Conejos River – 07/22/2015

Time: 9:30AM – 6:00PM

Location: 35 minute hike downstream from the CO 105 bridge and then back up to the starting point on Tuesday (large pool). From 5-6PM fished at the first public access upstream from the Lake Fork Campground.

Fish Landed: 35

Conejos River 07/22/2015 Photo Album

You cannot turn back the clock. This expression refers to a person’s inability to recreate a positive historical experience in the present. I believe this condition relates to nostalgia and the human brain’s propensity to minimize negatives and exaggerate positives. On Wednesday July 22 I was attempting to turn back the clock. On July 21 and 22 2011 during my introduction to the section of the Conejos River below Platoro Reservoir, I experienced some outstanding fishing. I discovered some new flies, and they produced great results during some strong green drake and pale morning dun hatches, and I also landed some large fish by prospecting during the time periods when a dense emergence was not in process.

The conditions were aligned to repeat the 2011 success. I camped at Lake Fork Campground along the upper Conejos River and within a mile of my starting point in 2011. All the reports indicated that pale morning duns and green drakes were emerging on the upper river. The flows were nearly ideal as they fell from 150 CFS on Tuesday to 115 CFS on Wednesday. The sparse population of fishermen were gravitating to the water upstream in the Meadows. The sky was blue and the air temperature was cool. Camping near the CO 105 bridge allowed me to get an early start and thus hike a significant distance from the parking lot. I came prepared with a large number of salvation nymphs and an array of green drakes covering different styles and sizes. Could I recreate the magic? Read on.

There were some concerns. Three fishermen referenced the Meadows area and the great success they experienced during a dense green drake hatch. Perhaps there were no competing fishermen in the area I was targeting because the hatches progressed upstream to the Meadows? Was I feeling smug in getting away from other anglers only to discover that they were in the know, and I outsmarted myself?

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Dinosaur Backbone

When I woke up on Wednesday morning, it was a great day with sunny skies and cool temperatures. In fact the high for the day in the high elevation reaches of the Conejos probably never exceeded the high 70’s. According to my plan I arrived at the rough parking lot across the 105 bridge by 9AM and then hiked downstream along the western side of the river for 35 minutes. This brought me to a place where thick trees extended down a steep bank to the river, so rather than attempting to fight through the forest, I dropped down along a gully. Interestingly after all the effort to get away from human beings, I spotted a camper trailer parked across from my entry point. I was undeterred however because it was on the opposite side of the river, and the swift flows made it difficult to cross.

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Another Chunky Green Drake Eater

In my ongoing effort to recreate the magic of 2011 I extracted a bushy size 12 green drake dry fly from my front pack and knotted it to my line. I am sure this fly has a different name, but it consists of a lot of deer hair and even more dense hackle. The wings,unlike conventional mayfly ties, are swept back in a fashion similar to a caddis or stonefly. This fly was very productive in 2011, and I operate under the theory that during green drake emergence time frames, trout react to green drake sightings 24/7. Since the fly was quite buoyant due to the heavy hackling, I attached a salvation nymph on a three foot dropper. The salvation was also extremely productive in 2011, and I theorized that it imitated the nymph stage of pale morning duns should they be active prior to an early afternoon hatch.

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The Water Between the Bank and the Whitewater Was Money in the Bank

I was quite pleased to learn that these flies were great choices. I methodically worked my way upstream and prospected the two fly combination in all the likely locations, and the brown trout of the Conejos were quite responsive. I landed twelve fine brown trout between 9:30AM and 11:30AM when I paused for lunch. Most of the fish were chunky head shaking browns in the 12-13 inch range with a couple fourteen inch fish in the mix. The bushy green drake produced most of the fish, but I also landed four on the salvation, so it was worth the hassle of fishing with a dropper. So far so good. The flies were producing and the fish were where I expected them to be.

