Tough Eastern Beastly Boys Tangle With Truculent Colorado Trout!

Late August 2022

For some of my earlier outings on Carnero Creek and the South Fork of the South Platte River, see: https://hooknfly.com/2022/07/21/south-park-under-the-radar/ and https://hooknfly.com/2021/07/22/into-the-backcountry-day-3-prospecting-for-trout-on-carnero-creek-near-del-norte-co/

This past August I hosted fishing buddies from the East Coast, Steve Spanger and Paul Hughes, in their quest to catch some manly, muscular Colorado trout. Under my watchful eye and refereeing to ensure no funny business, they chased their quarry on the South Arkansas River, Carnero Creek, and the South Fork of the South Platte. In three pugnacious, fish-filled days, the eastern contingent proved up to the challenge, catching and releasing dozens of fiesty fish including a 17-inch brown plus a rare two-species double (brown and cuttbow) by Mr. Spanger and a slam by Mr. Hughes (brown, brook, and cuttbow in one day). A quartet of flies proved to be the downfall of many hungry trout.

The Fab Four (from top clockwise): Chubby Chernobyl, Dirk’s Delight (CDC hotwire caddis), Royal Stimulator, and Sparkle Caddis Larva

All-in-all, it was a fun time with two gentlemanly anglers who also proved their mettle by dodging amorous llama to reach the water one day as well downing copious amounts of Colorado brews and a variety of fruits of the vine in post-fishing celebrations. Here’s a slide show with a little music that captures the spirit of the week. Hats off to the beastly boys from the East.

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.

Into The Backcountry: Prospecting For Trout On Two New Remote Creeks (near Del Norte, CO)

“I don’t know, I don’t now

I don’t know where I’m gonna go

When the volcano blows.

Jimmy Buffet

June 2021

For two of my adventures chasing the rare Rio Grande Cutthroats on Treasure Creek and the Lake Fork of the Conejos River, see

https://hooknfly.com/2020/01/08/treasure-creek-co-its-a-gem/ and

https://hooknfly.com/2019/09/27/lake-fork-of-the-conejos-river-solitude-in-a-sanctuary-for-rare-rio-grande-cutthroat-trout/

Day One—La Garita Creek

As I bounce down the rough single-track road searching for an open section to fish on La Garita Creek, Jimmy Buffet’s volcano song is running through my head. Just 28 million years ago one of the largest known volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history took place near here, between the towns of La Garita and Creede in southwestern Colorado. It was a supervolcanic event that dwarfed the more recent eruption of Mt. Saint Helens and even the giant volcano that created the massive Yellowstone Caldera. The caldera the La Garita eruption left measures in at about 22 by 47 miles!

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. 

The Upper Red Point Is Location Of Carnero Creek

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 lie 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.  Ove  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 Staions” 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 campground in Del Norte the next morning.  Quickly I set camp up and by early afternoon am heading northeast out of Del Norte on paved CR 112.  Soon I turn north on Highway 33 that turns into a good gravel road.  In seven miles it intersects with E39, a rougher but still passable gravel road that heads directly west paralleling La Garita Creek.  It winds four scenic miles by ranches and second homes till it hits public lands.  That’s when the fun and bumps begin. 

I shift into 4WD and get ready to rock and roll.  The single-track road starts out tamely, but then alternates between fairly smooth dirt sections and rocky, teeth-rattling stretches. 

It should not be attempted except in a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle with AT-rated four-ply tires.  Trust me on this.  Also, I would avoid it after a good rain as it crosses several deep washes.  Aside from that it’s a piece of cake.  My goal is to find a stretch that is not completely overgrown, of which about 80% of the creek is, making fly fishing virtually impossible there.

In a couple of miles I come to a sign announcing I am entering the Little Garita Creek State Land Board property that is open to public use.

I am a little confused at first, but soon figure out the road continues to follow La Garita Creek with its little tributary veering off to the north. 

