In The Footsteps Of The Rio Chama Shaman (on the upper Chama River near Chama, NM): The Pilgrimage Continues

Shaman:  A person regarded as having access to, and influence in,

the world of spirits, including angling.

To read about my mid-August reconnaissance trip on the upper Chama, see: https://hooknfly.com/2021/08/10/in-the-footsteps-of-the-rio-chama-shaman-near-chama-nm/

Late August 2021

A few years back I was in Taos getting ready to chase some trout in the nearby Rio Grande Gorge.  I stopped into the well-appointed local fly shop and got the skinny on the best flies and techniques for my trek from the amiable proprietor Nick Streit (rhymes with “bright”).  In the course of our discussion, Nick mentioned I might want to take a look at a book on New Mexico fishing by his father, Taylor Streit, widely recognized as the leading fly fishing guide in New Mexico.  Sure glad I did.  The book is a wealth of practical knowledge and savvy only years of on-the-water experience can bring, all wrapped in Streit’s engaging personal writing style.  No wonder he was unanimously elected to the prestigious guides’ hall of fame.

The Shaman’s Bible

This summer as I was preparing for my annual trip to fish the Conejos River country west of Antonito in southern Colorado, and thinking about new waters to explore, I remembered Streit had sung the praises of the Chama River, one of his favorites, just a short hour’s drive over the New Mexico border from the RV campground where I would be using as my fishing camp.  As reread the Chama River section, I realized I had somehow missed the fact that the remote headwaters of the Chama, a medium-sized river, were actually in Colorado.  To stoke my fishing fever even more, Streit writes glowingly about the prospects for anglers willing to hike in.  I thought it would be satisfying to follow in the steps of the Shaman of the Chama River after experiencing it through his eyes.  Fortunately by mid-August when I am ready to leave, the rivers and streams in the Antonito/Chama area, which had been suffering a severe two-year drought, are back to decent levels thanks to monsoon rains in July.  All systems are go!

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I had done a half-day reconnaissance in mid-August on the upper Chama to get the lay of the land and as a bonus had good results for some nice brown trout, but only after tangling with the wicked thicket—a heavily overgrown stretch of bushes I had to navigate on foot to get to the river.  I vowed to return, albeit by an easier access route. (See link above for article on the recon trip.)

I’m on the road at 7:30 from my campground near Antonito.  Colorado 17 is a good paved and scenic road that crosses the mountains to Chama, New Mexico.  It’s a twisty paved highway that also crosses the narrow gauge Cumbres Toltec tourist train tracks several times, so I don’t hurry, instead enjoying the scenery.  I also know to keep an eye out for roving bovines—this is open range country.  Several times I am forced to come to a complete stop as cows and their calves wander nonchalantly into the middle of the highway.  When I honk they stare blankly at me.  As I can attest as a former Kansas farmboy, they are not exactly Roads Scholars. 

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Roads Scholars??

In about 45 minutes I’m at the turnoff to Forest Service 121, a good gravel road that snakes five miles north through private property up the scenic Chama River Valley. In about three miles I cross the boundary back into Colorado then at five miles enter the Rio Grande National Forest.

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I know from my recon trip to drive another couple of miles till I arrive at a turnout by the trailhead, marked by an old closed road that leads down a steep incline and emerges on the east side of the valley below. 

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However, I know if I take that path I’ll have to bushwhack through the nefarious thicket to get to the river on the other side of the valley. But I’ve done some scouting on Google Maps and see that south of the thicket is a meadow that will provide easier access to the river a quarter mile away on the west side of the valley.  As I walk towards the old closed road path, I happen to spy a faint, rough trail that angles to the south.  It’s steep and appears to have some fallen trees across it further down, but what do I have to lose? 

Rocky Trail To South Of Closed Road Is The Ticket To Avoid The Thicket

Luckily the trail is short and emerges in a beautiful grove of aspen that overlook the meadow I spied on Google Maps.  Triumphantly, I thumb my nose at the thicket just to the north and proceed to amble leisurely across the meadow, soaking in the great views of the mountains. 

In ten minutes I’m entering a big grove of spruce where I follow a wildlife/cattle path, cross the river, and intersect the well-defined trail used by outfitters and hikers a few hundred yards west of the creek.

Game/Cattle Path Leads Through Spruce Grove

I have decided ahead of time I will hike up a mile or so to what I call the third meadow—a big open expanse along the river.  It’s a beautiful day, with highs predicted to be the upper 70s, with plenty of sunshine and light winds.  In a half hour, I emerged from a stand of trees that shade the trail and start to cut down to the river which is running low—about 15-20 cfs—and clear. 

Third Meadow Above River

As I do, I hear something behind me and turn to see a cowboy leading three horses with his three canine companions bringing up the rear.  We stop to talk. 

Cowboy At Work

I ask him if he’s setting up a hunting camp upstream, but he says no and explains he’s hauling salt blocks up to his cattle in the high country above.  His dogs are acting skittish, the result he tells me of being chased earlier on the trail by a big pack of coyotes. 

After shooting the breeze a little more, he peels off to the west on the trail, and I head down the gentle slope to the river and begin to walk further upstream. Hoppers are jumping every which way in the warming sun. Like much of the Chama, the shoreline is overgrown so I have to do more bushwhacking. 

