Chasing The Beasts Of The East River (near Everglades City, FL)

Note:  There is a new reservation system in place to paddle and fish the East River.  For more information call 239-695-4593. See also the discussion in this article.  For a recount of one of my earlier outings on the East River, see: https://hooknfly.com/2017/01/23/go-east-young-man-the-east-river-near-everglades-city-fl/

The early months of 2022 have been a bit of a conundrum from a saltwater fishing perspective in the Everglades around Everglades City, Florida. Guides and experienced local anglers say it has been some of the most challenging in the last 20 years. Snook have been few and far between in the backcountry, especially the big mamas, and reds and juvenile tarpon seem to be AWOL. What’s behind this odd state of affairs? Theories vary: Too much fishing pressure, too much freshwater coming down from Lake Okeechobee and unexpected winter rains, die off from the series of bouts of red tide experienced on the west coast of Florida this past year, or a January cold spell that dropped water temperatures into the low 60s?? Take your pick.

My personal experience has been a mixed bag so far this year. I have been having decent days interspersed with mediocre, have yet to land a redfish, and recently was the recipient of a dreaded skunk on the North Fork of the Barron River, my first one in decades. It’s been hit and miss with regards to location, one day I’ll be catching a bunch of smaller snook, ladyfish, and trout, the next having to pound the water for a half dozen fish. So I put my thinking cap on and tried figure out where the big snook and baby tarpon are hiding. After having been skunked on the upper reaches of the Barron River where the water was very fresh and seeing almost 100 boats lined up at the local marina ramp a few weekends ago, most from out of the area, I figured the honey hole had to be a place where I could taste some saltwater that was also away from the invading forces of angler from the coasts. Then it hit me after a couple of glasses of the magical mystery elixir, also known as Yuengling Amber Beer—the East River in nearby Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve was a prime candidate. The good water on the East is inaccessible by motorboats and requires a 45-minute paddle through winding mangrove tunnels as well as a permit under a newly instituted reservation system. I know from experience that it also has strong tidal flows from Fakahatchee Bay and plenty of saltwater as a result.

In the past, fishing the East River, accessed just off the Tamiami Trail about 11 miles east of Everglades City, has been a challenge because of the hordes of eco tour-led kayakers that would descend every day.  This would require the serious angler to be on the water at the unholy hour of six a.m. to reach the best water before being overrun by the flotillas of brightly colored yaks. 

But things have changed.  A new reservation system has been installed by the state preserve to reduce the crowds and protect the important rookery just a stone’s throw from the launch from intrusions that were disturbing the egrets, herons, and pelicans when nesting.  Only a maximum of twenty people is allowed each day.  To my delight I would soon find that the effect has been to cut down dramatically on the number of paddlers, making solitude a distinct possibility on weekdays—meaning less fishing pressure as well protecting the birds.  Bingo!!

I immediately called the reservation number at the state preserve for a weekday the following week.  I chose a Thursday and learned no one else had made a reservation for that date so far.  I received the gate lock code as well as instructions regarding payment of the two-dollar fee and parking.  All systems were go!

Route Overview

This trip snakes through three mangrove tunnels of increasing length and width that connect a series of four lakes, the two lower southerly ones of which are the angler’s destinations.  The launch in Lake #1 is a good hard-bottomed sandy/gravel spot on the shoreline in the state preserve. 

Good Gravel Put-In

The first waypoint from Lake #1 to Lake #2 is a narrow, almost hidden mangrove tunnel at the southeast corner of Lake #1.   There are two other false tunnels to the west of the correct one.  Except for this first tunnel, all those that follow are well-marked at the entrance with tall white plastic pipes sporting orange tape at the top.  For this first one, you’ll know you are on the right track when inside the tunnel you come to a big mangrove tree draped with Spanish moss. 

Spanish Moss Marks The Correct Tunnel

On the way you will pass by the rookery island marked by signs to keep your distance.  Please obey them! 

Protect Those Birds!! Obey The Signs.

The first short mangrove tunnel leads into Lake #2, a long skinny, shallow body of water that in about one-half mile empties into another mangrove tunnel at its south end. 

The Launch On Lake #1 and Long Lake #2

Halfway down to Lake #3, this tunnel widens into a small mangrove-fringed pond that has two exit points into mangrove tunnels.  The one the angler wants is the first one at the southeast corner of the pond and is marked by a tall white post.  If you continue to the southwest, that tunnel loops back to the north into a large, shallow lake frequented mainly by long-nosed gar and Mayan Cichlids, with only occasional snook. The southeast tunnel leads to Lake #3 in about ½ mile and 20 minutes of paddling. 

Long Lake #2 At Top With Lake #3 (Kidney Lake) And Lake #4 Below To South

Be sure to keep to the left and follow the current where the tunnel forks.  Lake #3 is known as Kidney Lake by the ecotour guides because of its shape.  The good fishing starts here.  Then it’s onward to Lake #4 through another longer and wider mangrove tunnel—very scenic but very snaggy.  Going can be slow, taking almost a half hour to reach to Lake #4.  The route continues to a fifth lake, but the river has been blocked since Hurricane Irma blew through.  (For more on Lake #5, see my earlier East River article noted above.)

Tackle/Gear

I take my usual arsenal of three rods on this trip—two 6 ½ foot medium/light spinning rods with 2500 series reels and one six-foot wand for casting in the tight quarters of the mangrove tunnels.  With the size of the snook and tarpon, I strongly recommend #30 test line and fluorocarbon leaders. 

My favorite quartet of lures on the East includes the redoubtable white or gold curlytail plastic mounted on a one-eighth red jig head, a gold paddletail, and white Yozuri floating/diving 3D crystal minnow, and a gold or baby bass colored fluke mounted weedless for casting under the mangroves.

The Fab Four

The Trip (February 2022)

The locked gate at the entrance to the preserve can be opened at 6 a.m. according to preserve staff that I called to make a reservation, while the official time the park opens is 8 a.m.  To hedge my bets, I arrive at the gate at 7 a.m. which I figure will give me plenty of time to get my kayak in the water and loaded up.  I have followed the instructions on the gate sign and have written the instructions down.

