Friday, February 5, 2010

Rio Grande Country, February 2010

I decided to make a trip to New Mexico early in February for several days, in search of active trout and spectacular scenery. I managed to find both along the lower Red River, one of the major tributaries to the mighty Rio Grande, and a significant spawning and overwintering stream for larger trout from the main river. The trailhead for La Junta Trail is pictured above; the trail provides one of the few access routes into the Rio Grande Gorge, not to mention the lower Red. I also camped up here for a night, and despite bringing plenty of layers for wintry weather, I endured some chillingly cold temperatures at night in the single digits (needless to say, I decided to stay at a hotel for the other two nights of my trip).

The hike into the Gorge measured over a mile in distance, dropping quickly in elevation (not too difficult on the way down, but more strenuous on the return trip back up and out), and immediately provided some impressive views of the Rio Grande cutting through rugged country, along with the Red River near the confluence of the two waterways, as shown above.

Here are a couple of images of the Rio Grande, once I made the descent to the canyon floor. The river was beautiful in this section, wild and tumbling, and littered with abundant, deep pocketwater, ideal-looking for high-sticking large nymphs and streamers.

I fished through some runs for a little while, but noticed that the water was ice cold (and in fact ice clung to some stones at the river's edge), suspected that any trout present were sluggish at best (or else had run up into the warmer flows of the lower Red), and soon decided to start exploring the Red where it joined with the Rio Grande.

I ended up nymphing with a two-fly setup, consisting of a #14 BH Peacock Soft Hackle and #10 Crawbugger, as shown above and below, respectively.

These two flies accounted for most of the fish I hooked, and the few that I managed to actually land. I also used a #12 BH Krystal Hare Nymph, as shown below, and hooked up with a few trout on this pattern as well.

I like to leave the guard hairs and antron fibers sticking out in all directions from the haretron dubbing I use in the pattern above, and also tie in several strands of krystal flash, to provide more life and "bugginess" to the nymph.

The Red River was a delightful place to explore, particularly on the first day of the trip, which featured clear skies and pleasant temperatures in the mid to high 40s, after the sun rose and warmed the landscape. The rushing, clear river featured abundant pockets and plunge pools (not unlike a smaller version of the Rio Grande), some quite deep for the size of the stream (usually 20-30' across). The water temperature was also noticeably warmer than the Rio Grande, as a result of the moderating springs that swell the flows of the Red several miles upstream, and create a fall and winter sanctuary for spawning and mature trout (not to mention adventurous anglers).

I worked my way upstream, and hooked several good fish in the mid to upper teens (all looked to be heavy Rainbows or Cuttbows), that either quickly threw the hook, or else took advantage of the strong currents, charged downstream, and eventually broke off or tied into one of the numerous stream boulders--difficult conditions at best for successfully landing sizable trout, but I had come expecting to lose a good number of fish, given the character of the river and fishery, and it was encouraging to locate and at least connect with some of these bruisers. I eventually came upon the deep foam-flecked eddy pool shown above, spotted another nice-looking fish hanging beneath the surface, and lobbed the two-fly setup into the turquoise lie. Within several casts, the leader went taut, and I found myself hooked into a strong trout that dove into the depths of the pool.

Thankfully, the fish decided to stay in the run, and I also did my best to pressure it on a short line, and prevent the fighter from racing into the whitewater below. I brought a richly-colored Cuttbow into the shallows, and admired my first trout caught in New Mexico. The bruiser had taken the Crawbugger, measured a solid 16"with some girth to it, and featured a kype on the lower jaw, no doubt a male working its way upstream in preparation for spawning. The rich orange-red burning on the gill plates and the side stripe, sizable spots mostly on the dorsal, and a dusky golden-olive hue along the body indicated the hybrid origins of the fish, from both Rainbow and Rio Grande Cutthroat, and combined to produce a handsome specimen. In fact, all three of the bows I caught on this trip were hybrids, vividly colored, and some of the more striking trout I have caught recently (made more so perhaps by the relative starkness of the winter landscape).

The presence of these big healthy Cuttbows also made me muse on what the watershed must have been like before the introduction of exotic Rainbows--large pure-strain Rio Grande Cutthroat ranging up to 20" and more must have flourished in the lower Red and the Rio Grande at one time, and now only survive after a fashion in the hybrids that exist here. Nonetheless, these were large beautiful wild trout, and it was a pleasure to land a few and gaze at their riot of colors.

I continued along the banks of the Red, and came across this jade-colored crystalline pool. A Townsend's Solitaire landed briefly atop one of the lichen-encrusted boulders, and its plumage blended in well with the surrounding stone.

I fished here as well, and connected with another powerful trout in a deep slot just below the pool shown above. The bruiser again grabbed the Crawbugger, and jerked against the line, eventually tearing downstream through a couple of runs, requiring me to rock hop in pursuit. I managed to guide it into shallower water, worked the trout back towards me, and finally landed another spectacular Cuttbow.

This fish may have gone 18" and close to 3 lbs, and again sported deep crimson against a dusky golden olive background, with spots limited mostly to the tail end (this latter feature along with the look of the head definitely reminded me of Cutthroat); another stunner of a trout.

I returned the beauty to the chattering stream, and watched it rest near shore for several minutes, before regaining its strength and drifting back into the green hues of the currents, set against the rainbow of multicolored stones scattered across the streambed. It never ceases to amaze me how seamlessly trout can blend into their surroundings, and echo the features of the waters they inhabit.

