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.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Grand Canyon--Trout Not Wanted Here, January 2012

With the arrival of January and 2012, I figured I had better get the fishing season started off in the right direction, in more ways than one. This is the first entry I have posted in some time, and reflects my intention to publish current and future fishing expeditions in a timely manner. Moreover, I will be updating the site with trips preceding this year, starting with July 2010, so for those interested, stay tuned.

I began the year with a trek back into the Grand Canyon via the Bright Angel Trail in the first week of the month, to pay my respects to the stunning landscapes, the sweeping Colorado River, and of course Bright Angel Creek. As with every trip here, I was again struck by the immensity and grandeur of the place. Cliff formations seemed to loom and spread outward indefinitely in bold hues. Both of these images were taken in the vicinity of Indian Gardens, en route to the river below. The weather was marvelous, mild and sunlit throughout the trip--one of those times that an angler needs to find an excuse to get away and zen out on the water if possible, particularly in the winter.

Eventually, I made it down to the mighty Colorado--a section of Silver Bridge spans the river below. The river was running high and turbid from dam releases above, and runoff from sediment-laden upstream tributaries. Regardless of these conditions (or perhaps because of them), some fish could be coaxed to a streamer, given the right holding water and fly presentation.

Right around the corner, I was greeted once more by lovely Bright Angel Creek. This is the view downstream through the campground. As the picture attests, the campground was not full--the middle of winter offers a measure of solitude that is hard to find much of the rest of the year at this location.

I made the trip here for a few reasons, among them checking in on the current state of the trout fishery in the creek and river immediately downstream. As the following photo illustrates, a weir was in place across Bright Angel, just below the lower bridge crossing and campground.

A National Park Service sign pictured below informs visitors of the ongoing trout reduction program in the creek. This subject is deserving of discussion, and has already been covered by anglers on other blog sites, notably 111 Degrees West, The Trout Zone, and I will try to refrain from devoting too much time on the topic, particularly since the sites above write at least as eloquently about the subject as I could. Suffice to say, trout reduction efforts were reinstated in Bright Angel Creek in the fall and winter of 2010 after a short reprieve in 2008 and 2009, in the name of native fish restoration (particularly for the federally endangered humpback chub). Reduction efforts include the weir that captures brown and rainbow trout migrating up from the Colorado River to spawn in the creek, and electroshocking "treatments" upstream from the weir approximately two miles to the vicinity of the Phantom Creek confluence. These efforts are focused primarily in October-early February to coincide with brown trout spawning activity (although electroshocking is also periodically applied in the stream in spring and summer), and all trout (rainbows and browns) captured with these methods are killed by NPS staff and used for consumption.

Okay, so here is my soapbox for a paragraph, and then I will resume with writing about the fishing trip itself. For my part, I find it hard to stomach the reduction efforts, a response due in part to my admittedly biased personal perspective as a fly fisher that loves wild trout, even if they are introduced, nonnative species in the Grand Canyon. However, my reaction also stems from my perspective as a wildlife conservation professional, that sees a project aimed at attacking the symptoms but not the cause of an ecological problem--namely, trout are thriving in an altered, tailwater system that does not favor the long term survival of native species like the humpback chub that evolved in a turbid, warm water Colorado River unhindered by dams. Given that dams along the Colorado (and particularly Glen Canyon Dam upstream of the Grand Canyon) have no likelihood of being removed in the foreseeable future due to their numerous benefits to people, and agencies like the National Park Service have a mandate to protect and restore endangered species, trout are the easy target in the short term. Certainly, the humpback chub is a unique species, and deserves conservation and restoration efforts, but without the proper habitat (i.e. a restored, free-flowing Colorado River without dams), its long term existence is doubtful, regardless of whether trout populations are reduced or not. Consequently, I can't help feeling that the current management practices on Bright Angel Creek are a significant waste of time and resources, both for humpback chub and previously one of the finest wild trout fisheries in Arizona.

But enough of my personal convictions and opinions on the matter. The Glen Canyon Dam Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan (LTEMP) Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is in the process of being prepared through the Department of the Interior, and public comments from the public are being accepted through the end of this month (January 2012). Regardless of how people stand on the matter, I would encourage folks to visit the site and contribute their suggestions on how the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon should be managed in the years to come.

So, on to the other and more immediate reasons I made the trip--fly fishing in a spectacular place, and hopefully still finding some beautiful wild trout on the end of my line. Following a fitful night of sleep at the campground, I began the next morning by prospecting with a large #4 Crawbugger on 4X in the tea-green, swirling flows of the Colorado. I drifted the streamer through a sheltered run, and received a firm pull on one cast as the fly swung back towards the shore. A large fish thrashed near the surface, trying to use its weight to break the tippet, but eventually I steered the bruiser towards shore, and brought a silvery female rainbow to hand.

The rainbow measured a solid 21" likely exceeded 3 lbs., and was reminiscent of a small steelhead in appearance and fighting ability--the Colorado River certainly breeds some impressive trout in its powerful currents.

And here the rainbow prepares to merge back into the river, to live and fight another day. Interestingly enough, the fish was relatively streamlined, and looked as if it had already spawned for the season, probably in the lowest reaches of Bright Angel Creek below the weir--from the looks of it, one less victim for the trout reduction efforts for the season.

I also ran across an older fisherman with several sons, all of them equipped with spinning outfits and rubber worm lures. I got to talking with the father for awhile, and quickly learned that he had fished the Colorado in the Canyon and up towards Lees Ferry for years, dating back to the '70s, and he provided a fascinating perspective at how the fishery has changed over the decades. He felt strongly about practicing catch and release around Bright Angel these days, given the current challenges facing the trout population--an encouraging sign. I returned up the creek from the confluence, and tied on a smaller, #10 Crawbugger to seek out more finned denizens. Sunlight had not quite found the bottom of the canyon at this point, and I was shivering from the chilly conditions.

