RSS Feed

Search...

Category Archive:   Destinations


photos by Joshua Money and Nate Imig

Late summer in Central Texas. Your local honey holes have dried up. You can’t bear the heat any longer. The spots that are still flowing and fishable are far too often flooded with tubers and, unless you’re okay with waiting 20 minutes in between casts to let these floaters go by, can be hardly worth your time. This leaves an avid fly fisherman two options… sit around, tie some flies, and day-dream in a depressive state about the adventures that you’d much rather be on, OR grab a buddy, throw some sleeping bags, a tent, a Yeti full of food, and your favorite fly rods in the back of the truck, and head away from the crowds, and to a far cooler climate.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love our Texas fisheries. Some of my fondest memories are of sticking beautiful rainbow trout on the Guadalupe River with my dad on a cold afternoon, or watching bass blow up the surface of the Blanco in pursuit of that fruit cocktail deerhair popper, or even of landing dozens of sunfish just before sunset out on Brushy Creek. Every time I’m out on the water, I’m reminded of how blessed we are to be able to fly fish all of the wonderful opportunities that the state of Texas has to offer. But after being out in more days over 100 degrees than I care to count, and catching more smallmouth bass than I care to count, the tall mountains, cool weather, and the chance to land monster, wild trout were all calling my name.

And so early one August morning, we headed out on what would prove to be one of the most amazing adventures of my life thus far. The first stop was Antonito, Colorado, a 13 hour drive from home. Well, typically 13 hours, assuming you don’t run into one of the most epic, intimidating, powerful storms you’ve ever witnessed, have to make far more bathroom stops than intended, or almost run over an elk. Unfortunately for us, all three of those events occurred, setting us for a much slower pace than expected. But hey, that’s why I called it an adventure…

At around 3 AM, we found our campsite at the edge of the Rio Grande National Forest, nestled among the pines. Completely and utterly exhausted, we hastily set up our sleeping bags in the bed of the truck, and slept out under the stars. That is, until the stars were no longer visible thanks to the clouds, which then decided to dump freezing rain unto us around 5:30 AM (who needs sleep anyways?). After a quick breakfast of camp tacos, we were off to the mighty Conejos River, a beautiful fishery, winding through the Rio Grande National Forest, home to some feisty, massive browns.

First cast into the clear waters of the Conejos goes exactly where I wanted it. I watch my indicator slowly drift through a run that looks as if it’s certainly holding something special. The anticipation is killing me. Long into its drift, my strike indicator shoots underwater, with a visible flash of silver in the depths below. A better start to the day then I could have ever imagined. Unfortunately, the ending of this first fish encounter wasn’t as pleasant. A long, energy depleting battle with this stocky, powerful rainbow trout, ended with a mistake that proved to be critical. A little too much tension on the line while trying to net this fish resulted in my flies heading one direction (directly at me), and the fish going the other (directly away from my outstretched net). I was obviously disappointed, but stayed level-headed, as we still had days of fishing to go, and although a big fish, the rainbow lost was not the fish of a lifetime. Little did I know, this was only the beginning of my frustrations to come. I walked down river, and caught up with my fishing partner and best friend Nate, who had just landed and released a stunningly colored rainbow. We fished a few hours longer with no success, made the decision to call it a day, and headed up to the truck and off to our next destinations; The Gunnison River and Spring Creek.

The “Gunni” yielded much more success for the two of us that next morning. Three solid, hard fighting browns landed between us in quick succession had us fly fisherman smiling from ear to ear. Things were starting to look up from the day before, and the thought of losing that big Conejos Rainbow was quickly fading from my mind with each fish that found its way into our nets. The afternoon fishing on Spring Creek, a beautiful dry-fly fishery high in the Gunnison National Forest loaded with brookies, browns, and cutthroat, was just as exciting. The creek browns just couldn’t resist those big orange stimulators being so delicately presented in front of them in the gin-clear water. Although we landed some decent fish in the creek, our minds kept wandering back toward those big brown trout landed early in the day on the Gunnison. We knew when morning came, we had to head back in search of that 20 inch brown trout we each so desperately wanted to land. And so at sunrise, we left our campsite, hidden in the forest at over 11,000 feet, in the shadow of Mt. Elbert and made the 30+ mile off-road drive back to Gunnison.

