Outside Texas - "Enchanted Circle Grande Slam" by Zack Thiel
Updated: Feb 22, 2020
Driving from Laverne on our annual 4th of July fishing trip, my father in law ("Chief") and I were looking forward to cooler weather and fewer storms. It was a record spring of rainfall in Oklahoma and everything was remarkably green throughout the panhandle. We let out early enough to get an hour or so on the water before dark…a nice warm-up. On the drive up we purchased our 5-day license (online) so we would be able to hit the water as soon as we parked at the Palisades Sill turnout.
Palisades Sill is a beautiful rock outcropping that overlooks the river right along highway 64. Some say these cliffs are over 40 million years old.... don’t ask Chief. We reached the turnout and as always it was a race to get to the water. Lucky for Chief, I let him drive the last leg so I could crawl to the back of our 2018 rental Expedition and get his flyrod setup. The Cimarron was low and clear as they weren’t releasing much from Eagles Nest dam. (USGS flow chart posted at the end of the article.)
I tied on a double nymph set up to start the trip and I was on fish early catching a nice little rainbow. This beautiful bow chased down my nymph at the end of a long riffle eating the bedhead dropper.
I caught my first brownie of the trip in a deep pool that was currently occupied by Chief - a teaching moment.
I was talking with him about what we were trying to accomplish, reading water, and what to look for fishing with nymphs and indicators. In the process, I nabbed this little guy and was reminded, “never fish an occupied hole.” After frustrating my fishing buddy (opponent), I managed to spook a few decent fish in the brushy pool above, another teaching moment for me to “slow down.”
The next riffle was full of trout, I had a lot of looks, no takers. I decided to tie on a size 14 yellow PMX to my 6ft 2wt TFO and immediately saw action catching 2 more browns. This got me excited for day 2 on the water. We decided to call it a night and find a hotel.
The night before I called an inn around Eagle Nest and they mentioned there were several rooms available for the weekend. We rolled the dice and waited… that was a mistake. We decided to make our way to Red River in search of something, “anything with hot water” per Chief. Little did we know the town of Red River shuts down at 9pm, all but the bars and a couple of restaurants (shout-out to Dairy Bar).
Luckily after making a few calls, the manager at Hotel Ryland sent someone to unlock a room for us. The rooms were set up with a living area including a TV, fridge, and a sofa bed that had a memory foam mattress (where I would be sleeping). The bedroom had another nice flat screen tv and a queen or larger bed (gotta ask Chief). The bathroom splitting the two rooms had just what the doctor ordered, plenty of hot water!!
We woke up early the next morning, a little sore from the 7 plus hours of driving. I read a review of a restaurant on Trip Advisor that served very good breakfast, and my favorite...doughnuts! T Bucks sent us off with full bellies and a little pep in our step. We decided to start the day fishing near the Cimarron campground. There had been some nice beaver dams in this area last August, so we took a chance. I rigged us up with a double nymph setup after remembering my success, and several deep holes, of our previous trip. When we reached the water, we found extremely low flows and not much water to wet a fly.
Even with the low flows, I managed to spook a few fish and 1 monster brown. I ran into
Johnathan the game warden upstream near the campground. We had a good conversation about the area, and how this was the second time we had talked this month… shake my head. When we parted ways, I realized that I had lost my Fishpond net. I headed downstream frantic, stumbling over every obstacle in my path before I ran into Chief. He had this look-what-I-found sorta grin on his face as he flashed my brown trout colored burden of a net. He proceeded to tell me about all fish he landed in the hole just around the bend. We decided to make our way upstream toward the truck to drive to better flows. Near the campground, I managed to land a couple of rainbow stockers in a deep slow-moving pool that traveled under an overhanging tree. Chief got the better of me by the time lunch rolled around, but I still maintained a 6 to 4 lead. We stopped at a convenience store in Ute Park for some nourishment before getting back to the stream.
After lunch, we pulled off by the lower stretch of public water near gravel pit lakes. The flows were much better here, and there were some nice deep holes. I tried my luck with the size 14 yellow PMX, this time with a nymph dropper tied to the hook shank. I prefer to tie the Double Davy knot, for some reason it fits my eye. We had a good afternoon catching a few browns in various pools and riffles. We fished up to the spillway by the road where Chief managed to land a nice brownie (this gave him a much-needed boost of energy). We decided to cross the highway and continue fishing even though the catching had slowed down. I told Chief we should go try the Sills again because the night before had been a success. I was right as I had an immediate strike and landed a nice bow, but this turned out to be the last of the night. We called it quits when a storm approached and decided to get back to Red River for some nice warm Italian food. I had a 10-7 lead.
