Monday, July 1, 2013

Cruces Basin Wilderness, NM: Backpacking in for Backcountry Brook Trout


With much of New Mexico's finest wilderness areas under siege by wildfire and drought, this year our annual pilgramage to the backcountry in search of wild trout led us to the Cruces Basin Wilderness in northern New Mexico.

Listen to the podcast of my son Wesley and I cutting up on the Mel Phillips Southwest Outdoors radio show with my buddy Austin McWhorter hosting. We had a blast bullshitting about the Cruces Basin, tent worms, spooky brook trout, Guy's Fly Hopper, stinky catfish fly pattern ideas, and much more. It was a funny show, you should listen.

GETTING THERE: To get to Cruces Basin Wilderness from the Taos area...
1) Leave Taos heading west/northwest on NM64 to Tres Piedras, NM.
2) At the intersection in Tres Piedras, turn north on Hwy 385.
3) Drive approximately 10.5 miles to FR87, turn west just before the iconic San Antonio Mountain.
4) Follow FR87 for approximately 26 miles to FR572, then turn north.
5) The parking area where FR572 ends is 2 miles down the worst road you've ever driven.
6) From the trailhead, hike appx 2 miles down a well-worn trail till you see the 3 streams' confluence

  • Rods: 1-wt to 4-wt rods (During midday it can get windy, so be aware.)
  • Flies: Guy's Fly Hopper, Stimulators (Orange, yellow, royal), Humpy (red, yellow), Lime Trude, other smallish hopper patterns worked too, Royal Wulff
  • Leaders -- shorter, lighter leaders work best (explained later)
  • CamelBak or similar 
  • Camouflage colored cap/baklava/headgear (explained later)
  • Wear muted shirts, not white, orange, lime green, or any other color of Sherbet ice cream. STEALTH MODE!!!
  • No waders necessary -- You'll fish mostly from edges, so instead of waders, wet wade with versatile shoes such as Salomon XA Pro 3D Ultra GTX, or Montrail Bahada, or similar.
  • Polarized lenses
  • Camera

  • From late-April to first heavy snow (September or October). I would wait for runoff to end, prob around May. 
  • JUNE 21st - 24th, 2013

  • BROOK TROUT in the 3 upper creeks, Rainbow Brooks and Browns in lower Beaver Creek near Rio de los Pinos


This year Wesley and I invited my good buddy, Guy Wilkins, to go backpacking with us. Guy is a runner. He's tough-willed, fit, and we knew he could hang. Or so we thought. Two days before we left, doing something as mundane as getting his mail, Guy "tripped" or "stumbled" or some crap like that and strained his calf muscle. He texted and explained. I told him to rest and we'd see him regardless. 

Wes and I prepared and packed for two weeks before the trip. We love the preparation process and use it as our time to amp up and daydream about gloriously-colored trout and crackling campfires and fulfilling meals and frost on the tents...

Guy's calf turned out to be fine, just sore. He carried his weight and then some. If Wes and I didn't have it, Guy did. He came prepared with just about everything you could dream up, which was good, because Wes and I never thought to bring things like little miniature plastic fishes filled with soy sauce. Haha!

We camped one night in Cimarron Canyon before we made it to Cruces. It was a great night of grilling fajitas, sipping on good whiskey for Guy and I, Mio-flavored water for Wes, and getting acclimated to the altitude in increments. 

By 11:00am we were at the Cruces Basin trailhead. Immediately, Guy and I knew there was an issue. 
1000's of  DEAD TENT WORMS

It took us a little bit to get geared up with backpacks on, rods pieced together, water bottles filled, and items of that nature. Before hitting the trail, we had to flick off about 20 caterpillars each from our legs, necks and packs before we could take off. We noticed on the drive up that EVERY aspen tree in the forest was defoliated by the worms, and worried what we'd find in the stream, at camp, and in our undies the next morning.

The hike in is easy. It's downhill all the way, and the trail is hardpan, smooth, and almost without obstacle. A few trees have what seems ancient carvings in them, and one of the rocks seems to resemble a giant butt crack, so I made Wes climb into it for a fun pic. (Guy thinks I'm juvenile.) Guy seemed to be having  more difficult time than usual, due to his knee. He told me today that he was actually in  much more pain than he let on and worried a lot about not making it out. Told ya he was a tough sumbitch!

