Colorado's Elk Creek
August 21, 2018
A tributary of the Conejos River, with fishing conditions ranging from pocketwater below foaming cascades, to vast, seemingly endless meadow stretches, Elk Creek offers diverse water types in a pristine setting. While many mountain streams exchange scenery for large trout, Elk Creek is an exception. This creek has both a spectacular setting and an abundance of browns, rainbows, cutthroat, and cuttbows from 12 to 22 inches. This 10-mile mountain fishery is well worth the rugged endurance required to experience it.
One of the biggest assets of Elk Creek is its expansive public water. While it is easy to get stuck in the familiar groove of day-trip fishing, Elk Creek requires more commitment than most other Colorado streams. Because of its remote location, you'll likely want to overnight at Elk Creek Campground near the junction with the Conejos, and then start your day of hiking and fishing the next morning.
At a higher level of commitment, the creek has enough terrain and water to support a multiday backpacking trip. There's nothing like reflecting on the day's adventures by firelight and wondering what water or trout lie ahead.
Elk Creek Trail follows a steep and rocky incline paralleling Elk Creek from Elk Creek Campground (8, 500 feet above sea level) to the Fourth Meadows, in the San Juan Mountains. The best fishing is in the meadows along the trail, where the meandering creek averages 6 to 10 feet wide, with some pools as deep as 8 feet.
As you begin your ascent toward the First Meadows three miles upstream, the creek cascades through a small canyon where classic mountain fishing features swift, turbulent pocketwater, and the trout hold in current breaks. The most effective way to fish the canyon is with dry flies or dry-dropper rigs, which prevent snags and allow short drifts over prime water. The canyon water makes for a fun, fast-paced game with shotgun casting and eager trout, but they are mostly small. Better water—and bigger fish—await upstream.
After at least an hour of hiking, you'll reach First Meadows. The creek's placid, fertile water here holds larger trout than the canyon, and the fishing is good. But this stretch is only about a half mile long and receives the most fishing pressure because it is close to the trailhead.
Landon Mayer photo
Stop for a quick break, but plan to keep hiking, as the best fishing lies another three miles upstream in the vast stretches of the Second, Third, and Fourth meadows in the South San Juan Wilderness Area. These meadows offer six magnificent river miles of winding water, and hold the greatest numbers of large trout in the upper watershed.
At Second Meadows, the creek's banks are lined with vegetation, making a stealthy approach to the trout more challenging. Think carefully about each step before you cast. This should slow your pace and help you present the fly without spooking the fish.
As the trail gradually climbs, the creek begins to narrow just before you reach Third Meadows—approximately another mile up the trail. The narrow creek creates some challenging casting situations, and it's helpful to have a spotter here to direct your casts. It's best to present the fly from downstream, allowing you to remain undetected.
The narrow water continues as you enter Third and Fourth meadows. The varied terrain between the meadows creates cover and safety for the fish. Even when the water narrows, or begins to run thin, it still provides enough holding water for sizable trout. Don't just fish the most obvious deep holes. Large trout use all the available habitat, and there is a lot of it.
At the trail's highest point is a series of stillwaters called Dipping Lakes. These and others within the wilderness area are fed by runoff from the high peaks, and provide great fishing for brook trout in clear, icy water. If you are backpacking for the day and want a fish fry, these nonnative trout offer excellent eating.
Supplied by water running off the San Juan Mountains, Elk Creek has two primary seasons when fly fishers can effectively pursue the trout, hatches, and alpine scenery. In the winter it's too cold for good fishing at these high elevations, and spring melt creates raging water flows.
The trout manage to survive this demanding environment by hiding in deep pools below the winter ice, and beneath undercut banks.
Summer and fall are the two main fishing seasons, allowing four months during which to plan your journey: June, July, August, and even September (weather permitting, with cooler weather). In early summer, water levels drop gradually, and runoff subsides. The creek begins to clear and warm, and increased insect activity results in more opportunities for catching trout.Landon Mayer photo
The weather plays a big role in water conditions. For example, in August, Elk Creek typically runs low and clear. But if a storm blows in, bringing hours of heavy rain, the water rises quickly. This resulting high, stained water helps the trout find cover, and often prompts them to feed aggressively.
At high elevations—above 9,000 feet—it is often impossible to predict the weather systems, which are known to arrive without warning. On Elk Creek, be prepared to adjust to variable water conditions so you can fish effectively in either clear or turbid water. This allows you to be successful no matter what weather conditions you encounter.
Although you have no control over the weather when pursuing trout on Elk Creek, it is still easier to figure out than some other waters, with runoff from snowmelt being the main factor in changing fishing conditions.