More Bushwhacking To Reach River

In 15 minutes at about 10:30 a.m., I emerge relatively unscathed and find I have lucked out to surface just below an alluring pool below a big deadfall.  With a nice foam line along a stretch of dark green water under some overhanging branches, it wreaks of trout. 

I tie on a #16 Wilcox to imitate the small hoppers I saw in the meadow and below it drop a #18 beadhead sparkle caddis larva.  As I prepare to cast, I see a couple of small brown trout finning at the lower end of the pool.  When I lift my rod to cast, they scurry to the head of the long pool.  Hoping they didn’t spook their big brothers, I go ahead with several casts at the lower end of the run.  Then I take aim at the top of the pool and am able to land the flies just above the overhanging branches.  They float along in the foam, close to the bank, then suddenly a big fish explodes on the Wilcox and the battle is on. 

It’s a big brown, and he knows his territory, heading directly for a submerged snag along the bank.  For a second he’s tangled in the mess, then somehow comes free.  I lean hard on my four-weight wand, bending it in a perilous arc and slowly work him away from the snag.  Soon I have his head up and skidding towards my net, but when he sees his fate, the hooked-jaw brownie jets away.  We repeat the tussle, and this time I get his head into the net.  He’s a muscular 17-inch plus fish.  As I start to celebrate, he surprises me and rockets out of the net and heads straight for the snag.  This time he’s wrapped up tight, so I wade out into the flow on a rescue mission.  Amazingly, when I run my hand down the line, I can feel he is still on, whirling around in the depths!  They suddenly all goes limp.  He’s won his freedom!  I shuffle back to the opposite bank and sit down on a log to calm my frayed nerves and let my right arm that was submerged to the shoulder in the cold water thaw out.  After some dejected mumbling and checking my flies and knots, I make a few more casts in the pool, but clearly the big guy’s gyrations have warned off his buddies.

I continue upstream and scale the big downed tree that’s fallen across the river.  Just above the river bends, creating a deep, swirling pool.  I carefully cast in the rapids above and watch as the flies cascade down into the pool.  The Wilcox promptly disappears as something nails the caddis.  It’s another good one who puts up a battle before I can bring him to the surface and into the net.  Another colorful brownie that goes fourteen inches!  Now we’re cooking!

Nice Brownie Starts The Day

For the next half hour I work upstream with steady action for hungry brown trout.  Soon the brambles give wat to a forest of tall pines and spruce, and the river gathers more steam as the gradient increases.  It’s transitioned from a meadow water to more of a freestone one marked by boulders and plunge pools.   The good fishing continues, with several more 12 to 14-inch browns feasting on the Wilcox.  I miss a bigger one that is hiding under a big boulder.  I see his big nose poke out above the water as he snatches the dry, but only manage to prick him. 

Upper Rocky Stretch Yields Muscular Fish

Now the river bends hard to the north and becomes even faster and rockier with less holding water, so I decide to head back downstream a half-mile to another meadow stretch and work upstream from there.  Again, I have to do some bushwhacking, then stumble on a dry finger of the river and follow it downstream.  I have to dance around some mud holes, but again am in luck and emerge just below a good-looking pool.  It yields a handsome 15-inch brown, again on the Wilcox. 

It’s about 2 p.m. now, and after catching a few more, I break for lunch in a shady spot below another good run. 

Shady Lunch Spot To Recharge

After recharging with victuals and my RC Cola energy drink, I have good steady action for another hour, catching and releasing a half dozen 10 to 14-inch fish. 

TheTrout Stay Hungry After Lunch

By 3:30 the sun is getting ready to slip behind the big ridge to the west, so I decide to start back to my SUV.  Thirty minutes later I’m back near the spruce forest where I first crossed the river.  I can’t resist trying the honey hole where I hooked and lost a big brown trout on my recon trip a week ago.  This time I fool two small brownies on the caddis larva dropper, but the big boy is too wise to fall for my act again. 

Lunker In Honey Hole Refuses To Cooperate….I Shall Return!!

By 4:30 I’m back at my vehicle.  It’s been another mediocre day in paradise with perfect weather and thirty or more fish caught and released, with maybe a dozen over 14-inches.  I think the Shaman of the Chama is smiling! 

Prospecting For Trout on the Fab Five Forks Of The Conejos River: #2–The Adams Fork

For my article on the Lake Fork of the Conejos in 2020, see:

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

For my recent outing on the nearby upper Rio Chama, see: https://hooknfly.com/2021/08/10/in-the-footsteps-of-the-rio-chama-shaman-near-chama-nm/

Mid-August 2021 near Antonito, Colorado

I’m on my annual trip to fish the Conejos River and surrounding waters.  The Conejos is a middle-sized river that harbors big brown and rainbow trout that fatten up on its abundant insect life.  Even though there is plenty of public water between Antonito and Platoro Reservoir, solitude can be a little hard to find.  So I did a little sleuthing and discovered the Conejos actually has five alluring, forks—the North, South, Middle, Lake, and Adams—that are all remote waters requiring some hiking to get to. 

