Fish The Ditches

Break out the Forest Service maps to track down overlooked spring-fed creeks in northern New Mexico. (May 2007)

Photo by Don Vachini

Brown trout are most common but brook are caught in a bunch of little rivers that head off to the east from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

I was so determined to fish "big name" spots that I would drive by the smaller streams without giving them a second glance.

On my first trip to Wyoming, I wasted precious fishing time by being determined to catch a Snake River cutthroat on the actual Snake River. I drove through the Salt River Valley without slowing down.

The Snake was as beautiful as ever, but loaded with like-minded anglers. Every public access from Palisades to Jackson was crowded with folks who looked like they were in a photo shoot for an Orvis catalog.

Two fishless days later, I decided to give the Salt a try. The sign said I could keep one fish longer than 19 inches and three under 11 inches.

Skunked in the Upper Snake, I didn't have much confidence in this smaller and lesser-known tributary. Was I ever wrong!

In short order, I filled my limit and then released big, beautiful Snake River cutthroats till the sun melted into Idaho. That experience and many more like it have turned me into a big fan of fishing lesser-known tributary streams -- "fishing the ditches," I call it -- that many anglers ignore completely.

Here in my home state of New Mexico, that often means fishing streams so small that many folks think I'm crazy...

Until they see the fish I catch.

SEEK SPRINGS

The tiny streams that trickle out of the high country offer several advantages over the famous rivers they merge into. Besides the solitude you'll find while fishing these no-name creeks, the action is almost always faster. And in some cases, the chance of catching a real trophy is better.

There are a few reasons for this:

'¢ More consistent water quality: Small streams are spring-fed, as well as less affected by run-off from thunderstorms, which brings muddy water at lower elevations.

'¢ Less pressure from anglers: Fish may live longer, get bigger and still remain easier to catch.

In the southern Rocky Mountain States, the last decade has been marked by "-est" weather -- hottest, coldest, wettest, driest. Each extreme has come on the heels of the preceding one. A prolonged drought was broken by a wet winter, followed by another dry spell, which was interrupted by the strongest monsoon season on record.

Those climate changes have affected wildlife behavior in ways that will keep biologists busy for years, analyzing data and counting tree rings. But if you're more interested in the immediate effect of climate changes on your outdoor pursuits, here's my take on where to find trout now -- and how to catch them.

CHANGING RIVERS

The Rio Grande north of Espanola, N.M., has been a trout stream for as long as anyone can remember. I've lived on its banks for 41 years, and speak from personal experience when I tell you that things are changing on our country's second-longest river.

In recent years, anglers have been reporting unusual catches: giant Northern pike, various types of panfish and most notably, increasing numbers of smallmouth bass in waters traditionally dominated by rainbows and browns. I personally have gone from catching one or two bass among hundreds of trout each season to a ratio of about 50:50.

The reasons for this are not totally clear, but the strange weather patterns are definitely part of it. Extended drought and warmer temperatures have lowered both water flows and oxygen levels in many streams. The result is high concentrations of baitfish, crustaceans and insects, as well as lower numbers of traditional cold-water predators.

Add to the mix extended periods of muddy, silt-laden water resulting from powerful thunderstorms, and the result is a struggling trout population.

Enter the scrappy smallmouth. Much more tolerant of less-than-ideal water conditions, this opportunistic predator has moved steadily upstream in ever-increasing numbers, thriving on plentiful food supplies.

While not necessarily a bad thing -- especially since these red-eyed savages grow larger each year -- it leaves many hardcore trout nuts worried about the future, and wondering where to go.

HEAD UPSTREAM

For those willing to work a little harder for a chance at lunker trout, the news is not entirely bad. In fact, finding them has gotten a little easier. But catching them has become a bit more challenging.

Unstable conditions at lower elevations have caused many trout to stay year 'round in smaller tributary streams that they formerly used mostly as spawning grounds.

Another theory is that they were there all along, but the "big name" syndrome meant that they were left alone, unnoticed.

Generally, these underfished waters are the result of several small springs coming together to form an isolated high-country creek. Since they are spring-fed, they offer reliable year-round water.

I have caught every species of trout locally available in these tiny creeks, but fall-spawning, self-reproducing trout such as browns and Eastern brook trout are most common.

Rainbows are spring-spawners, with virtually no surviving fry, and native Rio Grande cutthroat are becoming increasingly rare.

In these cramped creeks, you'll find many small- to medium-size fish competing for food. It takes talent to get your lure in front of the big boys before being smacked by aggressive juveniles. No doubt that's a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless for those hunting fish that are measured in pounds, not inches.

You'll find the big fish in small streams by locating habitat. Find a deep hole with a nice overhanging rock or tree root, and you've probably found the home of a big fish.

These hook-jawed bruisers will find a spot to their liking, with reliable water and sufficient cover, and then stay there. They defend their turf from pesky newcomers. And that's a key fact when trying to get them to bite: Play on their territorial instincts.

Most of

the larger fish I've caught in small streams have been enticed only after dozens of casts into the same promising-looking hole. Often, I'll have caught one or two smaller fish from the spot before the top dog decides to get rid of my lure once and for all.

These big fish strike out of irritation. For this reason, I rely almost entirely on spinners, though some streamer patterns work just as well for these high-country outings.

