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Upper Red River

Upper Red River Flies     Weather


The Upper Red River begins in the Carson National Forest below the highest point in New Mexico, Wheeler Peak, at an elevation of 13,160 feet. The headwaters converge, to the north, below Wheeler Peak and east of Taos Ski Valley above the town of Red River. This stream holds four species of trout: rainbows, browns, Rio Grande cutthroats, and brookies. Hybrid cutbows also occur in the stream. A portion of the Red is stocked with rainbows. The scenery throughout is breathtaking.


There are a lot of deep pocket water holes throughout the entire upper stretch.


Red River converges with other streams in the high meadows below Wheeler Peak: West Fork, Middle Fork Red River, East Fork Red River and Sawmill Creek. Red River flows northwest to the town of Red River, through riffles and deep pools along NM 578. Beaver ponds in the meadows below Middle Fork Lake hold some nice fish. Dry fly fishing is good and there are heavy caddis hatches in the summer. The photo to the lower right is typical water structure and foliage in the upper portion of the east fork of the Red River above the Wheeler Peak trail head. These waters are prime for a good lesson in side casts and sling-shot casts. This area is definitely one-cast fishing as the brookies here are very easily spooked but, with persistence you will be successful. A couple of miles downstream is special regulations waters with excellent fishing opportunities.


Red River parallels NM 38 for about 15 miles, all the way to Questa. Along the way, the Red picks up Goose, Pioneer, and Columbine creeks. The typical water in these feeder streams is similar to the photo at the lower left with small pockets of cover for the fish that lay awaiting for some to eat. There are several campgrounds along the way with plenty of small stockers to catch. About 3.5 to 4 miles downstream from the town of Red River is a deep canyon that gets a lot of attention from bait fisherman.


The stretch below the canyon to Questa suffered a decline in the aquatic insect population during the 70s and 80s. The stream started improving during the early 90s and is still improving. Having stated all of this, fishing the Upper Red River is a very pleasant and rewarding experience.


Fishing downstream on New Mexico's Red River


Despite it's arid climate, many productive trout fisheries cut through the New Mexico landscape and Red River is one of it's most productive and picturesque fisheries. Red River will provide an experience not soon forgotten.


My first trip to Red River was in the summer of 1956. While riding up through north-central New Mexico I was looking forward to this trip with a great deal of anticipation and excitement. My trips to the Jemez Mountains and Pecos watershed streams, at this point, were day trips but not this trip. This trip was to go fishing, camping and set in motion my schooling for the complete outdoor experience which I continue to train for today. When we arrived at the Red River State Fish Hatchery camping area I could hardly wait to begin fishing. However, some work had to be done first. We setup camp and after about an hour we were able to start fishing downstream.


Throughout the years I've spent a great deal of time fishing the Red River Box below the hatchery with my children. Teaching my son how to fish the Red River box and the upper Red River below Wheeler Peak are some of my most memorable experiences. The Red River area is one of my favorite areas to fish. It carries four species of trout; rainbows, German browns, Rio Grande cutthroats, and brook trout and we call this combination the New Mexico Grand Slam.


This stream system is best described by taking a virtual trip downstream from its headwaters in its upper section down through its lower section in the Red River box to its final convergence with the Rio Grande where it loses its identity.


Red River is a clear stream, with stretches of very dark bottom structure for excellent trout lies all the way down to its confluence with the Rio Grande. Red River heads in the Carson National Forest east of the highest point in New Mexico, Wheeler Peak, which is at an elevation of 13,160 feet. The Red begins just east of Taos Ski valley as East Fork and picks up Sawmill Creek, its eastern most tributary, before converging with the Middle Fork and West Fork on the northern slope of Wheeler peak in the heart of the Sangre de Chritso Mountain range (Spanish for Blood of Christ). Just below these tributaries confluence Red River picks up its name. Winter snows and high mountain lakes on the northern and eastern slopes below Wheeler Peak feed the upper portion of this stream system. Goose Creek flows into Red River near the town of Red River.


