San Juan River
The San Juan River, a world-class tail-water fishery, spills from Navajo Lake in northwest New Mexico. Big fish abound in this river and I routinely catch a handful of 19 inch or larger trout most days that I fish. This fishery is an excellent trout habitat with almost constant water temperatures but can at times be a difficult place to fish. Using infinitesimal tippet material, tiny morsels of representative resident insects and exercising a great deal of patience and persistence are the order of the day. The fish in this river grow an average of an inch a month primarily due to an abundance of aquatic insects ranging from the well-known San Juan worm to midges, baetis, mayflies, caddis flies, black flies, scuds and so on. The most prolific insect on the San Juan is the midge, which hatch every day of the year without fail. The four and one-quarter miles of the San Juan River below Navajo Dam is designated quality waters and has approximately 80,000 trout averaging 17 to 18 inches in size with many fish exceeding 22 inches and larger.
I was tying tiny San Juan flies for my next fishing trip to the San Juan River while reminiscing about my past trips there and looking forward to another winter fishing season. Most of the rivers and streams in Northern New Mexico are not easily fished in the winter so I redirect my fly fishing attention to the San Juan River and the Rio Grande. Most fly fishers spend their winters tying flies and getting reacquainted with their families and pets. Not I. During 24 years I have been fortunate to fish both sides of the San Juan River from the dam to a about 11 miles downstream in this trophy trout fishery. Some of my most memorable fishing trips have been in the winter by myself and with my brother and friends. This pre-historic backdrop scattered with modern day natural gas wells holds this bountiful fishery and is where I made my first fishing trip in the late 1970s after reading an article in our local newspaper featuring the San Juan.
The newspaper article told me of a local fly shop on the San Juan. After arriving at this small riverside community of Navajo Dam I made Abe's my first stop to get acquainted. Abe Chavez and his wife Patsy established Abe's Fly and Tackle store there in 1958 and built up a successful business. I visited with Abe to introduce myself, get some pointers and to buy a few flies. The first place I fished was near an old gravel pit but turned no fish. I realized very quickly that all my years of fishing for brown trout, cutthroats and rainbows elsewhere were not adequate for this river. I knew trout fishing and knew how to read water, but this place was somehow different--the trout were much more elusive than trout from other places I had been.
I decided that if I were to learn how to fish this river it couldn't be as a Methodist. I would need a full immersion like a Baptist, but full immersion didn't guarantee success. After several months of fishing the San Juan almost exclusively, I brought few fish to hand. One day I told Abe "after today, I probably won't be back. I just simply was not catching many fish. He had a remedy. "Let me take you out for an hour and if you don't catch anything, I won't try to talk you out of it," Abe offered.
We went to the river near an old pump house, about a half-mile upstream from his store. We fished using a spinning rod as we did back then with a pencil sinker and a size 14 Domino Woven Nymph on a dropper about 12 inches above the sinker. The one thing I will always remember he said was "be patient and most importantly be observant, a trout in this river will put a fly in its mouth and spit it out before you know you have a hit." I took his advise to heart and while he was talking me through my first cast I got a very soft tap at the end of the drift and I set the hook. The fish was a nice 18-inch fat high jumping rainbow trout; you might say it made an impression.
To this day, I still set the hook at the end of a drift before casting again and have had many a fish on the end of my line over the years. Soon after that experience I learned to tie my own flies and eventually tied commercially for Abe's store and others to support my fly-fishing obsession. By early 1979, I was fishing with my first fly rod that I built and never looked back to the old pencil sinker setup again.
The winters in northwestern New Mexico can be quite cold but the warm New Mexico sun, long underwear or polar fleece and a good pair of gloves makes the conditions tolerable. Winter temperatures can range from 20 degrees early in the morning to the low 50-degree range in the mid-afternoon. With 280 plus days of sunshine there is a very good chance of having comfortable weather in this high desert paradise during winter. Fishing pressure throughout the winter as compared to the rest of the year is much lighter and the obvious advantage is there are fewer anglers and more space to fish.
There are several place names to keep in mind when fishing this river. Texas hole is the most popular because it is a very large. It is fed from three braids of water from the main river. Texas hole is deep and is about the size of a long football field. This hole has a lot of fish, which brings a lot of fishing pressure, and can be frustrating at times. You need to fish it at least once. On a good long day you can catch 40 to 60 fish. But when they are not hitting it can be brutal to the physique.
The areas that are my personal favorites are the upper flats, middle main channel, the lower flats and lunker alley and the cable run section. All areas listed below named "The Quailty Waters" is all catch and release waters." The San Juan water current should be taken very seriously because the current can be swifter than it appears. I recommend using a wading staff especially when the water is a little murky. The optimum flow to look for is 500 to 750 cfs and this information is readily available. I also recommend wading this river with wading boots which have cleats because the moss on a sandstone or rocky bottom can be quite slick.
The cable run is a rather small run just below the dam. A cable designates the area and crosses the main channel. The cable rests on top of two posts about six feet tall. This run can be very difficult to fish but if you like a challenge fish it. Patience in this run is a virtue for sure. Leeches, such as an elk hide spotted leech or a dark bunny leech, have always worked best for me.
