Winter finally arrived here with a blast of snow and ice, and after dealing with it on the roads and driveways all day long, I was ready to sit back with a recollection of New Mexico’s summery “Land of Enchantment.” For my first stop, come along as I reflect on my encounter with the Rio Grande cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki virginalis) in the rivertops of northern New Mexico.
The Rio Grande is a relatively rare subspecies found in a few headwater streams of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Several years ago, and again last summer following the inferno near Los Alamos, I visited the upper Pecos River in the high Sangre de Christos range. I pitched a small tent underneath snow-capped Pecos Baldy and descended into a canyon with a 7-foot fly rod in my grasp. The stream that I found was home to a pure population of Rio Grandes, a threatened trout which anglers can pursue with artificial lures and a catch-and-release ethos.
The stream was clogged with brush and fallen trees, but the flow was cold and relatively deep. I found a few small pools to cast a fly on and then quickly made connections. The trout were deeply spotted, especially toward the tail, with bright orange streaks at the gills and on the ventral fins. Each release brought a flush of satisfaction. Later, with the onset of darkness, I climbed back out of the canyon. Every evening during my stay, I found myself sitting on a log near my tent, scribbling notes that eventually made their way into my book Sand & Sage. I wrote while savoring “the taste of whisky from a blue tin cup.”
The wild canyon was difficult to fly fish and I was probably foolish to try it alone, but life is short, and golden opportunities don’t often appear on your mental screen. At one point in the canyon I observed a male western tanager perched above the creek. Through small binoculars I noted the songbird’s orange and red coloration on the head and face, the yellow body that enclosed black-and-white wings. The bird seemed to be a feathered complement to the beautiful cutthroats I’d been catching.
A few days later I was camped across the big divide on the sparkling waters of the Rio Santa Barbara. A trail from my tent site led upstream for miles along the small river. Most of the trout near camp were wild browns competing with the Rio Grande cutthroats for available food. To reach the best cutthroat water I would need to hike four miles to the high country through what one writer described as “the wildest and most beautiful river canyon in New Mexico.” And that’s what I did. It’s still pleasant to think back to the West Fork’s pristine headwaters where this special cutthroat trout still symbolizes, for me, the awesome splendor of the southern Rockies.