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