Southwest Fly Fishing

Small Streams and Alpine Lakes
By Toner Mitchell and Nick Streit

In June of 1976, my older brother and a friend of his, both 14, included me on their plan to backpack the 35 miles through the Pecos Wilderness. We loaded up with freeze-dried food, waved good-bye to my father at the Santa Barbara Campground, and began a steep haul south toward the Trailriders Wall. Wearing blue jeans and cotton T-shirts, we crested the wall on the second day. Our final few miles were through three feet of snow.
   I still don’t know why Dad let us go out there alone, but I’ve always been grateful that he wasn’t scared to send his boys into the woods unsupervised. This is something that would terrify me as a parent, if not get me thrown in jail. I’m also grateful that I became a real fisherman in the Pecos Wilderness, for learning that all dry-fly strikes aren’t the splashy kind, and that every fish didn’t have to be threaded onto a stick.
   Although many of them did on our trip. Blowing through our food at an unsustainable pace, we came to the early conclusion that trout, instead of supplementing our diet as we’d originally planned, would have to become our food supply. This suited us fine, of course, since eating consumed so little of our time compared to sleeping and fishing. In hindsight, I think choking down so many trout (thank you, Squeeze Parkay and lemon pepper), a fish I’ve since never relished on the plate, helped solidify my catch-and-release ethic.
   After reaching Trailriders Wall, we proceeded to the top of Chimayosos Peak, where we ate lunch and shared our potato chips with a bighorn ewe. Then we shouldered our packs and dropped over to the south side of the peak and immediately saw a man on horseback emerge from the timber below us. In a short time, we met him on the trail. He was extremely old, breathing hard as he slumped over his mount.
   He introduced himself as Elliott Barker, such a legendary New Mexican that, even as a boy of 12, I recognized his name. He was our state’s first game warden, and the very person who in 1950 discovered the burned and singed black bear cub that would become Smokey Bear, our national symbol for forest fire prevention. Quite an auspicious beginning to my first big adventure.
   The federal Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, introduced a novel concept into land management, that land be preserved entirely for its own sake. Lands designated under the act would be areas “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” After the devastating natural resource liquidation that took place across the American West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, incorporating recreation and spiritual rejuvenation into the nation’s land ethic was a trend promoted and celebrated by people like Elliott Barker. He must have been elated when the Pecos, encompassing almost 224,000 acres, was one of the first wildernesses designated in the year the bill was passed.

 

The Fishing
Fishing in the Pecos Wilderness is about small streams and alpine lakes. The growing season is short, so fish eat whenever they get the opportunity and whatever floats by that will fit in their mouths unless, of course, they see an angler looming above the stream.
   In the backcountry, anglers should carry just one box of flies and most of them should float. Don’t worry about nymphs unless you fish the lakes, in which case a couple of small nymphs and Woolly Buggers will see you through. What’s most important is for your flies to fit in one box. In fact, all of your fishing gear—tippet, flies, shot, and forceps—should fit into a container the size of a small toilet kit. 
   Don’t forget your floatant. You will be catching one fish after another on a normal day, and keeping your flies up is a recurring challenge, one that can be at least partially mitigated by selecting visible flies. Wings of light elk, calf tail, or colored poly yarn remain visible when they sink, and trout are likely to eat them no matter where they drift or drag in the water column.
   The imperative to bring only the bare minimum of flies places a critical significance on fly durability. Trees and bushes promise to steal the usual number of flies, but even if your casts always make it to the water, expect lots of fly destruction from trout teeth. Patterns that hold their shape or essence after some shredding—Humpies and Stimulators, as well as foam terrestrials—are the best choices.

 