Ready To Rumble At Sunrise

  I have a confirmation code to enter on the payment envelope I will find at the kiosk near the launch.  I have my two-dollar entry fee in my pocket.  I confidently punch in the daily code on the gate lock and ……nothing happens except a red light flashes on the lock.  I try it several more times with the same results.  Maybe I wrote it down wrong so try several variations on the number I wrote down.  Nothing!  Now panic starts to set in.  The preserve office doesn’t open till 8 a.m.!  I try again, get another red light, and proceed to yank on the lock while issuing a series of foul expletives.  That doesn’t work, so resign myself to calling the office and leaving a message asking for assistance.  By now it’s 7:15, and the mosquitos apparently realize already they have a juicy target at least for 45 minutes.

I decide to walk into the park and scope things out.  I find the launch hasn’t changed much since my last trip other than a little more gravel on the ramp.  There’s the fee box and also a porta-potty.  All the comforts of home.  The parking for boat trailers is as tight as ever, with signs seemingly prohibiting it just about everywhere except right inside the gate. 

Fee Station Next To Launch And PortaPotty

Fifteen minutes later I stroll back to the gate and to my great surprise at 7:30 my phone rings.  It’ a park staff returning my call.  She walks me through the steps to enter the gate code expressing some doubt I have done it correctly.  After several failed attempts she concludes the code is bad and gives me a secret master code that does the trick.  She assures me the original code will work when I return later in the day.  I thank her profusely for getting to work so early and saving the day. 

In a jiffy my Hobie pedal kayak is in the water and loaded for the trip, the two-dollar fee deposited in the fee box, and my trailer parked.  I hustle back to the yak just in time to see a two-gator escort squad swimming in my direction.  How thoughtful of the preserve to arrange this. 

On The Water….With Gator Escort Ready

I push off, skirting the signs around the rookery.  I see a few egrets that have been dawdling—most of the birds flew off at sunrise—and they gawk at me as if they haven’t seen many visitors.  It’s going to be a beautiful day with temperatures rising from 70 now to 82 by mid-afternoon.  I drop my little water thermometer overboard, and it comes back up reading a near-perfect 70 degrees, just what the snook and tarpon prefer.  The wind is already kicking up from the southeast but shouldn’t be a major issue given the small size of the lakes I will be probing. 

I quickly ditch the two escort gators, only to be met by a couple of more stationed near the tunnel to the second lake.  They disappear as I get close, and I slide into the tunnel. 

It’s a short distance to Lake #2, but I proceed gingerly in my pedal kayak. This tunnel and the ones to come are all littered with submerged snags–logs, branches, and roots that have damaged my fins in the past as I pedaled down the river too quickly. Now I push the pedals on my Hobie apart which lifts the fins below up against the hull and out of harm’s way. I then proceed using my telescoping single-bladed paddle. Only when I get into the open water of the lakes will I put the fins down and use the pedals.

Soon I glide into Lake #2, passing the white pole marker.  The lake is long and skinny, fringed with mangroves.  One guidebook claims it was once an old canal. 

Lake #2: Long, Skinny, And Shallow

The lake is shallow and home to plenty of gar and mullet.  Indeed, as I throw a cast ahead of the kayak, a gar grabs it, tussles with me for a second, then comes off.  I have only caught a few small snook here on previous trips, and as it gets more pressure being close to the launch, I don’t tarry long but head for the next mangrove tunnel to the south.  But I make a mental note to bring along one of my custom-make gar lures to have a little fun next time (For my adventures with this antediluvian fish, see my article: https://hooknfly.com/2020/04/15/in-defense-of-the-antediluvian-gar/.)

I navigate into the next mangrove tunnel that soon widens into a small pond.  Before I slid into the pond, I pitch a few casts with a gold curlytail at the entrance.  I’ve caught snook here before that ambush bait fish being pushed out by the falling tide, but today nothing is interested.  Same story for the pond itself where I hooked and lost a big snook on a previous trip under some overhanging mangrove branches.  Things have changed since my last trip a couple of years ago, the mangroves taking over the north shoreline from the sawgrass, another sign of rising sea/saltwater levels I am seeing everywhere in the Everglades. 

I lift the fins into the up position again as I glide past the white pole marking the entrance into the mangrove tunnel that links to Lake #3, Kidney Lake. 

Stay Left And Follow The Pole Marker To Kidney Lake

Almost immediately quiet descends, and I feel I am in the wilderness. I will see more wading birds in the tunnels today than ever before, perhaps a testimony to the limits on the number of human visitors. There are plenty of good-looking stretches that shout fish. I hold out as long as humanly possible, but when I come to a widening in the tunnel just above a narrow neck where the tide is pushing in, I can’t resist. I throw a back-hand cast into the neck and let the lure sink for a new second before I retrieve. I crank the reel handle once and BAM, something smashes the curlytail. The fish jets downstream, but I manage to turn him and finally bring the little scrapper to the boat. It’s a 15-inch snook, the smallest I will catch today.

15-Inch Snooklet Gets Things Going

  I release the fish and throw another cast downstream.  As the lure flutters down into the little pond with its tail wiggling, another snook hits but I miss it.  Several more casts and a few more nips, but I come up empty.  Anyway, it’s a promising sign that the snook are here, and I have already banished the skunk, so I continue on down to Lake #3, admiring the scenery, the dappled light in the tunnel, and the graceful wading birds.  I startle snook here and there on the way down but resist the urge to cast—it would be easy to spend the whole day just fishing the tunnels!  I finally see some bright light ahead as I get closer to the entrance to Kidney Lake.  I know from past experience to slow down and carefully fish the last hundred yards or so in the tunnel before I hit the lake.  But as I grab my rod, my yak continues to glide forward right over a big snook that promptly jets downstream leaving a big wake behind her.  Grrr!  Mental note:  Make the approach stealthier and start casting sooner next trip.

I float quietly into the lake and over the shallow sand flat at the mouth of the tunnel.  I make casts along the shorelines to the left and right where I have scored in the past, but nothing doing today so decide to take a snack break and recharge my mojo.  It’s about 10:30 when I continue my quest for the beasts of the East.  I slowly and cautiously probe the nooks and crannies along the mangrove-studded north shoreline that has produced snook up to 28 inches, but nary a strike today.  Are the snook AWOL here as well as in the backcountry south of Everglades City? 

