I am on my annual birthday week expedition in search of wild trout. Sadly, most of my pet streams near Salida and Gunnison are blown out, and the 4WD trails I navigate into some of my favorite backcountry creeks are washed out from the several weeks of monsoon rains. So I am heading south towards Del Norte in southern Colorado where the streams appear to be in better shape according to the Colorado Division of Water Resources water talk website. I’ve reserved a campsite right on the Rio Grande River just outside of Del Norte and will be in the lap of luxury with full hookups for my mobile fish camp.
I’ve done some research before embarking and have my eye on little Pass Creek, just off busy US Highway 160 near Wolf Creek Pass. According to Williams and McPhail in their excellent guidebook, 49 Trout Streams of Southern Colorado,
Pass Creek is a little gem with some big fish, overlooked by anglers whizzing by to more famous waters like the Rio Grande and the Piedra. And with the weatherman predicting an 80% chance of rain every afternoon this week, another draw is that it’s easy to reach on a good gravel US Forest Service road.
I spend the waning hours of the day getting my gear ready, wondering if I can catch (and release) as many fish as my years on earth–something I’ve managed to do the past few birthdays but a feat that is becoming increasingly challenging as Father Time marches on.
The Rio Grande pours out of the Box Canyon (See my Day 2 fishing article.) below Rio Grande Reservoir into a broad open valley, then flows for miles, undulating its way towards Creede. From there it picks up speed and hustles past the scenic Palisades on the way to the little burg of South Fork. In between it grows some big trout and in good numbers—enough to warrant Gold Medal water status from the state. The challenge? Lots of it flows through private land, but with a little sleuthing you can find plenty of good water that doesn’t get pounded too hard.
When I last visited the area as a teenager, the Rio Grande valley up high was just some big ranches and wide open range. Now there’s lots of cabin sprawl, and the story is being written again of how the West was lost. We have had mining, logging, overgrazing…and now the most pernicious long-term threat to the landscape and environment is scattershot second home development, often plunked down in the meadows where elk, deer, and other critters roamed. Habitat fragmentation as wildlife biologists would say. As that great ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote of another time and place, “We are rearranging the Alhambra with a steam shovel, and we are proud of our yardage.” Ah, but that’s a story and diatribe for another day. Thank the stars for public land!
I have my eye on three stretches of water that look to hold some hefty fish: A long winding three-mile section above Marshall Campground (about 8 miles west of Creede on Highway 149), public water a few miles below at the Antlers Lodge, and the Coller State Wildlife Area between Creede and South Fork. I find the keys in all three areas to be to (1) look for water that requires a bit of a hike or (2) to wade across the river and fish the side where the anglers’ path is fainter. Throughout this area, be sure to pay heed to the special regulations that have helped keep this such a terrific fishery.
This time of year, there are scads of mayfly and golden stonefly nymphs in the water, so that’s a good indication of flies to use. I choose a #16 Tung Teaser, that doubles as both a mayfly and small stonefly imitation. There’s grasshopper still around, so my dry is a yellow #14 Stimulator or #16 Royal Coachman Trude. Other good nymphs are my old reliable green hotwire CDC caddis and a silver Copper John, both in #16 and #18.
This time of year the Rio Grande is flowing a very wadeable 280 cfs at Wagon Wheel Gap (Check the Colorado Water Talk website.), and the water is a beautiful clear green color. A 5X leader on a five-weight fly rod is ideal—there are some very substantial browns and rainbows plying these waters and puny sticks are simply no match for them in the big current. I find the browns in the usual spots: Up against the banks in tricky lies around logs and snags, quieter plunge pools just below rapids, and off to the side of foamy currents in just enough water to give them cover. Rainbows seem more eclectic in their choice of hiding places—I catch them in fast runs, but also in slow back eddies up against cliffs. On a big river like the Rio Grande, it helps to size up each pool or run, breaking it up into bite size chunks before plunging in and casting blindly. A wading staff helps as do felt soles. I find the new high-tech, so-called sticky rubber soles are just that…so-called.
After some bone-rattling four-wheel drive expeditions and some vigorous hikes to remote sections of the river earlier in the week, fishing the lower Rio Grande around Creede is duck soup. A quarter of a mile walk and maybe a little scramble down a slope to the river is all that’s required. And the rewards are substantial—I manage to land a sleek 17-inch brownie and a muscular 18-inch rainbow on two different sections, one on the Trude and the other on the Tung Teaser, along with scores of brownies from 10-15 inches. Now it’s back to the Antler’s Lodge where my mobile fish camp is ensconced in the lodge’s excellent RV park, a quick shower, and over for a gourmet dinner at the lodge’s excellent restaurant overlooking the river. Something to be said occasionally for the perquisites of civilization.
Taos, New Mexico, is the first stop on my annual migration from Colorado to the Everglades where I spend the winter chasing snook, reds, and tarpon. It’s a short four-hour drive from my summer haunt near Salida, Colorado. I haven’t been to Taos
for over twenty years, and the place has changed plenty since. Downtownis still picturesque, although crowded, with rush hour traffic jams. Now nasty residential and commercial sprawl pocks the outskirts of town, formerly the realmof elk. But the lure
of fishing the mighty and pristine Rio Grande deep in a gorge just outside of Taos keeps me in a good frame of mind—the river looked positively entrancing as I pass over it on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge on the way into Taos.
I set up my mobile fishing camp in the surprisingly quiet and bucolic Taos Valley RV Park, only 10 minutes from the downtown plaza, then head to the Taos Fly Shop just down the road, fly fishing central in this part of New Mexico.
