Category Archives: Conejos River

Conejos River – 07/20/2016

Time: 9:00AM – 4:30PM; 7:00PM – 8:00PM

Location: 1.5 miles downstream from CO 105 bridge and then back up to bridge; nice pool next to the Lake Fork Campground

Conejos River 07/20/2016 Photo Album

I could not let the Conejos River beat me. I pondered my options for Wednesday on Tuesday night. I considered exploring the Conejos River above Platoro Reservoir, since it would be unaffected by water releases from the dam, but I was unfamiliar with this water and did not have a detailed map. Another option was to cut my losses and leave a day early and identify another decent fishing destination on Thursday or Friday closer to home. Of course the final alternative was to spend another day on the Conejos River. I chose the latter with a caveat. If the fishing was slow, I would quit at 2PM and return to the campsite and pack up and return to Denver.

Spending another day on the Conejos seemed like the correct choice for several reasons. First of all I drove nearly six hours to be there, so I really needed to give it another chance. My main motivation, however, was the observance of a few green drakes and a decent pale morning dun hatch on Monday around noon. Perhaps this was the leading edge of a more intense emergence, and it would be ashamed to abandon the Conejos just as it blossomed into prime productivity. July 20 was the start date of my two previous successful trips to the Conejos River.

On Wednesday morning I drove down CO 250 to the last place where the short grass and low bushes defined the landscape between the road and the river. Had I traveled farther, reaching the river necessitated battling through trees and dense shrubs. Once again I elected my Sage four weight, and after I slid into my waders and pulled on my packs, I hiked across the dry grass and angled down a bank to the river. I decided to experiment with some different approaches on Wednesday, and I kicked the day off by stripping a streamer. I clamped my reel containing a sinking tip line to the rod and knotted a slumpbuster to the short stiff tapered leader. My original plan envisioned working streamers for an hour, but after thirty minutes of fruitless manipulation of the small bait fish imitation with nary a follow, I made an adjustment. In fairness to the streamer advocates, the quality of the water at the outset of my day was not highly conducive to that methodology.

I removed the sinking tip line and restored the floating line that I stuffed in my backpack before departing from the car. I was now prepared to utilize a different method from the dry/dropper approach that I stubbornly embraced on Monday.

Wednesday was another sunny day in the morning, but dense clouds blocked the sun’s rays off and on during the afternoon. The flows seemed comparable to Monday, so my prayers for reductions from the water managers went unanswered. In fact, upon my return to Denver, I checked the graph, and flows remained consistently at 180cfs until they dropped to 130cfs on the day I departed. Typical. I reasoned that the fish were hugging the bottom as a result of the high flows and cold bottom releases, so I elected to utilize the strike indicator deep nymphing approach to fly fishing.

Keeping Them Wet

Between 9:30 and 11:30 I deployed a nymph approach, and the lineup featured a 20 incher and salvation nymph. The 20 incher was an attempt to imitate the nymph stage of a green drake, and the salvation nymph was the same for pale morning duns. In the first hour after switching to nymphs I landed two brown trout. The first landed fish was a very nice energized fourteen inch brown trout, and it snagged the 20 incher from the drift. The second twelve inch brown trout snatched the salvation nymph. So far so good. I was pleased that my adjustment delivered a pair of nice fish, and both my fly choices were recognized as prevalent food.

Nice Shelf Pool Yielded a Fish on a Green Drake Spinner


At 10:30 I approached a beautiful long deep shelf pool on the side of the river away from the road. Earlier I managed to cross the stiff flows at the wide shallow top of an island, and I remained on that side for the entire day. The left bank was simply more comfortable to fish by a right handed caster, and there were very few locations where I could risk another safe crossing. I surveyed the long attractive pool, and as I looked on, I spotted a flurry of rises. It was not obvious what was prompting the activity, so in between casts of the nymph set up, I focused on the water in front of me. On the third such inspection, I noticed a green drake spinner, and there was no mistaking the size and spent wings of the large western mayfly species.

Green Drake Spinner Eater

I impatiently removed the nymph paraphernalia, and tied on a cornuta spinner, as it was a similar shape and color. As I expected, it was ignored, as it was two sizes too small to copy the green drake that floated by. I searched my fly box once again, but there were no large spinners to pick from. What should I do? In the past I have had some success using a comparadun to imitate a spinner since it rides low in the film and has a fan shaped deer hair wing that protrudes from both sides of the body similar to a spinner wing. I dug out a size 14 green drake comparadun with no ribbing and applied floatant and smashed down the wing.

I was ready for another attempt at one of the earlier risers. I tossed the makeshift spinner above the spot were I observed a rise, and sure enough a nice thirteen inch brown materialized from the river bottom and confidently consumed my fly! Moments like this when a fly fisherman observes, reacts, adjusts and improvises are extremely gratifying. I lifted my rod and set the hook, and a brief battle ensued before I landed a chunky thirteen inch brown trout.

Coming off this success I quickly cast above one of the other risers, but this fish refused my comparadun, and then just as suddenly as the spinner fall commenced, it ended. The brevity of the spinner fall perhaps indicated that the density of green drake emergence in this area of the Conejos remained light. I was not eager to return to the deep nymph system, and I remembered that in July 2015 I prospected with a size 12 Harrop deer hair green drake with a salvation nymph dropper with a high degree of success. Why not try it again in this prime pool?

I found one of the Harrop  drakes in my fly canister and attached it along with a salvation nymph. I cast across to a nice deep run along the roadside bank, and much to my amazement a weighty brown flashed to the surface and inhaled it. I played the fish for a bit, and then I was sorely disappointed when the drake slipped out of the mouth of my foe, and the trailing salvation foul hooked the brown trout in the body. Despite losing a nice fish, I was now excited that perhaps the Harrop drake and salvation nymph would reprise the 2015 success.

It did not. I continued prospecting the throwback combination and experienced a couple momentary hookups to the salvation, but then interest faded as I reached the top of the pool. I glanced at my watch and noticed it was 11:30, so I returned to the bottom to eat lunch early, as I expected a green drake and pale morning dun hatch to commence in thirty minutes.

Lunch Break

After lunch I saw no hatch, so I decided to revert to the deep nymphing approach. I was intrigued with the idea of working my the 20 incher and salvation through the deep shelf pool in case the trout were tuned into subsurface activity prior to a hatch. The strategy worked somewhat, as I landed a small brown on the 20 incher in the shelf pool, and then netted number five at the bottom lip of a short but deep narrow slot along the bank. This thirteen inch brown trout also inhaled the 20 incher. At one point during this deep nymphing phase I foul hooked a fish that stripped out fifty feet of line before it eventually came free without breaking off the flies. I breathed a sigh of relief as I escaped this near miss disaster, and I moved on and added a small brown to reach a fish count of six.