Several Fishable Stretches On The Creek Can Be Found Upstream of the State Land Board Sign

Finally a ways up the road from the sign I spot a wet meadow dotted with wild iris where I can actually see the creek.  Bingo!  I will find that meadows like this one are a good sign as apparently the streamside brush can’t grow so thick because of all the wet ground the iris love.  I make a mental note of the spot and keep 4-wheeling up the road, which becomes increasingly worse and overgrown.  A couple of time I have to veer off the road that is narrow and hard to navigate because of overhanging tree branches and follow some tracks through adjacent meadows then navigate back on the road. 

Wet Meadows With Wild Iris Often Mean Open Water On The Creek

In a few miles I enter a ponderosa pine forest where the terrain is more open and spot a couple more fishable stretches.  At about 5 miles from the start of the public land, I come to a creek crossing that is too fast and deep to attempt by myself alone in the middle of nowhere.  While lower than in May, La Garita Creek is still running at a healthy 25 cfs.

I retreat a mile or so back downstream to an open stretch and suit up in my chest waders, anxious to get in the cold creek water as the temperature is pushing 90 degrees with very little wind. I’m in the creek by 3 p.m. checking under some stream rocks to see what the trout might be dining on and find them loaded with green cased caddis larvae and dark mayfly nymphs.  There are also some caddis flies flitting about and as a nice flight of mayfly spinners dipping and dancing above the water. On my 8 ½, 4-weight fly wand I tie on a bushy #16 Royal Coachman Trude to imitate the caddis flies as well as the small hoppers in the meadow and a #18 green sparkle beadhead caddis larva about two-feet below it.  The action is fast from the get-go and continues that way for the rest of the afternoon.  I soon conclude they haven’t seen many faux flies lately.  Indeed, I won’t see another vehicle or soul and no boot marks either today or tomorrow when I return. 

In the first promising pool above a beaver pond I quickly net two spunky browns that attack the flies without hesitation, one on the dry and the other on the caddis.

I work upstream a few feet and spy a beautiful pool at a bend in the creek.  Looks like the liar of a big trout….and it is.  I cast up into the riffle above the pool and watch as the Trude bounces down jauntily.  Suddenly a big trout, maybe 15-inches, appears out of nowhere and intercepts the dry, but I yank the away from him before he clamps his jaws shut and miss.  Luckily the fly hook didn’t sting him, so I get a second try.  Again the fly floats down into the bend pool and again the trout rises boldly alongside of it and nonchalantly sucks the Trude in.  Whoosh!  I sweep the rod back and set the hook, immediately and feel his weight, and just as quickly execute my patented long-distance release.  I contemplate committing hari-kari, but decide to try again, beyond all hope.  Alas, although the fly floats over the same spot again, this time the big fellow refuses to make an appearance.  But just a few feet below against the bank, another sizable trout, this one around 14-inches, nails the dropper.  But I miss again and pricked him with the hook so now he’s off his feed as well.  I have to laugh at my ineptitude.  Fortunately my ego is salved on the very next drift through the pool as a nice 12-inchers nails the dry at the tail end of the pool, and in the run just upstream where I catch and release three brownies in quick succession. 

Lair Of The Big Brownies
Third Fish Is the Charm

That will be the pattern for the rest of the afternoon.  In every bend pool or quiet stretch off the main current or behind a boulder, I can count on several strikes and catching at least a couple of fish.  It becomes ridiculously easy, making up for all those times in previous years when the finny buggers have outwitted me.

The fishing really gets interesting when I come to a couple of big beaver ponds.  I work the deep current in the middle of the first and lure a couple of feisty brownies from the depths. 

Out of the corner of my eye I see a good rise just below the next beaver dam.  I sneak up and get into casting position on my knees, then pinpoint my cast between two bushes on either side of the current.  

Another Big Trout Lair

The dry floats about five feet below the bushes and my jaw drops when it is sucked under by a tremendous swirl in the water.  Unfortunately, the fish that made that giant swirl missed the fly!  I try again, and again there is a huge swirl and another refusal.  Clearly the biggest fish of the day has been toying with me.  Then all goes quiet.  I proceed further upstream, doing a high-wire act to mount the big dam and cast into the current flowing down the middle of the pond above.  The dry is abruptly jerked under and when I set the hook my rod bends perilously.  The trout heads towards some shoreline bushes but I manage to turn him away from the snags.  The fight goes on back and forth before the handsome brownie comes to the net.