Planning a Pecos Wilderness Trip
You can see a lot of incredible country during a three- to six-night backpack trip in the Pecos. Some would recommend making a long haul from the Santa Barbara Campground at the north end of the Pecos all the way to Cowles, fishing at each stop, or trekking the entire Skyline Trail, which traces a circuit through the wilderness.
   I would recommend an approach of selecting a specific area, hiking to a central base camp, and making daily sojourns to nearby fishing spots. The Pecos Wilderness consists of several general fishing areas: Rio Santa Barbara; Trampas Lakes; west slope; Pecos River corridor, Lake Katherine; Mora Creek and Rio Valdez; Cowles; and east slope. 
   It’s important to note that the Pecos Wilderness isn’t only for backpackers. A few Pecos fisheries can be day hiked, with Mora Flats, Holy Ghost Creek, and Panchuela Creek being the most popular. But strap on a backpack if you can. Trust me. You will likely not regret the great fishing and starry nights that await you farther in.
   Destinations of more than 5 miles usually consume a full day of hiking and include significant elevation gains from trailheads that already range from 6,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level. Planning at least two nights at a spot allows you to take in the splendor of the surroundings and rest your muscles for the hike out. Do not underestimate the toll that altitude and long distances will take on your body, nor the profound satisfaction that comes with truly escaping the trappings of modern life.
   If the potential exertion is too much of a physical or mental hurdle, hire one of several Pecos area outfitters who will pack in your gear on horseback to an agreed upon location, allowing you and your group to hike or fish your way to camp with a minimal load.

 

Suggested Routes
The Rio Santa Barbara has three forks offering fast fishing action in a breathtaking setting. Shortly after crossing the wilderness boundary, the Middle Fork Trail (Trail 24) goes left to the Middle and East Forks of the Rio Santa Barbara while Trail 25 follows the West Fork. Both trails lead to the Trailriders Wall. The forks of the Santa Barbara are favored by Rio Grande cutthroat trout fanatics, although large browns 14 to 18 inches and longer are being caught with increasing frequency all the way up in the headwaters.
   The Santa Barbara offers a day trip option. Simply park at the Santa Barbara Campground and fish up the canyon. Again, if you plan to hike more than 5 miles before fishing, do so with a backpack. Otherwise, you’ll only get an hour or two of fishing before you have to head back to the trailhead.
   Trampas Lakes mark the headwaters of the Rio de las Trampas, just west of the Santa Barbara over the steep canyon wall of the West Fork. The Trampas trailhead is several miles east of the village of El Valle. It’s a possible day trip, though a grueling one. The lakes and the Rio de las Trampas are Rio Grande cutthroat waters, though contaminated with rainbow trout and Snake River cutts.
   The Pecos River corridor is perhaps the most central location for anglers seeking the greatest array of fishing opportunities. Camping near Beattys Flat (camping at the flat itself is prohibited due to decades of impact by wilderness lovers) provides access to Pecos Baldy Lake, the Rito Azul and Chimayosos, Rio Grande cutthroat trout above Pecos Falls, and miles of the Pecos River below the falls and through the Beattys Flat meadow.
   The shortest route to the Pecos River corridor is via Trail 249 beginning at Iron Gate Campground, which you’ll find at the end of Forest Road 223 off State Route 63, the main thoroughfare up the Pecos River canyon from the south. Beattys is also accessible from Jacks Creek Campground, approximately 2 miles north of Cowles, from Trail25.
   Cowles is the ideal jump-off location for day or expedition trips into the Pecos. Beattys Flat, Pecos Baldy Lake, Stewart and Johnson Lakes, are all a day’s backpack from Cowles. Horsethief Meadow, up Trail 288, and much of Panchuela Creek, keep you close to great stream fishing on Cave and Horsethief Creeks, though I prefer Panchuela. The meadow is a great place to pitch a tent (staying a good distance from surface water, of course).
   Mora Creek and its tributaries are popular fishing destinations, accessible via a short downhill hike from Iron Gate to Mora Flats. Mora Flats is often crowded with other adventurers, so either enjoy the company or go up or down the creek for more privacy. The Mora is perfect for a one- or two-night stay, and a good day trip. Tributaries Bear Creek or the Rio Valdez offer nonstop dry-fly action on most days; 50-plus fish days are common. Adventurous anglers make their way up the Valdez until they encounter a remnant population of Pecos subspecies of Rio Grande cutthroat trout. 
   Lake Katherine, in the east bowl of Santa Fe Baldy Peak, is a favorite of many Santa Fe anglers. The trailhead begins at the Santa Fe Ski Basin and takes much of the day to hike. Longer stays can accommodate day trips to Johnson and Stewart Lakes, and streams like Holy Ghost Creek, the Panchuela system, and Windsor Creek.
   Lesser known parts of the Pecos are well worth the effort. On the east slope, Hermit’s Peak trails treat the wilderness traveler to unparalleled beauty of Hermit’s Peak and consistent fishing up the Porvenir Canyon. There are fewer fishing options on the east slope, however, than elsewhere in the wilderness. On the west slope, embarking from the Borrego Mesa trailhead and heading up the Rio Medio offers great solitude, some cutthroat opportunities, and a true rugged experience. Be warned that the road to Borrego Mesa can be messy during the rainy season.
   When planning your Pecos Wilderness trip, the first order of business is to buy the Pecos Wilderness map published by the U.S. Forest Service. You’ll see that my suggested routes comprise but a tiny portion of available options. Basically, most creeks have fish in them and most camp spots are gorgeous.
   For longer trips, I recommend choosing your area on the wilderness map, then buying the corresponding USGS topos for a more detailed layout of your journey. Getting lost is a drag; doing so in a wilderness can be life threatening. On that note, don’t venture into the Pecos without giving a detailed itinerary to your friends and family, so they will know where to look for you if you don’t return on schedule.
   Maintain a bear safe campsite, hanging your food and whatever waste you can’t burn in your campfire. Speaking of fires, don’t start one unless you’re allowed to do so; check the local Forest Service websites for restrictions. And don’t start one unless you know how to extinguish it completely. Use established fire rings when possible and drown your coals before leaving camp.
   Monsoon season generally runs from late June through August, so prepare for sudden and sometimes violent rainstorms accompanied by lots of lightning. Don’t remain in open meadows and try to stay away from rock outcroppings. Plan your travel above timberline for the morning, which is generally when storms are in a state of building energy and not releasing it. Remain calm during storms. At the same time, take them seriously; high-altitude rain, wind, and hail are very cold, and fires are hard to start when everything is wet.
   Katherine, Pecos Baldy, Trampas, and Johnson Lakes always hold fish. Other lakes—Truchas, Jose Vigil, Stewart to name a few—have been known to get winter killed. Before heading off to a Pecos Wilderness lake, get the most current information on whether it holds fish. Make sure this information is based on real people catching real fish, preferably in the current year.
   Generally, stream anglers should expect to catch lots of small, 6- to 10-inch trout. Larger fish may be found in beaver ponds or in meadow stretches of streams like the Santa Barbara where there are cutbanks and deep water. Otherwise, lunker hunters should fish the lakes for Snake River or Rio Grande cutthroat. Most streams will be brown trout fisheries.
   Where you find browns mixed with cutts, try to harvest a few browns, especially the big ones. Console yourself with the fact that these species coexist in some of the most remote fisheries in the Pecos, where eating found (mushrooms, raspberries) or captured (trout, grouse in season) food helps greatly in keeping your pack light and body stocked with protein. Brown trout are making a great living throughout the Pecos. Where they exist, Rio Grande cutthroat are doing well, too, but they need to be doing better.
   Finally, if you’re venturing into the Pecos after September, bring a blaze orange hat or vest so as not to have your head hung above some elk hunter’s fireplace.