Yikes, Very Healthy

In the early afternoon as I waited for the mayfly hatch, my progress was rapid, because I skipped vast quantities of river real estate that were not conducive to fish holding away from the high velocity flows. In the midst of this period I encountered another juicy spot where two currents merged and created a deep trough. If ever there was deep nymphing water, this was it. I made five or six drifts with no response, but then on the next pass, the indicator dipped, and I was connected to a hot fish. The angry missile streaked to deep fast water, and within seconds it broke off both nymphs. The fish may have been foul hooked, but I will never know for certain.

I continued to anticipate green drakes and pale morning duns, but they were not cooperating. A type of aquatic insect that was appearing in greater quantities was stoneflies. I recognized small yellow Sallies, large golden stoneflies, and a version that was in between those two in size. I captured the medium version while eating lunch, and it approximated a size 14 stimulator with a light yellow body that exhibited tinges of green. I was not ready to abandon nymphing, but I filed this information in my brain for future reference.

Zoomed In Even More

When I replaced the broken off flies, I retained the salvation but exchanged the 20 incher for an iron sally. I resumed nymhing, but the temperature was peaking, and fish were not responding, and I was beginning to weigh the option of packing up and returning to Denver on Wednesday evening. It was at this low point that I approached a section characterized by wide shallow riffles. This water type was not conducive to deep nymphing, but was one of the few areas at high flows that screamed for a dry fly approach. My success level was non-existent, and I saw numerous large yellow Sallies, so why not try a size 14 light yellow stimulator? This fly was popular with the Elk Creek brown trout, so perhaps the main stem Conejos cousins loved them as well?

Yellow Stimulator Streak Begins

I had the foresight to restock my fly box with size 14 light yellow stimulators at the campsite, so I pinched one and knotted it to my line. I launched a long upstream cast, and as the visible fly danced through the riffles, a thirteen inch brown confidently slurped it in. My first thought was that I should have tried it earlier, but I was nonetheless elated with this dry fly success. Over the remainder of the afternoon I landed eight more brown trout by prospecting the small stimulator. Yes there were some refusals, but the move to the heavily hackled stimulator enabled me to salvage the day and find a consistent producer on the Conejos River in the absence of significant green drake and PMD activity. My decision to remain for one more day on the main river was vindicated.

Big Head with Stonefly Cases in the Background

The final eight fish included several in the thirteen to fourteen inch range, so the stimulator was not just a dink magnet. Of course I experienced some long distance releases as well, and several of these were substantial fish. I covered 1.5 miles of river, as the trick was to skip around vast sections of pure rapids and focus only on spots that were obvious fish holding lairs. The best places to cast a fly were relatively shallow riffles of moderate velocity and deep slower moving bank side pockets. One particularly productive wide shallow riffle yielded three twelve inch browns, and a memorable series of narrow pockets along the bank produced two very nice browns. A third brown at the top of this area swirled and refused the stimulator, but this visual elevated my heart rate for a brief moment, as it was probably the best of the three fish.

Pretty Section of the Conejos

I fished for seven hours and covered significant stream miles, so the Conejos made me earn my success. If I landed a higher percentage of my hook ups, I could have easily attained a fish count of twenty. The river was reluctant to reveal its fish, and the fish were reluctant to find my net. In my opinion Conejos River brown trout are pound for pound some of the hardest fighters, that I encountered in my many years of fly fishing. Landing fifteen healthy battling Conejos River brown trout in high flows without the benefit of a green drake or pale morning dun hatch was a significant achievement.

After dinner at the campground on Wednesday evening I strolled down the road to the river and checked out the nice hole behind my campsite in 2015. As I looked on, some fish rose, so I quickly returned to site number six to collect my gear and prepared to fish. A cluster of spinners bobbed over the dirt road in the campground, so I should have recognized this as a sign of what was ahead.

Home of Elusive 16″ Brown

The wide pool was situated behind a large exposed midstream boulder with strong deep currents forming the outside border on both sides. One of those strong currents was between my position and the pool, and this made countering drag quite challenging. Initially I prospected a size 14 gray caddis in the bottom half of the pool since the rising fish were in pause mode. The fish did not respond to the caddis, so I paused to  observe and noticed a large mass of bobbing spinners above the pool. After a brief period, the rises resumed, although they were in the upper half of the pool this time. I concluded that some of the mating spinners hit the water, so I opened my fly box and spotted a size 16 rusty spinner and tied it to my line.

As I mentioned, it was extremely difficult to obtain a drag free drift as the strong current in front of me grabbed the fly line instantly. Also several tall trees were behind me, and this forced me to be very cautious of my backcasts. I managed to elicit two refusals to the rusty spinner, and it was not clear if the rejection stemmed from a poorly matched fly or drag. Eventually I would discover that it was probably the former.

Periodically the cloud of spinners vanished, and in each case the rises disappeared. Clearly there was a relationship between spinners and feeding fish. During one of the lulls a sixteen inch brown trout launched two feet above the water near the top of the pool in the area where the merging currents made it nearly impossible to create a drag free presentation. I could only observe the spinners from a distance, but they seemed to exhibit pink or light maroon bodies from a distance. Unfortunately none of these were present in my fly box. But wait a minute, what about the comparadun ruse that performed earlier on Wednesday for the green drake spinner?

Size 16 Cinnamon Comparadun with Mashed Down Wing Served As Effective Spinner Substitute

I quickly found a size 16 cinnamon comparadun and tied it to my line after mashing down the wing. Success! Two browns slurped the comparadun with the best measuring twelve inches. And what about the large brown in the heart of the swirling currents? The big boy was very discrete and cautious in its rises. As I cast to other risers, I continued to revisit the beast, and finally my heart leaped when a big head emerged and engulfed my mashed wing comparadun. As soon as my hook set pierced its lip, the brown leaped out of the water in the same manner as I witnessed earlier. Since I saw the beast twice, I knew I could not force it to my net, so I allowed it to spin line from my reel, and it charged to the far side of the large boulder at the top center of the pool. I anticipated this as trouble, so I pressured it a bit and felt pulsing thus confirming that I was still attached. The brown seemed to be sulking under the rock, so I stripped a bit of line to coax it away from the structure, but in the next instant my line went limp and the comparadun was missing in action. What an ending to a challenging yet successful day on the Conejos River.

Campground Pool Brown

Fish Landed: 17


Conejos River – 07/19/2016

Time: 4:30PM – 5:30PM

Location: The bend where the river moves through a canyon below The Meadows.

