2021 Retrospective: The Best, The Botched, And The Blood-Curdling

January 2022

What can you say about 2021?  It certainly was another interesting and challenging year.  Despite the vicissitudes and travails that all of us went through, it was rewarding overall with plenty of delights, fun times, and frisky fish.  Here goes, taking a look back at the best and some busted times as well.

An unexpected and wonderful delight was the extra time I got to spend with my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly. Because of day-care problems associated with Covid, I drove to Denver every week for 8 months starting in October 2020 to take care of her for two days, just her and me, what she called “Grandpa days.” Boy did we have fun exploring creeks, catching crawdaddies, and fooling some fish in metro Denver lakes!

I was also happy to welcome an expanding group of readers from all over the USA and internationally. It’s been a treat getting to know several better, trading fish stories and becoming friends. Thanks to Jim, Bill, Jason, Ed, Jerry, Tim, Brian and the rest of the gang. Despite Covid which led me to remain in Colorado all of 2021 and only spending two weeks in Florida with only one new post, readership stayed steady at the high level established in 2020–over 86,000 views.

In a typical year, new Florida posts account for a quarter of all views.  Now that I am back in Florida for the winter and spring, you can bet I will be getting out on the water and sharing new trips and tales.

Like most senior citizens, I can’t let the opportunity pass to gripe about various aches and pains.  In October 2020 I came down with a severe case of sciatica due to a couple of ill-advised back-to-back hikes into rugged canyons in search of trout.  It was so bad—had me hobbling with a cane–that I began contemplating a life without the hiking, kayaking, and fishing remote backcountry areas that I love.  Fortunately, I was referred to a wonderful doctor of physical therapy who correctly assessed the problem in my aging back and put together an exercise routine that has me feeling better than ever and ready for more adventures exploring this beautiful Earth.

Most Popular Posts And Published Articles

By a wide margin, the most popular articles were a quartet about fishing for rare Rio Grande Cutthroat trout in southern Colorado. The series garnered over 5,300 views, including the single most-read article —exploring Medano Creek in the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve, with 2,700 views.

Perhaps the most rewarding response to any post was the continuing popularity of a five-part series I wrote in late 2020 entitled “The Best Fishing Books Of All Time.” It garnered over 1,600 views in 2021, and several times was featured in the daily Google News post as the leading article on the subject. It was particularly popular around Christmas time as people searched for gift ideas.

For saltwater angling, the article I wrote several years ago on fishing around Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys continues to lead the pack with almost 1,600 views.  I am planning to get back down there in May for some additional piscatorial research and updating. 

Covid has been particularly tough on national fishing publications. One of the first angling magazines I wrote for back in the 1990s, the venerable American Angler, folded in 2020, and in 2021 one of my favorites, Southwest Fly Fishing, was consolidated with five other similar magazines by the same publisher into just one called American Fly Fishing. The new one is excellent, but the competition to get something published is tougher.

Despite all of that, I was pleased to have two articles come out in 2021. The first, in Florida Sportsman, is a bit of an oddity for me–fishing for Peacock Bass in the freshwater canals of a big residential development near Naples, Florida. I’m mainly a saltwater, backcountry fishing devotee when I come to Florida, but had a good time learning new tricks while catching in a suburban setting these big, colorful exotic fish from South America.

The second article, which I am particularly proud of tackled the looming catastrophic impact of climate change on the insects trout subsist on and what can be done about it.  Entitled “Insect Armageddon,” it appeared in the May 2021 issue of American Fly Fishing

Another article I wrote for American Fly Fishing, “Mission Impossible?? Searching For Fish And Solitude In South Park, Colorado,” will be coming out in early 2022. 

Perhaps the biggest bummer in the realm of publishing came with my Everglades kayak fishing guide that was to be published by Wild Adventures Press in Montana.  I completed a draft of the guidebook and was well into the editing process when the company ran into staffing issues as well as production problems linked to its printer in South Korea.  Because the press was unlikely to be able to publish the guidebook anytime soon, I parted company with it and am searching for a new more reliable publisher.  Any thoughts?

One last note, I was honored to be asked by two fishing clubs, one in Florida and one in Colorado, to make Zoom presentations to their members.  The one in Florida focused on kayak fishing in the Everglades and the Colorado meeting on beaver pond fishing savvy.  Give me a buzz if you’d like me to make a presentation to your club.  Always fun!

Most Rewarding Trips

An expedition to explore the remote Adams Fork of the Conejos River in southern Colorado turned out to be the most rewarding trip of the year for a couple of reasons. First, I was able to successfully test my recovery from the aforementioned bout with debilitating sciatica. I hiked in about three miles then down a steep slope into the canyon below and out again with no ill effects. Better yet, the beautiful, rare Rio Grande Cutthroats, the native trout that is making a comeback in southern Colorado, were very cooperative. What a day!!

Close behind was another hidden gem in the South Luis Valley of southern Colorado, La Garita Creek, that flows out of a gigantic volcano caldera.  Accessed only by a rough 4-WD road, La Garita Creek is loaded with eager brown trout, but only if you can find an opening in the overgrown stream to make a decent cast.  Can’t wait to return next summer.

