Lake Fork Of The Conejos River: Solitude In A Sanctuary For Rare Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout

Early September 2019

If you want to tackle the main stem of the Conejos, see my article: https://hooknfly.com/2019/09/26/solving-the-conejos-river-conundrum/amp/

After a couple of days of throwing heavy nymph rigs, navigating unruly rapids, and muscling out some big trout on the Conejos River (See my article from September 28,  2019.), I’m ready for some backcountry small creek angling and a dose of solitude.  When I learned through a little on-line sleuthing that the feds and state have collaborated to create a sanctuary for rare Rio Grande Cutthroat trout on the Lake Fork of the Conejos River, I was intrigued.  Rio Grande Cutts are some of the most gorgeous trout in the world, bar none, with their flaming orange and red colors looking like something out of an artist’s dream.  They are also rare, occupying only about 10% of their original habitat that actually extended into Texas at one point.  Fortunately they are making a comeback thanks to the dogged efforts of federal and state fish and wildlife agencies.  The bonus is that they live in some of the most scenic, remote creeks in Colorado.  A little more digging revealed that I could get into some good fishing after a relatively moderate 2-3 mile hike, some a septuagenarian like me could handle.  I was sold!  I went to bed thinking of leaping trout.

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Solving The Conejos River Conundrum

Early September 2019

Conundrum:  “A confusing and difficult problem; vexatious.”

See also my article on fishing the Lake Fork of the Conejos for rare Rio Grande Cutthroats. https://hooknfly.com/2019/09/27/lake-fork-of-the-conejos-river-solitude-in-a-sanctuary-for-rare-rio-grande-cutthroat-trout/amp/

I have fished most of the big Colorado trout waters—the Arkansas, Colorado, Gunnison, South Platte, Rio Grande, and Yampa.  Like many of my fishing friends and readers, I fancy myself a fair-to-middling do-it-yourself angler that can figure out any river and its piscatorial denizens on my own.  I learned the hard way a decade ago that isn’t the case with the beautiful Conejos River in southern Colorado near Antonito.  The word vexatious comes to mind when I think of the Rabbit River.  It’s one river I now always hire a guide on my first day of my annual trip to the Conejos—and give the same advice to anyone headed that way.  I have found the best flies and successful techniques can vary dramatically year-to-year and from section-to-section of the stream.  Biologists tell us it’s one of the most fertile rivers in the state, a veritable smorgasbord of stoneflies, mayflies, caddis, and assorted other bugs, not to mention a good grasshopper hatch.  Indeed, scientists say there are more varieties of stones in the river that any in Colorado!

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Conejos Stonefly Feast

The trout just have so many choices to munch on, which results in a weird assortment of fly patterns that rule here, many of which I have never either heard of let alone used:  the McGruber, Jig Assassin, Sparkle Green Body Elk Hair Caddis, Purple and Chartreuse Psycho Prince,  Lightning Bug.

Conejos Flies
Conejos Mystery Flies

The list goes on depending on the month, water levels, etc., etc.  But despite these angling vicissitudes, the Conejos’ big trout, gorgeous scenery, miles of public water, and absence of annoying rafters, kayakers, paddleboarders, and other insolent intruders, I keep coming back.  I was reminded again this year not to fool with the Conejos on my own.

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Three Grand Days Fishing With My Granddaughter Around Denver

Summer 2019

One of the delights of my life as a peripatetic angler is fishing with my three-year old granddaughter Aly who lives in Denver.  She loves to catch the finny creatures, having netted her first last year in Beaver Creek (See my blog Leave It To Beaver (Creek) from June 2018.).  She is a true waterbug who likes to fish, explore creeks, build dams, make mud pies…anything that has to do with water.  It’s been rewarding to see her embrace nature instead of being fearful of the outdoors and to teach her how handle worms, bugs, and other critters safely.

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No Fear!

I visit her and her Daddy Matthew frequently in Denver, so am always on the lookout for a new fishing spot with fast action to satisfy a toddler.  Preferably, it will be one that features easy access and other après angling outdoor activities and entertainment given the normal one-hour attention span of a three-year old.  I have found three that fill the bill in the Denver area:  Davis Ponds in Staunton State Park about 45 minutes west of the city, Lake Mary in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Denver, and what I call the Kid’s Pond in Bear Creek Park on the west side of the metro area in Lakewood.  They satisfy my criteria above and offer a variety of fish from trout to sunfish to bass….and lots of them!