The town of Red River is a former mining town which has evolved into a very popular winter and summer resort community nestled below Wheeler Peak and is thickly populated with tall pines, aspens, and spruce trees. Flowing through town Red River is one of the most heavily stocked sections of stream in New Mexico. A large portion of the stream access is private. However, there are plenty of public access points and to fish the area if you don't mind catching a lot of stocker rainbows. Red River picks up Pioneer Creek and Columbine Creek below town on its westerly journey to Questa. The ten mile stretch of Red River which parallels NM 38 west from the town of Red River to the town of Questa has many developed campgrounds as part of the Carson National Forest.


Questa is a nice small community at the top of a tall hill. Red River continues to flow westward beyond Questa through the Red River State Fish Hatchery on its way to its convergence with the Rio Grande. The hatchery is a two-mile drive to the end of NM 515 from its intersection with NM 522 south of Questa about two miles. Red River State Fish Hatchery has been the largest producer of stocked rainbows for the state for a number of years.


Much information available about Red River for a number of years is damage to the habitat associated with Molybdenum mining from the Molycorp mine at their Questa, New Mexico location. The mining operation closed down in 1991 and reopened in 1996 after some cleanup and de-watering of the mine.


I am encouraged by some of the recovery of the Red River. The river and habitat have been slowly recovering and has a way to go to get back to the days when my son and I fished this stream together in 1972 of crystal clear lightly hued water with an abundance of aquatic insects. The encouraging part of this recovery is the stream continues to be a great place to fish and surprisingly doesn't get as much fishing pressure as many other Northern New Mexico streams.


Upper Section


The upper section of Red River below Wheeler Peak is an excellent stretch of water to execute your lessons in side casting and slingshot casting. This is 7X fishing and is one-cast trout water as the brook trout and Rio Grande cutthroats are easily spooked here. The water structure is narrow to wide moderate flowing water with some deep runs, pocket water and deeper holes in the upper canyon. There are many over-hanging trees, downed logs and brush to navigate but well worth the effort. Some areas are wide and shallow, perfect for long side casts of dry flies. The fish in this section are in the 10-inch to 12-inch size range. The best access is to park at the trailhead for the Wheeler Peak Wilderness trail and start fishing upstream at the wide shallow flats with dry flies and then back downstream fishing the runs and pocket water with nymphs.


A couple of miles downstream of the upper section convergence are special regulations waters with excellent fly-fishing opportunities. The special regulations water flows mostly through a deep canyon setting. Access is just off the road with a short walk down to the canyon water at most spots. Below the special regulation waters is a great deal of private property and you must obtain permission to enter some areas. There are only a few public access points for the next 2.5 to 3 miles from the road. The stream passes through deep canyons, heavily forested areas and some small open meadows. Some navigation will be required here but worth the effort. After leaving the canyon the river flows through the town of Red River. If you enjoy fishing for stocker rainbows this is the place to go, but the fishing pressure can be fairly heavy. If you see a place to pull over and fish along the way. I encourage you to do so.


The ten mile portion of Red River below the town of Red River is easily accessible and receives a lot of pressure. The water is usually crystal clear with many small pockets and long runs of good trout water any spot that can be fished should be. At about 3.5 to 4 miles downstream from town is a deep canyon that gets a lot of attention from bait fisherman. The fish range in the 9 inch to 12 inch size and the predominant species are rainbows.


Lower Section


The final leg of our trip downstream is the lower section below the hatchery. Below the hatchery Red River cuts into a deep narrow canyon which is referred to as the Red River Box where deep pools, deep runs, and pocket water are the predominate structures which create great holding areas for trout. The Red picks up several large springs on its last three mile flow through this deep canyon setting keeping the water temperatures below the 60 degree range during most of the hottest days of summer while winter water temperatures rarely fall below 48 degrees. The near constant water temperatures produce hatches of different insects year-round and helps maintain a productive trout fishing habitat.


This is without question the best stretch of Red River. Fish the deep runs, pools, pockets and flats. Just below the hatchery the fishing pressure is usually heavy. Hike downstream at least a half mile before fishing to avoid the pressure. A double trail system follows the river along the north bank all the way downstream to the final confluence. The hike is moderate to arduous at times but well worth it. Most of the river is easily accessible from the trail with a new spot to fish about every fifty feet. A great deal of the trail system is at the stream elevation with the remainder converging with the higher trail. The vegetation along the banks in this area can be pretty dense with willows and other trees but casting a fly rod is not difficult even for the novice with a little patience. This section holds plenty of wild browns but rainbows are predominate. Near the confluence, browns are the predominate species. The fish range from 9 inches to 20 inches with the larger fish more plentiful in the fall when the big browns cruise upstream to spawn. Fly-fishing is incredible with dry flies in the evenings, bl;sck hoppers on hot summer afternoons, and nymphs all day. The box section of this stream also provides great winter fishing opportunities.


