After a couple of days of throwing heavy nymph rigs, navigating unruly rapids, and muscling out some big trout on the Conejos River (See my article from September 28, 2019.), I’m ready for some backcountry small creek angling and a dose of solitude. When I learned through a little on-line sleuthing that the feds and state have collaborated to create a sanctuary for rare Rio Grande Cutthroat trout on the Lake Fork of the Conejos River, I was intrigued. Rio Grande Cutts are some of the most gorgeous trout in the world, bar none, with their flaming orange and red colors looking like something out of an artist’s dream. They are also rare, occupying only about 10% of their original habitat that actually extended into Texas at one point. Fortunately they are making a comeback thanks to the dogged efforts of federal and state fish and wildlife agencies. The bonus is that they live in some of the most scenic, remote creeks in Colorado. A little more digging revealed that I could get into some good fishing after a relatively moderate 2-3 mile hike, some a septuagenarian like me could handle. I was sold! I went to bed thinking of leaping trout.
I have fished most of the big Colorado trout waters—the Arkansas, Colorado, Gunnison, South Platte, Rio Grande, and Yampa. Like many of my fishing friends and readers, I fancy myself a fair-to-middling do-it-yourself angler that can figure out any river and its piscatorial denizens on my own. I learned the hard way a decade ago that isn’t the case with the beautiful Conejos River in southern Colorado near Antonito. The word vexatious comes to mind when I think of the Rabbit River. It’s one river I now always hire a guide on my first day of my annual trip to the Conejos—and give the same advice to anyone headed that way. I have found the best flies and successful techniques can vary dramatically year-to-year and from section-to-section of the stream. Biologists tell us it’s one of the most fertile rivers in the state, a veritable smorgasbord of stoneflies, mayflies, caddis, and assorted other bugs, not to mention a good grasshopper hatch. Indeed, scientists say there are more varieties of stones in the river that any in Colorado!
The trout just have so many choices to munch on, which results in a weird assortment of fly patterns that rule here, many of which I have never either heard of let alone used: the McGruber, Jig Assassin, Sparkle Green Body Elk Hair Caddis, Purple and Chartreuse Psycho Prince, Lightning Bug.
The list goes on depending on the month, water levels, etc., etc. But despite these angling vicissitudes, the Conejos’ big trout, gorgeous scenery, miles of public water, and absence of annoying rafters, kayakers, paddleboarders, and other insolent intruders, I keep coming back. I was reminded again this year not to fool with the Conejos on my own.
“Most of the world is covered by water. A fisherman’s job is simple: Pick out the best parts.” …..Charles Waterman
It’s a cold wintry evening, wind blowing and snow flying at my cabin in the Colorado mountains. I’ll be heading to Florida soon, but for now I’m sitting in front of a blazing fire with a good glass of fresh apple cider. My mind wanders with pipe dreams of the secluded mountain creeks I want to explore or return to in 2018. My list is already up to eight, and near the top is La Jara Creek just south of Alamosa in southern Colorado. As I doze off, visions of my trips there the last couple of years are dancing in my head…..
Summer 2016……my home water, the Arkansas near Salida, Colorado, is running twice normal level—practically enough to float a battleship. Yet its banks are already beginning to fill with anglers attracted by the recent state designation as a Gold Medal Water. I decide to flee south, having heard whispered tales among some fishing buddies about La Jara Creek, hidden in a 15-mile long remote canyon where 20-inch wild browns supposedly lurk. I am a little skeptical, because the creek was little more than a trickle late last summer when I hurried over it to my annual trip to the more famous Conejos and Los Pinos Rivers further south. I check on-line and find the state water gauge for the creek registering around 10 cfs, a low but decent level for fishing.
It doesn’t take long before I am heading south over Poncha Pass, gassing up in Alamosa, just north of the New Mexico border, then turning off US Highway 285 at the small town of La Jara. I drive west into a different world, a slower pace, old churches, small farms, two-lane roads, and abandoned adobe houses. Now I am in the nearest thing resembling civilization, the tiny frayed community of Capulin. I continue driving a half hour from the last bit of pavement outside of town, and after dodging a couple of dozen rabbits in this aptly named Conejos County (Conejos—Spanish for rabbits), I arrive at La Jara Reservoir—and am shocked to find it almost bone dry, and upper La Jara Creek below it barely a trickle!
Heart sinking, I turn downstream on a rough four-wheel drive U.S. Forest Service road for another two and a half miles, fording the creek and hoping for the best. I finally come to a gate blocking access to the canyon and state land trust board property and wildlife management area below. I walk down to the creek for a peek. It has more water here than above thanks to a couple of spring-fed feeder rivulets, and I spy a couple of decent trout darting for cover. So with high hopes, I don my waders and hike another hour into the canyon, paralleling the beautiful creek the whole way. I spook a cow elk and her calf as I make my way downstream. They clamber up the rocky slope into the woods as picas chastise me for the intrusion. I take that as a sign to start fishing–then two days of non-stop fun begin.
Click on the link below to view a pdf of my article about fishing La Jara Creek from the summer 2017 issue of Southwest Fly Fishing magazine.