The second Cuttbow above marked the last fish of the day, and I eventually made the trek back uphill to my campsite for the evening. I returned to the Red River the following day, and found high clouds covering the sky, accompanied by cooler temperatures--in fact, my reel froze several times, and I had to crank it back and forth to free up its action again.

I began near the confluence with the Rio Grande again, and fished upstream. I hooked one thick bow that looked to be 17-18", and raced into the whitewater below, quickly tying me off against a submerged boulder. I didn't spot any other fish in the lower stretch that I fished the previous day though, and wandered up, where the banks became steeper and more forested, and began to close in around the stream. I spotted another large dark fish finning away in the center of the run above, and coaxed it to grab one of my offerings (the Crawbugger again).

Oddly enough, the fish emerged as the same brute that I caught yesterday (the second one), recognizable by its coloration, spotting, and some distinct scarring on the lower left gill plate; I suspect the trout had moved upstream a little ways overnight. I snapped a couple of photos and quickly returned the Cuttbow once again to the rushing currents.

I continued my wanderings upstream, as the country became more rugged next to the small river. I soon came across an ideal-looking pool for a good-sized trout, featuring sheltered water and a foam line near the seam with the rushing whitewater of the main current.

I cast the two fly setup out to the foam line, and let it dead drift slowly through the deeper blue-green depths. A fish pulled back in short order, and I battled another healthy, strong wild trout (all the trout here seem to be powerful and tough, and well-versed in using the currents to their advantage), this one leaping a couple times.

The fish eventually materialized as a bright Brown Trout, stretching to about 17", and a pleasant change of pace from the abundant Cuttbows I had otherwise witnessed. The fish looked to be a female, and grabbed the smaller Peacock Soft Hackle. The Brown may have been wintering over here, although its pool looked like a perfect spot for a larger year-round resident. I have heard that Brown Trout use the lower Red River for spawning in the fall; like the Cuttbows, many of these are sizable, and some (of both species) can exceed 20" (I did not personally see any fish on this trip exceeding 18 or 19", but I have no doubt that some monsters lurk in this deceptively deep and productive stream).

The photo below shows the Red directly upstream of the run that yielded the Brown for me (this was the only Brown Trout I brought to hand on this trip, although I spotted at least one other around 15-16", further upstream).

Snow began to fall at this point, and I came across a fellow angler trudging back downstream. He seemed to be a veteran fly fisher of this stream, and mentioned that he had fished up through the stretch earlier in the day, and hooked a couple in the upper teens that had broken him off (his fishing activity might have accounted for the lack of fish seen below earlier in the day). He also reaffirmed that the Red holds some truly big trout at times (although landing them can be another matter). We bid eachother farewell, and I decided to fish and explore a bit farther up into the canyon, and try to connect with another trout or two before calling it quits with the deteriorating weather.

Fortunately, the snow only amounted to periodic flurries, and I hiked along above the swift stream, scanning for any larger trout hanging in the currents. I spied several, managed to hook and lose a couple, and spooked a few more. I also spotted a good trout near the tail of the deep pool framed by the Ponderosa Pine above, so I sneaked down below the lie, staying out of sight, and prepared to cast my two fly setup to the fish. I noticed that the trout in general in the lower Red did not seem to be particularly selective about fly patterns, but being wild trout in a clear stream, they did demand a high measure of stealth, and quickly spooked if they detected my presence. I hid behind a giant boulder below this run, and tossed the flies up into the pool, letting them sink and drift back towards me. On the second cast, the drift stopped abruptly, so I lifted the rod, and found another bruiser of a trout battling against the line. I played the fish aggressively, to prevent it from bolting below and tying me off. The tactic worked, and like a gift I soon brought one last gorgeous Cuttbow to hand.

This fish measured close to 17", and may have been the fattest of the trout I landed during the trip. Like the other Cuttbows, the coloration was vibrant, and this individual sported some orange cutt marks under the jaw as well (not readily apparent in these images). The trout also inhaled the Crawbugger.

I watched this fish recover quickly, and bolt back into the depths of the pool. I counted myself lucky to have landed a few of these challenging, glorious wild trout from this rugged wild river, all in the 16-18" range, and then scrambled over jagged boulders and uneven terrain, to head back to the trail and eventually the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge. By the time I made it to the top, the snow had returned in more force, and a thin layer had accumulated at my campsite. I rapidly packed up, and drove to Taos to stay in a hotel for the night, thankful for the luxuries of a heated room, shower, and bed.

I awoke the following morning to sunlight, and decided to head down to the Rio Grande upstream of Pilar, to fish a stretch of the river for a few hours before heading back to Flagstaff. Here are a couple images of the mighty river, flowing through its canyon; this section marks the lower end of the Gorge, and featured longer, slow-moving deep runs and riffles, as opposed to the abundant pocketwater upstream. Some good Browns and particularly Northern Pike are supposed to reside here, so I cast a variety of nymphs and oversized streamers, but to no success. Still, it was a beautiful spot, and contained some likely-looking runs.

All in all, I had a great trip exploring a small slice of Rio Grande country, and felt fortunate to witness some beautiful landscapes while catching a few impressive trout in the heart of winter. I certainly intend to return to this rugged and wonderful place, and hopefully explore more of the trout-rich possibilities in this region.