Fishing Memories By George Morse

Cabresto Lake near Questa sits at an elevation of 9200 feet. It has a naturally-reproducing population of cutthroat trout and brook trout.


By George Morse

Fishing Memories II

With so many places to go fishing, sometimes we forget about those that we haven’t been to in a long time. Then something perks our interest in them again. In the process of writing a fishing report every week, one thing that would always grab my attention was the lack of reports from Cabresto Lake.

Cabresto Lake is a small lake at 9,200 feet in elevation near the town of Questa. It is not stocked, which may explain why the fishing pressure appears to be so light. It contains naturally-reproducing brook trout and cutthroat trout. It used to be stocked with rainbow trout, so its population of cutthroats probably has a few rainbow trout genes mixed in. I have a soft spot for brook trout.

I grew up on the East Coast. There, brook trout are the native species of trout. Yet they aren’t truly trout. Brook trout are actually char, which are closely related to trout. The Latin name for trout is salmo, while the Latin name for char is salvelinus. Brook trout are known as salvelinus fontinalis. Cutthroat trout are called salmo clarki.

On the East Coast, I fished small, rocky freestone streams shaded by hardwood trees. Discovering little streams that still held populations of wild brook trout was part of the challenge and adventure. In the heavily-developed and densely-populated East Coast, it was always a real revelation to find these small, still wild places hidden among the hustle and bustle of modern living.

Brook trout and other char prefer colder water than trout. They were widely introduced throughout the Rocky Mountains in the early 20th century. This turned out to not be such a good idea. Brook trout tended to take over the headwaters of streams and rivers, displacing the native cutthroat trout. Brook trout can also be very prolific, especially with a lack of natural predators. In some areas, they would overpopulate some lakes and streams, producing stunted populations. 

I had only been to Cabresto Lake a couple of times and the last time was over 20 years ago. I needed to take a little fishing trip and for some reason Cabresto Lake stuck in my mind. I was in a rut. Not getting out enough and enjoying the outdoors, so I decided Cabresto Lake would be a place to visit and see what was up. `I wanted to spend some time at higher elevation away from the heat. Cabresto is 9200 feet in elevation, so it would fill the bill.

One of the great things about getting out even on just a day-fishing trp is the good memories that it kindles. On the trip to Cabresto, these started to come back to me very quickly.Passing through Velarde and starting to follow the RioGrande, I noticed the flow in the river was much lower than it had been most of the year. The water clarity looked to be pretty good. Definitely in good fishing condition. I needed to plan a trip to the Rio Grande soon.

As the pools, riffles and rapids passed by, they also rekindled memories of fish caught, fish lost and trips with my nephews to the Rio Grande. I was shaking off the late-night hours spent writing. As I passed through Taos, other memories started to creep in back to the days when I drove tourists on trips to the museums, historical landmarks and visits with artists. Good things started to come back to me.

Afetr going through Taos, my mind drifted way back to when I was a college student living in Denver and my family had just recently moved to New Mexico. I used to drive down from Denver, often late at night. This was the way I would take. Back to my new home. It was lonely sometimes, but I got to love the loneliness of it. Just me and my truck rolling through the darkness, surrounded by the stars and the darkness.

Passing through Arroyo Hodo north of Taos, hunting memories started to fill in. Just north of Arroyo Hondo, there is Garrapata canyon. I always loved the way Garrapata seemed to roll off your tongue. I remembered an elk hunt here. I think it was in 1994. It was just mid-October, but the snow was deep on the ground. That year I killed a cow elk and I remember sliding the elk in the snow down from a ridge it had died on. It had worked like a charm, getting the animal down to a place where it could be more easily dressed out and reached. That year we had lots of snow. 

Continuing on, I checked out the pinon pines as they passed by. Not many ripe cones this year, but lots of little green ones. There should be a bigger crop next year. I would need to remember that.  It had been about five years since there had been a good crop of pinon, so the timing seemed about right. There’s something very relaxing about spending time on your hands and knees picking the pinon nuts off the ground. I had enjoyed it the last time and maybe next fall I could be doing it again.

Heading into Questa, I turned towards Red River and then to the turnoff to Cabresto Lake. It had been a long time since I’d been this way. The last time had been on that elk hunt. The snow had chased us down from the mountains that year. That was why we had ended up hunting lower down in Garrapata Canyon. 

The road roughly follows Cabresto Creek. The road was badly washboarded once it changed from pavement to dirt. It had been awhile since I’d driven on a washboarded road. There’s a sign at the beginning of the road that leads to Cabresto Lake that says it is not suitable for passenger cars. Take this sign seriously as I was about to discover. I have a four-wheel drive truck, so I was okay. It didn’t take long for me be glad I had that truck.

It’s a narrow, steep and rocky road up to the lake. Maybe that was a reason for the lack of reports. The lake is not easy to reach.

It had been awhile since I’d driven a road like that. Part of you gets very annoyed at how rough it is as you bounce and shake your way uphill. There’s another part of you that kind of likes the challenge of doing it. It’s the kind of road where if you meet somebody going the opposite direction, for a moment you have to figure out how both of you are going to get by each other.

When I got to the lake, there were a few cars in what was actually a nice parking area. The lake is much smaller than it used to be. There was a wind blowing that felt downright cold after the heat of the valley. I was glad I had brought a jacket. It’s a pretty little spot.

As I unloaded my fishing gear, I wasn’t sure how the fishing would be. The water in the lake is nice and clear and I was hoping, but part of me was not optimistic. 

The shoreline is steep and rocky. It’s a little difficult to negotiate and keep your balance. I’m glad I can still do it at 72, but I could see where it was not the nicest bank to fish from. To be brief, the fishing wasn’t any good. I didn’t get a bite in three hours. 

I picked my way carefully along the shoreline down to the inlet, where a small family group was fishing. Here the bank is muddy and marshy. The dad in the group was fly-fishing. He said he had caught a cutthroat. He caught another while I was there. There were some small fish rising a little ways upstream, but it was getting cold and dark. Time to make my way back up to the trail and to the truck.

It had been good to get out and hike along a shoreline at a higher elevation and good to breathe the cool, clean mountain air.

The drive down from the lake was a lot smoother than going up. Just stick it in low gear and make your way down. On the main dirt road, it wasn’t anywhere near as badly washboarded on the downhill side, so it went a lot easier than it had been going uphill. Several deer jumped in front of my headlights on the way down.

The night seemed to fall quickly and without a moon rising the darkness was deep. 

I don’t know if I’d recommend Cabresto Lake as a good spot to fish. It’s not easy to get there. I’m sure there are days when the fishing is much better than it had been that day. I was glad that I had made the trip, because these days fishing is about so much more than catching fish. It is about rekindling old memories of good times and unique experiences. 

More than that, it gets you to thinking about where you want to go on your next fishing trip. Will it be somewhere familiar or will it be somewhere new. Will it be about old memories or making a new one. It is about the past and the future while living in the present.

An angler fly-fishing the inlet to Cabresto Lake.


Cabresto Lake used to be much bigger than it now is.


A limit of brook trout taken on an earlier fishing trip to Hopewell Lake.