Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Piedra River - The Ute's Build a Mean Stream

Tired of crowded campgrounds, rivers overrun with anglers, the same old scenery?
Consider a trip into Indian Country, some place like the Southern Ute Reservation just across the Colorado state line.

The Southern Utes have four great rivers running through their territory, the San Juan, the Piedra, the Pine and the Animas.

The Ute’s six-mile stretch of the Animas below the popular college town of Durango draws the most visitors to fish for a good population of rainbows and the chance to snare a large brown trout, said Ben Zimmerman, fisheries biologist for the Southern Ute Tribe.

But if one is looking for solitude, spectacular scenery and plenty of good fishing, they may want to try a trip to the less traveled areas of the San Juan and Piedra rivers in Indian Country.

“You’d be lucky to see anyone else out there with you,” Zimmerman says.

Both rivers’ headwaters can be found in the mountains ringing the town of Pagosa Springs and then they flow south to Navajo Reservoir. The 20-mile long Navajo Lake straddles the Colorado and New Mexico state line and the San Juan River re-emerges from below Navajo Dam as the blue ribbon trout fishery well known to many New Mexico anglers.

But it is the stretch of the San Juan River above Navajo Lake that many may not be familiar with as it flows south out of Pagosa Springs through Indian Country.

Taking Archuleta County Road 500 out of Pagosa Springs one will travel a gravel, country road along the river with several promising fishing holes beckoning anglers.
The countryside is dotted with farms, high piƱon and juniper dotted mesas and great stands of cottonwood trees along the river bottom, which would make for a great drive during the fall.

Those in possession of a Southern Ute Indian Tribe fishing permit can stop at any number of fishing access areas posted along the road and try their angling luck.
This stretch of river looks very like much like big, brown trout country where streamers, nymphs, bait and lures might work.

The Utes’ permits can be purchased in Colorado at shops in Durango and Ignacio where the tribe’s headquarters are located. They can also be purchased in New Mexico at stores in Farmington and at the Float and Fish fly shop at Navajo Dam.

However the tribe’s fishing permits cannot be purchased in the town of Pagosa Springs nor online and those venturing out of Santa Fe might want to contact one of the participating vendors and make arrangements to purchase one by mail. For more information about permits and rules and regulations check the tribe’s website at

It should be noted that signs posted at the Utes’ fishing access sites state alcohol, drugs, firearms and dogs are prohibited while utilizing these areas. It's unknown how strictly regulated these prohibitions are but visitors should exercise extreme discretion while on Indian lands.

This long, lonely stretch of road eventually passes through the abandoned railroad town of Pagosa Junction where a magnificent, whitewashed, adobe church still stands upon a hill overlooking the town’s ruins.

Here one can wander among several still standing buildings, a great stand of cottonwood trees and wonder about the history of this former, bustling railroading town.

Continuing south on County Road 500, visitors will encounter the top end of Navajo Lake which features numerous pull offs for recreation. Camping and other services are available at Navajo State Park and more information can be found at

County Road 500 ends at the intersection of Colorado State Road 151 where one can head north to access the Ute Tribe’s six-mile stretch of the Piedra River up Fosset Gulch off Forest Road 613.

This stretch of river was rehabilitated back in 2000 with the installation of hundreds of tons of large boulders to shore up the riverbanks, re-channel the river and create healthier habitat for fish.

The characteristics of this stretch of the Piedra River are so appealing to the angler’s eye that it almost looks like a movie set, it is that well constructed.
So far the Utes’ plan seems to have worked with the area now attracting the occasional discriminating angler and stream surveys showing a good population of rainbows and some large browns trout lurking in the depths, Zimmerman said.

Anyone catching a rare, red-bellied, round-tailed chub from Southern Ute Reservation waters is asked to handle the fish carefully and return it unharmed immediately to the water, Zimmerman added.

This stretch of the Piedra River flows through a heavily forested, cottonwood canyon flanked by rolling hills, some rocky mesas and an occasional pasture on the far bank and once again should prove to be a spectacular drive in the fall.

Wildlife viewing opportunities are abundant with raptors in great numbers including owls swooping over the road and a coyote jogging ahead of the vehicle during a recent trip. At one point a horse emerged from the woods, walked up to the vehicle and allowed a quick rub of its velvety nose before running off in a clatter of hoofs and cloud of dust.

Visitors will see by map that Forest Road 613 cuts through to Colorado State Road 160 between Durango and Pagosa Springs, but should note that a private property owner has since installed two locked gates across the road blocking access.

It’s unknown if and when this issue will be resolved to the public’s benefit.
From this stretch of the Piedra River visitors can also see the twin spires of the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area in the San Juan National Forest located between Durango and Pagosa Springs.

