View Full Version : Colorado - Small Stream Fishing - Part I

09-06-2008, 10:37 AM
My son Drew and I just returned from a 10 day trip into remote areas of Colorado in search of wild trout. Our original plan was to backpack into a few areas in SW Colorado and spend a night or two camping and fishing in each spot, then move on to the next. All-in-all we wanted to cover 3 or 4 headwater streams on the Conejos River, Vallecito Creek, Piedra River and possibly the Dolores River. While looking at maps and reading through guidebooks it quickly became obvious that there are thousands of fishable miles of streams throughout the area. The major problem we had was where to go. We settled on the Three Forks area of the Conejos River as our first stop. Early on Tuesday (8/26) we landed at Denver International Airport, picked up our rental car and made a quick pit stop at REI for some last minute camping supplies. Then to Wally World for some food and fishing licenses. The Three Forks area is above Platoro Reservoir about 30 (dirt road) miles from the nearest "real" town (South Fork). We cruised into South Fork with the intention of making it into the Rio Grande National Forest and setting up camp for the night. Unfortunately it was 8pm (and dark) by the time we made it to South Fork. The lightning and rain made us rethink our first night plans in a hurry. We wound up staying the night at the Wolf Creek "Lodge" in South Fork, two rooms down from a couple riding Harleys back across the country to their home in Sevierville. Small world, indeed.

Wednesday (8/27) we woke early and headed over to Wolf Creek Anglers for some local knowledge and some last minute flies. I had spent the better part of 6 months tying flies for the trip, but I had planned to buy some extras, just in case. Unfortunately, they were closed, and they didn't even have their hours posted on the door or on their vmail message. We would have to make due with what we had. The drive to the Three Forks trailhead was about 30 miles and took the better part of 90 minutes to negotiate.

At the trailhead, on the edge of the South San Juan Wilderness, we registered and were puzzled by the profanity someone had written on the log sheet about how cows shouldn't be allowed in Wilderness Areas. After 5 minutes on the trail we understood what they meant. Below each National Forest sign is the expression "Land of Many Uses". Well one of those uses is ranching/grazing. I was amazed at how many cattle were grazing through the Three Forks Valley, completely unrestrained. Compounding the cattle traffic was the fact that the Three Forks area is only a few miles from Wolf Creek Pass which gets as much (and usually more) snow than any other area in Colorado, each year. While planning the trip, it never occurred to me that since it gets so much snow in the Winter, maybe it also rains alot during the Summer. It never crossed my mind. It should have...


Needless to say the trail was a muddy mess. We hiked the three miles into Three Forks and after a search of about 30 minutes found a spot that was partially sheltered from the approaching thunderstorm and also had not been coated with a layer of cow pies. We quickly setup camp and tried a little fishing in the North Fork before the storm hit us. I managed only one 8" Brookie in about 30 minutes after trying 6-8 different flies. I had hoped that the fish were not very selective. I was wrong.


After a restless first night of sleeping on the ground and a camping partner that was suffering from a slight case of altitude sickness (we were camping at 10,000'). I managed to get in about 3 hours of fishing on Thursday (8/28, from 11am to 2pm. Before heading out I studied the stream and realized that there were Caddis everywhere. So instead of the Stimulators, Royal Wulffs and Trudes I had been tossing the night before, I switched to a #12 Doc's Cork and started catching fish immediately (2nd cast, actually). I managed to catch several fish in the section I fished the night before in very tight quarters (somewhat comparable to Road Prong). After about 30 minutes I had worked my way upstream to a section that reminded me of WPLP, but smaller. The bizarre thing is that the fish kept getting larger. While the first 5-7 fish were in the 8-10" range, the next 90 minutes I wound up catching 15 fish in the 10-14" range. It was amazing. Every plunge pool had a fish of proportions that seemed too large for the spot they were inhabiting. The stream is surrounded by limestone formations and has a meadow higher up that supports cattle grazing, so the stream is very rich in nutrients, which led to healthy aquatic insect life and eventually, to larger fish. Many times I was able to see the fish feeding and could cast to them without spooking them. A few times I was able to make 4-5 casts before either catching the fish or putting them down. These big guys didn't spook as easy as our fish in the Smokies.


The higher up I fished on the North Fork, the better it got. Until I made it to the canyon area. This section of the stream was harder to negotiate than anything I have attempted before. In many places the gorge was about 6 feet wide and 75-100' straight up on both sides with nearly impassable waterfalls blocking my upstream progress. Finally after about 15 fishless minutes of rock climbing up the stream, I met an impossible section and I was forced to scale the side of the canyon that I new had the trail up above. It took over 45 minutes to work my way up the steep 200' embankment. An important lesson learned: Don't assume the path forward will get easier, make sure you can backtrack, if necessary. I had climbed up and over a few areas that I could never have backed my way back down, and so, I had to scale a ridiculous slope to get out of the spot I was in. Foolish.

North Fork: (lower)

North Fork: (entering the canyons)

On Friday (8/29) I had hoped to fish El Rito Azul, one of the other forks, but Drew was feeling even worse, so we decided to leave camp and move down to a lower elevation for him to sleep for the night. I fished for an hour that morning and managed to catch 8-10 fish, while he headed out slowly through the valley, back to the car. We left our camp setup and I managed to catch up to him, before he even made it to the end of the trail. We then headed south, down through the Conejos Valley and along the more manageable dirt road to Antonito. While heading out, the rains started picking up and by mid afternoon turned into quite the gully washer. We wandered along the roads through the San Luis Valley and back over to South Fork to spend the night.