A couple of years ago I had a stellar day on the Lake Fork, a three-mile hike into a high-mountain meadow paying off with a bonanza of gorgeous Rio Grande Cutthroats, several going better than 15-inches.  After a year of missing fishing the Conejos because of the extreme drought in the area, I have set my sights on the Adams Fork above Platoro Reservoir, 40 miles west of Antonito.  This year thanks to timely July monsoon rains, all the rivers and creeks around the area have decent water levels.  I’m intrigued when I can find very little online about fishing the Adams Fork.  There are several posts by hikers who mention the Adams Fork trail, but no indication they sampled the river.  Fortuitously, a few weeks before the trip a reader of my blog mentioned he had caught some nice cutthroats there in July.  Say no more!  I’m sold.

It’s mid-August and at 7:00 a.m. I’m leaving my mobile fish camp at the first-rate Canon Bonito RV park near Mogote.  It’s a 40-mile drive that will take a good two hours to the trailhead above Platoro Reservoir. 

The Adams Fork Above Platoro Reservoir In The South San Juan Wilderness

The first 20 miles on paved Colorado 17 are smooth and scenic.  But after that, tighten your seat belts!  The next 20 miles are up CR 250, widely known for eating tires and various other vehicle parts.  It’s a rough washboard road where you should take the 25 mph speed limit seriously.  The scenery is spectacular, so ease off on the accelerator and take your time.

Around 9 a.m. I am bouncing by the little historic resort community of Platoro, founded in 1945. It’s an eclectic mix of old cabins, new log houses, rental units, and a venerable hotel.   Above the hamlet I hang a left onto FR 247, a decent gravel road that snakes along high above Platoro Reservoir.

Looking South Out Over Platoro Reservoir Towards The South San Juan Wilderness Area

Unfortunately, like most reservoirs in the West it is drought-stricken, sporting a big white bathtub ring.  In a few miles I come to the official trailhead for the Adams Fork. The parking area is empty, a good sign!

I suit up in my lightweight breathable chest waders and carry just one rod today, my new super light four-weight TFO that goes 8½ feet. It’s a beautiful sunny morning with light winds, with a balmy temperature of 70 degrees to come this afternoon at 10,500 feet.  The first section of the trail is steep, so I am soon huffing and puffing, my septuagenarian body complaining about the weight of my as-usual overstuffed fishing vest.

Before long I come to a switchback that crosses the first of several feeder creeks that add their waters to the Adams Fork on the way to my target area, a series of open meadows a couple of miles up the valley.

Main Adams Fork Trail Crosses First Feeder Creek

For the most part from here the trail is fairly flat, with a few ups and downs where it intersects those small feeder creeks.  The wildflowers put on a showy display for me, so I stop and take some photos for my granddaughter Aly, who loves to help me identify them with the help of a terrific free app called PictureThis.  Scarlet skyrockets, fringed gentians, savoryleaf asters, and arrowleaf groundsel abound.  I can hear the river roaring several hundred feet below in its rugged canyon, but can’t see it. 

In about a mile, I come to a downed sign and turn it over. It’s a marker for the boundary of the South San Juan Wilderness Area.

Into The Wilds

In a short distance beyond the boundary marker, I run into a series of steep grassy slopes and meadows that descend steeply to the Adams Fork, which has finally revealed itself. For the next several miles, the access improves as the valley widens. I finally spot a likely looking stretch of water with fewer rapids and more bends and pools.

Gripping my wading staff tightly, I start zig-zagging carefully down the steep incline. The footing is decent, but when I slip on some loose dirt a couple of times, I remind myself to take it easy. As I take a breather half way down, I look out over the sun-soaked tall grass. Suddenly I think I hear Julie Andrews singing her iconic song “the hills are alive to the sound of hoppers!” The whole meadow is whirring with amorous grasshoppers. As I drop down further the noisy insects flee in front of me.

It’s about 10:15 when I emerge on a rocky bar below a good-looking pool. 

“Can’t Miss” First Pool

Naturally I break out my trusty Royal Trude in #16 which is an excellent imitation of the small grasshoppers in the meadow.  When I check under the rocks in the river, I’m surprised to find some small stoneflies, so tie on a #18 Tung Teaser as my dropper.  The water is crystal clear and flowing about 10-15 cfs, a bit low but eminently fishable. 

With great confidence borne of my friend’s glowing report, I loft a beautiful cast that lands perfectly in a foamy run.  Nothing.  Not even a looker.  Several more throws with the same result.  It’s puzzling.  Everything looks perfect.  Have I been hoodwinked??  I walk up to the next good-looking pool and on the way spook a couple of decent-sized fish.  A good sign, but again, no bites.  Now I’m smelling the distinct odor of skunk.  Did the July monsoon rains bring floods that wiped things out, something not unheard of on these small creeks? I try to keep the faith and continue working upstream, and at approximately 10:45 a.m. a small, but celebrated 10-inch cutthroat breaks the spell.  He’s taken the nymph.  Then another follows on the next cast.  Well, I think, I can live with a day of small fish. 

Highly Celebrated First Fish Of Day

Soon I come to a small postage-stamp sized pool featuring an overhanging branch that will surprise me.  It turns out to be the first honey hole of the trip. 

Sometimes Size Does Not Matter–Tiny Honey Hole

I manage to execute a cast that drops my flies delicately above the branch, and as they float under a big trout swirls at the dry, then follows and chomps down on the nymph. He wrangles with me for a while then finally comes to the net, a beautiful, stout 14-inch Rio Grande Cutthroat. That’s more like it. Three more 12-inchers quickly follow, attendants at the king’s court.

