Rio de los Pinos
The Rio de los Pinos is truly a river of the pines. It is a vestige of the high-country streams of the southern Rocky Mountains--a relic where peace and solitude can still be found. The majority of the watershed is remote and it takes a little work to get to most of the fishing water, reducing the fishing pressure and like magic, "Solitude."
The Rio de los Pinos droops below the southern border of Colorado into New Mexico like the bottom of a wide horseshoe. The Rio de los Pinos headwaters reside in the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado (west). The stream flows south into New Mexico and then east through New Mexico for about 20 miles then crosses the Colorado border again on the east end near Antonito, Colorado. The entire setting is pristine with breath-taking views of forested areas, some meadows and deep canyons as illustrated in the photo of the Toltec Gorge Area photo to the left.
The best access to the west end (upper) of the Rio de los Pinos is to make arrangements with the Toltec and Cumbres Scenic Railroad to drop you off near Toltec Canyon at Osier Station so you can hike down in the canyon. The width of the water in this section is narrower than the lower section. Arrangements can be made with railroad to pick you up the same day or several days later. You can board the train at the Chama Railroad Depot at west end and at Antonito, Colorado at the east end of the Rio de los Pinos, 6 miles north of the New Mexico border.
The west end of the Rio de los Pinos holds rainbows, wild browns and brookies with "Cutts" just below the headwaters of Duck Lake in Western Colorado. In New Mexico the vegetation is heavy near the banks, with tall grasses and willow trees. Although there are some barriers that may be a tight squeeze such as in the photo of the Toltec Gorge area. However, the stream is easily fishable and casting is generally not a problem. Trout like this one can be found in these waters.
A little over half of the New Mexico portion of the Rio de los Pinos is in the Carson National Forest with a portion of the remainder flowing through 6 to 8 miles of private property. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish manages part of this fishery--Rio de los Pinos Wildlife and Fishing Area. This area is located on the east section of the river and is where the private property is located.
Diablo Creek and Cruces Creek converge to form Beaver Creek which flows into the Rio de los Pinos near the west end. The creeks are located in the Cruces Basin Wilderness. Beaver Creek flows through beaver ponds and over waterfalls before reaching the Rio de los Pinos. The feeder creeks carry a lot wild brook trout, small but plentiful. To access the feeder creeks, travel west on NM 87 to the trailhead near Osha Canyon. The trail is a little over a mile in length and descends about 350 ft. to the water.
The east end (lower) of the Rio de los Pinos is accessed from Colorado from US 285, traveling down forest road 284, north of Ortiz, Los Pinos and San Miguel, New Mexico. There are several miles of access to fishing and camping along the stream. The stream flows through deep pools and deep runs with the runs holding the larger fish. The fishing in this entire area is excellent with dry flies and nymphs. There are several hatches throughout the season producing an abundance of insects for the fish to feed. You can catch large fish, and a lot of fish, even if you are novice at fly-fishing. Fishing this stream and its feeder creeks is an experience that you will remember for a long time. A portion of the stream through the Carson National Forest has special regulations.
All of the roads in these areas are subject to being muddy or closed during wet weather. So it is always advisable to check current conditions. Normally in the summer the roads are clear.
I would like to put out a special thanks to Bob and Lee Widgren for sharing their knowledge of this stream.
A story I wrote for Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine in 2004
New Mexico's Rio de los Pinos
"Truly a River of the Pines"
While riding through the Jemez Mountains in 1955 I had no idea what an incredible journey I was about to travel over the next fifty-plus years. Since my early trip to Fenton Lake I have fished the Jemez Mountains watershed streams with its German brown and rainbow trout, the Pecos watershed in the days when catching Rio Grande cutthroat and brook trout were more common than stocker rainbows and Red River which hold four species of trout named the "New Mexico Grand Slam." Over the years I have had the pleasure of fishing all of the northern New Mexico watersheds and most of their tributaries. I taught my children how to fish these waters and have also taught my grandchildren. I often harken back to this overwhelming tour I've taken of northern New Mexico's trout streams and the Rio de los Pinos is one of those streams.