As the water warms, Elk Creek produces prolific and complex hatches, allowing the well-fed trout to achieve their full growth. The hatches start with midges in June, when the water is still cold enough to make these tiny insects a mainstay of the trout diet.
Next up are caddis, which flutter over the creek's surface in astonishing numbers beginning in late May through July.
Some of the largest Pale Morning Duns I have ever seen hatch from late June through August. Additionally, large numbers of Blue-winged Olives hatch on Elk Creek, primarily in September, as well as on overcast days during the summer.
Elk Creek also provides great opportunities to imitate terrestrials such as grasshoppers, ants, and beetles. It is common to see the naturals land on the water from the grass lining the water's edge in the four meadow stretches.
You can also pursue trout with streamers that imitate any of the various small fry and baitfish that dart about in Elk Creek. Streamers—frequently overlooked for fishing such narrow waterways—are especially effective in high or stained water during and after a heavy rain, when large trout attack baitfish patterns from many excellent holding lies.
Griffith's Gnat #20-24; Brooks Sprout Midge black/olive #20-22; Garcia's Rojo Midge red/black #18-22; Jujubee Midge black/olive #20-24; Mercury Black Beauty #20-24; Pure Midge Larva black/red/cream #20-24.
Parachute Adams #18-22; Sparkle Dun Baetis #18-22; Barr's Vis-A-Dun Baetis #20-22; (emergers/nymphs) Barr's BWO Flashback Emerger #18-20; Juju Baetis #20-22, Stalcup's Baetis #18-20; Copper John green #16-20, Mercury Flashback Pheasant Tail #18-22.
Pale Morning Duns
Lawson's Cripple PMD #16-18; Vis-A-Dun PMD #16-18; Sparkle PMD Dun #16-18; (emergers/nymphs) Beadhead Flashback Barr's Emerger PMD #16-18; CDC PMD Loopwing Emerger #16-20; Copper John yellow #16-18; Mercury PMD Nymph #18.
Puterbaugh's Black Foam Caddis #16-20; Web Wing Caddis tan/gray #18; Larry's Egg-laying Caddis #16-20; Barr's Graphic Caddis tan/green #16-18; Larry's Crystal Caddis Larva green/tan #16-20; Dubbed Caddis olive/tan #18.
Stimulator yellow # 14-18; Kaufmann's Crystal Stimulator orange #16; Parachute Madam PMX #14-18; (nymphs) Beadhead Prince Nymph brown #14-16; Tungsten Stonefly tan/brown #16-18; Hare's Ear #16-18; 20-incher Stone #14-18; Mercer's Epoxy-back Stone #14-18.
Ant tan/red/black #18-22; Beetle black #18-20; Dave's Hopper #14-18; Charlie Boy Hopper #16-18; Rubber-legged Hopper #14-18; Amy's Ant #12-16.
Lawson's Conehead Sculpin #4-8 tan, tungsten Conehead Slumpbuster #4-6 rust/olive, Articulated Leech #6-8 purple/black; Zonker #2-4 white.
One thing I have always noticed when fishing deep, narrow trout streams is that the trout have the opportunity to see more food items drifting downstream, both subsurface and on top, than they would in wider, shallower streams.
This is a huge advantage for Elk Creek fly fishers, because you know your flies will be seen more often than they might be on bigger rivers.
For example, if you are fishing a pocket on the creek that is 5 feet deep, with a trout holding near bottom, the fish's viewing lane is much wider than if the fish were holding in shallower water. The trout's field of view covers nearly the entire width of the stream where it is holding, thereby improving your chances of a strike.
When selecting flies for Elk Creek, choose the patterns that most effectively imitate the life cycles of the foods the fish key on. In high water, the trout do not see as many surface foods, making subsurface imitations like nymphs, emergers, and streamers their main focus.
When the creek is low and clear, the trout are usually looking up, making drys better choices. In addition to a good selection of terrestrials and streamers for between hatches, you should have a good assortment of nymphs and drys resembling each of Elk Creek's major insect groups.
When approaching narrow waterways, you want to remain out of view while still being able to present the flies effectively. Think of angles instead of areas, and approach either from below or perpendicular to the fish.
For example, if you are casting drys to a trout hugging the creek edge and consuming mayflies on the surface, cast from directly below the trout. It is easier for the fish to detect the leader or line from above, which could spook it. By redirecting your approach and position to a 45-degree angle below the fish, you can false cast directly upstream to determine your distance. Then, when you are ready to deliver the fly, "fire it in there" as John Barr would say, above the trout. Elk Creek is home to native cutthroat trout, brook trout, rainbows, cuttbows, and brown trout from 12 to 22 inches. Landon Mayer photo
By selecting these angles from below or above your target, you can present flies more precisely while keeping the trout in view, and still remain out of sight of the fish.
