Although Vermont does have a few trout streams open for year round catch-and-release fishing, it’d been a decade since I’d done any serious March angling. But a recent business trip to the southwest gave me an opportunity to warm up for Vermont’s opening day by doing a bit of fly-casting on New Mexico’s famed San Juan river.
I woke just after 6am in a small B&B in Aztec, NM, a small town up around 8000 feet. Breakfast was orange juice and a large cinnamon bun. Outside, a solid layer of frost lined our windshield. But by 7:30am, I and my friend Dave O’Hara had driven the twenty miles to the river and purchased my one-day license. We were in the water by 8am. For those unfamiliar with the SJ, it is the tailwater of the Navajo Dam in the northwest corner of NM. Water pours out of the bottom of the massive dam at a near constant 4 degrees Celsius year round—39.2 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature at which water is the densest, and thus sinks to the bottom of a deep lake. It warms up only slightly as it spreads out over the shallow flats downstream of the dam. This provides a near-ideal habitat for trout.
When we arrived, the parking lot by the river already had a dozen cars. We hiked about a hundred yards upstream before finding a vacant spot to cast. Actually, “cast” is a generous word. Our rigs were clumsy. At the end of 9’ of tapered 7x leader was our first fly: a rust-colorod San Juan Worm. Another 18” of leader attached a second fly—a size #22 midge nymph—to the hook of the first. While 18” above the first fly was a pair of split-shot sinkers. And on the butt of the leader was a bright orange strike indicator. Having five different weighted objects spread along our line, nobody would have mistaken our casting for a scene from “A River Runs Through It”. Adding to the complication, for the first couple hours of the morning our fly-rods were icing up, and every ten or twelve casts had to be thawed.
Nonetheless, I hooked my first fish just after 9:00am. It was a nice rainbow, running about 20” long. I fought it to my feet, then led it into my net. As my net slipped around its middle, I looked up to make sure that Dave had his camera ready. The trout saw it’s chance and burst out, running forty feet of line before breaking off my tippet and taking both flies with him. Dave didn’t get the picture, but fortunately he was close enough that I was able to blame him for the loss of the fish.
Over the next nine hours we both hooked up with several more fish as the air temperature rose slowly into the fifties. Indeed, the river was loaded with big trout. More than one of them snapped my line, including a monster that broke me off running straight upriver. Much of the fishing was for visible fish in only two feet of water. Of those that I actually landed, the biggest was 21”. Although regulations allow you to keep one fish, we carefully released them all. The regs also require barbless hooks, so the mortality rate is quite low. All in all, it was one of the best fishing days I’ve had in a few years.
Now the part that makes me glad I live in Vermont and not New Mexico. I’ve never before fished such a crowded body of water. All morning long, cars kept pouring into the lot. Passing through one hole no bigger than a t-ball field, I saw about two dozen anglers stalking wary and weary fish. Not surprisingly, the fish in that hole, though numerous, didn’t look healthy. Handling a trout with dry hands destroys its protective mucous coating leaving it highly susceptible to disease. These fish had been caught and improperly handled just a few too many times. Many had visible hunks of exposed white flesh, and a couple had actually had lost their tails. It was not a pretty sight.
Where we fished upstream, the trout upstream were healthier and the river less crowded. That was fortunate because there really weren’t many other nearby waters to fish. Western water rights are very different from those in the northeast. When you own river land out west, you own not only the bank, but the bottom too, and rights to the water itself. One can drive for 30 miles along a stream without a single legal access. And don’t think about tresspassing. The signs don’t say: “No Tresspassing”. They say: “There’s nothing on the other side of this fence worth your life.” I know more than one person who’s been shot at. So this coming Saturday, when you spend all morning laboring for a pair of 9” brookies that don’t have a prayer of breaking your line, stop at least once and count the number of other fisherman in sight. Then be thankful.
SIX SCORE RAINBOWS ON THE MCKENZIE RIVER
I had a suspicion I would be in for a good day of fishing when, casting a dry fly from the drift boat launch, I landed two rainbow trout before we even got the boat in the water. My friend David O’Hara (Middlebury College ’91) had picked me up at the Portland airport the day before and we’d spent the night camping alongside the McKenzie River in the Willamette National Forest about an hour east of Eugene, Oregon. At first light we’d risen, eaten breakfast, packed lunch and our gear, and dressed for a day of fishing from a drift boat with guide John Gross from the Roaring Fork Guide Service.