First Big Cutt Of The Day

Then just as I think there can’t possibly be any more in the pool, or at least ones that haven’t been put off by the mayhem, a real bruiser surfaces on the next cast and nails the dry.  He puts up a terrific battle, flashing his brilliant colors as he bids for freedom.  When he finally is subdued, the gorgeous fish measures 16-inches, a true leviathan for such a small water.

Adams Fork Leviathan!!

After all the excitement, I relax on a streamside rock, drinking in the scene.  Wildflowers cover the slope and bench above.  Butterflies are fluttering everywhere. A stand of bright yellow mountain goldenrods catch my eye, covered with striking black and white butterflies—obviously enjoying a late summer love-in. 

Butterfly Love-In

I look down and instead of boot marks see dozens of hoof marks, including several giant ones left by moose and elk.  I wonder if some are watching me.

Reenergized, I work cautiously upstream, being careful not to spook the cutthroats I can see finning in the deeper pools, oblivious to my presence.  Every pool seems better than the last, each yielding several cutts, usually with a big one mixed in.

Beautiful Pools Abound

But after an hour of unbridled success, I hit a dry spell.  I get steady rises to the Trude dry, but the fish take a close look and then bump the fly or just turn up their noses and drop back slowly to their holding positions.  I have never had that happen on remote streams, where the bushy Trude seems to always ring the dinner bell.  I do catch several on the Tung Teaser nymph, but they tend to be smaller fish.  Reluctantly, I decide to change flies, tying on a smaller profile #16 Wilcox dry that, while designed to mimic a mayfly, is a great imitation of tiny hoppers often found around high-altitude streams.  The results are immediate.  I drift the fly along a bank that just drew refusals on the Trude, and a good-sized cutt intercepts it with not hesitancy in a showy rise. 

Wilcox Dry Fly Fires Up Action Again

From then on the action is hot again with most strikes on the surface and in sun-drenched pools.  Those in shadows or deep don’t produce.  Obviously the cutts are sun-bathing, and who can blame them with the already cold nighttime temperatures at this altitude–over 10,000 feet!

Just after noon, my stomach starts to growl so I make one more cast in another photogenic pool before breaking for lunch.  No sooner does the Wilcox alight than it is blasted by a giant fish.  I set the hook and the scuffle is on.  It’s to and fro for a minute, but I finally gain the upper hand and start to ease the big boy into my net.  But when he gets a glimpse of his fate, the cutt jets to the top of the pool, through the rapids above, making like a wild salmon, and into the next pool.  Now he has the advantage with so much of mine line stripped out, giving him leverage, and sure enough he shakes off with an acrobatic jump.  He looked to be 18-inches or more, the biggest trout of the day. 

I sulk for a minute or two, then start casting again, resolute not to end the morning a loser.  As if by magic a few minutes late a muscular 15-inch cutt helps soothe my bruised ego as he smacks the dry and puts up a worthy fight. 

Colorful 15-Inch Cutt Salves Loss Of Big One That Got Away

After lunch the good action continues and by 2 p.m. I’m tuckered out.  It will take me three hours to get back to camp so I swear this cast will be my last.  Three fish later I net a scrappy one in a plunge pool and decide it really is time to head back. 

Scrappy Cutt Closes Out Wonderful Day

As I get to the bench above the river I turn and tip my hat to another fab fork of the Conejos. 

One Last Photo And Tip Of The Hat To The Adams Fork

What an uncommon treat to catch and release such beautiful rare fish.  Then I chug up the slope towards home, already planning a return trip.

CAVEATS:   Ignoring my own caveat, I exceed the 25 mph speed limit on the way back to pavement and end up with a flat tire! Second caveat–I fished the Adams Fork a month later in early September and found it very low with extremely skittish fish, particularly in the crystal-clear deeper pools with slow-moving water where the cutts could scrutinize the faux hopper.  It was still a successful outing, but my advice is to make sure the Conejos River downstream at Mogote is flowing at least 100 cfs which would indicate the Adams Fork probably has a decent flow.  Also, avoid the Adams Fork area after September 1 when it is overrun with amiable bow hunters, some of whom also fish!

GET ON THE BEAT AT UPPER TARRYALL CREEK (In South Park, Colorado)

Mid-July 2021

I am always on the lookout for a new water to sample when making my weekly drive to Denver to do Grandpa duty with my little sweetheart Aly.  I owe it to her for this latest discovery.  I have had great days fishing some private water on lower Tarryall Creek below Tarryall Reservoir.  But even though I have many times over the years zoomed past upper Tarryall Creek that flows under US Highway 285 just a few miles west of greater metropolitan Jefferson, Colorado, I never stopped to reconnoiter.    It just didn’t look like much. 

Now it’s mid July and I’m heading back to my cabin near Salida.  Aly is with me, and I am excited about the prospect of her spending the entire week with me.  We’ve already made plans to visit the alligator farm near the Great Sand Dunes National Park, do some lake fishing for rainbows, and swim in the relaxing pools at the Cottonwood Hot Springs.  However, being a five-year old, patience is not one of her virtues so I have promised we would break up the three-hour drive with a lunch break near a “haunted” house I told her I spotted, on an earlier trip. 

