Conejos River – 7/22/2011

Time: 9:30AM – 6:00PM

Location: Downstream from 105 bridge and then the Meadows area

Fish Landed: 17

Conejos River 07/22/2011 Photo Album

I’d read articles about the great fishing in Elk Creek, a tributary of the Conejos so I gave some thought to exploring that water, but with the level of success experienced on Thursday, why not return? That’s what I decided to do, but I didn’t need to drive to the store and thus got a nice early start. I was at the bridge by 9AM with my Camelback full and my lunch packed. I tied my raincoat around my waist under my waders to leave room in the backpack for a sandwich and other goodies and set out on my hike. I planned to hike further and stay up high above the trees and vegetation above the stream and hike for 30 minutes. This worked out rather well and put me downstream even further than where I’d begun on Thursday. Unfortunately when I filled my Camelback the small rubber gasket in the cap had come out, and apparently I didn’t seat it properly, and 75% of my water supply leaked from the bladder. This was not a good start to a hot sunny day.

For some reason I decided to start with a tan Charlie Boy hopper on Friday morning. To the hopper I added a purple PT, and began fishing. Two things had changed from the previous day; there were far fewer clouds in the sky thus creating warmer air temperatures and the water level had dropped. I later checked and flows dropped from 170 to 150 between Thursday and Friday. This allowed easier wading, but the fishing became more difficult.

Things started off reasonably well as I landed two browns on the Charlie Boy hopper, but all the deer hair wing fell out upon landing the second fish. I switched to a yellow Letort hopper and added a copper john and landed a very nice brown on the copper john and then a smaller brown on the Letort hopper. But the hopper wasn’t producing consistently and I experienced quite a few momentary hookups where the fish got off. Even though I got an early start, I didn’t seem to be able to get in the same kind of rhythm as I’d enjoyed on Thursday, so I decided to break for lunch on a nice grassy bank and observe the water.

As I munched my lunch I noticed some PMD’s and the occasional huge fluttering green drake and a few golden stoneflies as well as yellow sallies. After lunch I decided to try the bushy green drakes I’d bought at the fly shop. This proved to be a great decision and for the next 1.5 hours I experienced hot action and landed 11 trout including one brightly colored rainbow. The trout loved the bushy green drake and took it with confidence in the deeper runs and pockets.

One of Two Pretty Rainbows Took Green Drake

Head Shot with Green Drake

I was stuck on 15 when the trout seemed to turn off on the green drake as the sun beat down and the temperature soared. I still hadn’t reached my starting point from the previous day when I encountered a place where a large dead fallen tree stretched on an angle from the bank out into the river and then right above the tree there was a high vertical rock wall. The current rushed down my side of the river and then swept along the vertical rock wall before creating a small pool above the fallen tree. I clung to the rock wall and tossed a Chernobyl into the point where the currents formed a small V where the downstream current and the one along the rock wall merged. Suddenly a huge mouth appeared and gulped the Chernobyl and made the sound of a loud burp. I’d never heard anything like this before. I set the hook and the brown charged downstream by me in the heavier current and then leaped from the water. I could see it was a nice-sized brown. Once it splashed back down in the water it shot directly toward the fallen tree and its many protruding branches. If it got among those branches it was game over. I applied steady pressure but couldn’t turn it, and in fact the trout accelerated and it was game over. My line flew back toward me, and I screamed some not so nice words in exasperation.

Large Brown Lost Here as It Headed for Deadfall

Fairly soon after this exciting encounter, I reached the water I’d covered the previous day. I fished my way up to the nice pool where I’d been for the hatch and tried deep nymphing it again. Once again I foul hooked a nice brown. Judging from its size and location, it may have been the same fish I foul hooked yesterday.

Typical Character of Upper Conejos

I decided to skip the rest of the water I’d covered before and hiked back to the parking lot with the intent of sampling the river above the bridge. As I was walking down the road from the parking lot to the bridge another fisherman was driving up the road and rolled his window down to greet me and ask how I’d done. I ended up chatting with Steve from Albuquerque, and he suggested I take a look at the meadows section that he said was three miles further up the road.

By now it was 4PM and I found a nice run of moderate depth north of the bridge and cast my Chernobyl ant and suddenly a fish rose and slurped it in. I fought the hot fish and brought a nice 14 inch rainbow to net. Unfortunately as I was positioning for a photo, it made a spurt from the net and broke off my purple PT dropper and that was my last one of the smaller size.

