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New Mexico: Home to cowboys & cutthroats

QUESTA, N.M. — Trout anglers are always searching for the ideal trout stream.

This perfect river would flow cold and clear, be off the beaten path and hold populations of big and wild trout. For a topper, wouldn't it be nice if this river ran through a verdant caldera, home to extinct volcanoes?

There is such a spot, tucked away in the middle of nowhere where anglers can get away from the madding crowds and fish for rare trout.

Even though New Mexico's Valle Vidal is remote and isolated, a trip to the region is worth the effort. And it does take some doing. That's why it's not overrun with other recreationists.

You have to want to go to the Valle Vidal; it's not something you pass through on the way somewhere else.

The Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest consists of 100,000 acres between the villages of Cimarron and Costilla.

Valle Vidal is a large grassy bowl rimmed by small rolling mountains covered in aspen and fir. Wildlife abounds in the unit, everything from rattlesnakes to elk, bison to bear, deer to the aforementioned wild trout.

Several trout streams run through this caldera, but the two blue ribbons you'll want to concentrate on are Comanche Creek and its bigger sister, Rio Costilla. Their confluence, with Comanche Peak standing sentinel over the junction, is the stuff postcards are made of.

Anglers will be rewarded with some of the best angling for wild cutthroats anywhere in the Southwest.

New Mexico Game and Fish electroshocking surveys show that more than 4,000 trout per mile inhabit these waters.

The fish you're after? The rare Rio Grande cutthroat.

The Rio Grande cutthroat is the prettiest fish you'll ever catch.

Its sides are splashed in aqua-green and royal purple. Its gills have been painted with iridescent blood-red slashes.

In the water, against the pebbly bottom, it is invisible. In your hand, it's a wiggling Monet.

In the bigger water, these fish average about 11 to 15 inches long. In the lesser water, they'll go 8 to 12 inches. You will catch Rio Grande cutts, rainbows and hybrids of these species.

Regulations protect the cutthroats and it's a good thing, too. Rio Grande cutthroats inhabit less than 7 percent of their original habitat.

Valle Vidal is a quirky place to fish. The low-slung green mountains that rise gently up from the caldera through which the Rio Costilla runs will remind you of Paradise Valley in Yellowstone National Park.

The fishing season doesn't begin until July 1 in order to protect the spawning cutthroats.

You'll see thousands of grasshoppers on the banks and in the fields. You might hear anecdotes about longrodders catching 50 cutts on a Dave's hopper.

But the guides will tell you that another quirk of this fine fishery is that in spite of the hot fishing days and plentiful juicy insects, you might go all day and not catch a fish if you're not in tune with the fishery.

Guide Doc Thompson of High Country Anglers spends more days on the Costilla than just about any other angler year in and year out and he says this on-and-off switch is common on the Valle Vidal.

When things are hot, fishing is like a "Nolan Ryan fastball," he said. And when things turn off, "Well, they've thrown you the changeup."

The cutts can be aggressive during hatches. But at other times, you'll swear there's not a trout in the stream. Anglers can't get by without watching for the changing river scene.

If you find that the trout have turned off, take inventory of things. Lengthen your leader; try skinnier tippet; go smaller with your fly pattern; add a dropper; and try stalking instead of fishing so erect and noisy from the bank casting a big ol' shadow.

You can always catch a few cutts on the Rio Costilla, but not if you don't pay attention.

If you believe your fly is the right one at the right size and all you are catching are small cutts or the trout are far and few between, it's likely you're not getting your fly in front of the fish.

Tie on a beadhead and swing it under the cut banks.

Here's the rub: These beadheads tied as droppers don't get back under the banks as far as you think.

A 14-inch dropper won't sink straight down 14 inches nor will it extend horizontally 14 inches. The banks go back two or three feet in places.

So tie an extra long tippet on and work the banks hard, making sure to swing the fly under the bank. You'll be surprised at the results.

Discovering the right fly and putting it in front of the trout are not the only considerations on the Costilla.

"There is very little need to wade the Costilla," Thompson cautions.

"I recommend approaching the stream in predator mode, squatting if possible, but keeping a low profile. You don't want to spook these cautious trout with your noisy footfalls or by casting a long shadow."