By “haunted,” I mean the big two-story historic but deteriorating Cline Ranch house visible from the highway near Jefferson.  I pull off the pavement and follow the gravel road to a small parking lot.  It’s odd, I think, because it only has four spaces, all of which are numbered.  After lunch, I stroll over to a big sign next to the parking area and find out I have stumbled onto a state wildlife area that has not only preserved the historic ranch but also provides several miles of fishing on the upper Tarryall.

The story of how the ranch and creek were protected from development is not only fascinating but uplifting.  It is the result of a great partnership among local, state, and federal agencies spearheaded by an old friend, Gary Nichols, the now-retired head of economic development and tourism for Park County.  Gary was one of the most innovative public officials I had the pleasure of working with during my professional land use planning career.  (For a good recounting of this ground-breaking effort, see parkco.us/650/Cline-Ranch.)  While the preservation of the ranch and home was a big win for the public, just as interesting and creative is the English-style fishing “beat” system they installed for the long stretch of Tarryall Creek in the adjoining state wildlife area.  The creek has been divided into four sections or “beats.”  When you arrive at the parking lot, you park in one of the numbered spots, and that number becomes the beat that you have exclusive rights to fish that day and won’t see another soul on the water!!  How’s that for solitude.  Now the questions is, how good is the fishing??

Of course the ghostly tour is the first priority, and Aly has a great time peering in the windows of the main house and the outbuildings to see if there are any spooks about.   Given the tattered, creepy appearance of the big home, which with its broken windows and peeling outer walls is in need of renovation, she is convinced that other-worldly spirits are definitely a possibility. 

But Grandpa is already silently planning a return trip for supernatural experience of another kind on the creek.

A couple of weeks later I am on my way to Denver on a Sunday morning and a little before 9 a.m. turn off US 285 into the state wildlife area.  It’s a beautiful sunny day with the temperatures a pleasant 70 degrees, warm for the chilly climes of South Park.  I had checked the creek’s water level before leaving home.  It stands at about 20 cfs according to the nearby state water gauge, a level I find good for most smaller creeks. (See my article on how to access and read the state water stations at  https://hooknfly.com/2021/07/23/how-to-find-stream-water-levels-in-colorado-a-primer/).  I have chosen a beat upstream from the parking area, and after suiting up in my chest waders, begin to follow the faint ranch road to the north.  The vistas of the mountains are spectacular as is the carpet of colorful wildflowers—skyrockets, wild garlic, and wood betony abound.

The history of this area is intertwined with mining.  One story of how the town was named is that some prospectors on the way to digs in California took some time to tarry here and rest up.  It is amazing how the land has recovered from the wild days of the gold mining rush of the 1860s.  This was placer mining country, and the first wave of prospectors reportedly found gold flakes as big as watermelon seeds!  Miles of the creek upstream were chewed up in search of more.  After gold was discovered in Tarryall Creek and other nearby streams a few years later, the town located just upstream from the beat I was headed to, numbered some 3,000 residents with a full complement of saloons, retail businesses, a hotel, and houses.  Today little remains. The town was actually the county seat for a while.  Its miner residents also had `a reputation for being greedy and not selling parts of their early claims to newcomers as was reportedly the custom.  As a result, Tarryall was sometimes referred to as “Graball.”  Before long the newcomers moved on and started a town they called “Fairplay” as a slap in the face of Tarryall.  

After snapping some photos of the striking wildflowers, I get back to business.  But now I am starting to wonder exactly where my beat starts.  Finally I see a small white sign in the distance to the west near some bushes, about where the creek should be.  I head that way and am relieved to see it reads “Angler Access” with a faint path leading into a thicket of brush.  After a little bushwhacking, I stumble my way onto some water.  But it’s dead looking with barely any flow, certainly not the 20 cfs I expected. 

Deadwater Creek??

I look downstream and see a small beaver pond, so head that way, making my way carefully through the tall grass.  I’m carrying my four-weight, 8.5-foot rod rigged with my old reliable Royal Coachman Trude in #16 with a beadhead caddis dropper.  I carefully come up from below the little dam and peer over into the pond.   I don’t see any fish, but try a few casts that turn out to be fruitless.  I mount the dam and continue wading upstream in the shallow water, but don’t see any trout at all.  Damn, I think!  I have been hoodwinked. 

I decide to turn back to the road but as I do, hear the loud noise of what sounds to be a waterfall.  I grit my teeth and turn west for some more bushwhacking, and low and behold soon find what turns out to be the main channel with the promised good flow.  I look upstream and see several good-looking pools between fast-running stretches.  Then the fun begins!

The Real McCoy At Last!!

In the first pool and on the very first cast a fish unceremoniously clobbers the dry, and I feel the tug of a good trout.  Unfortunately my usual lightning-quick reflexes seem to have momentarily deserted me and I flub the strike, managing to prick the trout in the process.  Fortunately he must have had a buddy close by because soon I am onto a nice plump and scrappy brown trout that also inhales the dry. 

Let The Fun Begin!!

I continue upstream, and pick up another couple of brownies on the Royal Trude in the fast runs.  But oddly when I get to the tempting deeper pools, I strike out, nothing apparently fooled by the caddis larva dropper.  I double-check the creek rocks and find many more mayflies nymphs than caddis so switch to a #18 red Two-Bit Hooker that imitates the mayflies.  That changes the odds, and I start to pick up some bigger fish subsurface

I’m having a good time when I come to a gigantic, six-foot high beaver dam with a huge pond backed up behind it.  Fish are rising steadily all over—it looks like beaver pond nirvana.