Guy scoffs at my dubbing this rock formation,
"Butt-Crack Rock."


In an online article I mined searching for info, the well-respected Craig Martin describes the Cruces Basin as a large "funnel" -- there is no better description than that. Three main creeks (Cruces, Beaver, Diablo) and a multitude of seeps, springs, small rivules and tributaries all merge into one stream, the lower Beaver Creek. From there, it dumps from west to east into the Rio de los Pinos near Osier Station. Once the trail arrives above the confluence, the "funnel" description makes sense and the scene is nothing less than spectacular.


Day 1: As soon as we saw the creeks from the trailhead, the wind picked up and turned our eyelids inside out. The first creek you cross is Diablo. It actually looked a little lower than I'd hoped, but as soon as we approached, 10-12 trout darted for cover. Good sign. 

I was going to break in my new "Old School" fiberglass rod that A-Mac had made me, but I had to wait till it settled down a bit to break it out. Wes basically dropped his pack within minutes and slid upstream without saying much more than "I'm going fishing." The trail we were on sidled up next to a large granite outcrop, where we two old farts went to get out of the wind. Within minutes of dropping our packs, Wes chirped from 1/4 mile upstream. From where we stood, we could see his rod tip bent downwards, his smile bent upwards, and splashes on the surface. He'd cracked the code, caught the first trout of the trip, and got Guy and I off our asses and into Ninja mode. 

Diablo is rarely more than 6 feet across at any point. It meanders and undulates about a beautiful valley, with deep cutbanks, very little brush on these lower portions, quiet riffles, long slicks, and plenty of oxbow bends. It does have some deepish pools that might push 3 feet deep. 

Tactics on Diablo came to us slowly. Most fish in NM are not this spooky. But here, the first sign of your cap, reflection off your shades, or any vibration from heavy footfalls pushed fish upstream. You have to come at these pez perpendicular to the stream, crouched down, slowly, silently, ready to cast. This is what I call on-stream Guerrilla Tactics -- shit you gotta do and learn immediately that you may not need anywhere else but that small/spooky stream. You only get one shot at fish like this. If you mess up and line them, stumble over a rock, or of they see your big dumb head, or hear your oafish ass coming, you're effed. 

This is dry fly water, but oddly, you may not be able to watch the strikes. Instead, you might only hear a splash, or see your line move suddenly up or downstream. You're dapping. High-sticking. Not your typical cast, drift, strip line, recast. You're peering over the tops of grasses, not looking at the water upstream. If you see your line move at all, or you see it stop suddenly, set the hook.

We moved upstream for most the day fishing this way, spread out like Vietnam mine hunters, close enough to one another to distinguish a smile from disgust, but too far away to hear a word each other was saying. I swapped flies out like a photographer reloading his film at an S.I. swimsuit shoot. The first hour my luck was like that of the kid who'd forgotten deodorant on Prom night. But once I found my Lime Trude, I was golden. 

Wes was working an orange Stimulator like a magician. He'd caught 4 trout before I'd even gotten stinky handed. I took a picture of my first fish, and went back for more!    

A typical 8" Brookie on Diablo Creek

Guy figured out that if we trimmed down his soon-to-be-famous Guy's Fly Hopper to a narrower profile, the fly didn't seem to scare the fish as much, and seemed to mimic the bazillions of tent caterpillars already flowing past the trout every hour. What we didn't know at the time was the trout weren't eating the worms. So, it's proof positive that Guy's Fly Hopper will work in almost any circumstance. Guy had caught a trout, and a hopper was sticking out of it's mouth unfinished. Once we all went to Guy's Fly Hopper, we were all killin' it! 

Yeah, I know. Right?!

Diablo Creek begins to get choked by a narrow canyon and trees a little over a mile upstream from the confluence with  Beaver and Cruces. But if you trudge through, you'll go through a cattle gate, the valley will open up again, and fishing upstream resumes as normal. 


Day 2: Moving north from the confluence, away from the safety of our outcrop campsite, Cruces Creek is probably the most picturesque of the triplet streams, albeit all three streams themselves act and fish exactly the same. 

The ultimate all-around fly -- Guy's Fly Hopper!

