Southwest Fly Fishing

Legends, Miracles, and Dry-Fly Nirvana
By Toner Mitchell

Most well-traveled fly fishers have heard of the world-class fisheries along the New Mexico/Colorado border. Certainly, the San Juan River has been in the public fishing eye seemingly forever, and streams such as the Chama, Animas, and Conejos have always merited special mention as well. For my money, the Rio de los Pinos is one stream in the region that deserves a share of the spotlight, yet it bears the distinction of being one of the best trout streams the angling world has never heard of.
   Several qualities make Los Pinos an outstanding trout stream. The most noteworthy is, without a doubt, the wonderful dry-fly fishing. I chalk this bounty up to the plethora of aquatic and terrestrial insects that abound throughout the system, with regular emergences occurring in several species among the four main food groups. Baetis (Blue-Winged Olives), Pale Morning Duns, Pale Evening Duns, and Green Drakes, among other species, represent the mayflies. Stoneflies figure into the food scheme as well, with Salmonflies, Golden Stoneflies, and Yellow Sallies doing the heavy lifting. In the heart of the summer, caddisflies are so abundantly regular as prey that Los Pinos trout can usually be goaded into eating a well-presented imitation. And who in the Rockies goes out in the summer without a box of terrestrials?
   Located in the southern portion of the San Juan Mountains and straddling the Colorado/New Mexico border, the Rio de los Pinos is also one of the prettiest streams you will ever fish, which is saying something given that its greater watershed (the upper Rio Grande) is famous for its unique and jaw-dropping vistas. At its downstream terminus near the town of Antonito, Colorado, Los Pinos wanders through the vast basalt plain that characterizes the southern San Luis Valley and the Rio Grande rift zone. I call this area tierra azul, for the soft blue of the sagebrush and the matching lichens on the canyon walls.
   From a distance, the surface of this land does not reveal a river—its smooth sage surface rises so gradually toward the west that it almost looks flat—but the river is indeed there, sneaking up a shallow canyon through forests of ponderosa pine, fir, spruce, and narrowleaf cottonwood. Approximately 20 miles farther up, near the Trujillo Meadows of Colorado, the river is born at an elevation of more than 10,000 feet, in a subalpine paradise of aspens and flower-painted meadows that rings all September with the song of bugling elk.
   Believe it or not, I find the river’s substrate aesthetically remarkable in its own right. Composed mainly of volcanic rock, the stream bottom is essentially black through the lower half of Los Pinos. As a result, the water takes on a greenish-blue tint in the deeper pools. Watching a previously invisible yet seemingly contrasting brown trout materialize from this backdrop to inhale a Humpy will put a smile on your face that may be difficult to wipe off.
   From an ecological perspective, Los Pinos is extremely healthy, which is to say that aside from very few places at the lower end where human and livestock activity has resulted in down-cutting or widening of the stream channel, the river possesses enough resiliency to turn the lemons nature throws it into some pretty sweet lemonade. Its well-connected floodplain allows the Rio de los Pinos to depressurize flood shocks. The combination of bank-anchoring vegetation and the rocky yet fluid streambed directs the flow toward its most efficient and productive course, which is particularly important during periods of low water, high water temperatures, and low oxygen. This efficiency is the mark of a self-cleaning waterway, where the stream deposits grass-nourishing silt on banks, and where ample spaces amid the cobblestones harbor a diversity of trout food.
   The final reason for the superb fishing on the Rio de los Pinos is that, contrary to the famous streams mentioned earlier, Los Pinos comes with serious baggage as far as accessibility is concerned. The river can be reached several ways: by heading west from US Highway 285 on County Road C, a well-marked route beginning in Colorado but crossing back into New Mexico; by heading west from Mogote, Colorado and ending up at Osier, Colorado; by boarding the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in either Chama, New Mexico, or Antonito, Colorado, and hopping off the train at Osier; and finally by backpacking north through New Mexico’s Cruces Basin Wilderness.
