Southwest Fly Fishing

Reconnecting with Wild
By Toner Mitchell

Since its birth, fly fishing has been touted as an effective, even necessary, antidote to the poisonously serious life. American obsessions—careers, children, outward appearances, and political indignations—consume so much of us sometimes that we don’t realize it when we cross the line of diminishing returns. I am one of those who believes that fly fishing can rescue us from this cycle, if we let it.
   It is no small irony that fly fishing can give rise to its own unique brand of unhealthy obsession. You know the story of the angler who can’t enjoy fishing unless some relative accomplishment is achieved. The fish caught on 6X is superior to the one caught on 5X. Half inches count when measuring fish, as does how “fast” (and expensive) one’s rod is, and how elaborately tied and proprietary is the deadliest fly. Speaking of proprietary, it should (but usually doesn’t) go without saying that the obsessive angler’s secret fishing spot is unequaled in the world, especially back before so many other anglers decided to take better advantage of their birthright public lands. And don’t even think of asking where this spot is because you don’t deserve to know. Although our sport is supposed to lead us away from such Type A ridiculousness, it is inevitable that our ships occasionally veer off course.
   Fortunately, the road to redemption is well marked. It leads to a small creek, the kind of place you went as a youngster, alone, hungry for adventure, and with your parents’ reluctant blessing. This stream taught you about silence and wonder. Life is everywhere you look, in birds, bugs, sounds, the breeze on your skin. The trout are small as they always will be, their size being beside the point of their breathtaking beauty. During a day of fishing here, the commotion of your life falls from you like a droplet of July rain off an alder leaf. Anglers familiar with southwestern Colorado may know this place as Hermosa Creek. 
   Located in the San Juan National Forest in the vicinity of Durango, Colorado, it is aptly named (hermosa is Spanish for “pretty”) for the rusty red peaks at its headwaters, as well as the conifer- and aspen-flanked meadow and canyon country through which it flows. From an altitude of more than 12,500 feet above sea level, Hermosa Creek descends approximately 6,000 feet over 20-plus miles to its confluence with the Animas River. As one would expect from such a steep gradient, Hermosa Creek is primarily a pocket-water prospect, which translates to short casts, high-sticking, and, through much of the season, attractor dry flies.
   As far as gear is concerned, there are few items that will make or break your Hermosa experience, choosing your rod being a possible exception. On most high mountain creeks, you shouldn’t expect an abundance of fish longer than 9 inches (trout on Hermosa do occasionally reach 18). Your rod, therefore, shouldn’t be heavier than a 4 weight, and 8 feet of length will adequately split the difference between maintaining line control, fitting the Hermosa stream channel with all its snagging hazards, and providing the muscle to cast a long line when necessary.
   Don’t place too much value on casting distance, though. If you’re not catching enough fish, there are about a hundred other factors you should sweat before your casting. Is your tippet long and thin enough to allow your fly to dance? Do your shirt and movements make you disappear or do they broadcast your presence? Did you remember to pack your raincoat during the monsoon season so a storm doesn’t cause you to leave early?
   After so many years on the water, I’m still amazed at how the slightest attention to environmental conditions—weather, for instance—can make my fishing more productive. Wind is omnipresent in the Rocky Mountains and anglers should remain aware of how gusts can dump grasshoppers on the surface. If it’s warm enough for grasshoppers to be active, that is; keep in mind that the meadows on Hermosa Creek take a while to shrug off the cold of night. Back to the monsoons. Say you have packed your raincoat and you’ve waited out a high mountain lightning show. When you return to your fishing, understand that the rain may have cooled the water substantially. Also, it may have saturated the banks, causing an exodus of earthworms that are now in the creek.
   Even if you don’t see worms in the flow, it’s likely that the fish will recognize the logic of your artificial being there in the wake of a heavy rain. In this scenario, I’m not too hard on myself for running a worm pattern, as it almost feels like I’m matching
a hatch.
   Of Hermosa Creek’s many remarkable qualities, the color of the streambed is perhaps the most outstanding. For the most part, it’s the oxidized rock one sees in the peaks and escarpments along the drainage, with chunks of gray granite mixed in. Oxidized rock is red. In Hermosa Creek, it looks like poison runoff from a mine, but don’t be alarmed or fooled. Trout definitely thrive here.