After doing some scouting, and wading through a swamp that sparked thoughts of Louisiana rather than western Colorado, we came upon a spot that appeared to come right out of a fly fisherman’s dreams. It was a deep, but easily wadeable run, spanning close to half a mile long, flowing right into the Blue Mesa Reservoir. Soon into this excursion I hooked and lost another long battle to a 20+ inch rainbow, who refused to do anything other than repeatedly launch itself out of the water for a good 5 minutes before finally shaking the flies and heading off to deeper water. Still remaining positive at this point though. Minutes later, I hooked into a fish so massive, that until it made it’s first big run, I just assumed I was snagged on a tree limb. But boy was I wrong. A brown trout, in the 25-27 inch range, thought he would make a feast of my flies. For time’s sake, and for the sake of me not having to relive it, I’ll skip to the part where I threw my rod in the grass after a 20 minute fight and having the beast within feet of the net. I vividly remember looking at Nate and saying “I’m done fishing”. And for about a minute and a half I truly meant it. But after my brief 90 second retirement, I pulled out my Scott 6 weight, and set it up for a new approach, streamer fishing. My decision to stay out on the water (and change tactics) paid off in a way I could have never expected as two beautiful rainbow trout, both over 20 inches were landed after long, adrenaline fueled battles. Sweet, sweet redemption. And Nate, who hadn’t managed to land a fish that day on the Gunnison, had some big time redemption headed his way too.

The last destination was the Dream Stream, a stretch of Colorado’s South Platte River, that Nate so boldly put, is, “Like the New Zealand of the United States”. Just on appearance, The Dream Stream lives up to its name. Surrounded on all sides by mountains, the river twists and turns through an expansive, flat, open field. Due to the 27 degree temperature, steam was rising from every inch of the water. Large flocks of Canadian Geese flew directly overhead as the sun rose above the mountains in the distance. Before I even wet a line, I could tell that this place was truly magical. But the real magic began once my size 22 midges made their way into the water. A few minutes in, I’d hooked and landed a healthy male brown trout, that fought way above his weight class. Not long after that, Nate hooked up with a fish that, I could tell just by looking at the bend in his rod, wasn’t your average 15-16 inch Trout. Without hardly a thought, I threw my rod and pack in the bushes, unclipped my net, and made a dead sprint to my friend who was in the battle of his life with this fish. After what seemed like hours (closer to 10 minutes), crossing the river probably 5 times, running up and down the banks of the Dream Stream, and taking a brief swim, we landed his fish, a beautiful rainbow trout that broke the 20 inch mark. I can honestly say I’ve never worked so hard to land someone else’s fish, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way, and I can also honestly say that (despite the event to come) that helping my best friend land his personal best trout was my favorite memory from this adventure.

But I couldn’t let my friend get away without doing some work for me too. Within about 5 minutes, I’d hooked into another fish of my own. And this one wasn’t messing around. I withstood run after run after run, my Hatch reel whining as this mammoth trout strained my drag. This fish had every trick in the book, making long powerful runs, using the current to prevent me from reeling him closer, tucking himself into a hole that ran deep under the bank, and diving down into deep pockets. But I refused to lose another trophy fish. After about 20 minutes, and Nate running up and down the bank, across the river, and taking a swim in the deep stuff, we netted the monster, a cutbow that exceeded the 23 inch mark (see title bar for photo). We got our pictures, and sent the beast on his merry way. Completely drained, I laid down in the tall grass on the bank of the South Platte, and thought to myself, “What a perfect end to an amazing trip”

Steelheading’s patron saint has got to be Sisyphus, the ancient king of Ephyra who was punished for his vanity and deceitfulness by being forced to roll a giant boulder up a hill, only to have it come rolling down the hill again, an action that he would repeat for all of eternity. Lamenting his struggle and the obvious connection, i cast, raising the tip abruptly, tracing the outline of the “D” with the 12′ rod, followed the imaginary rim of the sombrero, and set my anchor before launching the streamer halfway across the Deschutes. After the tell tale splash i watched the line like a hawk, making sure to keep all of the bends out of the line, just as my brother had instructed me. It was an action i repeated over and over ad-nauseum like Sisyphus, the only change in pattern being that i worked my way downstream a few feet after every cast, in hopes of covering every last bit of roaring water between me and the next riffle or bend.

