American Fly Fishing

Cutthroat under Historic Skies
By Brian Maiorino

Comanche Creek is located in the northernmost part of the Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest. The creek itself is only 10 miles from the Colorado state line, just a stone’s throw away if you have a strong arm. Surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the wide open vistas look more like those found farther north in Wyoming or Montana. The combination of stunning topography as well as abundant rainbows and Rio Grande cutthroat makes fishing Comanche Creek a truly extraordinary experience.
   The Folsom people, who lived here more than 10,000 years ago, were the first known inhabitants of the region. As hunter-gatherers, they survived on the native vegetation while hunting a now extinct species of bison that once roamed the vast expanses of land. Jicarilla Apaches settled in the Valle Vidal by the 1500s, following the herds of bison and antelope. Later, the marauding Comanche forced the Jicarilla out of the area. The Spanish laid claim to the land in the mid-1500s.
   After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican Governor Manuel Armijo granted almost 2 million acres in northern New Mexico to Guadalupe Miranda and Carlos Beaubien, whose daughter, Luz, married Lucien Maxwell, a guide with Kit Carson. Following Beaubien’s death, Lucien and Luz bought out the other heirs and amassed more than 1.7 million acres of land. In 1866, the property was sold to the Maxwell Land Grant and Railway Company. William Bartlett, a grain speculator from Chicago, bought the parcel in 1902 and named it Vermejo Park. It served as a getaway for the rich and famous, including Herbert Hoover and Cecil B. DeMille. Pennzoil bought the park in 1973 in hopes of discovering fossil fuels, but when the search for oil proved futile, the company donated 100,000 acres to open the land to the public as the Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest.


Places to Stay For a short day trip from Taos to Comanche Creek, travel north on US Highway 64 and turn north on State Route 522. Take a right on State Route 196 to Amalia and continue another 13 miles south to Comanche Point. The 62-mile, one-way trip from Taos is well worth it for those who prefer the comforts of modern lodgings. However, to truly experience Comanche Creek and the Valle Vidal, consider camping. Sleeping under the stars where Paleo-Indians, Spanish explorers, and Kit Carson roamed is a singularly rewarding experience. 
   The closest place to stay and fully immerse yourself in the grandeur surrounding Comanche Creek and the Valle Vidal is Carson National Forest, which offers tent camping, RV connections, and rental cabins. Costs range from $5 a night for basic tent camping to $150 dollars a night for a cabin. Different camping options offer different conveniences, including fire pits, picnic tables, toilets, and running water. For the more adventurous visitors, backcountry backpacking is permitted in certain parts of Carson National Forest. The primary advantage of camping, of course, is that you can wake up right next to one of the numerous creeks and streams.
   Another option for fly anglers is to stay at Rio Costilla Park. Owned and operated by the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association, Rio Costilla Park lies just west of the Valle Vidal Unit boundary on State Route 196. The park offers 40 campsites throughout its 10,000 acres of mountains, meadows, lakes, and streams. Entrance to the park is $20 per vehicle per day, which includes an overnight stay. For an additional $7 a day, you can fish in the park. Rio Costilla Park is open from May 1 through September 7.
   Because of drought in recent years, forest fires have been active in the area surrounding Comanche Creek. Fire restrictions banning the use of open flame have been implemented frequently for most of the Carson National Forest, so call ahead for information and plan accordingly.