   Not to say that mining doesn’t loom large in the region’s history. Extractive development by European-descended explorers dominated the southwest Colorado landscape in the second half of the 19th century. In the vicinity of Hermosa Creek, towns like Silverton, Ouray, and Telluride became ore mining hot spots during the 1860s. Durango served as a transportation center and coal veins nearby built the town’s capacity to smelt the ore pouring out of the San Juan Mountains. Usually, human population growth accompanies such resource booms, along with logging, water diversion for agriculture, and water pollution. In classic fashion, all this activity severely damaged native fish stocks and eventually led to the introduction of nonnative trout species to compensate.
   Fast forward a century and southwest Colorado is now a hub for people who love recreating in the mountains. Resource extraction is still an important economic force, but recreation creates diversity and a hedge against fluctuating resource markets. Two ski areas operate within an easy drive from Durango. One of them, Durango Mountain Resort, is just 30 minutes from downtown. Mountain bikers, OHV riders, and backpackers have made the San Juan National Forest a treasured playground. Hunters enjoy healthy game populations.
   With almost too many fisheries to experience in a lifetime, the area is a trout fisher’s paradise, with Hermosa Creek occupying a special place in many anglers’ hearts. Tom Knopick, who co-owns Duranglers Flies and Supplies, says, “The Hermosa Creek drainage is invaluable to the Durango fishing community. Such a gorgeous place with so much public access is hard to come by these days. To have a thriving fishery where people can reliably catch cutthroat trout is a huge draw.”
   Hermosa anglers enjoy catching rainbow trout, brookies, cuttbows and, especially in tributaries like Sig Creek, pure Colorado River cutthroat. Hatches span the expected range of possibilities. As with most high-elevation Colorado creeks, what seems to matter to trout is not so much a specific color, size, or even type of insect, but that it occurs at a much greater frequency than other bugs that may be present at the same time. Put another way, contrary to a tailwater or a fishery of similar high fertility, trout in Hermosa don’t have the luxury of a long growing season and the selective feeding it enables; even during a hatch, it behooves a Hermosa fish to eat as much as it can while food is available. What that food consists of is less important than
its quantity.
   On Hermosa Creek, I simply choose a bug that’s visible and that keeps floating after repeated dunkings by turbulent flows and ravenous trout. If my fly has a foam or hair body, a white poly yarn or CDC wing, I can raise plenty of fish on it. Don’t stock your Hermosa fly box with specific stonefly, mayfly, caddisfly, and terrestrial dry patterns so much as with general flies in appropriate sizes and colors.
   Follow a similar ballpark-type strategy with nymphs. Honestly, the only nymphs you really need for Hermosa are something peacock (Zug Bug), something tan (Hare’s Ear), and something pheasant tail (Pheasant Tail). Make sure you have nymphs that barely sink and others that sink fast.
   My friend, Tejano Trammel, who’s fished Hermosa throughout his life, is more exacting, if not superstitious about fly choice. “I guarandamntee you’ll catch more fish on a Purple Haze than anything else,” he maintains.
   Ty Churchwell, Trout Unlimited’s Hermosa junky in residence, might also take issue with my generalist approach, at least with regard to one insect he says is overwhelmingly prevalent during the summer months. In July and August, Churchwell feels a bit exposed if he doesn’t have a size 10 yellow Stimulator on hand for the predictable daily appearance of spruce moths. “The only downside to the moths,” he says, “is that the fish can fill up on them. At that point, you’re just enjoying the scenery and the peace and quiet.”
   As Durango-based backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Sportsmen’s Conservation Project, Churchwell has dedicated his career to making sure the stunning Hermosa Creek scenery will be enjoyed for generations to come. His organization is a member of the Hermosa River Protection Workgroup, a coalition of stakeholders that has spent the last three years hammering out a management plan for the Hermosa basin that honors and conserves the watershed’s most
important values.
   Thanks to the combined efforts of the stakeholders and two Colorado legislators, the plan has been formalized as the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act. Senator Michael Bennet introduced this legislation into the U.S. Senate in 2012. Representative Scott Tipton, who introduced the House version that same year, is “proud to have introduced legislation reflecting the recommendations of an entire community to protect Hermosa Creek for future generations and maintain historic multiple uses of the land. A diverse group of stakeholders that included recreationalists, conservationists, sportsmen, local businesses, industry representatives, and others created an inclusive plan that respects the needs of the Hermosa
Creek community.”