It’s an extraordinary thing, fishing for steelhead. It’s about the polar opposite of fishing in Texas where you can usually avoid a “skunk” just by tying on a smaller fly and targeting a panfish, Rio, or what have you. Steel head fishing is all or nothing…period, there is no hedging your bets, you either get one or you don’t.My brother David, a first class steel-header who also happened to be our local guide had informed me on the drive in that the fishing was at an all time record low. Up until this trip he’d fished 10 days in a row without a bite, and he knows what he’s doing. Upon hearing this i immediately tossed any chance of catching a steelhead right out the window, it’s hard enough when things are perfect, and apparently conditions were far from that.

Strangely enough i managed to hook into one of the quarry midway through the first day, but was foolish enough to allow it the luxury of the deep water and fast current. Breaking it off and glancing at my brother who had been trying to wave me to shore i suddenly had the sinking feeling that i had royally screwed up. Reeling in the taut-less line with ease all i could think was “Ten days of nothing leading up to this and i let that one slip away.”

Fortunately our luck turned around the next day, starting with my father hooking into a 40+ pound salmon that quickly let him know that it wasn’t in the mood to play by breaking him off. Encouraged by the simple act of a hook up, we scoured all the best spots for the rest of the day, eventually making our way back to the parking lot as the sun retreated to the other side of the hills. Making our way back after a long day and within minutes of the parking lot i scurried down into one of the more popular runs, spey rod in hand and quietly hoping to at least feel a tug after a day of nothingness. Shooting the line half way across the river i felt like a matador, constantly leading the line to the left in a graceful arc of posibility. I worked it out of the main current, fleetingly along the seam and towards the submerged rock. As it passed through the cushion in front of the submerged boulder the line shot out of my guides, the surprised reel humming and my knuckles getting smacked relentlessly by the blur of a knob.

My eyes scanning the implied direction of my line, i was surprised to see my steelhead jumping like a madman 50 yards upstream from where i thought it was. Panicked and wary of repeating the previous days mistakes i called to brother for guidance. Like a pro he delivered, walking me through the steps to help land a fish that was easily eight times the size of anything i ever catch around here. A memory to be sure.

Fortunately my brothers generosity was repaid on the third and following day when he landed a steelhead minutes after we hit the water, and a second shortly before leaving. It was incredibly gratifying to see all his work in making this trip possible for my dad and i come to fruition in front of our eyes. I’m lucky to have such a wonderful brother / steelhead guide.

img_0198

It’s hard to explain to non-anglers how one fish in three days can be seen as a success, but that’s the world of steel-heading. It’s a universe where the odds are inherently stacked against you, every failure or success is exaggerated, and where days can be compressed into minutes.

On the flight back, after a couple of complimentary Chardonnays loosened the gears, i put pen to paper as i ruminated on the experience. There were pages of thoughts, but this one seemed to sum it up best.

“Hundreds of meaningful but empty casts for one fish. One muscular, wild, screaming fish that felt the connection and tore the water asunder.”

Thank you David, dad, and the Deschutes.

IMG_1470

It was a mad dash, Neal Cassady style, attempting to make the 12 hour drive between Austin and Eagles Nest, NM. I’d driven this route enough times to know that the twelve hours it was alleged to take would doubtless turn into fourteen due to either major construction, dust storms, or flooding roadways, all things i’d encountered in the past. I managed to avoid all of those this time, but just as i was approaching the eleventh hour of the drive with the sun setting, the tire on the pop-up camper i was towing blew out, the rim hit the pavement and the entire shit show i was comandeering slammed to a halt on the shoulder of a virtually trafficless two lanes road with minutes of light left. Fifteen hours total.

It was a less than ideal way to begin a week and a half fishing adventure, but luckily that misfortune was so frustrating that every single moment that followed was solid gold.

