One Day on the Pecos

In a couple of months I hope to revisit northern New Mexico. Four years ago I enjoyed a fishing camp-out on the headwaters of the Pecos River in the southern Rocky Mountains. Beautiful country, wild and scenic. Last summer I returned but had only partial success. My wife and I were staying downstate with her father. The Las Alamos fires were raging due to the scant rainfall in the region. When the infernos cooled I made an end-run past them, traveling north of Santa Fe, thinking that the national forests had been reopened. I was wrong.

It’s a big jump moving from Alamogordo and the harshness of the White Sands wilderness to the lush coniferous forests in northern New Mexico. It’s a move from the waterless blue to the rivertops of the American Southwest, from tremendous dust storms to the breezy whirlwinds of a fishing fantasy. Little did I know that the fire danger had remained “extreme,” that the public would be denied access to the forest regions till the “monsoon” rains, long overdue, finally moved across the mountains.

Having driven as far as I did, my options were few. All public campgrounds were off-limits. If I stayed a night or two in a private campground in the foothills I could fish the Pecos next morning down below the national forest lands. The river had some fine looking water in it, and I was bone-dry ready.

Mice and lizards of the White Sands wilderness have evolved an off-white camouflage in order to survive in an incredibly hot and dry region. I thought of them as I suited up in fishing shorts and sandals at the river, happy that my own adjustment got accomplished in a matter of hours rather than eons. I gained entry to the river under watchful eyes. The water was low, clear and cold. A small Latino boy observed me from the bank beside a private camping area. He dashed off but returned with a plastic fishing pole and reel. He made awkward casting motions. I imagined him throwing the oversized bobber so it bounced right off my fishing hat. When his parents joined him at the bank they asked me what kind of flies I was using. “Dries,” I answered. “Stimulators, Adams, Elkhair Caddis.” The elders nodded in approval. The Elkhair was their favorite on the Pecos.

The river poured itself, pool by riffle, past a steep and arid ridge. It poured gently from the heaven of a wilderness beyond, and I thought of how I almost missed it. Had I learned of the forest closings while down in Alamogordo, I would not have come. It felt good being here. My first two fish were rainbows caught near the bridge. After that, it was wild browns all the way. From my camp-out a few years earlier, I knew that the native Rio Grande cutthroat could be found in the back country of the headwaters. After I released my twentieth brown trout of the morning, a hefty and colorful specimen, it was almost time to leave.

I probably could’ve done better, not that I was complaining. I’d been moving lightly, with a minimum of flies and gear. One pod of browns that I encountered was selectively feeding on the surface and refusing my offerings. Had I brought a creme-colored spinner fly I might’ve had the ticket, but traveling this way you can’t be prepared for every conceivable situation. It’s part of the cost for fishing quietly in a beautiful location. If I couldn’t get into that “blank spot on the map” (Aldo Leopold) beyond me at the headwaters, there was enough joy and challenge to be found nearby. Enough for one day, and enough to call me back again.

About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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8 Responses to One Day on the Pecos

  1. wwbjr1 says:

    Thank you.

  2. emblock says:

    Beautiful…it’s good to be in the backcountry again, eh?

  3. Fred B says:

    I lived in Alamogordo for 2 years and swam in the Pecos…in Carlsbad, a far cry from what the headwaters look like! It’s nice to read about it.

    • Fred, An interesting connection! My father-in-law and his wife live in Alamagordo (as of the last 10 or 12 years) and we’ll be visiting again this summer. Indeed, the Pecos of Carlsbad and the Pecos of the headwaters are worlds apart. Each of them intrigues me in a different way. Did you work in Alamogordo?


      • Fred B says:

        I did wildlife field work on Fort Bliss, we “commuted” from Alamogordo (or AlamoGodNo, as we used to say). There are beautiful, varied Chihuahuan Desert habitats there – from mesquite dunes, sand sage flats, whitethorn acacia benches, to short-grass prairie. Favorite hangouts were Karr Canyon near Cloudcroft (look for red-faced warblers!), Sunspot Highway, birding Rattlesnake Springs and the Guadalupes. That was 15 years ago – haven’t been back since, sadly.

      • Thanks Fred. I will look for Karr Canyon (we typically visit Cloudcroft) and its red-faced warblers (saw my first of the species last summer in the Gilas), finally check-out Sunspot, and look for Rattlesnake Springs. If you haven’t seen my post, “Dog Canyon Hike,” you might find it interesting with its views of “Alamo-GodNo”, etc.


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