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.
How does your light shine in the halls of Shambala”
–3 Dog Night
Late August 2017
Last summer I stumbled on the proverbial angler’s Elysium—a hidden creek with big trout tucked away in a mountain valley deep in a Rocky Mountain wilderness area. For weeks I had studied maps, taken a gander at all sorts of trail and fishing guides, and chewed the fat at local fly fishing shops to ferret out this little jewel. Then in September, armed with all this intelligence, I strapped on my day pack and struck out to see if whispered tales of leviathans in that tiny creek were true. As I descended into the narrow gorge, I was treated to a scene right out of the Lost Horizon, James Hilton’s novel and Frank Capra’s film about a secret utopia in the Himalayas where peace reigned and people didn’t age. The low-scudding clouds suddenly parted to reveal a green nirvana with a beautiful stream coursing down it, bending and tumbling through meadow and canyon stretches upstream.
The Lost Horizon reputedly drew on Buddhist lore of a mythical, pure kingdom called Shambala whose reality is spiritual as much as physical. I felt that spiritual feeling as I wended my way down the switchbacks into the lush, broad first meadow. That day the sun shown, the fishing for outsize trout epic, and my spirit was calm and content. As I hiked out late in the afternoon, crossing the two fords of feeder creeks, I vowed to return to what I dubbed Shambala Creek.
Now almost a year later I’m saddling up for a horse pack trip back to Shambala Creek with my erstwhile fishing buddy, Bob Wayne. We have a lot in common. Bob is a recovering attorney like myself, and lives just across the road from me in the Everglades. Like me, he loves the outdoors and chasing sport fish both in fresh and saltwater. Bob is one of the most astute fly fishermen and accomplished fly casters I have plied the waters with. On the other hand, we are a tad dissimilar in other ways. He was born in the East and hasn’t been on a camping trip in 40 years (That might explain the big pack of baby wipes in his gear bag, six big apples for what he called digestive roughage, a $250 Thermarest camping mattress, and a his own personal tent to accommodate his sleeping needs!). We make a nice Mutt and Jeff pair with me at 6’3″ and Bob about 5’10” in his elevator shoes.
Bob is a bundle of nerves as he mounts his steed, a mule named Nelson. According to the apocryphal tales Bob recounts, he has never met a horse who hasn’t bit, bucked, or trampled him. Fortunately Nelson proves to be a gentle sort, and soon Bob is imitating Roy Rogers as he canters around the trailhead like an Olympic equestrian.
We are on the trail with our mountain of gear and outfitter by 10 a.m. and arrive at 12:30 at a commodious camp site I spotted last year, only a stone’s throw from the creek that will act as our water source and refrigerator for the libations we have toted to the high country. By 3:30 the tents are up, gear stowed, and we are headed to the first deep pool just upstream from our camp.
The rocks in the creek are super slippery, so after fording a feeder stream, we cross the creek and bushwhack up the overgrown far shoreline, growling at the snatching spruce and wild rose bushes. Finally we stumble through an opening in the thicket and emerge just below the honey hole I took three big trout of last year. We creep up slowly and what we spy makes our eyes bulge. A leviathan is slurping down big mayflies as they drift to the tail of the pool, which is barely 20 feet long and 10 feet wide. Being a gracious host and friend, I give Bob first shot. He drops a size 18 Adams parachute, delicately above the rising fish….and nothing happens. He repeats, and this time the big boy rises slowly and insouciantly inhales the fly. The pool erupts as the trout realizes he’s hooked. He churns the water, but Bob’s stout five-weight fly rod finally subdues the brute…or at least that’s what we think until he makes one last lunge for freedom and gets loose. He looked to be a cutbow in the neighborhood of 18-19 inches, huge for such a small water.
We agree to let the pool rest a few minutes, and before long another hefty one is rising, just upstream from where the first nailed the fly. As soon as the Adams hits the water, the fish inhales the fly and the fight is on. The pool is churning again like a whirling washing machine as the big trout makes a bid for freedom. This time I’m able to get him in the net for Bob before he can wriggle off—a fat, beautiful 16-inch plus rainbow! Bob has a wide grin on his face and fist-bumps me. I breathe a sigh of relief—the pressure is off his guide!