   You can also turn off SR 17 near the top of La Manga Pass in Colorado at Cumbres Creek. The road leads to Los Pinos, though be aware that there are a few pieces of private property. If you’re fishing here for the first time, you really should hire a guide for one or preferably two days—one day down low on the river and the other in the upper meadows. For the Colorado side, contact Conejos River Anglers and speak to Jon Harp. In New Mexico, contact the Taos Fly Shop and ask for Nick Streit (see Notebook). Obviously, if you fish the river in both states, you will be obligated to buy a fishing license for each.
   The downstream access, probably the most popular, falls within a New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) public-use area about 7 miles from Highway 285. It’s easy enough to get to, but the closer to Antonito you are, the more you are subject to water temperature issues that negatively affect the fishing during irrigation season (generally April or May through September). Add the fact that the NMDGF sometimes employs fish stocking as its primary method of management, and you might have reason to explore elsewhere.
   Farther up the road (FR 284)—and after a 2-mile stretch of irrigated private land known as San Miguel—you reach the Carson National Forest and a 1.5-mile-long, NMDGF-managed “Special Trout Waters” section with strict harvest and gear regulations (two fish over 12 inches, barbless single-hook lures or flies). Immediately, the canyon gets deeper and the trees taller. The stream here is less vulnerable to environmental stresses, and the fishing shows it, while the streamside access road can be extremely sketchy, with plenty of deep holes and big rocks.
   No matter where you fish on the Rio de los Pinos, traveling in a four-wheel-drive vehicle is definitely to your advantage, in dry weather or nasty.
   After the special waters is a long (approximately 5-mile) stretch of private water that is closed to public fishing. I fished there when I was 10 years old, catching 12-inch cookie-cutter browns and rainbows on a size 12 duck-wing Blue Dun or a McGinty, Reverend Lang, or Irresistible of similar size. I now view the private stretch as Los Pinos’s life insurance policy, a sanctuary that protects the trout population from everyday threats, at least of the human variety. Beyond that, though, trout in Los Pinos must face heat, drought, and the floods that come with monsoon thunderstorms and snow that melts faster in current times than it used to.
   The Toltec Gorge is immediately above the private water and it, too, provides protection for Los Pinos trout. Although it’s seemingly accessible from either a longish hike north through the Cruces Basin Wilderness or by driving to Osier and then hiking downstream, the gorge itself is essentially unfishable and only partially accessible from the downstream end, which, again, is private.
   Nick Streit recognizes prime trout habitat as well or better than anyone I know, but as a truly professional guide, he is never willing to trade safety for adrenaline. Streit, who does the majority of his guiding on the boiling currents of the Rio Grande, has this to say about the Toltec Gorge: “The fishing’s great, for sure, but the only realistic way to get around in there is to swim. So forget it.”
   Above the Toltec Gorge, the Rio de los Pinos is a much different stream, being approximately 2,000 feet higher than in Antonito. Gaining access to this stretch is simply a matter of driving to Osier and continuing to the river on FR 103. Most years, it’s around mid-June before the snow is completely melted off these meadows, the fish are waking up, and the roads are predictably safe to drive. Again, taking the Cumbres and Toltec train is another way to reach this area, but it’s a good idea to check with the railroad to be sure this option is viable during the time you plan to visit (see Notebook).