This hilltop Indian ruin is a great side trip off State Road 151 and features a guided, interpretive walking tour and spectacular views from the mountain top fire tower. The site is open May 15th through Sept 30th and more information can be found at

And on the far end of State Road 151 visitors to the area will find additional fishing and camping at the Southern Utes’ Capote Lake.

Overall this area of southern Colorado in Indian Country offers much for those seeking to get away from the crowds and constrictions found on public lands during summer months.

Also see this article as it appeared in the
Santa Fe New Mexican

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Maps - Where to Get Them and Why

Richard Atkinson, manager of the Public Lands Information Center at 1474 Rodeo Road in Santa Fe, N.M. displays the popular and informative BLM Land Status map in Sept. 2007.


Face it, if you live in New Mexico, sooner or later, you’re going to need one.

And Santa Fe boasts two great shops for finding maps, books and other information about the state.

With almost half the state under public ownership one of the best maps to illustrate that may be the BLM’s (Bureau of Land Management) color-coded “surface management responsibility” or land status map available at the Public Lands Information Center at 1474 Rodeo Road in Santa Fe, N.M.

Richard Atkinson, the center’s manager, says the map is just one of many in the information center has available to the public and it’s a handy tool for those exploring the state especially those preparing for an upcoming hunt.

Atkinson uses an overlay on top of the land use map to shows the state’s hunting units and then the associated BLM or Forest Service maps that are needed for that area.

The same system is available online at , just pick New Mexico from the pull down list of states at the maps center, click on the hunting unit index tab and the maps you need will pop up.

The land status map is available in a four-foot wide and five-foot tall wall hanging or a smaller version about half that size and is great for viewing at home before setting out on the road.

The Public Lands Center also features every available Forest Service and BLM map for the state as well as a collection of private maps and atlases that make a road trip easy.

Atkinson said he prefers BLM maps to Forest Service maps because they show topography and are contiguous and can be assembled for a bigger picture of an area with no gaps between the maps.

That’s important for those hiking into the woods, he says.

Forest Service maps are limited primarily to the forest they cover and do not feature topography unless it’s a wilderness map, he notes.

In addition to those federal agencies’ maps Atkinson’s shop has two versions of the state atlas, the Road and Recreation atlas and the Gazetteer. Both are good books of maps for general use throughout the state.

Atkinson recommends everyone own one of these and then start collecting maps for more specific areas such as the state’s national forests, wilderness areas and other places of interest.

The information center also includes a great collection of hunting, fishing, hiking, cooking, history and other books with a New Mexico theme. There are also free brochures available from various state agencies and other information assembled to help visitors utilize the state’s public lands.

“You really can’t find the kind of collection we have here anywhere else,” he said.

The Center opened in 1996 and is operated by the private non-profit organization, Public Lands Interpretive Association with offices in every state and a website that brings them all together in one place.

Those seeking more specific maps can visit the Travel Bug at 839 Paseo de Peralta near downtown Santa Fe. Those in the know have been picking up maps and books here for years and the service and selection is why.

Here one can find and have printed a United State Geological Service topographic map for anywhere in state, or the country for that matter, says owner Greg Ohlsen.

The store features maps from all over the world or something closer to town such as a city or county produced map. The Travel Bug can produce aerial and satellite photos and also stock the just released, updated version of the popular New Mexico atlas, “Roads of New Mexico.”

And customers can sip cup coffee or enjoy a fruit smoothie while browsing the collection of maps, books and related items found in this distinctive shop.

The store also carries and services the Garmin line of satellite operated, GPS (Global Positioning System) products that not only help one find where they are in a strange town but can also be used to map one’s hikes in the woods.

Ohlsen said he used one to map all the day hikes for use in the Sierra Club’s latest version of “Day Hikes in the Santa Fe Area.”

“It’s amazing stuff,” he says. For more info about GPS check out .

One of the pricier GPS units allows the user to strap an electronic transmitter on a dog’s collar and then monitor the dog’s movements while out hiking.

The unit will show how far away and in what direction the dog is located in relation to the handheld receiver carried by the owner. The units have a range of about five miles in open country and have helped Ohlsen find his lost dogs on a number of occasions, he said.

But Ohlsen says despite the handheld devices great capabilities they just can’t compete with a map for showing the big picture, the great landscape of New Mexico.

For that one might want to drop in to the state Department of Transportation (DOT) at 1120 Cerrillos Road where in the lobby one can find a free New Mexico road map and one for most every state in the country.

“I can fill this here today and by the end of the week they’ll all be gone,” says
Virginia Neville, receptionist at the DOT headquarters a she points to the display rack in the lobby. “I don’t know how people know they’re here, we don’t advertise.”

The rack doesn’t feature any state road maps from either California or Arizona because both those states refuse to provide them for free, said Michael Urioste, a DOT administrator who orders the maps for the free rack.

New Mexico hands out about a half a million free maps a year, Urioste said, primarily to distributors such as chamber of commerce’s, visitor centers, state and federal agencies and even private businesses.

