Note to our readers: With a yearlong closure imminent of the Rio Costilla for the Native Trout reintroduction project; I thought it would be a good time for a remembrance of one of my many days of guiding there.
Rainthroats of New Mexico’s Costilla Creek
by Taylor Streit
I was to meet my client on the water; he would be driving “a long pastel convertible with fins.” Sounded fishy. But such a car makes a significant dust trail, and I saw the cloud rising above the pines well before the once luxurious vehicle emerged from the dark timber. The car swayed effortlessly up along the winding meadow stream—disappearing at times but finally emerging beside the lovely Costilla Creek. With but a slight wave of my hand the car slid to a halt at my feet. The expiration of the big pastel beast was followed by the chiming of miniature vodka bottles—clinking amongst themselves. And I had a brief vision of an angel getting her wings--as each note lifted from the floorboards.
The guide is nothing if not eternally hopeful for the day ahead. But as soon as the bottles stopped twinkling reality set in and my mood eroded quickly. I found out that it was my client’s intention to fish from a lawn chair. (Not a common—or effective––stance for a fly fisherman). No, not so swell of an idea; until however he got out of the car and almost fell over. And then I realized that the chair might be a better option then holding him up all day. An experienced fishing guide is nothing if not—to borrow a phrase from president Don—a “very stable genius”! And a couple of spots came to mind that might suit our situation. And indeed, soon I had my fisherman positioned at the inside of a bend pool. Actually the lawn chain made for a low profile, and I kneeled in the grass beside him. Besides directing my anglers cast, I passed him his cigar and whiskey upon request and steadied the chair on the uneven surface.
The chair started rockin when the official “flailing of the waters” –as he called it—began. Amazingly he was fast to a fish after just a few flails. Things were suddenly all a-blur and I couldn’t decide whether to attend to guiding or valet duties; namely should I protect the open whiskey and lit cigar and steady the chair-- or dash out in the stream to net the nice rainthroat trout. So I compromised and stuck the lit cigar in the clients left hand, the booze in his right and crammed the rod between his legs. I then made a dash out into the stream; intending to return hastily before the chair toppled over.
But with the rods flimsy position the trout had the advantage and it was a while before the fish was landed. The client “landed” about the same time and both fish and fisherman were gasping and flopping in the grass. Once the fish was released and all put back in order my sport declared the expedition a success and soon we retired after a very brief day.
Anybody can catch trout on the Costilla! Drunk, old, weak, drunker, and even the very young. Beginner and expert are equally at home here too. And it’s the kind of place where wives gladly tag along with their fly fishing-obsessed hubbies to absorb the quiet and famous beauty.
And beautiful it is, with its pools and riffles flowing through a heaven of waving grasses and aspen groves, with evergreens highlighted against the Land of Enchantment’s blue sky. This is the Valle Vidal, a 100,000 acre special unit of the Carson National Forest. And although paralleled by a dirt road the Costilla is so far from any big city that it is seldom too busy. (Admittedly the stream is quite beset on the July 1; which is historically opening day.)
During my long guiding career I saw about every technique imaginable deployed here and they all caught fish. And I once had a client who got out in the mid-stream and let all his fly line out the reel and then allowed it to wash down the creek. When it pulled tight he commenced to reeling it in slowly with tantalizing little jerks of the rod. Just as I was suggesting that fishing upstream with a shorter line was a better way to catch—wouldn’t you know he hooked a fish, thus ruining him for further instruction.
Another fellow was equally spoiled when he was left unguarded with his own fly box, and he caught a couple of fish right off on a large purple fly he had tied––another instructional guiding opportunity stifled by the willing fish of the Costilla. (And since he refused to change the dreaded purple he caught only a few more over the course of the day.) He would have likely done better with flies that looked like insects. But he wasn’t into following orders; and I found in my decades in guiding business that many people seem delighted to pay several hundred dollars to show the guide how it’s done.
I have to confess that the longer I guided the more I enjoyed fishing with the beginner––those with nothing to prove and no purple flies in their box (as yet). There’s no self-taught casts to unlearn. No ego to massage and maneuver around. The Costilla is a wonderful proving ground; how delightful to see someone stunned to catch any fish, rather then it counting as just another notch on the cork.
My guides and I have taken a thousand soon-to-be fly anglers to fish the Costilla. To this point in time all species of trout inhabit the stream and most regular ole fisherman are perfectly satisfied with that. But a grand project is underway that will hopefully reestablish pure Rio Grande Cutthroats there. (We had large RGCT there two or three decades ago—and there are some left—but shortsighted stockings of rainbows just a few miles downstream have made the bows dominate; producing a “rainthroat” fishery.)
This is an exceptionally ambitious project that encompasses over 100 miles of steams in the Costilla drainage both on Vermijo Ranch and the Valle Vidal. This final phase is a big deal for us fisherfolk—and my guides—because it will close the federally controlled portion of the stream for one year. We hope it to be no longer than one year. There are any number of things that can threaten the project as there is just a few feet of cement—in the form of a fish barrier—between the promiscuous rainthroat and the 100% Rio Grande Cutthroats. (Fish that will of course, be stocked above the barrier after the water has been chemically treated and all other fish removed.) Man, beast, bird; or Act of God could move a rainthroat above the barrier. And besides these external threats, there have been blunders that have happened in the process so far: including stocking the wrong species of trout and using incorrect amounts of chemicals.
It is a big challenge to pull this off but the Rio Grande Cutthroat is our native trout and the state fish of New Mexico. A more beautiful fish was never caught. If everything goes as planned we will be fishing for them in the Valle Vidal in 2020.
The plan is to close the water this fall and that will remain so until opening day of July 1, 2020. (Regrettably there is no signage on the stream at this time. And many out-of-state anglers will not be aware of this closure and make their annual pilgrimage to a shutdown fishery unwittingly next summer. But hey, we did what we could, and you heard it here at Taos Fly Shop and Local Flavor—on-line.)