Stalking the Conejos

Stalking the Conejos

Outward bound in Colorado

  • By: John Gierach

I was in town on a chilly November afternoon doing some unavoidable errands when I got to thinking about fishing. Daydreaming, actually, which is not the wisest thing to do while driving in traffic. I have enough trouble as it is in town because of sensory overload: There are too many cars, bikes, people and buildings in too small a space, not to mention all the loud noises, sharp corners and a creepy absence of wildlife. To reconnect with reality I’ll sometimes go to a certain sidewalk café to feed bagel crumbs to the English sparrows that hang out there, hoping they’ll be as happy to see me as I am to see them. I’m told this is frowned upon for health reasons, although it’s not clear if they mean the health of the customers or the sparrows.

It was somewhere between the supermarket and the hardware store that I involuntarily visualized a trout stream I’d fished two years earlier high up in the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado. I could clearly see a size 16 Hare’s Ear Parachute dry fly drifting perfectly down an idyllic pool below a small waterfall. (Accurately recalling an entire day of fishing is like trying to put smoke back down a chimney, so you settle on these specific moments.) When a 15-inch cutthroat calmly ate the fly, I realized I’d driven six blocks in a trance and had missed my turn. If I’d hit anything I probably would have noticed, but it occurred to me that fishing reveries are at least as serious a driving hazard as yakking on cell phones.

The stream in this recurring daydream was one my friend Vince and I fished two years ago with Jon Harp, who guides on the Conejos River drainage in that part of southern Colorado that was once in Mexico. We were there because when I’d met Jon at a fly-fishing show in Denver seven months earlier, he’d generously offered to show us around on some of the secret or at least little-known high-country trout streams in his area that he fished and sometimes guided on.

I consider catching wild trout in small mountain creeks to be my modest specialty, even though it amounts to one of the easiest and least glamorous things you can do with a fly rod. There are days when catching trout isn’t quite as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, but the real sport is locating the creeks and then getting yourself there, often on foot through steep, rugged country.

So Jon’s enthusiasm was believable and infectious and the atmosphere of the fly-fishing show didn’t hurt, either. It’s no accident that this event is held in January, when the despondency of the off-season has weakened your sales resistance and spring still seems too far away to offer much hope. It’s also an article of faith in my personal religion that there are countless miles of underfished and underappreciated trout streams in the American West just waiting for a fisherman with enough poetry in his soul to give them their due. According to official sources, there are 107,403 miles of perennial streams in Colorado alone.

Given the nature of mountain drainages and the preponderance of state and federal lands in the West, most of that mileage is small, public and remote. If you count all the Rocky Mountain states, the number jumps to well over 800,000 miles and if you add Alberta and British Columbia you’re probably pushing two million. How many of those stream miles hold trout in what we’d call “fishable” sizes and numbers is a personal judgment.

I know some who’d say not many. I’d say more than you think. Over the last 40 years I’ve explored one complete drainage from its civilized lower end to the cold cirque lakes and dripping glaciers in its various headwaters, and have extensively fished several dozen others. A few I discovered on my own—in the way a fisherman can feel he discovered something that was known to be there all along—but most I was shown or told about by those who knew them well.

Every creek fisherman thinks his own small water is the niftiest thing imaginable and they’re all right in a way. They’ve seen more of it than most, know all of its moods and remember the best vividly. If some of their claims seem a little over the top, they’re still within the normal bounds of hyperbole. Many of these folks fish their home water alone or with one or two close friends, but their natural secretiveness is sometimes breached by moments of generosity directed at those few they deem worthy. We creek fishermen are as quietly happy as small animals that have found the prefect hiding place.

Creeks are “dear to my heart,” as my grandmother would have said, and since I don’t have a spare heart to turn to, I’m glad to know there are hundreds of thousands of miles of them: more than I could fish in thirty lifetimes. I don’t know Jon or his situation well, but he struck me as your typical young guy who is now doing fairly well after years of hard apprenticeship in the fishing business. He had a small, neat house, a fly shop and guide service and a few vintage motel units to rent in the tiny town of Mogote on the western side of the San Louis Valley. This is a broad, flat basin bordered by the Sangre De Cristo and Culebra ranges to the east and the San Juans to the west. The region forms the headwaters of the Conejos, Rio Grande and Alamosa Rivers and needless to say it’s lousy with headwater creeks, some of which still bear their old Spanish names....

John Gierach has written the Sporting Life column since 1992. Order his book Fool’s Paradise at Books section.