Thompson also warns that "even walking along the bank from one good spot to another will spook the trout as you will scare up trout from under the cut banks and they will taint pools up and down stream from you.

"Take a wide berth, away from the water, as you move from one hole to another."

The meadow sections require the most stealth and perfect presentations.

"Fish a leader finer than you think you need," Thompson advises. "These fish will rise but usually you'll need good presentations and thinner leaders."

I recommend going later in the week since irrigation flows usually run Thursday through Sunday. I like the lower water even though the angling requires longer leaders and more caution.

When the water is released from the dam, the low clear water temporarily turns roily and chocolate milklike and then quickly settles back down. This high water is fishable but more manageable after it clears.

The Rio Costilla usually has good flows from July to September, because irrigation needs ensure consistent flows. After September, flows are reduced but so are the numbers of anglers.

Fall can offer some of the best fishing of the year, albeit in low water conditions.

Comanche Creek is a step-across stream snaking through open fields, a tiny trickle of water that at first looks like it doesn't even hold trout. Bully for you. It does. Let others bypass this gem.

That's the beauty of this narrow meandering creek: No one bothers to fish it.

The Comanche holds plenty of Rio Grande cutthroats ranging from fit-in-your-palm size to "Wow-I-had-no-idea-that-size-fish-lurked-in-here" size. Roughly translated, that means the fish range from six inches to fourteen inches.

Fish Comanche as stealthily as you would if you were stealing your sister's diary while she sleeps or you'll quickly be discovered.

One trick is cast from several feet back off the stream, letting your last two or three feet of tippet drop softly on the water but the butt end fall on the grass.

Stay low and off the water, look for the deepest holes and the most undercut banks. Oh yeah, if you fish the upstream from where the paralleling road departs, the wind can really kick up.

Shuree Ponds are best fished with nymphs and streamers. Some anglers make the long drive into Valle Vidal just to fish these lakes.

The water is clear and the big trout look like cruising submarines. The rainbows and hybrid Rio Grande cutthroat in Shuree Ponds dwarf those you'll have been catching in the river. Some anglers make the trip into Valle Vidal just to go after these behemoths.

Only a mile from Cimarron Campground, two of the five lakes hold trout. Most anglers set their sights on the big lake (more pond than lake), the one right by the parking area.

The second lake is just a short walk away and not usually as crowded. You can fish easily from the shore but if you are of a mind to get out in the lakes, you can paddle a canoe or float in a belly boat.

Troll with woolly buggers. Cast and retrieve with damselfly or dragonfly nymphs. If fish are rising, bring out the caddis and midge patterns.

To get to Shuree Ponds, follow the signs on Forest Road 1950. All waters in Valle Vidal, including Shuree Ponds, are managed as special trout water. You can't fish the lakes until July 1 and you must release any fish you catch. But these trout are big.

Where Latir Creek enters the Rio Costilla to the end of the New Mexico Fish and Game Lease, regulations are standard, open for year-round angling. It's mostly canyon water. Lots of deep holes, dark green water, productive pocket water. If you like dunking worms or tossing big spoons or Rooster Tails, this is your kind of water.

Latir Creek and the Latir Lakes are a nice side trip.

Latir Creek is no more than three feet wide, but the clear little stream holds lots of Rio Grande cutts that rise splashily to dry flies.

The shack at the mouth of Latir Creek isn't open all that often, but you can also buy your permits from the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association office in Costilla or by calling (800) 746-7275. It costs anglers a fee of $7 per day to fish. Rio Costilla Park is open May 15-Sept. 7.

The Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association asks that visitors do not litter or go off the designated roads, and always pack out what you pack in. For more information on the Rio Costilla Park, you can also call (505) 586-0542.

The upper forks of the Costilla flow into Costilla Reservoir and these fisheries are on legendary and private Vermejo Park Ranch. The cost approaches $400 day per person per day to fish these amazing waters and includes lodging. To fish on Vermejo Park Ranch, call (505) 445-3097 or visit its Web site.

Mark D. Williams is a free-lance writer and author in Amarillo, Texas, and is writing a book about the top 250 fishing locales in the world. He can be contacted at mdwtrout@aol.com.