Cruces probably has more springs, seeps, and several seemingly-insignificant runnels feeding it, but this doesn't change the size nor the characteristics of it much at all. (BTW, fish those foot-wide runnels too. There's brookies in them!) There are more exposed rock cliffs and granite outcrops along this stream than the other two, and perhaps there may be a few less bend pools than on Diablo, but a few more deep pools than on upper Beaver, so it was my second favorite of the three. There were more tent worms on Cruces than the other two streams, which made it more difficult to fish, and less attractive a fishery. About every four or five casts you snag a worm and guts would dangle from your fly. Gross. But the utter beauty and solitude of the canyon could not be wagered. This place is heavenly. 

Wes and Guy fished together much of the day on Cruces, often tag-teaming bends and longer runs while I took pictures, read the map, learned how to use my new camera, etc.  Guy taught Wes a few things I never did - The Wilkins' Wind technique being one of them. Around 10:00am the wind picks up and makes casting anything less than a mid-flex rod a nuisance. I'd turned on the steam on the "Old School" rod A-Mac had built me a few months prior. My first trout out it was a delight. Every trout thereafter was like that second, third, fourth bite of your mom's homemade lasagna -- you just keep on shoveling because it's just too damn good to stop. Ultra-light. Ultra-flexible. Ultra-fun for brookies! You need to hook up with A-Mac and get one of these spectacular throw-back rods made for yourself. 

Again, as on Diablo, you go through a gate on the Cruces about a mile and a half upstream from the confluence. There are a few gracious turns in the river that break up the monotony of little structure and quiet water.

We fished Cruces all the way up till there was no more Cruces. I sat in a pool for a bit and used my underwater camera and got a little bit of video you might like to check out.

From there, we fished the better bend pools, cutbanks, riffles, and shaded areas all the way back to camp. By then, we'd had it. We were tired and ready for a sit down and a sip 'o' whiskey. By now we'd hiked 16 miles or so. It was time to chill. 

I rested for about an hour, then, with few sips of liquid courage I set out for lower Beaver Creek on my own. My compadres decided to stay and fish Diablo again till dusk. I needed to see the falls, see if there were bigger fish in deeper pools like I'd read about.

About two miles downstream, over scree slopes and past a lot of unfishable water, I finally got to the falls. I saw fish, and casted to them, but they were as spooky as all the others. If not worse. 

I was HERE. I was here. No one else can write that in the spot that I just wrote it. 

Wes contemplates hitting the sack early during a breathtaking sunset.


Upper Beaver Creek is not much different than Cruces or Diablo. The only difference is that the upper portion of Beaver becomes unfishable much quicker than the other two streams, albeit, a shit ton of trout reside in it. And your mission is to catch them all. 

Beaver creek has a few deep cutbank/bendpool combos that are capable of holding up to 20 fish each. You can actually catch 4 or 5 of those 20 trout in a single pool if you're skilled enough, quiet enough, and lucky enough.

The trout are no different -- 8" to 10" carbon copies of each other. Some are more colorful than others, but all are good fighters and their delicately pink meat tastes divine roasted over the campfire flames with quinoa, cous-cous, or instant potatoes.

Depending on what you read, the lower Beaver (downstream of the notch that squeezes the creek at the confluence) is supposed to be full of beaver ponds, deeper water, and holds bigger fish. In my opinion, that's all bullshit. What I saw with my own eyes were not beaver ponds. The water slows to a glacier's pace due to a lack of slope and an extremely thick alder population. It's muddy, murky, and trout don't like it. In fact, I didn't spook a single trout from the confluence to the falls. I'm positive they're there, but why spend your time searching for trout when you have 20 trout in a single pool above the confluence?


Beaver Creek Sunset

Our Outcrop Campsite

Fireside Chats

No, that's not me peeing in the background. 

Veni, Vidi. Vici. 

Guy prepares for early morning coffee and Mac's oatmeal.

Guy and Wes hike up the Cruces in search of wild trout. 

A damn fine brookie from Beaver Creek.

If you've never had Taos Pizza Outback (like Guy) try it! Wes puts away his Stromboli while I kill a cheese slice! 

Wes agains the twilight sky.

Wes releases a brookie and it says goodbye with a splash!

A brookie checks out my underwater camera.

My best brook trout imitation feeding on tent worms.

My boys eatin' dinner. 

My boys eatin' breakfast.

Wes grabbin' his catch.

Wes fishing upper Beaver creek about a mile upstream of our campsite.

Guy fishing in Cimarron Canyon on a perfect June morning.

About Mac

My photo

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.