   This legislation proposes a Special Management Area (SMA) consisting of the entire 108,000-acre Hermosa Creek watershed. The SMA will be divided into three distinct sections, each with its own allowances and protections. A quarter of this acreage will be managed for current and historical uses such as grazing and timber harvest, with future new road and trail development allowed. Another 40 percent permits these uses on already developed areas, but there will be a moratorium on future road and trail construction. Finally, approximately 37,000 acres of key trout and wildlife habitat are designated as a federal wilderness with a moratorium on mineral development across the entire SMA.
   Several aspects of the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act make it outstanding among conservation initiatives. The fact that it seeks to protect the entire watershed—a contiguous, contained ecosystem—is laudable for its recognition that connected habitat is not only better for fish and wildlife, but also easier to manage. That a wilderness area is part of this protection recognizes the value of a wildlife sanctuary and the regenerative capacity that will accrue to the entire SMA. In the legislation, trout fishing, multiple-use recreation, and public access are actually listed as management goals. Taken together, these values suggest that the integrity of the Hermosa fishery will be maintained in perpetuity.
   To get to the most popular reach of Hermosa, take US Highway 550 north from Durango for about 27 miles to the turnoff to Durango Mountain Resort. Heading west, you will be on U.S. Forest Road 578 at this point, about 1 mile from the East Fork of Hermosa Creek, 7 miles from its confluence with the main-stem Hermosa. There, you will find a trailhead known as Upper Hermosa from which you can head down- or upstream. At an elevation of around 8,800 feet, Upper Hermosa isn’t accessible until around April and doesn’t offer viable fishing until runoff ends in mid-June. Because of its elevation, fishing effectively ends at Upper Hermosa by the end of September.
   Lower Hermosa, a trailhead and campground near Hermosa Creek’s confluence with the Animas River, offers earlier and later fishing due to its lower elevation. It’s also much closer to Durango. Take Highway 550 north and turn west on County Road 201 at the town of Hermosa. It becomes FR 576 and leads to Lower Hermosa. Because of regular use by off-highway vehicles and the rugged canyon character, this access point is less popular with anglers but still delivers you to fine fishing.
   Upper Hermosa is in the northern portion of the proposed Hermosa Creek SMA, an area that currently experiences the heaviest human use and will be the most unrestrictive on this traffic if the Hermosa Watershed Protection Act becomes law. What makes this noteworthy is that, by marvelous coincidence, this stretch encompasses the most promising characteristics for Colorado cutthroat trout restoration.
   An existing barrier prevents the upstream migration of nonnative rainbows and brook trout into cutthroat habitat on the East Fork and its tributaries. To solidify Hermosa as a cutthroat stronghold, the Forest Service plans to build another migration barrier farther downstream below the confluence of the East Fork and the main-stem Hermosa. Scheduled to be complete in 2016, the barrier would divide upstream cutthroat habitat (nonnative trout would be removed upstream of the barrier) from a multiple-species fishery below. Most important, miles of this cutthroat water would be accessible by road.
   Knopick, of Duranglers, not only understands the inherent value of improving regional native trout habitat, but its economic rewards as well. “People go to the South Island of New Zealand to catch brown trout. In the [Pacific] Northwest, you fish for steelhead. More often these days, people who travel to the Rockies from other parts of the country want to fish for our native cutthroats.”
   By focusing its cutthroat restoration efforts in areas of greatest access and use, the Forest Service is betting that anglers will become advocates for native trout when catching them
becomes commonplace.
   “Cutthroat populations are a fraction of what they used to be,” adds Knopick. “Normally, you have to hike a long ways to get them, but at Hermosa, we’ll be catching cutthroat right out of the car. That’s a wonderful thing in this day and age.”
   Thanks to the wilderness portion of the Hermosa Creek SMA, fly anglers who prefer a remote and primitive experience need not despair. Inside and out of the proposed wilderness area, tributaries veining the Hermosa basin offer intimate fishing for natives, brookies, and rainbows. In fact, if fishing this gem of a stream could be characterized with one word, “intimate” would be it. No matter where you are in the drainage, you cannot fish Hermosa Creek without becoming closer to the world you live in, closer
to yourself.

 

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