I stayed in my waders and kept my rod strung, when I returned to the car from Elk Creek. When I reached the turn off from CO 250 to the campground, I continued on to an area a little over a mile above the Lake Fork Campground. It was too early to eat dinner, so I decided to check out the flows on the Conejos and enjoy some overtime fishing.

The fat Albert, hares ear and salvation remained on my line, and I cast the threesome along the edges, but the only thing caught was gobs of green moss. After fifteen minutes of prospecting some tight pockets along the edge, I approached a nice pool and saw two separate rises. This prompted me to snip off the dry/dropper lineup, and I opted for a size 16 gray deer hair caddis. I was certain this would fool the carelessly rising trout, but it was ignored. Next I returned to the size twelve light yellow stimulator. Could it continue the magic? Nah, it was shunned as well.

I decided to move on, and I discovered a small side channel the size of the Lake Fork. It was located behind me, so I popped the stimulator in a deep glide, and a small brown trout smacked it. It was barely six inches, but I was pleased to count it. That was the extent of my brief sampling of the Conejos River on Tuesday.

Fish Landed: 1


Elk Creek – 07/19/2016

Time: 10:00AM – 3:00PM

Location: .3 mile above Elk Creek Campground to .5 mile above ATV bridge

Elk Creek 07/19/2016 Photo Album

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.

This Little Ribbon Yielded Two Gorgeous Browns

A Nice Elk Creek Catch

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.

How About This for a Small Stream Beast?

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.

Typical Stretch

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.

Fish Landed: 23



Lake Fork of the Conejos River – 07/18/2016

Time: 2:30PM – 4:00PM

Location: Lake Fork confluence with the main Conejos River to a short distance beyond the large pipe under CO 105.

Lake Fork of the Conejos River 07/18/2016 Photo Album

As a diversion from the fruitless casting on the Conejos, I lobbed a few casts to the small Lake Fork, and I was surprised to witness two momentary hook ups and three refusals. As one might expect, this caught my attention after the hopeless prospecting that I endured on the main river. I decided to devote the remainder of my July 18 fishing time to the tiny Lake Fork.

Small Stream Salvaged Day

Given the refusals and temporary hook ups, I experimented with smaller fare beginning with Jake’s gulp beetle with the salvation dropper, but this duo was ignored. The contrast between five interactions with trout to no interest was stark. I concluded that the fish were attracted to the yellow body color of the pool toy, but the imitation was too large, and thus they turned away or simply bumped the pool toy. I responded with a size twelve light yellow stimulator with palmered grizzly hackle over the body, and this finally yielded a twelve inch brown trout that did not escape. I was impressed that such a small stream held a twelve inch brown trout, so I decided to explore farther.

Just Pretty

Although the stimulator finally delivered a netted fish, it also provoked some refusals and momentary hook ups, so it was not a perfect fly choice. After this mixed success, I hooked another fish, and it broke off perhaps due to an abrasion in my tippet. I used this fly change as an excuse to downsize to a size 14 yellow stimulator, and what a fortuitous change it proved to be. I landed five additional Lake Fork brown trout as I worked my way from the Conejos to  the large corrugated pipe that shunted the creek under CO 105. Of course I experienced additional momentary hookups and refusals, but I had a blast finally connecting with fish, and I enjoyed constant action. The creek was so small that it was almost a waste to make more than one or two casts in each likely fish holding spot, as the motion and line quickly telegraphed my presence.

A Beast for the Lake Fork

I reached the pipe with the fish counter stuck on nine, and a momentary hookup on the juicy deep area on the right side of the midstream boulder thwarted my effort to achieve double digits. I paused, and before moving on, I lobbed a cast to the blind side of the large round exposed rock, and wham! Number ten was a nice eleven inch brown, and I coaxed it into my net. I continued beyond CO 105 on the upside of the pipe and landed one more brown trout, and then the sky darkened, and I heard distant thunder. A string of refusals temporarily destroyed my confidence in the yellow stimulator, and at 4PM the wind gusted, and sheets of rain descended from the dark sky. I paused and dug out my raincoat and hustled back to the Santa Fe for relief from the weather.

A Fish Surprised Me on the Far Side of the Boulder

The Lake Fork salvaged my day, but I was now uncertain where to fish during the remainder of my time in the Conejos River valley. I paid to camp at the Lake Fork Campground through Thursday, so I was reluctant to cut my losses to seek greener pastures.

Fish Landed: 7

Conejos River – 07/18/2016

Time: 9:00AM – 2:30PM

Location: Thirty minute hike downstream from CO 105 bridge and then back to the confluence with the Lake Fork.

Conejos River 07/18/2016 Photo Album

My anticipation for a day of fly fishing could not have been any more intense than it was when I emerged from my tent on Monday morning July 18. Arriving at the rough parking area across the CO 105 bridge at 8:00AM was ample proof of my eager anticipation of a day on the Conejos River. Were my expectations met?

I assembled my Sage four weight and began hiking at 8:15 and reached the edge of the river above an island by 8:45. I tied a yellow pool toy to my line as a visible top fly, since shadows stretched over the eastern half of the river. Below the pool toy I attached a beadhead hares ear and salvation nymph; my favored lineup of fish candy. I was ready to cast by 9AM, and I worked my way upstream and prospected viable fish holding areas until 11:30, when I found a nice place on the bank to eat lunch. During this period I landed two fish; one was a twelve inch brown that grabbed the salvation, and the second was a smaller brown trout that favored the hares ear nymph. Both fish arrived in my net in the first half hour, and thus the 10 to 11:30 time period was a long unproductive grind.

Deeply Colored Early Monday Brown

During the 1.5 hour fish catching famine I cycled through a medley of flies. First there was the size 12 Harrop deer hair green drake. This fly was a favorite in the pre-hatch morning time period in 2015, but in a year’s time it developed a disease, because the trout stayed away. A year ago I fished the Harrop in combination with a salvation nymph, so I tried that duo again on Monday, but the fish were having none of it. Maybe stoneflies were at the top of the menu? A yellow/orange stimulator was ignored. I now knew that the spruce moths had a cream body. so I knotted a cream size 14 stimulator to my line and prepared for the voracious attack. It never happened.

I decided to return to the dry/dropper technique, except I substituted a size 8 Chernobyl ant for the pool toy. This adjustment had no impact on my non-existent catch rate. I encountered a nice section of the river that consisted of shallow flats, and I spotted a fish that surfaced twice to eat. This situation was not conducive to the cumbersome dry/dropper arrangement, so I chose a size 16 gray caddis adult and a size 16 olive brown deer hair caddis, and neither excited the rising fish, or any fish in the prime location. Suddenly a flurry of yellow sallies exploded from the riffles so I tied a size 14 yellow stimulator to my line and then a size 16 yellow sally. These efforts were unappreciated by the Conejos River trout.

