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Searching for Gold at Cooper's El Vado...

Cooper's El Vado Ranch

el vado: (noun) (from Spanish): a ford, a shallow place in river or stream allowing one to walk or drive across

El Vado, Part One:

The Rio Chama comes to life over glacially carved peaks in the southern San Juan Mountains north of the New Mexico border. The river journeys east toward the sunrise before it turns south, carving through Lobato Gorge, heading toward the Village of Chama. From Chama, the river continues south, meandering a bit west before finding the hidden town of El Vado.

In the late 1800’s el vado was considered a safe and shallow place to cross the Rio Chama by those traveling by wagons and horses.  Towering old-growth ponderosa pine forests drew lumbermen, commerce and soon a railroad to the crossing.  The newly established town of El Vado rapidly became a lumber and rail center with sawmill, mill pond, kilns for drying lumber, rail yards, company store, school, church, saloons, brothels, opera house and post office. El Vado would soon grow to be the largest community in Rio Arriba County.

El Vado, New Mexico

By the year 1923, the once impressive pine forests had been decimated by clear cutting and the El Vado logging industry abruptly came to a halt. Within the next few years, with no more trees to harvest, the lumber company would head elsewhere, followed by the railroad. In 1927, the now ghost town of El Vado would silently collapse.

During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps began to build the first dam across the Rio Chama. The El Vado dam would span 1,326 feet and was completed in 1935. In 1936 the river’s water, now confined behind a wall of concrete and steel, would begin to rise creating a reservoir to store water for irrigation and to honor the Indigenous water rights of the Six Middle Rio Grande Pueblos. The ephemeral remains of the town of El Vado and it’s wild west boomtown memories quickly disappeared under the waters of the Rio Chama.

Drawn to the area for its brown trout fishery, Carl Cooper settled on the 100 acre ranch at the base of the dam in 1961.  Originally from Missouri, Carl moved to Albuquerque and began trips up north in his Model A Ford to fish the Rio Chama in search of big brown trout in 1935, just after the completion of the dam. It wasn’t until after the Great Depression and the second World War that Carl had enough money saved to purchase what is now the iconic Cooper’s El Vado Ranch. Over the next 60 years, Cooper’s would become synonymous with the dream of catching elusive Rio Chama brown trout.

anglers at Cooper's El Vado

“The things fishermen know about trout aren’t facts but articles of faith.”— John Gierach

Part two:

The rocks are slippery. Notoriously slippery. The water flowing past my feet is a cold shade of silty off-white as it leaves the dam and flows over the slick sandstone boulders. I have found myself standing in this water, facing these walls of Cretaceous rock many times. I wonder how deep the water must be at the exact space where the rock wall meets the mysterious ancient mud floor of the river. I’ve stood here before for countless hours; in rain, snow and seldom sunshine.  I cast my flies into the opaque water as it flows past the rock wall. I’m hoping to catch the brown trout of local folklore, a fish like the ones hanging on the wood paneled wall here at Cooper’s El Vado Ranch.

Cooper’s is 12 miles southwest of Tierra Amarilla, where the Rio Chama is first dammed as it flows 130 miles to meet the Rio Grande. It is the home of the New Mexico State Record brown trout caught in 1946 by the angler GT Colgrove. It weighed in at a hefty 20.5 pounds and measured 35.5 inches long. The next two runners up were also caught here at Cooper’s. In 1964, Carl Trubee of Roswell caught the second largest brown trout in state history. His trout measured 18 pounds and 34 5/8 inches long. Just two years later, in 1966, Carl Cooper, the founder of Cooper’s El Vado Ranch caught the third largest brown trout at 14 pounds and 32.5 inches.

Today, David Cooper continues his father’s legacy of welcoming guests to his family ranch. Cabins built in the 1940’s still house anglers for weekends spent fishing from sun-up to sun-down in a river shrouded in legend.  The office walls are covered with a historical account of those legends. An assemblage of dusty taxidermy trout, faded newspaper articles and binders brimming with polaroid photos of proud anglers and their trophies offer a rich memoir of the fishery. Perhaps more importantly, they offer inspiration for a day spent standing numb-footed in the river below El Vado Dam.

David Cooper at Cooper's El Vado Ranch

Nearly a decade ago, after the release of Forest Fenn's treasure hunting book The Thrill of the Chase promised a cache of gold, jewels and priceless artifacts, droves of treasure seekers arrived at Cooper's with poem in hand. The poem reads,

"Begin where the warm waters halt

And take the canyon down,

Not far, but too far to walk,

Put in below the home of the Brown."

While Forest Fenn's mysterious treasure wasn't left for seekers to find along the river's banks at Cooper's El Vado Ranch, for some there are still treasures lurking beneath the water's surface.

It is my personal belief that there just may be an element of meritocracy to catching a brown trout of those proportions, and if there is, I am putting in my time. (It took Carl Cooper 31 years.) There are a myriad of obstacles facing the survival of big fish today. Wild fluctuations in flow rates below the dam ravages populations of aquatic insects that are essential to growing big trout.  Warmer global climate trends and liberal catch and keep policies add to the struggle. We don’t know if state record trout still exist here below El Vado.  However, tail-waters do offer year round growing seasons and those limestone rocks, full of calcium carbonate and magnesium, create silty bottoms perfect for breeding those requisite aquatic bugs that big trout feast on. So as long as there is a chance, and there is always a chance, I will be here at Cooper’s each winter casting my flies into the Rio Chama in hopes of hooking the next big one.

brown trout


This piece was originally published in two parts for the Rio Chama Reporter newsmagazine. It has been edited for this blog. I hope that you enjoy the story.

xo~ Kelley

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As always, a delightful read!

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