I continued moving upstream and jumping in to fish nice water. I replaced the purple PT with a beadhead PT, a beadhead hares ear, a beadhead bright green caddis pupa, and a beadhead emerald caddis pupa. Along the way I landed a small brown on the Chernobyl ant. Eventually I came upon a nice pocket water stretch across from the Lake Fork Campground. I had a few refusals from what appeared to be a decent brown in a deep slot across from the campground, so I replaced the two flies with a single size 16 caddis with a light gray body and brown hackle. The targeted fish grabbed the caddis when it got sucked under water by the swirling currents and I experienced a momentary hookup.

It was now 5PM and I had a decent hike back to the car in the heat so I decided to turn around even though some nice water beckoned ahead. When I got back to the car I debated whether to try the meadow stretch or call it a day. Since I’d come a long way and survived the dirt road, I owed it to myself to check out the meadows. It turned out to be more like four miles, but sure enough it was obvious when I reached the meadows. The stream here was quite wide and consistently 3 to 4 feet deep with occasional protruding boulders to interrupt the monotony of the constant flow. How does one fish water like this when nothing is showing on the surface?

Wildflower Meadow Next to Conejos

I spotted another fisherman so angled upstream of him around 100 yards. I still had the Chernobyl ant with the beadhead emerald caddis pupa dropper, so I started fishing the way I’d learned in Alaska. I shot casts out over the river and made a big first mend to get the fly line above the flies and then fed out line while making quick constant stack mends to maintain a nice drag free drift. In addition I walked along the bank at roughly the same speed as the current. Much to my surprise, after walking perhaps 20 yards of bank doing this and just as my flies were five feet above a protruding rock, the Chernobyl disappeared and I set the hook and played a fish that felt decent for a minute or two before it made a sudden turn and freed itself. Again a few choice words were uttered. I continued moving downstream in this fashion with no further success until I approached the other fisherman and exited and quit for the day. Friday was a good day, but not as good as Thursday, but still far superior than waiting for the flows to subside in northern Colorado.

Purchased Green Drake Took Ten Fish

Conejos River – 7/21/2011

Time: 10:30AM – 5:00PM

Location: Upper Conejos at 105 bridge crossing then downstream by a 20 minute hike

Fish Landed: 30

Conejos River 07/21/2011 Photo Album

When I awoke on Thursday morning and walked to the picnic table to start the stove and heat up water for tea, I noticed some large brown muddy spots on the tablecloth. The marks were around four inches wide and three inches tall. These were definitely larger than a squirrel or raccoon. What was going on here? I scanned the picnic table, and the water container and stove and dishwashing bin were all there. But something was missing. I remembered that I left the utensil bin on the table as well as it didn’t contain any food. I looked around and discovered a mass of crushed plastic twenty feet away from the table under some tall evergreens. I went over and inspected and found the container had been crushed into many pieces, and my utensils were scattered on the pine needles. I found a garbage bag and gathered up the plastic pieces, and took the utensils back to the table for washing. I decided to dispose of the garbage bag and walked over to the other loop to find the dumpster had been turned upside down. I later learned that the bear had been in camp at around 11:30PM. Apparently the bear had been on my picnic table and smashed my utensil container, and I slept through the entire episode! This is scary stuff.

Aftermath of Bear Visit on Wednesday Night

I planned to drive back to the fly shop to buy some supplies and get information. Now I also needed to buy a new container for my utensils. After I prepared breakfast I washed all my utensils and put them in a plastic bag. The closest store was probably in Antonito, so I drove the 22 miles to a small supermarket and bought a new Ziploc container and ice and inquired on the whereabouts of the Cottonwood Meadows Fly Shop I’d read about in my Colorado fly fishing book. The store personnel gave me a brochure and apparently I’d driven by the fly shop and it was now called Conejos River Anglers. I stopped at the fly shop in Mogote and asked the proprietor a bunch of questions. I bought a tapered leader, a spool of tippet, split shot and three thingamabobbers. The gentleman in the shop informed me I had to go high and showed me where to go on the map. It required a 16 mile drive on a dirt road. He then pointed to flies that were known producers, and I bought 10 or so. I bought two bushy green drakes and two parachute green drakes with white wings. I also bought a bunch of nymphs with black beadheads, iridescent purple bodies and fine rubber legs. I bought around six of these in various sizes. I’ll refer to these in future reports as purple rubber leg pheasant tails. I asked when the hatches occurred and the storekeeper told me in the morning. I glanced at my watch and knowing I had a long rough drive on a dirt road, I quickly paid my bill and hustled on.

