Monday, May 28, 2012

San Pedro Parks Wilderness, NM

Wes and I just returned from San Pedro Parks Wilderness, northwest of the Valles Caldera near Los Alamos in my continued search for wild trout. SPPW is the one place in NM I've never visited to flyfish.  I figured, "Well hell, if Williams and I are gonna write an EAT SLEEP FISH book on NM, I better hike in there and see what's poppin'.

SPPW is not exactly mountainous, but rather it's an enormous area of many uplifted plateaus with cutthroat streams running off in every direction. It's waaaay back in there if you're coming from the east, as we did. This isn't the kind of water that runs next to highways with turnouts and rest areas. No no. This is backcountry wilderness. And well worth the effort.

Wes had never backpacked before. First time. That's not to say that he and I have never hiked plenty of wilderness trails to slay some wildies.  Believe it -- (La Jara, Latir, the Red) -- Wes can lay down some tracks. And when cutties are out there somewhere in front of him, he'll do whatever to hook some. He's a chip off the ol' block.

We got lucky and crossed paths with two dudes who had a Toto-lookin' scruff dog, and a Spud Mackinzie look-alike sporting a saddle pack. They told us the Rio de las Vacas was where we should fish. So we listened to them. More on that in a moment... but first... a little bit of info about the maps of the area.

3 miles in, and being the mapsmith that I have become in the footsteps of Williams, I took notice of this non-comital sorta blue, dashed, river-wannabe, kinda line (that intermittent trickling stream sorta-looking shit you see on all your maps all the time but really there ain't no water there whenever you seem to show up) heading north to south on my $17 map I'd just bought at REI -- the one I ordered online never showed in the mail. It seemed intriguing. I knew we'd cross it going to the Vacas. So I could't wait. But then I noticed something strange. My NEW Forest Service map and the maps I'd printed online (the one below) were different!

I'd like to mention that the map you see above from this guy's blog is different than other maps, and possibly incorrect enough to get you into trouble out there. Don't trust the above map as far as trail names it uses. At least one trail is clearly mislabeled. The mapmakers printed plain as day "Clear Creek Trail" on the dotted trail just to the left of the word "Sante Fe." That is NOT Clear Creek Trail, but rather the "Las Vacas Trail".  Also, there is a trail leaving the Vallecito Damian not even shown on this map. 

My NEW map labels the Las Vacas Trail starting at the parking area on FR 70 and continuing past the "Y" you see in red (see the pic of Wes resting under the sign at the "Y" below). Clear Creek Trail actually begins there at the "Y" and continues to the left and is actually named "Upper Clear Creek Trail." Now that I am home and looking at all of this on multiple maps, it makes perfect sense now why so many hikers seemed lost, disoriented, and confused on that trail. If you go, I highly recommend purchasing the Forest Service map of the area. San Pedro Parks Wilderness Map

Now, on with the fishing!!

We began our trek on the Las Vacas Trail (or what they should have called Clear Creek Trail since it parallels Clear Creek. It may be called Clear Creek Trail at the parking area, but the Forest Service Map calls it Las Vacas... you'll figure it out) heading north out of the parking area on FR 70, skirting the tiny fishless Clear Creek much of the way. Disappointed about not seeing a single fish the entire length of it, I knew there were other (better) streams, and we'd find them soon enough.
Wes hiked so hard with a rather heavy pack! I'm very proud of him! LOOK AT WHAT ALL HE CARRIED!

About a mile and a quarter in, we arrived at San Gregorio Reservoir. Pretty awesome sight~
We passed on fishing the lake because we were excited to pitch camp in Vallecito Damian... a beautiful wide open "park" that we'd read was a sweet place to camp and chill. About that detail, this guy's blog was right on. Vallecito Damian is definitely a cool place. Dead center in the middle of the "park" is a huge, exposed flint quarry where looking at all the rocks was a nice quiet way for us to spend the evenings. We didn't take any, for you archeologists out there who might be wondering. 
Vallecito Damian in the early morning light... Look closely and you'll see my green tent under a three just left of center. Wes was still crashed out asleep, and I was looking for arrowheads in the exposed flint at my feet. 

But our goal was to find more wild Rio Grande cutties like this one Wes caught on a different trip! 
This fish got Wes addicted to wild trout.

I'd studied the maps and decided to head over to the upper Rio de las Vacas. Hiking there, we'd TRY to fish Clear Creek, but too much debris, thousands of downed trees, and not a single sighting of a trout the entire way up had us somewhat deflated. But that's when we ran into the two dudes with two dogs bearing good news about the "Vacas."  

Clear Creek trickling by the trail... a damn shame a stream this pristine is dead. 
Does anyone know why? It used to be a helluva cuttie stream. 

Wes hiked like a champ, despite boot issues.

I could see on my good map that we'd pass a couple of no-named springs/creeks on our way to the Vacas. My philosophy where maps are concerned is this... when maps are created, it's a snapshot in time. Just because it's a dotted blue line on a map made in 1998 doesn't mean it isn't flowing well and holding fish today. The converse is true as well. Solid blue lines on a map signifies constant flowing water, but I've hiked into some, and when I got there, nary a drop is found.  
Changing weather patterns effect stream flow, and ultimately fish habitat. Honestly, you never know what you're gonna find. But when you do your research, and you arrive at a stream you've spied on a map, even if it IS tiny, don't give up on it until you scout it out. This diligence frequently seems to pay off big for us. We've discovered several of our favorite waters this way. And yes, the fish you saw Wes holding a minute ago was found this way. And how we caught all but ONE fish of the weekend. 

