Saturday, August 7, 2010

Conejos Country, August 2010

Certain places rest in the mind of an angler as fishing destinations--for me, the Conejos River watershed in southern Colorado was such a place, based on descriptions of some of the best remaining rugged wild country in the state, abundant trout, fewer crowds, and a wealth of productive tributaries that were fine fisheries in their own right (including some providing strongholds for pure strain Rio Grande cutts).

So, it was with great anticipation that I was able to gaze down on the beautiful Conejos valley as Regan and I made the descent from La Manga Pass along Highway 17, tree-covered slopes and the foothills of the San Juan Mountains rearing up on either side in the distance.

Regan and I set out for an upper tributary of the Conejos known to hold a restored and protected population of cutthroat, after spending some time searching for and eventually finding the trailhead--a good map and some research prior to the trip proved useful here. The lower valley of the stream spread out in front of us, as we began the hike up towards our destination for the next couple days.

This little olive greeted me after a mile or so of hiking upstream--a sign of good things to come, I hoped.

After several more miles, we reached our intended campsite, along the shoreline of the lake above. The weather was glorious by this point in the afternoon, and I quickly assembled my gear after setting up camp with Regan, to seek out cutthroat in both the lake and outlet stream.

I found fish in short order, including some cruisers right beyond our campsite, such as the chunky 14" male pictured in my hand above (as with Pagosa Springs, Regan was kind enough to take some photos of me, not to mention many of the trout images in this entry, and they invariably came out well). The trout tended to prefer several realistic smaller patterns (#16-20 scuds and parachute BWOs worked with some success) and a quiet, careful presentation--in other words, they were reasonably demanding, but rewarding when some measure of stealth and good technique were practiced.

A decent number of larger cutthroat in the mid to upper teens were present, both in the stream and the lake. They occupied some tricky lies in the creek, such as the foam-covered eddy choked by logs and deadfall above, making for some challenging and interesting fishing conditions.

Some of these cutthroat were uncommonly beautiful, particularly the big males occupying the stream, such as this image I took of a 15" specimen brought to hand in the waning light of day. This picture does not do the fish justice, but the flanks seemed to be on fire with red and pink coloration, matching the cutt marks under the jaw.

I explored the edges of the lake in more detail the following day, and continued to find some beautiful Rio Grande cutts, including this healthy 17" fish near the inlet, and one of the largest trout of the trip.

Regan also fished a bit, and brought this vivid 13" cutt to hand after coaxing the fish out from bankside vegetation visible upstream and behind her. It was her first fish of the trip, but not the last.

As the afternoon wore on, I wandered back downstream of the lake to explore the creek as it wound through a meadow, while Regan relaxed near our campsite. The sunlight persisted for awhile, but soon dark clouds passed overhead, warning of rain.

Trout proved spooky through this stretch, but sometimes be fooled with a cautious approach. I found the foam-flecked run below, and spied a good fish holding right against the bank near overhanging grasses and willows. It rose quietly on occasion, to small #18-20 olives like the one I had seen on the hike in.

I tied on a small BWO parachute sparkle dun to a long leader tapering to 5X, and cast as softly as I could muster up into the run. Around this time, Regan met up with me, and was able to watch as the cutthroat lifted its head to the surface on the second or third drift...and the fish was on!

The heavy fish charged about the run, but eventually I steered it to shore, and held up yet another glorious Rio Grande cutthroat, this one a solid 16" male with stunning coloration--truly, some of the trout fish caught on this trip had to rank among the most beautiful I have had the good fortune to bring to hand.

Here is one more photograph I took of the stunning cutthroat before sending him back on his way; not that I ever really feel the need for justification, but moments like this make the whole rationale for fly fishing abundantly clear, at least in my happily biased mind.

I fished a few more runs along the stream before evening descended (and caught a few smaller cutthroat in the process), while Regan returned to camp to start in on dinner. I came across the willow-choked riffle run above, and found another large cutthroat holding near the head, right under overhanging vegetation; this fish required a shorter accurate cast, and I managed to connect with it quickly.

