Southwest Fly Fishing

Friends, Fishing, Solitude
By Jonathan Hill

Some people’s idea of vacation is a relaxing week at the beach, soaking in sun and surf. Others may prefer a ski chalet, hitting the slopes during the day, then a little après-ski before finishing in the hot tub. My idea of a vacation is nothing like this at all. In fact, most would think I’m crazy for doing what I like to do for a vacation. But hiking 50 miles of rough terrain in six days and climbing more than 11,000 vertical feet is exactly my kind of getaway.
   It started when Jason Kosanovich, a friend of 35 years, filled me in on his plans for a weeklong hiking trip. I thought he was crazy; I thought I was crazy for even thinking about going, but in the end, it sounded like one of those trips that you just have to take at least once in your lifetime.
   The destination was the Weminuche Wilderness (wem-ih-NOO-chee if you happen to be a Colorado native). The Weminuche is Colorado’s largest wilderness area, covering more than 400,000 acres—more than twice the size of the second-largest wilderness, the Flat Tops. Within this immense area, there are dozens of streams and rivers, and more than 60 lakes. Situated in southwest Colorado some 15 miles northeast of Durango, the wilderness protects the headwaters for many larger rivers, including the Rio Grande and San Juan.
   According to aquatic biologist Jim White of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, most of the lakes are stocked by plane with Colorado cutthroat fingerlings. You’ll also find brook trout in some lakes. Golden trout have been stocked in Fuller Lake, but with a high density of cutthroat there, no goldens have been reported caught by anglers yet. Clear Lake was stocked recently with tiger trout and, in a few years, they should be big enough to provide sport. 
   Jason had previously visited the Weminuche on six other occasions, covering numerous trails and streams, but the route he had chosen for this adventure was one he hadn’t taken. It would require roughly six days and cover approximately 50 miles. Joining Jason and me would be Ryan Lockwood and Scott Schmitt. The four of us grew up in western New York, outside Buffalo, so it would be a backpacking/fly-fishing adventure along with a reunion.
   Jason, Ryan, and Scott would head into the wilderness on a Thursday. I’d meet them on Saturday, which meant braving unfamiliar territory on my own. I was a little hesitant and hoped planning would put me where I needed to be.
   My entry point was the Weminuche Pass Trail, which begins at Thirty Mile Campground, a five-and-a-half hour drive from my home in Denver. Leaving work a little early, I made it to camp by 8:30. Despite my excitement, I slept like a baby and hit the trail at 7 a.m. sharp.

 

Los Pinos River
Jason and I met at the intersection of the Pine River and Rincon La Vaca Trails. Right on time, I strolled into camp, only to find Scott stretched out on the hammock. A makeshift knee brace consisting of two Ace bandages and a compression strap was wrapped around his right leg, not a good sign. He told me he’d twisted his knee the day before but hoped rest would let it heal enough to finish the trip. He also told me that Jason and Ryan were down in the valley fishing Los Pinos River. I unpacked fishing gear and headed out to find them, ready to catch some wild trout.
   Los Pinos River isn’t quite a river but more of a stream that flows both north and south through the valley. When I met up with Ryan, he was fishing the stretch that flowed north toward the Rio Grande Reservoir. I then found Jason and we decided to hike south into a small canyon to fish. The stream was packed with wild cutthroat trout up to 10 inches. The rest of the day we spent exploring the meandering water in the valley north of camp and the boulder-filled canyon to the south. It was some of the most beautiful water I had ever fished.
   This stretch was accessible only by bushwhacking and then wet wading. A hopper/dropper rig worked great—the trout eagerly ambushed flies. The river held cutts in the headwater section then, increasingly, brook and brown trout the farther downstream we ventured. Look for undercut banks, boulder outcroppings, and small pools to cast to. It’s prime water for a 3-weight outfit.
   As the sun set over our little piece of paradise, we planned the following day’s hike. We figured it would be our most difficult and longest leg of the trip. The plan was to hike over the Continental Divide via the Rincon La Vaca Trail to our next scheduled camp at Twin Lakes.

