For my earlier outings on the Adams and Lake F ork of the Conejos, see: https://hooknfly.com/2021/09/14/prospecting-for-trout-on-the-fab-five-forks-of-the-conejos-river-2-the-adams-fork/ and https://hooknfly.com/2019/09/27/lake-fork-of-the-conejos-river-solitude-in-a-sanctuary-for-rare-rio-grande-cutthroat-trout/
I’m on my annual trip to fish the Conejos River country in southern Colorado. The Conejos is a mid-sized river that harbors big brown and rainbow trout that fatten up on its abundant insect life. Even though there is plenty of public water between Antonito and Platoro Reservoir, solitude can be a little hard to find. So I’ve done a little sleuthing and discovered the Conejos actually has five alluring forks—the North, South, Middle, Lake, and Adams—that are all remote waters requiring some hiking to get to.
A couple of years ago I had a stellar day on the Lake Fork, a three-mile hike into a high-mountain meadow paying off with a bonanza of gorgeous Rio Grande Cutthroats, several going better than 15-inches. After a year of missing fishing the Conejos because of the extreme drought in the area, last summer I sampled the Adams Fork above Platoro Reservoir, 40 miles west of Antonito. I had the water to myself and another banner day catching wild Rio Grande Cutthroats.
On that trip, I scouted the upper Conejos River and Middle Fork above Platoro Reservoir and liked what I saw.
The upper Conejos runs through a steep canyon before emptying into the lake and to reach the Middle and North Forks takes a good two-mile hike from the trailhead. That’s a perfect formula for the kind of angling solitude I like. I began to hatch a plan for a trip the next year to explore two more of the fabulous five Conejos River forks.
The wildcard in any trip to fish the Middle and North Forks is the long, rough drive from the campgrounds near Antonito where I usually stay when fishing the Conejos. It’s a 40-mile drive that takes a good two hours to the trailhead. The first 20 miles on paved Colorado 17 are smooth and scenic. But after that, tighten your seat belts! The next 20 miles are up CR 250, widely known for eating tires and various other vehicle parts. So this year I decided to see if I track down some overnight accommodations in the little historic community of Platoro below Platoro Reservoir that would allow me to spend a couple of days on the upper Conejos and Middle Fork. This would let me avoid making a long, tiring round trip to Antonito every day and maybe sneak in a return performance on the Adams Fork.
Platoro was founded in the late 1800s as a mining town. Its name in Spanish—plata for gold and oro for silver—tells the story. Rich veins of silver created a short-lived boom, but by 1913 Platoro was on the way to being a ghost town.
Platoro Reservoir built in 1951 helped spawn a comeback based on recreation. Today Platoro is a resort town that caters to anglers, hunters, hikers, and other assorted visitors. ATVs (aka Average Texan Vehicles) roam the streets and backroads. At an elevation of 10,000 feet, the town folds up in late fall for winter when it’s buried in snow and cold.
After some searching, I lucked out and was able to book a few days in a reasonably priced cabin, a former ranger station that the US Forest Service rents in Platoro. (For information on this cabin, Google Rio Grande National Forest—Platoro Cabin 1. Note that the cabin is all electric, not gas as described by the USFS site). Nothing fancy but perfectly fine for a short stay.
I reach the cabin in Platoro around noon, get unpacked and settled, then head out to the Three Forks Trailhead for a little reconnoitering. The water level below Platoro Reservoir on the state water gauge is a decent 110 cfs, so I figure there should be plenty of water above. (Levels between 90 and 120 cfs usually mean fishable water in the Middle and Adams Forks above the reservoir.)
When I arrive at the trailhead, I find a dozen or so vehicles in the parking lot, but won’t see anyone with a fishing rod all day. Most are hikers headed to Blue Lake for an overnight stay, high above the Middle Fork. Thinking I’ll probably find foot-long browns and maybe some cutthroats in the upper Conejos and Middle Fork, I have opted to use my 7.5 foot, 3-weight wand and go sans waders for this short exploratory trip. The hike along the canyon and into the valley is fairly flat, although muddy due to recent monsoon rains and a thorough stomping by cattle. I execute several impressive gymnastics moves to avoid the soupy mess as well as big mushy cow pies. Staying high above the canyon until I break into the valley in about an hour or so, I then cut down to the river below and find a game trail through the thicket to the water of the upper Conejos.
Another mile above, the Middle and North Forks join the El Rito Azul to form the Conejos. That will be my destination tomorrow.