The answer is a resounding NO as a big mama snook (all big snook are females) inhales the gold curlytail as soon it lands in a little opening in the mangroves and blasts off in a beautiful arcing jump out into open water.  She’s at least 30 inches, with the sunlight glinting off her long and graceful, yellow-tinged body.  She porpoises again then dives.  My rod bends perilously as she peels line from my screaming reel.  I scramble to shift my pedals into forward to chase her and in that instant the line goes limp.  She’s shaken off leaving me shaking, the biggest snook I’ve had on in a few years.  

When my nerves calm down, I check my hook to make sure it’s sharp and my line not frayed from her sharp gill covers.  All looks fine so I resume casting, and a few minutes later something slams my lure.  A two-foot snook erupts from the water, tail walks, and promptly throws the hook. 

Undaunted, I continue casting and the third fish proves to be the charm.  I pitch the curlytail far back into a little feeder creek that is choked with downed branches and somehow manage to avoid getting snag.  I immediately start retrieving, not letting the lure sink into the thicket.  But I get snagged anyway, or so it seems until a big snook thrashes to the surface.  I slam my pedals into reverse and horse the big girl away from trouble.  I turn her and she zoom out into open water past the kayak, spinning me around like a top.  She puts up a terrific fight, but finally I coax her near the kayak.  Then just as I figure she’s whipped the saucy dives behind me under the kayak.  This calls for a graceful if frantic pirouette on my part with my rod held high over my head behind me so as not to tangle in the two rods standing in their holders in the back of the yak.  Somehow I avoid calamity and soon she’s close to the boat for pin-up shot and quick release, a gorgeous two-footer.  That’s more like it.

Nice Two-Foot Mama Snook

For the next half hour, I have non-stop action against the west shoreline.  The brisk wind from the southeast makes maneuvering a challenge, but I land a couple more two-footers, while executing a half dozen long-distance releases.  I manage to hook a 30-inch baby tarpon, the only one I will see on this trip, but he wins his freedom with an acrobatic pinwheeling aerial flip that even the Russian judges would have had to award a 10. 

By now I have covered most of the west shoreline and am getting close to the tunnel leading to Lake #4.  I come to another alluring looking slot in the mangroves and manage to land my lure between two dangling mangrove air roots.  As it slowly sinks something smashes it.  I throw my pedals in reverse to horse the fish out of the tangle.  I succeed at first, but the critter has other ideas and almost jolts the rod out of my hand when it turns tail and heads back into the mangroves.  I try to put the brakes on, but to no avail.  Within seconds my line is tangled up completely below the surface in the roots.  I contemplate breaking it off but want to see exactly what this feisty critter is.  Probably a nice red as it just went deep and didn’t jump.  So I fearlessly crash the kayak into the mangroves, lean over the side of the boat, and start unwinding the mess.  I’m surprised to feel that the fish is still on, tugging and lunging down deep.  Miraculously, I managed to untangle the line and triumphantly winch the fish to the surface, a beautiful….Mayan Cichlid, aka Atomic Sunfish, a freshwater invader from South America. 

Atomic Sunfish Adds To The Fun

The laugh is on me!  It’s a big one, over a foot long, but not the lunker redfish I expected.  Oh well, must be time for a snack.  I pedal into a shady spot—it’s warm today, pushing into the 80s—and break out my granola bar and beef jerky.

After the break I creep along the south shoreline that usually produces a few snook, but not today.  I am also surprised that at the mouth of the south tunnel, a reliable spot, I come up empty.  Then it’s off to Lake #4, a good 25-30 minute paddle depending on how much fishing I do on the way.  I pull out my pedals completely and stow them, knowing that even when locked in the up position the fins will likely get damaged by the gnarly snags that inhabit this tunnel. 

I soon find myself enjoying the scenic paddle.  Again I see more birds, and they also seem to be less skittish.  And the waterscape is lush, dappled with an ethereal light. 

With these pleasant distractions, I resist the urge to fish several good-looking stretches even though I have spooked a couple of big fish on the way down.  About 10 minutes into the tunnel, I come to a fork in the creek.  Last time I turned right down the wider fork and wasted an hour before realizing I went the wrong way.  Be sure to turn left and follow the current.  Someone has marked the fork with a yellow tape, but it may not be there very long so again, turn left and follow the current.

 I continue a leisurely paddle for another five minutes or so, but when I reach a wide spot in the creek with a good flow coming in from a narrow stretch below, I can’t resist a cast.  Looks like big-snook territory.  I break out my short six-foot rod for casting in this tight spot and flip the curlytail down into the pool below.  I let it sink then retrieve slowly into the neck.  Suddenly my rod dips, and a big snook explodes out of the water when I set the hook.  Then it’s off to the races.  The big girl heads downstream towards a menacing jumble of mangrove roots and downed branches, towing the kayak behind her.  Frantically I reach down to throw my pedals into reverse and stop her run…only to realize there are no pedals since I pulled them at the tunnel entrance.  YIKES!  By this time the kayak is being dragged right into the mess.  I paddle furiously to the rear, but to no avail.  I crash into the overhanging mangrove branches, issuing choice expletives along the way.  I reach over the side of the yak and grab the line.  She’s still on.  I unwrap the line from a couple of oyster-encrusted mangrove root and start to pull her in.  She yields grudgingly, but when big lady spies me she lunges and snaps my line.  A 30-incher for sure.  I’m left with a case of the shakes.

 When my nerves settle down I continue on to Lake #4.  But as I near the lake, I hit a log and branch jam that is completely blocking my way. I can’t get around or over it but will not be deterred with big snook only a few minutes away.  I hop out of my yak up to my naval in creek water.  Fortunately, the bottom is sandy and firm.  I work at the jam for 15 minutes, enjoying the cool water, and finally succeed in opening a narrow path through.  Now to get back in my yak from this deep water, which is not on the list of approved activities for an AARP member.  I gingerly ease the yak halfway down the chute, clamber up on the jam, and slide over into the yak.  Not bad for a septuagenarian!

Then it’s onto Lake #4 which has produced some nice juvenile tarpon and sizeable snook in the past.  On the way out of the tunnel I spook a big fish as I did in the tunnel above Kidney Lake.  Snook?  Gar?  Should have done some exploratory casting. 