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Looks Like the Green Drake in the Mouth of this Well Fed Conejos Brown

Just as I removed my front pack and backpack and sat down to eat, chaos developed. First I observed a few golden stoneflies gliding up from the river, and then some size 16 mayflies appeared. I assume these were pale morning duns, as they sputtered and tumbled in their efforts to become airborne. Lastly some green drakes appeared, but these were much smaller that what I remembered from 2011. Clearly my bushy version would probably not fool these fish if they were focused on the size 14 natural version in front of me. I ignored my mother’s advice to chew my food slowly and quickly gulped my lunch to avoid missing out on the multiple hatches that commenced in front of me. Directly across from my lunch position was a deep wide run, and a fish began to rise with moderate frequency at the top of the run.

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Same Fish with the Parachute Green Drake Visible

As I suspected, when I resumed casting, I covered the attractive run with the bushy green drake, and it was ignored, so I searched my stash of green drakes and chose a size 14 parachute version. This fly has a white tipped wing post and presents a narrower silhouette on the water, and in my opinion it represented a much closer imitation of the naturals in front of me. I was pleased to discover that the trout agreed for awhile. The parachute green drake was on fire, and I landed six additional brown trout to push my fish count to eighteen. Several of the takers were fourteen inch brutes that confidently inhaled the fraudulent green drake imitation.

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A Gorgeous Deep Buttery Gold

I was in a euphoric state when I arrived at a sweet spot where the main current deflected off a high vertical rock wall and created a long eddy. From my position below the bottom of the turning point of the current, I could spot at least five nice fish. Three fish were in the nook of the eddy before the water turned and flowed back along the wall. Apparently there was a soft spot below the surface where fish could hold and snatch food from the churning froth. I tried to fool these fish first with my parachute drake, but it was soundly ignored. I was seeing quite a few yellow sallies, but very few green drakes, so I tied on one of the small yellow bodied stoneflies from my front pack. Apparently this was not on the menu either. What could the fish be eating? Some pale morning duns continued to flutter up from the surface, so I switched for a third time to a size 16 cinnamon comparadun.

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Eight Feet Above the Root Ball Facing Downstream

This fly was also shunned by the trout in the nook, but I turned my attention to two long torpedoes up and across from me that faced into the reversing current as it flowed along the base of the rock wall. These were very nice fish. Could I even dare to assume that I could bring one to my fly? And even if I managed to hook one, it would be quite a challenge to maneuver it through the heavy current between me and their location.

I fluttered a cast downstream of the two targeted fish so that quite a bit of slack landed, and then the comparadun slowly drifted toward the holding position of the fish. In a matter of fact move, one of the fish slid under my fly and sipped it in! Now I was faced with fighting this large fish across the heavy intervening current, and somehow I managed to do it. I slid my net beneath a gorgeous seventeen inch rainbow trout and marveled at the beauty of its vivid pink stripe and distinct spots. This would be my only rainbow of the day, but what a thrill it was.

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A Great Shot of the Hefty Rainbow Longer Than the Net Opening

I continued prospecting with the cinnamon comparadun and moved my fish count from 18 to 30. What a productive imitation! I was skeptical that I could prospect with such a tiny fly, but the fish were having no trouble seeing it even in riffled water. When I lofted a cast to a likely spot that held a trout, the response was typically a confident sip. I snapped off one fly on a hooked fish, and I bent the hook on a second one, as I needed to use my hemostat to leverage it from an awkward position in the fish’s mouth. Eventually I lost the bent fly when a brown trout swallowed it deep, and I cut the line rather than try to remove it and injure the fish.

Eventually I landed a small brown on the pale morning dun to reach thirty, and I decided to experiment with something different. The PMD hatch had waned by this point, and I was encountering fewer willing takers. I was in the middle section of a huge long deep pool where the main current flowed along the base of some large rocks on the east bank. The comparadun failed to interest any trout in this juicy stretch of the river, so I converted to a yellow Letort hopper. I gambled that the hopper with a narrow profile might imitate one of the golden stoneflies that I observed throughout the afternoon, or perhaps natural hoppers were present as a result of the intermittent blasts of wind.

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Just a Pretty Fish

I flicked the hopper to the top of the pool and allowed it to drift slowly along the inside edge of the current seam and suddenly a thirteen inch brown trout savagely attacked the fraud. I was shocked at this immediate reversal in fortunes resulting from a change in flies. Then as if to emphasize my fly change, a second brown trout inhaled the hopper in roughly the same location as the first one. I was re-energized as I departed the deep pool and resumed my upstream migration with the Letort hopper, however the hot terrestrial imitation lost its allure, and I began registering refusals. For some reason the fish in the shallower locations were better able to distinguish my fly from natural facsimiles.

