies.  Staying high above the canyon until I break into the valley in about an hour or so,  I then cut down to the river below and find a game trail through the thicket to the water of the upper Conejos. 

Another mile above, the Middle and North Forks join the El Rito Azul to form the Conejos.  That will be my destination tomorrow.

Because of the thick, tall vegetation crowding the river and the fact I’m wearing my hiking boots instead of waders, I’m forced to leap onto a river rock three feet offshore.  I perch precariously on the big rock and throw a long backhand cast upstream. 

Using a #16 Royal Trude with a #18 caddis larva pattern of my own creation that I call Dirk’s Delight as a dropper, I aim for a likely looking quiet spot behind the big boulder that splits the river.

The Trude swirls slowly in the current, then I see a flash below it.  Looked like a sizeable brown, but then my old eyes might have been deceived.  I try again and this time there is no doubt—the Trude is walloped by a big brown.  I set the hook, and the battle is on.  But the little rod is no match for the leviathan, and he’s soon free.  That pattern will be repeated at the next two pools above.  Without waders, I am forced to make long casts into the best-looking pools, but don’t have enough backbone in the rod to set the hook or wrestle these beefy trout.  Oddly, I don’t see or raise any small fish to the flies.  Lesson learned—I shall return better equipped tomorrow. 

Later that afternoon back at camp, I stop in the nearby Platoro general store and kibbutz with the clerk who is an avid angler.  I learn that my experience isn’t unusual.  Apparently big brownies have migrated out of the reservoir into the upper Conejos.  He says the fishing can be spotty.  Maybe because the big boys are eating all the smaller ones? 

Next morning I’m up early and at the trailhead by 8:30 a.m.  It’s a cool 55 degrees but will warm up to 70 by noon under a blue sky with some puffy white clouds.  The wind is light.  I pull on my chest waders, and resisting the urge to fish the Conejos canyon, I make the two-mile hike to the upper valley that will bring me to the Three Forks confluence where the Middle Fork, the North Fork, and the El Rito Azul creek meet.

Three Forks Confluence Ahead

Along the way I come across some lovely waterfalls and carpets of wildflowers that make for some nice breaks to photograph.

Suprise Waterfall

Above the Three Forks sign I take the trail to the left and soon cross the North Fork, which is barely a trickle (I’ll later find the main branch of the North Fork joins the Middle Fork further upstream). In 10 minutes, I come to a wide stretch of water where the tiny El Rito Azul and Middle Fork join. I get my rod ready to cast, then head up the Middle Fork.

The Middle Fork Above Its Confluence With the El Rito Azul

The Middle Fork looks inviting, clear and with a good flow, about 30 cfs. But after 15-minutes of thrashing the water, I haven’t had a strike or even seen a fish. So far, there’s not much holding water where a big trout could hide. Dejectedly, I continue upstream and finally see some decent looking water ahead where the creek executes a big bend. I juice up the Trude to make sure it will float high and dry, and execute a perfect cast into the current just above the bend pool. The flow carries the fly into the deep pool where I can’t see the bottom. It lazily circles in a little quiet eddy…then suddenly disappears. I set the hook and all hell breaks loose. The big brown flies high into the air then heads directly downstream towards me. I head him off at the pass, and he retreats into the deep pool where I can feel him shaking his head in the depths. I move up towards the pool, net at the ready. We tussle for another minute, and finally the bruiser starts to relent and reluctantly comes towards the net. But when he sees me, the trout hits the afterburners and rockets past me downstream and dives into a massive snag along an undercut bank. I howl, unleashing an ungentlemanly barrage of expletives as my line goes limp. Dolefully, I wade towards the snag and grab my leader….and am shocked to feel the fish still on the line. Suddenly he spurts out from under the snag, somehow having untangled my line. Then he turns abruptly downstream again and jets by me through a riffle into another pool below, with me hard on his heels…uh, fins. Now the tide turns my way as he rests in the depths. He makes a couple of more runs, but with the stouter rod I manage to turn him and finally ease the brownie into my net…but just barely. He’s over 18-inches long and a hefty, dark golden beauty. After a quick photo and release, I sit down for a bit to calm my nerves.

Big Brownie Starts The Day!

In a few minutes, I start back upstream and decide I might as well run the flies through the bend pool again even though the commotion will have probably scared the daylights out of any other fish in the vicinity.  Wrong!  No sooner does the Trude slide into the pool, and it disappears.  I lift the rod sharply and am fast onto another big brownie.  I can see it’s a female, perhaps the beau of the big boy getting ready for some amorous adventures since it’s nearing fall spawning time.  She heads deep then makes some slashing runs up and downstream.  I scramble to block her exit and succeed in herding the lass back into the pool.  Soon she slides into the net, a respectable 16-inches!  However, the finny beauty gets the last laugh. I kneel and remove the hook, but as I grab my phone from my vest for a quick photo, she does a frenetic dance and slips out of my grip.   She wriggles wildly in the thin shoreline water in a bid for freedom with me in hot pursuit on my knees.  I lunged for her, but too late.  Sprawled in the shallows, I have to laugh, thankful no one is there to take a video!