By Saturday morning the weather had cleared somewhat and we managed to catch Wolf Creek Anglers open. The guy running the shop explained that their hours were dictated by the guide work that was booked (The Rio Grande River runs through the backyard of the shop). He was super friendly and when I told him what type of fishing we were looking for, he threw in 6 free flies that had been working on small streams in the area. After leaving the shop we headed over to Pagosa Springs to see if we could find some Jetboil fuel for our campstove, before making the trek over Park Creek Rd (again) and back into Three Forks. By the time we made it to the trailhead, it had started raining again (do you see the pattern here...) and we hiked the three miles back to camp. We tried to fish for a few minutes in the rain, but quickly gave up.

Sunday (8/31) broke with the worst weather yet. It had rained off and on all of the night. I decided to try and fish again around 10am, in the rain. I hiked up to the lower part of the canyon section on the North Fork and caught 10 Cutthroats in about an hour in the 10-12" range, before the rain started to come down heavier and I decided to head back. On the way back, for kicks, I tried a SMBBSH fished downstream. I'm happy to say that I picked up two nice fish in about 10 minutes of hiking/fishing. Hugh, the SMBBSH works in more places than just the Smoky Mtns...

By Noon the rain had intensified and we were stuck in the tent. We managed to eat our remaining granola bars for lunch and dinner, but had little to keep us occupied during the storms. Its amazing how slow time creeps along when you're stuck in your sleeping bag waiting for the rain to stop. It never stopped. It only rained harder. At one point we heard a very loud snap, followed by the crashing sound of a large tree close to our campsite. Too close to our campsite for comfort, especially considering we had a tree crash on Drew's car, at our home, earlier this year. Needless to say we didn't sleep well that night.

We had decided that we needed to make a break for it the next day regardless of the weather. So early that Monday Morning, in a light drizzle, we packed up our wet and muddy camping gear, put on our soaked boots and slogged 3 miles back to the car, through the mud. The streams had risen dramatically overnight and were completely unfishable along the Conejos, above Platoro Reservoir. We decided to grab breakfast and plan where to go next.

Leaving Three Forks:

Totals for the first part of the trip:
Miles Driven: 550
Hours in the Car: 14
Miles Hiked: 15
Hours Fished: 6
Fish Caught: 45+ (30+ Cutthroats, 10+ Brookies, 3 Cutbows, 2 Browns)
Fish Hooked but not brought to hand (LDRs): 10+

09-06-2008, 03:12 PM
That canyon picture is impressive. I would love to fish in a place like that.

09-06-2008, 09:49 PM
That canyon picture is impressive. I would love to fish in a place like that.

Craig, the canyon kicked my butt. I kept thinking it would open up into a meadow (from the way the map looked). At one point I wound up rock climbing up the wet face of a 15' waterfall and realized that I could no longer go back the way I came (without falling 15' onto the rocks beloew). From that point the climbing only got worse and I eventually decided to climb up the side and out of the canyon (about 200'+ at a very steep angle). It was a long tedious climb using rock holds above me and eventually plants and small trees to pull myself up. It made climbing out of the WPLP gorge look like walking on the Elkmont trail...I should have used a bit more sense.

But the fishing had been so outstanding that I didn't pay enough attention to how locked in I had become...

09-08-2008, 04:20 PM

Great report. I know that area a little. I drove to Platoro Resivoir in 1998 when I was working for the Forest Service as a seasonal. I never did make it fishing up there. I stayed at the South Fork guard station during the summer of 1998 and did inventory work in the area not too far from where you were at. Awesome country. I got my first trout on fly rod on Archeleta Lake north of Wold Creek Pass on the Continental Divide. I wish I could have stayed in that area, but I was unemployed after the season ended and then I moved to Florida for permanent forestery job. Yuk, LOL. I camped a couple times near Durango and Silverton. Durango was very cool. I caught bigger fish in CO on a fly than I have in many years of fishing the Smokies and I was just learning. I need to get back there one day. It is surely God's Country!


09-08-2008, 09:43 PM
Thanks Neal, I enjoyed the trip a lot. The fish were bigger and the scenery was spectacular. But honestly, I enjoyed catching a 9" rainbow this weekend (with my 3wt rod), almost as much as the 14" Cutthroat in Colorado...

09-09-2008, 12:03 AM

Let me know if you wanna give up your spot on your next southern CO trip. I'll be glad to fill in if I can catch some 14" cutts and check out the hot springs, lol. I really do miss the hot springs in Pagosa Springs, by the DeCristo Mountains and near Montrose.


Flat Fly n
09-09-2008, 10:46 PM
I FINALLY got to see pics of my son's CO trip. He liked some of the suggestions you had. They mostly fished the Arkansas, Taylor, and in the Gunnison area, including small meadow creeks..Texas. Slept out under the stars every night, and brought my car back with 3K miles on it with big smiles for being trout bums for a week, and stories of hitching a ride back down some river with a bunch of rafters that asked them if they were interested in helping grow mushrooms next summer(for fun and profit)!

Thanks again for the suggestions.