With all the excitement, I decide to anchor on the big sandbar at the mouth and recharge with another of my magic elixirs, an RC Cola, supplemented with plenty of victuals.

Magic Elixir

When I done refueling, I decide to pedal to the south shoreline because the wind has kicked up making it challenging to pitch casts into its teeth.  When I get down that way, I see a big 10-foot gator has staked claim to this area, but he graciously and insouciantly swims off to the north shoreline.  Whew! 

Lake #4 Boss

Unfortunately, the action is slow under the bright midday sun.  Finally, about halfway down the west shoreline I pick up another snook pushing two feet and then hook but lose another high-jumping thirty-inch baby tarpon.  I manage one last decent snook casting into some downed branches in a feeder creek, but that’s it.  No big girls in Lake #4 today. 

Lake #4 Snook

It’s 2:30 now, and time to head back.  I want to be at the launch and locked gate by 4:30 just in case I have to call the park staff again if the combination hasn’t been reset and doesn’t work again.  Their office closes at 5:00.  Also by now the tide has turned again and is flowing out, so I’ll be pedaling against the flow.

I head to the tunnel to Kidney Lake, and the big gator that had sauntered down there now is very accommodating and slowly swims back to his former position on the south end.  I paddle into the tunnel and promptly spook another good fish.  I manage a couple of more respectable 22-inch snook on the west shoreline of Kidney Lake then am shocked when on the north shoreline, out of nowhere, a big, beautiful two-foot long-nosed gar snatches the curlytail and rockets through the air, his bronze scales flashing in the sun.  Because of their long bony snout filled with small teeth, long-nosed gar are exceedingly difficult to hook with normal sized hooks, so I am not surprised he manages to escape.  Next time I’ll bring along some specially designed gar lures I have tied up with very small treble hooks that can do the job.  Gar are great fighters and fun to catch. (See my article on this antediluvian fish: https://hooknfly.com/2020/04/15/in-defense-of-the-antediluvian-gar/ )  There are plenty of them in the East River!

Gar Are A Blast To Catch

I make it back to the launch right at 4:30 and hustle over to test the combination lock.  I breathe a sigh of relief when it clicks green and opens.  It’s been a fun day chasing the beasts of the East.  I’ve caught a half dozen sizable specimens around two-feet and had my shots at several much larger ladies and some high-jumping tarpon that spurned my advances.  So maybe I’ll call it a draw—a good excuse to try again soon!

Back In The Glades….

January 2022

Finally after almost two years!! Instead of salting sidewalks in Colorado, I’m salting margaritas on my sun deck, fishing my fanny off in my yak instead of freezing my derrière, wrestling snook instead of shoveling snow!! And the fish are very cooperative. Life’s good! More details and new fishing trips to come soon.

Hidden Hot Spot!!

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

December 2021

I hope the holiday season finds you hale and hearty.  Needless to say it’s been an unusual and challenging year for everyone.  But in the midst of all the turmoil, I am thankful for all the blessings and good times 2021 brought as well.  I treasure the memories of four in particular.

First was the unexpected opportunity to spend so much time with my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly in Denver.  Like many grandparents, daycare duty called me in the fall of 2020 and continued until June.  I was so lucky to get to spend two days a week together with Aly in what she called “grandpa days.”   There was a lot of playground and trampoline time, hiking, playing games, and of course sessions with Barbie and Ken dolls before and after her afternoon preschool. 

Then when her school summer break began in June she got to spend a week with me in the mountains at my cabin, just the two of us.  The trip started with a visit to a “haunted” ranch house in a state park on the way followed by a dip in a local outdoor hot springs, one of her favorite things to do.  The next day she showed off her angling skills catching three trout at a nearby lake which was followed up with a trek to the alligator farm/reptile recovery center just over the mountain pass in the San Luis Valley. 

There she fed the big tortoises and held an alligator (a little one) with Grandpa for a quick pix.  After the gator caper we splashed around in the warm shallow creek flowing through Great Sand Dunes National Park. 

To top off each day Aly choreographed a marshmallow roast.  In between adventures we frolicked around in the little creek that flows by the cabin and put together new Lego sets from the local toy store.

After the aspen leaves began to fall, I decided it was time to take the road home to Kansas where I hadn’t visited for almost two years.  On the way, I stayed with my old fraternity roommate one night and traded stories of our college hijinks. Then it was on to my little hometown of Buhler, a Mennonite farming community.  There I got to see my cousins, one of whom is the last farmer in the family, drive by the house I was raised in, tend to the family plot, and stopover at the old farmstead few miles outside of town.  The highlight was a visit to the Mennonite farm museum in a nearby town where I stopped in to see the old 1934 Ford V8 wheat truck I drove as a kid in the ‘60s during harvest.  It’s pictured on the card.  I had the truck renovated back in the ‘90s and donated it to the museum.  I was so happy to see it in great shape, still running, and being used in museum events.  The museum director told me it was her favorite display. 

The grand finale of the year was a week-long trip with my son Matthew, Aly, and Grandma Jan to visit my son Ben and his wife Sara in their wonderful new digs in Las Vegas.  It was a great family gathering. We had a tasty Thanksgiving dinner followed by a trip to the Strip to see the fabulous Christmas decorations at the Bellagio.  We walked off some of the calories the next day with a hike in the stunning Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.  What a treat to explore this beautiful desert landscape and spend so much time with the entire family.

In between these memorable times, I continued to write for angling magazines like American Fly Fishing and Florida Sportsman, publishing several articles including one entitled “Insect Armageddon” that chronicled the threats to aquatic insects and trout brought about by climate change. https://hooknfly.com/2021/03/04/anglers-it-better-bug-you-the-coming-insect-armageddon/

I also enjoyed speaking to three dozen judges at a National Judicial College conference in California on land use and environmental law. My blog “hooknfly.com” continued to be rewarding, connecting me with new friends and readers across the USA and around the globe.

I’ll be heading to Florida in January for the season and am looking forward to 2022 with great hopes for all mankind.  Wishing you a peaceful holiday and the best for the New Year.