Confidently, I proceed upstream, looking for the next lunker pool.  I spot a good run with some depth along the shoreline above, but it’s no dice. Next I come to where the main stem of the North Fork joins the Middle Fork, creating a good-looking pool.  Again I fail to raise a fish and don’t see any trout when I wade into the pool to spy.  I follow the Middle Fork up a few hundred yards without any luck, then soon come to a long overgrown stretch where casting is impossible, so retreat to the North Fork.

The North Fork is smaller than the Middle Fork, with a fast shallow current.  And where it slows, bushes crowd its banks, making casting impossible. 

The North Fork

I hike upstream about a quarter mile, looking for a fishable stretch.  Just before the stream enters a narrow, overgrown canyon, it butts into a steep slope, creating a nice bend pool.  I kneel quietly and throw a short cast up against the far shoreline where the flow is deeper.  Immediately a brown trout smacks the Trude, but I miss him.  I make several more casts, but come up empty.  Continuing on, I come to a beautiful stretch where the creek executes a hard turn, creating a deep pool.  Problem is, the cloying branches of a spruce tree overhang the pool, and to make matters more challenging, a big fir tree has crashed down across the water above, making casting even tougher.  I size things up and figure my only hope is to make a short, low sidearm cast so the flies alight below the downed tree, then let the faux edibles float in the current under the spruce branches.  With nerves of steel, I wind up to make the first cast, and grimace as the flies alight daintily on the dastardly branches.  I grit my teeth and give the rig a gentle pull, and miraculously it comes loose.  My second cast is more on target, narrowly avoiding getting snagged on the big log then floating perfectly under the spruce branches into the deep shoreline run.  BAM!  A brownie nails the Trude and quickly comes to the net, a nice 12-incher. 

North Fork Brownie

I manage another adroit cast and another brown trout, a double of the first, sucks in the caddis larva dropper.  Now fully confident, I target my third cast and of course it goes awry, snagging in the spruce branches.  Blue spruce trees do not give up their prey easily, and I finally throw up my arms and wade in to free the imprisoned flies.  I take that as a sign to retreat down the valley, especially as I see some ominous clouds boiling up to the south.

I retrace my steps to the Three Forks confluence and decide to work back down the upper Conejos to the stretch that I fished yesterday, just above where the river enters a narrow canyon before flowing into Platoro Reservoir.  I have to do some bushwhacking along the river, but at least have the place to myself except for the bovine spectators.   The first three or four pools I sample result in a goose-egg, but things get better a quarter mile downstream where the river runs headlong into a rocky outcropping, creating a deep, slower moving stretch.  As I size things up from above, I see a couple of trout rising steadily.  I work my way down into casting range and throw a short line just above the risers.  One immediately sucks in the Trude and the fight is on.  After a good tussle, the brown gets the upper hand with a nice jump that throws the fly.  I try again, and another brown smacks the dry, and just as quickly I execute a long-distance release. 

The Upper Conejos Below The Three Forks Confluence

Resolutely, I move down to the bottom of the pool and manage to flub a couple more strikes.  Licking my wounds, I yell insults at the audience of cattle that have witnessed my ineptitude.

Fortunately, my luck changes just around the bend where the river executes a hard turn to the west, creating a series of beautiful runs where I manage to fool several 14-inch brown trout.  Before long I am at the pool where I had hooked and lost the big bruiser brown yesterday.  Today with waders on, I am able to get across the swift, deep current and into a much better position to probe the depths below the rapids.  After a couple of tries, I finally get a good float below the rapids into some quieter water.  On cue, the Trude disappears and I set the hook on a good fish.  He is strong, and thrashes around in the big pool, to and fro.  But today my rod is up to the task, and I slide a respectable 14-inch brown into my net. 

Respectable Brownie Concludes An Interesting Day

I turn and eye the canyon water downstream, but it’s now almost 4 p.m., and while I am tempted to continue into the gorge with its alluring plunge pools, I still have another hour of hiking to get back up to the trail then to the trailhead.  So, I end the day by tipping my hat to the Middle Fork and upper Conejos River, knowing I’ll be back to explore next year.

As I walk out enjoying the scenery, I puzzle over the waters I have fished today. The Middle Fork and the upper Conejos formed by the three forks are so unlike the Lake and Adams Fork. My conclusion is if you want shots at some very substantial brown trout up to 20-inches and likely more, then the upper Conejos and Middle Fork are the ticket—but don’t expect many fish of all sizes or in substantial numbers like the Lake and Adams Forks. And who knows what you might find by venturing into that wild canyon water. As to the little North Fork, it holds a few promising runs and pools for 10 to 12-inch browns, but bring you’re A-casting game if you go.