Because of the thick, tall vegetation crowding the river and the fact I’m wearing my hiking boots instead of waders, I’m forced to leap onto a river rock three feet offshore. I perch precariously on the big rock and throw a long backhand cast upstream.
Using a #16 Royal Trude with a #18 caddis larva pattern of my own creation that I call Dirk’s Delight as a dropper, I aim for a likely looking quiet spot behind the big boulder that splits the river.
The Trude swirls slowly in the current, then I see a flash below it. Looked like a sizeable brown, but then my old eyes might have been deceived. I try again and this time there is no doubt—the Trude is walloped by a big brown. I set the hook, and the battle is on. But the little rod is no match for the leviathan, and he’s soon free. That pattern will be repeated at the next two pools above. Without waders, I am forced to make long casts into the best-looking pools, but don’t have enough backbone in the rod to set the hook or wrestle these beefy trout. Oddly, I don’t see or raise any small fish to the flies. Lesson learned—I shall return better equipped tomorrow.
Later that afternoon back at camp, I stop in the nearby Platoro general store and kibbutz with the clerk who is an avid angler. I learn that my experience isn’t unusual. Apparently big brownies have migrated out of the reservoir into the upper Conejos. He says the fishing can be spotty. Maybe because the big boys are eating all the smaller ones?
Next morning I’m up early and at the trailhead by 8:30 a.m. It’s a cool 55 degrees but will warm up to 70 by noon under a blue sky with some puffy white clouds. The wind is light. I pull on my chest waders, and resisting the urge to fish the Conejos canyon, I make the two-mile hike to the upper valley that will bring me to the Three Forks confluence where the Middle Fork, the North Fork, and the El Rito Azul creek meet.
Along the way I come across some lovely waterfalls and carpets of wildflowers that make for some nice breaks to photograph.
Above the Three Forks sign I take the trail to the left and soon cross the North Fork, which is barely a trickle (I’ll later find the main branch of the North Fork joins the Middle Fork further upstream). In 10 minutes, I come to a wide stretch of water where the tiny El Rito Azul and Middle Fork join. I get my rod ready to cast, then head up the Middle Fork.
The Middle Fork looks inviting, clear and with a good flow, about 30 cfs. But after 15-minutes of thrashing the water, I haven’t had a strike or even seen a fish. So far, there’s not much holding water where a big trout could hide. Dejectedly, I continue upstream and finally see some decent looking water ahead where the creek executes a big bend. I juice up the Trude to make sure it will float high and dry, and execute a perfect cast into the current just above the bend pool. The flow carries the fly into the deep pool where I can’t see the bottom. It lazily circles in a little quiet eddy…then suddenly disappears. I set the hook and all hell breaks loose. The big brown flies high into the air then heads directly downstream towards me. I head him off at the pass, and he retreats into the deep pool where I can feel him shaking his head in the depths. I move up towards the pool, net at the ready. We tussle for another minute, and finally the bruiser starts to relent and reluctantly comes towards the net. But when he sees me, the trout hits the afterburners and rockets past me downstream and dives into a massive snag along an undercut bank. I howl, unleashing an ungentlemanly barrage of expletives as my line goes limp. Dolefully, I wade towards the snag and grab my leader….and am shocked to feel the fish still on the line. Suddenly he spurts out from under the snag, somehow having untangled my line. Then he turns abruptly downstream again and jets by me through a riffle into another pool below, with me hard on his heels…uh, fins. Now the tide turns my way as he rests in the depths. He makes a couple of more runs, but with the stouter rod I manage to turn him and finally ease the brownie into my net…but just barely. He’s over 18-inches long and a hefty, dark golden beauty. After a quick photo and release, I sit down for a bit to calm my nerves.
In a few minutes, I start back upstream and decide I might as well run the flies through the bend pool again even though the commotion will have probably scared the daylights out of any other fish in the vicinity. Wrong! No sooner does the Trude slide into the pool, and it disappears. I lift the rod sharply and am fast onto another big brownie. I can see it’s a female, perhaps the beau of the big boy getting ready for some amorous adventures since it’s nearing fall spawning time. She heads deep then makes some slashing runs up and downstream. I scramble to block her exit and succeed in herding the lass back into the pool. Soon she slides into the net, a respectable 16-inches! However, the finny beauty gets the last laugh. I kneel and remove the hook, but as I grab my phone from my vest for a quick photo, she does a frenetic dance and slips out of my grip. She wriggles wildly in the thin shoreline water in a bid for freedom with me in hot pursuit on my knees. I lunged for her, but too late. Sprawled in the shallows, I have to laugh, thankful no one is there to take a video!