 

True Love
In his book Beatty’s Cabin, Elliott Barker chronicles the extirpation of the Pecos elk herds by market hunters, miners, loggers, and stockmen. Forced onto a diet of cattle and sheep, the grizzly bears of the Pecos didn’t last much longer. Diseases contracted from domestic sheep destroyed what bighorns weren’t killed by hunters, then trappers cleaned the beavers from most Pecos streams. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Pecos high country was otherwise ravaged by overgrazing, logging, mining, and other extractive practices. By the time he became state game warden in 1931, Barker had witnessed his beloved Pecos reduced to scraps.
   And by the time he wrote his book in the 1950s, he had almost single-handedly restored it to the glorious state it still displays. People like Barker and Iowa-born honorary New Mexican Aldo Leopold were among a new brand of visionaries testifying to the tangible value of wild nature to human societies. They boldly asserted that wild places safeguarded our water supplies while providing much needed sanctuary, not only for animals and fish, but also for the human soul. We accept this on faith now, thanks to Barker and his ilk.
   There on that mountainside, with miles of New Mexico spreading forever below us, three boys reveled in what this man had accomplished. He told us he was too old to climb into his saddle without being hoisted by some friends. But he couldn’t think of a better place to be than astride his pinto horse on the windblown scree of the Skyline Trail, on the day marking his 90th year on Earth. He would see 101.
   I am certain he was my first encounter with a person who truly loved a place.
   It’s difficult to say so many years later, but it may also have been the first time I fell in love with a place myself.

 

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