I received the biggest surprise of the trip a bit later, in the form of a beautiful brown that taped in right at 22". The brute inhaled the Crawbugger after materializing from under a rock that hardly seemed large enough to conceal the fish. The brown charged about the stream, and yet somehow I was able to coax it to the bank in short order. Two significant points are worth noting here--the trout was healthy but somewhat slim (I guessed the fish as a female based on appearance, although that can be difficult at times with big browns), and definitely looked post-spawn. Even more intriguing was its location--without giving away specifics, I'll just say the brown was somewhere above the weir in the creek, meaning it had managed to negotiate the weir barrier to spawn, and had also avoided electroshocking. The tenacity of the fish alone made the brown deserving of release, although I wouldn't have considered keeping such a marvelous specimen in any case. I returned the big trout to the crystal clear Bright Angel Creek, and could only hope that the brown would continue to persist amidst the current management climate of trout eradication in this beautiful place.

I grabbed a quick breakfast at camp, packed myself a lunch, and proceeded up along the stream, warming up with the sun's rays that had finally penetrated the base of the Canyon.

Bright Angel Creek never ceases to be awe-inspiring in its beauty, and the simple, seemingly contradictory fact of a rushing cold stream flowing through thirsty canyon country.

Trout were relatively scarce along the lower stream through the campground and near Phantom Ranch, no doubt due to the trout reduction activities, and yet some fish could still be found, including a few that looked an awful lot like run-up rainbows from the Colorado River, such as the chunky 14" specimen in the photo above. Again, I suspect a few hardy fish managed to jump over the weir barrier rather than pass through it.

This lovely run produced a fine 13-14"rainbow that again lashed out at the Crawbugger.

And the 16" rainbow shown below was a classic spawner landed a short ways upstream of the creek confluence with the Colorado, that probably stood a slim chance of survival with the weir to greet it above. Regardless of its fate, the rainbow was a good one to end the day on, as darkness settled against the creek's music.

I started the following day early again, and wandered down towards the dull roar of the river.

This sweeping curve of the Colorado reflected the early light of the sun on the cliff tops, hundreds of feet above.

Trout from the river appeared in unexpected places, and utilized even small stretches of spawning habitat, including this scrappy 15" male rainbow, complete with a small kype and vibrant splashes of red on his gill plates and flanks.

I hiked up along Bright Angel Creek for much of the afternoon. The picturesque pool below screamed out trout, and yet appeared to be barren when I cast through the run.

The trout population did indeed seem lean along the lower two miles of Bright Angel Creek--the electroshocking efforts in the stream extend just upstream of the Phantom Creek confluence (shown in the image below), based on discussions I had with the Park fisheries biologist I ran into near the end of this trip. The biologist explained that Phantom Creek also experienced massive flash floods this past September that deposited large amounts of silt and debris in lower Bright Angel, causing significant fish kills of its own.

Some of the silt deposits were evident at the confluence, along with runs downstream that had been reconfigured. Ironically, the flash floods also appear to have created some new ideal-looking stretches of fine gravel for spawning.

Remarkably, I found a few small browns and one fat rainbow still present in Phantom Creek up to a terminal falls just upstream from the Bright Angel confluence.

I continued to make my way upstream along Bright Angel Creek, beyond the upper extent of trout removal activities, and soon the fishing improved dramatically for resident fish. The fish were somewhat smaller than their downstream counterparts, but vibrantly colored and demanding of a stealthy approach, particularly the good ones. Above, a foot-long rainbow fell for a #10 orange-bodied Neversink Caddis from a little plunge pool.

The fishing up in this section was a delight--dry flies, spooky trout in every lie affording cover and relief from the insistent currents, and a rushing canyon stream that embodied the simple joys of fly fishing.

The stream photo above shows a more detailed view of the preceding image. A good fish rose quietly in the soft water against the pink-hued boulder in the foreground. A decent hatch of #18 BWOs had been sputtering along throughout the afternoon, so I flicked a #16 gray parachute sparkle dun up into the foam line. Moments later, the trout sidled over and took the dry in an unhurried fashion.

A dark foot-long brown came to hand shortly after, and posed for the camera before release.

Another perfect-looking run spilled against a cliff wall, and I cast a #10 Neversink Caddis into the sheltered water at the head. The fly bobbed in the slack water, and then disappeared when a trout exploded on the attractor. This fish also materialized as a pretty 12" brown, but with more girth, few spots, and a pale golden sheen.

Every turn in the creek beckoned further exploration, but eventually the skies darkened with another approaching evening, and I hiked back down to the campground for my last night along Bright Angel for this trip.

I spent the next day making the ascent up and out from Bright Angel Creek and the Colorado River--the trail is swallowed up in the immense landscape.

I reflected on the current state of the Bright Angel fishery as I trudged upwards--despite the cards being stacked against them, at least some of the trout were finding ways to persist, and somehow I managed to land the two best fish I have caught to date from the Canyon. Once again, I felt fortunate beyond words just to be able to be in such a magnificent place, and find some beautiful wild trout no less.

Here is a photo of me taking a break at Indian Gardens on the hike out--weathered, tired, and content, and happy too because Regan met up with me at this point, to make the final trek upwards together. I took a picture of her as we got above the rest area, shortly before we headed back into the perpetual shade during the winter in the upper several miles of Bright Angel Trail.

And here is one final image that Regan took as we approached the South Rim, sunset painting the cliff formations in reds and golds. A great trip, and quite the beginning to a new fishing season.