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Two Browns Mashed the Hopper in This Location

Once again I considered my options and decided to downsize to a lime green trude, as this fly more closely approximated the size of the golden stoneflies, although the color had too much green and not enough light orange. The feedback from the fish confirmed that the lime green trude was not to their liking, so I changed again to a muggly yellow sally. This fly is intended to imitate the smaller yellow sally stonefly, but I did not observe as many of these compared to the larger golden stoneflies. This fly was also soundly ignored by the denizens of the Conejos River.

At 4PM I reached the attractive deep pool where I began my Conejos River fishing adventure on Tuesday, so I elected to return to the car rather than repeat the section already covered. It was still early, and my campsite was set up, so I stayed in my waders and drove north along CO 250 beyond the Lake Fork Campground. I thought I remembered water in between the campground and the Meadows area, and I wanted to check it out as a possible destination for Thursday.

Sure enough a couple miles beyond the campground I encountered a nice public parking area and pulled in to inspect the water. It was similar to the segment that I fished downstream of the bridge on Wednesday with lots of exposed rocks and pockets with a medium steep gradient. I decided to give it a try and removed the yellow sally and reverted to the yellow Letort hopper, but this time I added a salvation nymph on a three foot dropper.

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Big Spots

I worked my way upstream for fifteen minutes, and then I was pleased to land a thirteen inch brown that slammed the hopper. After releasing the brown trout, I made a few more casts and observed a swirl to the hopper in some difficult lighting conditions. Unfortunately I set the hook to an apparent refusal and created a foul hooked situation. The angry fish streaked downstream, and before I could leverage it back to my net, it broke off the salvation nymph. Once again I seem to be losing salvation nymphs at a rapid rate, so in an effort to conserve them for the remainder of the summer, I replaced it with a beadhead hares ear nymph. This proved to be a good choice, and I landed two additional ten inch browns before 6PM.

I began to think more about a cold beer than fooling more fish, so I reeled up my flies and hooked them to the rod guide and called it a day. And what a day it was! I landed thirty-five trout, all browns except for one large rainbow. Many of the brown trout were in the twelve to fourteen inch range, and these are nice sized wild fish for a relatively small high elevation river. I experienced four basic phases during the day. First there was the green drake/salvation prospecting period which covered the bulk of the morning hours. Next I enjoyed success with my slender profile parachute green drake. The most productive stage resulted from replicating the pale morning dun hatch with a size 16 cinnamon comparadun. A brief final chapter closed out the day with the yellow Letort hopper drawing interest.

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Top Producers on July 22

Most of my success occurred on the west side of the river away from the road. The best spots were deep pockets and slots next to the bank. This is not surprising, as brown trout love the protection offered by bank structure and gravitate to water of moderate depth where they value safety but can still see food items that drift by. Surprisingly another productive water type was long wide relatively shallow riffle stretches on my side of the river. I encountered these areas during the hatch period, so perhaps the fish spread out when a high density of food sources caused them to sacrifice some security for calories.

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Largest Brown Came from This Unlikely Shallow Riffle Area

One of my best brown trout on the day came from such a shallow water area. A large dead branch reached over the thirty foot wide shallow riffle, so I was forced to hook a cast around the branch so the parachute green drake landed ten feet above. I was dumbfounded to witness a fourteen inch brown as it snatched the green drake as it bobbed down the riffles to a point just beneath the dead branch. It is hard to top the satisfaction received when I dupe a relatively large trout to take my fly in a relatively obscure place.

Did I recapture the magic of 2011? Can a fly fisherman turn back the clock? I’m forced to admit that I may have not only repeated the magic of the Conejos River, but I may have created a new higher standard. Now I asked myself the question, what could I do for an encore on Thursday? I returned to the campground to celebrate with an Odell Ninety Shilling Ale, and I evaluated my options for Thursday July 23.

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