IMG_1475

The next day i awoke from the camper to news that the Cimmaron, which had been flowing at .05 CFS for days had been cranked up to 8 CFS to (luckily) appease water right holders downstream. Having fished this river many times over the years i was familiar with it between 30-50 CFS, more or less ideal flows for the small banks, so to see it at 8 CFS was a little disheartening, to put it mildly.

Initially stepping into the river on the periphery of the camp ground i was shocked to notice that the water barely made it past my ankles…not a good sign. Of course i knew the flows would be low, but standing there in what could only generously be considered a trickle, i started to wonder whether or not i should cash my chips in and abandon this much beloved stream for bigger possibilities north.

IMG_1474

As i was deliberating the options, a salmon fly landed on my hand and scarcely moved while  i fumbled for the camera and snapped photo after photo of this tiny beast. Minutes later i cast a similar sized Amy’s Ant into the riffle and landed the first trout of the trip, a beautiful brown (below) that put nice bend in the 7’4″ 3WT as it pulled and tugged, its shoulders working across the current.

Surrendering the technicolor trout back to the low and slow waters, my hand lingered in the flows as i realized that i needed to stay here and fish here. All the things that made it difficult, low flows, crystal clear waters, overgrown canopies, and skittish fish, would make me a far better angler if i would just put my time in.

IMG_1472

Fortunately that’s exactly what happened, as over the next few days i learned to spot pockets i never would have seen if the waters were higher and the previously seeming limitations turned into beautiful red spotted reward after red spotted reward reward. The waters may not have been ideal to begin with, but as skills were added to the quiver the odds seemed to become more and more stacked in my favor.

The Cimarron has always been one of my favorite since the very first year i started fly fishing, and thus the desire to return again and again. It was heartbreaking at first to see it so low, but as mentioned above, if you look at anything from the right angle it just might provide the promise you were looking for, if not more.

IMG_1476

It’s not easy by any means, other than the low flows much of it’s super tight and technical, but as with any challenge, ANYTHING caught here will help build your knowledge and confidence.

So if you’re in the neighborhood or looking for a breathtaking challenge, be sure to check it out. Not only are the surrounding hills drop dead gorgeous, the waters and fishing are amazing despite the conditions. Just be sure to tag a few hours onto either end of the journey, like the flows and the fishing, the travel can be just as uncertain.

IMG_1471

Want to check it out yourself?

Websites:

Doc Thompson’s High Country Anglers – basic overview, flows, and fishing reports.

Taos Fly Shop – “The” fly shop located in nearby Taos.

New Mexico Game and Fish – Official NM page with stocking information and fishing reports.

Past die Fische post on this river with information here

Accommodations: 

For camping alone the Cimmaron River i highly recommend the    Maverick campground for those looking for RV or pull in campsites. One half of the campground is reservable (herewhile the other half is first come first serve. If you have a tent and prefer more privacy i HIGHLY recommend the Blackjack tent area up the road which is a walk-in campsite that is all on a first come basis and one of the nicest campsites i’ve ever stayed at.

For groceries, ice, and other essentials the Lowe’s grocery store in Angel Fire can’t be beat. In addition to a great wine and cheese selection they also offer liquor and many random camping essentials.

Local guides / knowledge:

I’ve been fishing this area for years and have always stopped in at the Taos Fly Shop due to their impeccable guiding service, amazing wealth of knowledge, and incredible selection of flies and more. These guys are the real deal, folks 110% into everything fly fishing.

Fishing License:

You can pick up a license at the above mentioned Taos Fly Shop but if you want to get to the Cimarron and fish immediately you can purchase a license online here.

IMG_1035

IMG_1306

The news was sad indeed. My grandmother had encountered increasing health problems and finally passed to the other side of the veil early last week. A wonderful  grandmother in many ways, one of my favorite things about her was the way she actually got my teenage, offbeat and ironic sense of humor in the early eighties long before sarcasm was mainstream (yeah i’m looking at you hipsters!) In addition she also had AMAZING cooking skills, and somehow managed to find a way to live with a die hard fisherman for decades without visibly (to me at least) being upset with his constant desire to be on the water.

