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.