Despite an early start and unlimited optimism, I fished from 9:00 until 11:30, and my fish count stalled at two. Concern began to overtake my positive attitude, but I clung to the expectation that green drakes and pale morning duns would explode from the river in another half hour. At 11:30 I sat on a rock across from a prime fish holding location and consumed my sandwich, carrots and yogurt cup.

Nice Eddy Across from Where I Ate Lunch

Across from me the main current deflected off a high vertical rock wall just above a large angled deadfall. These dynamics created an attractive eddy, and during lunch I noticed four green drakes and a fairly heavy pale morning dun emergence. Surely these circumstances would create the perfect storm, and the river would come alive with rising fish. Unfortunately after lunch I discovered that these conditions were not the perfect storm for the Conejos River, and as I moved upstream to equally attractive honey holes, the trout continued to hunker down and avoid surface feeding.

As far as fly selection, with the expectation of a green drake emergence and after noticing four over lunch, I returned to the Harrop deer hair green drake, but once again the fish were unimpressed. Next I resorted to a size 16 light gray comparadun, also known as the money fly. This fly is typically a killer during pale morning dun hatches, and quite a few PMD’a were visible in the lunch hole. The comparadun generated a pair of refusals, and that was the extent of its effectiveness. In the morning I was suspicious that the flows were elevated from Sunday’s ideal levels, and now I was certain of this eventuality. I did not have access to the internet, so I could only judge by how tight the velocity was to the bank, and by the reduced number of spots that enabled trout to hold out of the fast current. The brief hatch, the lack of rising fish, the wading difficulty and the infrequent locations that I could fish all confirmed my suspicions. When I returned to Denver on Thursday and checked the stream flow graph, I discovered that flows elevated from 115 on Sunday to 180 cfs on Monday. I never experienced positive fishing results shortly after a significant increase in stream flows, and Monday continued the trend.

The pale morning comparadun was too difficult to follow in the high flows, so I decided to once again test the dry/dropper style with a yellow Letort hopper trailing a salvation nymph. Surely the light yellow hopper was a close imitation of the stoneflies hovering in the air, and certainly pale morning duns were present in the drift given the number of adults in the air. My theory was somewhat confirmed as I landed two thirteen inch brown trout between noon and two on the salvation nymph. Both of these fish snatched the nymph as it drifted along the seam in smooth slicks behind exposed midstream boulders.

Much Appreciated Trout on Monday

The Letort hopper was ineffective, so I went the foam route with a tan pool toy, and this improved the buoyancy but did not impact fish feeding behavior. In addition for brief periods I auditioned an ultra zug bug and bright green caddis pupa along side the salvation nymph. Besides landing two fish, I devoted a lot of time to knot tying practice. By 2:30 I was totally bored with the inactivity and cursing the water managers for ruining my day and potentially impacting my trip by ramping up the flow rate. It was around this time that I intersected with the Lake Fork, a small tributary of the Conejos.

The elevated flows and lack of surface activity certainly lowered my expectations for my long anticipated trip to the Conejos. I consciously arranged to visit the area several days earlier, since it seemed that the main body of green drakes had already migrated to The Meadows area in 2015. I was sorely disappointed and uncertain how to best utilize my two precious remaining days in south central Colorado. Four fish in 5.5 hours is simply tough fishing, and I dreaded enduring two more full days of sub-par catch rates.

Fish Landed: 4





Conejos River – 07/17/2016

Time: 4:00PM – 6:30PM

Location: The first area with a large pullout traveling north about a mile from the Lake Fork Campground.

Conejos River 07/17/2016 Photo Album

Fishing frequently and chasing green drakes were my two goals for July, and I anxiously anticipated my Sunday July 17 trip to the Conejos River in south central Colorado. I enjoyed spectacular success during trips to the Conejos River in July 2011 and 2015 around the same dates, and green drakes were the common thread. I was unable to contain my high expectations for another memorable visit to the high elevation tailwater.

The five plus hour drive is a grind, but fortunately it was uneventful, and I arrived at the Lake Fork Campground and selected site number six by 3:45. The worst aspect of the long haul is the last eighteen miles on CO 250, a rough dirt road that dictates maximum speeds of 25 MPH. I quickly set up my tent and had time to burn, so I jumped back in the Santa Fe and continued north for another mile until I reached a nice wide pullout next to the Conejos River. I reviewed the flows before I departed, and they registered 115 cfs, and I knew from past visits that this was nearly ideal. As I stared down at the river, it was apparent that the flows remained at the 115 cfs level. The temperature was in the low seventies as I began, and optimism flooded my conscience.

Since fishing on Sunday was unexpected bonus time, I decided to experiment with a slumpbuster streamer. I tossed the conehead weighted creation upstream, across and downstream for thirty minutes, but the approach yielded two follows from small fish and no hook ups. The one negative I observed was the existence of dense bright green moss on all the underwater rocks and stones, and this substance constantly adhered to the streamer and stubbornly resisted removal.

As the afternoon moved into early evening, the shadows lengthened, and a variety of insects appeared. I observed dipping spruce moths, amber hued large caddis, small caddis, a smattering of mayflies, and a few golden stoneflies. With this smorgasbord of surface insects available, I switched to a dry fly and knotted a size 16 gray caddis to my tippet.

Nice Spot Behind Rocks

The change paid dividends as I landed a small brown and then a nice thirteen inch brown trout that confidently gulped the caddis along a short current seam. Two fish in bonus time Sunday raised my spirits and increased the intensity of my focus. All was not perfect, however, as I experienced two refusals for each fish that ate my fly. I waded upstream a bit to a gorgeous deep shelf pool, and as I paused to scout the area before casting, a decent brown trout leaped out of the water to eat a large caddis that appeared to be rust colored from a distance.

Best First Day Trout

At this point I probably over analyzed the situation, since the gray caddis produced two fish albeit accompanied by numerous refusals. I reasoned that a better match existed, so I cycled through a size 14 gray stimulator (refusal), a Harrop deer hair green drake, a size 12 peacock stimulator (attempted to imitate the spruce moth, although I later caught one at the campsite, and it possessed a cream colored body), and a size twelve yellow adult stonefly with tinges of orange. I can report that none of these imitations produced a fish. I should have adhered to the old saying, “don’t mess with success”.

A Better Pose

Finally I defaulted to a yellow Letort hopper in an attempt to match the golden stoneflies, and this move generated three refusals. In 2015 I fished a Letort hopper with a beadhead hares ear dropper with moderate success, so I resorted to this same combination, and I finally landed a twelve inch brown that nabbed the drifting beadhead hares ear. In the final thirty minutes a fifth brown trout crushed the yellow Letort hopper, and this last fish was another fine twelve inch fighter. By six o’clock I reached the point where the river made a bend away from the road, so I decided to end my first day at five fish, and I returned to the campground.