I stopped briefly at the campground to pick up my waders and wading boots and decided to forego preparing lunch and do that when I reached my destination. Sure enough after traveling up route 17 for six miles, I make a right turn on to CO 250 and it was dirt and quite rough with washboard sections from time to time. I couldn’t average more than about 25 MPH. I drove past some beautiful stretches of river and gorgeous countryside. This was remote Colorado at its best. After passing a two mile stretch called the Pinnacles, which I’d read about in the book, I continued another couple miles until I saw route 105 cutting off to the left. I descended this very rough dirt road a short distance and crossed the bridge and parked in a rough rocky sagebrush parking lot. While I was rigging up, two Texans came and asked me which direction I was fishing. I responded that I planned to go downstream, and they asked if I minded if they went upstream. I replied that they should go for it.

One of the Nicer Pools on Upper Conejos

I stuffed a yogurt, trail mix bar, and some carrots in my backpack along with my Camelback, and I was off down the trail. I wanted to hike a bit and not fish too close to the parking lot, although in retrospect, I don’t think it mattered much. I hiked high above the river on some grassy ridges and then after twenty minutes cut down to the river at a point where the bank was gentler. No sooner had I arrived by the stream and started tying on the parachute green drake with one of the purple PT’s than I spotted another fisherman at the bottom of the pool. I would discover that there were only a handful of fishermen on this river, and I managed to find one of them. As I tied on my flies the other fisherman pressed upstream, so it became clear he wanted the pool, so I backed away from the river and hiked further downstream. I ended up jumping back in just below a second small tributary that entered on my side of the river.

This One Almost Length of Net

The river was running quite strong from bank to bank, and it was quite difficult to wade upstream against the current. I was forced to fish within three feet or so of the bank as I had done on the Arkansas River on Sunday; however, this was less intimidating since it was a smaller stream. I picked up a fish on the parachute green drake and one on the purple PT, but the top fly began to sink, so I swapped it out for a yellow Letort hopper. I continued working my way upstream tight against the bank and landed three more trout on the trailing purple PT. I began fishing at around 10:30AM and it was partly cloudy. Dark clouds would roll by periodically and it looked like rain, but it never did more than sprinkle for a short time. At 11:30 a fairly large dark cloud rolled in and this triggered some sparse hatching. I spotted PMD’s and a few green drakes. At about this same time I reached the sweet pool I had originally chanced upon, and my nemesis had moved on.

Caught Nice Brown Here on PMD

I watched the water from the tail and could see at least four fish rising. I tried my hopper and dropper, but they were focused on something else. Since I saw PMD’s I switched the purple PT out for a normal beadhead pheasant tail, and that didn’t produce either. I moved up to the mid-point of the run so I could observe better and thought I noticed a fish taking a PMD from the surface. I clipped off the two flies and tied on a light gray comparadun aka the money fly. I made quite a few casts with no success but eventually on a drift over the tail of the pool a fish rose and sipped in my fly. I set the hook and eventually landed a nice brown that extended almost the length of my net. As quickly as the hatch had begun, it now ended after an hour or so of intense action.

I moved to the top of the run and decided to try the thingamabobber with a pair of nymphs and run them down through the pool and along the current seam. On one of these drifts, the bobber dipped and I set the hook and found myself attached to a fine brown. Unfortunately when I brought it to my net it was foul hooked.

Tall Aspens

Near this spot I sat down on the bank and ate my lunch, but the hatch had pretty much wound down. After lunch I tied on a Chernobyl ant with the purple PT as a dropper. The sky continued to cloud up and then the sun would break through. I believe that this combination of overcast conditions and the higher flows really helped the fishing. As I moved up along the left bank facing upstream I continued picking up fish with decent regularity. The Chernobyl and PT were probably working at equal 50-50 levels of success. The current was so strong that in many places I had to exit the stream and jump around trees and willows that were tight to the current. But whenever I found some slack water, it seemed to produce a fish.

