After a busy week with my little sweetheart granddaughter Aly, I was hankering for some time in the wilds where I intended to undertake several days of serious piscatorial research on two remote creeks where the runoff had abated. I was lucky to find grand scenery and landscapes dotted with beautiful wildflowers, solitude, and loads of spunky, willing brown trout. See the video below–details to follow soon for you angling aficionados!
One distinct pleasure of my 72 years on this good Earth has been finding remote canyons deeply incised by an untrammeled trout stream. The thrill of standing on a canyon rim and gazing down with anticipation on a picture-perfect creek is hard to equal. But as the population of the West continues to boom it is becoming harder and harder to find these gems…but not impossible. It takes some sleuthing on-line and studying Google Maps’ satellite images as well as topo maps. And you must be prepared to be disappointed when you get in the field and strike out like I did a couple of years ago exploring the upper reaches of the Lake Fork of Cochetopa Creek, which looked so good on Google Maps but in reality hardly had enough water to float a minnow.
The wild card now for me is whether my achey breaky body is up to the hike down that steep slope to trout nirvana, and more importantly, will it hold up so I can make it out. I reached the point a couple of years ago where I seriously started to wonder, so I swallowed my pride and purchased an Garmin InReach emergency satellite phone.
This handy dandy device can get service just about anywhere and with one press of the emergency button will alert the closest rescue cavalry that I need help.
To keep these gloomy feelings at bay I vow each year to ferret out another candidate remote water or two. Just such an opportunity presented itself a few months ago when, after some investigation, I discovered a way to access a new stretch of water that I had never laid eyes on in a deep canyon of a familiar creek. It would require a rough 4WD ride to the canyon rim, but Google Maps seemed to reveal an access route, albeit steep, from the top down to the stream that I might be able to navigate, if just barely.
With the days growing shorter, I figured I better get going. After a bone-rattling drive I got to the canyon rim around 9 a.m. I assumed correctly that there wasn’t a need to get going at the crack of dawn as the cliffs sheltering the creek would keep the water in shadows and cold till later in the morning. Canyon trout definitely wake up when the sun shines on them. I jump out of my SUV, check the tires for any damage, and then walk to the edge to take a look. The creek below looks fantastic!
But I blurt out a Holy **** when I focus on a nearly vertical route that had looked so promising on Google Maps, one that would require criss-crossing several scree fields of loose rock and gravel down a narrow gulch to reach the creek.
Thinking no way, I spend 15 minutes walking back and forth along the rim searching for a better path, maybe a trail local wildlife use, but come up empty. I decide to ignore my misgivings and go for it.
I get suited up in my waist high waders that make for easier walking than chest-high models, unfurl my collapsible wading/hiking staff that will help slow my descent, and double check my satellite phone to make sure it’s fully charged. I start down the chute gingerly carrying my rod and lunch satchel in my left hand and the hiking staff in my right. I make it down to the first scree field I have to cross and immediately lose my footing, slip down on my arse, and go sliding down the steep slope feet first. I jam the staff into the loose rocks to slow my descent, but it’s going to take more. I toss my rod to the side in a bush then jettison the lunch satchel, which goes careening down the slope at warp speed. It makes for quite a show as half way down a can of Squirt in the satchel explodes and spews forth a geyser of the tasty elixir before the bag comes to rest against a pine tree only a few feet from the creek. But with my left hand now free I’m able to grab another bush and put the brakes on. After taking a deep breath I crawl back up the slope to retrieve my rod, which has miraculously survived unscathed.
Question now is whether to abandon the quest. I’m maybe a third of the way down and what remains, if I continue, is one of the most dangerous slopes I have ever been foolhardy enough to tackle. But then my eyes rove to the gorgeous pools up and down the creek, so close and alluring. They are like lovely Sirens tempting me. I can’t resist and continue my mission, traversing back and forth across the slope very slowly, grabbing bushes and clumps of grass and jabbing my hiking staff into the ground to slow my descent. Ten minutes later I am standing next to the creek, pristine and crystal clear. I see a dipper bird on a shoreline rock, another good sign—dippers feed on subsurface nymphs and their presence means plenty of trout food.
But when I turn around, reality sets in as I gaze on the route I just took–it will be next to impossible to climb out on.
Not to worry, I think, at least for now. I have several hours to find a better exit track. And lo and behold, I discover my lunch is mostly intact except for the now empty can of Squirt. I stow the satchel under the shade of a pine tree and take off upstream, full steam ahead. My plan is to fish upstream for about three hours, come back and have lunch, then three more hours of fishing downstream. As I do, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for a better route out.