The affable owner, Nick Streit, gives me a friendly welcome and shares the skinny on what flies are hot. He recommends a double nymph rig—his local pattern called a Poundmeister in Size 6 (tied to represent a crane fly larvae) and a Size 18 red micro mayfly—both dangled below a big dry to serve mainly as a strike indicator, although Nick notes that there is still some hopper activity in the gorge so I might get surprised.
From the Colorado border to below Taos, there are over 30 miles of good water to choose from on the Rio Grande. Where to go?? I tell Nick I am looking for some solitude as well as hungry fish and mention that I read some scuttlebutt online that a stretch of the river in the canyon reached via the Miners Trail is a good candidate (some guide books call it the Cedar Springs trail, but the Cedar Springs are on the other side of the river and there is no trail from there to the river). Nick recalls his guides saying it’s been a little off lately, but I would probably have it to myself because of the steep hike in…but if I go, for the best fishing be sure to hike downstream a piece from where the trail intersects the river. That will prove to be excellent advice. I get a dozen of the various fly patterns he suggests, a copy of his father Taylor’s excellent book on New Mexico fishing, my license and with a few hours of daylight left, decide to scout out the Miners Trailhead. Glad I did.The route to the trailhead is circuitous. From downtown Taos, I follow directions I find online in an article in the local paperabout hiking the Miners Trail. I take Highway 522 north turning off left (west) on B-006, a good gravel road just before you get to the hamlet of Arroyo Hondo.
This takes me west down to the John Dunn Bridge across the Rio Grande. The climb out of the gorge from the bridge is a rough road with tight switchbacks. When I hit the rim, I drive another mile or so until I see a sign on the right indicating the Colorado State Line is 34 miles to the north, turn there and proceed about another 1.5 miles till the road forks just beyond the last house. The fork to the right is TP (Taos Plateau) 219, but the sign has been torn off the post. Keeping the faith, I turn and in a half mile or so I see a sign that has survived the vandals. From the fork it is about 2.5 miles to the trailhead. The road becomes progressively rougher and heavily rutted in spots—I wouldn’t want to navigate it when muddy. A high-clearance vehicle can make the trip, but leave the family car at home. My Xterra SUV has no problem, but after hitting a couple of deep potholes that rattle my teeth, I slow to a steady 10 mph.
The sun is setting as I find the trailhead and peer down into the canyon. It’s a fairly short, if steep trail, only a little over a mile one-way. The trail is rocky but decently maintained, so I make a decision to hike in the next day wearing my waders and fishing vest. Then I head back to my trailer to rig up and get an early start.
“Box Canyon: A narrow canyon with nearly vertical walls and a flat bottom with only a single access from above or below.”
In the mid-1960s I caught my first trout on a fly near Creede, Colorado, just below Thirty Mile campground–on a stretch of the Rio Grande known as the Box Canyon. The name Box Canyon intrigued me then and so it did again 50 years later as I scanned the map looking for a stretch of the river where I could find some solitude….and big fish! The Box Canyon is a five-mile long section about 20 miles above Creede that is pristine and relatively untouched, primarily because the river veers away from Forest Service Road 520 that provides access to the upper Rio Grande River. I was champing at the bit to revisit this water, but this time wanted to probe deeper into this wild area where hefty trout reputedly hide. I find there are two ways to venture into the canyon–either hike down from Thirty Mile/River Hill Campgrounds or up from below, starting at the Texas Creek Trailhead near the San Juan Ranch. I would find both are worth the hike!
Nicolas Creede hit the silver motherlode in 1870 high in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. He sold out the aptly named Holy Moses Mine for millions and headed to California, leaving behind a boom town named for him. Now the mines are gone, and Creede is a fishing, tourist, and second-home mecca.
In the 1960s I caught my first trout on a fly up here on the Rio Grande Del Norte—the Great River of the North to Spanish settlers. It was on the one and only out-of-state vacation and break from our Kansas farm our family took as I grew up. Plowing was done, and I somehow persuaded my Dad to rent a little camper and make the 500-mile drive to what an article in Outdoor Life claimed was the least populated county in the lower 48, chocked full of hungry trout. Six of us slept in that little camper for a week! I had taught myself how to fly cast from a Sports Afield book borrowed from the local library. I practiced up in local farm ponds casting cork poppers to hungry bluegill and bass. I hadn’t been back since 1976 when I took a horsepack trip into the Weminuche Wilderness Area. With the promise of a week of Indian Summer fall weather, I figured it was time to revisit. Anyway, I needed to shed the five pounds I had gained at my 50th high school class reunion.
I stop in Creede, now a bustling little mountain town with a year-round population of only about 500, but replete with a decent grocery store, an acclaimed summer repertory theatre, and two fly shops. The venerable Ramble House was the main place to get fishing and camping gear in the 1960s, and it still is today, run by the same extended family. I duck in and get the local skinny on patterns and places from a fly fishing maven Stacia, a young woman who obviously has lots of
on-the-water experience. Her advice will turn out to be right.
Now it’s mid-afternoon and I am hustling off to set up my mobile fish camp at the Antlers Lodge and Campground, just a few miles outside Creede. It not only has spots for travel trailers but also a nice one-mile stretch of private water on the Rio Grande plus a gourmet restaurant. Who said fly fishing the backcountry has to always be a hardship!!
I sample the water, catch some nice brown trout that dominate on the lower section of the river, then start packing up for my expedition to the headwaters of the Rio Grande, a long drive from here up to near the Continental Divide. With visions of trout dancing in my head, I set the alarm at 5:00 a.m. so I can be on the water by 9 a.m.–then nod off.