The upper flats is a very large area spread out of the main channel. This stretch has slow lower water with a lot of deep braids running through sandstone bottom structures creating narrow channels. That's where the fish are. This area can be very slick with moss so be cautious. Chocolate and gray emergers in size 20 and red or orange annelids in size 22 work well here. I have also had good results with a Griffith's Gnat in size 22 or smaller to represent a cluster of hatching midges. This stretch can be a little tricky because of the bottom structure.
Middle Main Channel
The middle main channel is about 300 yards below the bottom end of Texas hole. The run splits into two channels and as you walk downstream you will be looking for the main channel on the right. At the head of the channel the water has back eddies on the opposite side. The main run is landscaped with large rocks and a sandstone bottom structure with narrow and deep braided channels, which hold a lot of fish. This area is popular also so my advice is if you want some solitude fish this stretch early. Some of the lower portion has deep drop-offs so be cautious in this stretch. Leeches and midges work best for me here.
The lower flats are very similar to the upper flats accept it is more open. Both upper and lower flats can be a little tricky to fish at times. You need to do some creative line mending due to the flows through the braids of water. Be cautious wading because the bottom structures can be described as a corrugated metal roof with the high points less than a foot deep and the low points in some places waist deep. Use size 22 chocolate or gray emergers and size 24 red or orange annelids. Red San Juan worms are always good in the lower flats.
My favorite spot on the river is lunker alley. This area is at the bottom end of the lower flats and narrows significantly. It is a very long and deep run and there is a reason it is named lunker alley. Do not be surprised if you see several large fish swimming at your heels all day, it is very common. My favorite patterns for this area are gray bunny leeches, red or orange San Juan worms, red or orange annelids and chocolate emergers. The emergers and annelids should range between size 18 and 24.
My fly rod of choice for the San Juan is an eight-foot nine inch 3 weight rod with floating line or an eight-foot six inch 5 weight rod with floating line on windy days. Using 6X or 7X tippet material is absolutely essential; fluorocarbon is best. The best advice I can give anyone who fishes the San Juan is be patient and most importantly be observant and I can almost guarantee you will catch a San Juan trophy rainbow. Do not be afraid to experiment. It is very important to maintain a good natural drift and keep you line tight as possible.
The New Mexico Game and Fish Department has set the regulations for the quality water section of the San Juan to the use of artificial flies and lures with single barbless hooks. The first one-quarter of a mile of the river is catch and release only, where all fish must be returned to the water, with the remainder of quality waters catch and release only. There is a $5 per day charge for parking at the many developed parking areas in the quality water section. A yearly pass can be obtained at Navajo Dam for $40, which is good at all New Mexico State parks.
The best San Juan River web site to visit is Mike Mora's www.ifly4trout.com specializing on this river with information about flies, maps, guide service information, lodging, etc.. Mike's web site is the most comprehensive web site featuring the San Juan on the Internet. Mike has the best river map I've seen to describe the various stretches of quality water place names. Visit this web; it is essential to get a clear view of the San Juan prior to your trip.
There are several motels in nearby Bloomfield, Aztec and Farmington. Abe's Motel and the Soaring Eagle Lodge are two places on the San Juan River that I would highly recommend. Cottonwood Campground, on the San Juan River bank, operated by the state of New Mexico Parks, has campsites available ranging from $10 a day for tents to $14 a day with electrical hookups. These charges include parking in the quality water area. Contact Larry Federici at 575-632-8159 for information on the campgrounds.
All fly patterns to use on the San Juan are too numerous to mention in this venue. But, there are some patterns I will not do without while fishing this river in the winter or the summer for that matter. Bunny Leeches and Wooly Buggers, red and orange annelids, emerger patterns (gray and brown are my most productive colors) and red and orange San Juan worms. We usually fish with two flies except with leech patterns. The smaller fly should usually be on the bottom about 18 inches from the first fly.
The method to use when fishing leeches or wooly buggers is to put a couple of small spilt-shots about 18 inches above the fly and cast straight across the water. While the fly is drifting, retrieve the leech with small one-inch retrieves between your fingers. Keep casting and retrieving and when the fish hit they usually hit hard and fast so be prepared. These flies work best early in the morning and later in the evening.
Use an emerger pattern with an annelid as a trailer. I prefer to use fly floatant on the line and the tippet with no weight. Cast across and upstream and while keeping your line as tight as possible mending the line to maintain a natural drift. The fish usually hit at about three-quarters of the drift near the end. Keep casting and be patient. The method also works lightly weighted with one very small split-shot between the flies. I just prefer no weight for this combination.
When using a San Juan worm pattern trail it from an annelid or emerger with the worm being on the bottom. Use a couple of split-shots because this combination should be fished deeper.
When fishing the San Juan these combinations might need to be adjusted to suit the conditions and the trout's particular taste at the moment. Most of us San Juan anglers use strike indicators because they definitely help maintain a natural drift, which is critical in this river. Some additional local flies to include in your arsenal are WD-40s, RS2s, disco midges and realistic worms.
For the most comprehensive information on the San Juan flies and the river go to Mike Mora's web site.
From Albuquerque travel US 550 off I-25 north. This road takes you to Bloomfield, New Mexico. Head east at the Farmington highway east and follow the signs to Navajo Lake state Park.
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