The weather in this region is mild during the summer and can be quite cold in the winter in the upper section. Average winter highs are in the 40's and during summer the highs average in the 70s. Summers produce afternoon rains on a fairly regular basis and winters produce an average of 145 inches of snow in the upper section.


You can fish most of this river in two long days. However, I would recommend a longer trip to take your time to experience its grandeur. Red River is about a three-hour drive north of Albuquerque or a two-hour drive north from Santa Fe. Please refer to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish web site for the most current fishing regulations. New Mexico Game_and_Fish. Red River and Questa have all the necessary facilities for supplies, food and a comfortable stay.


My first trip to this stream I caught a lot of trout and learned how to set up camp in the outdoors. Red River and its habitat have improved considerably over the last several years but continue to need some time to heal from the damage of the 1980s. With our efforts as responsible stewards I am confident this river and its habitat will continue to improve perhaps back to the setting of the 1970s when my son, my young brother, and I fished this wonderful stream together. The entire Red River from Wheeler Peak flows through a very picturesque backdrop in this northern New Mexico paradise with an overabundance of colors and a beautiful environment to please the eye and the soul especially in the fall and winter when the fishing is the best.


Hatches and Imitations


Blue winged olives hatch in the winter, caddis hatches occur in the spring and the summer. Dark stone flies, a gray moth and hoppers hatches occur during the summer months. Use size 14 to 18 Hare's Ear or Prince Nymphs, size 8 black or olive Wooly Buggers and size 14 to 18 green-body Elk Hair Caddis dry-fly patterns for the entire river with size 18 to 22 Royal Trude for the upper section. Size 6 to 10 Peacock Nymphs and size 8 Poundmeisters for the "Box" section are indispensable patterns. The best time to fish the Poundmeister pattern is when the stream bottom has been stirred from spring runoff or summer rains. Use a black hopper pattern during the hottest days of the summer to imitate a very dark colored grasshopper. In the winter months, in the Box section, add midge patterns to your fly selections such as a Griffith's Gnat in sizes 18 to 22.




Several very small feeder creeks flow to form the upper portion of Red River in addition to the main feeder creeks with an abundance of wild small brook trout and Rio Grande cutthroats.


East Fork is a small stream with wild brook trout and Rio Grande cutthroats. This is a small stream but fun to fish. Horseshoe Lake and Lost Lake both feeds this first leg of the Red River headwaters. The key to this stream is size 16 to 18 Hares Ear nymphs fished as deep as you can.


Middle Fork is feed from a six acre lake with the same name on the north slopes of Wheeler Peak with good fishing for cutthroats and rainbows. Middle Fork is heavily fished but worth a try if you don't mind some company. Access to the lake is by a jeep trail near Red River, New Mexico. The stream is swift in most places but has some deep runs and pocket water.


Goose Creek is fed from Goose Lake. The five acre lake and creek carries small rainbows and Rio Grande cutthroats. Access is also by jeep trail from Red River. Goose Creek is a small but fruitful stream.


Pioneer Lake is a two acre lake which feeds Pioneer Creek. The creek holds small rainbows and Rio Grande cutthroats. Access to the creek is at the end of a jeep trail off NM 38 just below Red River (town).


Columbine Creek is just west of Red River west of Pioneer Creek. The hiking trail runs parallel to Columbine Creek. The trail-head is accessed at Columbine Campground, one of the many campgrounds along NM38 between Red River and Questa. There are wildflowers along the trail in this canyon including the beautiful Columbine, the namesake for the canyon and stream. One thing I enjoy about this trail is during summer it is laced with wild raspberries, mint and strawberries nearby the trail.


These main feeder creeks carry fish in the 6 inch to 10 size range. Some of these creeks flow through beaver ponds at various elevations and is where most of the wild brook trout reside. Take I-25 north from Albuquerque exit at St. Francis Drive in Santa Fe, travel north on US 84/285 to Espanola and travel north on NM 68 to Taos then Take NM 522 to Questa.



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