The Rio de los Pinos is a vestige of the high-country streams of the southern Rocky Mountains--a relic where peace and solitude can still be found. Potions of the watershed take a little work to get to the fishing water, which reduces the fishing pressure and brings solace, a rare find today. The Rio de los Pinos is a dark freestone bottom structure with narrow carpets of moss in places, large rocks and natural debris that provide excellent forms of cover for these sometimes-elusive trout. The stream and its riparian areas are striking, especially at dusk, with glistening clear water which runs through a narrow to wide canyon setting.
The headwaters of the Rio de los Pinos reside in the San Juan Mountain Range in southern Colorado above Trujillo Meadows and flows south to cross the southern border of Colorado at a point north and east of Chama, New Mexico. The stream continues to flow east through New Mexico for about 20 miles only 3 miles or less below the Colorado border and then crosses north through the Colorado border again. The elevation at the Pinos stream level is about 8,100 feet. The Pinos finally converges with the Rio San Antonio a few miles south of Antonito, Colorado and is where you could say the Rio de los Pinos loses its identity.
A little over half of the New Mexico portion of the Rio de los Pinos fishery is in the Carson National Forest with a portion of the remainder flowing through several miles of private property. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish manages part of the access to this fishery, Rio de los Pinos Wildlife and Fishing Area located in the lower section of the river several miles to the east of its entrance into New Mexico. The Rio de los Pinos watershed is best described as three sections?from the head waters through the upper section of the Pinos near the Colorado/New Mexico border, to the Cruces Basin Wilderness, at 10,900 feet, whose feeder creeks converge with the Pinos at about the one-third point of its travel through New Mexico and finally, the lower section before converging with the Rio San Antonio south of Antonito, Colorado.
The best months to fish this watershed are in March, mid-May through the end of June and from late August through November as long as the weather holds out and the roads stay dry. If you fish during March or November expect to see some snow. The fish in this watershed will be hunkered down in the dark deep runs and deep pockets with an occasional fish sipping flies in the flats during hatches. At large rock formations on the far banks larger fish will be hiding near the bottom against the rock. In this scenario get your fly box out and tie on a nymph before your haul your first cast. A low or kneeling profile has been my best tactic on this stream especially in the shallow or narrow waters and even in deep runs when the water is crystal clear.
The Rio de los Pinos is an excellent dry fly fishery. However, I am a nymph fisher, by nature, and I have my best results catching the larger fish using nymphs in the deep runs and pools. My favorite fly is a green caddis larvae pattern. If I?m not fishing with nymphs I use an Elk Hair Caddis pattern with a dark green body. I have tried light body caddis patterns and they just don?t seem to work as well for me.
If the fish are being argumentative or cantankerous when you are using dry flies the standard attractor patterns seem to work well. During a hatch always use a size or two larger than the hatch and you will have better success. When nymphs are called for I use a bead-head prince nymph, bead-head hare?s Ear nymph and green Caddis larva. Unlike many streams, these same patterns work equally as well in the entire watershed.
The upper section of the Rio de los Pinos in Colorado holds rainbows, wild browns and brookies with Rio Grande cutthroats being the predominant species near the confluence of Osier and Cascade creeks above Osier. Good fishing is at hand from the confluence upstream in both Osier and Cascade Creeks. Osier is a water stop for the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad and is located about a mile north of the New Mexico border.
Below Osier the stream width is 10 to 15 feet as it travels through Toltec Gorge in New Mexico. The predominant species in this stretch are wild German brown trout. There is about 2 miles of stream to fish above and below Toltec Gorge before you reach a private ranch, which is a barrier to the stream.
Access to the area above the ranch is best by train to Osier in Colorado. You can also access Osier by motor vehicle from Mogote, Colorado traveling south and west using forest road 103 from route CO17 a short distance west of Antonito, Colorado. Once at Osier the road continues downhill to the stream. However, this portion of the road is very primitive and should not be traveled without the use of a four-wheel drive high clearance vehicle.
Special arrangements can be made with the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad to board the train at the Chama Depot or the Antonito Depot and travel to Osier in Colorado for access the upper section of the Rio de los Pinos in Colorado. After your arrival at Osier you can hike down the canyon a mile or so and access the Pinos in New Mexico. You can make it a day hike or you can camp by the stream for a few days and when you are finally sick and tired of great fishing, hike back up to Osier and catch the train back on its scheduled return to your destination. The route of the train follows the Rio de los Pinos, some places within several yards, through the Carson National Forest and then moves away from the river south of Antonito. What a great view and a great way to go fishing. It is always advisable to contact the railroad company prior to your trip for current conditions and schedules. The railroad has had to shutdown operation at times due to fire dangers and other considerations.
