In The Footsteps Of The Rio Chama Shaman (near Chama, NM)

Shaman:  A person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of spirits, including angling.

Mid-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 face 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, were back to decent levels thanks to monsoon rains in July.  All systems are go!

After an easy two-hour drive from my cabin near Salida, Colorado, I have set up my mobile fish camp at the Canon Bonito RV Campground near Antonito.   The friendly owners, Al and Lisa Abeyta, have built up over the last decade what is hands-down in my experience the best RV campground in the area.  It has spacious shady sites plus a bonus of a long beautiful fly fishing-only stretch of the Conejos River that can be reserved when you want to wet a line close to your rig. 

Chama River Headwaters North Of Chama, NM

After spending a couple of full days fishing several remote creeks that feed the Conejos River, I decide it’s time for a breather.  Rather than lollygag around the campground, I opt for some reconnaissance on the Chama for a possible longer trip later in the week.  I’m on the road just after lunch on Colorado 17, a good paved and scenic road that crosses the mountains to Chama.  It’s a twisty road 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. 

Bovine Parade

The scenery improves with every turn, and as I descend into the Chama Valley the beetle-killed pines magically give way to a vibrant green forest just across the border into New Mexico.    Even with taking it easy in 45 minutes I am at the turnoff to Road 445 (Forest Service Road 121) that parallels the Rio Chama as it winds its way to the National Forest Boundary through the private 17,000 acre Rancho Del Oso Pardo, one of the most beautiful ranches I have ever seen—something right out of a western novel. 

Scenic Upper Chama River Valley

On the good gravel road, it’s a five-mile drive during which I cross back over the boundary back into Colorado.  Just inside the national forest boundary I can see the small primitive campground below along the river.  Because it’s likely that stretch of the river gets hit fairly hard by anglers, I keep on climbing. The road ends in about five miles at a trailhead, but it’s too steep to bushwhack down to the river in the distance across the valley so I turn around and drive back about a mile or so where I had seen a couple of vehicles parked.  I can see now why they are here—an old road, now closed, leads down to the valley floor. 

Trail To Valley Floor Along Old Closed Road

I suit up in my waders and fishing vest with my 8.5-foot four weight rod rigged with a small grasshopper pattern and trailing beadhead sparkle caddis larva nymph that has worked well on the Colorado creeks the past couple of days.  The descent on the old road bed to the valley floor is an easy one, but then I discover what looked to be a meadow on my GPS app is in reality a dense thicket of bushes.  I take a closer look at the map and can see faint wild animal trails threading through the maze to the river about one-third mile to the west. 

Into The Thicket

My only advice is where possible look for a path that wends its way through meadow sections were small shrubby potentilla bushes with their yellow flowers grow. Don’t plunge into the wicked thicket as I did (with apologies to the Wicked Pickett, one of my favorite songsters from the ’60s).

The Wicked Thicket

Keep heading southwest and then follow a line of fence posts to an open meadow to the south, then turn due west to the river. Good luck. There is an easier route on the west side of the valley that starts at the campground, but that trail is several miles longer to the spot where I will start fishing.

After about 15 minutes of meandering and backtracking and plentiful epithets,  I survive the thicket, finally emerging in a grove of stately spruce trees.  I spot a good trail that I follow upstream.  Soon I come to a beautiful pool at a sharp bend in the river formed by a log jam that reeks of trout.  I keep a low profile, retreat downstream to 25 yards, then start working my way back up.  On the way I spook a couple of small trout in a shallow run below the log jam.  I saw lots of hoppers in the meadows I just crossed and a quick check under the rocks reveals caddis are the primary aquatic insect, so I stick with the hopper/dropper already on my rod.  I sneak over the end of the log jam and get in a good kneeling position to cast. 

First Alluring Pool

My first offering that floats perfectly down from the top of the pool is ignored, as is the second.  The third appears to be a bust but just as I start to raise the line for another try, a streak of gold flashes from the depths of the pool and nails the nymph just below the surface in full view!  He’s a good one, probably over 16-inches, and immediately dives for the safety of the deep pool.  Slowly I start to gain ground on the bruiser as he romps back and forth in the depths.  But just as I coax him to shallower water, he jets downstream for the log jam.  My four weight rod bends perilously as I haul back to stop the run and inch him away from the nasty looking jumble of branches.  Now I think I am in control, but he makes another dive and reaches the snags.  I plunge into the water, happy to have on my chest waders, but when I finally fish out the line, he’s gone. 

With the right arm of my shirt and my fishing vest wringing wet from rescuing my flies, I amble upstream to the next good-looking stretch.  It’s a tough one to fish  because of snags and overhanging branches, something that is common throughout the river.  So bring your “A” casting game!  At the lower end where the water cascades into a nice pool, I manage to thread the needle and my fly alights above the snag and floats jauntily down under the protruding branch then immediately disappears.  Something has eaten the nymph as it passes submerged under the branch.  I set the hook and a little brown erupts through the surface and does a good imitation of an Olympic gymnast as he gyrates through the air.  Soon the scrappy little brownie comes in for a quick photo and release.  

Small, But Feisty

I test the leader and dropper and then drop the fly in the exact same spot above the snag.  Bingo!  The fly disappears as another trout smacks the nymph.  This one is bigger, maybe 12-inches, and puts up a worthy fight before relenting. I start to move on, but something tells me to try one more cast.  This time the fly floats under and by the snag a few feet, then is sucked under.  When I set the hook I feel something heavier, and it is.  Wasting no time, I horse him away from the snags and see it’s a muscular 15-inch brown.  In the open water I have the advantage and after a couple of good runs he comes to the net.

Persistence Pays Off With Nice Brownie

I’m smiling as I walked up to the next stretch, trying to size up how I can get a fly under that overhanging bush that is guarding the deepest part of the little pool.  Sometimes it works best to creep up slowly on the opposite bank just below the pool to be able to get a better angle to place the fly above the snag in the current and let it drift under the branches into the pool rather than the normal approach from directly below which makes for a nearly impossible cast.  The downside is you risk spooking the trout by getting into their side field of vision.  I take the risk and it pays off.  The fly alights five feet above the bush and slides under it without snagging then disappears as something yanks the dry under.  It’s another one on the nymph, a sizeable browning that pushes 14-inches.

For the next hour the pattern is the same as I work upstream—2-3 smaller brownies then one larger over 13-inches.  It’s 3:30 p.m. by now, and I’m starting to drag a bit, not looking forward to the bushwhacking that remains to be done to get me back to my SUV.  Also I want to be back at the campground before 6 p.m. where the owner Al has invited me and all denizens of his RV campground to his big potluck dinner birthday celebration, just a youngster at 60-years old.  How can a bachelor fly fisherman who usually returns to the trailer after a day of fishing to microwave something that comes in a box resist such an offer?!? 

I decide to fish one more alluring pool before calling it quits and it pays off.  The biggest brownie of the day nails the grasshopper, the only sizeable fish I will catch on the dry all day. 

Big Brownie Caps Good Day

I have seen only a few boot marks on the shoreline all day and none at all the further up I waded.  The key has been the bushwhacking trek to the river on the west side of the valley away from the road and more than a mile above the campground.  True, I didn’t hook one of the brutes over 18-inches that I have read and heard veiled references too, but after all this was just a leisurely recon trip!

By the way, the potluck was terrific—all manner of dishes, and I polished the meal off with five different desserts!! 

Stay tuned for my follow-up post covering a full day outing on the Rio Chama later in the week.  In it I also reveal an easier access trail I stumbled upon.

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.