Day Two Exploring The Hidden Streams of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains:  Medano Creek (in the Great Sand Dunes Preserve near Alamosa, Colorado)

Early October 2021

For my Day 1 outing on the Huerfano (the Orphan) River see: https://hooknfly.com/2021/10/14/exploring-the-hidden-creeks-of-the-sangre-de-cristo-mountains-day-1-on-the-orphan-river/

For accounts of earlier trips where I chased Rio Grande Cutthroats 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 off on my last camping/fishing trip of the year. Snow is already on the jagged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains in the San Luis Valley, and colder weather will be rolling in next week. I have set up my mobile fish camp in an RV campground just outside of Alamosa, and have my eyes on two waters I haven’t yet explored in the remote high country of this imposing mountain range—the Huerfano (p. WEAR funno) River and Medano (p. MAY dunno) Creek. The Huerfano River lies on the east side of the Sangres where it springs from the flanks of the majestic Blanca Peak, a fourteener and one of the highest summits in the Rocky Mountains. The second, Medano Creek, lies only about 15 miles away as the crow flies to the north on the west side of the Sangres. It is home to the colorful, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats. While close on maps, the two waters actually lie a couple of hours apart by road.

The Sangre de Cristos are one of the most rugged mountain ranges in the United States climbing abruptly over 7,000 feet above the valleys to the east and west, one of the steepest vertical rises of any mountains in North America. Nine of its peaks top 14,000 feet. Unlike the San Juan Mountains on the west side of the San Luis Valley that were created by volcanic activity, the Sangre de Cristo range is the product of tremendous uplift forces which helps to explain their jagged profile. Numerous alpine lakes and streams are hidden away in the deep folds between the soaring peaks. Hiking in this rough high country is not for the faint of heart as I can attest from an outing on Sand Creek lakes several years ago.

Doing my due diligence research prior to this October trip, I found very little mention of either water on-line, except occasional posts by intrepid hikers.  I couldn’t find anyone at my local fly shop who had heard of, let alone fished either.  Apparently neither is on the angling radar screen—my kind of streams!

Day 2:  Medano Creek

After a long day fishing the headwaters of the Huerfano River yesterday, I decide to sleep in a bit and have an extra cup of strong English Breakfast tea before heading out.  Still I’m on the road by 8:30 a.m. for what should be the shorter drive to fish Medano Creek.  Aptly named, meaning sand dunes in Spanish, Medano Creek flows through the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The dunes there soar over 300 feet high, the tallest in North America.  They fit in well with the San Luis Valley landscape, the highest true desert in the United States that gets a paltry eight inches of rain a year.  Indeed, while Medano Creek starts out ten miles above the dunes in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it eventually disappears in the porous piles of sand.  In the early summer when it still runs through the dunes before vanishing, my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly loves playing in the warm creek waters and digging in the huge natural sandbox. 

Medano Creek Playtime For Aly

Interestingly, biologists tells us that Medano Creek, being completely isolated by the dunes, never held any trout before nonnatives like brown trout were introduced. However, because of the isolation provided by the sand dunes, the creek was a perfect candidate for transplanting Rio Grande Cutthroats, the only native trout in the valley, as part of the recovery program to save that threatened fish. Non-native trout were poisoned out, and the Rio Grande Cutthroats introduced in the 1980s. The program was doing nicely until a huge wildfire burned through the area in 2010. Fortunately, state wildlife aquatic biologists organized to save fish in the lower reaches. The cutts in the creek rebounded nicely and are one of Colorado’s best sustaining population of the Rio Grande Cutts. They are now being used as the stock for restoration efforts such as those in nearby Sand Creek.

My excitement level jumps a notch as I get closer to the imposing sand dunes. This is definitely going to be a completely different day than yesterday. Instead of climbing high into the mountains on a steep rocky road to an alpine water at over 10,000 feet, I’ll be navigating tricky sand pits on the edge of the dunes that can suck even a 4WD drive vehicle to its axles in a flash. My first glimpse of the creek is encouraging, but I start to get a little knot in my stomach when I begin to see the increasingly sober warning signs as I drive further into the dunes.

One warns drivers to lower their tire pressure to 20 psi to make it through.  Fortunately, according to the park ranger at the entry booth, soaking rains last night have firmed up the sand so I don’t need to follow that advisory.  This won’t be so bad, I think.  I’ll take a sandy road over a gnarly rock-infested steep one any day.

Medano Creek Primitive Road Map

But then I come to the big sign that announces “point of no return!”  Yikes, what have I gotten myself into?

YIKES!! INTO THE WILDS!

Soon I run into what will be the first of several wide creek crossings. The water level is low so they are no problem, but could be earlier in the year during runoff.

One Of Several Creek Crossings

I don’t see any fish, and the creek on either side is completely overgrown for several miles.  I start to wonder if this is going to be another frustrating day like yesterday.

Further up another mile or so I run into a hunter near a series of steep cliffs, reputedly mountain sheep territory.

Mountain Sheep Territory

He confirms that is his quarry. The young nimrod says he has been at it for four days and hasn’t seen any. What about fish, I ask? He nods and tells me he’s seen plenty of those. Whew!

As I continue, looking for an opening to investigate the water, the still-sandy road narrows as it weaves its way through the aspen and pines.  I wince as the branches scrape along the side of my SUV and snap at my radio antenna. 

Narrow Road–What’s Around The Bend?

I start to wonder what I’ll do if I meet another vehicle. Then I do. That explains why I’ve been seeing short pull outs scraped into the forest every quarter mile or so. It’s where you back up to when you meet someone. Fortunately the young gents coming down are closer to one so they back up and pull over. I roll my window down to thank them, and ask what things look like above. They mention several more river crossings and then a rocky stretch a few miles up. I ask them if they saw any beaver ponds and they nod, just after the valley widens and the road gets rougher they say.

Their info proves to be correct, and sure enough right after the road begins to climb more sharply and the sand gives way to rocks in the road, the valley widens and I spy a side track that leads to a broad meadow where I can see water.  It’s 10:30 a.m. and has taken me about two hours to drive here from the campground.

I hop out of the SUV and walk cautiously to the creek.  It’s wide and flowing slowly courtesy of a small beaver dam below.  I can see up the steep slope on the other side of the creek evidence of the massive forest fire that swept through here a decade ago. 