Downstream of the private ranch is the remainder of the upper section. The best access to this portion begins at San Miguel driving in from Antonito. The section from San Miguel upstream to the private ranch is special regulations water with a limit of 2 fish and is also limited to artificial flies and lures with single barbless hooks. Incidentally, if you have a four wheel drive vehicle you can turn north at the ranch barrier and drive up to forest road 103 for another access route to the Osier.
The special regulations water holds nice sized browns and large hold-over rainbows, which are elusive and rewarding to catch. If you want to catch a wild brown this is the place. My favorite portion of the stream is here and surprisingly the anglers are few and far between. I usually camp about a half mile upstream of the special regulations water boundary at San Miguel and fish upstream where there are a few miles of premium water to fish.
Fishing both portions of the upper section is more challenging. This is one-cast fly-fishing to a rising trout. However, if you miss the fish come back later and it may be waiting for you on your return. When the water is crystal clear kneeling and slingshot casts will be required so hone your skills. It is not uncommon to catch a 15-inch wild brown in the upper section and winter holdovers can reach 18 inches. Surprisingly, even with the heavy snowfalls in the winter this stream is very survivable for these fish.
Cruces Basin Wilderness south of the Rio de los Pinos carries Diablo, Beaver and Cruces creeks which converge as Beaver Creek, to form the three arms of the cruces, Spanish for cross and flows north through several beaver ponds before dropping over a waterfall and converging with the Rio de los Pinos. All of the creeks carry brook trout, small to medium size but plentiful.
Bob Widgren lived in the area for years and knows the Rio de los Pinos watershed better than anyone I know.
Widgren said, "During runoff the beaver dams occasionally break and the larger brookies move into the stream braids created by the influx of the additional water." He also said the waterfall just before the confluence with the Pinos is a natural barrier that keeps these brookies in the feeder creeks. The Cruces Basin is a fun place to fish. The fish are plentiful and the area is perfect for the novice fly fisher as the brookies are not as shy as some of the other species of trout in this fishery", Widgren says.
Access Cruces Basin by traveling west on forest road 87 from US 285 north of Tres Piedras, New Mexico to the trailhead at Osha Canyon. The trail is a little over a mile in length and descends about 350 ft. to the water, you know, 20 minutes in and 45 minutes out after a long day of fishing. Incidentally, forest road 87A forks north from forest road 87 and meets the bridge in San Miguel where the special regulation water starts. San Miguel is 9 long miles from the Cruces Basin access.
This section is best accessed from Antonito, Colorado using County Road 12.5. After several miles this paved road curves sharply to the left into the community of Los Pinos, New Mexico. Continue driving straight on the dirt road fork to the right in lieu of making the left curve. Traveling west the road ultimately carries you all the way through the lower and upper sections to the private ranch barrier as F.R. 284. The lower section stream width is 25 to 40 feet wide in sections. There are a few miles of access to fishing and camping along the stream. This section is where the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish manages the Rio de los Pinos Wildlife and Fishing Area. The average size of these fish range 9 to 12 inches with larger holdover trout. Traveling west of the Wildlife Fishing area private property saddles the stream for several miles except for a short stretch prior to reaching San Miguel. Most of the lower section water holds stocker rainbows, holdover rainbows and an occasional brown trout.
In this section the Pinos carries several wide runs that create side braids or forks where the stream narrows. The lower area also has many very large boulders strewn like a couple of handfuls of dice on a craps table creating some nice deep pools. Bait anglers mostly fish the pools but, don't let that or the numbers of campers discourage you from fishing here because you will find only a few people fishing with the rest simply camping in the campsites along the bank.
