Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rio Grande, January 2012

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.


  1. I've seen you post about your visit to NM a couple of times and it really has me intrigued. Looks like one of these days I'll have to head over that way. Does it still fish well during the summer? Great report with some nice fish.


  2. Ben,

    Thanks for the comment--yeah, I think you would love the country and fishing in that area. I haven't fished the Rio Grande myself in the summer, but my understanding is that it fishes best in late winter/early spring, and again in the fall, when irrigation demands and releases are at a minimum, and water clarity and temperatures are better; this also coincides with cuttbows and browns on the move with thoughts of spawning and feeding on their minds. From personal experience and what I have heard from anglers/guides in the region, the Rio Grande can be a temperamental river, but when it is on, the fishing can be fantastic.

    All that said, there are a number of great tributaries to the main river as well, and some of these are at their peak in summer, from what I have heard. Send me an e-mail if you want more details, and I can share the limited information that I know.

    Incidentally, as I start publishing some of my older posts from 2010 and 2011, you'll notice I made a couple more trips in the area, in fall 2010 and again in spring 2011, so stay tuned.


  3. Iain, Good to see you posting again. I have been looking forward to the post below this one about the Grand Canyon and really regret not being able to make it out this spring break. Glad that some of the fish are still making it despite man's efforts to kill them. That big brown is truly special for a creek of that size! Love this post about the Red and Rio Grande vicinity as well. Its another one on my list of adventures for sometime in the future!


  4. David,

    Thanks for the comments--I think you would love the country around the Rio Grande gorge and the lower Red, not to mention the fishing. We'll have to try and meet up for a trip into the Grand Canyon one of these seasons--sorry you can't make it out this spring break!


  5. Hello Iain, my name is Keegan Norman and I really enjoy your blog. My dad lives in Cottonwood, right outside of Sedona and we fish the Verde quite frequently, however we're going to give Oak Creek a try for the first time this Friday. Do you have any tips in terms of flies, presentation, and spots to check out for this particular time of year? Any advice, especially from someone as familiar with the creek as yourself, would be greatly appreciated.

  6. Keegan, thanks for the kind words, and that sounds good that you are going to check out Oak Creek for the first time! I would recommend bringing some small nymphs (Copper Johns, Zebra Midges, etc. in size 16-20), perhaps some mid-sized weighted nymphs (hare's ears or something similar), and a few dark buggers (size 8-10); if the water is high and off-color, which is quite possible given the recent snows and current warm weather, a San Juan Worm and larger streamers might work as well. Also, bring some BWO dries in size 18 or 20, in case you get in on a hatch in the afternoon, and some small midge dry patterns, size 20-22. I would probably focus on fishing between the West Fork and Grasshopper Point, which is a big area, but that whole section holds good fish. Find some water that looks good to you, and fish each run and pool carefully, particularly if the water is running clear. Use structure along the stream to conceal yourself from the fish, and focus on the whitewater at the head of runs (the trout have generally been closer to the head of runs as of late). Have fun, and let me know how you do!


  7. Wow, thanks for the info! My only remaining questions are colors. I have an assortment of Zebra Midges in red/silver, black/silver, and green/gold, which do you think would be the best bet? As for the San Juan worm what size and colors would you recommend, because I'm willing to bet there will be some snow melt. Sorry to bug you for more specifics, but I've heard from some other anglers that Oak Creek fish can be very picky when it comes to flies. Thanks again!

  8. Keegan,

    I tend to use an olive brown, copper-ribbed beadhead Zebra Midge with a size 18 caddis pupae hook; I suspect these can resemble both midge larvae and small mayfly nymphs. The black and silver would probably work fine as well. I have had some success with tan San Juan Worms, in size 12 with a beadhead, and in size 20, the latter again on a curved caddis pupae hook. These almost certainly resemble earthworms that are abundant in the soil along the stream.

    Oak Creek fish do get picky at times, but in general, I think that the way you fish various patterns, and using good technique to avoid spooking the trout, is more important. Sometimes it helps to think outside the box too, when none of the usual patterns are working. Also, it pays to just get to know a few stretches along the stream, and figure out where trout are located in particular runs. Determining the location of individual trout in pools and runs can be a big part of actually getting them to make a pass at your offering.

    Best of luck, and if you have more questions, feel free to send me an email at

    Tight lines, Iain