Confidently, I proceed upstream, looking for the next lunker pool. I spot a good run with some depth along the shoreline above, but it’s no dice. Next I come to where the main stem of the North Fork joins the Middle Fork, creating a good-looking pool. Again I fail to raise a fish and don’t see any trout when I wade into the pool to spy. I follow the Middle Fork up a few hundred yards without any luck, then soon come to a long overgrown stretch where casting is impossible, so retreat to the North Fork.
The North Fork is smaller than the Middle Fork, with a fast shallow current. And where it slows, bushes crowd its banks, making casting impossible.
I hike upstream about a quarter mile, looking for a fishable stretch. Just before the stream enters a narrow, overgrown canyon, it butts into a steep slope, creating a nice bend pool. I kneel quietly and throw a short cast up against the far shoreline where the flow is deeper. Immediately a brown trout smacks the Trude, but I miss him. I make several more casts, but come up empty. Continuing on, I come to a beautiful stretch where the creek executes a hard turn, creating a deep pool. Problem is, the cloying branches of a spruce tree overhang the pool, and to make matters more challenging, a big fir tree has crashed down across the water above, making casting even tougher. I size things up and figure my only hope is to make a short, low sidearm cast so the flies alight below the downed tree, then let the faux edibles float in the current under the spruce branches. With nerves of steel, I wind up to make the first cast, and grimace as the flies alight daintily on the dastardly branches. I grit my teeth and give the rig a gentle pull, and miraculously it comes loose. My second cast is more on target, narrowly avoiding getting snagged on the big log then floating perfectly under the spruce branches into the deep shoreline run. BAM! A brownie nails the Trude and quickly comes to the net, a nice 12-incher.
I manage another adroit cast and another brown trout, a double of the first, sucks in the caddis larva dropper. Now fully confident, I target my third cast and of course it goes awry, snagging in the spruce branches. Blue spruce trees do not give up their prey easily, and I finally throw up my arms and wade in to free the imprisoned flies. I take that as a sign to retreat down the valley, especially as I see some ominous clouds boiling up to the south.
I retrace my steps to the Three Forks confluence and decide to work back down the upper Conejos to the stretch that I fished yesterday, just above where the river enters a narrow canyon before flowing into Platoro Reservoir. I have to do some bushwhacking along the river, but at least have the place to myself except for the bovine spectators. The first three or four pools I sample result in a goose-egg, but things get better a quarter mile downstream where the river runs headlong into a rocky outcropping, creating a deep, slower moving stretch. As I size things up from above, I see a couple of trout rising steadily. I work my way down into casting range and throw a short line just above the risers. One immediately sucks in the Trude and the fight is on. After a good tussle, the brown gets the upper hand with a nice jump that throws the fly. I try again, and another brown smacks the dry, and just as quickly I execute a long-distance release.
Resolutely, I move down to the bottom of the pool and manage to flub a couple more strikes. Licking my wounds, I yell insults at the audience of cattle that have witnessed my ineptitude.
Fortunately, my luck changes just around the bend where the river executes a hard turn to the west, creating a series of beautiful runs where I manage to fool several 14-inch brown trout. Before long I am at the pool where I had hooked and lost the big bruiser brown yesterday. Today with waders on, I am able to get across the swift, deep current and into a much better position to probe the depths below the rapids. After a couple of tries, I finally get a good float below the rapids into some quieter water. On cue, the Trude disappears and I set the hook on a good fish. He is strong, and thrashes around in the big pool, to and fro. But today my rod is up to the task, and I slide a respectable 14-inch brown into my net.
I turn and eye the canyon water downstream, but it’s now almost 4 p.m., and while I am tempted to continue into the gorge with its alluring plunge pools, I still have another hour of hiking to get back up to the trail then to the trailhead. So, I end the day by tipping my hat to the Middle Fork and upper Conejos River, knowing I’ll be back to explore next year.
As I walk out enjoying the scenery, I puzzle over the waters I have fished today. The Middle Fork and the upper Conejos formed by the three forks are so unlike the Lake and Adams Fork. My conclusion is if you want shots at some very substantial brown trout up to 20-inches and likely more, then the upper Conejos and Middle Fork are the ticket—but don’t expect many fish of all sizes or in substantial numbers like the Lake and Adams Forks. And who knows what you might find by venturing into that wild canyon water. As to the little North Fork, it holds a few promising runs and pools for 10 to 12-inch browns, but bring you’re A-casting game if you go.