New Mexico’s San Juan River: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Fishing New Mexico
Matthew Dickerson 
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 fat 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.