We again let the pool rest for a few minutes, then it’s my turn. I move to the head of the pool where the creek plunges over some small rocks and crashes into a boulder before it swirls into a deep hole in the pool below. Last year I got a nice one here on a dry/dropper combination, a big rainbow nailing a size 18 Two-Bit Hooker nymph that imitates the small mayfly nymphs clinging to the submerged stream rocks. I make a couple of casts along the boulder, but no dice. Then on the third I see a big trout jet downstream into the pool and realize he has my fly in his mouth as the high-floating Royal Coachman Trude dry is yanked under the surface. He’s on the nymph and promptly turns and jets upstream, trying to swim over the rocks into the open water above. I pull back hard, my Sage #5 rod bending perilously. Then he reverses course and heads downstream. If he gets below me, it’s curtains because with his bulk coupled with the strong current, my leader will snap. Again I haul back hard and he turns. The fight goes on back and forth before he finally comes to heel—a giant rainbow just over 18-inches long. The Two-Bit Hooker does the trick again. What a start!!
We explore upstream for a half hour, but it’s getting late and we are tuckered out, so decide to call it a day. Shambala Creek is an interesting one, with few fish in the long, shallow runs between deeper pools, usually at hard bends in the stream where the big ones hide. We don’t see another fish after the first pool where we struck gold.
Back at camp as the sun disappears behind the high palisades to the west, Bob (whom I peg as an aspiring pyromaniac) finds his niche as chief campfire maker as I cook up a delectable freeze-dried dinner of chili mac to which I add some fat, succulent diced hot dogs washed down with ice-cold beer that has been cooling in the creek. Fortunately the camp site is surrounded by scads of downed and dead spruce, compliments of the pesky spruce/pine bark beetle that is ravaging western forests, so Bob soon has gathered a gigantic pile of firewood for the evening and morning bonfires. We sit around the blaze for a couple of hours sharing belly laughs at ourselves, two geezers in the woods. A little assistance from Mr. Jim Beam steels us for the cold night ahead.
I hear rustling at dawn just outside my tent. Bear? Elk? Deer? No, It’s junior fireman Bob at work. By the time I unfurl from my warm sleeping bag and don a stocking cap, he’s got a good blaze going, assisted by a little Coleman fuel. I rustle up some hot oatmeal topped with peaches, then we wait for the sun to peek over the high ridge above our campsite. No need to get out early before the sun has a chance to warm up the water and stimulate the trout.
We start upstream at about 9 a.m., and hit the first decent pool at a bend in the creek just off the trail about a half-mile above the camp. Purist Bob renounces nymphs and casts the Adams dry that garnered his big rainbow last afternoon. Nary a look after several perfect floats along the undercut bank where the fish were hiding last summer. He waves me forward, and on the first cast, something big yanks my dry under, tugging on the Two-Bit Hooker. Both of our jaws drop as a hefty rainbow thrashes to the surface then takes off to the races. Fortunately the creek is wide at this point, and I have a lot of room to maneuver him away from the snaggy undercut bank. In a minute he’s at the net, a strong 17 inches.
We continue working up the creek, wading through long stretches of skinny water that seem to be devoid of any fish, large or small. So odd, because the water is fertile, every rocked chock-a-block with mayfly and caddis nymphs. As the air warms, a few mayflies begin to flutter about, and we spot some risers in a back eddy above a big boulder that has created a deep pool. Bob makes a perfect cast under an overhanging bush and immediately entices a rise, but flubs it. My turn….and I do the same. Then I get snagged and that puts the fish down.
On to the next pool, and we spot another riser on the other side of a large mid-stream rock. Bob executes a beautiful cast upstream of the rock into the pool, his line draped over the boulder. WHAM! A big fish nails his fly and bolts upstream. Before long, a gorgeous brook trout sporting outrageous colors is at the net, an impressive 15 inches, very large for a brookie in a small water like this.
Now it’s my turn, and I trudge upstream looking for the next hole. I spy a nice trout rising under an overhanging bush, in a nearly unreachable spot. The only way to wangle my fly into the enticing hole is to cast downstream and let it float under the grasping branches. The Trude rides the current, somehow avoiding the snags, and a big fish flashes up but misses the faux treat. Damn! I wait a few minutes and try again, hope fading. But to my surprise, the trout rises again and nails the fly. I haul back hard to force him upstream and out of the hole. It’s nip and tuck for a minute, but finally he’s in the net, a stocky, silvery 16-inch rainbow.
