Time: 10:00AM – 3:00PM
Location: .3 mile above Elk Creek Campground to .5 mile above ATV bridge
The biggest story on Tuesday was ice. I checked the cooler on Tuesday morning, and all that remained was a small pile of cubes that might be sufficient to make two mixed drinks. I was not excited about the prospect of fishing the upper Conejos River again with flows continuing to rush by the campground at 180 cfs. What other options existed within the vicinity of Lake Fork Campground?
Twenty years ago Jane, Amy, Dan and I camped at Elk Creek Campground, while we devoted a day to riding the Cumbre and Toltec Scenic Railroad. During this trip I fished in Elk Creek several times and experienced reasonable success. I read several glowing articles in the fly fishing magazines subsequent to that trip, and each time I made the trek to the Conejos, I considered spending a day on Elk Creek. Given the difficult conditions on the Conejos River, I concluded that Tuesday July 19 was the perfect opportunity to fulfill my desire to return to Elk Creek. Elk Creek is a significant freestone tributary to the Conejos and not subject to releases from a dam, and I viewed this as a major positive.
Unfortunately Elk Creek merges with the Conejos River near the junction of CO 17 and CO 250. This meant that I needed to repeat the eighteen mile drive on the rough dirt road, and if I desired to return to the campground on Tuesday evening, I was required to endure 36 miles of washboard misery. And what about the ice? In 2015 I drove north on CO 250 for six miles to the small summer resort town of Platoro, and I was able to purchase ice at a general store. I did not relish driving in the opposite direction from where I planned to fish, but then I remembered a small store and restaurant at the intersection of CO 17 and 250. I could buy ice there, and afterward only a one mile trip was necessary to reach the Elk Creek Campground and the trail that follows Elk Creek.
I was sold on the plan and fortunately began my drive before 8AM. I suffered the bumps and vibrations of the eighteen mile creep at 25 MPH, but when I reached the store, I was shocked to learn that it was out of business. Now what? I was in dire need of ice, and I remembered the Fox Creek Store located ten miles east on CO 17. I tried to recall its status from when I traveled past it on Sunday, but I could not recall this detail. Lacking options I continued east, and I was again sorely disappointed to discover another closed store. Apparently the general store business in the Conejos Valley is not thriving.
Just before reaching the boarded up Fox Creek Store, I noticed a billboard advertising phone, restaurant and lodging at the Conejos River Ranch. Another objective of my visit to civilization was to call Jane to let her know I was alive and well. Certainly a ranch advertising a phone, lodging and food would also have an ice supply. I made a quick turnaround and followed a dirt lane for .3 mile until I entered the Conejos River Ranch parking lot. Several burros were milling about in a fenced in corral on the right, and a sign pointed to the office on the left. I followed the sign for the office and entered a small tidy restaurant where several customers enjoyed their breakfast.
The waitress announced that she would be with me in a moment. After a few minutes she moved behind the counter and asked how she might help. I asked if she had ice, and she apologized and informed me that she was out. I then asked where the closest source of ice was, and she groaned and delivered the unwelcome news that Antonito was the nearest place to buy ice. Antonito is the small town where the Cumbre & Toltec Scenic Railroad begins, and it was another eleven miles away. I uttered some words of disappointment and then asked if I might pay her to use the land line to check in with my wife. Feeling sorry for my ice dilemma, she offered me the cordless phone on the counter, and graciously added that there was no need to pay. I immediately dialed Jane’s mobile number, but she did not answer, so I left a brief voice mail that informed her that I was alive and well.
As I left the restaurant I silently cursed my misfortune, and then bid the donkeys goodbye and drove back over the dirt lane to CO 17 and maximized the posted speed limit until I was at the grocery store in Antonito, where I purchased a ten pound bag of ice. With this duty behind me, I sped the twenty-one miles back to Elk Creek Campground where I prepared to fish. The ice trip cost me an hour, and by the time I rigged my Orvis Access four weight and pulled on my waders, it was 10 o’clock. I parked by the bridge that crossed Elk Creek and led to the campground, and when ready I began hiking along the east side of the creek.
In order to avoid the water that is inevitably hammered by the campers I hiked for .3 mile before I began to fish. I tied a size ten Chernobyl ant to my line and then added the ever present hares ear and salvation. I covered a fair amount of decent water in the first hour, but I was not rewarded with a single fish. The Conejos was in my dog house, and it produced two fish in the first half hour on Monday. During the first hour I exchanged the Chernobyl for a Charlie boy hopper, and this move produced two refusals, but the fish counter remained locked on zero.
I paused to analyze the situation. Clearly the fish were looking to the surface for food as evidenced by the refusals to the Charlie boy. A few medium sized stoneflies were in the air, so I removed the dry/dropper lineup and tied on a size 14 light yellow stimulator. If fish responded to this fly on the Lake Fork, how could they resist it on another Conejos tributary? The change proved to be a stroke of genius, as I landed twenty additional trout between 11AM and 2PM.
The very first fish was amazing. I approached a delicious pool with a strong current splitting it in half. I dropped the stimulator along the right side of the current seam near the tail out of the run, and guess what happened? A twenty inch rainbow trout materialized from the depths and sipped in the stonefly. What a visual thrill! I allowed the large fish to strip out line, and then I regained some ground by pulling line back to my feet as I maintained tension. The rainbow executed several subsequent bursts, but then it tired, and I maneuvered the brute toward my net. As I lifted the fish’s head toward the net, it twisted and came free. I counted it as a landed fish, but I must admit that I was sorely disappointed to miss the chance to collect a photo.
In a state of jubilation and minor sadness I moved to the next attractive area where a deep ribbon of slower moving water existed between the swift center current and a large exposed boulder. A thirteen inch brown trout confidently sucked in the stimulator just beyond the boulder, and then a fourteen inch brown trout slurped the hackled stonefly imitation in front of the boulder. At this point I pinched myself, as I was convinced that my day would consist of oversized trout for the relatively small Elk Creek.
I quickly learned that was not the case, but over the course of my time on Elk Creek I did land a deeply colored fifteen inch brown, and three others in the twelve inch range. All but one of the first twenty fish landed chomped one of three light yellow stimulators. The two size fourteens in my fly box performed the best, but the collar hackle on both was cut by the teeth of the aggressive fish. This forced me to deploy the size twelve, and it produced as well, but at a slower pace. After the second size fourteen unraveled I tried a size 12 and 14 light yellow stimulator with a tinge of orange, and this yielded one small fish.
By two o’clock it became quite warm, and the surface action disappeared, so I reverted to the dry/dropper approach for the last hour. My three fly lineup consisted of a yellow fat Albert, an iron sally and a salvation nymph. The abundance of stoneflies caused me to test the iron sally, as it is supposedly the nymph form of a yellow Sally. The three flies produced three additional fish including the deeply colored fifteen inch specimen that gulped the iron Sally. Unfortunately this beauty escaped while I was in the process of posing it.
At 3PM I called it quits, as I was not sure how I would return to the car. Initially I climbed a steep ridge in an effort to intersect with a horse trail, but then I was forced to execute a dicey descent on loose gravel on a steep dirt slope. Once at the bottom I found a horse path, and it was clear sailing from there to the campground.
What a day! I landed twenty-three fish on Elk Creek, and the yellow stimulators took the guess work out of fly selection. The icing on the cake was the size of the fish including the twenty inch rainbow and five or six brown trout in the twelve to fifteen inch range. Somehow the bumpy drive back to Lake Fork Campground on CO 250 seemed much more tolerable on Tuesday afternoon.