The next morning, after T Bucks, we stopped by a guide shop for some advice on new locations. The guide was young and sounded more like a surfer than a fisherman. He told us due to the crazy runoff on most rivers he would suggest the Rio Costilla. We had fished the Costilla the previous year so we knew it well. If you like beautiful, slow, serpentine meadow streams with little riparian vegetation and lots of wild trout, this is your place.
Once there, the flows were good and the wind was down, so we expected this to be a good day. But for some mysterious reason, we didn’t manage to find the fish as we had hoped. I landed a nice rainbow and a gorgeous Rio Grande cutthroat both in deep water. When the catching is slow it makes the fight that much more important and memorable. It seemed like I fought each of those fish for thirty minutes.
We made the turnoff in Questa and headed towards Red River, NM. The road to Cabresto Creek heads northeast changing quickly from blacktop in town to gravel - miles and miles of rough-riding, neverending gravel road. It’s times like these you just sit back and think about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
We found a good spot to pull off just as it starts to rain. The water is small, low flows, clear, and brushy, no so friendly to a couple of newbs like us. We get to the first decent pool and fish scatter...this is going to take some finesse. I plod my way along ducking and hopping the fallen trees trying to stay low as to not spook anything else. I hear Chief in the distance holler, “Fish on!" I arrive just in time to see him net a beautiful little brookie. I was glad for him but also hacked off. A brook trout was the species I need to catch next in order to complete my New Mexico Grande Slam - four species of trout, including a Rio Grande cutthroat.
We decide to explore a bit further upstream and stumble onto the perfect hole. I let Chief have a go at it, and the hole disappoints. I miss a lightning-quick strike just below the gorgeous-looking hole and start to feel the pressure building. I look downstream and there is a beautiful bend with the perfect tree on the bank to shield my body from these spooky little swimmers. I cast the size 16 PMX and I’m soon on to a beautiful little brookie. I felt like a proud papa holding that little fish in two hands when only half a hand was needed. My Grande Slam was complete and the pressure was off. Time to enjoy the view.
Day 4 was the final day of this trip. We decided to change things up a bit, so we went back to T bucks but this time we ate an hour later. The food was still great, but we were pushing in on the vacationer’s schedule as the waiting area was full by the time we got our food. The plan was to fish the Cimarron till 11am then head home. Yeah…that was the plan.
We started the day at Palisade Sill and we were the first anglers there. The water was high and dirty; they finally released water from Eagle Nest Lake. Unsure of how they would react I went back with the double nymph setup with an airlock indicator. I started fishing the likely areas and on my third cast, a nice-looking brown took my indicator under - bye-bye nymphs and Hello dry flies.
I tied on another yellow size 14 PMX, no dropper this time. I like to use an orange sharpie to make the parachute stand out in the foam. This time instead of the nifty little 6ft 2 weight I was using my 10ft 5wt TFO. I found it much easier to high stick across the different currents dabbing the water in the likely places. The fishing was on fire! Every hole had a nice splashy surprise hidden under the stirred up murky water. This would be a good time to mention my landing percentage, which I’d say is right around 30%. I can find fish in most places, but netting fish is a difficult task for me at the moment. I believe I completely missed or hooked and lost four trout before I finally landed the first one of the day.
The action was constant, and I learned a lot about what not to do that day. The largest fish of the trip came just after I missed a small brownie in a hole no bigger than my office desk. It had it all, a big rock at the top, deep heavy water to the far side and a sweeper at the bottom of the hole. I put a nice cast up by the rock but my PMX got caught in a swirl. Just as it went under a big brown devoured the dry. It splashed and jetted toward the tree, but I pulled back upstream causing it to break the surface. This was a nice fish, but I was in a bad position where I couldn’t move my feet. The fish took my fly under toward the boulder at the top of the hole, tugged a moment, but then....zing. The next thing I know I’m climbing a tree to get my PMX back. This left me disgusted as I had been sitting on fish number nineteen, and fish number twenty sure looked like something special.
I took a few minutes to compose myself and moved on to the next hole. Things went from bad to ugly as I missed the next four fish. The last one caused me to let out a primal scream that had Chief rethinking his decision to let me in the family. My day was done, I gave way to Chief on the best stretch of water we’d seen all day. He made perfect drift after perfect drift in what was extremely fishy water but caught nothing. Chief and I were both looking at each other wondering why the action had stopped when we saw another fisherman come out from around the corner. We were too late; the hole had been fished and our time was up. Time to head home.
Books we recommend for enjoying the Enchanted Circle area of NM.
Fly Fishing in Northern New Mexico (Martin)
Fly Fisher's Guide to New Mexico (Beachum)
Fly Fishing New Mexico (Streit)
50 Things to See and Do in Northern New Mexico's Enchanted Circle (Williams-Williams)
49 Trout Streams of Northern New Mexico-(Shewnack-Frangos)
Fly Patterns of Northern New Mexico -(Denison-Orr)