It’s a long trip, but worth it for this trout fishing

The author’s grin is so big, his whole face can’t fit in the photo, next to the bearded Troy Smith, guide on the Conejos River in southern Colorado, both proudly displaying a typical 20-inch “football,”  a Conejos River rainbow trout.  (Photo courtesy Kevin Moore)

We caught numerous trout over 20 inches in a couple days fishing here.  Ed used the big streamer patterns while I used tiny nymphs – #20s and #22s.

A YouTube video features this 26-inch rainbow (ERNEST FIGHTS THE 26),  but former Grand Junction resident Ed Gibbons found out for himself just how well this fish fights.  He collapsed on the bank as the fish was released unharmed.  (Photo courtesy Ed Gibbons)

Want something other than fishing?  Ride the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, historically known as the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s San Juan Extension.  It was built in 1880 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2012.  The 64-mile scenic railroad chugs between the towns of Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico.  It is the longest and most complete example of late nineteenth-early twentieth century railroading in the nation, complete with track, buildings, structures, freight and passenger equipment, and steam locomotives from that era.

Former Grand Junction resident Ed Gibbons holds on tight as he tangles with a 26-inch rainbow from the Conejos River in southern Colorado, “It’s the one that didn’t get away!”  Conejos County boasts it has nearly 200 miles of trout water, both public and private, and since it’s so far from major population centers, you’ll seldom see anyone else on the stretch of river you’re fishing.

The Great Sand Dunes can be found on the way - or the way back from - the Conejos River.  With the tallest dunes in North America rising about 750 feet, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was established by an act of Congress in 2004.  The park includes 44,246 acres and the preserve protects an additional 41,686 acres.

The Conejos River in southern Colorado, a few miles from the New Mexico border, is a well-kept secret. It’s so secret, in fact, even a lot of the locals don’t know how full of trout it is.

From private waters in the San Luis Valley near the small hamlet of Antonito, to miles and miles of public water below Platoro Dam in beautiful Rio Grande National Forest, the Conejos is jumping with trout that few people will ever discover.

It’s a long way to the Conejos from anywhere — about five hours, 15 minutes and 290 miles from Grand Junction to Antonito; 260 miles, four hours and 15 minutes from Denver to Antonito; 240 miles and four-plus hours from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

That’s one reason the Conejos is so undiscovered.

A second reason: Almost 200 miles of moving water in Conejos County make this one of the most fish-rich areas you will ever find, according to my new buddy Pat, who owns Conejos River Anglers.

The Los Pinos, Adams, La Jara, Archuleta, Chama, Conejos, Rio Grande, Treasure, Middle Fork, South Fork, Lake Fork, Elk, La Manga, Osier, and Cascade Creek are just some of your options. Anglers can really spread out.

A third reason this area is undiscovered is some folks in the San Luis Valley don’t necessarily like those special “Gold Medal Water” designations and the publicity that comes with such great fisheries, so anglers haven’t heard about this area.

Many of the locals are more into “catch and eat,” rather than “catch and release,” which is not a problem in this county where there is an eight-fish daily bag limit on most waters, but it does keep lots of anglers from discovering this gem.

Restrictions do exist on certain reaches of the Conejos River, such as fishing by flies and lures only with a two-fish-over-16-inches bag limit. Make sure you pick up a copy of the 2014 Colorado Fishing Regulations brochure from any Parks and Wildlife office in the state, or any angling shop.

The one angling shop you should visit if you’re going to fish this river is Conejos River Anglers, located on the main road through the area, Colorado Highway 17, at 34591 Colorado 17. The business phone number is 719-376-5660.

Here, you’ll find knowledgeable staff (Pat) and one of the best guides I’ve run across in recent years, a guy named Troy Smith, who has been plying his trade on this river for nearly a decade.

Troy guided a couple of nonlocal anglers last week along a private one-half-mile stretch of the Conejos adjacent to the fly fishing shop on the Elk Meadows Ranch owned by Rhonda and Jimmy Duran.

The Durans are busy folks. They raised three boys on the ranch, and they continue to raise domestic USDA-inspected elk, rent out a cabin on the river for hunters and fishermen, lease the river for fishing, and hold down regular jobs, too. Jimmy is a well-known fabricator in the valley.

Has anyone ever told them they have one of the most fantastic trout fisheries in the world running through their property?

“Well, a guy from Albuquerque came here a couple weeks ago and caught a 26-inch rainbow that he was pretty proud of,” Jimmy said, pointing to a spot next to his house along the river. “They put it on YouTube. You should check it out,” he said, texting the following: ERNEST AND THE RAINBOW, and ERNEST FIGHTS THE 26.

“All caps,” he said.

My buddy Ed Gibbons from Colorado Springs didn’t need YouTube to find the 26-incher. He found it himself using a big, sparkly, black No. 4 Conehead Wooly Bugger. Naturally, I only had an 18-inch net, so we had a heck of a time corralling this beast, and we didn’t get a very good picture.

“That’s the biggest trout I’ve ever hooked,” he exclaimed. “Finally, it’s the one that didn’t get away!”

We caught numerous trout that were longer than 20 inches during a couple of days fishing here. Ed used the big streamer patterns, and I used tiny nymphs — #20s and #22s.

Farther upstream, below Platoro Reservoir, Smith said thousands of brown trout grow to 18 inches in length, especially in an area called “The Meadows,” a few miles downstream from the dam.

A winter storm swirled around us when we were there, and the fishing was cold and slow. The scenery was spectacular, however, and the wildlife abundant with deer, elk and bighorn sheep meandering all over the place.

There are plenty of other things to do here for those non-angling visitors: bird watching and wildlife viewing are fabulous; there’s the historic Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Narrow-Gauge Railroad Train to catch; and on the drive down or on the way back, you can stop at Great Sand Dunes National Park and see how little traffic it receives compared to Colorado National Monument.

One final note: If you want to meet some real fine people while you’re there, call Jimmy or Rhonda Duran at 719-376-2328 and see if you can rent that little cabin on the river. It sleeps four and only costs $100 a night — cheaper than a four-star hotel — and the well-kept-secret of the Conejos River is only 40 steps from your door.


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