It’s just one of those little known public services the state performs with little fanfare but great results. So grab a map and explore New Mexico today!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Flyfishing New Mexico 101 - A How to Guide

The author casts while fishing at Eagle Nest lake in Northeast New Mexico during a summer of 2007 trip.Photo courtesy of Greg Faught, Green Mountain Anglers.

So maybe you wanted to learn to fly fish this summer but after a visit to one of Santa Fe’s fly shops you were left wondering how, what with the cost of a rod, reel and a day’s instruction on the water running around $600.

No need to worry, here’s a few low cost tips that’ll have you out on the water and fly fishing in no time at all!

Bill Orr, former manager of the High Desert Angler fly shop and co-author of the book “Fly Patterns of Northern New Mexico,” suggests beginners save their cash for gas instead of hiring a guide or buying a lot of high-end gear.

“You don’t need them,” Orr, now a sixth-grade schoolteacher, says. “You need to just get out there and teach yourself.”

For starters, beginners might want to read up on the subject with a simple, easy to comprehend guide such as L.L. Bean’s “Fly-Fishing Handbook” by Dave Whitlock or Dan Holland’s “Trout Fisherman’s Bible.” The local library may carry some classics such as Ray Bergman’s “Trout” or Robert Traver’s “Trout Madness” that could whet your appetite for fishing.

Of course once you decide to go, you’ll need a serviceable rod and reel rigged with backing, fly line and a leader. A two-piece, eight and a half-foot, five weight is a good, all-around rod for New Mexico’s waters and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a low cost, fly fishing combo kit to get you started.

L.L. Bean sells an Angler Fly Rod Outfit, ready to fish for about $75. A complete rod and reel package by Scientific Angler can be found on the shelf at Wal-Mart for about the same money. For twice that money but still half of what you’d pay for the cheapest outfit at a Santa Fe fly shop, Cabela’s offers their Genesis outfits for $150 that also include a chest pack, a fly box full of trout flies and accessories like nippers, forceps, leaders, weights, fly floatant and strike indicators.

You’ll need some of these accessories on the water, like a pair of fingernail clippers to snip off line, a pair of forceps or small needle nose pliers to remove hooks and smash down their barbs, a bottle of fly floatant to keep your dry flies working and a strike indicator for when you’re fishing nymphs on the bottom.

You’ll probably want an extra leader and a spool of 5X and 6X weight tippet and a fishing vest to carry your gear, but a fanny pack or even a shirt with big pockets will work.

And you’ll need a good all-around selection of flies including a couple of size 12 stimulators, a few size 16 elk-hair Caddis, and size 18 Adams dry flies. For nymphs, grab a few pheasant-tails, hares’ ear, princes, Warden’s Worry and Wooley Boogers in black, Orr suggests.

Beginners can wear a pair of old sneakers and shorts to wade in the summertime and buy a pair of inexpensive, hip-waders for use in the fall and winter.

Armed with this gear, the self starter can head out, perhaps even carrying a copy of “Fly-Fishing in Northern New Mexico” or Taylor Streit’s “Fly Fishing New Mexico” to lead the way.

Beginners will want to start on water with plenty of fish so they can get some practice at reading the water, casting, detecting a strike and setting the hook and how to play, land and release a fish unharmed.

It’s important for beginners to learn and practice catch and release fishing to help ensure trout remain available to be caught and released yet another day.

Beginners can start with a quick trip to a nearby river such as the Pecos River, east of Santa Fe, where fish are regularly stocked. While there, the beginner can watch other anglers to pick up tips and ask questions if so inclined.

Beginners can also monitor the weekly fishing report found in the Outdoors section of the Santa Fe New Mexican for ideas on where to fish and also visit websites like for stories about fishing the West and links to fishing and stream flow reports.

If this sounds like just too much work, consider the reasoning behind it all.

Orr remembers how his father put him on a small creek in Colorado at the tender age of 4. They snuck up on a hole, parted the trees back and his dad handed him a rod and told him to “set” the fly on the water. Up came a beautiful brook trout to take the fly, it ran about in the water, tugging at the little boy’s arm and then there it was in hand, its shimmering, colorful body captivating him.

Orr has been fly fishing ever since.

“And it has taken me to some really neat and beautiful places,” he says.

And that’s probably one of the best reasons for learning to fly fish in New Mexico: The opportunity to visit and fish an endless number of great places including fabled spots like the Rio Costilla on the Valle Vidal, the blue ribbon San Juan River and the Wild Rivers Recreation Area in the Rio Grande Gorge.

And maybe then the newborn angler can begin to understand and entertain the need for all that expensive gear found at the fly shop.

On second thought, maybe it’d be better just to save the money for gas and get back out there.

This story originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican's Outdoors section.

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