All the descriptions that follow start at the headwaters and move downstream. They are basic descriptions to help inform you of what New Mexico fly fishing has to offer and help you understand what kind of adventure you may get into. If you have more questions feel free to give me a call.
The Rio Grande or “Rio Bravo del Norte” as it was once called is one of my favorite rivers in the region to fish. ‘The Rio’, as the locals call it, is a beautiful and dynamic fishery. Some days can be epic while others leave even the experienced angler perplexed. It takes a keen eye for detail to understand this wild ever-changing fishery. It’s unpredictability keeps this special river intriguing. There are plenty of big native Brown trout as well as Rainbows and Cutbows that thrive in the canyon rapids and pools. The majority of the excellent trout water requires substantial hiking through rocky, challenging terrain. There are also miles of good water that are easily accessible that hold wild Browns, the occasional Rainbow and Cutbow, as well as Small Mouth Bass.
Ute Mountain - From the Colorado border down to Lee’s Trail, about 25 miles of river, is the Ute Mountain Run. The steep walls of the Rio Grande Gorge gradually deepen the further south you get. There is only one established trail here at the South end of the Ute Mountain Run called Lee’s Trail. There are however, a few unestablished trails that get you to the river north of Lee’s Trail. This area is about as remote and wild as it gets anywhere in United States. Although the numbers of trout up here are less than lower down where springs and rapids are more numerous, there are still some fish and they are often slightly larger. This is the place for an angler that craves solitude and doesn’t mind working hard for a few nice fish in an unforgettable setting.
Wild Rivers (Upper Taos Box) - Below Lee’s Trail to the confluence of the Red River is the Wild Rivers or Upper Box. This stretch of river is a class V whitewater run deep in the gorge only accessible by hiking or boating. Only the most accomplished boaters dare to test their skills in the extremely dangerous rapids. However for the angler, the numerous rapids offer excellent trout habitat. Pair that with an abundance of springs that enter the river here, as well as difficult access from only a hand full of trails, and you have a recipe for a unique and unforgettable experience.
La Junta - From the confluence of the Red River south to John Dun Bridge is the La Junta stretch of the Rio Grande. This is a gorgeous part of the Rio and has a few established trails for the adventuresome angler who doesn’t mind a substantial hike.
Lower Taos Box - From John Dun Bridge down to Taos Junction Bridge, about 17 miles, is the Lower Taos Box. Access in this part of the gorge can be difficult and in some places impossible without rapelling and rock climbing gear. The Lower Taos Box is world renowned class IV whitewater run for experienced rafters and kayakers. Wild Browns are abundant along with the occasional Rainbow and Cutbow in the ‘Lower Box’ but access is extremely difficult here if you get too far from the bridges at the top and bottom.
Pilar - Fishing near the small village of Pilar N.M. is relatively easy to access and is a great option for a day trip from Santa Fe or Taos. This area is right on the cusp of a warm/cold water fishery so there is opportunity to catch not only Trout but Smallmouth Bass, Carp, and Northern Pike on the fly here. It is possible to float fish this part of the river when conditions allow.
The Rio Chama is an incredibly diverse fishery. The area has a unique and interesting history and a few large-scale construction projects have impacted the river and subsequently the fishing.
The Upper Chama - The uppermost reach is a classic rocky mountain freestone stream with very cold water tumbling down a steep gradient creating numerous riffles and runs resulting in excellent habitat for trout. The ecology from the headwaters to below the town of Chama supports a diverse menu of aquatic invertebrates for trout. As a result, fishing styles are also diverse and there is exciting dry fly, dry dropper, streamer and nymph fishing. Below the town of Chama the gradient slows down and irrigation demand takes its toll resulting in slower moving, often warmer water and more fickle trout fishing conditions. The irrigation water however, continues a long and rich tradition of farming in the region dating back to the 1600s. This area can be amazing if you catch it right and floating it is possible for a short window on the edges of spring runoff.
El Vado - Like many trout rivers in New Mexico this area is also unique with mood swings and intricacies that make it ever challenging and a pleasure to fish for any level of angler. After the Rio Chama is impounded and released below El Vado Dam the fishing is very different than upriver. Below the dam is a true tail water and one of New Mexico’s best known fishing areas. The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy district completed the dam in 1935 and it is one of 4 dams in the world that use steel panels to help impound the water. This was an experimental cost effective method when steel was much cheaper. Now however, there are significant issues with the dam leaking and plans of renovating it are in the works. Due to the unique construction of the dam the water below it is almost always murky. Despite this it is possible to catch fish when visibility is only a few inches and it is a good option year round. The State stocks this area with Rainbow Trout regularly and its easy access makes it a great spot for beginners. It is most well know for its large wild brown trout which can be caught anytime of year but is best in the fall. The only fishery that I know of that has a semblance of similarity is about 40 miles down stream.