 

I stealthily climb part way up on the dam and loft a cast towards one of the risers.  He immediately inhales the dry and the fight is on.  Second cast, same result. 

But then things go dead.  I get follows and nips at the Trude and dropper, but no connections even though the trout continue to rise up and down the long pond.

I flail the water a little longer, then finally decide the risers must be targeting small midges or mosquitos.  I quickly substitute a #20 dark mayfly dry for the trailing mayfly nymph–a double-dry fly set up.  Although microscopic, I can see the mayfly dry that sports a white foam top post for visibility as well as better floatation. 

The Ticket!

With renewed confidence, I move up to the upper section of the pond.  I spot a riser and drops a cast above the ring he’s created in the water.  The trout attacks the little fly as if it hasn’t eaten in a week and puts up a worthy battle before sliding into my net.  I definitely have punched the ticket as several more beauties quickly follow.

Beaver Pond Gold

The fast action continues for 11”-13” trout as I wade out into the pond and work the shoreline and then the inlet creek.  I spot a good fish rising at the edge of deep run in the inlet creek 30 feet upstream just below where a rivulet drops its water into the creek.  I kneel so as not to spook the fish I know are there and drop the flies in the current several feet above the pool. 

Lunker Lair!

The two dries float into the deeper water and immediately a big trout slashes up and devours the little mayfly.  It’s a big one, maybe pushing 15-inches.  He runs downstream but I put the brakes on him, my rod bending perilously.  He reverses course and heads back to the safety of his home pool…and the snags lining the shoreline.  I run up the creek and try to head off the critter, but he makes it to a submerged branch at the top of the pool before I can turn him.  Undaunted, I plunge into the deep pool, thankful for my chest waders.  Miraculously, when I reach down and grab my line, I can still feel the trout gyrating about.  I start to untangle my leader from the snag and just as I think I have him, the line goes limp.  He’s broken off! 

I retreat back to a nearby sandbar and rerig with a small black #20 dry and carry on resolutely upstream where I spy a beautiful foamy run along an undercut bank that looks promising.  It lives up to its promise:  I quickly catch and release three healthy, feisty brownies that are intent on getting into the snags that line the undercut shoreline.  This time I am able to winch them away before disaster strikes and bring them to the net. 

release the third one, I hear a branch snap upstream and look up to see a big moose within a stone’s throw staring intently at me.  Then I see she’s with a calf.  Anyone who has come face-to-face with a momma moose with a calf knows the next step is to look for a tree close by that one can scale quickly if and when she charges.  I spy a likely candidate, but fortunately before I turn tail and run, she apparently decides a rickety old septuagenarian must not be much of a threat and ambles off into the brush with her offspring.  Nothing like a close encounter of the moose kind to get the adrenaline flowing.

Close Encounter With Mama Moose!

I continue on upstream for another half hour, catching browns steadily all the way, most on the tiny dry trailer but several on the Trude in faster water.  Finally my stomach is growling for an RC Cola injection so I pause for lunch on the banks of a big, deep pool at a bend in the creek.  As I munch my lunch, I sit quietly and observe the trout that are rising sporadically.  A couple that are feasting at the head of the pool in a tricky lie under some overhanging branches naturally look the biggest.  Naturally!

Reenergized, I slide carefully back into the water and with a bit of luck drop an overhead cast just above the risers.  Immediately there is a loud slurp and the tiny trailing dry disappears.  Fight on!  This skirmish is easier than the battle before lunch as the big boy shoots downstream for the alleged safety of the deep pool.  But this gives me a lot of room to maneuver without any apparent submerged snags to worry about.  Soon a muscular browning nudging 14-inches comes in for a quick release.  I repeat the sequence and right on cue another good one gulps the tiny dry and succumbs after a good battle.  Three more good brownies follow suit rising from the depths of the pool to feast on the tiny dry. 

I continue upstream with steady action both on the Trude and his tiny companion in a sequence of alluring pools.

Then I run smack dab into another big beaver dam that I can barely see over.  In the broad pond above I catch sight of risers here and there plus another big dam above that.  

Reason To Return

But it’s going to take a high-wire act to scale and walk the dam then a slog through a mushy marshy shoreline to proceed above that.  I check my watch and it’s 2 p.m. by now.  I know I better be heading back to the SUV so I can beat the Sunday traffic returning to Denver that routinely clogs US 285.  It’s a painful decision to leave this early, but there’s always later in the week when I return to Salida via the same route.

Now the challenge is to find a path out through the marshy terrain, thick brush, and tall grass back to the ranch road.  I mush through the marsh then come to a side channel that’s flowing out of the upper beaver pond.  I step in to test the bottom and promptly stumble on a big 15-inch brown trout that swims away insouciantly.  After some false starts, I finally find a faint game trail that eventually leads me out without further insult or injury. On the way back I can’t but help pause to take more photos of the wildflowers and mountain peaks. 

