Rio Costilla: I was a babe in arms on opening day in the Valle Vidal 1980. I’m told my uncle Pete caught a 20 inch Rio Grande Cutthroat that day. The Costilla Cutts today average quite a bit smaller, but they are plentiful, eager, and quick! Easy wading and room to cast in a beautiful high alpine setting make this a great stream for beginners.
Situated one hour north of Taos, the Valle Vidal is a pristine tract of Carson National Forest, home not only to Rio Grande Cutthroat but to Elk, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Black Bear and many other wild creatures. It is a wonderful place for all nature lovers, anglers and non anglers alike. The Valle’s Elk herd calves their young here in the late spring and early summer months, and for this reason the area is closed to visitors until July 1st.
In recent years the Valle Vidal has gained notoriety with the passing of a bill protecting its 102,000 acres from oil and gas exploration and development. Following that legislation, an ambitious plan to restore the native Rio Grande Cutthroat ensued, and is still underway. In 2008, Comanche Creek, a tributary of the Costilla, was restocked with the endangered fish, while non-native species were removed. Comanche Creek can make for a fun fishing day for those anglers who prefer to stalk their quarry in close quarters.
Fly choice on the Rio Costilla is a non-issue. The place is a veritable bug factory, and any aquatic insect you might favor is likely to call this place home. If not, the fish are not the most selective bunch, and why look farther than the ubiquitous Hopper? If you can make your offering look edible, whatever it is, Costilla Cutthroat will give it a go. In my experience, the key to success on these swift waters is the ability to slow the fly down and give the fish a chance. High Sticking is the name of this game.
Rio Grande: I caught my first fish over 20” in the Rio Grande, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. This river holds Brown trout, Cuttbows (naturally reproducing rainbow/cutthroat hybrid) Carp, and Northern Pike, all catchable, and all sizes.
The Rio Grande has over eighty miles of trout water from where it crosses the Colorado State line into New Mexico and continues south. Beyond the Taos County line, the river becomes more of a warm water fishery, home to mostly Smallmouth Bass and Carp, plenty of fun on a fly rod.
There are many access points on the Rio Grande, varying from right next to the road to some vertical hikes (to 950 ft) down into the Gorge, and everything in between. As a general rule of thumb, the harder it is to get to, the greater the potential reward.
The Rio Grande is a seasonal fishery, subject to the whims of runoff and water temps. For trout, spring and fall are the best times of year. The Rio has a Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch that rivals anything you might see on the Arkansas or beyond, but all the planets have to align perfectly for you to be able to fish it. Most years the river is already running chocolate by the time the bugs arrive, and late summer/early fall is when the river really turns on.
Large or small, the trout of the Rio Grande are not stupid. Successful anglers not only pay attention to what’s going on around them, but also present the pattern realistically. The drift matters, and so does the fly. Being in the right place at the right time doesn’t hurt either. That said, when in doubt on the Rio, fish some variation of a Caddis, Stonefly, or Crane fly nymph. Large attractor dry flies are the ticket unless you see fish rising to small bugs, in which case a size 16 Parachute Adams will usually fool them. The Rio Grande, with its infinite boulder pockets, is also perfectly set up for streamer fishing. This can be a great way to cover water and see if anyone’s home, not to mention bring out the big fish.
When the trout fishing slows, we target Northern Pike. They are everywhere in this river and we have caught fish up to 20lbs and suspect bigger. They like the slow, still water I favored for swimming when I was a child. These days, after seeing firsthand what lives there, swimming gives me pause. Last summer in the Wild Rivers section, JP and I saw a large Carp (7 lbs) floating downriver. It was still alive, surprising because the entire back section of the fish was gone. He had been chomped neatly in half. Pike fishing on the Rio Grande is the cold, slow, repetitive work of casting large heavy flies to elusive lurkers, but for the right kind of angler, it is the stuff of dreams.