 

Over the Continental Divide
We had an early start the next morning and made good progress at first. The Rincon La Vaca Trail is best known for its view of the Window and the Rio Grande Pyramid—two points of interest that definitely deserve a mention and at the very least a pause for a photo opp.
   After our break, it was a push to reach our destination before sundown. It is hard to put into words what it was like to hike this section of the Weminuche. I’d never seen such a majestic mountain range, which made me feel so small and insignificant. It is a humbling experience to see the vast wilderness around every corner and over every ridge. It truly was awe inspiring. 
   Eight hours into our hike, our destination was in sight, or what we thought was our destination. All of us were running low on energy and more important, running low on water. We crested a ridge and a person in our party, who will remain nameless, pointed at a lake and said, “We’re almost there. That’s Twin Lakes!”
   I disagreed and pointed at more lakes down the valley about another hour’s hike ahead. After some discussion, exhaustion won. We bushwhacked to the first lake. Knowing we couldn’t go another hour, we set up camp.
   The lake was actually part of Flint Lakes. We scouted around the lake and were disappointed to realize it was barren, save for the salamanders that called it home. This slight setback took a backseat to our incredible luck with the weather. I’d been warned to be prepared for bad weather the entire week. Ryan had told me stories of being forced to stay in his tent by inclement weather. And on another trip, Jason’s tent didn’t hold up and he got rained on an entire night. Although we saw numerous storm fronts and heard ominous booms of thunder and flashes of lightning, we remained dry except for a few sprinkles. So, sitting by a fire overlooking a barren lake with clear Colorado skies above wasn’t so bad.
   That night, we had to decide our next move. Either hike back to Twin Lakes or head to the larger of the Flint Lakes, which we knew was not full of salamanders. We decided on the latter and woke up the next morning to another blue sky day.
   Packing up, all of us suddenly froze. A high-pitched howl emanated from the other side of the lake. Then more howling echoed. Coyotes were coming home from a night of stalking and feeding. I’d never heard such a sound and was amazed to be part of something so wild. As quickly as it started, the howling stopped. We finished packing and headed down Flint Creek Trail.

 

Flint Lakes
Flint Lake is a preserved area with a ban on camping, so we hiked farther and set up camp. Again, Ryan, Jason, and I did extremely well and caught fish all afternoon. Most of the cutthroat ranged from 8 to 12 inches, though Jason found one beautiful 14-inch specimen. The fish were eager to take any flies we tried. I had tied some flying ant patterns and couldn’t keep trout off them. I netted six in a row only to have my tippet break on the seventh. The weather stayed picture perfect and, looking back, I’m grateful for such an ideal afternoon fishing with friends. Trout ranging from 10 to 18 inches inhabit these lakes: a few weigh in at a couple of pounds. Callibaetis mayflies and caddisflies hatch through the summer. Damselfly and small ant and beetle patterns are also effective. A floating line is the best all-around option, but a sinking-tip line is handy in deeper lakes. Backcasting can be tricky where trees or rocks rise from the shore.
   None of us wanted the day to end, but at dusk, we headed back to camp. Scott was sitting by the fire laughing. Naturally, my first thought was that he’d lost it, then I understood. Evidently when we went fishing, our camp had been invaded by one courageous marmot. Luckily, Scott, who needed to rest his knee, had fended him off but only after a couple of our trekking poles were chewed and a hiking boot was stolen (but later found).
   The next morning, I awoke to rustling around my tent. Most everyone who visits the Weminuche keeps bear spray close. I grabbed my can and slowly unzipped my tent, my heart pounding. To my enormous relief, where I had expected to see a bear, I instead found a deer.

 

Day Four
The plan for day four was to hike Flint Creek Trail to Rock Creek Trail to Vallecito Creek Trail and find a camp. Jason and Ryan had previously fished the Rock Creek section, so we stopped for a couple of hours to wet our lines.
   Rock Creek is an amazing fishery. Surrounded by willows, the creek meanders over many rock outcroppings and has wild cutthroat up to 15 inches. The only problem is finding an area to land and release these hungry fish. Each of us got wet falling into the stream but it was definitely worth wet socks! 
   After our fun at Rock Creek, we headed for the Vallecito Trail. At the trails’ intersection, we noticed a large campsite. But it was still early and we kept going. Little did we know there wasn’t another site by the creek and that the trail led farther and farther from the water.
   We hadn’t done much research on the fishing. This is a catch-22 when backpacking a wilderness area. On the one hand, you need to be prepared. On the other hand, the adventurer inside desires a challenge and is exhilarated by the unknown. Maintaining a balance would be ideal. My advice: visit the San Juan National Forest or the Rio Grande National Forest websites.
   Hiking away from Vallecito Creek was not an ideal situation. As afternoon turned into evening, Scott and I ran out of water; Jason and Ryan were close to drying out as well. At Nebo Creek, we loaded up on water and headed toward the Colorado Trail. A storm began to brew. Just as clouds and lightning were about to swallow us up, we found a site by the creek and set up our tents to avoid the hail and rain. To our great relief, the storm passed as quickly as it had formed. We discussed the following day’s plan in the glow of the campfire. The destination would be Elk Creek via the Colorado Trail, taking Hunchback Pass to the Continental Divide Trail and finally following Elk Creek Trail to Elk Park.