The fish also measured a good 16", another male by the look of it, and featured more plum and reddish hues along the gill plates and much of the body. Another terrific cutt, and a good way to round out the end of the day.

Upon returning to camp myself, I got to work cooking up these boletes that Regan found earlier in the day--due to their moisture content, these particular mushrooms can be dry sauteed in a pan over a campfire, and I prepared them in just such a way to make some tasty appetizers to go long with the main dish. I spent some earlier years learning to identify wild edible mushrooms for harvest, and boletes are still my favorite. Regan's discovery of some specimens on this trip got her hooked on seeking out and collecting more in the future, too.

On the following morning, we broke down camp in preparation for hiking back to the trailhead. I squeezed in a few more casts by the lake, and managed one more good cutthroat, this one a fat 17" female.

I snapped this image of Regan gazing out at the glassy lake surface reflecting the passing clouds, not long before we said our goodbyes to the place and hiked back downstream.

Along the way, I took a photo of one of the barriers across the stream that helps maintain the health and genetic integrity of the cutthroat population here.

Not far downstream, I hooked a few final cutthroat, highlighted by this 14" male that again exhibited some outrageous and lovely coloration. Both the stream and its trout residents were special, and certainly made my list of places to revisit and cherish.

Regan and I drove back along the Forest Service road roughly paralleling the Conejos, and stayed at one of the campgrounds near the river for a couple nights. I wandered upstream the following morning to get in some fishing in this stretch, and was greeted with a sunlight morning, painting the landscape golden.

I also found a few willing trout, including this chunky brown of 13-14" that fell for a #18 olive brown beadhead zebra midge.

The brown trout below stretched about 15", and grabbed a beadhead rubberlegs. The fish I brought to hand on the mainstem were all muscular and well-feed, attesting to the fertility and tailwater nature of the river. The trout were not impossible, but did demand a fairly drag-free presentation, and fly patterns that resembled the real thing.

I returned to our campsite a bit later in the morning to share breakfast with Regan, and then we decided to drive back upstream and access the river in the Pinnacles area, a more rugged canyon stretch that requires more of a hike to access.

After trudging down a steep slope, we came to this section of the river, marked by cliff walls, towering conifers, and some intriguing whitewater runs and pocketwater.

I fished a variety of nymphs and dries, but got little response from any finned residents. I occasionally spied a trout holding in good runs like the one above, so I knew they were there, but for some reason or another, they did not seem interested in feeding. I have heard through previous fishing reports that trout can be fickle on the Conejos at times, and generous at others, perhaps owing (again) to the tailwater nature of the river, and an abundance and diversity of food items that allow the fish to choose the times when they are active. It appeared we might be witnessing this behavior first-hand.

However, things seemed to change as the afternoon wore on and clouds grew heavy overhead with the scent of rain. I found an idyllic foam-flecked eddy as we walked upstream, and spotted the form of a good trout materialize from the dark currents. Although no real hatch was present, I tied on a #10 tan-bodied Neversink Caddis, as this reach seemed perfect for stonefly and attractor patterns.

Within a cast or two, the trout engulfed the dry, and proceeded to thrash about the eddy and run. Eventually, I pulled in a colorful 16" rainbow, and posed for the camera as Regan took a couple photos.

Regan had expressed an interest in fishing again today, and it was her turn next when we came upon this bankside pocket--just the sort of spot a good trout might be lurking in wait for a juicy morsel flowing by. While it wasn't the easiest spot to make a good cast, she nailed it with the Neversink Caddis on the first try, and a golden flash exploded around the fly.

The fish tore off towards the main current, and threatened to take Regan downstream, but she steered it to the bank, and after several shorter runs, she held up a gorgeous brown.

I returned the favor and snapped a couple of pictures of Regan and the trout she had just caught--her expression in the image above seemed to say, "yeah, this is easy, I could do this all the time."

The trout measured around 16", and turned out to be the best brown of the trip. There are times like these when I count myself fortunate indeed to be with a partner that shares a love of being outdoors, and gets a kick out of fooling a good trout no less. I still believe Regan would make one heck of an angler if she devoted herself to it--in either case, it was a hoot to see her beaming with fly fishing success.