I’m on the water and casting by 10:15. The water is clear and ice cold. I’ve scared up a few grasshoppers as I walked upstream and a quick check of rocks in the streambed reveals throngs of small mayfly nymphs and caddis cases. I rig up with a #16 Royal California Trude dry that with its yellow body (as opposed to a Royal Coachman Trude’s red body) is a reasonable facsimile of the small hoppers I saw. Trailing beneath it is a #18 Tung Teaser nymph that has worked well on other stretch of this creek.
The first bend pool I come to looks like a sure hideout for a good-sized trout….and it proves to be just that.
I cast above the bend, and as the dry fly floats down close to the undercut bank, it is intercepted by a nice trout that jets downstream, then up then back again and executes a couple of athletic jumps before I can get him to the net. He’s a beautiful muscular 14-inch brownie. I score several more fish before moving on.
For the next couple of hours I have a ball catching and releasing several dozen 10-14” browns, most favoring the nymph over the dry by about a 4:1 ratio, not surprising as there are no hatches going. Some I find hiding under mid-stream vegetation while others are concealed in quiet water behind boulders just off deep, fast runs.
The variety of pools and holding water where I found the fish make for an interesting morning, each requiring a different approach. I’ve also spotted a few exit routes on the north side of the creek that look easier and less death-defying than my initial one. Around 12:30 I head back downstream to my lunch and a short break in the shade. When I set out this morning the temperature was hovering in the mid-30s. Now it’s in the 70s.
By 1 p.m. I’m bushwhacking my way downstream where the canyon narrows and the creek picks up some speed. My goal is the big pool I spotted this morning just below some pinnacles.
Twenty minutes later I wriggle through a stand of head-high willows and emerge just below the prospective honey hole. It doesn’t disappoint.
It’s deep with three distinct channels pouring water in from above. I can see fish finning in two of them where they flow into the pool. In the run closest to me I spy a couple of 15-inch plus fish nonchalantly picking off bugs just below the surface. I creep up carefully on the gravel bar below them then cast from a kneeling position. I muff the first cast, dropping the fly right on their heads, but miraculously they don’t flee. My second cast alights on target about six feet above them and a few feet to the side. As the Trude slides down towards them, one of the big boys glides over with his mouth open and inhales the dry. I set the hook and he’s on….but only for a second. I flubbed and yanked a second too soon before he had really clamped down on the fly. I let the pool rest for a few minutes and then try for his buddy. I get another good float, but he ignores it. Then, just as I begin to lift the fly 10 feet below at the bottom of the run, a smaller fish flashes up and nails the trailing Tung Teaser. He’s on for a second, but I manage to execute another long-distance release. I try another half dozen casts but finally spook the second big trout who disappears into the depths.
Now I focus on the second run at the top middle of the pool. I can see another good trout feeding actively in the shallower water just below where the current pours in. I make a perfect cast above him a few feet, but the trout immediately rockets to the next county. I then humbly fix my sights on the third run on the opposite side of the pool that against a boulder has created a big, slow-moving back eddy a kind of spot that often shelters big fish. My flies land gently at the bottom of the eddy then slowly float back upstream along a foam line as I had planned. Suddenly the Trude disappears, and I set the hook. My rod bends, and a heavy trout thrashes to the surface, shaking his head to throw the fly…and he succeeds! Aarrgghh! The fishing gods have forsaken me!! I flail the pool for another 15 minutes, but to no avail. As I stand and walk up the gravel bar to do some reconnaissance for a possible future trip, I see four large fish, probably brownies, hugging the bottom, all with a case of lock jaw. I smile and curse softly, letting the scoundrels know that I’ll be back and maybe the story will have a different ending then. The good news is I think I have spotted a possible escape to get me back safely to my SUV later in the afternoon.
By now it’s almost 2 p.m. and I decide to work my way back upstream to get my lunch satchel, fishing along the way. I manage a couple of more nice brown trout in a plunge pool, but this lower section is shallower and too fast to hold many fish.
I grab my lunch and head back down to my chosen escape route, but on my way run into a little trouble. My wading staff breaks, leaving me with a short remnant to work with to steady me and help pull my old body up the steep incline.
When I reach the bottom of the incline I say a little prayer and begin the climb out, criss-crossing back and forth on the steep slope.
It’s tough going, but easier than the way in because there are no scree fields and loose rocks to contend with. I pause several times to catch my breath, and snap photos to remind myself that I was a bit daft to do this.
But then again I can see some sweet looking pools just downstream that call out to be sampled in the future!
Fortunately, my broken wading staff is still just long enough that I can jab it into the soil above me just far enough to help pull my body up slowly but surely. In 15 minutes I am back at my SUV, tuckered out but already starting to think about another trip using an easier access point I spotted further downstream.
That night afters doses of wine and ibuprofen, I fall asleep quickly and have a vivid dream about what my fishing future might be like circa 2030. I wonder if they make walkers that could work on a steep canyon slope??
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.