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The Rio Grande cutthroat (RGC), most southerly of native cutthroats, migrated down the spine of the Rockies to the very borders of Texas and Mexico. Spreading throughout the upper Rio Grande basin and adjacent Pecos and Canadian watersheds, its range encompassed present-day southern Colorado and the northeasterly half of New Mexico. It is the official state fish of New Mexico today.
Rio Grande cutthroats (Onchorhynchus clarki virginalis) are closely related to greenback cutthroats and Colorado River cutthroats. They probably descended from Colorado River cutthroats in a headwaters transfer over the Divide from the Colorado/Gunnison drainage. Another theory links Rio Grandes more closely to greenbacks, over relatively gentle Poncha Pass connecting the upper Arkansas and the upper Rio Grande. In any case, this subspecies’ epicenter was southern Colorado’s enormous, 8,000-foot-elevation San Luis Valley, spreading south and east as the Ice Ages subsided.
When Spanish and American pioneers showed up, they brought the usual consequences – overharvest of the natives for food and recreation, destructive grazing and timbering, and stocking of non-native species. Eventually, only a handful of pure-strain A+ populations of this fish held on in remote – mostly private – locations. Stocked brookies and browns overwhelmed them by competition and predation; stocked rainbows and non-native cutthroats polluted the gene pool. Many streams were ruined by cattle or depleted by irrigators. It took 20 years of effort by state wildlife agencies, working closely with private landowners, to restore the fish to its present "stable" (Colorado) or "stable-declining" (New Mexico) status. The US Forest Service now lists it as a "sensitive" species.
As a game fish, the Rio Grande cutthroat seldom gets its due. It’s as pretty and mighty as its deadly competitor, the Eastern brook trout, and much faster on the draw. Like its cousin the greenback, RGCs are usually small, no bigger than 11 to 12 inches, but this is because its habitat is now restricted to tiny high-elevation creeks with short growing seasons. There’s virtually no low-elevation, flatwater or big-river habitat left where they can be protected from exotic species. They’ve survived, but mostly been reduced to a small fish of streams you could lay a fly rod across. But given suitable habitat in its native range, it could readily grow to five to eight pounds.
In Colorado, about 36 populations of RGCs have been brought back by dedicated Colorado Department of Wildlife biologists Dave Langlois and John Alves. It wouldn’t have happened without cooperation from the Forbes-Trinchera and Taylor ranches, old Spanish land-grants which protected surviving pure-strain brood stock. Many high lakes are now reclaimed in the Sangre de Christo and South San Juan wilderness areas. Alberta Park Reservoir near the Wolf Creek Pass Ski Area is now managed as a "drive to" (easy-access) place to catch RGCs in larger sizes. Except for a few big brood fish, most are still small, but in two to three years many will reach the 20-inch class. For stream fishing, Alves recommends Medano Creek west of Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Ozier Creek near Antonito, the upper forks of Carnero Creek near LaGarita, and East Middle Creek north of Saguach.
In New Mexico, there are now 56 more or less pure RGC populations. State Game and Fish efforts led by native specialist Bill Stumpff have focused mainly on the Jemez and Pecos mountain headwaters. In the Jemez, some two hours northwest of Albuquerque, he recommends Cano¤es and Peralta creeks, Rio de las Vacas and the San Pedro Parks Wilderness Area. In the Pecos Wilderness Area, targeted for future restored lake populations, he suggests the Jack’s Creek/Pecos Canyon area near Santa Fe. Catch-and-release is advised, even though state regulations permit two fish with the characteristic cutthroat "slash marks."
Other important work in New Mexico is being done on the private 580,000-acre Vermejo Park Ranch (*) an hour west of Raton, purchased in 1996 by Turner Enterprises, Inc. (TEI) of Montana. Historic cattle damage to ranch streams is being reversed, as TEI staff Chris Francis and Jim Baker rebuild and re-seed habitat from pure-strain sources (including the ranch’s own A+ Ricardo Creek population). Apart from this major turn toward conservation, the ranch will continue as before as a high-end resort with guided fishing, luxury lodging and gourmet meals at $325 per day. The Turner operation is a very high-value role model in the New West. Without concerned private-sector initiatives like this, native cutthroats will always struggle along on a barely-surviving basis. Hopefully the fabled Philmont Boy Scout Ranch next door will soon undertake similar projects of its own.
New Mexico’s best known location for RGC fishing is the million-acre Valle Vidal area west of Vermejo Park, now part of the National Forest system. Draining the upper Rio Costilla, it’s easily accessible by good gravel roads. There’s a good campground seven miles up the tiny Comanche Creek tributary (which holds surprisingly large fish). Near the campground are the Shuree Ponds, which offer trophy sizes of mixed species, including one pond just for children. Above the Comanche Creek confluence, Rio Costilla flows are shut off in winter by the upstream reservoir. For several miles below, however, there are lots of healthy, nice-sized (but hybridized) RGCs in a gorgeous canyon setting.
Downstream, the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association (RCCLA) features the 10,000-acre Rio Costilla Park fishing and camping area, up the Costilla’s Latir Creek tributary. This chain of nine lakes, the largest natural alpine lakes in New Mexico, yielded the state record cutthroat (10 pounds) years ago – probably not a true native, but a mixed-breed cutthroat from earlier stockings. There are still large fish in these lakes, but they’re not easy to catch. It’s a beautiful place, and hopefully the RCCLA will one day get together with the state and restore this as the RGC refuge and trophy fishery it could be – once again with "natives as long as your arm," drawing high-dollar anglers from all over the world. For convenient lodging, check out the Rio Costilla Bed and Breakfast on the original town square of the local village.
As a headquarters for the broader area, the economical Willows Inn Bed and Breakfast in Taos is highly recommended. Owner Doug Camp is not only an RGC enthusiast, but also fishes private venues for trophy browns and rainbows. This is a good choice for wife and family, especially during early-spring ski season when five-plus-pound cuttbows become sight-fishable in the mainstem Rio Grande nearby. These powerful hybrids are the closest you can come now to trophy RGCs, or what it would have been like to fish the great river 150 years ago. Otherwise, this is a summer to fall fishery.
For solid statewide fishing advice, New Mexico employs expert Ti Piper, author of "Fishing in New Mexico", to answer your questions. He reminds us that great stealth is required to sneak up on small-stream RGCs, and presentation is more important than fly choice. Conventional upstream casting even with short rods can be difficult to impossible, especially over easily spooked fish. Instead, Piper suggests fishing across to opposite banks, and feeding extended drifts downstream.
Of the good pro guides in northern New Mexico, "Doc" Thompson of High Country Anglers in Cimarron is a leading RGC activist and knows Costilla cutthroat secrets like "fastball" and "change-up" strikes. Other RGC allies include Reel Life and Los Pinos Anglers in Albuquerque; High Desert Anglers in Santa Fe; and Los Rios Anglers in Taos.
Today a new synergism is developing in New Mexico to restore its state fish. Readers wanting to help can make tax-deductible contributions to a new partnership between New Mexico Trout (a non-profit organization that put RGCs in the state’s main aquarium) and the US Forest Service, with matching funds available from the National Forest Foundation. Send contributions to the New Mexico Trout Native Restoration Fund.