Charred pine trunks still stand, but the aspen are coming back, and the vegetation around the pond is thick in places. There are dimples on the water, and as I get closer I can see several foot-long cutthroats swimming nonchalantly as they pick off small midge flies on the surface.  I hustle back to my vehicle and grab the rod that’s rigged with a dry/dropper combo.  The dry is a #18 Royal Coachman Trude and the dropper a creation of my own that I have dubbed Dirk’s Delight.  It’s a #18 beadhead caddis larva that’s been producing all summer on small creeks. 

Dirk’s Delight–CDC Beadhead Caddis Larva

I decide to don my chest waders, anticipating I will be wading beaver ponds today from the looks of things on Google Maps. But it’s nice and sunny—the temperature will reach 75 this afternoon—and the wind is light so I don’t have to slip on a jacket.   

In a flash I’m back on the water, standing back from the shoreline so as not to spook the several cruising cutthroats.  I make a short cast a few feet in front of the biggest, and he jets forward to nail the nymph before it can sink.  BINGO!  Not like the shy brookies yesterday! The handsome cutt poses for a quick photo then slides back into the water. 

Colorful Cutthroat Commences The Fun

I quickly recast, and hook another.  Indeed I get strikes on the next five casts and land a couple more smaller cutts, all but one on the caddis dropper.

When the action slows, I decide to hustle back to my vehicle and get my second rod rigged with two nymphs since the fish appear to prefer something subsurface. That seems to be the ticket, as the action picks up as I work upstream, the fish either being in the deeper trough in the middle of the slow moving channel or up against the opposite shoreline. The fish are definitely not being picky. I catch several that hit the dropper several times after being hooked on the first try but wriggling off.

Around the bend I spy several more cutts cruising along the surface steadily feeding on small tidbits. They aren’t wary and don’t waste any time nailing the caddis or the dry I offer a few yards in front of them. All are healthy and go from 10-12 inches. What fun! At the next bend in a deeper spot under an overhanging bush I’m surprised to get a beauty that pushes 14-inches, and then four more out of the same spot despite all the commotion.

Bend Pool Bonanza

Then it’s on to a big beaver dam and pond I can see upstream. I approach the dam cautiously and cast the flies into the spillway cascade. Immediately something big nails the dry and the battle is on…but short-lived. The cutthroat cartwheels into the air, his sides shining in the sun, and earns his freedom as I magnanimously grant him a long-distance release.

Big Beaver Pond Frolic About To Commence

I move up and carefully scale the big beaver dam.  It doesn’t take long to get back into the groove.  On the first cast parallel to the dam into a pocket under some overhanding trees, a colorful cutthroat inhales the nymph. 

Eager Beaver Pond Trout

Several more come out of that spot. Next I concentrate on a dark, deeper hole in the middle of the pond where a couple of fish are dimpling the surface. It produces several more, but all on the nymph. For the next half hour I work the pond from the shoreline. I get several more cruisers on the dry, one of which I watch incredulously as he hits the dry, then the dropper, then the dry again five times. I actually hook him twice, and he just keeps coming back. Who am I to argue?!? Further on I see a rise in a deep pocket close to the shoreline, and it turns out to be a honey hole. I fool a half dozen more feisty cutts including a long, slim beauty that pushes 14-inches!

By now it’s almost 2 p.m., and my stomach is growling. But just as I’m about to head back to the SUV and lunch, I come upon another beaver dam, this one older and smaller, with a pond that’s partially silted in. I catch several below the dam, then realize I’ll have to navigate around the marshy area it has created to get to the deeper water above. I go back downstream a hundred yards and am just about to take a step into a clear, shallow side channel when I am startled to see a leviathan slowly finning in the narrow confines, picking morsels off the surface. I retreat behind a bush and gently loft a short cast a few feet in front of the big boy. He swims forward slowly and sips in the dry. I set the hook and he thrashes his head back and forth. My heart drops when the fly comes whizzing back towards me. I expect to see the fish zoom off back into the safety of the pond but he resumes his slow amble up the channel. I place the flies above him again, and he jets forward to nail the nymph. I’m so shocked that I momentarily forget to set the hook, but when I do the cutt shows off his muscles. He slashes back and forth in the channel, but luckily doesn’t make a run towards the pond which would have required me to do my famous Usain Bolt imitation running through the marshy muck to keep up with him. Soon he’s easing into my net, a stunning 15-inches. The big fish sports all the striking colors and patterns of a pure Rio Grande Cutt, including the cluster of small spots near the tail, the speckled back, the dark red gill plate, and of course the red slash under his throat.

As I slide the beautiful fish back into the water, I think what a wonderful way to end an extraordinary day! 

But then think am I out of my mind with that one more alluring pool just above and Google Maps showing another whole series of ponds just up the road.  So I negotiate with myself and my stomach.  I’ll fish the pool then call it a day.  The next string of beaver ponds can wait for a return engagement.  The compromise turns out to be a good one.  I catch several more nice fish at the top of the pond in very clear water, then resolutely climb up to the road above, tip my hat to the cutts, and hike a few minutes back to the SUV and lunch while I plot my return next year.   

Last Look And Tip Of The Hat To The Wonderful Cutthroat Of Medano Creek

Note: In my follow up research on access to Medano Creek, I learned an easier route may be from the west side of the Sangres through the Wet Mountain Valley and over Medano Pass. Road 559 appears to be less challenging, gets to the beaver ponds more quickly, and avoids having to navigate the sand. UPDATE: The Medano Pass route is 4wd only, steep, and very rough and rocky in spots. Choose your poison.

Exploring The Hidden Creeks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains: Day 1 On The Huerfano (Orphan) River

October 2021

For an account of my earlier trip in the Sangre de Cristo mountains where I fished for big cutthroats in an alpine lake see:https://hooknfly.com/2020/07/25/return-to-sand-creek-lakes-revenge-of-the-skunked/

I’m off on my last camping/fishing trip of the year.  Snow is already on the jagged peaks of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains in the San Luis Valley, and colder weather will be rolling in next week. 