 

Seasons on Los Pinos
If you visit Los Pinos from far enough away that you need to plan an extended stay, it’s important—as it is anywhere, really—to get as clear a picture of the conditions as you can. You can certainly fish here before runoff, in March or April, but you will be betting on the roads being passable, the river being free of ice, and the fish being on the bite.
   Generally, you can be reasonably sure that the river will come into great fishing shape after runoff has peaked, around the middle of June in good snow years, and remain that way until the hotter months. Early on, fishing is best with large stonefly nymphs such as Rubberlegs (known locally as “turds”), Pistol Petes, or Double Jackals. You can also play around with Baetis nymphs, yellow and chartreuse egg patterns, and red midge larvae.
   As the water continues to drop, you will see more randomly rising fish. A fly change or two will usually get you to the winning pattern; chances are decent that it will be an attractor such as an orange or olive Stimulator or a Madam X.
   As June progresses, you can search the surface with stoneflies, but look for Green Drakes and PMDs to appear at the lower end by the beginning of July. Fishing the upper Los Pinos comes into full swing by July, and even if the hatches take a while to arrive, attractors should work fine in the meantime. Hoppers begin hatching in early summer, so a size 12 or 14 imitation in green or tan is a good choice. If the meadows are still a little soggy, worm imitations work well as droppers, as do stonefly nymphs. Remember, though, that you came to the Rio de los Pinos to fish dries, so fishing nymphs might threaten your karma.
   In the southern Rockies these days, we’re pretty much resigned to July and August being oppressively hot, and streams below 8,000 feet elevation really take the brunt. Expect the fishing on the lower Los Pinos to be best in the cool hours of morning. You might see PMDs in the air or see signs of fish feeding near the surface.
   Especially if the water is low, I find the trout a bit edgy at this time. Although they’ll eat in earnest, they’ll also punish your mistakes. Maybe I’m projecting my own discomfort, but it sometimes seems as though the fish also respond to heat stress by being less patient with disturbances. Fishing effectively ends by noon, so employ your best stalking techniques while the odds are high. Move slowly, stay in the shade, don’t make waves, and wear clothing to match the surroundings. In July, that means some mix of alder or cottonwood green, tree trunk gray, and sky blue.
   Again, the hot hours will kill your fishing on the lower river, so you can either take a long nap, run to Antonito for a beer, or drive farther upstream to where taller trees throw more shade and faster water generates more oxygen. Fishing should pick up again in the evening.
   Any discussion of summer fishing in the Rocky Mountains must include a caveat about the so-called monsoon season, the weather phenomenon characterized by the daily growth of huge cloud masses that release afternoon bursts of rain. Although we normally expect monsoons to arrive by mid-July and to last from four to six weeks, recent years have seen much less predictable weather. On the light side, a monsoon event can cool off Los Pinos to the point where heat-dormant fish may start eating again. But if the rain persists or is violent, the lower Los Pinos will get dirty. When this happens, I switch to worm and egg patterns, size 8 and 10 Woolly Buggers, and Zonker-style streamers.
   Even in the hot months, the upper river will fish all day, though if your catch rate slows down between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., heat is likely the culprit. Hopper patterns, beetles, and ants are staples up high, and small Stimulators (yellow, green, and black are all good colors) are always excellent choices. If you see pine moths in the air and you have a large (size 10 or 12) tan Elk Hair Caddis in your box, a 30-fish day isn’t too much to expect. Sometimes, though not as often since the recent drought took hold, the upstream brown trout can exceed 15 inches in length.
   A note on safety: in the high meadows of Los Pinos in July and August, you can tell time by the monsoons, which is to say that by 2 or 3 in the average afternoon, you should be prepared to seek shelter from lightning, rain, and hail. Remember too that Rocky Mountain rain is almost as cold as hail, so bring gear to keep you warm and dry. And if a storm dirties the water, you can bet there’ll be earthworms in it for a while.
   In the recent hot years we’ve been experiencing in New Mexico, there comes a time in September when you can feel the definite effect of some cooler days and longer nights on the stream temperatures. This is definitely true on Los Pinos. Some of the regular dry-fly patterns still work then, but don’t be surprised if the fish get a little persnickety in the afternoon. It’s usually a Blue-Winged Olive issue, and a size 18 or 20 Adams is often good enough to bring back the action, which is often nonstop.
   This good fishing lasts into October, when the beauty of Los Pinos—golden cottonwoods, the smell of wild rosehips and willows, all under a crisp Indian summer sky—really stands out. If reaching the stream from the lower end, you needn’t start fishing too early because the canyon trends north/south and the sun doesn’t hit the water until late morning. Up high, the same rule applies, but simply because the water is chilly. The fish will sleep in, and so should you.
   Fishing the Rio de los Pinos in November can be pleasant because you can enjoy the solitude and watch the land begin to hibernate. For me, anyway, witnessing the seasons progress is an integral part of fishing. Concentrate on deep, slow runs; use small nymphs and opaque orange egg patterns to match brown trout spawn. Don’t worry if you catch few fish or get skunked because that’s probably what’s going to happen.
   Los Pinos is best fished with an 8.5-foot, 4-weight rod on the downstream reach, while a 3-weight is the ticket in the high meadows. Again, I’m gearing up for dry flies; if I’m expecting conditions requiring nymphs or streamers, I’ll pack a slow-action 5-weight, but grudgingly. In the hottest days of the fishing season, I prefer to wade wet. If I’m fishing up high, however, a monsoon soaking can make me regret not wearing waders.
   It also bears mentioning that the lower portion of Los Pinos is a haven for rattlesnakes, where waders offer at least the illusion of protection. Your eyes, of course, are the best protection against buzztails. Be calm yet vigilant, cautious of sunny spots during the cool hours and of shade during the heat. Otherwise, just enjoy these all-too-persecuted native reptiles—they are as much a part of the Southwest as late-summer thunderstorms.
  On the Rio de los Pinos, you will encounter places of unspeakable beauty, probably some interesting wildlife, and plenty of gorgeous trout. Most of what you catch will be brown trout and rainbows, but the farther upstream you go, the better are your chances of hooking a brookie or a Rio Grande cutthroat. Typical fish are 10 to 12 inches long, but plenty of larger fish, up to 20 inches, will see you, even if you don’t see them.
   Fly fishing is best when accented by surprises, the potential for which is always present on Los Pinos. Two friends of mine love to recount the tale of the “Spirit Fish” they saw one day while angling in a pool near the bottom end of the Toltec Gorge. They never expect me to believe them, but they claim to have seen—after plenty of eye rubbing and even touching the thing with their rods—a fish they estimated at more than 40 pounds. They say its body was blotched dark and light, but they can’t commit to the kind of fish they thought it was. They assert only that it was a fish.
   When we talk about this, we think of all the untouched water in the heart of the gorge and wonder what else might be living there or elsewhere in this magnificent stream. It’s nice to know of places where miracles are still born and legends never die.

 

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