Take a trip to San Juan River below Navajo Reservoir, but don’t come up empty-hand
“Hey,” said the skoal-chewing state employee from Aztec, New Mexico, “this place is like fishing in an aquarium.”
After standing in the famous Texas Hole on the San Juan River below Navajo Dam in northern New Mexico with about a dozen other anglers, all of whom were catching fish around me, I decided I didn’t like the idea of fishing in an aquarium.
Besides, of all the people in that hole, me and a six-year-old kid were the only ones who couldn’t catch anything. At least he had a few hits.
I know, I know, I’m supposed to write about hiking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and stuff like that, but when you’re near a world-famous river with a fly rod in your vehicle, you just have to do what the locals do — go fish.
Business took me to Durango last week, but the lure of fishing the San Juan took me another hour south below Navajo Reservoir, which actually crosses the state line in southern Colorado near the Ute Indian Reservation.
Beautiful water, loaded with fish.
I couldn’t catch any of them.
They must have seen about 8,000 different imitation aquatic bugs that afternoon, and millions more throughout the year. Yet, none of the imitations I had in my fly box seemed to work, even though I used the same thing as the guy next to me.
I wasn’t using the same thing as the skoal-chewing trucker, though. “I just use a red hook. I don’t tie anything on it. It’s just a bare hook painted red,” he said with a grin as a very large rainbow trout snapped off his red hook. It was the only one left in his fly box, so he tied on a huge black woolly bugger.
Naturally, he caught a fish on that, too.
I could see fish all around me. They rose at dusk just like it was the middle of the summer, to an incredible midge hatch. Most of the anglers used tiny, tiny No. 24 midge or caddis nymph patterns. So was I, but apparently I wasn’t holding my mouth just right, or the sun was in my eyes, or the wind blew too strongly, or I dragged my line through the water, or my fly wasn’t deep enough, or it wasn’t shallow enough, or I was lining the fish with my leader and line. Who knows.
As my old buddy Don Crane used to say, “Sometimes, you just fish dumb.”
I was much dumber than the fish that day.
To reach this fabulous stretch of river (although I now hate it) travel south to Durango on U.S. Highway 50, then Hwy 550 through Ouray and over Red Mountain Pass, if it’s open. When I drove over, it was closed, so I drove across Lizard Head Pass, then into Dolores, Mancos, and over to Durango. It took an extra hour but I arrived alive instead of traveling over Red Mountain in a blizzard.
From Durango, travel south on Hwy 550 to Ignacio, past the big new casino with a marginal “mini” buffet, and down to the dam via Hwy 173 to NM Hwy 511. Drive down the backside of the dam that blocks the mighty San Juan, and before you hit the river, you’ll spy dozens of anglers already in the holes you long to fish.
It doesn’t seem to bother them that there are dozens of fishermen in the same hole, and I don’t know how they do not tangle each other’s lines, but all the anglers were very nice and every one seemed to scoot over just a little bit to allow another angler some fishing space.
Yet, no matter how crowded, the crowds will still come. As fishing guide Mike Mora states on his website at http://www.ifly4trout.com, “The San Juan River in New Mexico is one of the finest tailwater fisheries anywhere! The 4.25 miles of San Juan river quality water below Navajo Dam holds more than 80,000 trout. An average San Juan river trout is 17 inches, but fish over 20 inches are abundant. To fool these selective San Juan trout requires tiny flies, fine tippets, proper presentation and attention to detail.”
I had tiny flies, fine tippet and a pretty fair presentation, but apparently I lacked that attention to detail because I got skunked.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Remember, this is special flies and lure only water. No egg soaking or worm dunking. Lures must have only a single hook, and you must go barbless with both flies and lures. Also, you may only take one fish, 20-inches or longer. The rest must be turned back to the aquarium immediately, so they can tease someone else.