Chasing the Rio Grande Cutthroat
from The Fishing Wire
From nearly anywhere in my Santa Fe County home, I have the most fortunate view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It’s where the Rockies start in New Mexico. As I write this, a towering anvil-headed September storm cloud turns the color of a watermelon above Santa Fe Baldy and Hamilton Mesa as the day melts into night.
The moisture wrung out of this moving painting strikes the mountain slopes, softened by pines and firs and spruce trees, and funnels through granite crevices as it pours downhill. The rain consolidates into rivulets and then into “ritos” with names like Azul, Padre and Valdes. These rills will soon beget the Pecos proper, but before they do, their waters stall in dark pools under the cooling shade of alder trees and become habitat for Rio Grande cutthroat trout.
The Rio Grande cutthroat trout is named for the splash of crimson below its gills. In the spring of the year, the spawning males are awash in red over their head and chest. It’s stunning, as if they are soaked in blood.
Under these September clouds, the fish lie there in pools under the shadows of ponderosas that have fallen into the stream or on the edge of a boulder in an eddy where the water is slowed, waiting for a grasshopper or mayfly or a moth to flit too close to the water.
With a dart and roll, a bug becomes food. That is unless that bug is a look-alike, mere fur and feathers adorning on a tiny hook. A tug and a splash, and in a moment I can see my reflection on a trout’s shimmering flank and feel its cold muscles writhing in my wet hand as its slips back into the water with a parting flip of its spotted tail.
Outwitting cutthroat trout in the high country, especially with my children, is among my most favorite pastimes. Never do I feel more alive; I’m a participant in nature, not merely an observer. These tiny streams bordered by brush and boulder require stealth, concentration and resolve. The experience hones your senses and is head-clearing, like floss for your psyche.
It’s physically demanding, too. A friend of mine likened fishing cutthroat waters to doing yoga while casting. The cutthroat streams in the upper Pecos as elsewhere in northern New Mexico are typically small and not well visited. That is, you might be making your own trail over deadfall and boulders and through patches of wild raspberries, which are appropriately colored like a trout’s throat.
The trout don’t grow large in small waters, but still, when I catch a cutthroat I feel like a man who just found money. Rio Grande cutthroat trout live is pretty places and the Sangres are among the prettiest of mountains. Each fish is uniquely adorned with a constellation of spots that no other will have, lying on a background from a pallet of paint borrowed from a late-summer sunrise accessorized with last night’s left-over tattered clouds.
The Rio Grande cutthroat trout is the official state fish of New Mexico and holds the distinction of being the first trout documented in the New World. In 1541, as the Coronado’s entrada passed near Pecos, one chronicler noted “truchas” swimming about.