It’s been a rewarding day catching a couple of dozen healthy, pugnacious browns in only five hours.  I’m glad I took my 4-weight rod to scrap with the muscular trout and that I wore my chest waders to navigate the beaver ponds.  Now I can’t wait to sample the other three beats of Tarryall Creek

How To Find Stream Water Levels In Colorado: A Primer

Summer 2021

One of the recurring questions I get from my readers is whether the water is too high in such-and-such a river or is there enough water to fish now in one of the creeks you wrote about. A call to a local fly shop may provide the answer, especially for big rivers like the Arkansas. However, they often don’t track smaller waters. Fortunately the State of Colorado Division of Water Resources maintains a very useful online site that tracks surface water levels on literally thousands of rivers, creeks, and lakes that can help answer those questions. Here’s a step-by-step primer to help you figure out whether that water you have an eye on is fishable. I will use La Garita Creek, a tributary of the Rio Grande in the San Luis Valley, as an example. Obviously it will help to have direct experience on a stream at various water levels throughout the year to be able to gauge whether a certain flow level is fishable. That means you must do more on-site piscatorial research!!

STEP #1: GOOGLE “COLORADO WATER STATIONS

The first step is to find the Colorado Division of Water Resources surface water levels site. It’s easy: Just Google “Colorado Water Stations” and click on “Stations” at the top of the list.

Click on “Stations”

STEP #2: SEARCH FOR DIVISION (aka WATERSHED) LA GARITA CREEK IS LOCATED IN

The next screen will display every water in Colorado in the data base. To narrow your query, tap “Search” at the top of the screen.

STEP #3: SELECT RIO GRANDE DIVISION

On the next screen press the search button near the middle of the screen and then select the Division in which the water is located. In this case it is Rio Grande River Division at the bottom of the screen. Hit “Done” when finished.

Select Division 3: Rio Grande

STEP #4: Scroll Down To La Garita Creek

A list of waters in the Division will be displayed on the next screen. The next step is to find the water that you want flow information on. In this case you can scroll down down to La Garita Creek near La Garita and press “View.” This will pull up relevant flow information on La Garita Creek. In some watersheds such as the South Platte there are over 500 listings so in that case you will need to specify how many waters you want listed to view.

STEP #5: VIEW WATER LEVELS ON SELECTED WATER FOR THE LAST 10 DAYS

The next screen will automatically display the water level on the selected water for the past 10 days, both current and yearly average. In this case you can see the flow dipped to about 10 cfs before a recent rain added to the flow.

STEP #6: SCROLL TO TOP OF SCREEN AND SELECT “DATA” BUTTON TO VIEW WATER LEVELS FOR LAST 30 DAYS

Comparing water levels over a longer 30-day period can be useful especially in a period of rain or drought.

SELECT TIME PERIOD

STEP #7: SELECT DATA FROM LAST 365 DAYS

Again, scroll to top of screen and select “Data” then select “365 Days.” Seeing average and current water levels for the last year will allow you to gauge whether the water is above, at, or below normal water levels. For most small streams a water level above 50-60 likely means it is not fishable due to high water flows. Water levels below 5 cfs are usually not fishable on most creeks. Note that even at a fishable level a stream may be turbid and muddy.

Water Levels The Past Year Average vs. Current

Into The Backcountry Day 3: Prospecting For Trout On Carnero Creek (near Del Norte, CO)

Mid-June 2021

For a recount of the first two successful days of the trip exploring La Garita Creek, see the following link: https://hooknfly.com/2021/07/04/into-the-backcountry-prospecting-for-trout-on-two-new-remote-creeks-near-del-norte-co/https://hooknfly.com/2021/07/04/into-the-backcountry-prospecting-for-trout-on-two-new-remote-creeks-near-del-norte-co/

Day Three: Carnero Creek

After two days of chasing trout on La Garita Creek featuring teeth-rattling drives down a rough 4WD road and some advanced bushwhacking, I am ready for something a little more easy on the old body. Today I have my sights set on Carnero Creek (Ram or Sheep Creek in Spanish) still remote but definitely easier to access.

This is my first overnight outing in 2021 with my little travel trailer/mobile fish camp.  I have gone a little soft and opted to park it in the relative luxury of the venerable Woods and River RV campground in Del Norte, on the banks of the mighty Rio Grande.  The temperatures are finally rising in the Colorado high country, the runoff is subsiding on a few creeks, and I’m itching to chase some trout on a couple of remote creeks that I recently discovered through some internet sleuthing—La Garita and Carnero on the western edge of the San Luis Valley. 

Back in May I was searching on-line for some new small waters to explore not too far from my home base in Salida, Colorado, preferably ones that would call home for Rio Grande Cutthroats. Serendipitously, I stumbled on a U.S. Forest Service document that listed creeks in southern Colorado and New Mexico that harbored these beautiful, rare trout.  All of the waters mentioned were small and remote, including two of my favorites—Treasure Creek and the Lake Fork of the Conejos River (See my article and blog about these two gems).  Two I had never heard of—La Garita and Carnero–despite them being only a 90-minute drive from Salida and just over in the next valley from Saguache Creek, which I fish several times each year.  To pique my interest even more, not only are they close to home but there was very little mention anywhere on-line about fishing Carnero Creek and nothing about La Garita.  In fact I had to laugh when the only article that popped up when I search the phrase “fishing La Garita Creek,” were ones I had written awhile back about fishing Cochetopa and Saguache Creeks in the La Garita Wilderness which lies about 70 miles to the northwest as the crow flies.