Gear and other stuff
This is 6X or 7X water, no bigger. I am not saying you will not catch any fish with larger tippet, just fewer. I prefer to use an 8 foot 3-weight rod with floating line and a 10 foot leader, although an 8 foot 6 inch 5-weight rod will work as well. And be sure to set your reel with a loose drag. This entire stream is easily fishable for even the novice fly caster because the banks are plenty wide enough for long casts if your slingshot casting or other creative casting methods are rusty. And do not forget a lower profile is essential.
Several areas along the stream banks have standing water from runoff or rains so be sure to have mosquito repellent with you and raingear is always advisable.
I prefer camping but Antonito, Colorado, about 35 minutes away from the fishing has a very nice Bed and Breakfast named River's Inn & Swiss Cottage, B&B. The nearest larger town from Antonito is Alamosa with the normal well-known Motel chains. I have stayed at the Alamosa Best Western Motel, which was very nice, and while I was there I had dinner at the Grizzly Inn and Pub; a great place to eat and relax after a hard day of fun. Alamosa is only 23 miles north of Antonito traveling US 285.
US 285 will carry you between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Antonito, Colorado. Colorado route 17 carries you between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico. All dirt roads in this fishery are subject to being muddy or closed during wet weather, so it is always advisable to check current dirt road conditions. Normally the roads are clear all summer.
Visit the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad web site http://www.cumbrestoltec.com for train schedules and links to maps, licenses information, and accommodations for Colorado and New Mexico or call 888.286.2737 for more information. For area accommodations visit the web sites www.alamosa.org and http://www.chamavalley.com.
I took my friend Mike Heitman fishing in the fall and while reflecting about our trip Mike said, "I was surprised to find such a gem of a stream in the middle of all that rough and tumble sagebrush country. When you see the remnants of the watercourse from 285, you have no idea what lies upstream. In my view, a tip from someone who knows and a leap of faith are required to get you up that county road 12.5 looking for trout water. But Man does it pay dividends! Those fat fish we caught seemed out of proportion to the size of the water we were fishing."
This watershed is a little more removed from a larger town than most streams in New Mexico and some areas in this fishery take a little more work to catch a fish but the Rio de los Pinos is truly a river of the pines, unspoiled with its breath-taking views of forested areas with pine trees, cottonwood trees and aspens bordering small meadows alongside the stream banks, particularly in the fall with all the beautiful hues of reds, oranges and browns preparing for the coming winter hibernation. And for this incredible journey I have been traveling for the last 48 years. It is far from over; I have a 6-year-old great-grandson Brandon who has a lot of fishing lessons that need to be learned.
Gear: Use 8 foot 3-weight or 8 foot 6 inch 5-weight rods with floating lines. Leaders should be 9 to10 foot with 6X or 7X tippet.
Useful fly patterns: Griffith's Gnat, Pheasant Tail Nymphs, and Green Caddis Larva and Elk Hair Caddis (green), Parachute Adams and the standard attractor patterns any time the fish are rising. These flies should range between size 10 and 18. Griffith's Gnats should be size 18 to 22. In early May through late June, during the tail end of the spring runoff, there is a dense Giant Stonefly hatch. During the hatch, fish with a Brook's Stone, Peacock Nymph, Peacock Simulator nymph or other similar cone-shaped dark stonefly pattern in sizes 8 to 10. During the hottest days of the late summer and early fall use black stimulator or hopper patterns in sizes 8 to 10.
Fly shops/Guides: I would recommend bringing enough flies for your trip as fly shops in this area seem to come and go so I cannot recommend a shop nearby. As for guides I would recommend Taylor Streit-Fly Fishing Service, Taos, New Mexico (505) 751-1312, www.streitflyfishing.com .
Books/Maps: Guide to Fly Fishing in New Mexico by Taylor Streit and Fly Fishing in Northern New Mexico edited by Craig Martin; excellent books. I use Maptech Terrain Navigator Pro digital CD maps however the 7.5 minute USGS Topo maps are very useful www.maptech.com. Another very useful map system is on the USGS web site at http://nmviewogc.cr.usgs.gov/viewer.htm.
Take US 84 north to Chama to access the west end of the Rio de los Pinos from the railroad. Take NM 87 from US 285 to the Cruces Basin Wilderness for access to the Rio de los Pinos west feeder streams. Take US 285 to Antonito, Colorado to access the east end of the Rio de los Pinos near Ortiz and Los Pinos, New Mexico.
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