We met our guide at 7:30am at a boat ramp on the Upper McKenzie in the small town of Blue River. The drift boat was already in the water waiting. The sky was overcast and a cool breeze blew upstream, but it did not feel like rain. Though there were signs of clear cuts on the hillsides, down by the river there were still large patches of the coniferous old growth forest I have come to associate with the Pacific northwest. Towering firs and cedars and spruces lined the shores upstream and downstream of our campsite, along with a stand of big-leaf maples. The cedars scented the air with a delightful fresh aroma. The water itself had the gorgeous emerald tint of a river fed by snowmelt. And indeed a glance upriver to the east showed a line of snow covered peaks that trailed southward from Oregon’s Mount Hood.
Still, despite the green tint, the snow-fed river was clear and its gravel bottom was visible even where it was eight or ten feet deep. It was beautiful water. It was also water that looked like trout habitat. And while John and Dave portaged the truck and boat trailer downstream eight miles to the takeout point, I was left in charge of the boat. When a fish rose just forty feet off shore at the edge of the swift current, I couldn’t resist pulling out my fly rod and casting for it. I got a couple looks at my fly, but no takes. Too lazy to tie on a different fly, I pulled Dave’s rod out of the boat and took some casts with the fly he had tied on. I quickly landed two fish and lost a third before breaking off his fly in a tree behind me.
I was tying a new fly on when Dave and John returned. We pushed the boat into the water and began my first day of guided fishing in Oregon on the McKenzie: a trout salmon, and steelhead river we would soon learn was deserving of its reputation. The first little run we stopped at was no more than a hundred yards downstream of our put-in point where two channels of the braided river came together, John handed us rods he’d already set up with his favorite two-fly rig: a dry fly caddis imitation with a large heavily weighted black nymph trailing off the back. We started getting hits almost at once, and within two minutes we were both playing a fish at the same time.
Double hookups—when we both had a fish on at the same time—would become the norm for the day. Within twenty minutes we had landed a dozen fish on nymphs. When the biting slowed a bit, John pulled anchor and drifted us downstream just thirty yards to the tail end of the confluence. I decided to try to catch fish on one of my own flies. I tied on a small rainbow trout pattern I tied using red chenille from one of my wife’s old sweaters. I landed four fish on it within ten minutes before I broke it off on the mouth of the fifth fish. During the same period, Dave landed five or six more fish. We had not covered more than a quarter mile of our eight mile drift and we had already landed more than twenty wild rainbow trout or rainbow-cutthroat mixes. None of them were behemoths. Most were about 11” to 13” long. A few were a bit longer. But they were fat and healthy and fought well in the cold swift current.
And that pace continued for the next three and a half hours. The fishing did not slow until about 11:30am, by which time our arms were tired from casting and hauling in fish. Admitted, the fishing slowed at midday. Over the next three hours we caught only about a half dozen fish each as we drifted five miles or so of river, ate our bag lunch, and enjoyed the views of the steep bluffs and tall trees that lined the river on both sides providing homes to numerous osprey that spent the day fishing around us.
But then around 2:30pm the fishing started to pick up. By 3:00pm it was even more intense than it had been in the morning. I was getting fish on dry flies and Dave was now using a three-fly setup. Twice Dave hooked two fish at once, and once was able to land them both. When we finally pulled off the river at 4:30pm, after nine hours of fishing and drifting, John announced that we had landed one hundred and twenty fish. I had stopped counting around fifteen, but I didn’t doubt him. He had spent three decades guiding between Colorado, Oregon and Alaska, and said it was the most fish he had ever seen landed in one day. I can’t verify whether that was really correct. But I do know that—although our campsite was just a few hundred yards from productive water on South Fork of the McKenzie River where it flows out of Cougar Reservoir, and we still had several more hours of daylight left—we did not fish that evening. Even my nearly insatiable appetite for fishing had, for once, been fully satiated.