The two and a half hours of Sunday fishing were an auspicious start to my four days in the Conejos River valley. I was very pleased with my initial success, and anxiously looked forward to a full day on the river on Monday.

Fish Landed: 5

Conejos River – 07/23/2015

Time: 9:15AM – 6:00PM; 30 minute lunch due to returning to the car for a camera battery issue and then 30 minutes to walk back to the car and then drive to the campground. Fifteen minutes of fishing at the campground at the end of the day.

Location: Pullout between Lake Fork Campground and the Meadows area and then upstream to the eastern/southern edge of the Meadows; 15 minutes at the campground.

Fish Landed: 24

Conejos River 07/23/2015 Photo Album

What could I do for an encore after a spectacular day of fishing on the upper Conejos River on Wednesday, July 22? First I needed to decide what segment of the river to fish on Thursday. But even before this decision, I needed to manage some fundamental camping basics. I only paid for Tuesday and Wednesday night as I hedged my stay until I determined the quality of the fishing. Wednesday’s results certainly made that decision easy, so I returned to the pay station and wrote a check for another night.

After two days in relatively warm weather, my ice supply dwindled, and it was clear that I needed to replenish in order to remain until Friday morning. I did not relish another rough 36 mile round trip to the store at the CO 250 turn off. When I was researching the campgrounds in the area on Google maps, I thought I noticed a small town near the reservoir six miles up the road. Surely there must be a source of ice in Platoro? I noticed that the campers across from me had large heavy duty spinning rods that are typically used in lakes. I suspected that they fished in Platoro Reservoir, and this probably meant that they knew if ice was available in the small town of the same name. I mentioned all this to another camper from Texas that I became acquainted with, and he inquired of my neighbors as he passed by on his return from the pump. They replied that yes, ice was for sale at the store next to the Gold Nugget Cafe in Platoro, and they in fact just bought some there themselves. My camping friend relayed this welcome information to me, and I made plans to drive to Platoro so I could be there when the store opened at 8AM.

This worked out nicely because it enabled me to scout out the river between the campground and Platoro. There was a short stretch above the public access that I fished on Wednesday evening, and then the river made a ninety degree turn and flowed through a deep valley with high banks on both sides. This segment was probably .3 mile long and when combined with the water between the public access parking lot and the large bend, it probably extended to half a mile. I also discovered that in previous trips I never went beyond the eastern end of the Meadows section, and the water near the top of the Meadows was much more interesting with many bends and deep pools.

When I returned to the camp site after replenishing my ice supply, I considered three options. My initial plan was to drive south on CO 250 beyond the camper trailer that I encountered on Wednesday. I could park in a pullout or along the road and cut across the grass bluff and drop down to the river and fish new water back up to my Wednesday entry point. Number two would be to begin at the first public access above the Lake Fork Campground and then fish the .5 miles around the bend until I reached the Meadows where my exit would be relatively easy. A third possibility was finding some nice water in the Meadows.

I knew other fishermen loved the Meadows, and I did not wish to compete for space, so I rejected that option first. I was not certain how much open water remained below the camper trailer, and I was getting farther downstream and away from the green drake hatch, so I decided to choose the water between the campground and the Meadows. Perhaps the hatches in this area were similar to the Meadows, but the high banks and difficult access would ward off other fishermen. The key to this decision however was fishing my way through the entire canyon area, because otherwise I would be required to climb the long steep bank between the river and road.

Soft Spot Behind the Rock Was Productive

I drove to the public access parking lot and found a dry spot to park where I could pull on my waders and boots without dealing with the abundance of mud. I rigged my Sage four weight and anxiously walked to the edge of the river and began fishing my way upstream. The bushy green drake performed in outstanding fashion on Wednesday, so why not present it again on Thursday? I did, and then I mimicked Wednesday even further by knotting a salvation nymph to a three foot dropper below the green drake.

Early Morning Brown from the Conejos

What a great strategy! I covered the water from the parking lot to the ninety degree bend between 9:15 and 11:00 and landed fourteen wild brown trout. Unlike Wednesday when the green drake dominated, the salvation nymph produced ten fish, while the green drake fooled four. Quite a few of the fish were once again chunky browns in the twelve to fourteen inch size range. I crossed to the opposite bank as soon as I could, as I am a proponent of fishing areas that are harder for the average fisherman to reach, and this strategy appeared to pay off in a major way. I was feeling pretty smug about my choice of water as I sat down on the bank away from the road at a very inviting area just above the large bend in the river. I tallied fourteen fish landed with the prospect of hatches and seldom fished canyon water ahead of me, and I stopped for lunch at 11AM since I wanted to avoid the Wednesday situation where the hatch commenced at 11:30 as I began to eat. This meant I had five or six more hours of fishing in front of me.

Nearly 15″ Beast Took the Green Drake

Before eating lunch I decided to snap a photo of the attractive water across from me. Unfortunately as I did this, I received a battery dead warning. This happened on previous occasions, but usually it had something to do with the replacement battery not being seated properly in the compartment. I removed it and reinserted it several times, but each time I tried to test the camera by taking a photo, the battery low icon flashed across the screen. Perhaps the battery was actually low. I decided to cross the river and hike back to the car to procure my second battery. On the return trip I drove the car to a wide shoulder pullout just below the bend so that I would be closer to my exit point at the end of the day, but the entire round trip probably used up thirty minutes of prime fishing time.

My Favoite Spot on July 23 on the Conejos

Finally I ate my lunch and resumed fishing in the wide area just west of the bend. The water looked spectacular with two nice pools side by side. I approached the nearest one first, and immediately I could see several fish at the tail. I attempted to lure the fish to my green drake and salvation nymph, and with my polarized sunglasses, I did observe some looks but no takes. I cast to these reluctant eaters for quite a while and then decided to concede victory and moved across to the larger pool closer to the dirt road that was by now quite a distance above the river. As I carefully waded across the river I noticed a few golden stoneflies, fewer green drakes, and some pale morning duns. The density of all these insects was far less than what I viewed on Wednesday.