I also had what I call ten fin-filled, fun days in late summer on two separate trips with old fishing buddies, Bob Wayne and Steve Spanger.  We fished seven different rivers and streams in those ten days ranging from the South Arkansas to the Chama River including waters like Saguache Creek and the Adams Fork and the Gunnison River in between.  Fortunately, the fish were sympathetic to us old geezers, and we had a blast. 

Most Humbling Trip, Burst Bubbles, And The Blood-Curdling

Without a doubt, the most humbling angling experience of the year was fishing the beaver ponds of Trout Creek near Buena Vista, Colorado.  I fancy myself a beaver pond maven, but in May almost lost all my mojo to the lock-jawed brownies of Trout Creek.  I flailed the water for an entire day, spooking many fish and landing only three despite heroic efforts that included sloshing through beaver pond marshes in knee-deep muck, fighting willows for my flies, and scaling steep slopes to get to hidden ponds.  Nothing worked!  

Fortunately, I got a measure of revenge and partially rejuvenated my mojo with trips several weeks later to tackle the beaver ponds of Pass Creek not far from my cabin near Salida, Colorado.  I managed to catch dozens of nice browns and brookies including a 14-inch beautiful brownie. 

With my mojo partially patched up, I am planning a return encounter this summer with the baffling Trout Creek denizens! 

Another particularly humbling experience came in the fall at the hands of brook trout on the upper reaches of the Huerfano (Wear-fano) River in the wilds of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of southern Colorado. Fishing in one of the most scenic valleys I’ve ever set foot in, I was sure this was going to be a banner day when in the first pool I came to I spied nice brook trout finning in the depths. However, three hours and many epithets lates, I flew the white flag. I had scored nary a bite the whole time as the spawning brookies made clear amore was more important than eating. With the air redolent of skunk, I slunk back to my SUV and headed back downstream where I managed to salve my bruised ego and rid the myself of the scent of skunk with a dozen or so nice brown trout. Sometimes persistence pays off!

On the blood-curdling front, in the past close encounters with alligators and moose have topped the list.  This time it was a close-encounter of the cougar kind.  Picture bushwhacking through heavy, tall brush along a creek to fish a beaver pond, stepping out on a sand bar, and seeing the fresh tracks of a mountain lion!  That’s what happened to me on Pass Creek last summer. 

Needless to say the last few hairs on my follicle-challenged head stood straight up! I hadn’t seen or heard a thing, but had no doubt the cat was watching me. Fortunately he must have thought my skinny, old body wouldn’t be much of a snack. I made plenty of noise the rest of the day, and had my knife close at hand just in case. A 14-inch brown trout made the fright worthwhile!

Most Surprising

For every Huerfano River or Trout Creek debacle, there always seems to be one or two pleasant surprises each year where I discover a new, unexpectedly good water to fish. Upper Tarryall Creek in South Park, Colorado, wins the award for 2021. I stumbled onto the creek in June when I stopped with my sweetheart granddaughter Aly to have lunch and explore a “haunted house” at the Cline Ranch State Wildlife Area on the way from Denver to my cabin outside Salida, Colorado.

When I pulled into the parking area, I noticed that the four spaces were all prominently numbered. On a nearby sign I read that each parking space was assigned an exclusive “beat” on nearby Upper Tarryall Creek, a beautiful small stream. It reminded me of the beat system the English use on their rivers where waters are divided into beats or stretches and the number of anglers allowed on each limited to help spread out the fishing pressure. I made a mental note to return, which I did several weeks later. After parking in one of the designated spots, I walked north to the corresponding upper beat and had a fabulous day fishing for nice browns in the creek and several big beaver ponds. All of this not much more than a stone’s throw from traffic whizzing by US 285. And I had the water to myself all day in South Park that is sometimes overrun with anglers from Denver and Colorado Springs. What a smart idea!

On The Horizon: Looking Forward to 2022

So what’s on the agenda for 2022? First and foremost is to get back down to Florida to get my saltwater chops back.  I arrived in Everglades City a couple of weeks ago, got the kayak and Gheenoe ready to go, and started executing that plan.  A 24-inch snook on my first yak outing led the fish parade. More stories and tall tales to come from the Everglades backcountry!

I also want to explore some of the remote brackish canals east of Naples, Florida, that are impossible to access except with a kayak.  Big snook are rumored to hide out there along with the gators!

While in Florida, I hope to get the Everglades Kayak Fishing Guide back on track and will be sending out the manuscript to several publishing houses.

I’ll be hauling one of my pedal kayaks with me on the way back to Colorado in May so I can stop at Port O’Connor, Texas, and fish that wonderful inshore water inside the barrier island for redfish and sea trout in my kayak.  The yak will also come in handy as I try to explore some high-mountain lakes in Colorado that are accessible with my 4-WD SUV.

Also high on my list when I return to Colorado for the summer will be to fish another remote tributary of the Conejos River, the Middle Fork up in the high country not too far from the Adams Fork.  I also want to explore the upper, wild reaches of the Rio Chama near the New Mexico border. 

Of course, I will chase some trout with my sweetheart Aly!!

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