Early Fall Calling Card In The Rockies

I have set up my mobile fish camp in an RV campground just outside of Alamosa, and have my eyes on two waters I haven’t yet explored in the remote high country of this imposing mountain range—the Huerfano (p. WEAR funno) River and Medano (p. MAY dunno) Creek.  The Huerfano River lies on the east side of the Sangres in the southern reaches of the Wet Mountain Valley where it springs from the flanks of the majestic Blanca Peak, a fourteener and one of the highest summits in the Rocky Mountains.  The second, Medano Creek, lies only about 15 miles away as the crow flies to the north of the Great Sand Dunes National Park on the west side of the Sangres.  It is home to colorful, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats.  While in close proximity on maps, the two waters actually lie a couple of hours apart by road. 

The Sangre de Cristos are one of the most rugged mountain ranges in the United States rising abruptly over 7,000 feet above the valleys to the east and west, one of the steepest vertical rises of any mountains in North America.    Nine of its peaks top 14,000 feet.  Unlike the San Juan Mountains on the west side of the San Luis Valley that were created by volcanic activity, the Sangre de Cristo range is the product of tremendous uplift forces which helps to explain their jagged profile.  Numerous alpine lakes and streams are hidden away in the deep folds between the soaring peaks.  Hiking in this rough high country is not for the faint of heart as I can attest from an outing on Sand Creek lakes several years ago. 

Doing my due diligence research prior to this October trip, I found very little mention of either water on-line, except occasional posts by intrepid hikers.  I couldn’t find anyone at my local fly shop who had heard of, let alone fished either.  Apparently neither is on the angling radar screen—my kind of streams!

Day 1:  The Huerfano River

I’m up early the next morning for what will be a two-hour drive east of Alamosa to the headwaters of the Huerfano.  It’s a pleasant scenic route on US 160 through historic Fort Garland to the turn off to the north on Pass Creek Road (Rd572) just before reaching La Veta Pass. 

Blanca Peak And Mt. Lindsey Above Fort Garland
Turn Off On Pass Creek Road (572) Near La Veta Pass

The gravel road starts out fine, the dust settled from a good soaking rain the past few nights.  But then I start to run into stretches where the edges of the road are partially washed out where the rain cascaded through acres of burnt timber and denuded ground from a recent wildfire.  I drive by some heavy equipment trying to repair the damage and am fortunate to squeeze by.  Luckily the road soon improves, and I have to worry about dodging free-ranging cattle and occasional wild turkeys. 

Rd 572 finally turns into Rd 570, and in a few miles when Rd 570 crosses the Huerfano River, I’m not surprised to see it is very low.  This stretch of the river runs through a broad agricultural valley where its waters are diverted for irrigation.  I figure I will find more water higher up.  Rd 570 dead ends into Road 550, a paved highway where I turn left (west) and start up towards the headwaters. 

The Hispanic heritage of the valley and agricultural lands to the east is reflected in the river’s name which means “orphan” in Spanish.  The name comes from an iconic 300-foot high conical butte that stands alone by itself near the river in the prairie eight miles north of Walsenburg.  This massive lone sentinel was an important landmark for early explorers like John Fremont. 

The Orphan Butte

In a few miles Rd 550, a paved highway, transitions into a good gravel road that winds up the valley and then through the narrow confines of the Huerfano State Wildlife Area.  I get my first glimpse of the river and its rushing waters.  It’s heavily overgrown, but has a better flow than down below as I had hoped.

Soon I come to a prominent warning sign notifying me that the next three miles are through private land and that trespassers will be shot and then shot again (or something like that).  Now the road steadily deteriorates with some rocky, bumpy sections.  I shift into 4WD, happy that I have four good AT tires and a high-clearance vehicle.  I pass by a couple of mountain mansions, and then the valley opens up again. It’s hard to keep my eye on the road as the spectacular scene emerges, brilliant golden aspen framing the snow-covered east side of the Sangres. 

But I’m jolted back to reality when I crest a ridge, and the road drops precipitously down the slope. 

Keep An Eye On The Road!!

Road 550 transitions into Upper Huerfano Road 580 that is recommended for 4WD, trails bikes, and ATVs only.  Rd 580 isn’t particularly steep but is pocked with big rocks and an uneven roadbed that require careful navigating.

4-Wheel Drive Vehicle Highly Reommended!

Only in a few places does the road come close to the river, and then it’s mostly overgrown like below.  I decide to keep going to the Lily Lake Trailhead where my map shows the trail intersecting the river in a broad open meadow.  Finally at about 10:45 a.m. I reach the trailhead and am surprised to see four vehicles there, two that are average AWD passenger cars!  I say a quick prayer for the drivers, hoping they have good 6-ply tires.  It’s a long way from any tow truck.

I saunter over to the edge of the parking area, noting the remnants of a SUV running board being used as a fire pit bench. 

Rough Road Casualty

I am greeted by a stupendous view of the river several hundred feet below in a canyon.  The plunge pools look inviting, but only a mountain goat would dare descend from there.  I hatch a plan to walk upstream on the trail then rock hop back down into the canyon.

Mountain Goat Territory

I suit up in my normal high-country fishing uniform—chest waders, Simms Vapor wading/hiking boots, wading staff, and fishing vest loaded to the gills.  I decide to carry only one rod, a lightweight 8.5-foot, four-weight wand rigged with a dry/dropper combo—a #18 Royal Coachman Trude for the surface and a #18 green beadhead caddis larva below. My leader and dropper are 5X.

The trail is in excellent shape thanks to the good work of a corps of volunteers according to a sign I pass.  It ascends gently then descends into the big open valley promised on my map.  The view is spectacular and will distract me for the rest of the afternoon—Blanca Peak and Mt. Lindsey in a magnificent cirque covered with the first snow of the season.  I decide to veer off the trail and follow a game trail that wends through high grass down to the river. 

As I get close to the river, I can see the water is low and crystal clear so I switch into stealth mode.  I creep up to the shoreline, but despite my sneakiness, immediately spook a good-sized brook trout that zooms frantically downstream. 

Ah, the vicissitudes of small stream fishing! My plan is cross the river in a shallow spot that I see 20 yards upstream then hike downstream through the brush on the east side into the canyon where I had spotted those alluring plunge pools–then work my way back up.

My plan works perfectly for about three minutes.  As I wade across in the shallows, I can see a beautiful, deep pool at a bend in the river just above.  Better yet, there is a school of brookies finning in the depths, apparently oblivious to my presence.  I crouch to lower my profile and execute a dainty cast to the head of the pool just below where the current cascades in.  I can see my nymph dropping down to the quarry that awaits.  But the brookies don’t move a centimeter towards either fly.  I try again, with similar results.  Persnickety little devils.  After a half a dozen skillful casts and floats later I stand to get a better look and send the trout into a fleeing vs. feeding frenzy.  Oh well, I rationalize, I will deal with them later when I come back this way.

