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

Early September 2019

If you want to tackle the main stem of the Conejos, see my article: https://hooknfly.com/2019/09/26/solving-the-conejos-river-conundrum/amp/

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.

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Exploring The Headwaters Of The Rio De Los Piños Near Antonito, CO


Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pine trees, and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.”   Henry David Thoreau

Late July 2016

It’s a cloudy morning at my campsite on the Conejos River west of Antonito, Colorado.  I’ve slept in a bit late after a long day on the water yesterday, and anyway, rain is in the forecast. But by noon the sun is starting to peek out, and I’m getting the itch to explore.  Given the late hour, I need to find something close by that won’t take hours to reach so settle on the Los Piños river, a popular stream only 20 minutes away. I have fished the Pine below Trujillo Meadows Reservoir near the New Mexico border and have had decent results.  But I have never been in the more remote headwaters above the lake where the banks are not dotted by cabins or tromped by cattle.

imageI talk with one of the experienced old hands at the campground, and he draws me a little map.  It’s a tricky route to the trailhead up the river canyon, so I am happy to have some directions, especially later when I find the topo maps are out-of-date.  I load up and head out on Highway 17, over La Manga Pass and then hit the turn off for the Trujillo Meadows Reservoir just before the road angles over Cumbres Pass.  It’s a beautiful drive, capped by a close-up view of the narrow gauge train chugging along the lower Los Piños on its way to Chama, New Mexico.  I keep my eyes peeled for the sign for Forest Road 118 to the upper Los Piños and a waterfall that is a popular scenic attraction…then it’s off into the wilds, four-wheel drive at the ready!!

The gravel road is fairly smooth at first, but all that changes when I follow my hand-drawn  map and make a right turn a couple of miles up the road.  I cross a little creek that runs under the side road in a culvert, then switch into four-imagewheel drive as the road begins to climb and gets much rougher.  The next waypoint is an orange barrel where the road splits, and  I have been cautioned to stay left–and rightfully so.  The fork to the right looks smoother, but it soon turns nasty,  big rocks and muddy holes making it nearly impassable in places.  Not to say that the left fork is a picnic.  Passenger cars need not apply!!  It’s four-wheel only.  Lots of deadfalls across the road from the beetle kill (hello climate change) mean I have to thread the needle several times where the Forest Service has cleared the way.  After a couple of more miles, that imageinclude imagea very rough steep stretch, I arrive at the waterfall trailhead…and find a cadre of ATV’s and a jeep already there.  When I have more daylight, I want to hike up above the waterfall, which acts as a barrier to non-native trout, allowing the beautiful native Rio Grande Cutthroat to thrive.  But for now I’ll go contrarian and head back down the road for a 1/2 mile where I spotted a section of the river down in the canyon that looks inviting!  And I should have it all to myself.  I suit up in my waders and  carefully pick my way down the steep but short slope that is overgrown with wildflowers and bushes–this is a lush valley that gets plenty of moisture.  I see fish rising in the pools!!

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