Nevertheless the green drake was not working, so I switched to a yellow Letort hopper in an effort to emulate the golden stoneflies first. The change did not elicit a response, so I countered with a parachute green drake. This fly performed quite well in the early stages of the hatch the previous day, but other than a momentary hook up, it did not live up to expectations on Thursday. As these fly changes were taking place, a fish began to rise steadily in the swirly water where the current spilled into the pool at an angle. I gently drifted the parachute drake over the area of the rises, but it went unmolested. Why not follow Wednesday’s routine and convert to a cinnamon comparadun? That is what I did, and on the fifth cast to the water where the fish was feeding, the comparadun disappeared. I executed a swift hook set and the fight was on. This fish churned and raced and put up a stiffer battle than my large rainbow on Wednesday, but eventually I coaxed a seventeen inch chunky rainbow into my net. What a thrill! For two days in a row I switched to a cinnamon comparadun and then landed a fat seventeen inch rainbow trout, and in both instances it would be the best fish of the day and the only rainbow.

A Fine Fish

The hefty rainbow was number sixteen on my scoreboard, and I continued moving deeper into the canyon with the cinnamon PMD and increased the fish count to twenty by 1PM. My thoughts were optimistic, as I had a large chunk of remaining time and barely touched the seldom fished pockets and deep runs in the canyon area. I did not know the water was lightly pressured for sure, but it certainly seemed likely.

The only certainty in fly fishing is change. As soon as a fisherman thinks he has things figured out, he discovers that he does not. I fished the remainder of the afternoon from 1 to 4PM through the highly anticipated canyon water and landed only two additional fish. The hatches on Thursday were extremely brief, and I was forced to experiment with a series of fly changes. A lime green trude spent time on the line and resulted in a small brown trout. Next a yellow Letort hopper plopped upstream for some period of time, and this did generate a nice twelve inch brown trout that aggressively smashed the large terrestrial tight to the bank above a four foot deep trough. But that was it. The major differences between Wednesday and Thursday were that the hatches began later in the day, it was overcast and windy rather than sunny and warm, and the hatch lasted only a fraction of the time that it persisted on Wednesday. On Wednesday quite a few pale morning dun stragglers continued to emerge through the early afternoon, but the wind blew any similar late emergers off the water early on Thursday.

Last Minute Tail Wag Created a Blur

The afternoon was a large amount of hard work for a minimal return. When I returned to the car, I decided to revisit the wide area that delivered the large rainbow, but this move only resulted in a six inch brown that crushed a size 16 light gray caddis. As I drove back toward the campground, I stopped at the public access parking lot where I began the day, and I prospected for a bit with the caddis and enticed another six inch brown to mash my fly.

When I returned to the campground I attempted one more last ditch effort to resurrect the day to something close to Wednesday by casting a yellow Letort hopper and beadhead hares ear to the juicy hole directly behind my campsite, but alas there was no sign of trout. The water looked so attractive that I took the time to rig for deep nymphing, but that move was also futile.

Normally a twenty-four fish day is something to celebrate, but I was spoiled by the best to date outing on Wednesday. The lack of action for three hours in the afternoon also left a bad taste in my mouth as it is human nature to remember recent events and discount earlier success. Did I make a mistake by not selecting one of the other segments of the Conejos River? This question will never be answered, but in hindsight, I experienced three superb productive days of fishing in a remote wild environment in the Conejos Valley, and that is something to be happy about.





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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Conejos River – 07/21/2015

Time: 3:00PM – 6:00PM

Location: Below CO 105 bridge; walked downstream past Lake Fork to huge nice pool and then fished back up to within .2 mile of the car.

Fish Landed: 9

Conejos River 07/21/2015 Photo Album
Conejos in Spanish means rabbit. The white rabbit in Alice and Wonderland leads Alice down the hole to Wonderland, so could this be the rabbit that the Spanish named the Conejos River after? The chronology does not work, but the Conejos River Valley was certainly a wonderland for me during the past week. Perfect weather, nearly ideal flows, multiple hatches, camping next to the river, and lots of fish made this a trip to remember. Oh, and I did spot several very large rabbits thumping about the campground, so I suppose these are the rabbits that engendered the name for the river in south central Colorado.

I visited the Conejos River in 2011 on the dates in July that coincide with this 2015 trip, and I enjoyed some wonderful fishing on the upper Conejos below Platoro Reservoir. The Conejos River Angler pointed me to this water and sold me perfect flies to match the aquatic insects that I encountered. It was this magic that I hoped to recapture with my trip on Tuesday July 21, 2015. I got off to a nice early start, and after 5.5 hours of driving to the southern border above New Mexico, I arrived at Lake Fork Campground. The last 18 miles of the trip consisted of a rough dirt road with a speed limit of 25 MPH. CDOT can save the speed limit signs for another location, because it is nearly impossible to drive faster without damaging one’s vehicle.

Upon my arrival I quickly placed some of my belongings at camp site number 7 and paid for two nights. I actually planned to stay for three, but I hedged my bets until I evaluated the quality of the fishing. There were eighteen camp sites and approximately seven were occupied, so I had my choice from quite a few locations. I chose seven since it was spacious, had a nice surface on which to place my tent, and it bordered on the Conejos River.

I was anxious to sample the fishing, so I delayed assembling the tent until I returned in the evening. I jumped back in the car and drove a mile back down CO 250 to the CO 105 turn off, and after making a right turn crossed a new one lane bridge and parked in the crude grass and stone area on the other side of the river. I was nearly ready to fish when another vehicle arrived, and three anglers emerged attired in waders. After a brief chat I learned that the single man was from Albuquerque, NM and the other couple was from Maryland. They fished the Meadows area upstream in the morning with outstanding success, and they now planned to continue their good fortunes in the river at the 105 bridge. The gentleman from Albuquerque suggested that it was easier to hike downstream along the river on the side next to the road, but I stubbornly planned to emulate my 2011 visit with a twenty minute hike along the west side.

Conejos River Flowing Strong at 150 CFS

I followed my plan exactly and hiked across the meadow grass for twenty minutes and then dropped down to the edge of the river. When I pushed aside the willows and stepped into the water, I realized I was at the same beautiful pool where I attempted to begin fishing on my first visit on July 21, 2011. Unlike that experience when the pool was occupied by another fisherman, it was totally vacant and available for me to prospect. I tied on a parachute green drake since I read that this large mayfly was hatching. From past experience I know that fish tune into green drakes all day long during the emergence period. Unfortunately on this day they were not interested in my parachute style fly, so I clipped it off and experimented with a size 14 elk hair caddis with a medium olive body. Again this was ignored, but the pool looked too juicy to not harbor fish, so I opted to switch techniques and converted to deep nymphing.

I configured my line with a strike indicator and knotted on a 20 incher as my top fly and a salvation nymph as the bottom attractor. The 20 incher covered the possible presence of stoneflies or the nymph form of a green drake, and since it was weighted, it also sank the flies to the bottom. The salvation nymph was a bet on the presence of the nymph stage of pale morning duns. These were great ideas, but neither excited the fish, so I swapped the salvation for an emerald caddis pupa. I noticed some splashy rises, and several fish actually cleared the water in their attempt to inhale something from the air. This always surprises me, since it seems leaping from the water exceeds the caloric value of any food captured with this maneuver.