Then it’s off into the bushes and boulders above the creek to work my way into the canyon.  The game trail I’m following soon runs into a nasty looking loose scree slope forcing me to cross over to the other side. 

Into The Canyon

The streambed rocks are surprisingly slippery, but I execute my best nimble septuagenarian moves to emerge without a dunking.  My sights are set on a tempting pool downstream.  I creep slowly through the brush fishing a couple of little plunge pools on the way, one of which harbors a good-sized brookie who zooms to safety.  When I get to the top of the target pool, I’m disappointed to find it’s very shallow and barren of any fish.  I can see further below where the going gets even rougher, so decide there is plenty of water to work back upstream in the meadow. 

I retrace my steps to below another alluring pool and am immediately captivated by the entrancing view. 

I sit on a warm rock and soak in the grand scene for a few minutes.  This moment is alone worth the trip I think to myself.   The bonus is the four trout I see finning mid-pool in the current, one large one and three smaller.  Then it dawns on me that they are in the pre-spawn amorous courting mode.  I confirm my suspicious by executing several delicate casts which the trout respond to with zero interest.  I decide to switch to a Parachute Adams with a 6X leader and add a #18 Two-Bit Hooker below on a 6X dropper.   Same results.  Clearly amore is trumping appetite. 

Soon I am back to the pool just below where I started in the meadow.  Five brookies are stationed in the depths of the pool.  I kneel craftily and loft a cast above them.  The flies drift perfectly towards the trout, but sadly, like their brethren, they show no interest in my offerings, so I switch flies again.  I add a size #22 black zebra midge to the offerings.  This has no noticeable effect on their obvious case of lockjaw.  If frustration, I stand to size things up, which sends them jetting back and forth upstream and down in the pool in utter terror.

I continue upstream, hoping for better, but the results are the same.  In a half dozen picture-perfect pools, the trout stick their noses up at my offerings while they swim around in romantic bliss.  I take care to stay out of the water when I spot fish over gravel beds just in case some are already spawning.  I spot one beauty that looks to be at least 14-inches, but like females of certain other species she won’t give me the time of day. 

Recalcitrant Brook Trout

Next I try a long perfect looking run along the shoreline upstream that normally would be loaded with fish, but come up empty. 

Toward the top of the meadow, the river splits, and I follow the east fork.  I see a few trout here and there then come to a little beaver pond.  A dozen trout are swimming in the pool created by the spillway, but I get too close, and they go flying downstream by me.  Above the dam the river actually disappears, so I hike back downstream to find the other fork. 

The Orphan Disappears!

It is narrow and winds back west through the meadow and some marshes.  Here and there I spot brookies lying up against the undercut banks, but can’t persuade them to bite. 

It’s about 1:30 p.m. by now and my stomach is growling and patience growing very thin.  I am beginning to resign myself to my first ignominious skunk of the year.  Almost three hours of flailing the water and not a rise or bite let alone a fish.  At least it’s been a scenic ecotour, and I have had the river to myself, nary a boot mark anywhere—just lots of sign of deer and elk!  But wait, what about that good-looking freestone water back down in the state wildlife area I passed through in the morning ?  That could salvage my reputation,

On the short hike back to the trailhead, I begin to plan my redemption.  Without wasting any time shedding my boots and waders, I climb back into the SUV and roll downhill towards the wildlife area, a determined glint in my eyes.  The scenery is again mesmerizing, blazing yellow and orange leaves capturing the afternoon sun, but I keep chugging along. 

More Gorgeous Fall Scenery To Distract From The Angling Task At Hand!!

By 2:30 I’m back at the boundary of the wildlife area and find a nice turnout overlooking the river.  I set up my folding chair and table overlooking a beautiful pool and partake of a hearty lunch and can of RC Cola power drink that helps me regain my mojo. 

Lunch Overlook

Below the turnout, the river bends away from the road and becomes invisible behind the trees and tangle of brush.  I have a hunch that the hidden stretch doesn’t get much pressure, so walk down the road several hundred yards then plunge into the thicket.  I follow a faint path that emerges just below a big boulder where a log has jammed to create a small plunge pool below it. I check the streambed rocks and find them loaded with caddis cases. I also see a few caddis flies flitting about in the air.

I tie back on the Royal Trude and caddis nymph and probe the pool carefully, but the current is much swifter here and not likely to hold a fish.  I navigate around the log and boulder and spy a stretch of water along the opposite bank where the current is slower and the run deeper.  I pop the dry at the top of the run and watch it slide down against the shoreline.  Something flashes at the dry, but misses the fly.  I quickly recast and this time a nice 14-inch brown trout inhales the nymph at the end of the run.  Battle on!  The fish heads for the undercut bank replete with snags, but my rod has enough back bone to turn him.  Soon he’s sliding into my net for a quick photo followed by several deep bows from this appreciative angler and then is released.  The pernicious skunk has been banished!! 

Nice Brownie Banishes Skunk!

I continue working upstream, concentrating on every pocket or run of quieter water where the brownies are hiding out to avoid the strong current.  I manage a half-dozen more before I get to the beautiful pool at the turnout. 

There I fool one more and decide since it’s 4:30 and I have a two-hour drive ahead of me, I’d better hit the road. 

Beautiful Brownie Sporting Fall Colors Caps The Comeback

Good thing I did.  When I get back down to the turnoff for the Pass Creek road (570), a big sign announces the road has been temporarily closed, no doubt because of the washouts.  That means Iwill have the take the long way back around east through the hamlet of Gardner then south on CO 69 with a turn on Rd 520 at Badito, a good gravel road that cuts back west to emerge near La Veta Pass.  Fortunately the route, while a bit longer, is easy driving with more fine scenery.  I make it back to the campground in time for a nice glass of Pinot Grigio, while enjoying the warmth of the setting sun and studying the map for my outing tomorrow on Medano Creek.  Cutthroats beware! And next summer I’ll be back on the Huerfano River giving chase those brookies before they spawn!