I look around for Bob to gloat, but he’s AWOL. I holler, and after a bit he emerges from the brush with his special solar eclipse glasses on. He informs me that for the next hour he will eschew piscatorial pursuits in favor of watching the moon shadow the sun, a once-in-a-lifetime event he informs me.
Since I have seen a near-full eclipse as a kid in Kansas, I opt for chasing more trout. And while Bob remains awed, in truth we are in a spot with only 85% shadow and the sun barely dims. Fortunately, the camera catches some spectacular images.
After the eclipse passes and we have a leisurely lunch, Bob and I continue upstream. But the water is getting thinner and thinner and good water scarcer and scarcer. Every good pool harbors a big fish—nothing less than 16 inches! But when the thunder starts to roll and thunderheads roll in from the south, we decide to head back. Good decision—just as we hit the camp, the rain lets loose. We ride out the storm comfortably ensconced in my big six-person dome tent, big enough to set up two camp chairs in while we enjoy a good bottle of wine. Finally the rain lets up, and Bob builds a fire and I grab some beer and wine from our “refrigerator”, then warm up a couple of big juicy steaks I had barbecued back at my cabin. My idea of roughing it as a senior citizen.
Bob’s fire keeps us warm along with a little help from Mr. Beam. I have come up with an excellent concoction consisting of Earl Grey tea, French vanilla creamer, a little sugar, and a jigger of whiskey that warms the cockles. Highly recommended as a pre-sleeping bag palliative for the near-freezing temps to come later that night! With our stocking caps and long-johns deployed, Bob and I retire to our respective tents.
The next morning we decide to head downstream into the cataract where the creek drops in a head-long rush for a mile or more before emerging in a wide meadow that is inaccessible from above. On the way in as we rode the horses along the canyon rim, we caught glimpses of some tempting pools where the creek butts up against the sheer palisades on its flanks then executes bends that create some holding water. Google Maps reveals there are a surprising number of these bends in the canyon where we expected the stream to be straight and wild and not likely to hold many good fish. It takes us a while to find a spot where we can traverse a steep slope down to the creek then continue downstream in search of the pools we sighted from above. It’s not optimal to work downstream when fly fishing as the trout are facing upstream into the current and can spot an intruder more easily, but that’s the only option as it is impossible to access the creek from below because of the sheer walls and then work up. We hack through the willows and brush and ford some gnarly marshy areas that clearly haven’t seen anything but wild critters in a couple of years. Finally we emerge at a spot where the creek executes a sinuous S-curve, creating a couple of deep pools.
I give Bob the first shot, and he delivers a deft cast that lets his dry fly float down a fishy looking foam line mid-stream. A huge trout rises slowly and sucks it in and proceeds to tear up the pool. Bob weathers the initial runs then adroitly eases the fish to the far bank. It’s another big rainbow that poses for a few shots before finning his way back to his station.
Now it’s my turn, and with confident anticipation I run my nymph through the long, deep run just above where Bob fooled his trout. Shockingly, a dozen casts later, I come up empty.
We move downstream to the lower part of the S-curve and see a nice fish rising just above a big boulder and in a pocket of quiet water just out of the main current. Bob graciously lets me have a shot, and the trout swirls at the Trude but misses. Second cast, it swirls again. Third cast, another look but a refusal. I switch to a small grasshopper pattern and get more looks, but no prize. I switch again to the Adams parachute that has worked for Bob and imitates the mayflies that are starting to float downstream. Another trio of more eager looks, but no hook up. Shaking our heads, we navigate downstream, vowing to stalk this guy on the way back out.
For the next couple of hours, Bob and I hop-scotch downstream, alternating wading on the slippery rocks or walking on the game trail featuring tall grass, downed trees, and wild rose bushes that parallels the creek on the canyon floor. Where the palisades drop right to the water’s edge and stop our progress, we cross the stream, often having to climb over huge downed spruce to continue on the other. On the way, Bob coaxes a pair of muscular fish on the Adams, and I lose the biggest trout of the trip that nails a #18 Tung Teaser nymph then zooms downstream before I can put the brakes on. My 5X leader parts with a sharp snap as the weight of the fish and heavy current do their work.