None of the nymph offerings enticed any fish, so I decided to revert to dry flies. I continued to believe that caddis were causing the late afternoon erratic rises, so I responded with a size twelve olive stimulator. I decided that I was wasting my time in the huge deep pool and began moving up the river at a regular pace, and I prospected the stimulator in likely pockets, riffles and runs as I carefully waded against the strong current. When I later checked the streamflows for July 21, I discovered they were running at a stiff 150 cfs pace. This new tactic quickly produced four eleven to twelve inch brown trout, so my faith in the Conejos River gradually returned.

Typical Small Pockets That Produced

Unfortunately after the initial flurry of success, the stimulator ceased to produce, so I elected to reprise the dry/dropper technique that served me well in 2011. I tied a Chernobyl ant to my line and then added a salvation nymph and ultra zug bug. My initial introduction to the salvation nymph occurred in 2011, when I purchased a half dozen from the Conejos River Angler, and they were extremely productive during that trip. Since then the salvation nymph has become a mainstay in my fly box.

A Nice Brown on the First Day

The three fly dry/dropper combination was an effective choice, as I landed five more brown trout over the remainder of the afternoon as I worked my way upstream at a steady pace to a point .2 miles below the 105 bridge. The majority of the brown trout consumed the ultra zug bug, but one snatched the salvation and another decent brown trout slurped the Chernobyl ant from the surface right along the bank. This was the best fish of the afternoon as it measured thirteen inches and exhibited a chunky profile.

Best Fish of Tuesday Slurped a Chernobyl Ant

I was pleased to land nine fish in three hours of fishing in the late afternoon. 3PM – 6PM is typically slow, since it unfolds after any emergence activity in the Rocky Mountains. Also the flows of 150 cfs were a bit high, and this yielded fewer prime holding locations and made wading a challenge. On the positive side, it was cool for most of the afternoon with partial sun. Offsetting this was a constant wind, and this made accurate casting an ongoing battle.

I returned to my new campsite and assembled my tent and ate dinner. That evening two campers mentioned fishing in the Meadows area, so I became concerned that I was missing the best fishing by gravitating to the section of river below the 105 bridge. I decided to stick with my plan for Wednesday. If the fishing was sub par, and hatches did not materialize, I could join the crowd in the Meadows on Thursday.

Conejos River – 06/30/2012

Time: 9:30AM – 12:30AM; 2:00PM – 4:00PM, 7:30PM – 8:45PM

Location: Upstream from Aspen Glade Campground; next to Conejos Campground, next to Aspen Glade Campground

Fish Landed: 14

Conejos River 06/30/2012 Photo Album

As I described my trip to the Conejos River last July, I convinced Jane to accompany on a camping trip in 2012 so we logged on to the campground reservation site and reserved campsite no. 2 for the weekend of June 29 – July 1. This was the exact campsite I’d enjoyed on my July 2011 trip.

I didn’t work on Friday morning so I could shop for some needed food and then pack the Santa Fe. Everything was set by 2:45PM and I drove downtown and picked up Jane near her office, and we continued from there to interstate 25 and drove south to Walsenberg and then crossed La Veta Pass to Alamosa, and then south again and eventually west to our destination. We arrived at our campsite by 8:15 and had a bit of daylight to set up the tent.

Aspen Glade, No. 2

On Saturday we drove back down the highway to Mogote to the Conejos River Angler fly shop. I purchased some flies and asked for advice from the young man running the store. He claimed the river was fishing well from top to bottom and mentioned that green drakes and pale morning duns where hatching in the morning. We returned to the campground where Jane made oatmeal with bananas and blueberries. As the river was supposedly fishing well in the area of Aspen Glade Campground, I decided to forego driving to another spot and began fishing from the lower level of the campground.

I hiked up the river on the path for .2 miles or so and then dropped down to a fishy looking stretch with boulders and nice pockets of moderate depth behind the large rocks. I tied on a yellow Letort hopper hoping to imitate golden stoneflies and added a salvation nymph (previously I referred to these as rubber leg pheasant tails). I covered the nice pockets with this combination to no avail, so I switched out the salvation for a beadhead hares ear nymph, my standard go to fly.

This seemed to improve things, and I began catching small brown trout in the 6-9 inch range. I moved along fairly quickly fishing close to the bank in likely spots and built up my fish count, but I was quite disappointed with the size of the fish. After a half hour or so I reached a nice spot with the current leaving four feet of soft water toward the bank. Here I shot a 15 foot cast to the top of the pool and the hopper dipped and I set the hook on a heavier fish. How heavy I’ll never know as the fish slipped the hook as it moved sideways into the heavier current.

After catching a few more small browns, I reached a nice bend pool and decided that I should be going deep with weight and nymphs in these deeper juicy spots. The sun was now blazing and it was getting quite warm, but I was comfortable when I was standing knee deep in the river. I added a thingamabobber to my line along with a split shot, beadhead hares ear, and beadhead pheasant tail. The beadhead pheasant tail began producing small fish and I moved upstream to a nice wide run on the opposite half of the river across from a massive summer home. By now some big dark clouds moved in and blocked the intense rays of the sun, and I began to notice pale morning duns taking flight on a very sporadic basis. Good I thought, as the pheasant tail nymph is a strong imitation of the nymph stage of pale morning duns.

On a drift along the current seam in the wide run mentioned above, the indicator paused, I set the hook and was fast to another heavier fish. This fish rushed downstream and made a sudden turn and once again the fly slipped from the jaws of a decent fish. I was beside myself for missing my best opportunities to catch decent fish. To move further upstream I needed to climb the steep bank and go up and over some huge rocks with vertical walls extending into the river where the current splashed intensely against the red wall. I built my fish count to nine with most taking the beadhead pheasant tail by noon, and the sun reappeared and beat down on everything beneath. I decided to make the long hike back to the campsite and have lunch with Jane.

View of River Near Aspen Glade

While eating lunch I began to doubt that the hatches would occur on the Aspen Glade water, so I asked if Jane would accompany to the upper water next to dirt road 250. The shopkeeper suggested driving up the dirt road to Spectacle Lake or Conejos Campground and to fish in those public areas. This what we decided to do, and I remained in my waders while driving seven miles on the paved road to the turn onto 250, and then another six miles on a fairly rough dirt road to the Conejos Campground. I backed into an unoccupied campsite and left Jane reading her Kindle in a folding chair.