Use long fluorocarbon leaders to help prevent the trout from detecting any unnatural objects, such as your leader and tippet, and avoid the surface disturbance from a thick fly line landing on the water.
The trick to successful dry-fly fishing on Elk Creek is accuracy in pocketwater settings, when your drifts can be short in the calm water breaks around rocks. Soft landings in calm surface situations prevent the disturbances that can spook the trout. Achieve this by selecting the proper length for your leader.
In the canyon areas, go with short leaders of 4 to 6 feet. This will help you load the rod quickly while hitting the pocketwater efficiently as you move around the boulders.
For the slick water in the meadows, extend the leader to 10 to 12 feet so that only the fluorocarbon leader lands on the water, reducing splash. Remember to slow down your casting stroke on both the forward cast and backcast, allowing enough time for the flies to turn over when using longer leaders. This is especially important when your position on the creek's edge is angled far away up- or downstream.
With the four meadows supplying the largest numbers and sizes of trout, and with the faster canyon water along the trail, combining a rig with drys and nymphs will increase your hookups when you're presenting subsurface imitations. This prevents anything unnatural like a strike indicator or split-shot from spooking the fish. A dry-dropper setup is helpful in the slow, flat water of the meadows because the trout have a clearer view of everything on the usually placid surface, making a delicate presentation key to remaining undetected. For the boulder-filled pocketwater, a dry-dropper rig is helpful in suspending the nymph, though the dry often attracts the strike.
To properly set up a dry-dropper rig, you first want to use a fairly heavy fluorocarbon leader to help turn over a larger fly on every cast. Typically a 7½-foot leader tapered to 4X works great. Select a dry fly with enough buoyancy to suspend the nymph throughout the drift without sinking. I prefer foam flies like the BC Hopper.
When you have selected the correct dry, attach a piece of 5X tippet to the bend of the hook. By tying the connecting knot at the bend of the hook and not the hook eye, you will help prevent tangles while false casting.
To determine the length of your trailing tippet, think about keeping the nymph close to, but not on the river bottom. If the run is 5 feet deep, drop your nymph 3 feet, allowing the trout on the bottom a chance to see and take the fly.
Avoid using split-shot to sink your nymph. Instead, drift a nymph tied with a weighted bead, preferably tungsten, or lead substitute wire wrapped around the hook shank. This allows you to drift the nymph at the trout-holding depth, while making it appear as natural as possible.
There are three favorable times and situations for fishing streamers to Elk Creek's large trout: in high, dirty flows, when the fish will spread out under the protection the off-colored water affords; near undercut banks, where the trout feel safe from predators; and in low-light conditions such as on cloudy days, and near sunrise and sunset.
The biggest challenge to using streamers in the creek is not the rigging, which can be a simple, 7½-foot leader tapered to 0X or 2X, connected to the fly with either an improved clinch knot or a nonslip mono loop. Instead, the difficulty is in achieving a good presentation in narrow water. Most people are accustomed to fishing streamers in big rivers, and don't think of using them in smaller streams.
In a big river, you can cast a streamer far, and retrieve it a long way. On a small stream, twitching the fly to supply movement, while keeping the fly in the water longer, can be key to success.
There are two ways to approach this presentation problem. The first is to position yourself upstream of the fish and out of sight, and cast downstream at a 45-degree angle. Then, as your streamer swings to your side of the creek, twitch the rod tip while applying tension to the line. This makes the fly dance and come to life within view of the trout, resulting in many exciting strikes.
The second approach is to twitch the streamer as it swings inside an undercut bank. Perform this maneuver while standing directly above the area where the trout is holding, knowing that the fish cannot see anything above its position. This jigging technique will allow you present streamers to trout that would be otherwise unapproachable.
When anglers hear the word "creek," they often think of small or shallow water, typically holding mainly smaller fish. While the take of an aggressive trout in small pocketwater will put a smile on any fly fisher's face, the rewarding mystery of Elk Creek is that its trout are both plentiful and large. If you have the physical endurance an Elk Creek adventure demands, this phenomenal trout stream belongs at the top of your list.
The Elk Creek Campground in the Rio Grande National Forest is 22 miles west of Antonito on Colorado 17. The campground has 34 nonreservable sites available for $16 per night. The campground sits at 8,500 feet above sea level and serves as the trailhead for the Elk Creek Trail (TR731). Food and accommodations are limited in Antonito. Alamosa, 30 miles to the north, has chain motels and restaurants.
Landon Mayer is a Colorado fly-fishing guide, and author of Sight Fishing for Trout (Stackpole Books, 2010). His web site is landonmayer.com.