The picture above is of this no-named stream where we found tons of wild cutts. And oddly, every angler we saw stepped across this stream, passing it over and continued walking to the Vacas. Even when they saw Wes and I slaying trout, they wanted no part of it! Go figure. They passed over great trout lies to fish mediocre water.


First Rio Grande Cutthroat of the day! Sorry it's blurry... I was excited!

Wes prepares to cast a dry into a tiny cut in the earth where a 12" cutthroat is sitting!

My next one -- small but wild and gorgeous.

Yup! This is all it takes to hold wild trout! WE FISHED HOLES LIKE THIS ALL  DAY AND SCORED! Not spooky fish at all. They'd practically stare you down like Clint Eastwood, waiting for your fly.

My map showed the Las Vacas Trail crossing this tiny "stream." (We nicknamed it Twisted Ankle Creek because Wes turn his ankle pretty badly here at the end of the day. He never even told me until I noticed him limping on the way back to camp. A true Mac!) The map also showed this stream forming a small pond about halfway between the Las Vacas trail and where it meets the Rio de las Vacas (and I told Wes while we were hiking to it, it should be full of cutts if it truly exists). But it didn't exist. We looked for it, but all we found was a sloppy marsh where a smallish pond might be in early April, but not late-May.

Hiking to the pond, the stream slides down a small rocky canyon where, still, trout are holding sometimes shoulder to shoulder. This is where one of the coolest things happened. I cast to two trout sitting next to each other, literally side by side. The water was so shallow it looked as though the trout were simply hovering over the streambottom. My fly hit one on the back and it didn't even move. Then I cast further up. the fish actually moved out of the fly's way, then seemed to recognize it was food, looping around this miniature pool like a shark only to nail my fly about 18" farther downstream! Amazing instincts.

Another cool event I witnessed... these fish were so eager to eat, I watched one rise to take my fly... he spat it out and looked at it underwater for a minute... then launched at it again and took it down, which is when I set the hook and brought him to hand. The water was so still in these pools you could almost see their thought process in action.


Finally we decided to head to fish the Vacas, as well as Rito Anastacio. Not gonna lie to you... the upper Rio de las Vacas is breathtakingly beautiful water! However, it seems to me that it's been overfished. Even though the shortest path to the upper Vacas is no less than a 4-mile hike in on the Palomas Trail from FR 70, there were no less than 20 people on the 1.5 mile stretch of water we fished. I was actually shocked we weren't alone.

Wes caught one palm-sized cutt on the upper Vacas. I caught ZERO. I saw fish, but they were very skittish and puny. We didn't see any fish larger than 6", where, strangely, the small water we'd fished earlier in the day possessed far less spooky cutts, in far greater numbers, and twice to 3x the size. Perhaps if we had more time we could have moved further upstream and done better on the Vacas. But we'd already hiked 18 miles in two days and it was getting late in the day..

Here are a few facts, if you go:

1. ALL the waters in the area are either milky, or stained brown and resemble ice tea. Don't know why.
2. It may be called a "wilderness" but there are a shit ton of people in there. Don't know how.
3. Fishing the San Gregorio Reservoir with flies is a proposition typically only at dawn and dusk.
4. Cuba Ditch looks like a manmade canal cutting through the area. No fish. Weird.
5. There is plenty of wondrous scenery for those other than anglers. But with all the downed trees in certain areas, it sometimes can appear to be a depressing place.
6. The trails can get muddy in places but there is no need to wear waders or even wading boots.
7. Elk are everywhere~ keep an eye out for shed antlers. We found one!
8. Vallecito Damian is a cool place to camp. No camping near the lake.
9. No signs of bears, despite rumors.
10. A Recurve bow with a 45 lb. draw can shoot an arrow 723 feet! We took mine and it was a blast to shoot at the campsite. Vallecito Damian is so expansive, we thought it would be fun to see how far I could shoot an arrow. 2.5 football fields!

All in all Wes' first full-on backpack trip was killer! We hiked a total of 27 miles in 2.5 days according to my iPod Nike workout pedometer. We were/are exhausted. I'm so proud of Wes. And I'm glad we got in there and fished the San Pedro. It's an amazing area. Can't wait to return... 

About Mac

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I am W. Chad McPhail. I'm an outdoor/travel writer, book author, former English teacher, and Amarillo native. 

I spend my spare time traipsing around the mountains and streams of the southwest in search of wild trout with my family, friends, various freeloaders, and other flotsam and jetsan. I used to teach English & Creative Writing. These days I am a Right of Way field agent with Coates Field Service, representing Sharyland Utilities during the construction of a 345 megawatt transmission line from Hereford to Panhandle, Texas. I love exploring the outdoors, fly fishing, backpacking, camping, hiking, kayaking, and yes, writing outdoor and travel books and pieces. I am a field writer of flyfishing, backpacking, camping, and kayaking articles for I have written many articles for magazines such as Southwest Fly Fishing, Texas Fish & Game, Rocky Mountain Game & Fish,, and more. I have co-penned three books with fishing buddy Mark D. Williams; Colorado Flyfishing: Where to Eat Sleep Fish, 49 Trout Streams of Southern Colorado, and An Introduction to Fly Fishing for Trout.