So on a nice sunny day in late May I decided to do some on-the-ground recon on both creeks since they lay only a few miles apart. I liked what I saw on that day trip.  While La Garita Creek was too high to fish, running at about 50 cfs, the angling prospects there were to my liking.  Over  five miles of the creek are on public land accessible by a rough 4WD road.  The scenery is spectacular as might be expected of a creek named La Garita, which in Spanish means sentinel or overlook.  Carnero Creek access was more civil on a decent gravel road.  While Carnero was running a bit high and cloudy, there was plenty of water with public access I actually was able to wet a line on, catching about a dozen or so brown trout on the South Fork. 

I also spotted some promising stretches downstream on the main stem below the confluence of the South, Middle, and North Forks for a future trip.  Unfortunately, I also discovered that the Middle and North Forks that reportedly hold only Rio Grande Cutthroats were too tiny to fly fish except in occasional beaver ponds.  I plotted my return in June when the gauges on the state water level site showed them both falling to a more fishable 15-30 cfs level.  (To find stream water levels in Colorado, Google “Colorado Water Stations” to access the Division of Water Resources gauging stations at https://dwr.state.co.us, then hit search to find the Rio Grande Division, then scroll to find the creeks by name and click on “view”.)

When the day arrived in mid-June with water levels falling rapidly, I hustled to load up my mobile fish camp and made a bee-line to the Woods and River campground in Del Norte the next morning.  I set camp up at warp speed and by early afternoon was chasing some very cooperative trout on La Garita Creek. Now two days later I am heading out at 7:45 a.m. to beat the rain that is in the forecast. I’m on paved Highway 112 north out of Del Norte, Carnero Creek on my mind. I stay on 112 till it intersects US 285 where I turn north until I come to paved County Road G where I turn west towards the hamlet of La Garita. Just past La Garita (don’t blink or you’ll miss it), I turn north on County Road 41G which turns into a decent gravel road that snakes through several ranches until at about 5.5 miles the public lands begin beyond a narrows called Hellgate. From here until the confluence with the South Fork there are several stretches of public water interspersed with private lands.

Carnero Creek At Hellgate
Approaching Hellgate From The East

Soon I spot a turnout above a good-looking stretch of water and quickly suit up in my chest waders. I opt to carry one rod, my light 4-weight 8.5 foot outfit rigged with my old reliable Royal Trude #16 and a #16 beadhead sparkle caddis larva dropped about two feet below.

As I start walking upstream, I can’t help but wonder if I may be trodding the same ground that explorer John Fremont’s ill-fated fourth expedition in 1848-49 covered in search of a rail route over the Rocky Mountains. We know Fremont and his men made it as far as nearby Boot Mountain at the headwaters of La Garita Creek where a blinding snowstorm forced them to turn back in January south to Taos. Before reaching Taos in February, 10 of the 34-man party died of hypothermia, starvation, and exhaustion, and the body of one was eaten by his companions. Two others were killed by Ute Indians. Quite a contrast from the bucolic meadow carpeted with wild irises and wild golden peas I am traversing along the creek today.

Carnero Creek Above Hellgate

But all’s not that easy. I’m surprised to find that the creek that had looked so open from above is actually heavily overgrown for the first eighth of a mile or so. Undaunted, wherever I spy an opening I hop down to the water and try to flip my flies into likely looking pools while avoiding the overhanging branches. I attribute my flubbing the first five strikes to the odd casting angles, tight quarters, and the fact that I can see the trout rising to my fly which prompts me into striking too soon. Thankfully my ego is soon salved when a feisty 13-inch brown shoots out from under a snag and gulps the Trude so greedily that I can’t miss.

To my great relief, the brush soon recedes, and I am treated to beautiful open runs through the wildflower-covered meadow. The brush still often crowds on one side of the creek, and of course if there is a good pool it often has a branch overhanging that calls for a tricky sidearm cast. But wherever there is some depth or slower water, I can be sure to find several brownies eager to please.

As I continue upstream, the fishing really heats up when I come to a series of log jams and small beaver dams that provide deeper pools and quieter runs, safe harbor for the fish.

When I finally take a break for a snack and to soak in the rugged scenery surrounding me, I have caught and released a couple of dozen scrappy browns ranging from 10-to-14 inches. (Ok, Ok maybe 13 1/2″).

As I lounge, I see some dark clouds starting to roll in just after noon, so I figure I better get back on the water. In the very first pool I quickly fool two trout, and as I fight a third, I hear a long low rumbling sound. I look up and see a very angry looking black cloud scudding over the big ridge to the west, and sure enough it begins to spit rain. I break out my rain jacket and keep right on casting, and the fish keep right on biting.

The rain abates and the sun tries to peek through, but more rumbles of thunder echo off the cliffs, which I take as my cue to hightail it home. I scramble back up on the gravel road, take one last look at the creek, tip my hat, and double-time back to my vehicle.

Hats Off To Carnero Creek!!

I manage to stash my gear and dive into the SUV about 1:30 just as the clouds let loose. Despite the fact I haven’t caught any Rio Grande cutthroats, I can’t complain. Carnero Creek is a sweet little water in a wild setting with eager trout. Can’t ask for much more than that…and I haven’t seen another angler all day to boot! I’ll be back to explore some more….lots of good looking water upstream on the main stem and South Fork.

NOTE: Carnero Creek was running at around 15 cfs on this trip which is a good level. By late July it was running at 5 cfs which would be too low to fish.