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Staunton State Park And Bear Creek Park
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Bear Creek Park and Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR

In addition to providing direction to the best fishing spots on these waters, I first offer some tips and advice on tackle, techniques, baits/lures as well as other activities when the youthful angler’s ardor wanes.

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Off The Shelf (Road) And Into Four Mile Creek Canyon

Early July 2019

For an account of my earlier sojourn on Four Mile Creek, see my July 2015 article.

The epic runoff of 2019 in Colorado has put the fishing for most of us on the shelf.  So what better way to break the hex but to fish Four Mile Creek below scenic Shelf Road near Cañon City!  I haven’t been back to this little wilderness canyon gem for almost four years, so am anxious to see what changes time has wrought.  Four Mile Creek usually runs clear and fishable most of the year, being a tailwater of private Wright Reservoir upstream near the historic mining and now-gaming town of Cripple Creek.  The Colorado Division of Water Resources gauge near Cripple Creek reports a flow of 13 CFS, which is about perfect.  Flows between 10 and 20 CFS are best in my experience.

I’m on the road at 7 a.m. from my spot at the Indian Springs RV Campground just north of Canon City.

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Indian Springs Campground Off Phantom Canyon Road

I’m doing a shakedown trip this week to test out my new mobile mini fish camp travel trailer and to salve my fishing fever.  I head into town on US 50, looking for the turnoff at the Burger King onto N. Raynolds Avenue.  Raynolds goes north and turns into Pear Street, and then I take a right onto Fields Avenue.  After a few miles I intersect Highway 9 that climbs into Red Canyon.  The striking western scene sends out good vibrations of a fine fishing day to come.  The weather outlook is excellent—barely 60 degrees now with a predicted high of only in the lower 80s while Cañon City will be cooking in an early summer heat wave.  I stay away from the creek in late July through early September—too hot in the canyon and rattlers likely to greet you then.

When the pavement ends I start to wend my way down the gravel road into Four Mile Creek Canyon.  Highway 9 turns into one-lane Shelf Road perched high above the canyon and creek.  I stop at a turnout and hold my breath as I edge to the steep drop-off to take my first peek at the water…and am thrilled to see it is in good shape.

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Taking Another Gambol On Upper Beaver Creek Near Cripple Creek, Colorado

Early July 2019

Note:  See my September 2018 article for more about fishing Upper Beaver Creek and the intriguing history of Skaguay Reservoir.

https://hooknfly.com/2018/09/07/taking-a-gamble-on-upper-beaver-creek-near-victor-co/

The epic runoff of 2019 continues and with it my search for fishable trout waters.  Most of my favorite rivers and streams—the Arkansas, Gunnison, Saguache, Cochetopa, and Tomichi—are still blown out.  But Beaver Creek below the gambling and mining town of Cripple Creek appears to be candidate based on the latest reported water levels.  It’s running at 18 cfs downstream at Penrose, eminently fishable, and the fact that it is a tailwater below Skaguay Reservoir means it’s probably clear as well.

I had a fun day on upper Beaver Creek late last summer and want to explore the next section further down.  Last trip I hiked in about two miles below the reservoir, stumbled on a small beaver dam and pond, then fished back up from there.  I caught dozens of brownies in the six-to-twelve inch range and a few bigger in the spillway just below the dam.  Now my plan is to hike another mile or so below that point and explore some new water.

I’m off a bit after 7 a.m. from the Indian Springs Campground near Canon City where I am giving my new smaller mobile fish camp a shakedown run (For the story of the demise of my former rig, see my article “A Trip Through Hades.”).

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The New Mini Mobile Fish Camp At Indian Springs Campground

My route is up through Phantom Canyon, an endlessly scenic but rough track that everyone should do at least once.  It’s very slow going, taking me almost two hours to cover the 25 miles or so to Cripple Creek/Victor and Skaguay Reservoir.

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Phantom Canyon Scenic Route

It’s hard to believe this route was carved out of this rugged country for a railroad in the late 1800s.    But my mind is on fishing, so I push on.

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