We break for lunch just below a scenic pool, then decide it’s time to head back to camp. I fool a nice 16-incher on the Trude and Bob a larger one on the Adams, then we’re back at the boulder pool where the trout said no thank you to me nine times earlier in the day. We creep up slowly and peer around the boulder. He’s still there and feeding steadily. I tie on the Adams sans nymph and through a curve cast around the boulder. There’s no hesitation this time, and I’m fast onto a heavy fish. He rockets upstream, heading for some jagged rocks at the head of the pool. I struggle to turn him, my rod bent double. He lunges again and again, but the leader holds. After a marathon battle, I manage to ease him over to Bob and the waiting net. It’s a chunky 18-inch rainbow, the biggest of the afternoon.
That leaves one last pool, the one where Bob started the day with a big rainbow. He creeps up stealthily from below and pinpoints a cast along the sheer wall of the palisades. The dry fly floats jauntily in the current then disappears in a flash. Another enormous trout. Bob plays him cautiously, and after a couple of abortive attempts to bring the fish to the net, slides him up on the shore for a quick photo and release.
What a fabulous way to end the trip—a grand total of almost 20 trout, all bigger than 15 inches! Virtually unheard of for a diminutive creek. And nary another angler’s boot mark anywhere. Now it’s time to hustle back to camp—the monsoon rains are threatening again, and we can hear thunder rolling down the canyon towards us.
We make camp to the tune of rain spitting on our tents. It’s 4 p.m., and a perfect time for our afternoon siesta. When we awake, the sky is showing a little blue among the dark clouds, so we hustle and get a fire going and cook up some mouth-watering freeze-dried teriyaki chicken dinner. Then settle in for a relaxing evening in front of the fire with the last remnants of our wine stock. But it’s not to be. Big drops of rain sizzle down into the fire as we scramble to get our gear under cover. Then it rains, and hard for a couple of hours, finally giving way to a clear starry sky when I awake around 3 a.m.
The good news is the next morning it’s bright and sunny, just what we needed to dry out our tents and camp miscellany before the outfitter arrives around 11 a.m. When he arrives, we are happy to see he’s brought an extra mule that makes packing our enormous cache of gear a lot easier and quicker. After a few memorial photos, we’re on the trail just after noon.
All’s well for an hour or so until my saddle straps loosen, and I lurch to one side. I hail our guide, and he jumps from his lead horse, runs back to me at the rear of the pack train, and gets things adjusted. But in the meantime, his horse decides to continue the trek without him, pulling the three pack mules behind. In the wink of an eye, the horse and all of our gear are out of sight! The young wrangler takes off in hot pursuit, but in his chaps and cowboy boots, he can’t gain any ground. Finally after a mile or so hoofing it at a fast pace, he takes up an offer to take my horse and give chase while I walk behind. It takes almost a half hour before he and Bob catch up with the pack train, which is waiting patiently at a creek crossing, enjoying the shade and cool, refreshing water. I huff and puff in about 15 minutes after that. All our gear is in good order, and we have a good laugh before continuing. What could have been a disaster is just another good story to tell back home! Then it’s onward, up a series of steep switchbacks before we descend to the roaring little creek that will guide us up the wide valley back to the trailhead.
By 2 p.m. we are back at the horse trailer and loading our gear into my SUV. As I police the area for any errant items (missing the wading boots that Bob somehow leaves behind), it occurs to me that I probably won’t be back this way in my lifetime, a thought given my age that flashes through my mind when I visit most remote waters these days. So I wrestle with the age-old question of whether I should share this special stream—my Shambala Creek—with others? Bob lobbies to keep my mouth shut. It is so small and the fish so wild, it could easily be fished out by skilled anglers who aren’t into catch and release. Twenty years ago, I would have been hush-hush about it, not even breathing a word to angling friends. But now….So I decide to have a little fun with it all. Throughout this article, along with the photos, I have scattered telltale hints that the discerning reader can put together to pinpoint its location and figure out its real name. If you think you have the right creek, write me and I’ll let you know, along with tips and advice on where and how to fish it. Just promise to cherish this spot if you make it there and leave no footprints, only the trout you release back to the wilds.
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.