 

The Continental Divide…Again and Again
Day five would be the most difficult of the trip. Our route would take us up and over the Continental Divide twice! After hiking up Hunchback Pass and heading down to Beartown, I looked across the valley to the steep climb back to the Continental Divide. I was feeling a little worn down. Five days of packing and unpacking, hiking up and over ridgelines, and now I had to cross the divide twice when I had already crossed it once a couple of days earlier? Then, climbing back up to the Continental Divide, I looked behind me. It was a very strange feeling. It was a feeling of accomplishment, a feeling that as long as I kept putting one foot in front of the other, I could go anywhere. I thought there was no way someone could travel all that distance in the little amount of time it had taken. But I had done it. I had traveled that distance and even more throughout the week. I suddenly felt grateful to have given myself this experience and pushed myself physically and mentally past what I thought was possible.
   Making it to the Continental Divide…for the final time, we hiked for a short distance and saw the sign for the Elk Creek Trail. Elk Creek would be our final trail, our route from the Weminuche Wilderness. It was truly bittersweet to start our journey back to reality. The first part of the trail was a sight I will not soon forget. It started off heading down the ridge with roughly two dozen switchbacks! There were switchbacks for as far as the eye could see, making their way down into the valley below. And just when I was starting to feel like the hardest sections were behind me, I started my descent with the other guys.
   Once again, our lack of research reared its ugly head. Our plan was to hike to Elk Creek, find a campsite, and fish the creek. In this area of the wilderness, a dozen or so old mining camps are scattered along the landscape and pollute some of the streams. The headwaters for Elk Creek were a clear, milky white color that did not look healthy for drinking, let alone for any fish to flourish. So we hoped that it would clear up downstream. The closer we got to the Animas River, the better the water looked. However, we decided to not stop and camp or try to fish.
   The Animas River in this section of the Weminuche suffered heavy impacts by mining pollution and has virtually no fish until you get closer to Durango. Just northeast of Durango, outside Howardsville, is a great stretch that holds brook trout.
   We took it as a sign—or perhaps an excuse—because after six days, we were beat up and had mentally checked out. We were ready to catch our ride from the Weminuche Wilderness.
   The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad train passes through the Weminuche Wilderness and is used by both passengers heading to and from Silverton and Durango, as well as by backpackers as a jumping-off point and pickup for the Weminuche. We arrived at Elk Park roughly an hour before the train was scheduled to steam through. Thankfully, before this trip, in the little bit of research we did do, we figured out how to get the train to actually stop in the middle of nowhere to pick up four dirty, beat-up fishermen and take them to Durango.
   We had to stand next to the tracks as the train was passing by, hang our arms below our waists, and wave back and forth. Admittedly, we had our doubts that this gesture would actually stop a train, but as promised, the steam screamed and the brakes locked. We threw our packs aboard and climbed on.
   It was a strange feeling moving anywhere without putting forth any effort and it was an incredible feeling to have access to ice cubes served in the margaritas available on the train. Both luxuries were extremely appreciated after six days and more than 50 miles of hiking!
   At the outset of this trip, I had thought it would be a once in a lifetime adventure. At the end, I knew I was wrong. This trip was actually the catalyst and I would be planning outings to the Weminuche Wilderness for years to come. The awe-inspiring views, the abundance of fish, and the camaraderie that came from hiking for six days with the best three guys I would ever want to spend a week with was something that made this trip one of the most memorable adventures I have had the opportunity
to experience.

 

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