The bear was a surprise. Most Texans fishing away secretly hope to see a bear, even while we overplay the danger and check to make sure we have the capsicum spray handy.
This one lumbered across the winding, mountain road north of Taos, our headlights bathing rippling black fur at least as high as the 7-year-old’s head. It was a big bear. A beautiful bear. The younger boys were asleep in the back and missed it, but Patrick and I enjoyed the sighting.
For someone who is enthralled with small water and native fishes, northern New Mexico and southern Colorado are something special. For someone like me, the muted jewel tones of a wild Rio Grande cutthroat trout from a trickle of snowmelt that hasn’t seen another angler since last fall is pretty close to heaven.
Throw in the opportunity to spend an uninterrupted week with my three sons, ages 20, 9, and 7, showing them some of my favorite places for the first time, and, well … just pinch me.
Lagniappe (noun, 1. something given as a bonus or extra gift)
Following the winding, graveled road up to our campground in the Valle Vidal unit of Carson National Forest, I saw a familiar, lanky figure walking up the road towards a dark blue Mazda parked on the edge of the track, yellow fly rod in hand. It was my dear friend Chris Barclay, another Texan by way of North Carolina, rod maker extraordinaire, in the area for five days of fishing at the nearby Costilla Creek Lodge.
The roadside reunion led to Chris helping us set up camp in the afternoon monsoon, then sticking around for a cup of coffee and a couple of impromptu casting lessons with the boys, then showing us where to find some good water and what flies to use on it.
Who gets to have the world-renowned designer and maker of their fishing poles actually show them how to use them? Well, us. We’re lucky that way.
Valle Vidal was good to us. We found fish in tiny Middle Ponil Creek. One day the monsoon dumped hail on us while a mile or two up the trail, but it was soft hail. Graupel, maybe. On the night before the full moon, our tents and hammocks at Cimarron Campground were ringed by a coursing, chorusing pack of coyotes. We fell asleep to their song.
Washout: Plan B
Gunnison was Plan B, after Nick at the Huerfano County Road and Bridge Department called me back to let me know that, despite the fact he had bladed the county road climbing out of the Wet Valley to Medano Pass the week before, the gate at the top was still padlocked. The prolonged spate on the other side of the pass had washed out the sand and rock road, and repairs were proceeding painfully slowly. The boys didn’t think the purchase of bolt cutters was a terribly good plan. Mindful of my status as a role model, I reluctantly abandoned that idea.
The San Juans, like many of the ranges in Colorado, received between half again and twice as much snow this past winter as usual. Despite the extended runoff, I felt sure we could find fishable water high on the Little Cimarron, or in the Uncompahgre Wilderness. First, a detour to a WW II-era B-24 crash site along the Taylor River. Firstborn son’s mind works like that, storing bits of historical trivia and unique roadtrip detours. Makes me proud.
We found the informational sign along the river, still running fast and high, and the boys struck out up the mountainside looking for the crash site. Two hours later they were back, without having laid eyes on the wreckage or the bronze plaque commemorating the 10 crew members who died there, but having had a fine adventure looking.
In the meantime, I had checked the Great Sand Dunes National Park website one more time, and was shocked to see that the primitive road was open to the pass for the first time since last November.
Dusting off Plan A
We drove south three hours, retracing our route along fish-filled Tomichi Creek, over 10,067-foot Cochetopa Pass and the Continental Divide, and down into the San Luis Valley. The sand dunes appeared in the distance, a tan smudge on the floor of the high desert. Twenty miles out, one suspects that maybe they are, in fact, huge. On the entry road to the national park, when one’s mind has registered that the ant-like black dots on the sand are human beings, the scale resolves.
The sand dunes are impressive, but the preserve—the mountainous back country of the Sangre de Cristo range that abuts the wilderness area of the same name—is glorious. It was my third trip up the 4wd-only road, and my first on opening day. (Note: a flash flood July 24 destroyed portions of the primitive road near the dunes, just a week after it opened. Repairs are ongoing, with no estimated time of completion.)
Our first stop, just for a quick look, was the series of beaver ponds in the long meadow, about halfway up to the pass. We saw trout rising, and also one of the resident beavers. I hustled the boys back into the Jeep; higher, I said. Let’s go higher.
Our next stop was the primitive campsite near the top of the road, the one I shared with Chris and our buddies Jess and Dave last fall. The pretty pool just behind the campsite had been erased by runoff, but the beavers had patched up the small dam just downstream and we could see trout in the bend of the stream.
We strung-up our rods and soon everyone, except for middle son, Conor, had landed a beautiful, wild cutthroat. With daylight fading and mosquitoes swarming, we headed even farther up the road, toward the pass, and then took a left to the Medano Lake trailhead. I had a vague memory that there were several campsites near the trailhead, a recollection proved correct when we pulled into the only one with a picnic table. Before unloading the Jeep, I followed the trail down to the creek and promptly caught a trout.