Abiquiu - In 1963 the Army Corps of Engineers impounded the the Rio Chama by building Abiquiu dam. The river below the dam is a similar tailwater as El Vado upstream, sharing many characteristics. Siltation of the Lake above the dam over the last 65 years and the way the dam was constructed makes the river below silty and murky most of the time. Conditions here are tough most of the summer when the irrigation ditches or acequias downstream and farms near Albuquerque and through the southern part of the state call for water. The increased flows below the dam bring all that silt and mud with it. In the fall and winter, as well as early spring, the flows drop and the river clears up a bit making fishing here a good option.
This fishery has been outright neglected and it is not fulfilling its potential. There are a number of issues here: 1) The close proximity to the populations of Espanola and Santa Fe and the stocking of rainbows by the state has attracted large numbers of anglers 2) The lack of enforcement of the ‘Special Trout Water’ regulations (recently renamed ‘Xmas Chile Water’) or two trout bag limit and willingness of the general population to ignore such regulations has caused a decrease in the number of wild reproducing trout. 3) Due to various factors such as drought, The Army Corps of Engineers often drops the flows down to a minimum of 70cfs in the fall and winter. This decreases the number of suitable spawning beds or redds as well as makes them easily accessible to ever increasing number of anglers who don’t know how to recognize them. On numerous occasions I have seen boot prints heading directly through large redds crushing and releasing into the current thousands of eggs or potential wild fish.
Despite these issues there are times when the fishing can be quite good and if you’re lucky enough to catch it when the conditions are right you can have a great day. It is the lowest elevation fishing spot so in the colder months it is a good option. Proper handling and catch and release is important here.
San Juan River
Quality Water - The San Juan River below Navajo Dam is amongst the worlds highest quality and well know tailwater fisheries. If you have never been there, it something that everyone should experience at least once. There are estimated to be over 15,000 fish per mile in the ‘Quality Waters’ or the first 4 miles downstream of the dam. Many of these fish are in the 17-22” range. Fish grow extremely fast, about 4-6 inches per year, due to the existence of amazingly prolific midge, mayfly, and annelid populations. The reason the river is teeming with copious amounts of bugs is due to the way the dam was constructed. The dam is tall, about 400’ and at maximum capacity the water can get pretty close to the top. This deep water acts as a thermal barrier to the atmospheric conditions above and maintains a consistent water temperature closer to the bottom of the dam where the water is released into the river below. The temperature never fluctuates more than a few degrees between 39-46 degrees Fahrenheit year round. So the trout eat and grow all year.
Fishing the San Juan is a challenging and technical endeavor. Most of the midges, mayflies, and annelids present in the water are tiny - size 18-26 hooks or about the size of the smallest mosquitoes. Tippet size must be small to thread through the tiny hooks but also to help disguise the line from the educated and wary trout that see well in the very clear water. The trout see lots of people every day and wise up quickly so only the most realistic presentations will instigate a take. Although there can be lots of people in the quality waters most of them are not running around like wild banshees and are in fact quite pleasant to chat with. The fish see so much activity on a regular basis they don’t mind your and - the dude next to your - presence.
There could not be a more perfect setup for learning or fine tuning your sight fishing skills than the San Juan. Sight fishing is undoubtedly one of the most difficult skills to learn and is often mistaken as some magical “6th sense” that experienced anglers or guides innately have. The truth is that spotting trout and recognizing what underwater movements correspond to certain behaviors (such as eating your fly) is a skill that is learned. There are many specific shapes, colors, and movements that observant anglers have trained their eye to recognize that help them know what is goin on underwater. Since the water on the Juan is most often very clear and the trout so numerous, they are not difficult to spot. This gives the anglers a chance to fine tune their eye to the visual ques required to recognize a trout underwater as well as see what it looks like when a trout is feeding. It also allows anglers observe how a trout responds to their flies that few other fisheries can provide. Fishing the San Juan can accelerate the difficult process of learning to sight fish like nowhere else I know of and the skills learned there can be applied to any fishery.
Bait Water - Below the quality water to the town of Navajo Dam is another fun stretch of river where the tightly controlled regulations have been lifted and the fishing takes on a different character. The water warms in the summer months as you move downstream so you begin to see other types of insects in the water here also. There are far less people floating here which can be nice. It’s worth fishing here just to observe the contrast with the upriver section, and how much regulating a fishery can impact the size and number of trout. There are some very clever large browns here and lots of stocker rainbows. No matter where you are on the San Juan it is a refuge for all sorts of wildlife and it is a wonderful place to relax and enjoy your surroundings.
Descriptions coming soon!