Fresh off a trip into the Grand Canyon to revisit the Colorado River and Bright Angel Creek, I took advantage of continued mild winter weather and headed over to New Mexico in the middle of January. My destination was the lower Red River near its confluence with the Rio Grande, nestled below basalt cliffs and rugged, beautiful country.
Snow etched the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos and the southern face of the Red River canyon as I made the descent to the river floor in late afternoon. Despite the sunlit weather, the air remained cool, and nights in the canyon demanded multiple layers of warm clothing and camping gear capable of insulating against freezing conditions.
The Rio Grande near the confluence with the lower Red has become something of an annual pilgrimage for me the last few years, particularly in late winter/early spring, both to appreciate the stunning landscapes and seek out a few of the finned denizens that call these waters home. I spent much of this trip prospecting the turquoise pools and pockets of the Red River, in search of cuttbows running up from the Rio Grande with thoughts of both feeding and spawning on their minds.
I experimented with several patterns, but egg imitations proved most effective in attracting the attention of both migrating and resident trout. I used apricot-colored Otter's Soft Eggs on #12 caddis pupae hooks, trailed off of a #10 Crawbugger, and stuck with stout tippets (3-4X) to reduce the chances of fish breaking off in the heavy currents.
Despite the stronger tippets and trying to play fish quickly and aggressively, I still lost some good ones--the powerful flows of the Red and Rio Grande are matched by the strength and fighting ability of the fish that inhabit these rivers. Nonetheless, I did manage to land some beauties, including this marvelous male cuttbow on the first morning, stretching just beyond 18".
The trout featured a kype and rich coloration, with spotting and hues that reflected both its cutthroat and rainbow heritage.
Soon after returning the bruiser to his wintering grounds, I came upon the rushing pool above, drifted the double rig of the streamer and egg near the boulder at the head of the run, and received a strong pull from a trout on the prowl.
The fish emerged as a fine foot-long brown, probably a resident that had recently completed spawning activities of its own, and was now taking advantage of the bounty of cuttbow eggs drifting downstream.
I caught a fair number of spunky browns in this size range, including the specimen below that also measured 12". Many of them featured dark golden olive hues with simmering red spots, reminding me once again why I enjoy pursuing these handsome trout.
The cuttbows were particularly stunning on this trip though, including the dark male shown in the photographs below, with a red side stripe that seemed to extend to the belly.
This trout was shaped like a football, measured just over 14", and fought like a fish way above its weight class.
The beauty of these fish got to me, with their vibrant palette of colors that seemed to echo and evoke the hues and wildness of their surroundings so well.
Snow clung to the banks and boulders along the river in shaded corners where the winter sun did not penetrate the canyon floor. In this particular section, I lobbed the streamer and egg patterns up against the triangular boulder on the right side of the image, and a fish quickly materialized from under the rock's shelter to inhale the Crawbugger.
The fish was a scrappy, long-jawed brown just under 15", possibly a large resident, or a Rio Grande fish overwintering in the warmer waters of the lower Red River. The trout featured sparse spotting and golden flanks, and was one of the only fish on the trip that took the streamer.
As the afternoon waned on the first day, I connected with one more beautiful cuttbow on an egg pattern, this one a 16.5" hen from a deceptively deep green pool.
The sky exploded with color near sunset, one last celebration of light before evening set in. The photograph above was taken near my campsite, looking back up towards the western rim of the Rio Grande canyon.
Blue skies returned the following morning, and I made my way to the Rio Grande near its confluence with the Red River once the sun's rays penetrated the canyon. Steam was visible in the mornings rising from the Red, revealing the warmer, spring-fed flows that joined with the cooler currents of the larger river. The water visibility in the Rio Grande was the clearest I have seen, with the numerous volcanic rocks littering the streambed evident and good trout occasionally spied in deep green pools. I turned back up along the Red River though, hopefully to find a few more sizable wild trout on the feed.
I connected with a good cuttbow in short order, this one a fat 17" female that probably weighed 2.5 lbs and was likely full of eggs. The red side stripe on the fish was brilliant crimson, and I noticed the dorsal fin was tattered and mostly missing, probably from a merganser, bald eagle (I saw several on this trip), or similar predator that had tried to capture it for a meal. I handled the survivor and its precious cargo with as much care as I could muster, and watched as the impressive trout recovered and merged back into her surroundings.
I did encounter some cuttbows that were paired up in the shallows, clearly in the process of spawning, and while I appreciated their size and beauty, I gave them a wide berth, along with the exposed gravel redds that dotted some sections of the streambed.
I suppose every angler has to decide on their own what is right when it comes to fishing during the spawning season. For my part, it seems reasonable to pursue trout when they are feeding and on the move, but not when they are actively engaged in reproducing, or wading through redds for that matter--the latter two activities only serve to damage future generations of wild trout, and just feel wrong, at least from my perspective.
I continued hiking along the banks of the Red River, at times just taking the place in and appreciating a scenic wild river bounding through beautiful country.
A few more vibrant cuttbows came to hand too, including this healthy 16.5" male cuttbow that was fooled on an egg pattern.
This nicely-spotted 12" brown also took a liking to an Otter's Soft Egg.
The deep chute of a pool below marked the upstream extent where I encountered good-sized cuttbows. Migrating fish seemed more concentrated closer to the Rio Grande on this trip, and were not particularly abundant in general--the spawning run appeared to be in the early stages, and most of the fish were possibly still making their way towards the Red River and up into the shelter of its pools and runs.
All the same, I managed to catch more than my fair share of gorgeous mature cuttbows, and briefly admired another richly-colored 16" male pictured below before release. The spotting pattern and bands of red hinted at the Rio Grande cutthroat ancestry present in this hybrid trout.
After several days and nights in the canyon of the Rio Grande, the trip came to a close, and I made the ascent back up to the rim, gazing periodically at the magnificent landscapes carved over time by the mighty river. It occurred to me that I had not encountered another human being during my time in the canyon--one of the many virtues of fly fishing is that it can transport an individual into wild lonely places, where the crazy pace of civilization and humanity fades away and is replaced by more natural rhythms that can be both humbling and restorative.
Even here, the scars and past abuses of humanity could at times be visible on the landscape, such as the Questa mining site (now considered as a potential Superfund cleanup site by the EPA) shown in the background in the following photograph, that decimated the biotic communities of the Red River and Rio Grande in years past. The sight of the mine as I approached the canyon rim served as a reminder of the fragility of wild and beautiful places, and the need to value and protect them.
Above all else, it was a joy to revisit the Rio Grande, and spend some time chasing after wild trout shaped by the tumbling canyon flows, in the heart of winter no less.