This would do, I thought.
After unloading camping supplies and setting the boys to making camp (pro tip: always travel with an Eagle Scout, like Patrick, or—last fall-Jess), I drove back out to the turn-off, and left a note in a plastic freezer bag: “BEN C. We’re that way! —>”
More Friends in High Places
Ben Christensen—I helped his son Andrew catch his first saltwater fish in deep South Texas nearly a decade earlier—was vacationing with his family on the other side of the mountains. On the drive south, earlier in the day, it had seemed increasingly unlikely that even though we would be less than 30 miles away from each other, we’d actually get to fish together. Then Ben texted me: “Lynette said take the boys and go catch some cutthroats and make some memories.”
Problem: I had texted Ben back that we would be downstream, well below the Medano Lake trailhead. Now I had no cell signal. I could imagine him driving all the way down to the dunes, looking for the Jeep. I figured he’d notice the note at the junction. He didn’t, but his 8-year-old, Joseph, did.
Ben, Andrew, and Joseph showed-up in good time for morning coffee and hot chocolate and a fly swap and we set-out for Medano Lake, 4 miles and 2,000 feet above us. This was a new trail for me, one I’d been hoping to hike for several years, and I wasn’t certain the creek it followed held fish. Of course it did.
At one of many points where the trail dipped down to the creek, we stood in a semi-circle over an eddy formed by a downed tree. A 10-inch trout had staked-out the small pool as his domain, and we watched, entranced, as the fish patrolled his territory. Being anglers, we then of course had to try to catch the fish, and moved into casting position in rotation. It was Joseph who finally managed to fool the fish and then land it. His first trout of any variety. The Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (shown in the banner) can grow to lengths of more than 18 inches, the remote headwaters streams where remnant populations are found today limit most to a more modest 8 to 12 inches. Their striking colors more than make up for their size.
The Medano Lake trail is breathtaking, both literally and figuratively, climbing through thick fir and aspen groves and wildflower-filled meadows to barren tundra, always within sight and sound of the rushing creek.
I sent the young bucks, Patrick and Andrew, ahead, and then Ben and Joseph, while I lingered with my younger boys. We backtracked to a creek crossing we—having not long ago read The Adventures of Robin Hood—dubbed the “Little John” bridge (a couple of shaped tree trunks laid across the stream bed). We had seen some largish trout there, and the boys thought maybe they could trick one.
Conor did, when I wasn’t paying attention, after he carefully worked his way out onto a log over the stream and presented a fly to a particularly active fish in the riffle. It was his first native trout in Colorado, made all the sweeter by doing it completely on his own.
The alpine crew made it to the lake, where 20-inch trout studiously ignored every fly they tied on. So they played in the snow. Mindful of his wife-promised return time, Ben summoned his inner Marine sergeant on the way back and set a brisk pace; I barely had time to find the whiskey before he and the older kids trailed into camp, just an hour and twenty minutes after leaving the lake. But we had time to sample it, and a stogie, before he had to leave.
Fly Fish the Republic
My good friend Chris Johnson sells a t-shirt in his Living Waters Fly Fishing shop: “Fly Fish the Republic.” The shirt has an outline of Texas-as-was, when the young, sovereign nation claimed a large swathe of New Mexico and parts of Colorado and even Wyoming. The implied message marries two of Chris’s great loves: Guadalupe bass, the endemic, riverine game fish of the Texas Hill Country, and Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout, the endemic salmonid of the mountain southwest.
The reality is, there are a lot of “rocks and rattlesnakes” in between. This struck me forcefully on the way home. From roughly Raton, NM, to I-20 in Texas, more than 400 miles of mostly featureless and fishless plains bedevil the traveling angler. It’s productive country, if you are a cotton or wind farmer. I know fine people from that part of the world. But it absolutely sucks to drive through.
On the way home, somewhere around Brownwood, I felt the tension begin to drain from my shoulders. The grim determination to “just get through this” lifted. As the road dipped and curved through limestone outcroppings and across clear, free-flowing streams, I couldn’t help but compare what I was seeing to what I had experienced earlier in the week, hours to the north.
And the thought that crossed my mind was a surprise: as much as I love the Sangres, the wild mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, I love Central Texas and my home waters just as much … more, actually. The two places don’t really even bear comparison. They are each their own thing, and in many ways the very best of the sort of thing each one is.
The truth is, I want to go back. Soon. The Valle Vidal is calling. Commanche Creek and Medano Creek are calling. But so are the Lampasas, and the Pedernales, and the Blanco.
In the meantime, I am filled with gratitude: for the expansive public lands of the Southwest; for the trickier-to-access spring creeks and freestone rivers in my backyard; for friends well-met; and for the gift of time—those seven, uninterrupted days with my three sons.