Chernobyl Visible on This Brown

On the day I landed 30 brown trout and several were quite nice fish for a relatively small stream, although it was probably the size of the Frying Pan, so not quite as small as many streams at this elevation. Toward the end I switched the purple PT for a prince and caught a fish on that, and then removed the prince and replaced with a bright green caddis pupa, and that produced a couple. I needed one more fish to reach 30 when I reached the bridge where the car was parked. I went above the bridge and looked through my fly pocket and spotted a Madam X with a gray body. For some reason I decided to give it a try and it produced number 30.

More Rock Occupants

I now had to drive the 16 mile dirt road back to camp, and took my time as I was not in a rush to catch the morning hatch action like the morning drive. On Thursday night I took a hike along the lower level of the campground and snapped some sunset photos. Of course after dinner, I packed everything in the car including the new utensil container. At around 11:15 Thursday night I heard quite a bit of activity and assumed a new camper had arrived. I awoke again at 3AM to the sound of a thud, and I was certain that the bear returned and knocked my camp stove off the table. But when I awoke in the morning and looked out of the tent, the stove and water container where still in the position I’d left them in.

Cool Reflection Off River

Conejos River – 7/20/2011

Time: 4:00PM – 8:00PM

Location: Special regulation water three miles upstream from Aspen Glade Campground

Fish Landed: 1

Conejos River 07/20/2011 Photo Album

I was all caught up at work and waiting for the office manager to finish job costing for June, so I had the rest of the week available to fish. I checked all the likely rivers within a day’s drive of Denver, and all were still running high from the 2011 protracted snow melt. The only day trip option was edge fishing the Arkansas. I checked some of the southern drainages and discovered that the Rio Grande and Conejos Rivers in south central Colorado were flowing at ideal levels, so I decided to do a three day camping and fishing trip to the Conejos. Jane and I and the kids had been to this area perhaps 15 years ago when we took a trip on the Combre and Toltec Railroad and camped at Elk Creek, but I hadn’t fished very much.

I packed everything up on Wednesday morning and made the 4.5 hour drive to the Aspen Glade Campground along the Conejos River. I arrived at around 3PM and cruised the campground. Quite a few sites were reserved for Friday night, and I wanted to stay Friday and drive back to Denver on Saturday morning. The campground was on two levels and the premium sites were among tall cottonwood trees along the river, and all those sites were either taken or reserved for Friday night, so I defaulted to a nice site among some tall trees on one of the upper level loops. I set up the tent and while doing so the campground hosts stopped by to say hello and warn me that a bear had been in camp the previous two nights. They suggested keeping my key fob in the tent, and should a bear appear, hit the panic button to scare off the bear.

Aspen Glade Campground, Site No. 2

I was anxious to hit the river, and it looked clear and ideal so I drove approximately three miles upriver to a pullout with wooden stairs over the fence. The sign said this was private land but special regulation water and fishing by flies and lures allowed. I walked a short distance to a cattle bridge and crossed to the southern side and began fishing with nymphs and a large indicator. I worked my way up a beautiful long deep run with the nymphs, and was amazed that I didn’t have any success. When I got to the top, I tried the stack mend technique and once again was not rewarded. This would continue for essentially the next four hours.

The next beautiful spot was a huge deep pool and the grass was beaten down along the edge so obviously fishermen had been there recently. After thoroughly working the seam and run with nymphs, I switched to a large olive-brown articulated streamer and swept that through the pool from top to bottom in the manner I’d learned in Alaska. Again there were no takers.

I moved up some more to a spot where the river ran along a dead tree. I switched to a Chernobyl ant and this brought a couple refusals from obviously small fish. I switched to a bushy size 12 caddis and again saw a refusal. Meanwhile I paused to remove my backpack and make my second application of heavy duty DEET. The mosquitoes here were voracious.

It was now getting toward dusk, and I had lost confidence and was growing weary so I retreated back toward the cattle bridge while swatting the persistent winged attackers. When I got near the bridge I found a rod tube, the type with a place to store your rod with the reel attached. It didn’t have a name on it, so I took it along with me. I crossed the bridge and walked up along the north bank to a spot where the river split around an island and cast my caddis in some small pockets around protruding rocks. Here I finally landed a small 8 inch brown trout on the caddis.

Special Regulation Water of Conejos River

My last attempt was the north side of the long run above the bridge. I converted back to nymphs and thoroughly covered some very sweet fishy water with the nymphs, but once again I was foiled. I quit fishing at 8PM and returned to camp and made dinner using the light from my propane lantern with only a small brown trout and an empty rod tube to show for my efforts. I was now regretting paying for three nights at the campground.