The day after the news i was driving alone through the north half of Texas, all of Oklahoma and the vast majority of Kansas. It was a fourteen hour trip (one way) of reflection that only allowed me time to cement the obvious, namely that all life is transient, loved ones should never be taken for granted, and any time spent with children (even if they think they’re not enjoying it at the time) will probably provide them with cherished moments that they will take to their grave. (For example, my aversion of fishing in my youth that turned into an addiction many years later.)

IMG_1310

After a whirlwind 24 hour stay that felt like a waking dream, seeing extended family i hadn’t seen in many, many years and a small town that has changed dramatically in the decade since i’d been there last, i spun the Element southward, leaving the Land of Frozen Water, planning to return home, but feeling an increasing need to pause somewhere along the way for some quick down time to process the onslaught of emotions i’d been bombarded with.

Hours later, i was propped up in a hotel bed in Tulsa, Oklahoma and locked into their WI-FI searching for information on Broken Bow in southeast Oklahoma, a trout fishing destination that i’d heard many people rave about over the years. It took no time to find reviews and pinpoint directions to Broken Bow, but the generated enthusiasm was short lived when i read that floods in December had wiped out fishing spots and fishing shops along the Bow, shutting the entire park down for the foreseeable future.

Fortunately in my research something else did pop up, although with far less fanfare and information, the Blue River Public Fishing and Hunting Area in south central Oklahoma. For whatever reason, information on the Blue River fishery is almost non existent, though i was eventually able to discern that there were healthy flows and they did indeed stock the river with trout on a fairly regular basis which was more than enough reason to invite myself to her strange and unfamiliar waters.

IMG_0125

The backwoods drive in had me worried i’d made a huge mistake, especially when i pulled into the local convenience store to find that they no longer sold fishing licenses as the internet had purported. Grabbing a gallon of water i strolled the grounds looking for a cell phone signal in hopes i could register for my license (very, very slowly) online since the nearest physical license would require a one hour (each way) drive that i simply didn’t have time for.

Eventually i found  a signal, paid my nominal fishing fee, and wandered along a trail into one of the most magical fishing experiences i’ve ever had. The Blue River was truly unlike any body of water i’ve ever seen. Not really your basic contained river, it’s more like an endless network of massive creeks flowing in and out of each other, with falls and plunge pools punctuation the beginning and end of every aquatic sentence along the many miles of trout stocked water.

Hiking and fishing as many of the miles of trails that i could manage in my painfully brief stay i was constantly shocked by the seemingly endless cavalcade of falls and whitewater that were not only scenic post cards in the making, but also full of energetic rainbows that got more naive the further you traveled along the trail and away from the highway.

The best part of the experience? There was not a soul in sight. It was exactly what i needed, hours spent among the trees and open waters, with nothing but the calm stillness of nature. Falls, clear water, conifers, ducks, hawks and trout seemed to offer their respects, keeping chatter to a minimum.

With the memories coming on heavily in the silence, i cried, as much out of sadness that my grandma was gone as out of the happiness of knowing that she was back with her husband, the mad hatter that somehow imparted in me the love of fishing decades before it would become so much to me.

I love you both. Thank you for all the memories.

IMG_0123

Want to go and experience trout fishing in Oklahoma?

Websites:

Blue River Public Fishing and Hunting Area – The official state run Facebook page with a wealth of information on stocking dates, stocking sites, directions and more.

www.blueriverok.com – One of the very few sites with information on what is otherwise a difficult to research trout fishing haven.

Camping: 

Camping sites are on a first come, first serve basis and are shockingly (to those of us from Texas) FREE! More details on camping can be found at the www.blueriverok,com site mentioned above.

Oklahoma Fishing Licenses:

www.wildlifedepartment.com/license.htm – There is no spot anywhere close that sells Oklahoma licenses, so we recommend buying and printing them up before setting out.

Distance:

From Austin it’s a five hour drive, which isn’t that much if you think that northern New Mexico and the Cimarron are 14 hours away. For those in north Texas (Dallas and Fort Worth) it’s so close that you need to make it happen, if you haven’t already.

 

IMG_0124