A Native Odyssey Blog Post 4: New Mexico Part 2

Public Land:

Carson National Forest and Rio Grande National Forest.

Driving through Valle Vidal. 

Driving through Valle Vidal. 

     One of five National Forests in New Mexico, the Carson National Forest spans 1.5 million acres. Within the National Forest, there are multiple recreation opportunities that visitors can enjoy, from fishing and hiking in the summer to skiing and snowmobiling in the winter. Located throughout the Carson National Forest, there are 400 miles of mountain streams and numerous lakes with fishing access. The Valle Vidal (valley of life) project is one of the main wetland and stream restoration projects that Trout Unlimited, The USFS, and even large corporations like Coca-Cola have contributed to. Revitalizing this stunning stretch of wetlands will produce some top notch native Rio Grande cutthroat fishing opportunities. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog on Valle Vidal.

-       Austin Burroughs

     The Rio Grande National Forest is located in South-Central Colorado. The Rio Grande River begins its epic journey to the Gulf of Mexico within the western portion of the the forest, where snowmelt helps fuel its initial momentum down from the continental divide. Additionally, there are four wilderness areas which attribute to one-quarter of the forest. Along the headwaters of the South Fork of the Rio Grande River on FS Road 360 are multiple campsites with no shortage of river and meadow views. Beyond abundant fishing opportunities, public land users in this area can enjoy off-roading as well as a variety of hikes. The land itself is abundant with life, as several signs bear, deer, and elk were spotted. Land users enjoying this forest will have no shortage of spectacular mountain views.

-       Jacob Lacy

Campsite view of the sun setting on the South Fork of the Rio Grande. 

Campsite view of the sun setting on the South Fork of the Rio Grande. 

Native Trout:

Rio Grande Cutthroat.

Heather with a nice fish about to be released. 

Heather with a nice fish about to be released. 

     Cutthroat trout are the most diverse species of trout in North America, as they cover more waters in the Western Hemisphere than any other trout species. There are fourteen different subspecies of cutthroat, including the Rio Grande. Rio Grande cutthroat trout are a strand representing the southern end of the cutthroat species. This species is located in mountainous headwaters and small streams. They are pursued in New Mexico and Colorado on the Rio Grande, Pecos, and Canadian Rivers, as well as in the Guadalupe and Davis Mountains of Texas.

     Rio Grande cutthroat trout have a distinguished look and can be identified by an assortment of characteristics. Behind the dorsal fin there is a cluster of irregular shaped dots, and in front of the dorsal fin the dots are much more dispersed. Their coloring is light brown, highlighted with pink gills and fins.

     With habitat and population decline, less than 10 percent of their preexisting habitat is now occupied. Currently, the majority of the Rio Grande cutthroat populations have moved from the large rivers they once occupied, to small, high elevation tributaries. This species is now at higher threat from environmental factors such as wild fires and drought, due to the small sections of streams they inhabit, and the lack of room for escape.

     75 percent of the Rio Grande cutthroat population remains genetically pure. Non-native species, such as Rainbow and Brown trout, pose a cross-breeding threat to the remaining genetically pure cutthroats. In order to prevent a mixed-up gene pool, measures have been taken to guarantee their isolation from this threat. Barriers have been created to secure a stable and exclusive location, but in doing so, these barriers have also prevented Rio Grande cutthroat from following their historical migratory patterns of time spent in large rivers.

     In order to properly separate this assortment of trout species, common practices such as electrically shocking fish and placing them in their rightful locations. Michael, with U.S. Forest Service, explained that this practice is also the best way to take fish samples. This science is beneficial because it is efficient, does not cause harm to the species, and leads to unbiased sampling of all the fish in that area.

If you are interested in learning more about Rio Grande cutthroat trout, you can read more about them by following this link. http://www.tu.org/stateofthetrout

-        Heather Harkavy 

Jacob sends back a nice Rio Grande cutty. 

Jacob sends back a nice Rio Grande cutty. 

Our Experience:

High elevation still water.

Just below our campsite at Rio Del Norte National Monument. 

Just below our campsite at Rio Del Norte National Monument. 

     Arriving at camp after the sun goes down always provides a little extra incentive to wake up early the next morning to check out our new surroundings. Our campsite at Rio Del Norte National Monument was no exception. We crawled out of our tents the first morning and were greeted by a jaw-dropping view of the mighty Rio Grande River flowing through an impressive gorge. After a quick camp breakfast of Clif Bars and coffee, we shot up to the small town of Costilla, New Mexico to meet up with TU Staffer Toner Mitchell and USFS Fisheries Biologist Michael Gatlin for a tour of Valle Vidal. Stay tuned for another blog post highlighting our experience in Valle Vidal.

     Per Toner’s recommendation, we woke up the next morning to go fish Columbine Creek to try and check Rio Grande Cutthroats off our list. We hiked roughly 3 miles up the trail searching for smaller water and some relief from the high flows that were ripping through the lower section of the creek. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much fishable water to work with and the Rio Grande cutties eluded us. With high water surrounding us in New Mexico, the decision was made to shoot up to Southern Colorado in search of Rio Grande cutthroat.

     Following a 3-hour drive, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the coolest campsite I have ever experienced in the heart of the Rio Grande National Forest. Nestled at 11,000 feet, our site was in the middle of a large meadow with the headwaters of the South Fork of the Rio Grande meandering behind us. With departure the following afternoon, we had a tight window to cross the Rio Grande cutthroat off our list. Our final morning, we decided to hike up to what we thought was a remote lake high above the valley where we set up camp. Turns out, this “remote lake” is Poage Lake, and is managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife as a Rio Grande cutthroat trout fishery. Unaware to the fact that a forest access road led directly to the lake, we pushed through some of the toughest terrain I have ever experienced. We followed a creek up the steep mountainside that flowed out of Poage Lake and two hours later, we finally made it. Never have I fly fished still water for trout, so the learning curve was steep.

     Sight casting to cruising cutthroat was the name of the game. However, after some difficulties spotting cruising cutthroat, I decided to hedge my bets on a midge dropper beneath a large hopper pattern. It didn’t take long for my foam hopper to twitch in the calm water, indicating a trout had taken my midge pattern below. Seconds later, my first Rio Grande cutthroat was in the net and the pressure to catch this native species had subsided. By the skin of our teeth, we squeezed by and all caught our Rio Grande cutthroat, the most challenging native trout thus far.

-        Brett Winchel

 

Brett eyes a good one at Poage Lake.

Brett eyes a good one at Poage Lake.