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Spring creeks epitomize what we are all seeking in fly fishing – namely, year-round angling, classic hatches and challenging, well-fed trout. And, surprisingly, that is just what you can find on the Rio Penasco in southeastern New Mexico about three hours by car northeast of El Paso, Texas. The Rio Penasco originates as a tiny creek in the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico and begins to build momentum just east of the town of Cloudcroft, as numerous underground springs increase its flows. The best fishing on the river is found in a nine-mile stretch of private water near Cloudcroft. Wild rainbows and browns abound in this stretch, with the average fish running 12 to 20 inches, but with individual specimens measuring much larger.
One of the beauties of this stream is, it can literally be fished year-round, thanks to consistent water temperatures and weather. Summer days here rarely exceed 85 degrees due to the area’s high elevation (about 5,700 feet), and winter days often reach the mid 60s. It is not uncommon to see fish rising to dries with several feet of snow on the banks. Water temperatures rarely vary much between 52 and 59 degrees, so fishing is often productive even during the worst winter weather, with the exception of March, when strong winds can make casting dries difficult. Some of the best dry fly fishing of the year is during July and August, but there will be days in these late summer months when afternoon thundershowers will muddy up the river. Therefore, anglers wishing to fish during this time should plan on being flexible.
The stretch of the Penasco you should focus your attention on is the quality water that roughly parallels the south side of US Highway 82 just northeast of the town of Elk, New Mexico, about 30 river-miles downstream from the river’s headwaters in the Sacramento Mountains. The first section of the Rio Penasco quality water is two miles long and is controlled by the Bernard Cleve Ranch. This water is leased by the Mesilla Valley Fly Fishers of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the club has worked hard to improve stream banks and stock catchable-size rainbows and browns. The banks here are quite wide with tall grass, but there is little vegetation in the water; the stream bed has lots of gravel. During the hot summer months this uppermost stretch can have very low water, which often allows anglers to witness first-hand the large numbers of trout found throughout the river. All anglers must be self-guided and carry a daily permit, available for $10 per day from The Reel Life in Albuquerque or Santa Fe (*), or from Norm Mabie at The Angler’s Nook in Las Cruces (*).
Just downstream of the Bernard Cleve Ranch lies the Charles Cleve Ranch, which controls about half a mile of the Rio Penasco. The river here begins to more closely resemble a typical spring creek, with more vegetation on its banks and more gravel, clay and silt than in the Bernard Cleve stretch. There is also more holding water on the Charles Cleve as compared to the Bernard Cleve, so anglers might not have to do as much walking on the Charles Cleve stretch. No formal permit is required to fish the Charles Cleve stretch. All anglers need to do is ask for permission and pay a small fee at the house on the north side of US 82.
Below the Charles Cleve Ranch lies the Foley Ranch, which controls 1 1/2 miles of private water. This section of the river arguably has the greatest density of fish, and possibly the most consistent hatches. Though the average fish on the Foley stretch ranges from 10 to 16 inches, skillful anglers have managed to land fish here in the 20 to 28-inch range. These bigger fish are generally landed on nymphs or streamers, and sometimes on grasshopper imitations in late summer and early fall.
Most anglers here are guided clients of The Reel Life, although that company can also arrange for self-guided anglers to access the entire property on an exclusive basis for $100 per day. The Reel Life prefers to book self-guided trips only after customers have previously done a guided trip. Also these bookings are subject to availability, as the owners of the ranch put a priority on resting the stream as necessary, and there are many anglers interested in guided trips, according to Manuel Monasterio, part owner of The Reel Life. His guided day trips cost $300 for one angler or $375 for two; these rates include a full-course lunch. Overnight trips are also available, which involve a noon-to-noon schedule, three meals and lodging in your choice of a rustic, heated cabin or a more upscale home. This trip costs $375 for one person or $550 for two.
Finally, the Mulcock Ranch (*) controls the last five miles of the Rio Penasco quality water. The diversity of water on this stretch is remarkable, with deep pools and waterfalls, running through a cow pasture and small canyon. Though the fishing can be more challenging here, this section holds some very large fish. The owner of the ranch handles all fishing arrangements, and he requires anglers to purchase annual memberships at a cost of $500. Guests may fish with members for a $50 per day fee. Call for more details on membership options and guest arrangements. Non-members may also call this number to inquire about staying overnight in a rustic bunkhouse on the property for $20 per angler per night.
Most anglers visiting the Rio Penasco end up visiting the Foley Ranch for a day or two on a guided basis with The Reel Life, and then venturing out on their own to the Bernard Cleve or Charles Cleve ranches. To help orient yourself with these waters before you strike out on your own, you may want to order either one or both of the following books: No Nonsense Guide To Fly Fishing in New Mexico, by Taylor Streit ($16.95); and Fly Fishing in Southern New Mexico by Ron Smorynski and Rex Johnson ($14.95 – available in September 1998). Both are available from The Reel Life. Information on state fishing regulations is available from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (*).
As regards what kind of gear to bring, keep in mind that these four stretches of private water average about 20 feet across, with areas of up to 30 feet and as narrow as 10 to 15 feet. Recommended gear includes eight or nine-foot, three to five-weight rods, nine to 12-foot leaders in 4x to 7x, and floating weight forward line.
Many of the fly patterns that are successful on other spring creeks in the West work quite well on the Penasco. Although it is not necessary to match the hatch to successfully fly fish here, have plenty of caddisfly and mayfly imitations on hand, as they are quite significant on the river throughout the year. Scuds, midges and damselflies are also abundant. Tiny tricos begin showing up on the river early in the mornings from March through September. Grasshoppers are the most productive terrestrial insect for fly fishermen to imitate. They appear as early as April and last until November, and sometimes later. The Penasco holds large numbers of native Rio Grande chubs, which are considered a delicacy by the resident browns. Streamers are often the most effective flies for landing trophy fish in this stream.
As regards accommodations in the area besides the ones mentioned above, there are plenty. The Lodge in Cloudcroft (*) is about 45 minutes from the Rio Penasco and is an excellent choice for anglers with non-fishing companions. It features award-winning dining, a nine-hole golf course (at 8,000 feet!), a heated pool and a sauna. Corporate rates are available for guests of The Reel Life. Cloudcroft also features shops and a few restaurants. You can get more information on what this town has to offer from the Cloudcroft Chamber of Commerce (*).
The resort town of Ruidoso is located about 1 1/2 hours north of the Rio Penasco. It is popular among Texans and features golf, horse racing, casino gambling, art galleries, performing arts and shopping. Ruidoso’s best hotel is the famous Inn of the Mountain Gods (*), owned by the Mescalero Apache Tribe. It offers casino gambling, fine dining, golf, tennis and lake fishing. Rooms start at $130 plus tax for one or two people.
The closest major airports to the Rio Penasco are in El Paso and Albuquerque; both are served by many major airlines. The closest regional airport is in Alamogordo, which is a one-hour drive from the Rio Penasco, and can be reached on Mesa Airlines (*). For more information on tourism and other accommodations in the area, contact the New Mexico Department of Tourism (*). – The Editors.