Red River: Back in the 70’s the Red was a blue-ribbon trout stream with really big fish. Old-timers (like my father) say twenty-five inchers were the norm, torturous talk to someone like me who hadn’t even been born yet. After years of mining abuse and a subsequent resurrection, the Red River that I know today may be a different place, but it’s still a wild river of foaming pockets and little browns that love dry flies.
The Red River has its source in the mountains above the town that bears its name, but the best fishing is in the several mile stretch from the Questa Fish hatchery to the Rio Grande confluence. This deep canyon section is fed by numerous natural springs, which keep water temps stable throughout the colder months, and make the Red one of the few places with good winter fishing. If you are willing the brave the sometimes inclement weather and the snowy hike down, you may run into some bigger fish this time of year, as Browns and Cuttbows swim up from the Rio Grande to take advantage of the warmer water. The Red is crystal clear, and the larger fish are extremely spooky. Stealth is a must. Like the Rio Grande, the Red is a Caddis factory, and any Caddis pattern is a good bet. Access is via the Questa Fish Hatchery or one of three established trails that descend from 6oo’ to 800’ feet into the canyon.
Culebra Creek: Don’t let the designation of ‘creek’ fool you. The Culebra may be small, but its fish aren’t. Almost entirely private and situated one hour from Taos, the Culebra is home to hefty Browns, Bows, and Cuttbows.
Technically, the Culebra is a tailwater that flows out of Sanchez reservoir near San Luis, Colorado, but it fishes much more like a spring creek. The biomass (fish food) on the Culebra is mind boggling, and I believe that abundance to be the main reason that the fish grow so large so quickly. There are all the usual suspects and more here, but the abnormally large crane fly larvae often steal the show, and the fish can’t seem to resist anything in a small green scud. Fishing streamers at higher water under cut banks is a good bet, too.
This is a good stream to practice your more advanced techniques, for as with most large fish, these guys are not easy, and they have seen it all. For the most part, the Culebra meanders like its name (it means snake in Spanish) through open fields with the odd Cottonwood grove, framed throughout by awesome Blanca Peak and the Culebra mountain range. This is a gorgeous place to fish, but its open nature requires stealth and finesse, and a good drift is crucial.
Cimarron: I learned to fish on the Cimarron, a lovely little tailwater that flows out of Eagle’s Nest Lake in the Moreno Valley, roughly 45 minutes northeast of Taos. NM 64 runs throughout its entire length, which provides easy access but in turn creates a somewhat pressured fishery. Luckily for anglers, the Cimarron has long claimed fish counts of over 2500 brown trout per mile, considerably upping the odds for success, and the state stocks rainbows regularly in the public sections.
The Cimarron has 10 miles of public water running through the Colin Neblett Wildlife area, which ends near the town of Ute Park. Downstream the river is entirely private. We have access to the Cimarron here on the Ute Creek and Cimarroncita Ranch, and I cannot endorse this private water enough. Fishing here is like fishing the Cimarron before they built the road; the fish are clean, plentiful, and often hungry. This stretch of the Cimarron is also not as sensitive to the drastic fluctuations in flow that take place seasonally as agricultural water demands wax and wane. Trout fare much better with stable flows, and thanks to several tributaries that come in upstream, the Ute Park fish have water all year round.
As to bugs, if you have sensed a Caddis theme in these pages, it won’t stop here. Caddis are plentiful on the Cimarron, and it’s nowonder that my fly boxes contained little else in the early years. Goddard’s Caddis, Parachute Adams, and large Attractors are all good bets. If you can’t get them to come up, trailing a dropper nymph behind your dry is a great way to fish two offerings at once and get down to the fish.
Embudo Box: This little tributary of the Rio Grande is one of the prettiest places on the planet, and the fishing’s not bad either. Embudo means ‘funnel’ in Spanish, and this place lives up to its name. The river foams through a deep gorge of layered sandstone. There are no real trails down; anglers must scramble, and four wheel drive is a must. Once to the water your reward is feisty little browns. The window to fish the Embudo is short, and spring is your best bet. Flows between 35 and 80 CFS are fishiest.