Creeks to Conquer
Starting at an elevation of 10,400 feet, Comanche Creek bends, twists, and tumbles its way north, passing by igneous formations for 12 miles before joining the Rio Costilla at an elevation of 8,940 feet. Other tributaries of the Rio Costilla include Cordova, Casias, Latir, Ute, and Sanchez creeks. Flowing northwest, the waters form part of the larger upper Rio Grand watershed. Just north of the New Mexico/Colorado state line, the Rio Costilla meets with the Rio Grande to flow south, eventually reaching the Gulf of Mexico.
   At first glance, Comanche Creek—only a few feet wide in places—looks too small to land a fly in. More than likely, many anglers have passed this creek without bothering to string up their rods or even giving it a second look. But for the fly fisher who can deliver careful, precise casts, rewards await in Comanche Creek. 
   Rio Grande cutthroat and rainbows both reside in the narrow waterway. At first glance, the creek may appear devoid of trout, but a hasty preliminary examination of Comanche Creek is usually misleading. Because the stream is so small, the trout head for cover long before any eager angler with rod in hand makes it to water’s edge. In a stream that appears to offer no place to hide, the fish are beyond elusive. A combination of stealthy hunting tactics, accurate casts, and disciplined patience will greatly improve your chances of landing one. Stand back from the stream while casting to avoid being spotted by these easily spooked fish. Stealth is key in the cat-and-mouse game between angler and Comanche Creek trout.
   Due to their skittishness, most fish are found in deeper parts of the creek along the water’s edge. An angler who concentrates on these areas will find the hidden cutthroat and rainbows. Because of the modest size of Comanche Creek, a small rig works best; use floating line with an 8- to 10-foot leader and 4X tippet. The smallest hint of your presence will send the trout even deeper into hiding. Elk Hair Caddis and beadhead nymphs have proven successful in Comanche Creek, and a Parachute Adams, parachute ant, or any one of a variety of nymph patterns would also be a good choice for the end of your line. The key is to stay small, using hooks between size 14 and 22. A 3- or 4-weight fly rod really gives a taste of the massive fight in these relatively small fish. When hooked, they pack a punch that rewards anglers tenfold for their patience and persistence.


Restoration and Conservation
Only a few years ago, the number of native Rio Grande cutthroat trout was so small that in 2008, the US Fish and Wildlife Service added it to the list of candidate species, meaning cutthroat were one step away from being listed as endangered and protected by the Endangered Species Act. Fishing for cutthroat in the Valle Vidal might have become a thing of the past. Because of excessive runoff from nearby roads, sediment levels were rising in Comanche Creek and other waterways. Compounding the problem was erosion of stream banks caused by elk and livestock crossing the creeks. The added sediment in the water absorbed sunlight, thus raising the water temperature and creating an uninhabitable environment for the trout. It was also believed that the runoff carried toxic metals into the waterways.
   Not wanting to stand by idly, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and groups of volunteers have come together in hopes of restoring the habitat and the population of Rio Grande cutthroat. Carson National Forest management has been joined by the New Mexico Environment Department, New Mexico Trout, the Taos Soil and Water Conservation District, Trout Unlimited, the Boy Scouts of America, and other like-minded organizations to implement plans to reduce the amount of sediment entering Comanche Creek from soil erosion.
   A key project was diverting a 300-foot section of Comanche Creek to create a buffer between the stream and a nearby road to decrease the amount of runoff. Also, rock baffles have been installed where the stream cuts into eroding banks. These piles of large rocks slow the flow of water, reducing the cut into the bank and allowing vegetation to stabilize the soil. Other sections of Comanche Creek are now being protected by fences that keep wildlife and domestic livestock from trampling the soil and vegetation along the creek banks. 
   The Ville Vidal Grazing Association, comprising cattle and sheep ranchers, follows herding methods developed to protect the Comanche Creek watershed. Such practices involve rotating livestock herds to different tracts of land to limit grazing time in each area, thus providing recovery periods for streamside vegetation and minimizing soil compaction. This approach has been beneficial for both the livestock and the trout. It provides more pasturage for sheep, cattle, and elk while limiting sediment in the creeks, protecting the aquatic habitat of the Rio Grande cutts.
   Complementing habitat management, the Seven Springs Hatchery, operated by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, raises cutthroat for stockings, which should ensure the species’ survival.
   Efforts to restore the native habitat and conserve the population of Rio Grande cutthroat have been generally successful, even though there has been some resistance. Overall, runoff-impeding ground cover is filling in and some, but not all, populations of native fish have shown increases. Still, plants along Comanche Creek have reduced the amount of sediment entering the waterway, so the temperature of the creek has fallen and improved the habitat. Amounts of metals found in analyzed water samples have also decreased.
   The largest challenge to the Rio Grande cutthroat today comes from other trout. Cutthroat and rainbows crossbreed, resulting in hybrid cuttbow offspring that have the characteristics of a rainbow but with the red and orange marking found below the jaw on cutthroat. Cuttbows are fertile hybrids with the ability to spawn, and some consider their presence a threat to pure-strain cutthroat. Only time will tell if Comanche Creek and similar streams will be managed to reestablish cutts as the only trout or if rainbows and the resulting cuttbows will continue to share, or possibly dominate, these fisheries.
   Either way, trout habitat is improving, and so is public awareness. For now, anglers can certainly enjoy challenging small-stream fishing for all three trout varieties while experiencing a healthy dose of the West’s dramatic scenery.


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