My canine companion on the trail to adventure. Photography ©Brian Nelson.

Fly Fishing for Cutthroats

In New Mexico’s Backcountry

by Brian Nelson

It was the series of cascading twenty-to-thirty-foot waterfalls that first drew my attention to a particular backcountry creek in the Northern New Mexico wilderness, but when I learned that this same creek was one of the few remaining natural habitats of the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, I made sure to throw a seven-foot, three-weight fly rod into the kit for the day.

For many who fish, the draw to the sport lies in landing one of the river monsters described in the lore of anglers past. One approach to landing a behemoth of the blue is sticking to the tried-and-true hotspots, and sharing these spots with others is almost a certainty.

This particular angler finds no glory in crowded riverbeds, even if they do produce leg-sized rainbow trout. Whether real or imagined, the sensation of others breathing down your neck as you strive to place that perfect cast does little to invoke the deep connection to nature and provide the break from the outside world sought by at least some of us who wade through rivers, fishing pole in hand. For me, the adventure lies off the beaten path, or sometimes where there is no path at all. Tracking down those meandering blue lines on a topo map to find what hidden gems may lie in the backcountry provides a day of guaranteed solitude and solace.

Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout
A Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout caught in a high elevation pool on a #12 tan bodied elk hair caddis dry fly. Photography ©Brian Nelson.
Monkshead, aconitum variegatum, in full bloom along the hiking route.
Monkshead, aconitum variegatum, in full bloom along the hiking route. Photography ©Brian Nelson.

And so I found myself winding down an unmarked forest service road, hunting for the GPS coordinate I had set in my tracking app to mark the beginning of my carefully crafted route toward waterfalls and the home of New Mexico’s state fish. My chosen entry point was the result of two previous scouting trips via truck, during which I worked to gain an understanding of the lay of the land and available road access. Upon arrival, I parked and began the hike in. As is common in the forests of the West, the terrain was diverse. Aspen-lined meadows soon gave way to a mass of conifers as I made my way, navigating over saddles and around the deep arroyos that provide drainage to the two forks of the small mountain creek toward which I headed. I kept a close eye on my location via a map and tracking app; these same drainages and dense forest are the makings of getting lost.

A cairn along a trail.
A lone cairn upon the saddle between two ridges is all that remains of this trail from years past. Photography ©Brian Nelson.

The Rio Grande cutthroat trout (RGCT) is a beautiful fish. Green and bronze scales are accented by dark spotting patterns and the namesake fire-red marking along the jawbone. Its habitat is the high mountain headwater streams and lakes that provide the cold, clean water and ample cover trout require to thrive. Once a prolific species, RGCT now occupy only 12 percent of their historic range. Competition and interbreeding with nonnative trout species, as well as the impact of drought and wildfire, have contributed to their widespread habitat loss. In New Mexico, the Department of Game & Fish has worked tirelessly to preserve the eighty-nine genetically specific populations of Rio Grande cutthroat found across the state, both through breeding programs and habitat restoration centered on the removal of nonnative species from the waters RGCT populations call home.

The Rio Grande cutthroat trout (RGCT) is a beautiful fish. Green and bronze scales are accented by dark spotting patterns and the namesake fire-red marking along the jawbone. Its habitat is the high mountain headwater streams and lakes that provide the cold, clean water and ample cover trout require to thrive. Once a prolific species, RGCT now occupy only 12 percent of their historic range. Competition and interbreeding with nonnative trout species, as well as the impact of drought and wildfire, have contributed to their widespread habitat loss. In New Mexico, the Department of Game & Fish has worked tirelessly to preserve the eighty-nine genetically specific populations of Rio Grande cutthroat found across the state, both through breeding programs and habitat restoration centered on the removal of nonnative species from the waters RGCT populations call home.

The experience of catching this rare species in the depths of New Mexico’s wilderness, with no other human within a radius measured in miles, is what drives me to the backcountry, fly rod in tote.

My own journey to fish for the Land of Enchantment’s unique cutthroats was as beautiful as it was successful. The casting was tight, and I often took a creative approach, but this is commonplace in small backcountry streams. As for the fish are themselves, I found them hungry and eager to strike at a variety of dry fly patterns. Though small in stature (mine ranged between six and ten inches), their coloring and behavior were splendidly wild. The experience of catching this rare species in the depths of New Mexico’s wilderness, with no other human within a radius measured in miles, is what drives me to the backcountry, fly rod in tote. Here the fish small but fierce, the streams cold and narrow, and the landscapes are just as beautiful as they are wild.

Backcountry Tips

  • Bring a GPS and topographical map to track your location.
  • Pack extra food, water and clothing layers for all weather conditions.
  • Tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back.
  • Leave No Trace: Pack It In, Pack It Out.
  • Scout your route ahead of time.
Brian Nelson
Contributor

Brian Nelson is a freelance writer, editor, musician and educator based in Glorieta, New Mexico. He is the co-founder and artistic director of Queen Bee Music Association and a contributor for the online music publication Rootfire.

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