Another important tactic to hook a big one is stealth. You can't pound along the bank like a marching band and expect these fish to cooperate. When learning a new stretch of water, I will often walk a mile or more downstream while staying several yards away from the bank, scouting likely holes and runs. I make it a point to look for big fish holding in likely areas, then quietly walk past, mentally marking the spot.

When satisfied that I've covered enough ground, I fish my way back upstream slowly and methodically, carefully circling each hole so as to approach it without spooking fish working the riffles above or below.

As mentioned above, if a hole looks extra-good, I'll work it long after the smaller fish have stopped hitting, trying to "tease" the dominant fish into striking.

THE LITTLE RIO GRANDE

I began learning these techniques a few years back after I kept getting skunked at my favorite spots.

Once, I planned a fishing outing weeks in advance, cleared it with my boss, my family and other powers that be. I was a free man, for a day of fishing my beloved Rio Grande with no guilt laid at my feet.

Arriving at the river before dawn, I knew something was wrong. Riffles that were ordinarily gentle sounded like roaring rapids in the darkness. Although it hadn't rained in the vicinity, I feared that a previous afternoon's thunderstorm somewhere upstream would ruin my day.

As the sun came up it confirmed my suspicions. The river was the color and consistency of a high-dollar cup of coffee. But I wasn't about to give up. I drove a few miles upstream to the nearest tributary, a conglomerate of the rivers draining the Sangre de Cristo range around Taos.

Depending on which map you are looking at, this steep and deep section of trout water is called either the Rio Pueblo, or the Little Rio Grande, which name the locals prefer. The stream was clear as could be, so I unpacked my gear and got started.

Fishing the Little Rio Grande calls for a healthy dose of boulder-climbing skills, along with the patience of a Santo. You'll spend a good deal of time untangling your line from the thick brush on both sides of the stream. (I never said this was going to be easy!)

The rewards are well worth it, though, to those wanting to hook a totally wild trout with a few years experience in his spotted head.

Armed with a 6-foot spinning rod and knowledge of the difficulties awaiting me, I headed up the narrow canyon, fishing from pool to pool, since the terrain was just too rough to try sneaking past and fishing back down. At first, I tried presenting standard spinners and spoons to visible fish in the clear water, but had little success.

After several failed attempts, I began to get the hang of it, making "blind" casts into holes while hiding behind whatever cover was available.

At first, it was a whole lot of "Wham! Fish on! Darn! Fish off!" I needed some way to see what I was doing, without spooking the inhabitants of the pool.

Gradually I developed my sneak-and-cast skills to the point where I can now land at least half the fish that strike my lure, including the occasional 16-incher.

All told, I covered less than a mile that day and hooked upwards of 20 fish. That's easily three times as many as I would have on the big river, even under ideal conditions. That day, coupled with my Wyoming experience, made me take a long, hard look at my favorite fishing spots.

FIND YOUR SPOT

Tributaries are not hard to find. Check out a U.S. Forest Service map to locate multitudes of potentially fishable streams. After that, legwork comes into play. These easy-to-manage streams are often diverted for irrigation, and some no longer reach the main river.

Don't be put off by a stream that disappears into some farmer's alfalfa field. These are exactly the kind of creeks that get overlooked by 99 percent of anglers, leaving headwater fish to grow fatter, year after year.

Consider my personal favorites, all of which drain into the Rio Grande from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east. From the Colorado line south to Espanola, you will find:

'¢ Rio Costilla

'¢ Red River

'¢ Hondo, also called Twining Creek

'¢ Little Rio Grande, also called Rio Pueblo

'¢ Rio Embudo, and

'¢ Rio Santa Cruz.

These six streams all branch off many times before turning into fishless seeps way above timberline. A person systematically trying to cover all the fishable water that these drainages encompass would have his life's work in front of him. (But what a life that would be!)

If you can't block off a few years to devote to these waters, check out the following waters for easy access and proven results:

'¢ Santa Cruz headwaters above Santa Cruz reservoir

'¢ Rio Frijoles

'¢ Rio en Medio

'¢ Rio Quemado

These creeks are ruled by browns and Rio Grande cutthroats, providing excellent fishing all the way to the headwaters high in the Pecos Wilderness. Just six years ago, the state-record rainbow trout -- a 31-pound behemoth -- was caught in tiny Santa Cruz Reservoir.

Further north, in the Carson National Forest, Rio Chiquito and Rito De La Olla, also called Pot Creek, are loaded with brown trout that don't see a lot of pressure.

All the streams listed above have excellent opportunity for the angler willing to try a little harder, walk a little farther, fish a little smarter.

TACKLE

In the majority of the streams where bait is allowed, nothing beats the good old earthworm on a No. 8 hook, fished about 18 inches below a single small split shot. Later in the season, a grasshopper drifted weightless under cut banks or other structure is deadly. Imitation patterns work well in lieu of the real thing, and I often use a No. 8 Joe's Hopper when the real thing is not abundant. Black and red ant patterns work well, too.

A short, medium-action spinning rod is the ticket on these small, brush-lined creeks.

Bring an assortment of small spinners, ball-bearing swivels, and make sure your reel has new, high-quality 8- to 10-pound-test line. If you're determined to land a big one, you should crimp down the barbs on your hooks. No doubt you will catch a lot of smaller ones while looking for those big trout living in the ditches.

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