I continue working upstream to the head of the pond where a small sandbar with brush on it cleaves the stream creating nice flows on either side.  I wade out carefully to probe a fast run between the sandbar and far shoreline, keeping my balance in the soft bottom with my trusty wading staff.  I flip a backhand, side-arm cast upstream, and immediately a mini-geyser erupts around the dry fly.  I am onto another good fish. 

Tricky Stretch Produces

The battler finally comes to the net for a quick photo and release, another 13-inch plus muscular brownie.  Three more fish succumb to siren’s call of my flies in that run, then several more on the other side of the split. 

It’s five o-clock now, and as I size up the next tantalizing pool and beaver pond above, I am thinking of those tasty dishes and Dos Equis amber beer at my favorite restaurant in Del Norte, Los Chavolos.  To fish or not to fish more? The low, rumbling sound of thunder and a few flashes of lighting on a ridge in the distance make the decision for me.  

As I walk up the slope to the road, I start laughing, feeling a bit giddy–and believe me it takes a lot to make a septuagenarian giddy. I have caught and released in the neighborhood of 50 fish in about 2 ½ hours and lost probably that many more.  It’s been one of those flat-out fun days like I used to have in Kansas as a kid, catching countless bluegill in a local farm pond.  Today the trout were where they were supposed to be, usually in numbers, and cooperative in the extreme, a tribute I think to their carefree, unschooled life in La Garita Creek.  Who am I to complain?!?

Day Two On La Garita Creek

After a hearty Mexican dinner at Los Chavolos in Del Norte, I get a good night’s sleep and am back on the road at around 8:30 then trundling up E39 20 minutes later.  Today I vow to slow down and enjoy the scenery and wildflowers on the way to fish the Little La Garita State Land Board stretch several miles below where I chased the trout yesterday.  The bluffs, buttes, and ridges are spectacular under a blue-bird Colorado sky. 

And the landscape is dotted with gorgeous white blooms of the soapweed yucca and the bright orange and red splash of Indian paintbrushes.  It’s cooler today with a little more wind, a refreshing combination. 

A mile or so into the State Land Board wildlife management area, I come to the open stretch I spotted yesterday.  I am using the same outfit and flies—why trifle with success!  I catch a several small brownies in the first two pools then come to a beautiful waterfall flowing cascading from a blown-out beaver pond.  I score a couple at the foot of the waterfall, then move up into the wider flow above.  The action is again crazy good from the get go.  I catch and release five hard-fighting brownies from 11-13 inches. 

The creek above the beaver pond executes a big S-bend, with each curve yielding several  brownies pushing 13-inches.  Above the upper bend a riffle plunges into a fast, deep run, and more willing brownies come to the net.  For the next two hours it’s lights out again, with the trout favoring the caddis larva dropper 2:1 over the dry, although the dry seems to attract more of the bigger fish.  The dry is clearly the best in faster runs where the trout slash out at light speed to nail the fly.  A couple of browns push 14-inches and all are healthy and sleek. 

Around 11 a.m. discover the hackle has been unceremoniously ripped off the Trude by some toothy brownie.  I decide to keep right on fishing without changing flies, and the trout don’t seem to notice any difference. 

No Hackle? No Worries!!

By 12:30 I’m getting hungry, and if on cue the bushes close in, making casting nearly impossible.  Still in that last postage-stamp size pool below the midstream boulder three browns give me a nice bon voyage party. 

After partaking lunch back at the SUV, I drive leisurely back down the road, stopping to snap photos of the wild roses, blooming prickly pear cactus, mountain blue bells, and other wildflowers lining the drive and soak up the spectacular vistas.

It’s been another rare day on La Garita Creek.  All the fish were brown trout—the cutthroats that are supposedly in the creek must be higher up.  No worries!! Miles more water to explore.

When I get back to camp, I immediately contemplate soaking my right elbow in Epsom salts, hoping to ward off a debilitating case of trout elbow that such a prolific piscatorial day can produce.  After all, there are glasses of wine to be hoisted in celebration,  and Carnero Creek awaits tomorrow!

Carnero Creek Beckons