I crossed the river at the campground and walked up the opposite side and began fishing with the nymphs that remained on my line from the morning. Nothing was exhibiting interest, but a huge quantity of stoneflies were flitting up from the grass with each step that I took. I caught one and noticed it had a very light olive/tan underbody with a tinge of orange color near the tip of the abdomen. I decided to tie on my yellow Letort hopper even though it was much too bright to match the stoneflies present in the grass and willows. I added the tried and true beadhead pheasant tail as my dropper and continued fishing attractive spots along the bank. The water here wasn’t as attractive as the lower river with many more wide shallow stretches. At one point I swapped the yellow Letort hopper for an olive body stimulator of approximately the size of the naturals.

This fly was about as good an imitation as I had, but it failed to produce as well. I’m not sure if this was because the stoneflies were not getting in the water or if the imitation wasn’t close enough. I noticed the olive body got fairly dark when it got wet and there was no hint of orange in the fly. I decided to go back to the yellow Letort hopper as it was easier to see, and there were also quite a few small hoppers present along with the stoneflies.

I could now see my upstream progression was going to end as a large wire stretched across the river marking the end of the public water. But just below the wire there was a nice long pool created by the main current deflecting off a large rock along the bank. I cast the two fly combination to the top of the pool and allowed the hopper and trailing nymph to float back toward me along the current seam. Wham! The hopper dipped and I set the hook and a heavy fish shot downstream in the heavier current toward the middle of the river. I let it run quite a ways downstream and followed it a bit when it finally stopped. I reeled rapidly and regained line, but it made a couple more surges downstream. Eventually I gained ground and reeled the fish back toward me when it made an upstream move. I could now see a rainbow trout in excess of fifteen inches, and I was excited to bring it to the net. By applying side pressure I was able to bring the fish directly across from me perhaps five feet away, when it decided to make another strong run downstream. I allowed it to make the strong initial surge, but then as I regained some line, the fish made a strong reversal and my line suddenly went limp. I reeled up my line only to discover that the knot attached to the top fly, the Letort hopper, had broken. Once again I was foiled in my attempt to catch a substantial fish on the Conejos River.

After shrieking in disbelief, I retreated back downstream to across from Jane. I gazed downstream and noticed another fisherman with his young son fifty yards below me. I decided to fish the area in between and then possibly circle around. I replaced the yellow Letort hopper with a Chernobyl ant and tied on a new beadhead hares ear as the point fly. As I fished the water, the man and his son left their spot and walked up along the bank opposite me. I climbed back on the bank and hiked to the area they had just departed where I covered the area with quite a few casts to no avail.

Next I moved downstream to the right channel below a small island where a nice deep run flowed for forty feet or so. I made five or so drifts along the current seam with no results, and then on the next drift I placed my cast more in the current. As the Chernobyl came back toward me it took a dip, and I instinctively set the hook. The fish felt nice and heavy, but initially I was concerned it was a foul hook. That was my luck on this last day of June. But the fish ran downstream and doggedly tried to dive and shake the fly as is often the case with brown trout. The more I played the fish, the more I realized that the fly was in the mouth. Furthermore, it was clear that this was a nice fish as I caught a glimpse of it. The brown made several bursts downstream, but each one was shorter than the previous until I eventually worked it up next to me and lowered the net beneath its beefy body. When I placed the brown in my net to photograph it extended beyond the net opening by about an inch making it a 16 inch catch and made me a happy fisherman.

16″ Bruiser Landed Near Conejos Campground

Head Shot

After releasing the brown I continued downstream, and I my focus was renewed but I didn’t experience any more success despite covering quite a bit of decent water. I was getting rather far from the campsite so I elected to climb up the bank and walk back upstream. I reached a spot where I was close to the dirt road, so I cut over to the shoulder and returned by way of the rough dirt highway. When I turned into the campground I discovered Jane in her chair reading her Kindle. Apparently the campground hosts had stopped and charged her $8 for a day use fee.

We jumped in the car, and covered the six miles of gravel and washboard back to the paved road and then on to Aspen Glade. Jane and I relaxed with some beverages and then had a fantastic dinner of shrimp stir fry after which I suggested we go back down to the river to view the sunset. I took my fly rod and frontpack, but decided to not climb back into my waders. We arrived at the river by 7:30 and sat on a nice wide rock and observed. There were numerous clusters of caddis dancing over the water, but nothing was showing on the surface for perhaps half an hour or so. Finally we spotted a few rises directly across from us near the main center current. I caught one of the caddis and it appeared to be a size 16 body with a size 14 wing. The abdomen was a very light yellow color so I tied on a light gray deer hair caddis size 16 and began casting where we had spotted the rise.

Nothing was taking my caddis, but another fish rose a bit higher up along the current seam so I tossed a cast there, and sure enough a nine inch brown rose and sucked in my caddis. I was pretty pleased with this bonus fish, but no additional fish revealed themselves so I sat back down on the rock to observe with Jane. Fifteen minutes passed and as the sun fell below the horizon a fish began rising in the tail of the pool. Jane actually  spotted the rises first. This required a very long cast across and downstream, and I needed to angle myself to allow an open backcast of a lot of line. I began working out line and shot some casts close to the position of the rise, but the drift was very brief until the current introduced drag to my fly. I made perhaps ten casts with no success and decided to sit down and observe again.

Source of Pink

Jane was beginning to feel chilly, so she returned to the campsite while I continued watching the pool in silence. Sure enough as the light began to wane, a fish rose in the tail area again, although it seemed to be in a lane five feet closer to me. Once again I walked to the edge of the river and worked out line and then shot a cast in the vicinity of the rise. No luck, so I stripped in some line, backcast and shot a longer cast to the same area but a bit further out. In the next instant a fish sipped in my fly and I made a quick strip set. I couldn’t believe what just happened! The fish pretty much hunkered down, and I began reeling line and it swam willingly upstream. Judging from the weight, it was a decent fish. When the fish was across from me it began to fight my efforts with more authority, but after a few thwarted runs, I brought it into my net. This fish wasn’t quite as long as the one by the Conejos Campground, but still a good 14 inches. This was icing on the cake for me, and I was very pleased to have landed a fish off of a long cast, an unusual accomplishment for me.

Nice Brown Landed Late Saturday

I photographed and released my long distance catch and returned to my rock hoping to see more late surface activity. Sure enough some fish began to rise on the other side of the main midstream current across from and slightly above my position. I made a few casts with no success and then spotted a large brown object moving downstream to the area I was casting to. As I watched the beaver made a sudden dive as it descended and arched its tail and brought it down flat on the water creating a loud smacking sound. What a thrill to see a beaver on the Conejos River at 8:45 on Saturday night.

The beaver disturbance ended my fishing and I was feeling chilly as well, so I clipped my fly to the rod guide and returned to camp.