We continued upstream for another hour or so, and connected with several more browns and bows in the 10-14" range. Some runs required a hike up and over cliffs, and provided fine views of the curving river.

The rainclouds finally released their contents in late afternoon, and we sought refuge under trees to wait out the deluge. Eventually the downpour subsided to a lighter steady rain, and we hiked back up and out to the road, and proceeded back to the campground. Given the persistent stormy conditions, we decided to pack up camp a day early, and make for northern New Mexico. So, the fishing portion of the trip came to an end, but was marked by beautiful country and trout to match. I felt like we only scratched the surface of the Conejos (I would love to find one of the real bruisers known to inhabit the mainstem), and I hope to explore more of the river and its many tributaries in the near future.

And lastly, here a couple of images Regan took during our stay in Taos and Santa Fe. Both of these show storm clouds brewing over the inhabited dwellings at Taos Pueblo. I didn't fish on this portion of the trip, but instead we took in some of the cultural gems this area has to offer (not to mention fantastic food). I did return to Taos near the end of September as summer met fall, to test some of the trout streams in the region, but that fishing trip will be covered in the next entry.

Pagosa Springs, July 2010

Regan and I have not had many recent opportunities to take a trip together, due to her working towards a Master's in sustainability at Northern Arizona University, combined with my busy work schedule at several field sites across the northern part of the state. Nonetheless, we made the most of an opportunity to visit southern Colorado and northern New Mexico in the summer. I was able to fly fish in the Colorado portion of the trip, beginning with a brief foray near Pagosa Springs, where we had the good fortune to stay at a rental house at a reduced rate, thanks to friends from Flagstaff that owned the place.

The upper San Juan River flows right through town, and has a reputation for turning out some sizable browns, so it seemed a logical place to wet a line. Unfortunately, recent summer storms had created runoff conditions and turned the water into a heavy-flowing, chocolate-colored mess. The town itself was intriguing, as it had a large network of hot springs for soaking, and possessed some of that mountain small town charm that still seems to exist in the wilder, less-populated southern part of the state.

We decided to head out of town on one of the wandering Forest Service roads the following day as the clouds lifted and sunlight filtered through in spots, to track down an upper tributary that might be flowing more clearly. The landscape featured some jagged pinnacles of stone thrusting above aspen and conifer, echoing both the Southwest and the Rockies.

Sure enough, we found a cold and clear gem to hike along, with the trail terminating at a thundering cascade.

I rigged up and tied on a Neversink Caddis, as the rushing crystalline flows seemed to call out for a bushy attractor dry. In short order, my cast was answered by the swirling rise of a trout.

I wasn't sure what to expect with the identity of the fish, but was delighted to bring a Rio Grande cutt to hand, my first of this race of cutthroat, and the true native trout in this corner of the country.
Like its close relatives the Colorado River and Greenback cutthroat, the Rio Grande cutt can exhibit brilliant coloration, and this individual certainly affirmed that reputation.

Here are a couple more photos of the fish before release--Regan took all of the fish pictures in this entry, and they came out quite well. Moreover, something about these precious little trout seemed to demand multiple images in an attempt to capture their beauty.

I caught a few more fish in the next hour or so, all of them cutts, the largest pictured below, right around a foot.

And here is the same fish being returned to merge seamlessly once more with its natal stream.

We soon left the tumbling creek and headed to another trailhead, this one leading to a small montane lake surrounded by spruce and heavy clouds.

Naturally I wandered along the shoreline and prospected with casts, but I was unable to attract the attention of any fish. The lake may have been barren, but it did have an outlet, and seemed to have enough depth to avoid freezing completely (not to mention a fine little Callibaetis hatch that came off during an intermittent drizzle). Perhaps any fish present were simply not in a feeding mode. Who knows? Yet another mystery to keep things unpredictable and fascinating, which often seem to go hand in hand with fly fishing.

Life was thriving along the shore, in the form of wildflowers and butterflies occupied with pollination.

Eventually, it was time to make our way back through groves of aspen, and on towards Pagosa Springs as the skies continued to threaten rain. The following day, we were set to hike and camp in Conejos country for several days, which will be detailed in the next post.